Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900 - 919)



  900. I cannot answer for Labour politicians as to what they said before they were elected because I am a Liberal Democrat—
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Liberal Democrats were represented on the 1991 Committee and Liberal Democrats enthusiastically endorsed the statement that the conditions for under-18s were unjust. I admit you have no responsibility for 1996 and you are excluded after Paddy Ashdown made a certain speech about homosexuality, I believe, so you are not responsible for the Labour Party but in almost the same words you have just said to us would it be alright if they were allowed to leave at 18. When Dr John Reid, admittedly representing Labour and anticipating representing the Labour Government, asked us the same question our answer was yes, that would be an improvement on the present situation, and we have come back to ask for it again. We asked for this in 1986, we asked for this in 1991, we asked for this in 1996, and we are now asking for it again. The laws which you people represent do not allow anyone under 18 to hold the tenancy of a council house, to have a hire purchase agreement, to go into certain films, to drink in a pub, but they can sign a contract entering an obligation to the age of 40. How do you justify that? We are not saying do not recruit at 16 and 17, you will not find that anywhere in our document, but if a young person comes to the AT EASE Advisory Service to say, "I want to join the Army", we do not try to dissuade them but we make certain that at least they are able to give informed consent unlike in any military or now civilian careers service where they are not being briefed to warn people about their contracts. I have been told this by two senior civilian careers officers (which have now been privatised and used to be under the Education Department), that they have been briefed by the Ministry of Defence that when they get young recruits, they check their immigration status, their medical status and their criminal status, but they have not been told to draw attention to the severity of their contract. There is no other occupation that has such severe contracts and there is no warning. At the moment particularly when the publicity is being made about the educational opportunities, and this is causing so much hardship, they do not warn them that if they have education in the Army they cannot even leave at 22, they are keeping them until 25. Can you justify that? Most of you laughed when I said if you were stuck with what you wanted to do when you were 16. Any young person who does any education or training they do not let them leave at 22, they make them stay until 25. How in the 21st century can you justify these vicious contracts and they are, we allege, bonded servitude. Members of the Forces of Britain have no more freedom than an 18th century indentured labourer.

  Chairman: Can I just remind Members that we are due to adjourn at 1 o'clock. We can carry on but some of us would then have to make some rapid phone calls to tell people to wait for us for our next meeting. Mr Key?

Mr Key

  901. Mrs Gwyntopher, I do accept responsibility for the previous Armed Forces Bill because I served on it and I have been refreshing my memory as to the evidence you gave our Committee back in March of 1996. I wonder if you could give us your view as to why it is that in spite of the recommendations of the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee in 1991 and of the Committee in 1996 that this situation should be reviewed—and quite specifically in 1996 we said: "We recommend that the working group considering the position of under-18 year olds should give careful consideration to the desirability of requiring minors to commit themselves to a period of service no longer than that of adults"— the Ministry of Defence been so reluctant to take what seems to me to be perfectly sensible action?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) I would think the explanation in military terms is that they are very, very committed to the concept that you need adults, you need long term people who are suitable for promotion, but you only need a few of those, you need the elite. For ranking soldiers you need preferably young, conformist recruits and you need a lot of them. This is a peculiarly British conception—and we are very, very different from the rest of Europe in this—in that they do not really like having adults in the most junior ranks. They feel that they will get bolshie and will not be so easy to discipline and so forth. The idea is if you recruit large numbers and they are tied to a contract which is now 22, it was 21, because they are not having supervisory responsibility it does not matter how unhappy they are provided you compel their attendance, you keep them in. Once they get to 22 the majority can be allowed to leave but you have had the long service and, of course, they continually point out how much more efficient this is than European conscription where you get people in who are civilians who are older, who have already got ideas from their other civilian employment and you have to let them go after two years and train another lot. In this system you have people for five years. They are highly trained by that time. Then you let the majority go. The ones who cannot leave, the ones who have done education and training, are the ones who are promotion material and you can have the pick of those. You can allow to go the ones that are less able and retain the more able because they give up their right to leave at 22 if they have any education or training. So the ones that are free to go are the ones who if they have not done any training in five years they are not going to be suitable for promotion. You have your select lot and they are then, in theory, committed to a 22-year engagement. So as they reach each age they pick out the best, let the others go, so the structure is you have your less able majority and this is the way to select the cream, with long-term training and so forth. And on the idea of age I have suggested, perhaps rather facetiously, that it is the fixation of the public schools that the big boys have to be the prefects and the little boys had to be the fags. We got a bit sidetracked on the soldiers' union. A Slovenian official in the Ministry of Defence explained that in their country they operate the opposite policy. Because they are a small country, they are afraid of being invaded at any time by Serbia, they have got their powerful neighbour, so they insist on having older troops. They have conscription at a minimum age at 18 but if anybody is doing any kind of industrial training or education they like them to complete it. They conscript up to the age of 27 and for medical personnel up to the age of 30.


  902. Are you in favour of conscription which the majority of European forces use?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Can I make my point because I got sidetracked once.

  903. I know but I was going to ask you to be a little briefer in your responses.
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) I will answer your point, Madam Chairman. What I am saying is that the Slovenian officer said, "Because our country could be invaded, we need adults who know their trade. The military give the military training but we have engineers who are trained engineers, we have people who have completed their education. We do not have to train them. Our country would be terrified if we had your little boys in the front line." He is speaking from the base line, he has seen the British Army in action. "With these little boys that are always running away we could not defend our country." That is the opinion of an official of the Ministry of Defence of another country. I will come back to this country. When you say am I in favour of conscription, not in favour, but I would point out that in terms of civil rights conscription is less oppressive than the British six-year trap system. One reason is because conscription is right across the class structure. Those who are conscripted include the sons of journalists, lawyers, politicians and so forth. They are also going to be free in two years' time. When I say conscription I am not referring to Russia, Chechnya or Georgia where they have a very long conscription and they have problems of bullying and so forth similar to ours, but in Western Europe conscription is a maximum of two years. There is a limit to how much you can ill-treat people who are not only going to be free in two years but include people who are very articulate, so you would never have the extremes. We are deliberately targeting under-achievers. This is particularly true in Newham, Sandwell and Liverpool where they are currently targeting. The kids who are being brought in are the ones with less than As to Cs in GCSEs, school leavers. They go through the whole process before their 16th birthday so they only have to come in and sign. I say that, yes, conscription is the lesser evil to bonded servitude.

  Chairman: I am sorry, I want to give you a chance to make the points that you want to make but you are covering a lot of the ground we have already had in considerable documents ranging from yourself and Amnesty International and others and I am anxious to let every member of the Committee that wants to to come in with questions. Any further points, Mr Key?

Mr Key

  904. Can I turn to Queen's Regulation 9.086b. This Regulation, if I understand it, means that members of the Armed Forces who undergo a course of instruction of more than two weeks will lose their right to 12 months' notice. You have said in your evidence to us that it is common practice for young soldiers to be offered a choice of educational training opportunities, but just before the course is due to start up they are told they have got to sign a document or give up the course and the document they are forced to sign states that in return for the educational course they voluntarily surrender their right to give 12 months' notice. Is that correct?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) That is what 9.086b is all about.

  905. Could I ask you to expand on your view then that the situation has got worse since the last Select Committee in 1996 because part of the thrust of the Army recruiting campaign has been precisely to say that now the Services will offer you an educational opportunity as well. So young people come into the Army in particular and they anticipate that they will get NVQs or other kinds of training but before they go on the course they have to sign this disclaimer. Is that correct?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) When I say it has got worse—and there is a similar Regulation with the Navy and Air Force—in the past we used to get it quite a lot with the Navy and Air Force but usually it was for substantial training, people who had done degrees, people who had done substantial engineering courses. It has always been a theoretical possibility, but it is now being used all the time. We are not getting those coming up to 22 because anyone who joined before November 1999 can still give 12 months' notice at 20, but we are getting the 20-year olds who have waited and waited marking it off on the calendar, they reach 20 and three months and put in their notice and are now being told about the education trap. It is very, very unfair because the interpretation of what is an educational qualification can be very, very close to military training. For instance, we had a recent case of a man who did a course as a Spanish interpreter. He was used by the Armed Forces as a Spanish interpreter before in the Falklands and he was used after so as far as he was concerned the training he did was directly related, and that is what he is still doing. He is a Spanish interpreter, that is his trade. He went on a course and got a qualification. He was then told that he would not be allowed to leave. In his case, fortunately, there was a technicality in that somebody forgot to get him to sign the bit of paper and we have been able to challenge it on that alone. In the normal course of events if there had not been a technical slip-up that person would not be able to leave. The worst case I had was a bandsman in a Highland Regiment who did a six-month course in bagpiping and they claimed that was an educational qualification obtained by payment of the Army and therefore he was not free to go. Have you ever seen a job centre advertising posts for full-time bagpipers? There is no other employer other than the Duke of Atholl maybe. The Duke of Atholl and the British Army are the only employers of full-time bagpipers but that boy was told he had forfeited his right to leave because he did a course in bagpiping. They are doing it all the time for little courses in catering, electricians courses, plumbers courses, bricklaying courses. I had to tell a lad that he had lost it for a six-week bricklaying course.

  Chairman: You have made your point. Mr Key, we have a few minutes left.

Mr Key

  906. How do you advertise your counselling service to Servicemen and women?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) With difficulty. We are very, very small. We are on the directories of a lot of other advice services, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the Samaritans, and so on. We distribute leaflets, we put adverts in papers, but we certainly cannot compete. We send leaflets to people like youth advice services, counselling services.

  907. How many counsellors do you have?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) In the country, 23.

  908. Are they all volunteers or are they paid?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) We have no paid staff at all.

  909. How do you pay for the advertising? What is your source of income?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) This is why I say there is not much because we cannot afford it. Things like the Big Issue only charge £30 and certain papers like the gay press will print for free.

  910. Are you a charitable company?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) No, we are not a charitable company.

  911. What is the nature of your legal constitution?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Our legal constitution is we are simply a voluntary organisation.

Mr Davies

  912. Mrs Gwyntopher, I very much object to your citing, apparently with approval, some hearsay statement describing the British Army as "little boys who always run away". That is complete nonsense, is it not?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) I was quoting what was said to me by an MoD official of another country.

  913. If you know anything at all about the British Army then you know that is complete nonsense, do you not?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Similar remarks—

  914. You are not going to spend a quarter of an hour answering this question, Mrs Gwyntopher. It is complete nonsense, is it not?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) They are not little boys—

  915. Have you ever heard of the British Army running away?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Certainly. We deal with AWOL soldiers almost every week.

  916. The British Army running away?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Ask the Ministry of the Defence how many people are absent without leave. There are as many as 2,000 absent at any one time. Yes, they run away. If you do not believe me, ask the Ministry the Defence how many people are absent without leave today. They are running away.

  917. And you maintain that we have more people absent without leave than other armies?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) Yes, because other armies have a regular procedure of leaving.

  918. Do you have any factual basis for these assertions, Mrs Gwyntopher?
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) One of the previous Armed Forces Bills, I think, did comparative bases. When you say we do not have—I do not know the AWOL rates in other countries because obviously we are a service to Britain.

  919. So you are making a comparative judgment without knowing the facts.
  (Mrs Gwyntopher) I am not making—the representative of Slovenia claimed that their AWOL number was virtually nil because they only recruited adults, they recruited people who were already trained, they took care to see if there was any objection before they joined.

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