Don't wear uniforms in public, air base staff told

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Gordon Brown urged Britain's armed forces today to wear their uniforms in public and condemned any abuse of them by people opposed to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister spoke out after senior officers at RAF Wittering advised airmen and women to wear civilian dress when they visited nearby Peterborough in case they attracted insults.

Mr Brown, speaking at No 10, said: "All our armed forces should be able to, and encouraged to, wear their uniform in public and have the respect and gratitude of the British people for the huge commitment to public service they show.

"I encourage the local police to back up our armed forces so that not only can our armed forces wear their uniforms in public, but they should have the gratitude of the British public for the work they do."

The Prime Minister went on: "I believe the great majority of the British public would condemn any form of abuse.

"I condemn absolutely any members of the public who show abuse or discrimination to our armed forces.

"The public will want to show our respect and gratitude to our armed forces and we will back up the police in their efforts to show that at RAF Wittering or anywhere else it's possible for the armed forces not only to wear their uniform but to have the thanks of the British public."

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the decision at RAF Wittering was a local one made by station commanders and added that generally service personnel were encouraged to wear uniforms in public.

Defence Secretary Des Browne described the situation earlier as a "great shame".

He said: "We must defend our forces' right to wear their uniforms in public."

Cambridgeshire Police said they were not aware of any incidents of service personnel being attacked or abused in Peterborough.

Peterborough's Conservative MP today said the ban was a "sledgehammer to crack a nut" and should be rescinded.

Stewart Jackson said the ban was damaging the reputation of the armed services and Peterborough.

"This does seem to be a sledgehammer to crack a nut," he said.

"The police don't have records of any serious problems. My understanding is that it's a small number of incidents of verbal abuse.

"I think it should be rescinded and I've written to the Defence Secretary asking him to consider that.

"I suspect it's probably a very tiny minority of people. And they don't represent the views of any community in Peterborough.

"The RAF should wear their uniform with pride and I think that's the general view of the local community."

Mr Jackson added: "If an airman in uniform was to walk through the streets of Peterborough today, I think the reaction he would get would be tremendous. I think people would stop and clap and cheer."

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "Of course the commander on the ground must make the final decision on these matters but I regret that the circumstances exist where a decision like this had to be made.

"I think that the majority of our public would be appalled to hear that there are no-go areas for our armed forces, even in their own country."

Tory MP Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) whose constituency borders RAF Wittering and covers RAF Cottesmore, said criticism of the war should be directed at politicians.

He said: "It's a disgrace that people are being abused in Peterborough. I would urge people to step the other way out of the base and come to Rutland where they will receive a warm welcome and be treated with respect and affection.

"If people are angry, they should criticise politicians and not service personnel who are properly doing their duty."

RAF Wittering base commander Group Captain Ro Atherton, was today unavailable for comment.

A base spokesman was referring all inquiries to the Ministry of Defence in London.

But RAF sources said the ban had been imposed following a number of incidents of verbal abuse.

Sources said the abuse was largely from "yobs". They said there had been no incidents of physical attack.

Commanders had decided to stop servicemen wearing uniform in Peterborough after taking advice from the RAF police.

An MoD spokesman said: "It has been a number of incidents of verbal abuse."

Police said they had a record of one incident of verbal abuse 15 months ago.

They had no records of assault and no record of RAF personnel becoming involved in violent incidents.

A spokesman for Cambridgeshire Police said officers would be happy to discuss any problems with RAF commanders.