MoD to spend £5m on actors

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MEET the gang 'cos the boys are here, the boys to diversity train you.

Defence chiefs have caused widespread outrage with plans to spend 5m on actors to help spread the message of tolerance throughout the armed forces.

The 2008 version of It Ain't Half Hot Mum will visit military bases throughout the UK and abroad, performing self-penned sketches and plays on the theme of "equality and diversity".

But as evidence of over-stretch and under-equipping of British forces mounts, the move has been widely condemned by politicians and military insiders as a ridiculous waste of money.

Tragic losses blamed on equipment shortages include the death in Basra in 2003 of tank commander Sgt Steven Roberts, who handed over his body armour to a colleague shortly before he was shot. In 2006, the death in Afghanistan of paratrooper Captain James Philippson was partially blamed on shortages of night vision equipment and machine guns.

Despite the controversy, documents seen by Scotland on Sunday reveal the MoD has invited firms to bid for a contract worth up to 5m to provide "drama-based interventions" – sketches and plays – for equality and diversity training.

The team will put on between 12 and 52 events annually, each lasting between half a day and a day, beginning at the end of this year and running until 2011. Bases in Germany, Cyprus and Gibraltar are among the overseas destinations listed in the tender documents.

An MoD spokesman said: "They will be performing sketches and role-plays. The role-playing will involve getting members of the audience to come on stage and take part and help illustrate the points in the training. Studies have shown that drama and role-playing are very effective in communicating these kinds of messages and they work very well."

In an apparent reference to hecklers, the tender document adds that the actors should have "the flexibility to cater for a number of ad hoc interventions".

Dr Rachel Woodward, a researcher on military issues at Newcastle University, who has investigated attitudes to equality in the armed forces, said: "Several studies have shown that the armed forces do have problems which they have to deal with in terms of cultural attitudes, and to their credit they are recognising that. This is a very interesting and progressive move by them."

Douglas Young, chairman of the British Armed Forces Federation, said: "Equality and diversity are very important, especially at a time when the armed forces have problems with retention and really need everyone who is willing to serve.

"But we would question this use of 5m.Whoever decided this should really think again. This 5m will have to come out of an increasingly hard-pressed military budget, and when our forces are so stretched, many in the audiences will think that this money could have been much better spent."

Shadow secretary for defence, Dr Liam Fox, said: "With soldiers dying from lack of basic kit, spending 5m on a programme like this is outrageous. For the sake of our brave service members and their families, I think the MoD needs to seriously reconsider its priorities."

Clive Fairweather, former deputy commander of the SAS, said: "I have never heard of anything as ridiculous in my life, and I say this as someone who delivers training on equality and diversity, as well as being a former soldier. They could have had me for 50 a week.

"Equality and diversity training is important, but the rest of us can manage with an overhead projector. And the money for this is not coming out of a bottomless pit."

Two Scots who write comedy and sketches themselves, said the task would be a challenge.

Joyce Falconer, River City actress and comedian, said: "I have been involved in running role-play events for health services and for mental health care, and it can be very useful and effective at defusing aggression. But this would be a different kind of thing altogether. I don't know how you would communicate that kind of thing to squaddies."

Comedian and actor Patrick Wight said: "I would like to give it a go, but I would want to use humour to make it livelier while they would probably insist on doing this in a straight-laced way.

"But I think this is a completely bizarre idea. I don't see what's wrong with just telling them the rules and making it clear. I can't see this working."

'Soldiers' attract uniform reaction

The revelation that military personnel from RAF Wittering have been ordered not to wear uniform in public because of increasing verbal abuse has detonated a political bombshell.

We kitted up students Evan Beswick and Paris Gourtsoyannis in full army gear to brave the streets of Scotland's capital.

"Almost as soon as we 'joined up', a curious pensioner marched up to us and demanded to know where we were being shipped out to. When we told him our posting was no further than 'around Edinburgh' he seemed relieved.

"As we walked up Leith Walk and down the Grassmarket we attracted numerous glances, but none seemed to be negative or aggressive.

"We were left with the impression that, in Edinburgh at least, most people seem content to judge servicemen and women in uniform by their behaviour and not according to their political beliefs."

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