The Army is not a normal employer

The media has been full this morning of news of the employment tribunal of Corporal Tilern DeBique, and the judgement severely threatens the future efficient running of the Armed Forces.

Corporal, now ex-Corporal, DeBique has won her case and is now apparently hoping to be awarded a reported £100,000 for sexual discrimination. The Army's crime? Expecting soldiers to be available for duty "24/7, 365 days a year".

In the DeBique case, she failed to turn up to duty because she had not organised child care. Life can be difficult for any parent, and balancing the responsibilities of bringing up a child with work commitments is a tricky task - particularly for a single parent.

However, it is clearly the case that to function properly in its crucial and unusual task, the Army really does need its troops to be available at any time. In this case, it seems that DeBique was even failing to attend parade - a regular, formal and normally planned event, never mind emergencies.

This - like the case of the EU Working Time Directive being applied to Army drivers - is an absurdity. The Army is not a normal employer, it is a fighting machine. That is why not turning up to work is termed "Asbent Without Leave" and punished severely.

In the microcosm, this case may well cost taxpayers over £100,000 in compensation. That is expensive in itself, and pretty outrageous when compared to the compensation of £92,000 paid to soldiers who lose an arm or a leg, or become entirely deaf due to injury.

The wider implications of the case are infinitely more damaging, though. Can we afford for the Army to become hidebound in civilian regulation? For example, will it be able to function at all if the relationship between officers, NCOs and the other ranks is meant to be the same as the relationship between managers and staff in an office?

There are already serious and very real concerns about how soldiers are meant to deal with fighting a war with the possibility of Human Rights Act prosecution hanging over them. The idea of them trying to fight in a manner that would be approved of by a civilian Human Resources department, though, is even more far-fetched.

Whoever forms the next Government, they must make clear that the Army is not a normal, 9 to 5 employer. The Army is an unusual case and an extreme example, but this is also a broader trend that applies to other employers who are hit by inflexible regulations that are inappropriate to their work.

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