Tony Paterson, Ian Cobain'British army full of convicts'
Sunday 21 May 2000
The German defence minister has triggered a diplomatic row by alleging that the British Army is full of convicts recruited from the nation's jails.>
Rudolf Scharping said that it was official British Army policy to offer criminals the chance to sign up as an alternative to prison. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said yesterday: "The man is talking absolute rubbish." Nevertheless, the claims have been widely reported in Germany, leaving many with the impression that large numbers of British servicemen and women are crooks.
Mr Scharping was speaking to the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in advance of Tuesday's publication of plans for restructuring Germany's armed forces. He said: "Everyone will ask themselves whether we should oblige ourselves to repeat the bad experiences of other countries with professional armies. Should we do the same as Britain and give criminal offenders the option to serve in the army rather than go to prison?"
Brigadier Brian Isbell, the British defence attaché to Germany, wrote to the newspaper pointing out that Mr Scharping was mistaken. He said: "The British Army does not recruit inmates from the prisons to serve as soldiers." It was merely standard prison-service policy to inform ex-prisoners of military career opportunities after their release.
Brig Isbell said he had not received any apology from the German defence minister. He said: "Whatever the future of the German armed forces, it is obviously quite unproductive to slag off Germany's Nato partners in this fashion."
Last year, The Telegraph revealed that the Army had started allowing convicts to apply as recruits while in jail. But it will accept only those who have been sentenced to two years or less, and it bars anyone convicted of racial, sexual or drugs offences. Crucially, offenders can join up only after serving their sentences.
Mr Scharping also took a sideswipe at the Spanish army, suggesting that it was full of idiots because senior officers had reduced the intelligence quotient to attract recruits. Mr Scharping, who was appointed defence minister in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrat-led government 18 months ago, was seeking to defend the principle of conscription in Germany's armed forces against plans to switch to a more British-style professional army.
Of the 255,000 young Germans called up annually, 125,000 opt to do social rather than military service. As a result many of those called up spend 10 months working in hospitals or old peoples' homes. Social and military experts concede that ending conscription could lead to a breakdown in Germany's social services.