The Sunday Times

April 18th, 2010

The army is no place for Private Single-Mum

The story of former Lance-Corporal Tilern DeBique, MySpace glamour puss and soldier single mum, is a cautionary tale that almost defies belief. It would be impossible to dream up a better parody of the idiocy of today’s rights and compensation culture.

DeBique was recruited by the British Army in 2001 from her home on the Caribbean island of St Vincent, came to Britain and became a technician in the 10th Signal Regiment. Only three years into her term of service she had a baby and, without much evidence of a father, became a single mother. At first she left the child with her family in St Vincent, but about a year later brought the baby to Britain to live with her.

Having difficulties with childcare, she failed to turn up on parade, for which she was formally disciplined. Her commanding officer, she complained, told her that the army was “a war-fighting machine” and “unsuitable for a single mother who couldn’t sort out her childcare arrangements”.

Her response was to resign and to bring a case for sex discrimination against the army, claiming she had been forced to choose between her career and caring for her child. For good measure, she made a claim of race discrimination, too, because the Ministry of Defence refused her request to let her half-sister from St Vincent come and live with her on base as a childminder.

The astonishing fact is that DeBique won both cases at an industrial tribunal last year; last week she was seeking £1.14m from another tribunal in compensation for her loss of earnings, loss of army benefits and loss of pension rights, along with £10,000 for hurt feelings — and this at a time when fellow soldiers wounded in combat in Afghanistan receive infinitely less compensation for lifelong disabilities.

What makes DeBique’s effrontery even worse is that the army had most unusually tried to help her by offering her an easy posting for five years at a Dorset garrison with childcare facilities. Unaccountably DeBique refused this exceptionally single-mother-friendly offer and resigned. The one faint ray of common sense in all this is that the tribunal on Friday awarded DeBique only £17,000, if “only” is the right word in this context.

In all this nonsense it is hard to know who is most at fault. DeBique seems to be much to blame. Despite making all this fuss about looking after her little girl, she was, even before she resigned from the army, applying for civilian jobs in Afghanistan. One can only wonder who she imagined would take care of her daughter while she was away or what would have happened to her if she didn’t come back.

The kindest thing one can say perhaps is that she lacks judgment. For instance, she displays herself on her MySpace page as “Sexy T” in a pouting pose on a big brass bed, wearing a see-through top.

Nor was it wise of her to imagine that in her situation she could combine single motherhood with a career in the army. I find it difficult to imagine how any woman can do so, even when she has a husband and extended family to look after her child, particularly if she is sent to a war zone.

Whatever one may think of Debique’s judgment, however, she and her advisers are only playing the system — a system that has come to encourage such unreasonable expectations as rights and to make people lose all sense of proportion — and she can hardly be blamed for grasping what is lawfully due to her, even if it wasn’t quite £1.14m. She did, after all, win her two cases.

That is the great mystery. What on earth was the tribunal thinking of? Any fingers of blame ought to be pointing firmly in that direction.

DeBique’s accusation of racism is simply laughable — the tribunal’s support of it is a perfect example of the mind-numbing panic that the very thought of race induces in those who work in the discrimination industry.

More importantly, how could the tribunal possibly have found the army guilty of sex discrimination in this case? What has it got to do with DeBique’s sex? If anything, it has to do with her single parenthood and her childcare problems, which these days are supposed to be gender-free. And why should the social handicap of single parenthood be something that the army — a fighting machine at war, with not enough resources to equip its soldiers — should be expected to put right? As Major David Laycock told the tribunal: “Part of the military covenant is that the army does come first.”

Surely it is right and proper for army officers to expect soldiers of both sexes to obey orders and appear on duty night and day.

There cannot be any exceptions in military discipline or any allowances made for individuals, not even for mothers. Otherwise we’d have breastfeeding on parade and Sure Start tents for toddlers in Helmand.

The armed services are no place for single mothers or single fathers. I would go further and say they are no place for mothers at all, but I accept that there are women who can make good arrangements for their families and combine motherhood with a total commitment to the army, the navy or the air force and, while they can, they are entitled to do so. When they can’t, they should leave.

Women do often have to choose in civilian life as well between a career and caring for a child. That is not the army’s fault. It should not be the responsibility of the armed forces to move in as childcare managers or social workers or flexitime consultants. Sergeant majors shouldn’t have to kiss any kiddies goodnight. If the law requires it, then the law is an ass.

The armed forces should be specially exempt from equalities legislation where such laws prevent them putting the ethos of the fighting machine first. Special consideration for individuals can and does put that ethos and that harsh tradition at risk. It also points out the silly extremities to which the contemporary obsession with discrimination and equality has brought us all. It is a cautionary tale.”The armed services are no place for single mothers or single fathers