Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 890 - 899)




  890. I suggest to Committee members that we move straight on because time is marching on and I know one or two Committee members may have to depart shortly. Can I give you a very warm welcome. Have I pronounced your name correctly?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) It is Gwyntopher; it rhymes with Christopher.

  891. Sorry, Mrs Gwyntopher, and Mrs Johnson and I do apologise for the delay. I know, however, that you have been here throughout the sessions so you will appreciate our anxiety to try and ensure that we hear fully from the witnesses that are giving us evidence this morning and on that basis we are very keen indeed to give you full opportunity to make your points of view. We have already had some very useful written evidence from yourself and a number of other organisations who support your point of view. Can I invite you, Mrs Gwyntopher and yourself Mrs Johnson, to make any brief opening remarks before I open it up to the Committee members for questions.
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) I would like to take up something that was arising from the evidence of the previous witnesses in answer to questions put by Mr Watts which I think may be a basic misunderstanding about the legal status of members of the Armed Forces. You made the point, I think, that whether people were arrested by the military police or were arrested by civilian police, they would still have the normal protections afforded by a court of law. That is not true. With members of the Armed Forces who have never committed any criminal offence but have gone absent without leave, they do not have the protections that are allowed to people accused of criminal offences. When an absentee is picked up they can be picked up by either military police or civilian police. Usually it is civilian police because they come to the attention of the civilian police, that is how they get caught, but military police raiding a home on a council estate with dogs when they know somebody is there and is not offering any resistance is done. When someone is picked up by the civilian police the sole duty of the civilian police is to take them, put them in a police cell and immediately contact the military police. There is no process of law involved. They are not normally seen by a duty solicitor because it is not a legal matter, it is not a criminal law matter. When they return to the base they are usually in custody in the guard house until they appear before their commanding officer. The appearance before the commanding officer is the rough equivalent of appearance in a magistrates court. The commanding officer has power to give up to 60 days' detention. There is no entitlement to legal representation, the hearing is not in public and the commanding officer who is taking the place of a magistrate is in a different position. In a civilian court a magistrate who realised that he or she was the landlord or employer of the defendant would disqualify themselves, but in fact the defendant appears before the person, and as the offence is against the regiment the commanding officer also embodies the victim of the offence, so it is very, very different from the checks and balances of neutral assessment and justice that we allow other citizens. I think that is important.

  892. Can I clarify the point. The point I was raising was in regard to journalists who were civilians being arrested by military police.

  (Mrs Gwyntopher) They have rights.

  Chairman: Thank you, Mrs Gwyntopher. I have to say listening to your knowledge that it links in very much to the issue of under-18s serving in our Armed Forces. I think for myself and probably other members of the Committee our contact with families has often been in respect of under-18 members of the family who have gone absent without leave and then how they are dealt with. Can I invite Mr Keetch to begin, though, with some questions.

Mr Keetch

  893. Thank you and I must apologise because I need to leave perhaps before the end of this session. I wanted to take up this point about 16 and 17 and 18-year-olds and the difference. Do you accept that it is necessary for us to recruit 16-year-olds into the Armed Forces on the basis that if we do not they will go off and do something else and then will not join at 18?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) I would query the basis of your question. Certainly it is true—this was very strongly put to us by Brigadier Walker and Dr Frank Price—it is easier to recruit. At the moment the military have found it is easier to recruit young people straight from school who have no work experience and do not understand the contracts they are signing than it is to recruit adults who have work experience, who have further education and have a greater chance of understanding their contracts. I do accept that it is harder to attract people and that if people are not grabbed when they are 16 they may go and settle in another occupation and they may therefore be more difficult to attract. So as a tactic I think I would say if we think purely of the military—

  894. Just for the record, you are shaking your head there.
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) For the record I am shaking my head. I am saying as a tactic, yes, it is an expedient policy. I think what we are trying to move to is whether this is right. Even on grounds of expediency, I was a guest lecturer to a conference of European soldiers' trade unionists and speaking with the Ministry of Defence representative—

  895. Was that soldiers' trade unionists?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Yes. France and Britain are the only countries in Europe that now forbid any form of soldiers' representative association or trade union, the only ones. The rest of Europe allow it. In some such as Ireland they do not have full trade union status, it is a bit like our Police Federation, but every other country in Europe and the former Soviet bloc countries are allowing trade unions. There are two federations, the European Council of Conscript Organisations, which represents conscripts, and Euromil, which represents the regular forces. The reason I attend the Federation is for the simple reason that our law does not allow any soldier to attend such a gathering and therefore it is necessary for lay organisations to explain the British situation.

  896. Mrs Johnson shook her head when I asked the question, so you do not accept, Mrs Johnson, that it is necessary to recruit at 16?
  (Mrs Johnson) No, I do not because the men who join at 18 really want to and they will make a success. In other words, they are not going to be regretting it within a year and possibly ruining their lives by it.

  897. Can you name me one other profession, apart from becoming a Member of Parliament which you cannot join until you are 21, can you join the Police Force, can you join the Fire Brigade, can you join the Prison Service?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) You cannot qualify as a social worker until the age of 22.

  898. So you would lump members of the Armed Forces with social workers?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) We have never opposed recruitment at any age. I am not saying that it is wrong for soldiers to join at 16. What I am saying is wrong is the contracts which bind them into adulthood. There is no other profession where you can be imprisoned for leaving your profession and I would ask everybody in this room to think of what they wanted to do when they were 16 years old. If you signed a contract that meant you could not leave until you were 22, if you tried to leave you would be put on trial and you would be locked up for six to nine months, or 12 months if you tried to run away forever, and then you would be returned. That is the situation of these young people.

  899. Fine, so the point that concerns you is not my first question as to whether it is right or wrong or acceptable or not to join at 16, your concern is that by joining at 16 you are then tied into a contract. If then we had a situation where you could join at 16 and that was reviewed at 18 and you were then allowed to leave you would be quite content?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Dr John Reid promised us that when Labour were elected—

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