National service? I'll fight to prevent my son being forced to do it | Debbie Sayers

Conservative MP Philip Hollobone’s bill to dragoon 18- to 26-year-olds into state service is ill thought-out and discriminatory

As an art teacher I understand the difficulty of painting a picture with one brush, yet this is what Philip Hollobone MP is asking us to do by introducing a bill that proposes compulsory national service for all young people aged 18-26.

He is saying that all young people are out of work, getting into trouble, have no respect for themselves or others, are illiterate and lacking basic education. They can neither cook, nor look smart nor handle their finances or even understand basic laws.

He is telling us that we need to threaten these young people with a criminal record if they don’t complete a one-year service that has compulsory residential requirements, away from home, their jobs, responsibilities and families. He thinks they need to be forced to do “good” deeds like charity work or to work for the NHS, emergency services or the military.

As a mother of a six-year-old son, I find it unbelievable that a representative of our government could discriminate against such a large percentage of our population, with this one-size-fits-all approach. That is why I launched a petition to stop the national service bill in its tracks.

My main concern is the 700,000 young carers who will not be exempt from the bill. Who will care for their relative while they serve, with social services cut dramatically and disability benefits cut by more than 20%?

What happens to pregnant mothers, also not exempt, or to children, if both young parents have to serve at the same time, or to those of single parents? They could be left with no choice but to rely on the system to care for their children, a system that is at breaking point because of cuts, with the possibility of losing their child to the system.

And what about those young people who will not be exempt on grounds of mental health or disability exemption but might still have significant disabilities. Will the support be in place to accommodate these people?

And what about the bill’s lack of exemption for those in full-time education or in work, meaning some young people may have to leave a well-paid jobs to do minimum-wage work, or leave university or college to comply, potentially having a devastating effect on their carer paths and prospects.

Some argue that we need compulsory national service to tackle youth unemployment, but unemployment is highest among 16- and 17-year-olds, and the bill doesn’t include them. Much of the proposed “help” this bill offers, such as educational support, finance and cooking skills can and should be taught at home and in school. The idea that self-respect, respect for others, and discipline can be enforced through this is absurd. The freedoms that this bill tramples over, from equality to many of the articles of the Human Rights Act, seem to have been completely ignored.

If a compulsory national service comes in, my …read more  

Jason Smith inquest into heatstroke death highlights British army's failings

Reservist’s rapid deployment to Iraq left no time to acclimatise, says mother, as coroner hears of poor briefings and equipment

Army chiefs could have done more to ensure soldiers were protected against the effects of soaring temperatures, a coroner said on Monday, after hearing the case of a reservist who died of heatstroke in Iraq.

Jason Smith, a 32-year-old member of the Territorial Army, collapsed and died in August 2003 while he and colleagues battled to protect power and fuel installations in temperatures exceeding 50C.

Alison Thompson, the Oxfordshire assistant coroner, said information and briefings to soldiers were inconsistent and they did not have equipment that would have helped mitigate the risk, including thermometers and air-conditioning at their base and in vehicles.

The inquest was told that a “yellow card” with information about heat illness would have been adequate for a tough day on Salisbury Plain in the UK – but not for Iraq.

Smith had little time to train or acclimatise before he arrived in Iraq to take part in some of the fiercest fighting that British troops have been involved in during recent years.

One senior officer told the inquest they had neither the numbers nor the equipment to do what was being asked.

Following the hearing, Smith’s mother, Catherine, said she was glad that her 10-year fight to establish exactly what had happened to her son was over, but said she believed the inquest showed that the troops had been hurried out to Iraq before they were ready.

She said of her son’s deployment: “It was so rushed. I think that’s where the problems came in. It was just: ‘Get them in and get them working.'”

Shortcomings around the rapid deployment of troops are likely to be a dominant theme in the report of the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the invasion, which is expected to be published finally by the end of the year.

The inquest in Oxford heard that the troops were operating in the most challenging of conditions. As temperatures rose Smith saw a medic on four to five occasions in the two weeks before his death. He was advised to rehydrate and rest, but not referred for further treatment.

On the evening before he died, he was deployed to a power station, and next day he twice took part in patrols to guard a petrol station. This involved spending time in the intense heat of a Saxon armoured personnel carrier.

Back at base he was found collapsed in a corridor. His body was hot and dry, and he had a fit as he was taken to hospital, where he suffered a cardiac arrest. His body temperature just before he died was 41.4C.

In her formal conclusion, the coroner said: “Information and briefing to soldiers on hydration was inconsistent and the advice … given to all soldiers inadequate for the conditions in Iraq. Commanders and medics were largely unaware of the formal policy on heat illness.”

The coroner said that chances for commanders to step in were missed. “When climatic conditions deteriorated and the number …read more  

Jason Smith inquest: what are the verdict's implications for the military?

Poor preparation for heat, inadequate equipment and failure to grasp implications of duty of care are inquest’s main conclusions

“It was extremely hot, we were extremely busy, too busy, and we didn’t have enough resources – be that manpower, be that equipment – to do what we were asked to do.”

This evidence to the inquest, from Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Cattermull, Jason Smith’s commanding officer in Iraq, summed up the intense frustration, and on occasion real anger, among British soldiers of all ranks at the failure to prepare them properly for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That failure is likely to be a dominant theme in the report of the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the invasion which is expected finally to be published by the end of the year. So sensitive is the Ministry of Defence (MoD) still about the whole subject that reports it commissioned from senior officers into “lessons learned” from Iraq remain suppressed.

“We had asked for more manpower but we had a mission to do and we were going to do it the best we knew with the resources available,” Cattermull, a major at the time, told the Smith inquest. He added: “My best resource available, as ever, were my soldiers, who never let me down.”

One officer referred to a stadium where his soldiers were encamped in south-east Iraq, about seven miles (12km) away from Camp Abu Naji in Al-Amarah, as “an unbearable, hot, dusty, hellhole”. He said his men were forced to drink water mixed with sugar and salt in front of officers to halt dehydration after numerous heat injuries.

Air-conditioning equipment arrived at the stadium two days after Smith died. “It was hard, very hard indeed. Things were not right,” said Cattermull

The lack of preparation for Iraq is a recurring theme in inquests but also in evidence given by British soldiers to the Al-Sweady inquiry into allegations – hotly denied by the MoD and the troops concerned – that they murdered and abused Iraqis after a fierce gunfight near Camp Abu Naji in May 2004. Witness after witness have said how they received little or no training or advice about what they could expect in Iraq.

As equipment, including lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers designed for Northern Ireland, proved vulnerable to mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), defence ministers promised to order more robust vehicles. But bureaucracy and institutional reluctance to spend money meant they took a very long coming.

Other inquests showed that the MoD – or ministers – had not learned these lessons by the time that thousands of British troops were sent to Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in 2006.

And MoD lawyers were extremely slow to recognise the legal obligations to protect soldiers notably, but not only, under the Human Rights Act. The supreme court ruled earlier this year that relatives could sue for negligence and claim damages from the MoD on the grounds that soldiers were not properly protected under the ministry’s duty of …read more  

Army could have done more to stop soldier dying from heat, says coroner

Inquest hears risk to Jason Smith, who died in Iraq in 2003, would have been reduced if policy on heat illness was clear

Army chiefs could have done more to make sure soldiers were protected against the effects of soaring temperatures, a coroner has concluded after hearing the case of a reservist who died after suffering heat stroke in Iraq.

Jason Smith, a 32-year-old member of the Territorial Army, collapsed and died while he and colleagues tried to protect power and fuel installations as temperatures rose to over 50C (122F).

The Oxfordshire assistant coroner Alison Thompson said the risk to Smith, who died in August 2003, would have been reduced if the policy on heat illness was clear, including information about the amount of water troops needed to drink.

She said: “Information and briefing to soldiers on hydration was inconsistent and the advice … given to all soldiers inadequate for the conditions in Iraq. Commanders and medics were largely unaware of the formal policy on heat illness.”

The coroner said that chances for commanders to step in were missed. “When climatic conditions deteriorated and the number of heat casualties increased, there was a missed opportunity to intervene,” she said.

Thompson also flagged up that the soldiers were not equipped with a thermometer they should have had at the stadium in al-Amarah in southern Iraq where Smith was based. If they had this kit, it would have “informed working patterns and the need for rest”.

Smith’s mother, Catherine, has long campaigned to find out the truth of what happened to her son. She was dissatisfied with a previous inquest which took place in 2006 and fought to have a second hearing.

She said she was pleased with the coroner’s conclusions. “I can live again now and begin to grieve properly,” she said afterwards. Her long battle has involved a change in the law – soldiers are now considered to have the same right to life under the Human Rights Act as civilians.

The fresh inquest in Oxford heard that the troops were operating in the most challenging of conditions. As temperatures rose Smith saw a medic on four to five occasions in the two weeks before his death. He was advised to rehydrate and rest but was not referred on for further treatment.

On the afternoon before he died he reported to a medic and was told to rest. That evening he deployed to a power station and next day he twice took part in patrols to guard a petrol station. This involved him spending time in intense heat in a Saxon armoured personnel carrier.

After returning to base he was found collapsed in a corridor at 6pm as he crawled to find help. His body was hot and dry and he suffered a fit as he was taken to hospital, where he suffered a cardiac arrest and died.

The coroner said that at the time of his deployment the assessment of combat fitness for TA soldiers was “not as robust as for regulars” but she said Smith was …read more  

Jason Smith verdict follows mother's 10-year fight for truth from army

Catherine Smith has spent decade trying to discover details surrounding her son’s heatstroke death in Iraq

In the early summer of 2003 Jason Smith, a 32-year-old mechanic who had spent 10 years in the Territorial Army, was told he was going to be deployed to Iraq.

According to his mother, Catherine, he was excited as well as nervous.

“He always wanted to serve his country and felt ready for the challenges ahead,” she said. “He felt he was going out to Iraq to help the people.”

On 13 August the knock on the door that all next of kin fear came. A TA family officer broke the news that her son had died while serving in southern Iraq. “He had very little information but said so far as they knew he died from the heat. It hit me like a tonne of bricks,” said Smith.

She and her son had realised he could die in action but not in circumstances like this, which felt avoidable.

Smith has spent the past decade trying to get to the bottom of what happened. An inquest held three years after he died found serious failings in the way the army had protected soldiers from the heat of southern Iraq. But vital documents were not provided and Smith felt details were being withheld.

She and her legal team campaigned for a new inquest – and helped force a supreme court ruling that gave British soldiers the same right to life, safeguarded by the Human Rights Act, as any other citizen.

The fresh inquest, which has taken place in Oxford, has been made all the more pertinent by the tragedy of the three TA soldiers who died while taking part in an SAS test on the Brecon Beacons in south Wales on one of the hottest days of the summer.

Smith has expressed concern that lessons about how soldiers should operate in heat may not have been learned in the 10 years since her son died. The case has also focused attention on the fitness of TA soldiers – an important factor at a time when the government is planning to beef up the role of reservists.

Jason Smith was sent to Iraq attached to the 1st Battalion the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in June 2003. The soldiers were operating in gruelling conditions with temperatures rising to over 50C.

Late in July 2003 Smith wrote his last letter to his mother telling her he had been so dehydrated that medics could not find a vein to put a drip in.

The following month he was found lying face down in an old athletics stadium where he was stationed. He was taken to hospital but suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be saved.

In 2006, the first inquest found his death followed a serious failure on the part of the army in not recognising the difficulty he was having adjusting to the climate. Concerns were raised over the fitness of TA members prior to deployment, the information card …read more