British general criticised over disabled bar

 

Britain's most senior military officer was at the centre of controversy yesterday after insisting that disabled people should not serve in the armed forces.

Disability rights groups accused the Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Charles Guthrie, of insulting the memory of disabled war heroes such as Admiral Nelson and Douglas Bader.

Downing Street rallied to Gen Guthrie's defence, insisting that all military personnel had to be able to fight and that there was "no such thing as a non-combatant job" in the forces.

The chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, Mr Bert Massie, said there was no reason why disabled people could not serve in non-combatant roles and he called for disability rights legislation to be extended to the forces.

"Bringing the army's employment policies into the 21st century would also mean that the talent and experience of serving personnel who become disabled during service could be redeployed rather than wasted," he said.

The Labour MP Ms Anne Begg, who uses a wheelchair, said that attitudes such as Gen Guthrie's had been responsible for holding back disabled people for too long. "What really annoys us is when someone who doesn't know us or know what we are capable of says we can't do a job, simply because they themselves can't imagine how we could do it," she said.

However, there was support for Gen Guthrie from the Falklands war veteran Simon Weston, who received injuries in the attack on HMS Sir Galahad.

"When you join the army you have to go through rigorous training whether you are a cook, whether you are a medic, whether you are a bandsman. There is no scope for making an assault course easy for disabled people," he said.

The Armed Forces Minister, Mr John Spellar, also said the present requirements were "absolutely necessary to maintain military effectiveness".

In his speech, made at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Gen Guthrie praised the "robust" way defence ministers had ensured that the British forces remained exempt from European legislation to prohibit employment discrimination on grounds of age or disability.

"If left unchecked, the impact would have had a detrimental effect on the forces by insisting that disabled people had a right to serve," he said.

"We need to guard against such ill-conceived ideas in future but the fact that some thought they should apply to the forces is a reflection of that lack of awareness of military issues."

His comments were seen as a response to the Employment Minister, Ms Margaret Hodge, who chaired a government task force that recommended that disabled rights laws be extended to the forces.

Gen Guthrie, who retires next year, also made clear his continuing deep reservations about allowing women to serve in front-line combat roles.