Memorandum from AT EASE
presented to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, January 2006 


[1] The contracts of recruits aged under 18

[2] Redress of individual grievance

[3] Redress of collective grievance

[4] Integration of the legal system

[5] Parliamentary responsibility


[1] The Contracts of Recruits Aged Under 18


Your predecessor Committee in 2001 strongly endorsed the policy of targeting Army recruitment at 16 year old school-leavers and retention of the system of contracts which AT EASE alleges is a form of bonded servitude.


By contrast, the contents and tone of the House of Commons Defence Committee’s Third Report of Session 2004 –05 on Duty of Care published 14 March 2005 gives us cause for hope of a possible change of attitude amongst Members of Parliament resulting from the Deepcut tragedies and revelations of bullying and abuse.


The Duty of Care Report recommended that the MoD consider the possible effects of raising the minimum age of recruitment to 18.  However the biggest problems, in the experience of AT EASE, are caused, not so much in the age of recruitment, but in the severity of the conditions and the confusing terminology of the contracts signed by recruits whether they are 16 or 18.


We ask the Select Committee to examine the wording of the Attestation Paper signed by 16 year old recruits.


One common problem is a misunderstanding of the commitment to serve until the age of 18 and thereafter for 22 years. Many recruits think this means that they are only committed to serve until the age of 18 and will then be allowed to leave unless they want to sign on for another 22 years.


The harsh reality is that recruits under 18 only have a right to give notice and leave after one month ’s service and before the expiry of six months. After that they are committed to a minimum age of 22 years. Prior to November 1


 the minimum age of release was a year earlier. Soldiers are not even free to leave at 22 if they do a course of education whilst in the Army.


Another common mistake is the belief that soldiers can “buy themselves out ”This form of discharge, premature voluntary discharge by purchase, is not available to any soldier who joined after 1991.


Recruits and parents are told that soldiers can give 12 month ’s notice and leave. This is partly true. Some soldiers are free to give 12 months notice. However there is a list of circumstances under which soldiers loose the right to give 12 months notice and leave. Two in particular cause much distress.


Twelve month ’s notice cannot be given until the soldier is at least 21 and has served three years adult service. That means that the earliest age that an unhappy teenager can expect to get a discharge is 22. Current recruitment literature,(we suggest the Committee examine examples)stresses opportunities for gaining educational and vocational qualifications. Members of the Forces who undertake such courses have to give up their right to give 12 month ’s notice and leave. This penalty is not, to our knowledge, mentioned in any of the recruitment literature.


Teenage soldiers therefore have a stark career choice. They may pursue qualifications which the recruiters tell them are relevant to civilian employment. However, if they do, the qualification-holders may not be free to take up civilian employment until the age of forty. Alternatively, by refusing such educational courses, they can be sure of release at the age of 22 when they will leave the Army with no more qualifications than those with which they entered at the age of 16.


Those who leave at 22 serve another six years in the Reserve, during which time they are liable for recall. Some aspects of the Deepcut and similar situations cannot be blamed on Parliament. A culture, ethos and tradition of bullying and life-threatening intimidation can arise in any large organisation. Any teenagers may make choices they subsequently regret. However, if a school or job environment becomes intolerable, civilian victims are, as a last resort free to leave. By contrast, young soldiers, by the law for which Parliament is responsible, are in a situation from which they can see no escape.


The Duty of Care Report recommended that recruiters should explain to recruits and their parents their rights and responsibilities. Frankly, it is more important that they understand the rights they surrender by signing that contract.


We do not know of any recruiting advertisement in any form which states prominently and clearly the length and severity of Army contracts.


Once they have joined up, Army recruits are given a book “Terms and Conditions of Service. ”The TACOS book does set out the terms of eligibility for applications for discharge. They are on page 37.The Committee may wish to examine this book and judge how likely it is that all 16 year old recruits would read that far and would fully understand the wording even if they reached page 37.


We suggest that the Select Committee ask a military psychiatrist working directly with young soldiers to give evidence. There is a growing conviction amongst military psychiatrists that many of their patients would never have needed to consult a psychiatrist if they had been in a job in which they could give notice and leave. These doctors are concerned by the growing numbers having to be treated under the “sick at home ”procedure, or inappropriately prescribed anti-depressants or other forms of therapy.


Some young victims of bullying or harassment receive discharges on medical grounds or discharges as “temperamentally unsuited to Army life ”.This is unfairly stigmatising but is the only way some individuals can get out.


We submit that bonded servitude is wrong in principle and has now been demonstrated to be tragic in its effects. It is easier to see clearly with hindsight and learn from the mistakes of the past. We appeal to members of the present Select Committee to look at any of the Reports of the Select Committees on the Armed Forces Bill 1986,1991,1996 or 2001.You may, then, conclude that the lives of the Deepcut victims might have been saved if Members of Parliament had acted differently.


It is within the power of the present Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill to prevent similar tragedies in future.


Please prohibit the requirement on recruits aged under 18 to sign contracts which bind them to years of compulsory adult service in the Armed Forces.


[2] Redress of Individual Grievance


There are indications in the Duty of Care Report 2005 that the serious limitations in the UK Redress of Grievance procedure are becoming recognised.


Complaints have to be made in writing to Commanding Officers who normally refer the matter for investigation by the complainant ’s immediate superior. If the complaint is of bullying by one ’s immediate superior there is an obvious problem.


If a complaint cannot be resolved it goes up the chain of command. Complainants may be called in at various stages for resolution of the problem. This system relies on the integrity of every individual along the chain. Some may interpret “resolution ”as prevailing on complainants to withdraw their complaints. One problem brought to AT EASE concerned a soldier in Iraq who attempted to complain after he had been attacked and injured by his immediate superior. He was then threatened with further violence from his Sergeant Major if he did not withdraw his complaint.


Some other European countries have better procedures, particularly in cases where confidentiality is essential or victims need protection. The Select Committee might consider inviting staff from embassies of Germany, the Netherlands or any of the Scandinavian countries to describe the Military Ombudsman system. Soldiers in most other European countries can also go for individual advice or representation to their soldiers unions or associations.


For all three branches of the UK Armed Forces there are now telephone helplines staffed by qualified, civilian counsellors. However the MoD instructions are that counsellors are only allowed to advise callers what they can do for themselves. They are not allowed to take any action or act as advocates.


The Government ’s Response July 2005 to the Duty of Care Report suggests that, the MoD would set up a panel consisting of both senior military and civilian members. It would be separate from the chain of command but not independent of the MoD.


If this suggestion were accepted then the MoD would be responsible for setting up such panels. This Select Committee may judge how well this would work in practice by an existing system which has some parallels with the Government proposal.


The Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection is independent of the Armed Forces, consists of civilians and is usually chaired by a QC. However it only sits when cases of conscientious objection are referred to it by the MoD who are responsible for convening and arranging all hearings. The Select Committee may like to ask the MoD witnesses how many members of the Armed Forces have appeared before the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objection since the commencement of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


[3]Redress of Collective Grievance


In contrast to almost all other European countries UK law not only does not provide any procedure


whereby members of the Armed Forces may make a collective representation to their superiors but expressly forbids and punishes any attempt to do so. The recent consequences of this policy have been disastrous. The Redress of Grievance procedure described above expressly forbids any complaint by two or more members of the Armed Forces. It also forbids the making of a complaint on behalf of others.


Qualities of courage, stamina and instant obedience are stressed throughout training and service. No soldier wants to be identified as the only one afraid to go into battle without body armour or the only recruit winging about an initiatory beating.


It should be noted that countries which have Official Military Ombudsmen also have Soldiers ’Unions. The former provide a fair and efficient way of investigating individual circumstances but the latter are still needed to address problems affecting all members of the Forces.


Britain and France are now the only countries in Europe which forbid members of the Armed Forces to form any kind of Service Union or Association.


There are two organisations linking service associations in Europe, the European Council of Conscript Organisations, ECCO and EUROMIL. The latter is for regular as distinct from conscript forces. If there was a representative body for members of the UK Armed Forces it would be eligible to join EUROMIL. The Select Committee might find it helpful to hear witnesses from EUROMIL.


AT EASE is aware of and acknowledges the great e V orts currently being made by the MoD and some senior officers to stamp out bullying initiatory ordeals and the harassment of minority groups. We are also aware that these top-down attempts are not adequate to these problems.


Young recruits would find it much easier to report in confidence to their own representative organisation who could then take up the matter without naming their informants.


The Iraq war has provided some clear illustrations of how the disadvantages suffered by British troops in comparison to their European allies are not only unjust but dangerous.


According to press reports, at least one British soldier has died for lack of body armour. There is no way British soldiers can make a collective complaint. If any of our European allies were facing such a situation the outcome might be different because they have collective organisations that can take up such serious matters on behalf of all the front line troops.


A collective body can seek clarification when front line troops receive orders that are of dubious legality. Disobeying a lawful order is a heavily punishable offence but soldiers are told in basic training that they must not obey an unlawful order. The case of the troops who were ordered to arrest Iraqi civilians suspected of looting and “work them hard ”illustrates how helpful it would have been to have a union which could not only have asked, on behalf of them all, for clarification but could have obtained authoritative advice on the legality of that order. A collective body can also query contradictory orders. A soldier told his AT EASE counsellor of an incident in Iraq when they had received written orders not to drive down a particular road as there was especial danger. The same day an officer ordered him and another soldier to drive down that particular road.


[4]Integration of the Legal System


You have before you proposals for integrating the legal systems of the Army, Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. We ask you to consider whether the time has come for all these to be integrated into civilian law. Historical reasons for having separate systems for the Forces no longer apply. Defendants would not now have to be sent home by sailing ship or tied to their horses in order to stand trial.


AT EASE counsellors acknowledge that, in some ways, there does appear to be less injustice in the military system than in former years.However all the improvements seem to us to have been the result of introducing civilian elements into the system. The civilian Magistrates Courts in Germany are certainly better than the trials of wives and children by Court Martial. The attachment of civilian Judge Advocates to Courts Martial has improved them. The legal aid civilian solicitors now available at some larger bases usually provide better advice and representation than Defending Officers.


As these piecemeal reforms of some parts of the military legal system have proved beneficial, please could Parliament consider the major reform of integrating the whole military system into the civilian legal system? We submit that, whatever their occupation, defendants should have equality before the law.


Some attention has been paid to Courts Martial which may be regarded as the rough equivalent of County Courts but less to trial before Commanding Officers which may be regarded as the rough equivalent of Magistrates Courts.


A Commanding Officer has power to award punishments of up to 60 days detention and to decide custody or restrictions on those remanded for Court Martial. Acivilian magistrate who was the employer or landlord of a defendant or represented the victim of the alleged o V ence would be obliged to declare an interest and be disqualified from that particular case. Appearances before a CommandingO Y cer are not in public. During the hearing the defendant is not legally represented and the Commanding Officer is not legally advised.


The fact that there are specifically military offences is no good reason that accused individuals should not be tried by the same courts in accordance with the same values as offences committed by other citizens. Two excerpts from the proposed Armed Forces Bill below might indicate differing views of what deserves greatest punishment.


We wish to draw your attention to excerpts from two items in the Armed Forces Bill currently before this Select Committee which appear to be related to controversial events during the Iraq war that may occur in other possible future conflicts.




(2) For the purposes of this Act a person deserts if he is absent without leave and: (b) he intends to avoid any particular service or kind of service, and that service or kind of service is relevant service.


(3) In this section “relevant service ”means: (a) actions or operations against an enemy; (c)military occupation of a foreign country or territory.


(4) A person guilty of an offence under this section ...any sentence of imprisonment imposed in respect of the offence: (a) if subsection (5) applies, may be for life.


(5) This subsection applies if: (a )the o V ender was on relevant service or under orders for such service when he became absent without leave; or (b)subsection (2)(b) applied to him in relation to the offence.


23.Disgraceful conduct of a cruel or indecent kind


(3)...any sentence imposed in respect of the offence must not exceed two years. Equality before the law is a vital principle. When discrimination on grounds of race or sex has been outlawed it is difficult to justify on grounds of occupation.


Military law su V ers from indefensible cultural lag. The abolition of the death penalty and legalising of homosexuality in the Armed Forces were both delayed for more than three decades after they were achieved for civilians. Bonded servitude for civilians ended over a century ago.


The Human Rights Act has been incorporated in British Law. It has an appendix exempting the Armed Forces from certain of its provisions. That, presumably, is why it is possible for the Armed Forces Bill to be prefaced with a declaration that it is compatible with that Act. It appears that when 16 year olds sign contracts to join the Armed Forces they acquire a legal status that is less than human.


AT EASE has received calls from members of all three branches of the Armed Services convinced that their compulsory retention by their employers must now be open to challenge under the Human Rights Act. AT EASE counsellors do not wish to continue to have to explain that, although Members of the Armed Forces are undeniably human, Parliament has ruled that these rights shall not apply to them.


[5] Parliamentary Responsibility


Since the Deepcut tragedies Members of Parliament have criticised the Armed Forces for policies and practices for which Parliament is itself responsible. Parliament makes the law. We appeal to this Select Committee to implement the reforms which are necessary to prevent future tragedies.


AT EASE is a confidential advice, information and counselling service for members of the Armed Forces. It is staffed entirely by unpaid voluntary workers.


January 2006