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Armed Forces (Federation)

Volume 461: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a Federation for the Armed Forces; and for connected purposes.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill today. Last year, I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill. During consideration in Committee, I moved new clause 23, which would have established the formation of an armed forces federation open to serving and retired members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, both regular and reserve. I have to say that I was neither surprised nor disappointed that the new clause was not accepted, but our consideration of it allowed the Committee to discuss the issues surrounding it.

I now believe that there is a groundswell of opinion among the public as well as among members of the armed forces that it is time that those members should have an independent voice to represent their interests. Recent controversies surrounding accommodation, the treatment given in medical facilities to injured personnel returning from Iraq—and, of course, the scandal at Deepcut—have highlighted the increasing need for members of the armed forces to have an independent voice and to ensure that it is heard.

There is also increasing evidence that members of Her Majesty’s armed forces need to have access to independent legal advice. In the previous Parliament, I also served on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004. It was clear from those deliberations that members of Her Majesty’s armed services needed independent employment advice and advice about their pensions.

I propose not a trade union but a federation along the lines of the Police Federation. I want to build on the excellent work already done by the British Armed Forces Federation, which was set up in 2006, has recently been incorporated as a company limited by guarantee, and is now recruiting members. The work of Douglas Young and his team at the BAFF has been important in raising awareness of such issues among members of the armed forces. The Bill would put the federation on a formal recognised footing with the Ministry of Defence.

The aim of the Bill is to encompass the 10-point plan put forward by the BAFF, which states:

“The federation’s mission shall be to represent, foster and promote the professional welfare, and other legitimate interests of all members of the federation in their capacity as serving or retired personnel of the fighting services of the United Kingdom”.

That will help to maximise the operational efficiency of our armed forces and improve retention and training.

The activities of the federation would cover five main areas: first, professional and career development through the provision of education and information; secondly, liaison, monitoring and response to proposals or developments within the armed forces and in Parliament, and the provision of services in the public or commercial sector for armed forces personnel; thirdly, advocacy and consultation to protect and improve the conditions of service life, including pay, accommodation, medical and welfare services, resettlement packages and all other areas of support for armed forces personnel and their families; fourthly, support to personnel facing court martial or other legal proceedings in connection with their service; and finally, negotiation of commercial benefits for armed forces personnel and their families.

It is important that the federation is seen to be independent, and is not beholden to any political party, pressure group or defence interest. While the federation needs robust and adequate funding, it is important that it is not seen as just another pressure group for defence interests. The federation will not take a view on defence strategy or operational decisions, although it may raise individual, legitimate concerns affecting its members.

To clarify, I reiterate that the federation will not be a trade union for the armed forces. It will not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination within the armed forces. The federation will seek to work with the Ministry of Defence to put in place a form of understanding that could deal with such issues. It will also recognise the importance of the chain of command. If we look at the BAFF’s website, we see that it clearly reinforces the point that the chain of command is to be recognised, not overridden.

The proposal might be seen as radical and dangerous by certain members of the armed forces, and possibly by some Opposition Members. But may I point out that many other nations, including the United States and Australia, already have such federations, which have the support of the military command in those countries? The proposal, however, is not to copy those, but to bring forward a British solution for the British armed forces. It will reflect the ethos and robust traditions of the three fighting services, but it will also meet the requirements of men and women who are serving in our armed forces.

The best example that I can give is that of the Armed Forces Federation of Australia. It is an independent voice on pay and allowances and represents members of the armed forces on employment issues. It also gives legal advice, financial assistance and advice, and allows for discounts and savings schemes nationally for all members of the Australian armed forces. The federation is controlled and structured by its members and is independent of the Australian military, although it has the backing of senior military figures. In the introduction to its latest handbook, Air Chief Marshall Houston says:

“As an independent representative body for military personnel, I welcome the Federation’s continued contribution to the development of personnel policies for the ADF”.

He acknowledged the federation’s “ongoing commitment and contribution” to the Australian armed forces.

The Bill would not set up an armed forces federation; it already exists. Instead, it would allow the BAFF to be recognised by the Ministry of Defence and be valued for providing a voice for ordinary members of our armed forces. The BAFF has already stated that if legislation, such as this Bill, were introduced, it would look to work with the Government and stakeholders to develop the appropriate structures for the representation of members of our armed forces. The Bill provides just that opportunity, and I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. David Anderson, Mr. Iain Wright, David Wright, Helen Jones and Jim Sheridan.

Armed Forces (Federation)

Mr. Kevan Jones accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the establishment of a Federation for the Armed Forces; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 117].