Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)


16 FEBRUARY 2006

  Q400  Mr Jones: But do you not actually think that, if we go ahead with this proposal in terms of the independent panel, one person, that is not going to satisfy general public opinion or a lot of the people we have interviewed who frankly used the chain of command and got to certain blocks in the chain of command where the quite serious allegations they were making were either ignored or sometimes just swept under the carpet?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, I would contend that things are not swept under the carpet. That is the point and that is what the Bill is making sure is not happening, that people know that there is this new redress system, that people do have access to it and they will feel confident that it works and, when appropriate, it will have an independent member.

  Q401  Mr Jones: What makes you different, for example, from the police who for many years were arguing that you could not have an independent police complaints procedure, but now it is taken for granted and, even more than that, when we took evidence on the last Defence Committee, many of the chief constables who were now scrutinised by it said that it has actually helped in terms of their operational effectiveness?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, I think we are a different structure of organisation and we have different objectives and aims from the police force's, so I do not think we can be compared. It is all very well to cross-relate everything that happens elsewhere to us, and I agree that we should go for best practice, but what I think is that there is a debate to be had here and there will be a discussion about what the nature of that independence should be. My views are what I have given you and I think they will be satisfactory and people will have confidence.

  Mr Jones: There are amendments coming forward too.

  Q402  Mr Howarth: General, much has been made of the importance of understanding the context in which military operations occur. As a counterweight to Mr Jones' argument, may I put it to you that, if there were an independent element, that independent element might command the confidence of the public, but not the confidence of the Armed Forces because that independent element may be unable to understand the context of the military? Would you feel that that would be a fair assessment?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, if he was doing it entirely on his own, I think that is true, but I think what we are talking about here is a panel on which there is an independent member who would have people around him who did understand the context and be able to consider the thing jointly.

  Q403  Mr Howarth: So what kind of person would you, as Chief of the Defence Staff, recommend to the Secretary of State ought to be the kind of person appointed as that independent element?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, clearly somebody who has an understanding of legal issues more widely, somebody who understands, if you like, the separate context in which the Armed Services have to operate and the unique nature of our business, but again somebody who is open-minded enough to know that there are certain sorts of characteristics to a professional life, such as ours, which he would be able to put and calibrate in any decisions he was making.

  Mr Key: General, my colleague, George Howarth, presents his apologies for absence. He is the proper Chairman of this Committee and he has been called away on urgent business. He received a letter, which has been circulated to members of the Committee, from a remarkable website called `' who have had over five million hits on their website and which seeks to provide advice, in no sense anti-military, but of course that is not all; there have been suggestions that there should be the formation of an Armed Forces Federation.

  Q404  Jim Sheridan: I am just following on from the pragmatic and progressive questioning from Mr Jones. Do you think that there is a role for the Armed Forces Federation and, if so, what would that really be and, if not, why not?

  General Sir Michael Walker: The answer is I do not because I do not think that the people in the Armed Services would be best served by that. I have long believed that one of the things that serves us best in looking at our conditions and terms of service is the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. They have served us extraordinarily well over the years and that has taken care of, in my view, the terms and conditions of service which are often the biggest cause of grievance for federations. The second reason is that actually that is what the chain of command is about. If you want to start diminishing, if you want to start breaking down the chain of command, it is by bringing in other bodies that people can refer to outside. What we have got to make sure of, and I do not claim that we are completely blameless in all of these areas, is that the chain of command works as well as it is designed to as part of the process.

  Q405  Jim Sheridan: Do you say, therefore, that an Armed Forces Federation would be a threat to the chain of command?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Yes, I do think it would be something that weakened the chain of command.

  Q406  Jim Sheridan: I come from a trade union background and I remember, not personally, but I read, that some 100 years ago people used to share that view, that we did not need trade unions because we had this altruistic view of life and your employer would look after you, but that has now changed and moved on. Would you, therefore, consider balloting the Armed Forces and letting them decide whether or not they want a federation?

  General Sir Michael Walker: No, I would not. We are beginning to get into a realm which is, to my view, a ridiculous one. We do, for example, have continuous attitude surveys which go round and we put out questionnaires to get people's views. If we had a set of Armed Services that reacted to every whim of every influential group in it, we would get nowhere in delivering military capability for this country, so I believe that the chain of command must do that business. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body does look after the conditions and pay concerns and we would certainly lose the AFPRB and I am not sure we would get as much attention from the Government in terms of rewarding people.

  Q407  Jim Sheridan: Are you suggesting that the Americans and the Australians have got it wrong as well?

  General Sir Michael Walker: They may have something that is appropriate for their sets of armed forces. Certainly we are different from both of those and I would not want to be either described as a member of the American Armed Forces or the Australians'; I think we have a better system.

  Q408  Jim Sheridan: Just for the sake of the record, you would veto, you personally would veto any move whatsoever to an Armed Forces Federation?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, it is not like that. The Chief of the Defence Staff does not veto of course. I would vote against it if I was given a vote, yes.

  Q409  Jim Sheridan: So you are in favour of a vote then?

  General Sir Michael Walker: I am not in favour of a vote, no.

  Q410  Mr Jones: I think the Dutch Armed Forces, for example, have, I do not know what it is called, a trade union, a federation, and I have met some of them. Some of the Dutch marines actually work very closely, and actually integrate, with our Royal Marines. If you have got a Dutch marine and a UK marine working side by side, what is the difference between the two?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, they are very different. The ethos is very different. We work side by side with 36 nations out in places like Afghanistan and the Balkans and so on. Of course we are very different and we recognise those differences. We need to recognise that the way we run our business is very different from the way other people do. Let me give you an example. When I was commanding in Bosnia, one of the battalions of one of the nations, and I will not tell you which one, laid down its arms because, it said, the pay deal was not right, so they put their arms down. Do you really see British Armed Services doing that? That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body who are fighting back at home, your soldiers are at the front and they do not appear to be achieving.

  Q411  Mr Jones: That is not what is being proposed by a federation. Surely it is actually about a course of redress and, in terms of the situation you describe, I certainly would not be in favour of a trade union if it could down arms, but there is a real issue, is there not, that people do need representation not just in terms of disputes with the chain of command, but I looked up this latest case in Iraq where quite clearly, and it has been investigated, those soldiers have got perhaps to go through some system, so surely they should have some recourse to some independent process which actually supports those people who are accused possibly of doing this? Do you not think we ought actually to look at it as a way of helping people who find not just disputes with the chain of command, but also—

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, there is an independent system. The legal support that people get in these circumstances is independent of the chain of command.

  Q412  Mr Jones: Perception-wise it is not, is it, because it is still MoD?

  General Sir Michael Walker: But we want to deal with the reality rather than the perception. Now, if you are saying that we should do all these things just to change the perception, I am not sure that is the right basis on which to make those decisions.

  Q413  Mr Jones: Well, no, but you have got to recognise that society has changed, General, and, I am sorry, it is going to come sooner or later to the Armed Forces and the MoD that it is not a goldfish bowl which is actually separate from the rest of society.

  General Sir Michael Walker: No, I accept that entirely.

  Q414  Mr Jones: The problem you have got coming which has actually been raised is the issue about recruitment. People are not going to join you and we have got competition now with this tight labour market, so they are not going to join the Armed Forces if they are going to be treated under some 19th Century set of rules.

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, Mr Jones, I am sorry, I think you must have a very warped idea of how people in the Armed Services view their profession at the moment. They are not treated like that, they are treated in a modern manner. That is exactly what this Bill is about, to make it modern, to make it 21st Century and to provide the sort of processes that do allow people to have confidence in the process.

  Q415  Mr Jones: I have just had it from you and also from the Chief of Staff last week that finally you are going to say nice words about this in terms of you want it, but really you do not want this, do you?

  General Sir Michael Walker: We do.

  Q416  Mr Jones: It is us politicians interfering?

  General Sir Michael Walker: Absolutely not. What are you talking about—the Bill?

  Q417  Mr Jones: Yes.

  General Sir Michael Walker: No, we absolutely want it.

  Q418  Mr Jones: Really you do not want us interfering at all, do you?

  General Sir Michael Walker: I am sorry, you are making allegations which you cannot substantiate. You are as bad as the people you are complaining are creating unnecessary—

  Q419  Mr Jones: Well, no doubt you and the other chiefs of defence staff, and we had one last week, are really just living in a time-warp.

  General Sir Michael Walker: Well, that must be your perception, but I have to tell you we are certainly not living in time-warps. If you look at the modernisational change the Armed Forces have gone through in the last 10 years, no other commercial business or industry has had to go through so much change, so I refute your allegation absolutely.

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