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The Armed Forces Bill 2006

An opportunity to achieve change for members of the UK Armed Forces

In the UK, an Armed Forces Bill is required every five years in order to continue in force the provisions of the current Service legislation relating to Service discipline, and to make any amendments. A Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill is appointed to consider the Bill and other related issues and to report to the House. The Bill is then debated in the House of Commons, if passed then goes to the House of Lords and finally back to the House of Commons.

This is an opportunity for the laws and regulations affecting Members of the Army, Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and their families to be updated and improved. It is civilian MPs who make the law and they are responsible for improving it. However this will only be achieved if there is public interest and pressure. AT EASE is appealing for help to achieve this. MPs of all parties need to be reminded that this is not just a piece of routine legislation to be renewed without change but an opportunity to rectify serious injustices.

ANYONE WHO EVER EXPERIENCED INJUSTICE IN THE ARMED FORCES is asked to contact your M.P. now. Please tell him or her of your experience. Ask them to consider whether an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill 2006 might prevent similar suffering in the future. Please tell them this legislation is important and ask them to attend the debate and not to pass the Bill unless or until it contains real reforms.

Dr John Reid the Secretary of State for Defence has recently written to EUROMIL stating that there is no need for any Unions or Federations in the UK Armed Forces because members of the Armed Forces are allowed to join civilian trade unions and attend their meetings. However Service men and women are not allowed to organise meetings or speak at meetings themselves. We appeal to civilian Trade Unions to act as advocates for their fellow workers in the Forces and demand that freedoms obtained during two centuries of workers' struggle be now extended to the Armed Forces.

Some journalists have contacted AT EASE expressing concern about conscientious objectors and principled refusniks. Please see (Section 8) the proposal in the Armed Forces Bill (2nd Reading 12 December 2005) for the punishment for absence without leave to avoid any particular service or kind of service to be imprisonment [which] may be for life. Please see (Section 12) Disobedience to a lawful command .... imprisonment must not exceed ten years.

The Bill does not suggest informing members of the Forces that they have a right to appeal to the ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION which might avoid the unnecessary public expense, as well as the injustice, of long years of imprisonment

By contrast, journalists who have expressed concern about ill-treatment of young British Soldiers and Marines, prisoners of war and Iraqi civilians may note the proposed maximum penalties. (Section 22) Ill-treatment of subordinates...........any sentence of imprisonment imposed must not exceed two years. (Section 23) Disgraceful conduct of a cruel or indecent kind.......any sentence of imprisonment in respect of the offence must not exceed two years.

All journalists please note the omission of any proposed change to the contracts signed by sixteen year old school leavers. Dr John Reid promised in 1996 that, when a Labour Government was elected, the system which he then described as unjust, would be reformed and young soldiers allowed to leave when they were eighteen years old. Instead, in 1999, the earliest date of release was increased by a year to the minimum age of twenty-two.

AT EASE appeals to London based journalists to attend and report on the evidence sessions of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill and the debate in parliament.

AT EASE appeals to journalists in all areas and activists in all parties to draw the attention of Members of Parliament to the Armed Forces Bill and ask them for their individual views on its contents and omissions.

AT EASE appeals to Members of Parliament of all parties not to vote for the Armed Forces Bill 2006 unless and until it contains some measure of constructive reform.

The Armed Forces Bill is not a party-political issue. Perhaps for that reason it has received little attention from the press or even Members of Parliament themselves.

Most Members of Parliament seem to mistakenly regard the Armed Forces Bill as a non controversial, routine piece of legislation to which they need not pay much attention.

AT EASE would submit that it is, in fact, an opportunity for long overdue reforms on what are literally life and death issues. The suicide rate in the Armed Forces amongst the age group caught in the six year trap (16-22) is higher than for civilians. The discredited Redress of Grievance procedure means complaints of bullying or death threats may be investigated by the bullying superior and complainants may be “persuaded” to withdraw.

Complaints by two or more persons are not allowed in the UK Armed Forces. Unlike other European countries, the UK Armed Forces lack the safeguards of Military Ombudsmen, Service Unions or Federations who could make representations about collective problems such as lack of body armour, life threatening bullying, ill-treatment or commands of dubious legality.

The Armed Forces do not make their own laws. That is the responsibility of Parliament. With the honourable exception of the 1991 Select Committee, no attempt was made by successive Select Committees to amend the unjust, severe contracts signed by adolescent recruits. Some Members appear to have treated the Select Committees as a sinecure. Discussion has been diverted away from the needs of the Members of the Armed Forces. The last Select Committee spent most of its time discussing changes to the organisation of the Ministry of Defence Police. The one before that spent most time discussing the sale of the Naval College at Greenwich.

The last, that is 2001, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill endorsed the policy of targeting recruitment at sixteen year old school-leavers and binding them to contracts which they denied were bonded servitude. After a poorly attended “debate” in the House of Commons, the division bell sounded and large numbers of MPs of all parties came in just to pass the Bill without opposition or query.

Much has happened in the five years since the last Armed Forces Bill to draw public attention to the need for reform to bring the UK up to Western European standards of just treatment of members of the Armed Forces. The Parliamentary Defence Committee Report Duty of Care 2005 which considered implications of the Deepcut tragedies expressed concern on two issues that have been repeatedly raised by AT EASE, that is under eighteen recruitment and the need for some form of independent complaints procedure to replace the Redress of Grievance procedure.

The Government response indicated that the concerns expressed of this Report would be addressed in the Armed Forces Bill 2006.

AT EASE appeals to all MPs of all political parties. The Armed Forces Bill 2006 is not a piece of uncontroversial, routine legislation that you may neglect with a clear conscience.

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