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The Armed Forces Bill - Armed Forces Committee Contents


Written evidence from the British Armed Forces Federation

1.    This evidence is submitted by the British Armed Forces Federation ("BAFF"), an independent non-statutory organisation representing its members, who are predominantly serving personnel in the three Armed Services; membership is also available to veterans. Our Steering Group submitted written evidence to the previous Armed Forces Bill Committee in 2006.

REPRESENTATION OF ARMED FORCES PERSONNEL

2.    The Ministry of Defence continues to have an ambivalent attitude towards the Federation. It accepts that serving personnel of any service or rank have every right to join such an organisation if they wish. We had positive meetings in 2008-09 with a Defence Minister and with the relevant senior officials. Along with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defence, Electoral Commission and the three Service Family Federations, we were fully represented on the Service Voting Working Group which was active for several months before the 2010 General Election.

3.    We are permitted to place paid advertising in Service publications. However, in early 2010 the Ministry intervened to prevent BAFF from making printed publicity material available within Service establishments, and from offering presentations for those who wished them, after the Commanding Officers concerned had readily agreed to accept such material and visits. The Ministry contends that no such facilities are afforded to any other organisations, which is demonstrably not the case.

4.    We therefore acknowledge that irrespective of the political colour of Government, we still have some way to go on recognition. Our concern is to ensure that nothing is inserted in the current Bill which might inadvertently make it more difficult at a later stage to make sensible progress on these issues.

5.    In the course of the 2006 Bill Committee's evidence sessions, two witnesses who did not favour a British forces federation supplied anecdotes about their experiences with other nations' forces in the past. While we do not expect the same to happen during the present inquiry, we would appreciate the opportunity to check and respond to any such anecdotes which do arise.

THE MILITARY COVENANT AND THE EXTERNAL REFERENCE GROUP

6.    As BAFF has been highlighting the Covenant since the early days of our Steering Group in 2006, we welcome its increased profile. Much is being made of consultation with "stakeholders". The one stakeholder who is not consulted—except in roundabout ways and on the Ministry's terms—is the Service person.

7.    The Ministry rightly makes a virtue of its work with special interest organisations representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender personnel, Muslim personnel, and others but personnel in general are not yet allowed to be represented in a similar way.

8.    We do not suggest, of course, that the hard working Service charities and family federations should not endeavour to reflect the Service person's point of view and to comment robustly, as they do, on matters affecting Service personnel. Similarly, with married personnel amongst our membership we naturally do comment on Service family issues from time to time. The very fact that other organisations do quite rightly comment on personnel issues proves, in our view, that there is a need for the Ministry's consultative activities to include—but not to the exclusion of others—a representative body which is appointed by and answerable to its own membership in the armed forces.

COMPLAINTS AND REDRESS

9.    We agree with the Service Complaints Commissioner that the existing Service Complaints system is based on sound principles but is over-engineered and complex. Our main concern, as an independent all-ranks body representing members who may be involved on either side of a complaint, concerns the length of time being taken to process complaints. Justice delayed is justice denied. Grievances can acquire a life of their own if not resolved within a reasonable time; they can have a corrosive effect on working relationships, cohesion within the team, and mutual trust up and down the chain of command.

10.  We support an increase in the SCC's powers to intervene and to review, and the development of her functions towards those of a true Armed Forces Ombudsman. Because this is a national matter and we do not wish the SCC to be overshadowed, we have already expressed serious reservations about a proposal elsewhere for the establishment of a European Military Ombudsman.

11.  On complaints made after leaving the Service, we agree that the SCC should be the final arbiter of whether it was just and reasonable to refuse to accept a complaint submitted out of time.

12.  While there is already nothing to prevent BAFF from providing appropriate support to its members who may be involved on either side of a complaint, a fully-recognised armed forces federation would contribute to the fair and efficient working of the complaints system.

RECRUITMENT OF YOUNG PEOPLE

13.  We note the evidence submitted by Mr David Gee and others about the recruitment of under 18 years olds into the armed forces. We would not wish suitable 16 and 17 year-olds to be deprived of the educational and training opportunities afforded by the two Army Colleges. We would not, therefore, support the raising of the minimum recruitment age to 18.

14.  We agree with other witnesses, however, that there is an issue about 16 and 17 year olds entering into binding commitments, enforceable by criminal sanctions under Service law, to continue serving for at least four years in adult service.

15.  The present "unhappy minors" provision rightly allows a Service person under the age of 18 years to leave after completing 28 days of Service and having given the required 14 days' notice. Between their 18th birthday and attaining the age of 18 years three months, they can request permission to leave provided they have already registered, before their 18th birthday, their "clear unhappiness" at their choice of career. This procedure does not adequately provide informed consent as an adult. We were also surprised to learn that permission has been withheld from any individuals applying to leave at that stage.

16.  It would be better to have a positive requirement for a Service person who enlisted at 16 or 17 to reaffirm their commitment at or shortly after their 18th birthday, but still be able to request permission to leave before they attain the age of 18 years three months.

17.  An adjustment along the above lines would in our view deal with valid human rights and child protection objections to the present system. It would also be much fairer to parents for the Service person to be required to make a positive informed decision as an adult, rather than leave parents with the continuing moral burden of having committed their under-age child to four years adult Service.

HUMAN RIGHTS

18.  Armed forces personnel generally take a realistic and unsentimental view of human rights issues. They respect human rights and may (unlike most citizens) risk their lives to defend those rights. They tend however to lack sympathy for those who "wave the human rights card", or any other "card" for that matter.

19.  It was, on the other hand, argued in a recent House of Commons debate (HC Deb, 10 February 2011, c55) that it was to the ECHR that the armed forces owe the demise of the former "March in the guilty man" principle of military justice. The same could be said of the development of the redress system, the establishment of the Service Complaints Commissioner, and the abolition of the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. With the benefit of hindsight, the existence of the Convention has proved on the whole to have been helpful in such matters.

20.  Human rights issues affecting armed forces personnel are the subject of Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)4 to members states adopted on 24 February 2010 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The United Kingdom (MoD) was represented on the Council of Europe Working Group which revised the draft recommendations, as was BAFF as part of the "EUROMIL" observer delegation. One of the approved recommendations is that "Members of the armed forces should have the right to join independent organisations representing their interests and have the right to organise and to bargain collectively; where these rights are not granted, the continued justification for such restrictions should be reviewed..."

CONCLUSION

21.  We are grateful for the opportunity to submit written evidence, and would be pleased to give oral evidence if that would be helpful.

16 February 2011



 
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