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Service Pay and Conditions

Volume 477: debated on Monday 16 June 2008

A number of measures have been implemented to improve armed forces pay and conditions, including a 2.6 per cent. pay rise, along with a 1 per cent. increase in the X factor component of basic pay from 1 April this year. The operational allowance, introduced in October 2006, now stands at £2,380 for a six-month deployment. Recent enhancements to the wider remuneration package include the council tax relief scheme announced in September 2007, increased separation allowances and financial retention initiatives.

I note the Minister’s response, but what relationship does he believe exists in our armed forces between pay and conditions on the one hand, and recruitment and retention on the other?

A variety of factors affect recruitment and retention. Currently, the good thing is that recruitment is up, and retention, certainly in terms of outflow, is broadly similar to what it has been in recent years. We always face challenges and we always look at various initiatives to deal with them. For instance, we obviously take advice from the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and we have implemented its recommendations, but we continue to look at what more we can do to improve the pay and conditions of our armed forces.

My hon. Friend will recognise that it is very important that we get pay and conditions right because that helps with retention. Can he also ensure that we help forces personnel to get on to the property ladder by helping them with deposits and in other ways so that they can have their own properties for the sake of their long-term interests?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very keen to help our armed forces personnel to get the opportunity to acquire property and to buy equity in property, and we are considering a number of ways in which we can do that. As a result of the 2008 pay review, my right hon. Friend announced money for that purpose this year and for future years. At this stage we are working on the relevant plans; of course, when we have something further to say we will do so.

I am grateful to colleagues.

Is the Minister aware that one aspect of conditions causing concern to commanders is the lack of rehabilitation facilities for men and women who have been injured physically or mentally? Is he aware that the Royal hospital, Haslar, is ideally suited to provide such rehabilitation facilities, and will he work with charities and others who are striving to develop those facilities?

The hon. Gentleman, who is a great defender of Haslar hospital, has done a lot of work over the years on the issue, and I recognise that he feels very strongly about it. However, I do not recognise his viewpoint as regards rehabilitation. Only a few weeks ago, we announced a £24 million investment in Headley Court, which is our main rehabilitation centre. I think that everyone accepts that it is doing remarkable work in rehabilitating and helping our injured service personnel. In many cases that care now means that they can stay in the service and not necessarily leave. We also have a regional group of rehabilitation centres providing world-class treatment and support. We are continuing to invest in rehabilitation for our armed forces personnel to ensure that they get the best possible care and treatment.

Would my hon. Friend accept my condolences, along with those of others, not only for those who have recently so tragically died in Afghanistan but for all those who have fallen in the service of this country, and will he recognise the courage that they have shown in their activities? Does he accept that the role of a member of our armed forces is unique? Unlike any other public sector servant, our servicemen and women promise, by contract, to serve even until death. The public therefore need to be reassured that the remuneration that we are giving to those young men and women is adequate to the sacrifice that they are prepared to make. Some misleading comments have been made over the past month or two. Is he in a position to tell us about the value of packages available to soldiers serving, say, in Afghanistan so that we can cut through some of those stories and the public can be told what is the very minimum that is paid to a young soldier in Afghanistan?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the remuneration of our armed forces personnel. Of course, we set a high store by that. That is why we have accepted the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendations in full—I must stress that to the House. In the case of a newly trained private who is going to Afghanistan, if we take into account certain benefits that they might receive, such as the operational allowance and the separation allowance, and the excellent contribution made by the very good pension scheme, the package can amount to about £25,000. It will depend on which pay scale they are on and will increase accordingly, but that is roughly what one of our most junior privates would get on coming out of training. Let me add that last year we recognised that there was an issue with pay for the most junior ranks and increased their pay by the best pay award in the public sector—over 9 per cent.

Yes, but it was not funded, was it?

On Saturday morning, I attended the latest welcome home parade for the crews of the Chinooks that are coming back from Afghanistan. Those personnel are over there on a regular, rolling basis. The people of Odiham showed a huge degree of appreciation for the wonderful work of those men and women. I was not able to speak to them all because they were lining the streets three deep to welcome home those members of the armed forces, and others, but those to whom I did speak agreed unanimously with the remarks of the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, who says that we need to have a debate about the priority that we give to our armed forces. The work that those people are doing is second to none. Does the Minister agree?

Our armed forces are absolutely outstanding—I think that they are the best in the world. Like my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Armed Forces, I have visited our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seen what they do, and they undertake quite an amazing job. It is important when looking at pay and conditions that we take a strong view about how we pay and remunerate our armed forces, which is why the Armed Forces Pay Review Body is independent. It goes all around the world, talking to armed forces personnel and their families. I was in Cyprus just a few weeks ago after its representatives visited to talk to families there about remuneration and the conditions of service package. We have implemented those recommendations in full.

Is it not a source of concern to the Minister when senior military personnel say:

“A friend of mine told me that a survey done in his battalion in the past couple of weeks found that 58 per cent. of them were unhappy with their pay—that gives an idea of the levels of frustration amongst ordinary soldiers.”

Does that not concern the Minister?

I do not think that anyone is in the position to say, “If asked if they would like more pay, most people would say no.” I understand the concerns, but having spoken to service personnel over the past two years about pay awards, the feedback I have got has been positive, particularly from chiefs of staff. The chiefs’ aspirations are the same as those of Ministers—to ensure that we get the best possible pay awards for our armed forces personnel. I stress to the House that we accepted in full the recommendations of the independent pay review board.

Of course, the question is much wider than one of pay, which is why we are spending £8.4 billion over the next 10 years to improve a lot of service family accommodation. We are trying to put right decades of neglect. We also have world-class medical services for our injured service personnel, whether in Selly Oak, in the field hospitals in Iraq or Afghanistan or back at the rehabilitation centres. We are ensuring that our armed forces personnel are given a range of support.

It was a very serious matter for the Chief of the General Staff to express his continuing concern at the level of pay for our front-line forces. Is he mistaken in his view; otherwise, why is the Minister so complacent about the level of pay?

I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I am not complacent about the level of pay. I have clearly stressed that we have an independent review body, and we accepted its recommendations in full. Additionally, we introduced an operational allowance, the separation allowance has been increased, we have introduced a council tax rebate and we are looking at what else we can do. The pay review body talks to armed forces personnel and their families around the world to get their view of conditions. The Chief of the General Staff and the other chiefs want to see further improvements and so does this ministerial team. I know for a fact that when I spoke to the Chief of the General Staff, he was pleased about the increase given this year.