Terence Blacker: The Army has lost the moral high ground

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The Independent Online

Those looking for a snapshot of modern army life, which is rather more accurate than the gung-ho recruiting ads on TV, might usefully consider the misadventures of Lance-Bombardier Kerry Fletcher of the 40th Regiment, Royal Artillery. The first woman to ride with the King's Troop, Fletcher made no secret of the fact that she was a lesbian. A staff sergeant called Ian Brown sent her some randy texts offering to "convert her", telling her that she needed a real man and proposing a threesome with another female officer.

The sergeant's behaviour (how distant Sergeant Bilko suddenly seems) descended into harassment and bullying when Fletcher declined his offers. Earlier this year, she resigned from the army and reported her case to an employment tribunal. She has just been awarded £186,896 compensation, which includes £50,000 in exemplary damages and £30,000 for hurt feelings.

Perhaps because the lance-bombardier was blonde and attractive, the case received wide coverage in the press. The gay press has pointed out that the Ministry of Defence has paid out £3.7 million to service personnel who had been victimised on the grounds of their sexuality. Elsewhere, there was outrage that a lesbian soldier's hurt feelings and lost earnings were deemed to be worth significantly more than, say, the loss of two legs and the brain-damage of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, awarded £152,150 after being horrifically injured in Afghanistan. (It was was subsequently increased to £285,000).

But one thing has been consistent in all the news coverage. The more money has been discussed, the less attention has been paid to questions of morality and ethical behaviour. The sergeant may have behaved sleazily, but it is the subsequent bullying on the part of the army establishment which is more alarming. After Kerry Fletcher complained, her mental stability was questioned, her private life was trashed in public. Clearly there is still prejudice within the armed forces, yet the case received no more than a cool, formal apology from the MoD.

An unforeseen side-effect of a culture which puts a price on bullying and discrimination is that financial compensation contaminates the process. It dispenses with all other considerations of the right way for employers to behave, replacing them with the complex and often silly game played out at tribunals which may enrich lawyers and a few complainants but have no moral weight.

The potential absurdity of the way employment law now works was pointed up this week by a tribunal case as different as that of the lesbian lance-bombardier as can be imagined.

A 50- year-old unemployed accountant called Margaret Keane was revealed to have discovered a nice little earner for herself. Applying for a large number of jobs – rather badly, it was said – she waited until she had failed to make the shortlist, and then threatened each firm with an age discrimination suit. Twelve companies settled out of court, each paying the enterprising litigator between £4,000 and £10,000. It was when she brought another five cases to court that her activities were exposed.

There is something paradoxical happening within the employment system. Bullying and prejudice have become a financial risk – or in Margaret Keane's case, an opportunity. In the process, the important idea that an employing organisation has a social duty not to abuse its position of power has been lost. There is no shame or embarrassment. Like the MoD, the boss merely pays up, and moves on.

The 1950s weren't that great for most of us, Mr Field

Frank Field, famous for thinking the unthinkable, may have ventured a thought too far. Speaking at Leicester University of the dangerous, riotous times in which we live, he has harked back to happier times. That chilly, chafed, frustrated decade, the 1950s, contained, according to Field, "the peak years for Britain being a peaceful and self-governing kingdom". It seems dangerously possible that the Fifties will become chic, with calls for more decent old coppers like Dixon of Dock Green, played by Jack Warner, and a fashion craze for grey flannel trousers and tweed jackets. Fortunately, an antidote to this madness is at hand. Cliff Richard is to reunite with the Shadows and will go on the road next year. The Frank Field argument is already lost. Here, audiences will see, is the singer who in the 1950s represented all that was young, wild, rebellious and lustful. Behind him is the group which, with its famous leg-swinging steps, was once the future of rock'n'roll. Suddenly, mysteriously, the great life-enhancing freedoms and advances of the past half century will become clear, and Fifties nostalgia will drift away like stale pipe smoke.

Heathrow: expansion trumps all else

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that, however arguable the case against a third runway at Heathrow, the Government will push it through. It has just been revealed that, even without another runway, flights over west London are likely to increase by 170,000 a year by a switch to what is called "mixed mode" landings. According to BAA, this change will only take place if it meets "the Government's strict environmental conditions".

How strangely unreassuring, that statement. Forget local democracy, quality of life and carbon emissions. In the case of aviation, growth is all that matters.

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