British soldiers risking death in Afghanistan and Iraq are being paid about half the national minimum wage. The troops, facing daily attacks in Helmand and Basra, and suffering a rising toll of dead and injured, are among Britain's lowest paid workers.
In the midst of a recruitment crisis, with soldiers being sent to highly dangerous conflicts with little monetary reward, commanders believe an improvement in wages is essential to maintain morale. General Sir Richard Dannett, the recently appointed head of the Army, said: "There are issues like basic pay. A Para with a year's training at Catterick, engaged in Helmand, is taking home £1,150 a month. Is that enough? Is that fair?"
The discontent over pay comes amid growing concern about casualties being suffered, especially in Afghanistan from a resurgent Taliban. Doubts have been expressed about the tactics being pursued. The former aide-de-camp to the British task force in Afghanistan, Captain Leo Docherty, of the Scots Guards, who has just left the Army, said the campaign in Helmand was " a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency".
The average salary of a newly qualified soldier is £14,300 before tax - compared with about £20,000 for a police officer. In a combat zone, being on duty for a minimum of 16 hours gives the troops an hourly rate of £2.45. There is also a longer service separation allowance of about £6 a day, but this only applies to those who have served at least 12 months away from home.
This is well below the current national minimum wage of £ 5.05 an hour, which is due to rise to £5.35 next month. In reality the figures for soldiers' earnings are even worse. In Helmand, where British forces are involved in some of the heaviest fighting in the Army's recent history, there is little respite from incessant attacks and they are, in effect, on duty all the time. Lt-Gen David Richards, the British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said soldiers were enduring "days and days of intense fighting, being woken up by yet another attack when they have not slept for 24 hours. This sort of thing has not happened so consistently, I don't think, since the Korean War or the Second World War. It happened for periods in the Falklands, obviously, and it happened for short periods in the Gulf on both occasions. But this is persistent, low-level dirty fighting."
The soldiers get free accommodation and food while based in combat positions such as Helmand. But they still pay council tax on their barracks rooms in Britain, and, back home, they also pay for food and board.
A British officer who has recently returned from Helmand said: "The wages paid to the privates is well below the minimum wage. Frankly, they would make more money emptying dustbins. They are being treated appallingly. It is not, of course, just what they undergo in combat, but the after-effects from these places as well. With our men it took a few weeks to get over what they experienced in Northern Ireland. After Iraq it took more than a year for many of them."
Anthony Bradshaw, who saw combat as a private in the Pioneer Regiment during the Iraq conflict in 2003, said: "Our take-home pay during training was £650 a month after the deductions. When we were in Iraq it rose to £800 a month. No one can say that the pay of a private soldier is good. It certainly does not lend itself to any luxuries." Pte Bradshaw, 22, was injured in Iraq and now receives a war pension and income support. "This does not add up to much either. Being a current or ex-soldier hardly makes you rich," he said.
The Ministry of Defence is looking at a series of options to boost the income of soldiers. They include proposals that soldiers will no longer pay tax while on operations overseas and payment of college fees.
The armed forces were to be brought into the minimum wage structure by the incoming Labour Government in 1997. But the idea was dropped after pressure from the then Defence Secretary, George Robertson, who claimed it would put the military into a financial and legal straitjacket.
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