The question of whether the British armed forces should have some sort of statutory and official representative body, somewhat akin to the Police Federation, comes up regularly in debate on military matters.
This article was submitted by Stuart Crawford, a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
*This article has been updated after West Dunbartonshire MP Martin Docherty-Hughes renewed calls for an armed forces representative body after it was revealed the lowest paid armed forces personnel are paid almost £2 less than the UK government’s National Minimum Wage.*
Its most recent iteration in the UK came with the introduction of Martin Docherty-Hughes MP’s Armed Forces Representative Body Bill, introduced under the Ten Minute Rule, which had its first reading in the House of Commons in June 2018.
This topic has proved to be a thorny one over the years and has split opinion both within and outwith the Services. There has been much huffing and puffing from the leather armchairs of the old and bold, many of whom seem to see it as a direct challenge to good military discipline and the integrity of the chain of command. One former Chief of the Defence Staff, Field Marshall Lord Inge, even went so far as to ask whether “armed forces which have federations and unions have ever won” during an earlier debate in 2006.
Others point to the British Armed Forces Federation (BAFF), the self-styled “unofficial, independent, all-ranks staff association” for UK armed forces personnel, or to the various service charities, all of which do good work in the face of the Government and MoD’s unwillingness or inability to get to grips with looking after our service personnel properly. But they have no statutory basis and are all too easily ignored if deemed “off message” for any reason. Indeed, the BAFF appears to have no full time staff nor a regional network.
Perhaps rather than subscribing to the knee-jerk reactions from the usual subjects which has characterized much of the comment that the bill has provoked to date we should look a little closer at what it proposes? First and most importantly of all, it does not propose the establishment of an armed forces trade union.
Whilst regular service personnel are permitted by Queen’s Regulations to join civilian trade unions or professional associations in order to enhance their trade skills and professional knowledge, and as an aid to resettlement, armed forces personnel are specifically excluded from the definition of “workers” for the purposes of British trade union legislation. A body set up to represent such personnel cannot, therefore, register as a trade union under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, or at least until the Act is suitably amended.
Nor is there any suggestion whatsoever that the armed services should be given the power to go on strike, which most informed commentators would see as incompatible with military ethos and service; the same rule applies to the Police Federation, for example. But a body which might represent service men in women on such issues as housing and accommodation, conditions of service, pay and pensions, and after service employment and care to name but a few, might have some utility, no?
A quick look at what other countries have done. In Australia, the Defence Force Welfare Association (founded 1959) and Defence Reserves Association (founded 1969) represent Australian personnel and are recognized by the Chain of Command of the Australian Defence Force.
The USA boasts a plethora of military representative organisations, including the Association of the United States Army (founded 1950) and the Military Officers Association of America (founded 1929) amongst others. Closer to home, the Irish have three representative organisations, all founded in 1991, catering for officers, non commissioned officers, and reserves respectively.
All of these differ in varying ways, but there are a number of strands which seem common to all. Firstly, they tend to be completely apolitical, although some lobby governments on defence and military issues; second, they tend to concentrate in the main on welfare issues – housing, conditions of service, post service health and employment sand so on; and finally they seem to have the confidence and support of their respective chains of command.
I cannot for the life of me see what there is not to like. Senior ex-military scaremongers in the UK may talk anecdotally of troops from other armies downing tools because they haven’t been paid and holding soldiers’ meetings to decide whether to obey orders, but it doesn’t happen with our police, firefighters, doctors and nurses so why should it happen in our armed forces? Going on strike is just not what we do.
In any case, we are arguably already part way down the road. The nominally independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the Services Complaints Ombudsman – the latter post introduced one suspects through gritted teeth by the MoD in 2016 – seem to provide some of the facilities that a representative body might offer. But, as I have written before, successive governments and the MoD still seem content to palm veterans’ care off to the charitable sector, and input from those serving into other welfare matters is ad hoc at best.
Martin Docherty-Hughes’ bill, therefore, is a timely return to the fray on this particular issue, and seeks to take up from where Kevan Jones MP’s Private Members Bill stalled some 10 years previously. When all is said and done, service men and women are employees and deserve the same representation as other employees enjoy, subject to the constraints already noted.
A British armed forces representative body might also, coincidentally, help ‘normalise‘ military service in the eyes of the public, and possibly persuade those teetering on the edge of applying to join to do so, safer in the knowledge that they are joining an institution that is at least trying to keep up with the times.
Given the armed forces current parlous state of recruitment they need all the help they can get.