Michael Evans, London Times, March 8, 2008
Certain areas in Britain will still have to remain off-limits for servicemen and women in military gear, despite the Government’s desire for a nationwide uniform free-for-all, senior RAF sources acknowledged yesterday.
After the ban on uniforms in Peterborough, ordered by the station commander at nearby RAF Wittering, one senior air force source said that military commanders had to be aware of potential problems of personnel wearing combat and other military clothes in the street.
“We’re aware of the sensitivities, for example, in some ethnic minority communities which is why we need to have a dialogue with local authorities and police if we don’t want to cause a problem,” the source said.
Group Captain Ro Atherton, station commander at RAF Wittering, was praised by her superiors for taking the “sensible precaution” of advising personnel under her command to wear civilian clothes in parts of Peterborough after a number of incidents of abuse by members of the public.
The RAF said the ban would be reviewed but there was no question of overruling Group Captain Atherton who was in the best position to make a judgment, after taking advice from the military police and the local police force.
“This was not a blanket ban for the whole of Peterborough but service personnel were advised to watch out for certain areas,” the senior RAF source said.
Yesterday it emerged that students at University College London voted to ban the military from setting up recruitment stalls there. They also backed a ban on the Officer Training Corps at the college campus.
A meeting of the students’ union supported a motion condemning British Forces for waging “an agressive war overseas”.
The Ministry of Defence said that it was disappointed by the students’ decision. On the Peterborough incidents, a spokesman said there was no evidence that this type of abuse was widespread in other towns and cities in Britain.
Gordon Brown condemned the incidents and urged all members of the Armed Forces to wear uniforms in public.
“All our Armed Forces should be able to, and encouraged to, wear their uniform in public and have the respect and gratitude of the British people for the huge commitment to public service they show,” he said.
The Prime Minister urged local police forces to back the Armed Forces.
“I believe the great majority of the British public would condemn any form of abuse. I condemn absolutely any members of the public who show abuse or discrimination to our Armed Forces,” he said.
David Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition, said that police should come down “extremely hard” on people targeting members of the Armed Forces in the streets.
Stewart Jackson, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, said he felt that the ban on uniforms in the city was a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”.
“I suspect it’s probably a very tiny minority of people, and they don’t represent the views of the community in Peterborough,” he said.
Quentin Davies, Labour MP for the nearby Grantham & Stamford constituency, who is carrying out an official review of the public’s attitude towards the Armed Forces, said: “There must never be no-go areas in any part of our country for any citizen. Least of all should there be no-go areas for those who are wearing the Queen’s uniform.”