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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 10:14 GMT
Reid dismisses troop 'union' idea
British soldiers
Soldiers are debating the merits of forming a body to protect their interests
Calls for a new body to champion soldiers' rights have been rejected by Defence Secretary John Reid.

The idea for a British Armed Forces Federation have sprung out of discontent on kit shortages in Iraq and prosecutions against troops.

Soldiers are banned from taking strike action or political activities.

But Mr Reid said troops did have legal rights to complain not only to their commanding officers but ultimately to the defence council.

'Ethos at risk'

Supporters of the federation idea say it could raise concerns with government ministers and provide legal support.

Former Assistant of Chief of Defence Staff Lord Garden has raised the issue in the House of Lords, saying the organisation could function along similar lines to the Police Federation.

But Mr Reid told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the Army needed particular types of discipline which could not be replaced by "civilian norms".

Colonel Tim Collins
Colonel Collins says troop morale has collapsed

"Unlike most people who work for large organisations, there are particular circumstances under which our armed services have to operate which are not conducive with the right to full trade union participation, political action, industrial action and so on," he said.

"However, there is a compensating fact and that is not only the chain of command in looking after soldiers but each of our soldiers has an absolute right in law to complain, ultimately, not just to the senior NCO or commanding officer but right to the defence council."

Mr Reid added: "The key thing here is not to... undermine the cohesion, morale and ethos of our armed services."

Chain of command

Gulf War veteran Lord Garden has tabled questions in Parliament asking if there was any ban on forming a new federation.

He said: "There is serious debate at the moment in the Armed Forces among members who want to see an association that could provide legal advice, look after the interests of members and so on.

"There seems to be a need for this as it's very difficult for the chain of command to work upwards to its political masters while at the same time representing the needs of subordinates, as should be the role of senior officers."

The idea has been backed by Colonel Tim Collins, who became well known for a stirring speech to troops in Iraq.

The colonel was himself investigated, after a false claim that he had mistreated civilians and prisoners of war in Iraq, and was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Col Collins said: "I think such an organisation is needed at the moment because confidence in the chain of command and general morale has collapsed across the army.

"Senior officers don't represent the interests of subordinates at all, not just in terms of accusations involving legal or disciplinary action but also health care or even simply finding accommodation for the families of personnel."

The plan comes after concerns over failed prosecutions involving alleged abuse or unlawful killing by British soldiers in Iraq.

Military campaigners on the Army Rumour Service website have dispelled any idea such a forum would be a move towards a trade union, which is illegal under Queen's Regulations.

Listen to John Reid on the Today programme

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