31 Jan 2013

Soldiers ‘powerless’ against bullies says Harry’s instructor

Prince Harry’s flight instructor claims he suffered “gross mistreatment” at the hands of the army, as Labour calls for independent policing of the armed forces.

Prince Harry's flight instructor Michael Booley claims the army mistreated his complaints case, as MPs, led by Madeleine Moon, debate bullying in the armed forces in Westminster (Image: Getty)

In an email to MPs, leaked to Channel 4 News ahead of a debate on bullying in the army, former Sergeant Major Michael Booley said the army “appear to have the freedom to ‘do as they like’ because soldiers are powerless and the army are unaccountable – because there is no independent oversight of the army”.

After 20 years in the army, Mr Booley claims he suffered a slew of broken promises over this career that forced him to resign and lodge a service complaint. It’s a complaint that he said has been “plagued with delays, rejections and in my opinion, bullying tactics”.

Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who organised today’s debate at Westminster, told Channel 4 News Mr Booley’s case was not unique, adding: “I know lots of cases (like his). His is a classic example of what happens if you come up against the chain of command.”

She argues that the armed forces should be independently policed in order to tackle the “huge climate of fear” that comes with making a complaint.

“The culture within the military is to put up and shut up – the alternative is that you face the might of your commanding officer, then the chain of command… ultimately the Ministry of Defence – and they will move against you…Basically you’re a nuisance,” she said.

‘I had no choice but to leave’

Mr Booley claims in his email that he was persuaded to remain in the army in 2008 when he received a written offer from his career officer of a £50,000 retention payment and transfer to RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire.

After rejecting a job as a commercial pilot, cancelling his resettlement package and ordering a new car, the army told him the decision to offer the retention payment was an “administrative error”. He says this caused him “financial embarrassment”.

Furthermore, after being assigned to a training course in Northern Ireland, Mr Booley was informed during a phone call with a senior officer that “it was not within the remit” of his career officer to “ever have offered” him the Waddington posting.

After initially insisting he did have the “remit”, his career officer conceded an hour later that “things had changed and to look forward to a new and exciting career in Northern Ireland”.

Mr Booley says he felt he had no choice but to resign and lodge a service complaint. But in the meantime, he was ordered to travel to Northern Ireland and told the commanding officer (CO) would meet him on the 12 January 2010.

We need the equivalent of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). MP Madeleine Moon

Damningly, Mr Booley quotes direct from another email allegedly sent by his deputy career officer to the CO just an hour before that meeting which he says predetermined his future.

It states: “I hope that Mr Booley is not too much of a drain this afternoon, he has been a drain on us for years! Once I get the official notification that he has been withdrawn from FW CTT (Fixed Wing – Conversion To Type) I will endeavour to get him out of your hair at the earliest opportunity…”

His CO refused to post him to Waddington. Mr Booley said: “There is an infamous expression in the army, describing how junior personnel are routinely assumed to be in the wrong”, adding, “Please forgive the language, it is ‘March in the guilty b*****d and all his lying friends’… Never before has this expression meant so much to me.”

He left the army in November 2010. He adds: “In short, following an outstanding and rewarding career, I had no choice but to leave to unemployment with no time afforded to properly prepare for life outside the army.”

In a career spanning more than two decades, including operational tours in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia, Mr Booley became the first non-commissioned officer to train a royal pilot. He authorised Prince Harry’s first fixed-wing aircraft solo flight at RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire.

Months later he would be fighting an ongoing military justice battle.

In the email he writes: “From the outset, the management of my complaint has failed to satisfy the Army’s own laid down procedures (JSP 831). It has been plagued with delays, rejections and in my opinion, bullying tactics.”

He claims that he has only had one 20-minute interview about his complaint in three years. He says the prescribed officer, who takes charge of the complaint, has been changed three times. He alleges the appointments of the prescribed officer and investigating officer lack “independence”. He says his requests for “witnesses to be approached were ignored”.

Mr Booley claims the army missed its 120-day deadline to deal with the complaint, yet only gave him 30 days to respond to 17 months of “defence evidence” he claims was amended by the army lawyers.

He writes: “Army Legal Services spent 17 months amending evidence to protect the army, then released it to me leaving me little chance to obtain my own legal advice”, adding, “several significant elements of my evidence documentation were omitted from the case file”.

My key point is: If the army are prepared to treat me in this manner, then what hope do young and inexperienced soldiers have? Michael Booley

Clearly frustrated with the process, Mr Booley warns the MPs that younger soldiers are vulnerable to this alleged mistreatment.

He writes: “Even with these indisputable records, I am still being treated in this appalling manner by the army.”

He adds: “My key point is: If the army are prepared to treat me in this manner, then what hope do young and inexperienced soldiers have?”

After three years of waiting and one appeal, his complaint is still pending. An army spokesperson told Channel 4 News it could not comment on individual cases, but “we can be clear that there is a robust complaints system in place to support our personnel”.

She added: “The army is committed to treating all of its soldiers fairly and transparently, and the service complaints system gives members of the armed forces a fair, effective and efficient method for obtaining redress for grievances.”

Sense of abandonment

Ms Moon, who sits on the defence select committee, told Channel 4 News she is trying to open up the military justice system to external oversight. She said the forces had an ingrained climate of fear, whereby many people who complain are socially isolated, intimidated and left with their careers blighted.

“Lots of people have left (as a result), and they’ve left with mental health problems – as they have to live with what’s happened and the sense of injury – the shock, that what they have loved has turned against them,” she said.

Mr Booley took his case to an employment tribunal, but the judge could not act because military personnel are barred from having such hearings.

In his email to MPs he said: “I consider the ‘blocking’ of my civil case as an absolute breach of my human rights. If you have been mistreated in an employment situation you should have the right to go to an employment tribunal and that tribunal should be completely independent.”

He says the military covenant is failing to protect troops from being disadvantaged, claiming: “Ironically, it appears the freedom of speech, equal rights and democracy that I have laid my life on the line for is denied to myself and other servicemen who have fought so hard to protect it”.

They have to live with what’s happened and the sense of injury – the shock, that what they have loved has turned against them. MP Madeleine Moon

He ends the email by urging ministers to help change the system, referring them to a recent defence committee report which was leaked to Channel 4 News, which revealed how “service personnel are currently denied a fully-empowered ombudsman, fair trials in magistrates’ and crown courts, Acas-compliant internal sanctions regimes, fully-independent police forces, and access to employment tribunals”.

A senior Army officer told Channel 4 News that Mr Booley’s experience is “typical of victims of Army mistreatment”. He added: “Nothing will change until the Service Complaints Commissioner becomes a fully-empowered Ombudsman with the power to investigate and decide cases – and impose fines on the Army. As Sergeant Major Booley warns, Service personnel also need unrestricted access to Employment Tribunals. There is no excuse for disenfranchising members of the armed forces – this is both immoral and a clear breach of the military covenant.”

Ms Moon said that in theory, it is possible to have the police inspect the military police, however that “we’ve yet to see”. She added: “We need the equivalent of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), where if you don’t have the appropriate handling you can have an independent body – but it mustn’t be made up of the military.”

The problem is not unique to the UK, she stressed, pointing out that the US has had “huge problems” – and has sought to tackle it with a widespread advertising campaign within military bases, broadcasting people’s rights. The Australian MoD equivalent meanwhile has issued a national apology to their military personnel, she added.

A spokesman for the MoD said: “We are committed to fair and transparent policing and we keep questions of service police independence under constant consideration. A number of options are being considered but no decisions have been taken.”