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Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 18, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 18 January 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Centenary of Women in the British Armed Forces, Social Isolation and Loneliness, Decision Time


Centenary of Women in the British Armed Forces

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

I ask members of the public who are leaving the chamber to do so quietly, because we are still in session.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-08845, in the name of Maurice Corry, on 100 years of women in the British armed forces. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

I think that Mr Corry wishes to raise an issue with me as a preliminary, and I am happy to hear it.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Some of my guests from the armed forces are in the lobby downstairs, waiting to take their seats in the public gallery. Obviously, they cannot do so at the moment because a lot of people attended First Minister’s question time and they are now leaving. I request a short suspension until my guests take their seats.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am delighted to oblige you, Mr Corry. Please let me know once you have taken a swift look behind you and seen that your guests have arrived. I suspend the meeting briefly.

12:48 Meeting suspended.  12:51 On resuming—  

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call on Maurice Corry to open the debate. You have seven minutes, or thereabouts, Mr Corry.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that 2017 is the centenary of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which was the first time that women were formally fully enrolled in the armed forces; further notes that more than 57,000 women, including some from the west of Scotland, served in the WAAC from July 1917 till 1921, including some 10,000 in France in a variety of roles, including drivers, clerks, signallers, cooks, bakers, orderlies, waitresses, codebreakers, printers, gardeners, domestics, typists and phone operators; understands that the earliest advocates for the creation of the WAAC, and also the corps’ first chief controller and controller, were the Scots, Mona Geddes and Helen Fraser; believes that women form a valued and integral part of the British Armed Forces; welcomes that, since September 2017, every role in the Royal Air Force is now open to women, making it the first branch of the British military to do so, and notes the views that other military branches should follow suit.

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

Thank you for the adjournment to allow my guests to take their seats.

It is an honour to begin the debate. First, I would like to thank the members whose support for the motion has allowed the debate to happen.

I am delighted to welcome to the chamber female representatives from the Royal Navy and the Royal Military Police, a number of female veterans and women from the forces. Between them, they have decades of service and dedication to our country and I am sure that the whole chamber wants to join me in thanking them for their service. It is great to see them all here and I thank them for attending.

I welcome members of St Michael and All Angels church in Helensburgh, who are towards the back of the gallery. Among them are several serving member of the armed forces and veterans in their parish. Being in Helensburgh, the church’s parish covers Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde—Faslane—and the base at Coulport. The parish extends to cover a very large number of people. I am very appreciative of their presence today and I welcome them.

Members know the phrase “those magnificent men and their flying machines”, but I would like to put forward the phrase “those wonderful women and their flying machines”. Members might recall documentaries on BBC television over recent years about the incredibly brave work that members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force undertook. The work was to deliver new aircraft to operational airfield bases from the manufacturers. That involved flying fighter aircraft and light and heavy bombers with very limited navigational aids, often solo, and in extreme weather of all sorts.

Through the bravery and superb skills of those women, our front-line Royal Air Force squadrons—both fighter and bomber squadrons—were able to achieve success in air operations in the second world war. No more was that demonstrated than in the battle of Britain victory, with replacement Spitfires and Hurricanes brought forward to squadrons by those wonderful women in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Today, women are involved in most areas of the British armed forces. Many people will have seen news reports and documentaries about our aeromedical and aero evacuation teams operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those teams contain many female doctors, nurses and medics. Interestingly, many of those women were recruited as reservists from the national health service, particularly—I am glad to say—from NHS Tayside and Ninewells hospital, to name one hospital among many in the United Kingdom. Women stepped forward to serve their country in its time of need.

It is not well enough known, but the ability of women to serve in the armed forces was driven forward by a Scotswoman, Mona Chalmers Watson. During the first world war, she served as the first controller of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC. She led a force that was more than 57,000 women strong, including 10,000 women in France, and served from July 1917 to 1921.

Mona Chalmers Watson was a fascinating individual. She was not only one of the founders and the main drivers behind the WAAC but the first women to obtain an MD from the University of Edinburgh’s medical school. She edited the “Encyclopaedia Medica”, a 15-volume work, the first edition of which appeared in 1900, and published two books, “Food and Feeding in Health and Disease: A Manual of Practical Dietetics” in 1910 and “The Book of Diet” in 1913. She was a noted suffragette before the establishment of the WAAC, and had concentrated on improving the levels of pay offered to the women taking over men’s jobs; she also served as a doctor for the suffragette prisoners in Perth.

Mona Chalmers Watson regarded the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps as

“an advance of the women’s movement and ... a national advance.”

She noted that, for the first time, women had

“a direct and officially recognised share in the task of our armies both at home and overseas.”

In a recruiting pamphlet, she wrote:

“this is the great opportunity for every strong, healthy and active woman not already employed on work of national importance to offer her services to her country.”

I could go on and on, but I am sure that everyone has got a flavour of just how impressive a woman Mona Chalmers Watson was in every aspect, including in her military career.

The impact of the changes affected the outcome not only of the first world war but of every conflict since. During the second world war, for example, women played a vital role in securing victory against Nazism, and there were more than 80,000 women in the Women’s Land Army at its height.

Membership of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force peaked at more than 180,000, representing more than 48 nationalities. We are lucky enough to be joined today in the gallery by Georgina Archibald, who was a member of the WAAF, post the second world war, I think. She is here with her daughter Fiona, who was a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and her granddaughter Lilias, who is an applicant to become a Royal Navy pilot. I welcome them all. That is three generations of women serving our country and testament to the vital role that women have played, and will continue to play, in our armed forces. It certainly makes me feel very humble, indeed, and I am sure that it is the same for other members here.

Everyone should have the opportunity, if able, to serve our country in any way they can and see fit. The Royal Air Force has every role available to everyone who is able to meet its criteria, so everyone, irrespective of their gender, is welcome to join. Since 1917, women have played a vital role in our country’s defence; I am sure that, over the next 100 years, they will continue to play that vital role. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I request those in the public gallery not to applaud, tempting though it is. I understand why they want to do so, but it is not permitted.


Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

I thank Maurice Corry for bringing the motion to the chamber for debate.

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was created during 1917 and became the Army’s first all-female unit, fulfilling essential medical and clerical roles both in the United Kingdom and in France.

In marking the centenary of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, we have to recognise why it was established. When war broke out in 1914, women queued alongside men to volunteer for whatever roles were available. However, the military view was that nursing was the only suitable role for women. During the war, 19,000 women served as nurses and up to 100,000 served as part of voluntary aid detachments.

Female medics such as Dr Elsie Inglis, who graduated from the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women in 1892, offered their services to the Royal Army Medical Corps. However, she was told:

“My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Supported by the suffrage societies, Dr Inglis set up her own female-staffed hospital units, and they made their own way overseas, where their help was quickly accepted by the Belgians, the French and the Serbs.

The attitude of the British military changed in 1916 when Britain faced a major manpower shortage due to mounting casualties, especially the slaughter on the Somme where, on the first day of the battle, British forces suffered 37,000 wounded and 19,000 fatalities to gain only 3 square miles of territory. In early 1917, Lieutenant General Lawson was asked to review the role of women in the military. He examined how women were taking on men’s jobs on the home front and, as a result, the idea of women performing basic military jobs no longer seemed ridiculous. His report found that supporting women to enter military service would release men for front-line duty.

The History Press website explains:

“The corps was established in such a rush that the chief controllers were still negotiating details of pay and accommodation for months after the first draft arrived in France, and the corps was not officially instituted until 7th July 1917. It was clarified that the women had enrolled as civilians and would not be enlisted in the army, this was only a temporary force created out of necessity.”

By 1918, more than 57,000 women had served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, 9,000 of whom had served overseas. Five members were awarded the military medal and 83 members died in service.

Despite proving its worth, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was disbanded in 1920. It was nearly 20 years later, on the outbreak of world war two, that the Auxiliary Territorial Service was formed as the women’s branch of the British Army. Finally, the Army and Air Force (Women’s Service) Act 1948 was passed, which allowed for a permanent peacetime role for women in Britain’s armed services.

The Ministry of Defence has a crisis in recruitment and, as a result, it will lift the ban on women in combat roles by the end of 2018. Despite the fact that the size of our armed forces has nearly halved since 1980, there is still a shortfall in recruits. The “Filling the Ranks” report states:

“The Royal Navy and the RAF are now running at around 10% short of their annual recruitment target, whilst for the Army the shortfall is over 30%.”

I welcome the fact that women are finally to be treated equally for all roles in our armed forces, but that should not be about filling the gaps in the ranks. If the MOD really wants to address the recruitment crisis, it should set pay at a level that attracts the best recruits instead of at a paltry £14,931 per annum, which is less than the real living wage. Our armed forces personnel—men and women—deserve better.


Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

As an ex-soldier, it is a pleasure for me to take part in this debate. I thank Maurice Corry for lodging the motion so that the Parliament can celebrate the vital contribution made by women as part of the British armed forces.

It is hard to believe today that, just over 100 years ago, at the outbreak of the first world war, the idea of women serving in our armed forces was considered to be ridiculous. As Gordon MacDonald said, a famous Scot, Elsie Inglis, who was a suffragette and a doctor, offered her medical services to the War Office only to be flatly refused. She was told:

“My good lady, go home and sit still.”

I fear that that was a dangerous comment in those days, and I repeat it only with caution.

Elsie Inglis went on to establish the Scottish women’s hospitals, which saw 1,500 women support our European allies with the ambulance drivers, orderlies and cooks they needed.

By 1917, our armed forces changed their minds and the first all-women unit in the British Army was officially instituted as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The creation of that unit heralded the start of a century of progress for women in our armed forces, and the unit was quickly joined by the Women’s Royal Naval Service, which was formed in 1917, and the Women’s Royal Air Force, which was formed in 1918.

When women were again called upon to serve their country in the second world war, they supported the campaigns on land and the sea and in the air. We should not forget that, in world war two, even our Queen donned uniform to serve our country.

We should also not forget the women who served as part of the Special Operations Executive—or the Baker Street irregulars, as they were known. We still do not know all the stories involving ordinary women with extraordinary courage who served behind the lines. The last surviving female British spy of the second world war, Sonya Butt—or agent Blanche—passed away in 2014. That she had an MBE and was mentioned in dispatches by the age of 20 gives an indication of her actions. Sonya Butt used her beauty to tease out information from German soldiers, but she was also deadly. She wreaked havoc on the Nazis by blowing up bridges and railway lines and ambushing German convoys, and she helped to turn the tide of war in the allies’ favour.

Sonya Butt’s example has been replicated in many conflicts since the second world war and I pay tribute to those women who have served as part of the UK armed forces around the globe. Women have been deployed in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and there is a growing recognition of their importance to our armed services. Soldiers, such as my son, who served in the conflict zones see women as a critical part of our armed services.

In this debate, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. It was the dedication of the women who served in it that led, 50 years ago, to the Army and Air Force (Women’s Service) Act 1948, as Mr MacDonald mentioned, which finally allowed a permanent peacetime role for women in our armed services.

Since that point, the wheel of progress has continued to turn and, in recent years, the intake of female personnel has risen. Thirty per cent of our army cadets are girls, and women have risen to the top ranks, with Major General Susan Ridge becoming the first ever female general to serve in the British Army.

It is right that we pay tribute today to those women who served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in the first world war. We are conscious that they not only gained the gratitude of men and women of their generation for their contribution but blazed a trail for future generations of women to do the same in every conflict thereafter.


Kezia Dugdale (Lothian) (Lab)

I pay tribute to Maurice Corry for securing this afternoon’s debate. I am grateful to him for the fantastic opportunity to pay tribute to all the women who directly or indirectly fought for our country. I also pay a personal tribute to the women who are currently serving in our armed forces—I am aware of some uniforms in the public gallery. It is all too rare that we have the opportunity to say thank you and to share our gratitude for the work that they do every day to keep us safe, so I thank them for that. When I visited Redford barracks at about this time last year, I had the great privilege of thanking some of those women in person.

I thank Maurice Corry for bringing Mona Geddes into my world. He referred to her as Mona Watson, but she also had the persona of Dr Alexandra Mary Chalmers Watson and took a number of other names over the years. I will not repeat much of the story of her fantastic life, because Maurice Corry told us about that in his opening remarks.

He mentioned that she was a suffragette who fought for equal pay for women, who, more than 100 years ago, were doing the jobs of men. We are still fighting for that today, 100 years on. He also marked the fact that, in 1898, she was the first woman to graduate from the University of Edinburgh with a medical degree, having completed a chemistry degree two years before that. However, he did not mention that she postponed her engagement and marriage to her husband, having refused to marry him until she had those letters after her name. That is a lovely feminist story to have in the history books, and it is lovely to recollect how important that was to her.

Maurice Corry also mentioned Mona Watson’s connection to Elsie Inglis. They were friends and, together, they established the Scottish women’s hospitals, which Edward Mountain recognised. We talk a lot about how we fail to put on record the role that women have played in the Army or in conflicts over the years, and official statues are a way of providing a constant reminder of those roles. The member will be aware that there is a campaign to have Elsie Inglis remembered in Edinburgh with a statue. In Edinburgh, there are more statues of dogs than there are of women. As a friend of the canine, Presiding Officer, that might not be an issue for you, but it is an issue for many people across the region who would like to see a formal recognition of Elsie Inglis’s work.

It is interesting to note that a wing was named after Mona Geddes in the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital in Edinburgh. When the hospital closed, we lost the one existing memorial to Mona Geddes.

Perhaps there is more that we can do to recognise the role that women have played over the past 100 years. In societal terms, many of the ways in which we do that are through popular culture, such as in the countless TV programmes that feature women rather than men in the first and second world wars. My favourite book, “The Night Watch”, is focused entirely on the role of female ambulance drivers in the second world war—I encourage colleagues to read the book, as it is a cracking read.

However, I can think of only one statue that recognises a female for playing a role in the first or second world war, and it is outside what is now a community centre in Gretna, which I visited as a party leader this time last year. The statue is outside what used to be the munitions factory—HM Factory, Gretna—which was set up by David Lloyd George to provide munitions for the first world war. It is generally recognised that, without that factory and the work of the women in it, there would not have been the necessary material for the soldiers on the front line and the war would not have been won. The women who worked in the munitions factory were commonly referred to as the “canary girls”, because the nature of the chemicals that they were using meant that their skin was dyed yellow, and they lived with that throughout their lives. I was pleased to see Russell Brown, back in 2015, when he was the MP for Gretna, bring together all the surviving women who had worked in that munitions factory. There were 11 women living who had worked in the factory and seven came together to mark what they had done during their time there.

That leaves me with a thought that I will close on: I wonder whether the minister might be able to reflect on those women and on what the Scottish Government could do in this centenary year to bring together any surviving women who had a role in the WAAC or in the munitions factory to commemorate them properly and perhaps have some sort of lasting tribute to the women who served.

I thank Maurice Corry for this opportunity and pay tribute to all the women who have served and continue to serve.


Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank Maurice Corry for bringing the debate to the chamber. Like the colleagues who have spoken before me, I am honoured to be able to recognise the contribution of women to the armed services and recognise the centenary of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

One hundred years ago, the war to end all wars introduced us to the concept of total war, whereby an entire economy shifted on to a war footing and everyone’s lives changed. A new era in history for women was started, because, with men away fighting, women found themselves fulfilling every role in the factories, on the land and in the forces. During that time, the suffragettes used the slogan “Men may bear arms, but women bear armies” in the argument for women to have the vote. I have no doubt that, if our Scottish suffragettes were here today, they would join us with pride—despite some of their reservations about women serving—not only because women now have the vote but because, as a woman, I am able to stand here as a member of the Scottish Parliament, as the wife of an ex-army officer, as the mother of sons who served on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan and as someone who was also able to serve in her own right as a commissioned officer in the RAF volunteer reserve training branch.

In the early noughties, I received a message from a friend who was a Tornado pilot stationed in the Falklands. The message went something like this:

“The world has turned on its axis. I am standing here in an apron with all my male colleagues preparing afternoon tea for the local people while the skies are being patrolled by an all-female aircrew.”

I think that that was a first at the time, and it certainly changed the perspective of my male friends in the RAF.

I will finish with a thought that will take us back to the past. A lady came forward recently and put a message on a bottle that said:

“Some serve and some give all.”

As a young girl, I was incredibly moved by a poem that was written by a gentleman called Marks and given to a lady called Violette Szabo, who served as a spy in France during the second world war. She was persuaded—or volunteered—to do that after her husband was killed at the battle of El Alamein, although she had a very young daughter. Violette’s story was made into a film, albeit that it is not entirely accurate. It tells the story of how Violette worked behind the lines and was eventually captured and tortured, then executed by the Germans in 1945, just before the end of the war. The poem that was given to her really struck me when I first heard it. I will read out the poem and leave members with the thought that, for me and many of the people to whom I speak, when people decide to serve in the armed forces and are willing to risk giving everything, it is memories and thoughts such as those in the poem that we should always keep dear when we celebrate the nature of not only women but men in the armed forces. The poem goes like this:

“The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.”

Lest we forget.


The Minister for Employability and Training (Jamie Hepburn)

I join other members in thanking Maurice Corry for bringing to the chamber this important and interesting debate, which has allowed us to acknowledge the significant contribution that women have made to our armed forces. Given the nature of the centenary, there has been a lot of focus on the past, but it is also correct that we recognise and acknowledge the on-going contribution that women make to the armed forces today.

We have had a number of debates to mark the contribution of our service personnel. Few, if any, members of this Parliament will not have a family connection to the armed forces, and many members have a direct connection, having served themselves. It is correct that we have had this opportunity to debate the subject.

I join Mr Corry in welcoming those he has invited to the public gallery to witness the debate. It was correct that we had a short suspension to allow them to witness the debate—it was apposite that Mr Corry requested that and generous of you, Presiding Officer, to grant it. I thank those who are here today for their service, past and present.

In recent years, we have seen many significant milestones, with 2014 seeing the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war and this year seeing the centenary of the end of the great war, which was supposed to end all wars. Sadly, of course, that was not the case. Many events will be held during 2018 to acknowledge and recognise that centenary, and the debate provides us with an opportunity to do so early in the year.

We no longer have any living veterans, male or female, from the first world war. Indeed, living memory of the second world war is rapidly passing. As the years go by, that lived experience will pass even from generations that had a connection to those who lived in those times. As a child and a young man, I was able to speak to my grandfather about his experience—at least, the experience that he was willing or wanted to talk about. I am sure that he did not want to talk about most of it. My grandmother served in the land army, which has been mentioned, and she was able to tell me about her experience, providing me with a direct connection to that generation. They were cherished family members for me, but my children’s generation never met them. For them, they will be more distant ancestors. It is, therefore, vital that we do all that we can to listen to and value the memories of those who remain and can recall that time while we still have the chance to do so.

The debate has rightly focused on women who have served in the armed forces over the past 100 years. There are additional notable centenaries to honour alongside that of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The Women’s Royal Naval Service was also formed in 1917, and Keith Brown is looking forward to a meeting with the Association of Wrens later this month. This year, we also mark 100 years of the Royal Air Force and the formation of the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918.

The first world war saw women serve formally in the armed forces for the first time. Their roles, which were numerous and varied, included wireless telegraphist, electrician, printing duties, motor vehicle maintenance, tinsmith, fitter and welder. As is more often spoken of, women also made a massive contribution on the home front, and we should remember the women who were nurses and doctors in all three services. The Royal Navy and Army nursing services were formalised in 1902, with the RAF following, as I said, in 1918. Those women worked in difficult and challenging conditions, tending people with dreadful injuries. It is hard for us to imagine how appalling it was.

Dr Elsie Inglis has been mentioned by several members. She worked against the convention of her day and went against the advice of the War Office by going forth and setting up the Scottish women’s hospitals for foreign service. In November last year, the First Minister attended an event at St Giles’s cathedral to mark the centenary of Dr Inglis’s funeral.

The debate allows me to thank one of my constituents, Alan Cumming, who has done a significant amount of work to raise awareness of the Scottish women’s hospitals. His story is interesting. He regularly went to Serbia because he is a football fan and went to watch Red Star Belgrade. He met a Serbian friend who said, “If you’re from Scotland you must know about the Scottish women’s hospitals.” Alan was embarrassed because he had never heard of them. That sparked an interest in the subject, and he has since done a significant amount of work on the topic, including publishing books, instigating the making of a television documentary and establishing a website to commemorate the project and ensure that people remember the contribution of those brave women who set up the Scottish women’s hospitals.

In the second world war, women again served with distinction. In many cases, they paid the ultimate sacrifice in occupied territory while working for organisations such as the special operations executive. Women were also involved at Bletchley Park, where they made a significant contribution to the defeat of fascism and Nazism in Europe. As we have mentioned, other essential roles were carried out by women in the land army and other services.

On Kezia Dugdale’s point, it is undeniable that we could better recognise the efforts that women made in that war, and I would be happy to hear from any member who has a suggestion as to how we can go about that.

As I said, given that the debate is about a centenary, it is understandable that we have focused on history, but we should remember that women continue to serve in active combat roles. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women have been working alongside men in the armed services, providing humanitarian support including disaster relief. We should remind ourselves that that role of the armed services is as essential as its role in keeping us safe.

As Mr Corry’s motion describes, the Royal Air Force has now opened all roles to women—it is the first of the three services to do so. The Army has lifted the ban on women serving in close combat roles and consideration is now being given to whether women should serve as Royal Marines commandos. It is right that all branches of the armed services look to follow the RAF’s example and ensure that all military roles are open to women.

We have heard a lot about the vital roles that women have played in the armed forces over the past 100 years. Let me assure all members that the Scottish Government is fully committed to supporting all those who serve or who have served in our armed forces—both men and women—and we will continue to work collaboratively with our partners in the public, private and third sectors to deliver support to them. We take that commitment seriously and I repeat it today.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I thank all members for their interesting speeches.

13:23 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—