I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I take this opportunity to wish Members on both sides of the House a very happy new year.
Before we start today’s debate, the House will want to pay tribute to Corporal Steven Dunn from 216 (Parachute) Signal Squadron, attached to 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment Battlegroup; Warrant Officer Charles Wood from 23 Pioneer Regiment Royal Logistic Corps; and, from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Private Joseva Vatubua, who all died following actions in Afghanistan. My thoughts and prayers, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with their families and friends at this very distressing time for them.
The Ministry of Defence usually brings forward an armed forces Bill once every five years, so this is a relatively rare parliamentary occasion for the Department. Many of us who have been involved with defence for some time remember the last Armed Forces Bill, now the Armed Forces Act 2006, which established a single system of service law for the first time. Hon. Members will remember that it was a very large Bill. I remember it well, as Second Reading was three days after my appointment as shadow Defence Secretary and I spent three frantic days coming to terms with its complexity. Feedback from the services following its implementation has confirmed that it was a good Bill and is proving a good Act in practice. I pay tribute to those on both sides of the House who worked on the Bill through its long and difficult process and helped to introduce the changes that have made it so successful.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this Bill is considerably smaller. In its own way, however, it too is an important piece of legislation. It continues a series of armed forces Bills that stretch back to the Bill of Rights of 1689, which enacted that the keeping of an Army in time of peace shall be against the law
“unless it be with consent of Parliament”.
So one of the Bill’s most important functions is providing the legal basis for the armed forces to continue to exist.
As the Ministry of Defence normally has a Bill only every five years, there is a tendency to aggregate proposals that require primary legislation until the next one comes along. Consequently, armed forces Bills sometimes cover a much wider range of topics than service discipline, which is traditionally the main subject. The Bill is an instance of that practice. It contains eight main groups of clauses.
The first group of clauses deals with renewal, and the second with the armed forces covenant. I will speak about those groups in a few moments. The third group covers the service police forces and the Ministry of Defence police. The fourth relates to powers of entry, search and seizure. The fifth provides for testing service personnel, in specified circumstances, for alcohol and drugs. The sixth relates to punishments and other court orders. The seventh makes a small number of changes to the Armed Forces Act 2006. The eighth makes amendments and repeals other primary legislation.
The Secretary of State knows that there are no provisions to deal with the closure or realignment of military facilities, which are currently considered by the Ministry of Defence, in secret, or to support communities after bases are closed. In contrast, the United States, through legislation, has a transparent process, which is managed by a commission. There is a vote on Capitol hill, and an agency that helps communities that are affected by closures and realignment. Why does the UK not emulate that? Will the Government consider including provisions to achieve that in the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman well knows that the Government are examining basing, and will report to Parliament in due course. I believe that it is not a matter for the Bill.
Clause 1 provides for renewal of the legislation, which would otherwise expire in November. It allows the legislation to be renewed each year through an Order in Council, which must be debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament. However, the clause also provides that renewal by Order in Council may be done for a maximum of only five years, after which the Act must once again be renewed by primary legislation. The effect is that the legislation governing the armed forces will expire no later than 2016, unless it is renewed before then by primary legislation. That rightly provides for parliamentary scrutiny. In effect, it is the mechanism whereby parliamentary control over our armed forces is exercised.
I wish to focus on four topics: the armed forces covenant; the independence of the service police forces; testing for drugs and alcohol, and the appointment of civilian prosecutors. I believe that they are likely to be the subjects of greatest interest to hon. Members during the Bill’s passage.
I should like to begin with the clause that refers to the armed forces covenant. Since coming to office, the coalition Government have confirmed their commitment to rebuilding the covenant, to do the right thing by the men and women who have joined our armed forces, today and in the past, together with their families.
I thank the Secretary of State for his recent visit to 16th Air Assault Brigade in Helmand province and for his generous words there and on his return.
The Secretary of State will know that I put a question to the Prime Minister only a few weeks ago about whether it was fair for war widows to pay tax on their war widows’ pensions. Will that requirement be removed as part of the covenant?
No, not as part of the Bill. However, while the Bill sets out the framework for the covenant, there are ample opportunities in Parliament to change any of the rules and regulations that relate to the armed forces in several ways, through the usual procedures available to the House.
As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken of the Government’s desire to enshrine the covenant in law. We have been considering the best way to do that. Our starting point is that the armed forces covenant is fundamentally a moral obligation on the Government, the nation and the armed forces. It is an agreement between the armed forces and the whole nation, not just the Government. It can never be defined by a host of rules and regulations, designed to tell everyone exactly what to do in every circumstance. Certainly, as I have just said to my hon. Friend, when rules need to be changed, we will do so. However, generally the people of this country know how service personnel should be treated, and our task is to create the right framework for that to happen.
The Secretary of State will know that I entirely agree with him about the moral imperative behind the covenant. Some 9% of the armed forces personnel come from Wales, yet only 2% of the armed forces personnel are based in Wales, and that is one of the things that makes it more difficult to have continuity of care for those people once they have left the armed forces. Will the Secretary of State look carefully at basing more of the armed forces personnel in Wales so that that continuity can be maintained, and how will he ensure that the relationship with the Welsh Assembly Government, who have responsibility for health care, education and housing, is maintained?
I will come on to the issue of the devolved bodies in a moment, but the hon. Gentleman is trying to get me on to the basing debate again. The primary duty of the Government is to ensure that the armed forces are laid out across the United Kingdom in the way that is most beneficial to the defence of the country. However, if the hon. Gentleman is looking for a champion of the cause of the armed forces being tied to the whole concept of the Union, he does not have to look much further. I believe that as we have units that represent the whole of the United Kingdom, we should look, where possible, to ensure that we have basing across the whole of the United Kingdom; but, as I say, the primary responsibility of the Government is to ensure that bases are allocated in a way that makes the greatest sense in terms of the wider defence of the country.
The armed forces covenant is of such importance that it needs to be brought properly to the attention of Parliament. We propose to do this not through long and complex legislation, but through the mechanism of an annual forces covenant report. The relevant clause in the Bill will require me to lay a report before the House every year on the effects that membership of the armed forces has on service people. I have no doubt that the House will wish to take notice of that annual report and undertake whatever scrutiny it considers appropriate.
During evidence-taking with the Howard League for Penal Reform, one ex-chief of the armed forces suggested it might be a good idea if there were a Minister within the Cabinet Office with cross-cutting responsibilities dealing with veterans, because the issues involved here are far broader than health, education and so forth. Will the Government consider that at some point?
The Government are certainly considering better cross-departmental working on these issues. To be fair to the previous Government, they did begin some of this work to see how there could be better co-ordination across Whitehall. We have a number of pieces of work under way, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), looking at how we can better co-ordinate what is happening in health and social services, for example, with what the Ministry of Defence intends to do. The hon. Gentleman is proposing the same end as that which we seek, but the means by which we achieve it may be open to some debate between us.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Royal British Legion has written to some, if not all, Members about its concerns about the process he is putting in place. When we undertook the service personnel Command Paper, we were anxious not only to improve the relationship between the armed forces and different Government Departments, but to put in place a mechanism that made sure that that did not fall into disrepair and that the situation was independently updated. The RBL is worried that the mechanism the Secretary of State is proposing effectively takes over from that, and does away with the independent reporting mechanism brought in by the Command Paper for the reference group to report on an annual and a five-yearly basis on the need for improvements to what we might call the covenant. Will the Secretary of State respond to that, because it is of concern to the British Legion as well as to me?
I believe the concerns set out in the letter from the British Legion that all Members will have received are unfounded. We intend to build on that independence in respect of the external reference group, and I will be happy to discuss exactly how that will feed into the new process with the British Legion throughout the passage of the legislation. We all want the same thing: we all want there to be proper scrutiny of what Government, across the whole of government, do in terms of our service personnel. I hope we can maintain that independent element, and we can discuss with the British Legion how that feeds into the report that will ultimately come to this House. I am very open-minded about how we do that, but I do want to maintain this element of independent reporting so that when the House receives the report from the Secretary of State it is able to access as much information as possible not just from the Government, but externally sourced as well. I think that any belief that seems to have come from the legion on that is misplaced. The Government intend to be as open as possible during the entire process, and will certainly be happy to discuss the matter during subsequent stages of the Bill, and to discuss with the bodies involved how we can best make this happen.
While we are on the subject of cross-departmental responsibilities, will my right hon. Friend say a word, in particular, about mental health issues, about which I know he is concerned? I believe that I am right in saying that the average time for serious post-traumatic mental health issues to emerge is about 14 years after leaving the service, which inevitably means that Departments other than his own will have to be involved in care and welfare. Does he have any observations to make on that?
I would like gently to correct my hon. Friend’s statistics: complex post-traumatic stress disorder can emerge up to 14 years afterwards; 14 is not the average figure, and in fact it is often much earlier than that. However, he is correct that there is a time spectrum involved here, which is why it is essential that we have in place mechanisms to deal not only with those who present acutely, but with those who present at a much later date. We shall be undertaking further work and research to ensure that the mechanisms we put in place to deal with that are fully informed by the objective evidence of the science of the day.
I reiterate what I have said in the House before: we are seeing a modest increase in the number of cases of PTSD. We have seen them related to conflicts as long ago as the Falklands; we have seen them from the Gulf war; and we are bound to see them from Iraq and Afghanistan, and if we are not able to deal with those issues and put in place the mechanisms for dealing with them adequately, we will let down not only those who have put themselves at risk for our country’s security, but the country itself. As I said before, I believe that still in this country mental health is too much of a Cinderella service in health care in general. We must not allow that to happen in the armed forces, especially for those who have been willing to sacrifice themselves for us.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being characteristically generous in doing so. He will be aware that the Bill places upon him a duty to lay a report before the House of Commons on health care, education and housing, and that he has a discretion to go beyond those topics—that is expressly provided for. In view of what he has just said about health care being a Cinderella subject, would it not be appropriate to put it in the Bill as a topic upon which he has a duty, like other duties, to report in express terms to the House?
It is clear that the Government intend such a report to include health care, housing and education. However, my right hon. and learned Friend will not be surprised to hear that I would happily be tempted into other areas within the discretion that the Bill allows. That is an absolute minimum. The country would expect us to look at wider and interrelated issues, if we are to offer the degree of scrutiny that the House and the country would want on this subject.
Clause 2 provides for what the Secretary of State must cover in his report, and as my right hon. and learned Friend said, effects on health care, education and housing will normally be addressed in it. There are perennial issues that I believe will always be important to the service and ex-service community, and those are among the foremost. Other issues will emerge at the time, so the Bill provides for flexibility, and I will want to consider other issues as they emerge.
There is also the question about who is covered in the Bill. The Bill refers to a broad span of people. The total number of serving and former personnel and their families is about 10 million—one in six of the population of this country. For ex-service personnel, the Bill specifies an interest in those who are resident in the UK. Again, that does not prevent a Secretary of State from covering relevant issues for those who live abroad, although many aspects of their lives would be matters for their own Governments.
The Bill—rightly in the Government’s view—says little about how the annual report will be prepared, but as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), we intend to consult widely and to ensure that there is rigour and independence in the information that is ultimately put before the House through the Secretary of State’s report. My intention, as Defence Secretary, will therefore be to consult widely with interested parties, inside and outside Government, in preparing a report. Charities and devolved Administrations will have much to contribute, as too, no doubt, will Members of the House of Commons.
I also believe, however, that the report will evolve over time. We are breaking new ground, and we will learn from experience, listen to comments and move forward together in a positive way. I am clear that that is the right way to proceed, rather than making the legislation excessively prescriptive.
The Bill also contains a group of clauses that will further buttress the independence and effectiveness of service police investigations. I am delighted that shortly before Christmas the High Court gave a strong endorsement of the ability of the service police to investigate, under the Armed Forces Act 2006, the most serious allegations. Nevertheless, we want to be sure that the independence and effectiveness of service police investigations have all the safeguards we can reasonably provide.
The first clause in the group places on each of the three provost marshals—the heads of the service police forces—a duty to ensure that service police investigations are carried out free from improper interference. The second clause provides for the service police to be inspected by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. The inspectorate has previously inspected the service police on a voluntary basis, but the clause places an obligation on it to carry out inspections of the service police and lay its reports before Parliament. The third clause provides that the three provost marshals will in future be appointed to their positions by Her Majesty the Queen. Once again, that recognises and reinforces their independence from the service chains of command when carrying out investigations. In making these changes, we seek to ensure that the service police will continue to carry out to the highest standards their role as a part of the armed forces but one that is independent of the main chains of command, and I believe that the provisions in the Bill will do just that.
Given the harmonisation of military law across the three services, does the Secretary of State feel that perhaps the time has come to be bolder? Why do we still need three separate police forces within the armed forces? Why can we not have one military police force, given that all these forces now undertake training together?
I know that this issue was examined by the previous Government, as it has been by this Government. The view that has been taken is that because there are differences between the three services this approach is culturally the best way to go about things. If my hon. Friend has very strong views on this, I am sure that he will be willing to bring them to the House, perhaps in the form of an amendment, during the passage of the Bill. That would give us a chance to debate the merits and demerits of this approach further. There are undoubtedly arguments on both sides and the Government have just decided that, out of due respect for the differences between the services, this was the best way for us to continue to proceed.
Other provisions in the Bill introduce a new regime under which service personnel commit an offence if they exceed an alcohol limit while carrying out certain duties. The limits and duties will be prescribed in regulations subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses. The Bill also contains provisions allowing commanding officers the flexibility to test on a case-by-case basis in two circumstances. One is where they have reasonable cause to believe that a service person’s ability to carry out a prescribed duty is impaired due to drugs or alcohol. The other is where they have reasonable cause to believe that such a person is in breach of a limit on alcohol specified in regulations in relation to particular duties.
The main reason behind those changes is to increase safety and to act as a deterrent, and I wish to explain to the House why that is. When Parliament approved the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 and regulations were made under it, the provisions were not extended to the services because they were considered to be too restrictive, given that so many service personnel are engaged in potentially dangerous activities in the course of their employment. That exemption had wide cross-party support at the time. Against that background, the then Government gave an undertaking that a bespoke scheme would be created for the armed forces. Policy development was too immature for proposals to be included in the last Armed Forces Bill and progress had since stalled due to a lack of a legislative vehicle, so I am pleased that such a scheme is included in this Bill. The provisions in this group are important, because they are aimed at creating a safer environment when service personnel are carrying out safety-critical tasks in the course of their employment, both generally and when on operations. Rather than limiting commanding officers to acting after an incident has taken place, as happens at present, the changes in the Bill will allow commanding officers also to act earlier in the future. One of the concerns that I expressed during the passage of the previous Bill was that it might reduce the freedom and discretion of commanding officers. A number of changes in this Bill go to redress that in some way.
As a past commanding officer, I think that it is an extremely good thing that more power be given back to commanding officers, including discretionary power. I think particularly of warrant officers who offend. It has been mandatory to reduce such officers to the ranks, but if they have done 20 years in the armed forces, that will have a deep effect on their pensions, for example. Therefore, this is a good change to the Armed Forces Act 2006 and I congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. The change that he refers to will not only give discretion but provide a sense of proportion and justice in dealing with such issues. The idea of a draconian, one-size-fits-all punishment is not in line with the traditions of this country or the armed forces. This is a sensible change that will command support on both sides of the House.
At present, the Director of Service Prosecutions is allowed under the Armed Forces Act to delegate his functions only to legally qualified service officers. As a result, the prosecuting staff at the Service Prosecuting Authority are all service lawyers. Given the small number of service lawyers and the competing pressure on them, the Director of Service Prosecutions has asked for a provision to be added to the Bill to allow civilian lawyers to be appointed to posts in the Service Prosecuting Authority.
The burden of the cases referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions and the complexity of those cases may continue to increase. The service police continue to investigate allegations of serious criminal offences, including sexual offences, fraud and computer-based crime; and allegations arising out of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decisions taken to prosecute or not to prosecute, especially those cases where there is an operational context, are often finely balanced and involve difficult prosecution decisions.
The change is being made as a reasonable precaution to allow the Director of Service Prosecutions the flexibility to appoint civilian prosecutors. That will be done only if it becomes necessary in order to ensure that the Service Prosecuting Authority continues to have access to an adequate number of prosecutors with the necessary professional skills. All those involved greatly value the benefits of Service Prosecuting Authority lawyers being current serving officers. There is no intention to move to a completely civilian authority.
The Director of Service Prosecutions acts independently of my Department and comes under the general superintendence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. It would be for him to decide if such a change were needed. There has been an exchange between my Department and the Attorney-General setting out the circumstances in which the provision would be brought into force. As part of that, it is clear that there would be consultation between our two Departments before any action were taken.
I believe that our Armed Forces are among the best, if not the best, in the world. One of the reasons that they are so good is that they conduct themselves with great discipline. It is something for which our armed forces have a deserved reputation throughout the world. The Bill helps to underpin that discipline. It will ensure that our armed forces continue to have a fair and modern system of service justice that underpins the operational effectiveness of which we are all in the House rightly proud. I commend the Bill to the House.
I join the Secretary of State in wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and the whole House a happy and healthy 2011.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in today’s debate on the Bill. The Armed Forces Act 2006 was a watershed for the military disciplinary system and I am glad to have the opportunity to renew and improve it through this Bill. Before I do so, I want to do what the Secretary of State rightly did and make a comment or two about Afghanistan.
As we gather after the new year recess, during which we enjoyed the company of and time with our families and loved ones, it is a time for us to remember how fortunate we are for the peaceful lives that we and, for the most part, our constituents lead and to reflect on the sacrifices that others make on our behalf to enable us to enjoy the opportunities that we do. Upwards of 10,000 men and women serving in Afghanistan did not spend Christmas with their families but, rather, stood up against an enemy that wishes to destroy all that we hold dear. The whole House will rightly thank them and send them our deepest and best wishes.
Tragically, for some families that absence is now permanent. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have died in the service of our country over the Christmas and new year period: Private Joseva Vatubua of 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland; Warrant Officer Charles Wood of 23 Pioneer Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps; Corporal Steven Dunn from 216 (Parachute) Signal Squadron, attached to 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment Battlegroup; and Private John Howard from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. Their patriotism, courage and dedication are unsurpassed. They will always be remembered by their friends and family and should never be forgotten by this House.
On Afghanistan, I want to say to this House, our forces and, importantly, our enemies that the Government will always have the support of the Opposition when they do the right thing to support our service personnel. We will continue to conduct debates on Afghanistan, in particular, in a spirit of comradeship, for that is in the national interest above all party interest.
The Armed Forces Bill is important and I am glad to have the opportunity to debate the issues that arise from it. The 2006 Act consolidated and modernised all the previous service discipline Acts and replaced them with a single system of service law that amounted to a complete overhaul of legislation on military law and service discipline. The Bill is, as the Secretary of State said, an important continuation of that Act that makes some modest but sensible changes.
The Bill’s contents concern the welfare, well-being and management of our service personnel. The previous Government had a strong record in that area, not just because of the introduction of the 2006 Act but because we ensured that forces’ pay increases were among the highest in the public sector, invested in accommodation and rehabilitation facilities and increased access to the NHS for dependants. The previous Government also published the service personnel Command Paper in 2008—the first cross-Government strategy on the welfare of armed forces personnel. That doubled compensation payments for the most serious injuries, doubled the welfare grant for the families of those on operations, gave better access to housing schemes and health care, offered free access to further education for service leavers with six years’ service and ensured more telephone and internet access for those deployed in Afghanistan.
I acknowledge that the previous Government did a tremendous amount for the armed forces, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that even after 13 years of Labour Government there is still a long way to go to bring much of the married housing accommodation for our brave soldiers—and presumably for airmen and naval personnel, but I am talking about the Army—up to an acceptable living standard?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and the tone in which he makes it is above partisanship or politics. There is a constant pressure on all Governments to ensure that the families of the remarkable men and women whom we often vote to put in harm’s way are properly looked after here at home. I would encourage him—perhaps gently—to reflect on whether the Government that he so strongly supports, on most occasions, are putting the nation’s money where his mouth is. He has raised an important point and I know that Ministers will consider it. Ministers will be judged on their record on that matter.
The Bill is part of a wider body of work that seeks to ensure that the men and women who give awe-inspiring service and provide security not just in the UK but for all those they protect abroad can do their job to the highest order with the recognition they rightly deserve. It is right that the service police should have the powers they need and I welcome the increased powers passed to them in the Bill. I welcome, in particular, the provision on access to excluded material, which is essential in allowing successful investigations. It is also correct that we have proper checks and balances on the work of the service police, so I welcome the additional powers for Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to inspect their work. The Bill includes provisions to strengthen the structural independence of the police and to introduce a provost marshal to ensure that investigations are free from improper interference, which is an important development. The Bill also makes important changes to the service justice system, in particular by ensuring that service police disciplinary systems are compatible with and complementary to the European convention on human rights.
The Bill will make the lives of service personnel and civilians safer through the introduction of service sexual offences prevention orders to protect members of the service community outside the United Kingdom. I also welcome moves to strengthen the independence and impartiality of service complaints procedures as well as moves to update regulations to protect prisoners of war detained by UK forces.
I have a number of questions relating to the Bill and to the Government’s record on the military covenant to date, and I look forward to hearing the Minister answer some of them in his winding-up speech. Before the election, the Opposition said that repairing the broken military covenant was long overdue. Surely I am not the only one who now believes that there is a dramatic mismatch between this Government’s pre-election words and their post-election actions; the difference between the rhetoric and the reality is striking.
In October last year, the Secretary of State said that he would rebuild the military covenant, so, with a spring in his step, he launched a taskforce, which reported in December to much fanfare. He committed to taking forward two recommendations: first, that there should be an armed forces community covenant, encouraging volunteers to support their local forces; and, secondly, that there should be a commendation scheme to thank individuals or bodies that support the forces. As measures that the Secretary of State has claimed will strengthen the bonds between this country and the armed forces, they are worthy in name but not sufficient in action. No one who is serious about the military covenant considers those proposals to be substantive.
Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore, who is chairman of the Forces Pension Society, has described the taskforce’s proposals as:
“Incredibly wet and feeble. All flute music and arm waving”.
I am sorry that the shadow Secretary of State is introducing a partisan note into this debate. As he has done so, however, does he agree that the introduction of plans for university scholarships for the children of armed services personnel who are killed in action is welcome, particularly in the light of certain changes to university charges on which he and I probably agree?
The hon. Gentleman is usually very fair in these debates, and I think he will acknowledge that I have already welcomed six or seven of the measures in the Bill in my speech. There is nothing wrong with echoing the comments of Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore, chairman of the Forces Pension Society, who has criticised the Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to criticise Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his consensuality, which I, as a service pensioner, welcome. Will he not recognise in his remarks, which are becoming a little partisan, that this Government doubled the operational allowance within days of the general election? I assume that he welcomed that.
I think that the hon. Gentleman called me the Secretary of State; of course, I am the shadow Secretary of State, but I am sure that will be corrected by Hansard. There are measures that we welcome, some of which I have alluded to already; I shall discuss some of the others later and will give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to intervene at that point if he wishes.
The Conservative manifesto pledged to ensure that our armed forces, their families and our veterans are properly taken care of, but the taskforce was tasked with finding
“innovative, low-cost policy ideas.”
It is difficult for any Government to find the right support for our armed forces on the cheap, without necessary and adequate funding. They have not yet responded to the work of the taskforce.
Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that the efforts and changes to maximise rest and recuperation for deployed personnel should be greatly welcomed? That issue has arisen in the past and the new Ministry has made great efforts to make improvements.
The shadow Secretary of State asks why, seven months into government, we have not made more progress, but the previous Government left behind debt equivalent to £16,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. The interest on the deficit is greater than the defence budget for this year and the economic position is a strategic liability, so there is no point in the Opposition adopting a high moral tone—he was a member of the Cabinet who left us in this drastic economic position. He might consider his own culpability for our being in a position that makes it more difficult for us to achieve many of the things we want.
There we have it, Madam Deputy Speaker —the right hon. Gentleman advocates such a timid Bill because the cuts that he is determined to make in the Ministry of Defence will not allow him to achieve his ambition. I can do nothing more than quote again Sir Michael Moore, the chair of the Forces Pension Society, who said:
“I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly.”
The right hon. Gentleman’s thesis seems to be that we are not going far enough in repairing the damage to the military covenant. Does he remember the moment in 2007, shortly after Lord Guthrie resigned as Chief of the Defence Staff under his Ministry, when Lord Guthrie said in the House of Lords that he could not remember a Government ever having been so bad at keeping their side of the bargain and honouring the military covenant? The covenant was wrecked under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government and we are taking steps to put it right; surely he should acknowledge that.
We introduced the first cross-Government strategy on the welfare of the armed forces, we doubled compensation payments for the most seriously injured, we doubled the welfare grant for those in operation and we gave better access to housing schemes and health care. If the hon. Gentleman’s point is that Governments can and should always try to do more, of course that is the case, but it is difficult for him both to demand that Labour should have done more when in power and defend the level of his Government’s cuts. Those contradictory positions cannot be achieved in one intervention.
As we have descended into being a little partisan, let me ask whether my right hon. Friend remembers that as well as doubling the up-front payment for compensation, we introduced, through the auspices of Admiral Boyce, further improvements in the compensation scheme. One of the improvements that I was most concerned to secure was an increase above the rate of inflation for soldiers who were injured early in life, and therefore before their career had developed, to compensate them for the development that they would inevitably have made. However, the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index will take that money back from the very people who have benefited from the improvements that Admiral Boyce brought in on our behalf.
My right hon. Friend, a former Secretary of State for Defence, is rightly proud of the work that he did on the review, and of the way in which an effort was made to ensure that the families of those in the armed forces on the lowest pay had the in-built protection that if the worst happened to their loved one they would not be expected to live on very meagre support for decades. He should be eternally proud of the fact that such measures were introduced. I can only hope that as the Government take forward their proposals, those measures are protected, but there is strong doubt about that.
The fact is that, in previous years, in very difficult circumstances, the support available to our armed forces increased year on year—through pay, pensions and improvements in housing, health care and much else besides. If the hon. Gentleman’s challenge is that we did not do enough, of course there is always a challenge to do more, but it is difficult to demand that we should have done more to support the proposals that he is supporting today. He has to be a fiscal hawk or a fiscal dove on these issues; he cannot be both in the same intervention.
I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will not complain too much if I chide him a little for giving the impression that the morale of the armed forces has been dealt with in the way that Sir Michael Moore indicated. My regular contact with the armed forces is with RAF Leuchars, about which, as the shadow Secretary of State knows, there has been some unwelcome speculation. The professionalism and the intensity of the training that is performed there is unmatched. In the past week or so, the first Typhoon aircraft was scrambled from RAF Leuchars so that it could fulfil its responsibilities under the quick reaction alert. One has to be very careful about translating the remarks of someone who has an obvious, though quite legitimate, interest into general comment and criticism of the armed forces.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a typically fair point in his own careful way. He is right to say that the constant challenge for politicians of all parties is how we support our armed forces and maintain their morale. My contention is that the Government have missed opportunities, and in Committee we will table amendments seeking further improvements to a Bill that makes sensible but modest improvements to our armed forces.
Does the shadow Secretary of State make the following connection, as I do? Perhaps only 32% of those in the armed forces felt valued because only 35%, as I understand it, felt that they had the right equipment in the field. Is it not important to ensure that our armed forces have appropriate equipment in the field?
There were record levels of investment and support provided, with regard to the kit and equipment of our armed forces in the field and in theatre. I say again that it is a constant challenge to get that equipment to them as quickly as we can, on cost and on budget. However, there is a wider issue that, if he was being fair, the hon. Gentleman would also have sought to address: the wider disconnect between the public and the military. Our nation is remarkably generous, particularly around Remembrance Sunday—in the weeks before it, and for some time after. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not take this as a partisan point, because it is not intended as such. We all have to reflect, as individuals, law makers and citizens, on how we ensure that that act of remembrance is not a Remembrance Sunday event, but an all-year-round event.
There is a wider issue about the level of connection and affiliation between our armed forces and our citizens at large. We are all in awe of our armed forces; if one asks any man or woman, or any young teenager in the street, one realises that they are in awe of the action that our armed forces take, but we can learn lessons from other nations, particularly now that our armed forces, after the horrors of the greater violence in Northern Ireland, are able more regularly to wear their uniform in public. That is one important change that will increase awareness of our armed forces. There is an issue about the armed forces’ morale, but there is also a wider issue about public sentiment that we have to address.
My right hon. Friend rightly referred to the importance of remembrance. He is also right to identify the promises made by the then Conservative Opposition about veterans and their welfare. They said in their manifesto that they would sort out, in particular, the Christmas island veterans, who have been waiting for years and are still waiting for compensation.
As my hon. Friend knows, the previous Government offered a compensation deal. That was not resolved. The Government will rightly come forward with their own proposals. He and I will eagerly scrutinise the specifics of the proposals that the Government eventually produce.
I return to an issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the former Secretary of State, which is the subject of clause 2 —the annual publication of the armed forces covenant report. Although I strongly welcome the continuation of the previous Government’s plans to provide an annual report scrutinising the Government’s progress on implementing commitments to strengthen the covenant, it is troubling that responsibility for doing so has been moved from independent experts and into the political control of Ministers.
It is welcome that we will have a debate in the House on the military covenant, but that should not be at the expense of proper independent scrutiny. One of the innovations of 2008 was the impartial oversight of Government progress in strengthening the military covenant. The external reference group, comprising charities and civil servant experts, was established as an independent monitor of the Government’s implementation of the service Command Paper. This was vital in ensuring public confidence in our commitment to issues that transcend party politics.
It is peculiar and puzzling that the Government, who are committed to cuts in defence spending, now seem to have embarked on cuts in accountability in defence. [Interruption.] It is essential that the reports are independent, expert-led and above party politics. The Secretary of State is chuntering from a sedentary position. As he knows, the Royal British Legion has already raised concerns about the issue—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State says, with a cavalier swish of the hand, that he has already dealt with it. He has already spoken about it, but that is different from having dealt with it. The Royal British Legion should not be dismissed in such a cavalier way.
Ministers will have to work very hard to persuade anyone other than themselves that they are better placed than charities and experts, often comprising ex-service personnel and their families, to produce that report.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a very beneficial improvement that rather than merely independent organisations scrutinising such reports, the Secretary of State will annually place a report before the House for its scrutiny? That is an increase in ministerial accountability and in the power of Parliament. Surely he should welcome that.
I have already welcomed the report and the fact that there will be an annual debate, but I do not welcome the fact that the production of the report will be in the hands of Ministers, rather than independent experts. It is an issue about which the Royal British Legion feels strongly.
The right hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. Can he define “independent”? I have attended a meeting of the external reference group and found it to be anything but. It is certainly made up, in part, of independent individuals, but also largely of officials, who can in no way be said to be independent of the Government.
I do not think Madam Deputy Speaker would welcome an attempt by me to provide the House with a definition of independence, but the fact that the three armed forces families federations are on the expert group gives it authority, independence, clarity and sincerity that, with the best will in the world, the most capable and sincere Minister cannot of himself provide. It is important that that work is continued.
My most serious concerns are about the proposals on armed forces pensions. The Government plan to link forces pension rises permanently to the consumer prices index, rather than to the retail prices index. That is a serious misjudgment and an indictment of the Government’s claim to want to strengthen the military covenant. We are in no doubt that in the current climate there is a need for restraint in public sector pay and pensions, but that year-on-year change will disproportionately affect members of the armed forces and their dependants, who rely on their pensions at earlier ages than almost anyone else.
The impact of the proposed changes will be devastating. A 27-year-old corporal who has lost both his legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan will miss out on £500,000 in pension and benefit-related payments. War widows will also lose out enormously. The 34-year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan would, over her lifetime, be almost £750,000 worse off.
There can be only two possible justifications for that policy. First, Ministers think it right to reduce year on year the support to forces personnel and their dependants, and support the policy presumably because they consider the current support to be unfairly generous. The Secretary of State did not support the policy on that basis today, nor I suspect will any Government Back Bencher.
The second possible reason for this heartless policy is deficit reduction, but that argument does not add up either. The impact of the measures will be felt long after the deficit has been paid down and the economy has returned to growth. I ask Ministers today to commit to rethink the policy or, in the absence of a full rethink, and if they believe that it is part of their deficit reduction plan, to consider a time-limited measure during the period of deficit reduction and spending restraint. That would be a fairer approach. There is no logical reason why the bravest British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan should see their pensions reduced for the rest of their lives, or why war widows, who have had the person most special to them taken away, deserve to have taken away from them the support on which they so depend.
When challenged on the issue in November, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said:
“It is not possible to treat the armed forces differently from other public servants.”
I was aware of that, and the hon. Gentleman will continue to make his case on it to the Government, but, with respect, although my point today is about the same issue, it is a slightly different one. Those who say, as the MOD spokesman said in November, that it is not possible to treat armed forces personnel differently from other public servants show a woeful and deeply worrying lack of understanding and respect for the unique nature of military service.
Service personnel, as many of us know, can be required to work unlimited hours in excessively dangerous conditions with no prospect of overtime or a bonus; they can be imprisoned for failing to show up; living conditions can, understandably, be very tough; they are often separated from family and loved ones for many months at a time; they can be compelled to return even after they have retired; they forgo several political freedoms and contractual rights that others rightly enjoy; and, as we know, they are at risk of being killed or horribly maimed as a direct result and an unavoidable consequence of their service. Often their pension is the only serious, tangible financial compensation available to them, and no Government should ever claim that it is not possible to distinguish in favour of our armed forces.
I am a little confused. Was the shadow Secretary of State not a member of the Government who went to court to fight to reduce compensation payments to wounded British soldiers returning from Afghanistan? His litany of righteous indignation does not sit well with that, so will he take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of the previous Government for that disgraceful action?
I cannot help the fact that the hon. Gentleman is confused; that is for him to resolve. The point is that, as part of the Boyce review, we are committed to increasing some of those payments. He calls it righteous indignation, and I do not know whether that is his attempt to justify the policy that his Government are implementing, but I do not think that it is righteous indignation to say that, if someone at this very moment serving in Afghanistan finds themselves in harm’s way, their wife, at home with their children, should reasonably expect decent support.
Of course, but, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your understanding, I recognise that time is against us. I have taken numerous interventions and others wish to speak, but I wonder whether I can entice the hon. Gentleman, if he wishes, to support the Government’s proposal for that change to pensions.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. I certainly support the actions of the Government in doubling the operational allowance. If the right hon. Gentleman thought so highly of the forces when he was a member of the previous Administration, why was the operational allowance pitched at such a low level?
The hon. Gentleman has got to his feet again and failed again. All I am asking today is that the Government listen to the arguments being made by the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and the families’ federations, and think again about the policy. I acknowledge that I was partisan about the other issue of scrutiny—[Interruption.] I am really making an appeal to justice and the better spirit of Government Members. They should reflect again on this issue.
Have I correctly understood the figures that my right hon. Friend has just cited? Given what he has just said, I now believe that the changes that are about to be introduced to the way in which the pension is calculated will not only remove all the improvements made by the Boyce review but go further and lead to levels of compensation for young injured soldiers that are lower than they were before the Boyce review. That is the very thing that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) complained about in terms of the actions taken by the previous Government to keep the compensation scheme balanced. Is that right?
My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence has paid close attention to these matters. He has looked at these issues with great care. Given the analysis available, there is a strong case for the conclusion that the changes take us back to pre-Boyce levels.
The Secretary of State shakes his head. I invite him to correct the record if he wishes. [Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position that he has plenty of time to do so. I give him the time today. [Interruption.] He says, “Get on with it.” Even the Secretary of State will not rise to his feet to support his own policy.
The military covenant goes to the heart of the relationship between the military, society and the Government, as the Secretary of State rightly said. It should and will never be the exclusive property of one political party. However, no Government can cut the support to Afghan war widows and claim to be honouring the military covenant. The truth is that this is a Government of convenience, who, in taking money from Afghan war widows, have lost the courage of their conscience.
The Government’s actions are particularly hard to comprehend when one considers that in July 2009 the previous Government published a Green Paper entitled “The Nation’s Commitment to the Armed Forces Community”, in which some truly innovative proposals were made. I invite the Secretary of State to look again at that Green Paper to see which aspects of it can be included in this Bill. I am surprised that the Government have not sought to take forward those ideas, which would not just give real help to the forces community but continue to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to serving the interests of those who put their lives on the line. I urge the Government to look again at the proposals.
This debate is also an opportunity for the Government to confirm that they will look again at another of their recent proposals, which in my view is one of their most regrettable decisions—the decision to scrap the chief coroner’s office. That office would give families who have lost those closest to them, often in tragic, painful and extremely complex circumstances, the right to the best possible investigations and military inquests into the deaths. Last month’s decision by the Lords, by a significant majority, to save the chief coroner’s office gives the Government the opportunity to think again. They should listen not only to the House of Lords but to the Royal British Legion, and retain the chief coroner’s office.
Today’s debate is an opportunity to further the passage of a Bill that in general we support. It will make sensible and important changes to procedures that will ensure that our armed forces can perform to the highest standards and are effectively regulated. But it is also more than that. It is an opportunity for the Government to think again—not about Afghanistan, where they should and rightly will remain resolute, but about cuts to the independent scrutiny of the Government’s progress on the covenant, about matching their pre-election pledges to their post-election actions and about the introduction of permanent reductions in the support of those who serve our nation and their families. If they do think again, there will be a very warm welcome not only in this House but, much more importantly, in the houses of service families across our nation.
It is an honour and a privilege to contribute to the debate. I begin by declaring my interest as a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces and as a serving commissioned officer in the Territorial Army.
It is fascinating to consider the history of why we are discussing this matter today as it dates back to the 1688 Bill of Rights, under which it is effectively against the law to have a standing army without the consent of Parliament. Given that history, it is a particular honour to speak on the matter today. However, it is also an honour to do so as a member of the armed forces affected by this Bill. However, because it sits uncomfortably with some that members of the regular armed forces are not allowed to sit as Members of Parliament while members of the reserved forces are, it is not an honour I intend to abuse today.
My experience has shown that members of the armed forces are very interested in politics, but they are not interested in party politics. When I wear a uniform, I always pride myself on being strictly apolitical and I intend to continue that today. Perhaps the test of my speech will be that, when read, it will seem as though it could have been spoken by a Government or Opposition Member.
I welcome the Bill because, as the Secretary of State said, it is in many ways a tribute to the previous Government for the manner in which they put the Armed Forces Act 2006 through Parliament. The fact that the Bill is mainly a tidying-up measure is testament to that, although clause 2 on the military covenant—I will come to that later—is very important. I therefore give credit to the previous Government.
There are, however, a few anomalies even though the 2006 Act attempted to tidy them up. In particular, there is the matter of military law being applied across the three services. I said that I am a Member of Parliament who is also a serving member of the armed forces and, to my knowledge, three other hon. Members also serve in the reserve forces. It may be of interest to the House that, as I stand here today, I am subject to military law as a commissioned officer in the Territorial Army. However, one of our colleagues, who merely through rank is not a commissioned officer, is not subject to military law as a serving Member of Parliament. That is an anomaly. All four of us have been mobilised and have been on operational service, and we all become subject to military law when that happens. It might seem a minor point but whether someone is subject to military law when they go to and from training in the Territorial Army is relevant.
I shall give another simple example of an anomaly before I get into the detail of the Bill. Over recent weeks, there have been calls in the House that, as part of the military covenant, we should have some form of medal to allow members of the armed forces to show that they are in the armed forces. The Veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) has said that that should be subject to review. I do not think it should be subject to review; I simply do not think it should happen. If hon. Members want to argue that point, I am happy to debate the matter. My case is fairly typical in that have completed three operational tours and have been awarded three medals over 23 years. In addition, I have a Queen’s golden jubilee medal, which was effectively given to me for being a member of the armed forces, and a long-service and good conduct medal—or the Territorial decoration as it was called then.
My point is that such medals are awarded simply for serving in the armed forces and I am not convinced that giving people more medals simply for being a part of the armed forces is necessarily a good thing. However, it is an anomaly that, in the Territorial Army, both officers and soldiers can get what is now the volunteer reserves service medal while, in the regular Army, only soldiers are allowed to get a long-service and good conduct medal. It seems that officers do not receive that medal simply because their good conduct is taken for granted. That is another anomaly in which the House might be interested.
I pay tribute to the non-partisan way in which the hon. Gentleman is advancing his arguments. I have no medals—the closest I ever got was a Blue Peter badge. He is referring to the anomalies. An anomalous situation for many armed forces families is because those who are killed in action all come into the UK through one of two different airfields, there have often been very long waits for a proper post-mortem. That was one of the problems we tried to rectify through the creation of the post of chief coroner. Previously, families had to wait a very long time before they could have closure in relation to the death of their loved one. Does he agree that the Government are wrong to be abolishing that post and that it would be better for armed forces families if we were to keep it?
I would have to consider that matter in detail. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps he should volunteer to sit on the Committee—I certainly will do so—and we can then explore the issue in greater detail. That is probably a sensible way forward, and it will be interesting to see whether he volunteers to do that.
Clause 2 deals with the military covenant and that matter has already been mentioned in the debate. The Royal British Legion—I am proud to be vice-president of the Olney branch—has raised concerns, and the Secretary of State has promised to consider them and, indeed, deal with them. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the role of the external reference group to continue in some form or another. That is something else I expect we can explore in Committee.
We have talked mainly about the three principal areas of health care, education and housing. In the previous Parliament, I was proud to serve on the Select Committee on Defence under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), when we looked at the issue of the education of service families. I am delighted that the Government have introduced some of our recommendations and we should continue to consider that matter. I am pleased that an annual report will be presented to Parliament. [Interruption.] When I referred to the Government, the former Veterans Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), said from a sedentary position that it was the previous Government. I am actually being apolitical and mean the government of the land.
There has been some concern that perhaps the Government’s commitment to the military covenant does not go far enough and that the relationship between the armed forces and the Government should be enshrined in black and white. My personal feeling is that it is not important what is in black and white for the lawyers to argue over; what is important is how the covenant has been interpreted by successive Governments. I shall give one example. After the introduction of joint personnel administration—the new payment computer system in the Army—there has been a problem with some junior ranks in the British Army being effectively overpaid for a number of months. That has amounted to a sizeable sum for some individuals. I do not think any fair-minded person would suggest that that money should not be paid back; it is an overpayment and we would all expect to pay it back. However, the true test of the covenant is how the money is paid back. It should not have to be paid back in a single lump sum in one pay cheque; those concerned should be allowed to pay the money back over time. That is just one example of how the application of the covenant, and not what appears in black and white, is important.
To be honest, soldiers are quite cynical about government. They feel that any covenant would always be interpreted in the Government’s favour. I hope that the Opposition will take that point in the spirit it is intended because it is simply an objective statement of fact.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree that what is being put forward today is rather disappointing, especially in the light of the Green Paper that I produced in 2009, which set out not only what we had done in terms of the Command Paper, but how we could make what it referred to legally enforceable? Does he share my disappointment that the work and the response to that have not been brought forward in the Bill, so that the things put in place in the armed forces Command Paper would be legally enforceable?
I do not, because the real test will be in the implementation. I have confidence that the Government will implement and uphold their end of the bargain, so I am afraid that I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and only time will tell. Perhaps we can consider the matter again in one of our annual debates on the military covenant.
I was going to give one example of where soldiers are perhaps right to be slightly cynical. I fully supported the previous Government’s introduction of the operational allowance in October 2006. That was a good move, and it introduced a tax-free allowance of £2,240. However, it is worth remembering—I wish to make it clear that I think that this was more by cock-up than conspiracy—that at the same time the Government also cut the long-service separation allowance, meaning that a soldier on a six-month tour in Afghanistan lost £2,341. The Government gave with one hand and took away with the other, within the space of a month. When such moves happen, one can see why any soldier is entitled to be cynical of any Government. It is therefore very important that we see, over time, how the military covenant is improved.
As I said from the Opposition Benches shortly after I got back from my operational tour in Afghanistan, there has been a major improvement in personal kit over the past few years. I felt that when I was mobilised in 2006, the standard of personal kit that I was given then was far better than the kit I was given when I was mobilised in 1999 or 2001—so, once again, credit to the previous Government for that improvement, which I should like to continue under this Government in future years.
My other general point about the military covenant concerns rest and recuperation. I had personal experience of the problems of R and R on coming back from Afghanistan in 2006. Although I do not want to go into the details of the matter again—it was the subject of debate in this House for some time—I would like some reassurance from the Minister that the problems with the air bridge have been addressed. Clearly, we will always have trouble when we have to rely on airframes that are very old, but I have heard reports that unfortunately the problems experienced in 2006 are beginning to happen again. There have been calls for us to guarantee the two-week R and R period for soldiers in the middle of an operational tour. I do not support that for simple operational reasons. If a soldier were to lose a day at the beginning of his leave, a guarantee that he could come back from it a day later would make the whole manning plot for the commanding officer in theatre almost impossible. However, I would support a guarantee that if any R and R days are lost during an operational tour, they should be added to the post-tour leave. That is perfectly reasonable.
I was slightly disappointed that neither Front Bencher chose to mention the reserve forces. That is an oversight that I should like to correct, especially given that some 15% of soldiers mobilised on operations are from the reserve forces. Members of the reserve forces face some very specific problems when they are mobilised. Any mobilisation process starts at the reserves training and mobilisation centre in Chilwell. If I am lucky enough to be selected to serve on the Bill Committee, I would like to suggest that we visit that facility, which plays a very valuable role. Having been through it on three occasions, I must say that the standard of service that it provides in preparing reservists for mobilisation has improved significantly over recent years.
However, there can be major problems when a reservist returns home. Because, in general, they are mobilised as individual replacements, they lack the support that a regular soldier, sailor or airman has in coming back with a formed unit. I can give an example of a very unfortunate case from my own unit when a colour sergeant came back from mobilised service in Afghanistan. Because we are a specialist unit that does not meet for drill nights, there is no regular contact every Tuesday night where we can monitor colleagues who have recently returned, and we did not see much of him until one weekend when he was clearly not well. The effects of service in Afghanistan had clearly had a significant impact on him. I regret to say that that ended up with an incident in which he attempted to shoot a colleague with a weapon that he had brought back from Afghanistan, and he is now in prison. It was an awful incident. One wonders whether the same thing would have happened had that individual been serving with a regular unit and received the same levels of support that a regular soldier would have had.
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s concern about soldiers who come back not as part of formed units. Does he agree that that points to a wider issue with the military covenant, whereby it is not simply a covenant between the Government and our armed forces but between the nation and our armed forces? Although there is talk of putting the Government’s side of this bargain into law, the issue is also about an attitude in our nation as a whole. For example, many of our public sector bodies have policies whereby members of staff can have up to 14 days off work to be a school governor or to undertake trade union activity, yet many of those organisations, particularly NHS trusts, do not give similar time off to members of the reserve forces.
That is a very valuable point. I was fortunate in that before I entered this House I worked for a family fireworks company, so I had no problem getting time off—certainly for six months of the year, anyway. My experience is that many employers are very good about allowing members of the reserve forces extra time off. However, the issue is certainly something that we should consider, perhaps when we debate this matter annually.
Hon. Members have already referred to welfare for the families of regular forces—that is very important, and we should and must do more—but the families of reservists have particular problems because they tend not to live on a specific base. For any one specialist TA unit, those families can be spread across the land. We must do more to try to ensure that they have access to the same kinds of facilities as families of regular servicemen so that they get the support that they, too, vitally need.
I want to deal with one more matter—the military police, as covered in clauses 3 to 6. People say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I have to confess that for a period of 18 months I was the second-in-command of 253 Provost Company Royal Military Police (Volunteers), based in Balham, south London. Given what I am about to say, I am not sure that the RMP’s Provost Marshal will be very pleased that I had that experience. As I suggested to the Secretary of State earlier, the time has perhaps come when we should be thinking the unthinkable, and I encourage him to have a single police service for the armed forces. The three military police services already train together as a single organisation, going through one training school. The whole point of the 2006 Act was to harmonise much of military law. I see distinct advantages to this at a time when we are attempting to try to find savings within the Ministry of Defence, as having a single police service would save the costs involved in two Provost Marshal posts and all their connected staffs. The remaining Provost Marshal would then answer to the Chief of the Defence Staff instead of to the individual service chiefs, and he could be appointed by competition rather than by simple rotation.
In reality, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy have had little exposure to complex investigations into operational deaths because of the nature of operational service, which tends to be Army-based. Combining the special investigation branches would not only make savings on manpower, which is vital in terms of meeting the harmony guidelines of the Royal Military Police, who are particularly affected and overstretched, but encourage the maintenance of high standards through mutual understanding and experience. Currently, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary inspects the Royal Military Police but does not inspect the other two branches of the armed forces, and that situation might be improved by bringing the three branches together. I was invited by the Secretary of State to table amendments in Committee if I am selected to sit on it and. I think that we should explore this angle. It will be interesting to see what the cultural differences to which the Secretary of State referred are in reality.
I am delighted to support the Bill this evening and will vote for it if there is a Division. I look forward to the Committee stage.
It is a pleasure to follow such an informed speech from a person who is well qualified to deliver the points that he made. I am not from a military background, but am a great respecter of the military services, as we all are. I am a long-standing member of the Royal British Legion, but I do not know what that makes me.
Yes, quite right. We all welcome the good work of the Royal British Legion.
The Bill is important for many reasons. I am pleased that the need to bolster the military covenant is recognised. For some years, I have campaigned for widespread recognition of the welfare needs of veterans of the armed forces. The Bill makes integral amendments to the way in which our armed forces function, especially in disciplinary matters. I will focus on veterans’ welfare, which is principally the concern of clause 2, and outline some suggestions on how that clause can be improved. If I have time, I shall speak briefly about clauses 9 to 11, which concentrate on preliminary testing for alcohol and drugs in the forces.
The Bill marks a significant breakthrough in the championing of veterans’ rights. For several years, I have worked to raise awareness in this place and beyond of the ordeal suffered by many vulnerable members of the armed forces after they are discharged. I published a paper in January 2010 that recommended increasing the support available to veterans of the armed forces. I currently have the privilege of sitting on an inquiry panel commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform, which aims to uncover why a high percentage of veterans enter the penal system. The inquiry is chaired by Sir John Nutting QC, and will make recommendations to Government later this year on how to prevent further offending and to make improvements. I chair a parliamentary group that comprises representatives of the justice trade unions, relevant third sector organisations, parliamentarians and concerned individuals, which looks into the problem of veterans in prison. That group will publish a list of recommendations on tackling this mounting problem in the first quarter of this year. I will give voice to a number of its recommendations this evening.
The reasons why veterans are over-represented in the criminal justice system are complex, but the root cause is often the social estrangement that is experienced by susceptible veterans when they lose the ready-made support network of their Army colleagues. Clause 2 unlocks the opportunity to discuss how we can improve the way in which public services are administered to veterans. As I shall argue, improving and streamlining the way in which such services are offered to veterans could drastically reduce the number who fall into difficulties later in life.
As is clear, work is being done to promote this issue. The fact that we are discussing a Bill on the Floor of the House that touches on this concern confirms the traction that it has gained over the past 12 or 18 months. I was gladdened to see that the matter had gripped the political mindset enough to become a major manifesto issue for all parties at the last general election. Although forces charities such as Help for Heroes have generated massive public support, the ordeal faced by some veterans was not widely acknowledged until relatively recently. That ordeal deserves our attention.
It is perhaps easy for us to disregard how difficult the transition must be from life in a combat zone to civvy street. Although the training received by personnel during military service allows the majority to readjust to life after discharge, a growing but unspecified number drop out of the welfare system altogether, and become homeless, disfranchised from mainstream services and socially isolated. Education, further training and employment are difficult to access, and such opportunities are not automatically advertised to personnel on leaving the forces.
Veterans are over-represented in NHS emergency waiting rooms and in road traffic accidents. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware that veterans who have returned recently from a theatre of conflict are 50% more likely to be killed in a road traffic accident than ordinary members of the public. That point bolsters the need for a careful examination of this matter.
As a result of what can be an acute social rupture, an alarming number of such young men and women fall foul of the criminal justice system. That is often prompted by substance misuse and mental health problems. I was first alerted to this problem when I appeared as a barrister in the Crown courts of north Wales, Cheshire and beyond. In the space of about a fortnight, I saw a huge number of young people newly returned from Afghanistan who had committed very serious offences, for which there was no reasonable explanation. That made me think that something was wrong in the system, because those people were as rational as any of us, but my God, the things that they had been through recently would have rocked any of us.
On 5 March 2008, I tabled a written question to the then Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, asking what percentage of the inmates in prison in England and Wales had served in either of the Gulf conflicts. I was informed that such information was “not collected centrally”. I have since found out that at no point is it compulsory to ask someone who is accused of a crime whether they have a service history. That practice must surely be rectified, and some police forces are collecting that information.
Yes, I am. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very concerned about this matter. Kent police, Cheshire police, North Wales police and several other police forces have started to do that over the past 12 months, simply to scope the size of the problem and, hopefully, to come up with reasonable answers.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that no prejudice should be drawn to the person who is accused because of that information and that it should be used purely for analytical reasons? It should not be used later in a judgment and nobody should be punished more because of their service background.
I agree entirely with those comments, because we are all equal before the law. However, if taking that information helps to address what is a massive problem, it should be done. The probation service in Cheshire and north Wales is also doing that, and that is being led by ex-service people. No prejudice is intended at any stage.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important topic, and one that should not be taken lightly. I wonder whether he has read the analysis in the Defence Analytical Services and Advice report of the number of former service personnel who are in prison. It suggests not that they are over-represented, but the contrary.
DASA’s initial finding was that the figure was about 3%, but after it analysed everybody in prison who had said that they were formerly in the armed forces, it came up with a figure of approximately 3.5% of the prison population who were ex-services. In contrast, more than 7% of the general population have been in the services.
Yes, but if I remember rightly, the methodology of that particular report was somewhat questionable. [Interruption.] May I finish my point? The reservists were not included, nor were people under 18 or women who had served in the Army. I believe that one other category of people was excluded—there were four such categories.
In support of the Minister, I wish to say that as the Minister who commissioned that research, I know that it was the most comprehensive ever done on the matter. It cross-referenced all the service records in all three services, in some cases going back to the late 1960s, with the records of the Ministry of Justice. Trying to rubbish it by making points about reservists, for example, is not helpful. It was a thorough piece of work, and I stand by what the Minister said about it.
I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says, and he knows that I have been discussing the matter with him for a long while. I am not rubbishing the report. All I am saying is that four distinct categories of service people were exempted from its scope. The first thing that the people conducting the report did was to ring Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers and ask him about his methodology. They were very much working in the dark.
I will give way to both hon. Members, but I am trying to construct an argument and do not want to make political points about the figures involved. I hope we can all agree that we have a huge problem. I give way first to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones).
I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is not helpful to rubbish the most thorough report on the facts of the matter. I have met Mr Fletcher on a number of occasions and know that he is a great self-publicist. He came up with the figure of 10% of the prison population being ex-armed forces, or at one time even 15%, on no evidence at all. That was not very helpful as part of the debate into which the hon. Gentleman has rightly put a lot of hard work.
The way in which Mr Fletcher went about the matter was to e-mail every member of the probation service who was connected with prisons and ask them how many people on their books had been in the services. That was how he came up with his figures, but even within the latest Government figures of 3.5% or 4%, we see that in Dartmoor, for example, the figure was 17.5% in 2007.
The Minister and the shadow Minister are right, but then so is the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). He is probably about to cite the figures for violent and sexual offenders, which show that there appears to be a greater likelihood that people with a service background will fall into that category. However, we would expect people with a service background to be less represented than others in the prison population, would we not? They are selected because they do not have a criminal record when they join up, and they are members of a disciplined service. That needs to be borne in mind when considering the figures.
I agree, and perhaps I should move away from the figures, because I cannot profess to know them precisely any more than anybody else can. All I am trying to say is that the problem is serious. The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that we would expect people who have been in the armed services to be more disciplined, and in most cases they are. However, there are worrying examples of people who, for almost inexplicable reasons, commit violent offences.
I know of two cases intimately. The first is that of a person in a fish and chip queue in north Wales who felt that somebody behind him was invading his space. He reacted violently, because he had been trained to look after himself. Unfortunately, by the time he had finished the skirmish two or three minutes later, there was a person on the floor very badly injured and he went away for four years for grievous bodily harm.
The second case is that of a young lad from my constituency who returned home from Helmand on a Wednesday and borrowed his father’s car to go out on the Friday night. He drank far too much and had an accident, killing two passengers. It could be argued that he had been to hell and back in Helmand and felt that he could do such things with impunity. I am not running that young man down, and I am sad to see him where he is, but that is another example of which I am aware.
The hon. Gentleman is chuntering away, but if he waits until I have made my point, he can respond afterwards.
My concern is that just because there is a correlation between two sets of statistics, that does not necessarily mean that there is a causation. In other words, just because there may be a higher or lower proportion of former members of the armed forces in prison, that does not necessarily mean that it was because they were in the armed forces that they went to prison.
That may very well be, and we must also remember that the vast majority of those who are in prison come not from the Navy or the Air Force but from the Army, the infantry. There are socio-economic factors to be borne in mind and the equation is not simple, so the hon. Gentleman is right in that regard.
I should like to leave aside the scale of the problem and consider what we can do to assist those who return. First, we must do everything we can to prevent veterans from falling into various problems after discharge. Secondly, I want measures to be taken to ensure that help and advice are available to everybody in the services who encounters problems, whether they be about substance misuse, mental health, housing, employment, money management, violent behaviour or anything else. We spend a lot of time training our young men and women up to the highest level before they go into harm’s way. As I see it, we need to spend much more time and money on debriefing them and bringing them back into the less compressed atmosphere of civvy street. As we know, civvy street can be a hazardous environment for vulnerable returnees without assistance.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining that point about training. Does he accept that just as our armed forces are trained to the highest degree to do what they need to do in a military capacity, wherever possible training needs to be provided so that their skills are transferable? That will make them fully valued members of society in a professional capacity and as individuals.
Absolutely right, and that is part and parcel of bringing people back into the civilian mainstream. There is no doubt that such training is useful, and we know that it often works.
Clause 2 provides a commitment for a report to be placed before Parliament each year, which will deal with health care, education and housing. That is a welcome step, because the regulation of those services is a prerequisite for improving them. Surely, however, we need to do better than that. The Bill specifies that the responsibility for laying the report should lie with the Secretary of State. I wish no offence to him, and I trust that he will take none if I say that he has many other responsibilities already bestowed on him, which mean that laying the report will not be his highest priority. However, I hope that I am wrong.
I believe, as I mentioned earlier, that we should consider appointing a Minister for veterans’ welfare with a cross-cutting responsibility, who could perhaps be situated in the Cabinet Office, because there are many facets to the problem. The report specified in clause 2 should go into far greater depth about how a background of military service might affect people in obtaining personal services. To education, housing and health care should be added welfare benefits, employment benefits and advice, reskilling, budgetary advice, debt management—SSAFA Forces Help and the Royal British Legion say that 60% of their cases concern debt management—alcohol and drug treatment and relationship skills. All personnel should have access to advice from voluntary organisations on all those issues, regardless of length of service, some months before leaving the forces. At present, when leaving the forces, the feeling among many veterans seems to be, “When you’re discharged, you’re on your own.” Regardless of whether that is the case, we need to intensify personnel’s awareness of the support that is available for those who need it. Back-up advice in person and by telephone should also be made available for the first six months following discharge.
I have briefly mentioned the prevalence of mental health problems among veterans. Due to time constraints, I cannot dedicate as much time to it as I should like. No compulsory mental health assessment is currently undergone before leaving the forces. I hope that that practice will soon change. There is a tremendous discrepancy between the way in which US and UK forces deal with the matter. Nobody can realistically plead for a veterans agency in the UK on the same scale as that in the States. The US has had to come to terms with the fall-out from the Vietnam war and other conflicts, and it set up such facilities in more benign financial times. However, when I took evidence with the Howard League in the US, senior veterans affairs Ministers told us that there was a presumption that 33% of returnees from conflict would suffer from either post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
That figure is not accepted by anyone in the UK forces. The proportion is not even a tenth of that figure, according to the evidence that we have received from people in similar positions in the UK. There must be a problem somewhere because there is a huge discrepancy. Somebody said that PTSD could take up to 14 years to develop. Yes, it could: it could take 14 minutes or 14 years. We must tackle the problem, because we may be considering the tip of a painful iceberg, and the consequences could be long drawn out.
Experts therefore demand making psychological assessment mandatory for all those leaving the forces, alongside a more general resettlement assessment and advice scheme. I hope that, if I am appointed to serve on the Select Committee, I can advocate making available more tailored support to veterans in the criminal justice system. I am a firm believer in all being equal before the law, but veterans’ specific needs, and the way in which some initiatives might prevent reoffending in that community, must be recognised. Veterans’ support officers should be appointed in every prison and probation service to ensure the streamlining of those initiatives. That has already started to happen. Statutory funding should be allocated to them as well as to veterans’ support groups, which can provide unparalleled support in communities. Such groups normally have the benefit of comprising mainly veterans, who have an unmatched ability to relate to the experiences of other veterans.
I am fast running out of time, but it remains for me to say that we must wake up to the alarming way in which personnel come to rely on alcohol and sometimes other substances as a defence mechanism. Perhaps it is perfectly understandable, but the so-called self-medication route is a huge misnomer. I have evidence to show that, regrettably, at some stages of Army life, alcohol is treated as a catalyst for unwinding. I am sure that many hon. Members have heard about the decompression in Cyprus, which comprises a weekend or week of drunkenness and brawling. It can be no coincidence that so many veterans leave active service displaying a dependence on alcohol. I need hardly say how quickly such a dependence, if left untreated, can feed into other habits, violent behaviour and crime. Henceforth, therefore, counselling on substance abuse must play a vital part in decompression and reintroducing personnel to civvy street.
If we are to retain any hope of fewer veterans running into problems after leaving the forces, we must address some aspects of Army life, such as alcohol consumption as a means of coping with stress and adversity. Clauses 9 to 11 will intensify the regulation of personnel in that field and perhaps awaken them to the dangers of over-reliance on that drug. That is a welcome step in the right direction.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a common thread running through his speech is the problem of tracking and identifying veterans, whether by the police, the probation service or GPs? For example, many mental health issues arise because GPs do not necessarily know that someone is a veteran 10 years after that person has left the forces. [Interruption.] I am married to a GP, and I can assure the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that the system might work at the top, but it does not by the time things get to the bottom. [Interruption.] The point that I intended to make before the sedentary interruptions from the Opposition Front Bench is that we in this place can help because there is a lot of support out there for veterans. How many hon. Members say to someone who is homeless or has other problems and comes to their surgery, “Are you a veteran? If so, I can direct you to more places”?
Such work is being done by, for example, Kent police, to which I referred earlier, and probation services here and there. Very good work is undertaken in some prisons. That work is done by people who have an interest in assisting veterans, and we need to roll out good practice throughout the UK.
It is wrong for anyone to hint that I am disparaging the services when I refer to alcohol or drugs. I am trying to consider matters realistically, not to insult members of the armed forces, for heaven’s sake.
I agree. I give the shadow Minister credit because I have debated matters with him and he was assiduous in trying to address the problem, which is multifaceted.
Military people are often proud—proud of their regiment and their work. They are not proud of their position if they suddenly become homeless and/or involved in crime, so sometimes they will not say that they were in the services because they are ashamed. That is another problem.
We have had an opportunity to debate such matters today, and it is important to move forward to Committee, where we can explore different avenues. The Secretary of State said that he was open to, for example, extending the categories in clause 2. That is all well and good. Let us see whether we can explore that and come up with further matters that we need to examine.
If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Committee, I hope I can amplify what I have said and strengthen the Bill as best I can so that we can honestly say, as Government members and ordinary Back-Bench politicians, that we are adhering to our part of the military covenant.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). I particularly appreciate his remarks about clause 2 and health care. I am pleased to be able to say that the Government have accepted my report “Fighting Fit” on the mental health care of veterans. Part of it stated that we should indeed scrutinise people far more closely at the point when they depart from the services to ensure that we consider mental health. In my 18-year career as a medical officer in the Navy, we rarely did that. The matter was neglected, and I am therefore pleased that the Government have accepted the report and that the armed forces will now assess people when they leave and before they become veterans so that we can take timely action when necessary.
I declare my interests, which are in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In addition, in connection with clause 27—an obscure provision, which I suspect is largely uncontroversial—I am a member of the naval medical compassionate fund. I call it a potential benefit because one has to be deceased for any benefit to be obtained from it. Although that is ultimately inevitable, I hope that it will not happen during my time in this place.
I pay tribute to those right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have done so much for the military covenant and in raising its profile. Over the past 10 years or so, public support for our armed forces has increased. That is in large part because of the profile of the armed forces and, although it may not be fashionable to say so, I think we in this place ought to take a certain amount of credit for promoting the interests of the men and women of our armed forces. Members on both sides of the House do that, so this is not a partisan matter at all.
However, I welcome this Bill as the next step in the process of ensuring that the military covenant is a key part of the way in which we deal with our armed forces, and not just now. It is very easy to do that now, as every night we see images on our television screens highlighting the plight of the men and women of our armed forces, and the excellent job they are doing and the professional manner in which they are doing it. The problem arises 10 or 15 years down the line when, God willing, we are living in a time when the armed forces are less high profile. In those circumstances, it will be very welcome to have an opportunity to assess, on an annual basis, how we are dealing with our servicemen and women, and, of course, with our veterans and service families.
One of the problems in respect of Help for Heroes is that we must deal not only with the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have problems that go all the way back to the second world war, and we must put in place resources to look after the people who were involved then. Speaking personally, I had about 35 soldiers wounded on 6 December 1982. Those people require to be looked after, and two of them were paraplegics. I simply want to endorse my hon. Friend’s point that we must look after all our veterans who have been hurt, not just the people who are now in the public eye from Afghanistan and Iraq and, perhaps, Kosovo and Bosnia. The issue goes back well beyond that, and let us also remember all those people who were hurt in Northern Ireland over many years.
My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right, and I think the Government have recognised that need. One of my report’s recommendations was that we should be more proactive in addressing our veteran population, and I am pleased that it has been accepted. Ministers recognise that we need to do more for veterans.
Having just been nice to my Front-Bench colleagues, perhaps I might say that I disagree with them in one respect. Clause 2 is entitled “Armed forces covenant report” and I take exception to the term “armed forces” in that context. May I gently suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that it would be more appropriate simply to use the term “military covenant”? I say that because I think that term has had a certain amount of purchase. It is now understood by the general public. It is in the public domain, and the media understand it, and I think they would be somewhat confused if we were now to make this rather semantic change of using the term “armed forces” instead. To argue against myself, the word “military” excludes naval of course, but I think that in the public’s mind “military” refers to the entirety of our armed forces. I do not want the value of the concept of the military covenant to be degraded in any way by a confusion over this title. That point might, perhaps, be considered in Committee, of which I hope very much my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) is successful in becoming a member—I wish him the best of luck in his endeavours in that respect. As he says, it will be fascinating to serve on the Committee, and I hope to talk a little more about that shortly.
I am very pleased. I am a member of the Warminster branch of the Royal British Legion and I rarely disagree with it. It has done a great job in its honour the covenant campaign. I am very pleased that it agrees with me, and I have no doubt that it will make representations to that effect.
The Government have been spot-on in the way they have approached the covenant in this Bill. I have given a great deal of thought to what we should be doing in respect of the military covenant. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, we considered the matter at great length when in opposition, and the debate was always about the form in which it would find its way into legislation.
At one end of the spectrum, we could be fairly didactic in what we mean by the military covenant. We could make it a bean-feast for lawyers, but that is completely against the spirit of the military covenant. It derives from Harry Levinson’s work in the 1950s and ’60s, in which he identified something called a psychological contract: a contract that was moral and that was understood, but that was not actually laid down in any form of written covenant, promise or undertaking. It is absolutely right that we should do nothing that would destroy the military covenant as part of that type of covenant. A couple of Members have mentioned the fact that this is not simply a deal between Government and officials and the rank-and-file. It also involves the general public. If we were to start putting it in a didactic contractual form, that would degrade that particular element of the deal that we understand by the term “the military covenant”.
That seems to be the view of most commentators. At the Royal United Services Institute in June 2008, Christianne Tipping said:
“This debate must continue but it must not attempt to specify that which is incapable of specification—the psychological contract is more powerful than the legal one.”
I agree. It could be said that the military covenant is at the extreme end of the psychological contract spectrum, but it is, nevertheless, part of that deal, and it is important that we treat is as such.
I welcome the annual report. The shadow Secretary of State was a little parsimonious in his praise for it. It will certainly maintain the profile of this issue. The devil is in the detail of course, in that the nature of the annual report is crucial—what it contains, how it is presented, and how it is debated. It is important that we know what the items in the report will be. We know what some of them will be, but this issue goes much further than that, of course. We must also address issues such as kit, the way we deal with the bereaved, and coroners courts. As has been mentioned, they have caused a great deal of grief over the past few years, and it would be extraordinary if they were not dealt with as part of this annual report.
It is also important that we listen to the views of third parties. They will undoubtedly comment on this, and they are also very important in the implementation of the military covenant. Government must not do that alone. If they were to do so, they would completely ignore the general public and the voluntary sector, which are another element that must be party to the military covenant. It would therefore be interesting to know what involvement from third-sector partners is envisaged in this annual report.
It is also important that the report is dovetailed with any other relevant reports there might be, such as from the service complaints commissioner, the continuous attitude survey or the external reference group. We need to know, as well, the extent to which personal functional standards subsequent to the armed forces overarching personnel strategy have been satisfied, and we need to incorporate the views of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body.
While I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about external scrutiny of the armed forces annual report, does he not agree that it is vital that the House itself scrutinises the work of the MOD? Does he also agree that every year after the report is published the Defence Committee should invite the Secretary of State to appear before it to face further scrutiny?
I believe the Secretary of State does so in any case, but that is, of course, a matter for the Chairman of the Defence Committee, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chairman will be only too delighted to oblige.
It is important that we thrash out what we mean by the covenant and the deal we are prepared to strike in recognition of it. On the one hand, it might be a “no-disadvantage” covenant, by which I mean that people will not be disadvantaged by their military service. On the other hand, might it mean a “citizen-plus” covenant, in that people will get a bit extra in recognition of the fact that they are serving or have served, or are related to someone who is serving or has served, in the armed forces? It is important that we do that.
We could envisage the “no-disadvantage” covenant as being what we might aspire to at the moment, and the “citizen-plus” covenant as being the sort of model that applies in the United States. Certainly, the “no-disadvantage” covenant appears to be what people have in mind in things such as the service Command Paper. The term is used in that publication and also by Professor Hew Strachan in his recent report on the military covenant. Furthermore, of course, that covenant is a great deal more attainable, and we can take a closer view of what it actually means, if we use the benchmark of not disadvantaging people by virtue of their service. A “citizen-plus” covenant, however, is more difficult and invites calls of “Me too!”, in particular from other public servants who say that these days they are just as much on the front line. We could argue that point.
It is important that the annual report contains an outcome measure. We need to know what we are looking at in order to make an assessment of whether the Government have done what they should be doing in honouring the military covenant. What do success and failure look like? It is important that the document is subject to rigorous independent scrutiny, not least by the Defence Committee. The report will be subject to the media spotlight and the analysis of third parties, so it needs to be a comprehensive and detailed document, unless it is simply to become, in the fullness of time and potentially under another Administration, simply a tick-box exercise.
Over Christmas last year, my right hon. and hon. Friends were exercised by the air bridge between the UK and theatre. Perhaps that is a demonstration of a facet of the military covenant that could be covered in the annual report. I find to my great horror that similar problems arose this Christmas. It was a high-profile incident because it involved Katherine Jenkins and James Blunt and their failure to go to theatre to entertain the troops. Will the annual report cover theatre-specific elements of the disgruntlement of our armed forces? The Minister knows full well—we talked about this a great deal in opposition—that paramount in that list of disgruntlement tends to be things such as the air bridge and rest and recuperation.
Organisations such as the British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association point out that people owe their allegiance to the nation, not to localities by and large, and that the covenant is a country covenant, not a county covenant. It is important, when considering elements of Professor Strachan’s report, which is excellent in almost all respects—particularly his important point about the community covenant—that we recognise that people owe their allegiance nationally and expect the covenant to be honoured nationally as well. It would be a pity if we entered into some sort of postcode lottery in how we regard our duties to the men and women of our armed forces. I represent a constituency in a military part of the country, and as a community we are fully apprised of our duties towards the men and women of our armed forces. Some parts of the country, however—perhaps because men and women of our armed forces are less prominent there—are less inclined that way, so it is important, given that this is a national covenant, that we view this nationally, not parochially.
It is also important to recognise that the covenant cuts both ways. It is a duty that the country and the Government owe to the military, but in turn the military owes a duty to the public and the Government, and it is important to assess—in my view, as part of this annual report—whether that duty is being satisfied in all respects. Everyone in this place admires our armed forces greatly—many of us have served in them—and I am second to nobody in my admiration for the men and women who serve this country so gallantly. However, there will be detractors and those who say, “It is all very well talking up the military covenant, but we also need to understand that the public have expectations of the men and women of our armed forces.” It is important to include in the report, therefore, if only to gainsay it, that we have to look at areas where the public have been let down, as well as at areas in which we have let down our armed forces. I put that down as a point for consideration in Committee.
I turn to later clauses of the Bill that broadly speaking provide for the discipline elements. Clause 6 deals with the performance of the Ministry of Defence police. I have always had cordial relations with the MOD police, who work closely with their county colleagues, but, in a similar manner to the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, one would have to ask all the time why we have a separate MOD police force. If we are going to consider in Committee the service police—our Front-Bench team made a generous offer to do so—perhaps we might also look at policing in the round within the MOD, which of course would include the MOD police. It is important that police forces benchmark their performance. The MOD police force is a particular force with a different profile; what it does is subtly different, and its arrest and conviction profiles are very different from those of county forces, and we have to ask all the time, particularly in an age when we are looking for efficiency savings, whether the current model is the correct one. I make no judgment on that, but it might be something that the Committee should look at and take a view on.
Clause 5 deals with the appointment of provost marshals and asserts that only provost officers should be provost marshals, which struck me as slightly odd. At a time when we are looking for ways of making heads of police forces lay people, it seems a little odd—it sits uncomfortably with it—to insist in the Bill that in all circumstances provost marshals should be provost officers.
I am always a little wary when it comes to extending anybody’s powers—in this context, the powers of service police—unless I am faced with a good reason. That must be our starting premise. However, I do not have a good reason for why we need to extend the powers of service police. Although I am perfectly willing to take Ministers’ words for it that it is necessary, we will have to tease out in Committee why we need to extend the powers in the way described.
Clauses 9 to 11 and compulsory testing have been discussed at length by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and in an authoritative fashion that I cannot match. However, I start to get concerned about compulsory testing, particularly when it involves health care professionals. This is an ethical minefield and something that no doubt will need to be explored in Committee.
When the Armed Forces Bill Committee considered this point three or four years ago, we were advised—if my memory is correct—that the equivalent of two infantry battalions are discharged each year for testing positive. Under those circumstances, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the checking is an important requirement?
I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. If I develop my point, perhaps I can answer his concerns.
We have compulsory drug testing at the moment, and it has been found to be broadly successful. My concern is about further testing at the say-so of the command and because it suspects that there might be a safety-critical issue. If instances can be cited in which safety criticality might have been affected by compulsory drug testing, we have a good case for doing this, but that case has to be made before we extend those powers. I would make a small suggestion: if we are to take those powers, perhaps we might like to consider them after 12 months, using a sunset clause, to ensure that they are still necessary. If they are not, we could consider removing them.
It is not clear to me what the position of registered medical and nursing practitioners will be in all this. They operate within a disciplined service, and the rules can be quite challenging. However, looking at the Bill, I would say that were I in that position, I would be phoning up my defence society to ensure that I was not transgressing before co-operating with such a provision. I see that there is a get-out clause for medical practitioners. It all looks a bit woolly to me, but I suspect that it will be firmed up as the Bill proceeds.
The Bill will further separate service police from the command, yet service police remain servicemen and remain within that command structure; indeed, they can exercise command appropriate to their rank. I am a little concerned about these people, because they are potentially remarkably powerful individuals. We need to bear that in mind when considering this matter. Part of the military covenant is about ensuring that we do the best by the men and women who serve this country; they should not be disadvantaged. On the remarks made by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, it is important that we have a system that does not impose a greater legal restriction on that population than on the general public. If our system did impose that, we would not be honouring our commitment under the military covenant, because service personnel would most certainly be disadvantaged.
I am concerned that there has been insufficient reflection on the possibility of combining our three sets of service police. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North said, there is potential mileage in combining the three. I sat through our consideration of a lot of the supplementary legislation to the Armed Forces Act 2006 and enjoyed it very much. However, it was clear to me that the systems of law were coming much closer together; indeed, one cannot get a cigarette paper between the three of them any more. Given those circumstances, the environment has changed and the case for combining those services into a tri-service provost service makes some sense.
I conclude by welcoming the Bill, which is a culmination of a huge amount of work. It sets the right balance between a covenant that is unspoken, moral and psychological, and addressing the more obvious needs of the men and women who serve our armed forces very well. I shall certainly be supporting the Bill.
It is particularly appropriate that we are debating this Bill on the anniversary of the treaty of Versailles coming into operation in 1920 and the first meeting of the United Nations in London in 1946. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). When I was a Minister, I tried to do business with him in as friendly a way as possible in relation to the armed forces and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His comments about the reserve forces were absolutely right, because it is true to say that the operations that this nation have been involved in over the past 15 years could not have been conducted without the support of the reserve forces, many of whom have, I suspect, had to go into theatre far more often than they or their employers expected when they signed up. We therefore owe them “a debt of gratitude”; those words are often bandied around this Chamber, but he made a very fair point about the importance of the reserve forces. I know from my constituency that they are an important part of the contribution that is made.
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) was absolutely right to say that it would make more sense to stick with the term “military covenant”. I am often more pedantic than is good for my friendships—[Hon. Members: “Surely not”.] I thought that it was you heckling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, but as you have not had a drink yet, it probably was not. He is right to say that this phrase is now common currency and is used generally. I suppose that people who were being pedantic might say, “That merely applies to the Army”, but language changes and he is right to say that trying to reinvent a concept of an “armed forces covenant” is inappropriate. I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly when considering the way forward for this Bill.
I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because this country’s mining constituencies have produced many members of the armed forces. A large number of men and, increasingly in recent years, women have joined the Army, rather than the Navy or the Royal Air Force. When a survey was carried out in recent years of the preferred career of choice in mining constituencies or former mining constituencies, as mine must now be considered, the armed forces came out on top by far, followed by the police. I am sure that that is partly because of a tradition that there has been in many of these constituencies—there is a deep respect for the traditions of the armed forces, and people have wanted to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers and so on—but it is also because of the economic circumstances.
At its height, a single industry in my constituency employed 130,000 men working underground, and when it disappeared and a large number of people were, in effect, left on the scrap heap politically, many of those young men felt that the only career open to them was one in the armed forces. They have managed to take a great deal of pride from such a career. They have been able to give to the armed forces and the armed forces have been able to give back. I was delighted that the Ministry of Defence decided to open a combined cadet force in Treorchy comprehensive school. In the main, cadet forces had previously been attached only to public schools—fee-paying schools—so it was a great delight to see a new one start in Treorchy a few years ago.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely on that. What does he make of comments by the National Union of Teachers to the effect that it was wrong for the previous Government—and, presumably, now for this Government—to encourage the involvement of uniformed men and women in our armed forces in areas of deprivation, where there is high unemployment, because they may be preying on people there? I utterly refute that assertion and I hope that he does too.
When I have heard those accusations, as I have when political opponents in my constituency have attacked me ferociously on these issues, I have wholly deprecated them. If we examine the work that the armed forces do in schools, we find that it is not about preying on young people who, in some sense, might not have other opportunities in life. Often such work is about giving people the confidence in themselves to go on to do something that has nothing to do with the armed forces. It is about giving them a structure in life, and a sense of discipline and opportunity, which is of value to the wider community. I know that some teachers at Treorchy comprehensive were sceptical about the combined cadet force coming to the school, but since it has been in place they have been entirely supportive and have found it to be an entirely beneficial operation.
I agree about the importance of cadets. I visited my local Stonehouse platoon of the Army Cadet Force last week. It is fantastic and I would like to be sure that this Bill will provide the appropriate support to the cadets and the officers who train them—I am sure that it will.
I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point. I do not think that the Bill will do much directly for the cadets, except in so far as putting the military covenant in statute will make us focus on these issues more keenly. If there was one niggly point that I tried to make to the Labour Government when we were in power and would still make to this Government, it is that the sea cadets do not receive the amount of support that other cadet forces get directly from the relevant armed forces. That is a problem, especially because at the moment the sea cadets in the Rhondda spend almost all the money that they receive in support on just paying their insurance bill every year. I wonder whether we could ensure that the Ministry of Defence provides insurance support for all cadet operations. We could thereby release the sea cadets and other such forces to get on with their important work without having to spend all their time fundraising.
I could not agree more strongly with the hon. Gentleman on that point. The sea cadets are often the Cinderella of the cadets. Dover sea cadets are trying to buy the shed in which they train from the MOD but are having some difficulty. There is not the help that one would hope to see, so I echo and support his comments on the sea cadets.
I am grateful for those comments and I will pass them on to Minerva in the Rhondda.
My other reason for wanting to take part in this debate is that Wales has a particular tradition of its own in relation to the armed forces, not only in successive wars but in producing a much higher quantity of young men and, increasingly, of young women to go into our armed forces than would be proportionate to its population. It is difficult, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said, to get accurate statistics, but roughly 9% of the armed forces come from Welsh constituencies. That compares with just 5% of the UK population coming from Wales. There is, therefore, over-representation. That may in part be to do with the fact that we have higher levels of deprivation—multiple levels of deprivation —in certain parts of the country.
One of the ironies is that little of the time that Welsh personnel spend in the armed forces will be spent in Wales. They might have to go to Sennybridge. They might spend a very cold, wet, hideous, horrible time on the mountain tops in training, but the likelihood is that the vast majority of their time will be spent, even when they are in the UK, not in Wales but elsewhere.
I make a plea to the MOD and the Minister. I hope that he will be able to answer this later. When we are considering future bases in the UK, of course, as the Secretary of State said, the most important thing is ensuring the security of the realm. Every member of the armed forces would agree with that, but I argue that part of the military covenant is saying that deployment when at home, rather than when in theatre, should allow for a wider spread than is currently the case.
We have not mentioned the armed forces parliamentary scheme, but it is an important element of the way parliamentarians obtain information from those who have served or are reservists and from others from other backgrounds, and ensure that that informs our debate. In my time in the scheme, nearly everyone I met in the armed forces—this is not a partisan point—came from a Labour constituency, but all the sites we visited were in Conservative constituencies. That is not because anyone has decided to put them in Conservative constituencies; it is just because of a series of historical flukes. I urge the Government, as they consider what to do about the redeployment from Germany, to think about whether there is a base, for example, at St Athan, that might be used to base Welsh troops in Wales. I say that not as someone who supports a separation of Welsh armed forces from British armed forces but as someone who wants to reinforce the Welsh armed forces.
I believe that there are several elements to the covenant that are not mentioned in clause 2 but are equally important. We have debated one—equipment—at some length in the past few years, in particular because our troops are in theatre in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North said that he felt that the equipment he was given when he was last deployed was far more suitable and up to date than previously. He is right, but there is going to be a constant process of change.
Likewise, ensuring that our troops have the most up to date, effective training possible is important. Several hon. Members have referred to whether it is possible to unify posts between the three services in relation to the military police. I argue that we need to go much further and extend that combination of training. Those who have had an opportunity to visit Shrivenham will know that bringing the training of officers in the Army, Air Force and Navy together in one place, which was at one point thought unthinkable—the idea that the Royal Navy would leave Greenwich was believed to be unthinkable—has brought enormous dividends to all three services. Notwithstanding the decision that seems to have been made in relation to St Athan and defence training, we need to be able to do more of our training on a shared forces basis because there is more that each of the services can learn from each other.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has a long record of campaigning on veterans issues, for which I pay tribute to him. All too often, people think of veterans as people who served in the first or second world wars, but many of the veterans in my constituency are 25, 26 or 27 years of age and their service will not just be for the few years that they spent being paid by the armed forces; in terms of the psychological and physical issues that they have to deal with, their service will be for the whole of their lives. Not only will they be serving in that way, but their families will, too. He is right to point to the need for continuity of care beyond—in many cases far beyond—the day when someone goes into civvy street.
I caution the hon. Gentleman, however, as I tried to do earlier—this crops up quite regularly in our debates—about the difference between correlation and causation. For example, it is often argued that couples who co-habit and have children are far more likely to split up than those who marry and have children. It is factually true. The question is: is that because they got married, or because they are the kind of people who felt differently about the institution of marriage in the first place? In other words, is there correlation between these statistics, or is there causation?
That is where we need to be precise in relation to the ongoing care of those in the armed forces. Many of the young people who join the armed forces from the Rhondda go in with many of the problems that they will leave with. They go in, as we know, with lower levels of literacy, which is why the armed forces in recent years have had to do much more to ensure that our troops have a high level of literacy. Some of them will have difficulties with other educational issues that need to be addressed.
The point is that it is not necessarily because those people were in the armed forces that some of the problems follow. Where the problem is because they were in the armed forces—perhaps because their training was so effective that they do not realise the lethal nature of the punch that they could deliver compared with someone else—it is all the more important that the MOD and the whole of society take action to ensure that young people, as they go into the armed forces and see through their years in service, and when they leave, have the full support and training that they need.
I know that many others want to take part in the debate and I do not want to delay others from speaking any further, but I hope that the Minister will respond on the issue of Welsh troops being based in Wales because it is one of the ways that we can ensure that there is continuity for young people who are removed from the Rhondda to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, or who spend all their service career living in Wiltshire. When they are finished, they come back to the Rhondda—
I am not going to respond to that, although the hon. Gentleman is enticing.
By that uprooting, those service personnel are not given a proper chance when they go back. The key element is ensuring that that matter is addressed not just by the MOD, but by the Welsh Assembly Government.
It is a great honour to take part in the debate. I do so not with the great knowledge of some hon. Members who have contributed today. I have not given the service that they have given. However, I am the Member of Parliament for the Weeton Army barracks, and that makes me incredibly proud of the men and women who serve there. It is currently home to 1st Battalion the Royal Green Jackets and the Kings Division Normandy. On visits to the barracks, one sees and hears first-hand the people who serve our nation with great distinction.
Before I expand on that, I want to pick up on comments from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). Two key points were made. First, we should not seek to ignore the work that is put in to support the psychiatric services that support those who come back from the armed forces. Secondly, we should not fail to understand the importance of getting the Army into schools and of engaging with young people at a young age. Communities such as that in Rhondda and in the area that I originally come from are great respecters of authority and tradition and the British armed forces are a great example of that. It would be a great shame if, as a result of union activity or the activity of other people who have an axe to grind, we stopped allowing our armed forces into our schools to engage with young people.
I want to focus on clause 2 and the issues to do with welfare. When I visited Weeton Army barracks, one thing that gave me great encouragement was the existence of the Sure Start centre. Let us not forget that when one is dealing with young children—particularly very young children—one of the most important things in their lives is stability and continuity, as well as support for their parents when the father is serving in the armed forces overseas. I went away that day encouraged by the work of the Sure Start centre and I hope that when we consider some of the Bill’s provisions, the work done by Sure Start centres on Army bases—I am bothered not about what we call them, but about what they do —continues.
The other thing I took away from that visit was the importance of Commonwealth soldiers. We tend to think of members of the armed forces as being from our communities, but in many cases the armed forces—and in some cases a significant number of them—are made up of men and women from other corners of the globe. A number of armed forces on Weeton Army barracks are from Fiji. Forgive me, as I do not have the full details on this point, which is one about which I want to write to the Minister, but one thing that concerned to me was the issue of visas and the payment for visas for the wives of Fijian soldiers. The figure I left with in my mind was £700 and if we are asking the wives of Fijian soldiers to pay £700 to be in this country and to be with their husbands, who are serving our country, that makes me feel deeply uneasy. Immigration is another matter, but if we can be hospitable to other people then, my goodness, we need to be hospitable to the wives of Commonwealth soldiers. I hope we can consider that at some point—[Interruption.] Sorry, the hon. Member for Rhondda corrects me: British overseas territory soldiers.
Weeton Army barracks have an excellent school, albeit an old one. Weeton can be no different from many other bases up and down the country. At a time of financial constraint, we must ensure that local authorities do not take the easy option and cut funding or do not invest in new buildings for schools located on Army barracks or other military facilities in favour of others that might be more high profile. The school at a barracks is attended not just by children from the base but by children from the local community. That is an excellent way in which people from the non-military community can integrate and get a good understanding of military service.
Finally, as regards ensuring that the military covenant is maintained, a political aspect that we always used to talk about was the quality of housing. It is not just about the availability of good-quality housing but about ensuring that those homes are sufficiently maintained and are maintained in a speedy and timely manner. I have had representations from members of the armed forces that involve stories that we would not tolerate for any of our constituents in social housing or in properties owned by a private sector landlord. However, we seem to think that it is in some way acceptable for members of the armed forces. We must ensure that those homes are maintained and, when they are not maintained, that people are quickly held to account.
I will be proud and happy to support the Bill, just as I am proud to support the members of the armed forces who serve and who have served in the past in my constituency.
May I begin, Mr Deputy Speaker, by wishing you and the whole House a very happy new year? [Interruption.] I am just disappointed that it is Opposition Members who have all the festive cheer at this time of year—[Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] I am pleased to see so many Conservative Members in the Chamber today; they obviously were not encouraged to go to Oldham to support the Lib Dem candidate in that by-election.
I pay tribute to our armed forces, who continue to serve overseas, often in difficult circumstances. Like many other Members on both sides of the House, I have had constituents who have tragically lost their lives in the service of the country. I know that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
I have both a dockyard and a naval base, HMS Caledonia, in my constituency. I have a particular interest in this subject as so many people have such a long and proud tradition of serving our nation in the armed forces. Although the Opposition obviously support the principles of the Bill—as the Secretary of State said, it is in some ways a technical requirement to maintain our armed forces—I and, I am sure, other colleagues have some specific concerns that are as much to do with what is missing from the Bill as what is in it.
First, let me turn to the issue of the armed forces charter or covenant, or the military covenant, depending on one’s viewpoint. As some hon. Members might recall, late last year I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on an armed forces charter. Although I do not intend to rehearse all those arguments, I said at the time that Opposition Members share the concerns of the Royal British Legion that the Ministry of Defence needs to do more to introduce more effective prevention and treatment strategies to tackle mental health problems, binge drinking and drug abuse. Both the Opposition and the legion, as well as other service and veteran charities, are deeply concerned that of the 50,000 service personnel homes in the United Kingdom, two thirds do not meet the MOD’s standards for family accommodation. Under the spending outlined by Ministers, it will take 20 years to bring all the family accommodation up to an acceptable high standard.
In 13 years?
I am grateful for the opportunity provided by her sedentary comment to point out to her that we achieved a great deal more than that in terms of armed forces standards. It is disappointing that that level of funding has not been continued by the current Government.
I wonder whether I might help the hon. Gentleman by being devil’s advocate and pointing out that it was the previous Conservative Government who privatised the Ministry of Defence housing through Annington Homes. That is the root cause and this Government need to do more to put right what the last Labour Government failed to do.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who, as ever, shows his fancy footwork, blaming both his Government and the previous Conservative Government. I must agree that his Government are not doing enough to support housing.
Opposition Members are deeply concerned that although the Ministry of Defence is happy to place new onuses on local authorities and the NHS, the one group of people that should not have statutory responsibilities according to the MOD is, funnily enough, the MOD. By that rather large omission, clause 2, which covers the charter, is in effect toothless. The organisation that, more than any other, has responsibility for the welfare of our service personnel, their families and our veterans is, of course, the MOD. When he replies to the debate later this evening, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) will assure Labour Members that the MOD will re-examine that glaring omission.
The hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) and others often accuse Labour Members of not coming up with funding solutions to meet such commitments. I will indulge her by providing a simple example of where we can find more than £100 million, which could be put into accommodation for service personnel. According to the MOD, we spend—before she jumps to her feet, I accept that the previous Government did not do enough to tackle this issue—£110 million on private school fees for the children of service personnel. Almost half that money—some 40%—goes to officers in the top ranks of lieutenant-colonel and above, who are effectively the top brass, while only 10% goes to the ranks of staff sergeant and below. It is, in effect, a subsidy for public schools.
I want to shoot this canard, fox or whatever you like. People in junior ranks, both officers and non-commissioned officers, tend to be younger. Guess what? They do not have children who want to go to such schools. In fact, there are private soldiers whose children go to private schools, and there are junior officers whose children go to private schools. They are not at home, and they need the continuity of education provided by that allowance.
I thank the Minister for spelling out his position. This evening, I have tabled a written question to clarify how many of the service personnel who receive the £110 million subsidy—the schools get the money—are serving overseas. One of our concerns is that those officers are on not two or three-year furloughs overseas but six-month deployments. The MOD is, in effect, providing a ring-fenced sum of money for public schools, which is disappointing at a time when we are seeing job losses in both the armed forces themselves and in companies such as British Aerospace. When the MOD made cuts, it did not take a penny out of the continuity of education allowance, and that decision should be re-examined.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that when soldiers return to the UK after perhaps two years, their children should move schools, and that when, two years later, they are posted overseas again or to a different part of the country, their children should return to boarding school? That does not make sense.
I shall clear that up before giving way to the Minister: if the argument for spending £110 million a year on public schools is based on soldiers being posted for six months to Afghanistan before returning to Britain, it is not an acceptable use of public money.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are tightening up the rules on the continuity of education allowance. If he would like to come along to the MOD and meet them, I can introduce him to people who will tell him, as they tell me, that their children have changed schools as many as four times in five years, which is not good for continuity of education or for keeping good personnel in the armed forces.
I am grateful to the Minister for his offer to meet me to discuss the matter outside the House, which I shall certainly take up. I will not labour the point for much longer, because other hon. Members want to speak. As we move to withdrawing troops from Germany in 2015—perhaps it will be slightly later, if the MOD does not get its timetable right—it is the right time to consider scrapping or phasing out the continuity of education allowance.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered what effect that would have on the excellent Queen Victoria school in Dunblane, which is close to his constituency and located in my home town? It is a private boarding school for the sons and daughters of other ranks in all three services.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that school. I have specifically referred to the continuity of education allowance. As the Minister will confirm, that school and its sister school in Dover—if the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) is listening, I am sure that he will confirm this—are directly funded by the MOD. That funding does not come through the continuity of education allowance.
I represent a naval port. Families are moved from Plymouth to Portsmouth, Faslane or Rosyth. It is difficult for those families to get their children into schools, because they may be moved in July, by which time the local authority has already made its decision. The issue is about providing continuity, safeguards and security for those children’s education. If those children are moved on a regular basis and do not get into the right school, it can make life very difficult. I am the son of a sailor, and my education was moved around during the course of my life. We must ensure that children have the opportunity to go to school with continuity in order to safeguard their futures.
I seek further clarification, because the hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point. The purpose of the continuity of education allowance is to help those personnel who are serving overseas, but he has said that it applies to personnel who serve in different parts of the United Kingdom. He has mentioned Rosyth, and we have some excellent schools in West Fife. There would be no problem with the children of personnel getting into some of our excellent schools, and I am happy to recommend some of them to him.
I will put the matter in context for the hon. Gentleman. In my nine years of service, I was posted to Colchester, Kosovo, Catterick, London, Bosnia and Tidworth—six locations in nine years. People do not know whether they will be posted overseas. The posting order sometimes gives them as little as a month’s notice of where their next posting might be—if they are lucky, they might get two or three months’ notice. The issue is about not only being posted overseas, but about having a completely disjointed lifestyle.
It is strange that Conservative Members are unwilling to draw a comparison with the private sector. In my eight years in the private sector, I lived in a number of locations. I know many people who work in the private sector—and, indeed, in the public sector—who have to move home every two or three years. It is regrettable that as a result of some of the decisions that have been made, that trend will increase. It is unusual to hear Conservative Members say that moving home and uprooting one’s family is not part and parcel of a modern career path. I accept the point about interrupting the education of those pupils who currently receive the continuity of education allowance. That is why we need to consider phasing out the scheme, so that no child who is currently in receipt of it is adversely affected.
I want to move on to an issue that I am disappointed has not made it into the Bill, and I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister will reflect on this point in the days before the Select Committee begins its deliberations. The issue concerns ensuring proper scrutiny and a proper process for base closures. Labour Members and many Government Members, including the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), have long held the view that the correct order of decision making on military matters begins with determining our national security threats and foreign policy objectives. We should then determine the defence postures needed to meet those objectives and threats, and then make decisions on the basing, equipment and personnel levels required to meet them. After that, we should decide how best to structure the funding.
Like other Opposition Members, I would like a clause on this issue to be inserted into the Bill. As the Secretary of State has said, the Bill presents an opportunity to legislate on the armed forces and that opportunity comes around about once every five years. As he said, this is the Ministry of Defence’s opportunity for a Christmas tree Bill, to use American parlance, on which to hang additional amendments and clauses that do not necessarily fall within the strict area of military discipline. That is what Opposition Members seek.
I have just outlined the usual process and it is disappointing that the coalition has turned that process on its head with the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury telling the Secretary of State for Defence, “This is your budget: this is all you are going to get—go and make it work,” rather than taking any real cognisance of the vital national security role. That is why we are in the absurd situation of having aircraft carriers with no aircraft. Even if the French get their aircraft carrier to work, we will go a decade without any fast jets because of the folly of Treasury decisions. That has led to communities facing a great deal of uncertainty regarding base closures. Having attended some of last year’s debates in the House—as did the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray)—I have heard the concerns felt by communities around the country about the Government’s process of determining base closures.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to go to the United States with the British-American Parliamentary Group and I strongly commend that scheme to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have not had the chance to get involved in it yet, because it gave us the chance to meet, among others, representatives of the Pentagon, the Department of State and the National Security Council. On that trip I learned that the US has a legislative process for base closures. With such a system, we would not get the current absurd situation in which the Secretary of State for Defence has said that base closures would be a purely strategic defence matter, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has said that they would be motivated by socio-economic matters and the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have both told us that they will be driven by financial needs. Such confusion does not arise in the US because there is a clear process and military personnel have at least two years’ notice before any base may be closed.
The base realignment and closure process, as it is officially known, was set up in the late 1980s by the Reagan Administration to act as an arbiter between the Department of Defence, congressional leaders, individual Congressmen and communities who were understandably fighting—I hope hon. Members will pardon the pun—tooth and nail for each base. Going back to the question of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire about why this issue should be part of the Armed Forces Bill, it is because such a change would require an Act of Parliament in the same way that it required an act of Congress in the US. The BRAC process begins with a threat assessment.
I am sorry to come back to this issue, but as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned me, perhaps it is reasonable for me to do so. The long title of the Bill shows that it deals with very specific issues to do with discipline, civilian courts, the Naval Medical Compassionate Fund Act 1915 and a number of other matters, but under none of the headings in the long title could the basing debate be considered. If it is in order to discuss this issue, I feel a lengthy speech on RAF Lyneham coming up.
The hon. Gentleman is an excellent orator so we will all look forward to his speech, which I am sure will not feel lengthy to anyone. We are guided by the Clerks and the advice that we have received is that it will be entirely appropriate for us to table additional clauses in Committee. I am sure that the Clerks will advise hon. Members on the process for amending the long title of the Bill if that is necessary and practical.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall press on. The independent commission in the US is appointed by the President in consultation with members on both sides of the congressional aisle—I understand that there are two nominations from the Democrats and two from the Republicans and that they are traditionally former service chiefs. The commission carries out a very transparent process in which it is given a list of bases and works according to the criteria set out in law. The highest criterion is defence—I am sure that Members on both sides would agree that that is appropriate—but the commission is allowed to take into account, as a secondary consideration, factors such as the economic impact of closure on local communities. Regional public meetings are held to give the public an opportunity to give their input into the process. When the commission has completed its work, it forwards its recommendations to the President who can accept the proposal as a whole or simply reject it. If the President accepts the proposal, it is forwarded to Congress, which then has a debate and what is called a straight up-and-down vote on the list in its entirety. That is important because it prevents cherry-picking and means that the strategic objective of securing the best base system for the nation is not lost.
I conclude by asking the Minister to answer two questions in his response. First, he will be aware that many of the functions of supporting veterans fall on the devolved Administrations. What discussions between the devolved Governments and the Ministry of Defence have taken place and will take place as the Bill goes forward on how to ensure that there is no difference of interpretation or implementation between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Secondly, will he clarify whether, given the comments of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and others, it is technically in order for Members to seek to add new clauses in Committee, without prejudicing what the MOD’s thinking on that matter might be?
At the outset, let me place on record my admiration for and appreciation of soldiers from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, approximately 3,000 of whom from the Colchester garrison are currently deployed in southern Afghanistan. I thank the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for their opening words and I also thank the Secretary of State for his recent visit to Camp Bastion and his generous words of support there. I pay tribute to the families back in Colchester and around the country and to the rear party who do important work but are seldom mentioned. So, I thank the rear party and the men and women of our armed forces, including of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and I mention especially the regimental band of the Parachute Regiment who spent Christmas and the new year in southern Afghanistan.
The previous Government can be congratulated on many good things that they did, most notably for veterans, partly by giving them a profile that did not exist before. The introduction of Veterans day and the veterans badge have been well received right across the United Kingdom. We have already accepted the principle of the veterans badge, but there is one additional thing that I ask the coalition Government to take forward: the award of an armed forces medal. Not everybody who joins Her Majesty’s armed forces is deployed to a theatre where a medal will be awarded, and we should recognise that there are important members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who do not necessarily get a combat medal.
But that is the whole point of the medals: they are awarded for service in an operational theatre. We do not want to make this about having a Mickey Mouse parade on one’s chest. The reason why a medal is awarded is that someone has served a set time in an operational theatre. Let us not make us glorified toy soldiers.
Putting aside the hon. Gentleman’s closing sentence, I am aware of the counter-argument, but there is a strong argument the other way, too. We respect all who serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces; that is what the veterans badge is about, but it is not quite the same. I do not qualify either way; I merely make the point on behalf of those who have raised the matter.
Looking around the Chamber, I think that I am the only Member present who served on the last Armed Forces Bill Committee, and I was present when that Bill was debated on the Floor of the House, too. It has served the country well, and it is right that we should now revise it. As to whether I will be on the new Bill Committee, we will have to wait and see.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the quality of housing for families, but the issue of single persons’ accommodation has not been raised. Colchester is blessed with the most modern barracks in the country, Merville barracks. I disagree fundamentally with the way in which the last Government used a private finance initiative to fund those barracks, because over time it will be far more expensive than using traditional methods of funding public assets. However, the barracks are the benchmark for all our military accommodation for single people.
There are many ways in which family accommodation around the country leaves a lot to be desired. I hope that the coalition Government, notwithstanding the financial legacy that the Labour Government bequeathed us, will realise that if we want the best from the best armed forces in the world, we have to provide them with accommodation, and particularly family accommodation, that is fit for purpose.
I ask the Minister to define what is meant by “education” in the Bill. Is it education of the serving man or woman, education of the children of military personnel, or education in the round? I genuinely do not know the answer. In the previous Parliament, the Defence Committee reported on service children’s education. The Armed Forces Bill Committee, when constituted, may want to look back and see what that report said, because the issue is not just the education of our serving military, though that is obviously important—increasingly important, sad to say—but the education of their children.
I mentioned war widows and the fact that they have to pay tax on their pension. I understand from one of the young war widows in my constituency that it is not described as a war widow’s pension. When she has need to mention the pension, the documents do not say that she is a war widow. That, to her, is very important, because her husband lost his life in Afghanistan nearly three years ago. I cannot remember what the description is, but it is not “a war widow’s pension.” It may be just a small tweaking of words that is needed, but it is important.
I pay tribute to the reservists, whom Members have mentioned. We need to see whether we can somehow inject that issue into the Armed Forces Bill. As has been said, reservists are increasingly an important, integral part of service. When I went to Iraq as a member of the previous Armed Forces Bill Committee, we certainly saw a lot of reservists, and I have also seen them in my visits to Afghanistan. They have a very important part to play.
Mention has been made of the cadets. Last year was the 150th anniversary of the Army cadets. Reference has been made to the fact that sea cadets are not funded on the same basis as the Army and air cadets. Perhaps we can look at that in Committee.
Just as a throwaway line, on the overseas territories and the Commonwealth—I asked a parliamentary question on this—please understand that nearly 10% of the British Army is not from the United Kingdom. The Commonwealth obviously accounts for most of that figure, but other nations around the world have citizens serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces.
I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s commendation of reservists, as an ex-reservist myself. Does he have a view about the people who enable reservists to take part in all the activity that we now require them to take part in? When I was a member of the Territorial Army, the most dangerous place we ever went was Warminster, but things are now very different, and I suggest that when we commend soldiers, we should also commend those people, often from quite small businesses, who enable them to undertake their duty on our behalf.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Frequently, without the understanding and support of the employer as regards training and deployment, that could not happen. He is right to draw my attention and that of the House to that point, and I am more than happy to put on record our appreciation of the employers who enable that to happen.
The Bill refers to the Ministry of Defence police. At the commencement of the last Labour Government, there were approximately 30 members of Ministry of Defence police serving on the Colchester garrison lands and properties; there are now three. I have been to see Ministers about that, and have raised the issue in debates time and again, but unfortunately, the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall decided that Colchester garrison now needs only three Ministry of Defence police officers where, 13 years ago, there were 30. That has had a serious impact, and I have flagged this up in the past in Committee, as the officials who were present, and Hansard, will confirm.
Ministry of Defence housing stock was reduced, and houses were sold off and became part of housing for the civilian population. It is a fact that Army family housing has a military, self-imposed discipline, which is sadly not reflected in civilian housing. In Colchester, the former Army housing estates increasingly house private citizens, if I may use that term, who, like any other civilians, have late-night parties and a social life that is not the same as the self-imposed discipline of military families. Over the past two or three years, I have picked up complaints from Army families who say that their lifestyle is being impacted on by the civilian population. If the Ministry of Defence police were there, that would help. They should have been replaced by the Essex constabulary, but with the best will in the world, the Essex constabulary do not have 27 spare police officers to replace the 27 MOD police officers. There has therefore been a huge reduction in policing, and I hope that we can discuss that issue in great detail in Committee.
That is a good question. I do not know the answer, but it is the sort of detail that we should discuss in Committee.
I am talking about a huge reduction in security for the Army families, which is not good. Fortunately, we are living in more peaceful times in the United Kingdom. At the time of the IRA troubles, like any other military town we needed all the security that was going.
No, that is incorrect. A Ministry of Defence police officer has marginally more powers than an ordinary police officer because he is a police officer plus. He has the military addition. We must not get confused with the red caps. In Colchester we now have a combined police station, with the Royal Military Police—the red caps—the Ministry of Defence police and the Essex constabulary all working out of one police station. MOD police officers—as Private Eye calls them, MOD Plod—are police officers plus, because they are also part of the garrison Army family.
Until the last general election, I was one of three parliamentary advisers to the Royal British Legion. As the Labour and Conservative Members who advised it stood down at the election, it decided to end that arrangement. It now has other ways of bringing matters before Parliament. I mention that because reference has been made to the military covenant. Early-day motion 1 in November 2007 was tabled by myself and was eventually signed by 203 Members throughout the House, 17 of whom are now Ministers—four are in the Cabinet, and three are Defence Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who is on the Treasury Bench. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, also signed it, along with Mr Speaker, who was not the Speaker then.
Alongside the Royal British Legion, which does valiant work, we have the Army Benevolent Fund, or ABF The Soldiers Charity, as it likes to be called; Veterans Aid, one of the smaller specialist charities, if I may use that term, which does fantastic work for former military personnel who are at the bottom of the pile and is based down the road in Victoria; Combat Stress; and numerous military, regimental and other charities. We need to get their recommendations, advice and views when we consider welfare and so on. Help For Heroes has taken off. I am pleased to say that one of its first rehabilitation centres, if not the first, will be in Colchester.
I suggest to the Committee that it visit the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester, which takes people from all the services who have been given a custodial sentence and whom the Army, Navy and Air Force wish to have return to the service. The centre is almost like a finishing school. The vast majority of those who go there are Army, it must be said, and the vast majority of those who graduate from it return to their units as better soldiers, sailors or airmen as a consequence. The centre also deals with those who have been given a military sentence before they are discharged. I mention that not because I am advocating that our civilian prisons should become military—far from it; I was very much against a previous Government’s boot camp policy—but because I am sure the civilian Prison Service could benefit from the education and training provided by MCTC.
I conclude by commending the Bill. The debate has been constructive on both sides of the House. There will be differences, but I am sure of the unity of purpose in the Chamber for our armed forces. I hope the Bill will go forward and eventually become an Act.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), as is his wont, added considerably to what has been a long and interesting debate so far this evening, predominantly on clause 2 and the military covenant. By reference to Colchester, the hon. Gentleman made a useful contribution to the debate.
Although the rest of the Bill is extremely important and our armed services would not exist without it, there are others much better qualified than I who will no doubt address the other parts of the Bill later in the debate and in Committee. Therefore I, too, will focus most of my attention on the military covenant.
It is a rather frightening and humbling experience in this place to follow speakers who know so much more about the subject than oneself. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), both of whom know more about the military covenant than most other Members in the Chamber today will ever find out. I pay tribute to their contributions.
I will not seek to equal that or compete with it. I shall focus on the concept of the covenant, why it is there, what it does, and in particular, what the Bill does to strengthen it. The covenant has, of course, existed for many years. I speak from two personal areas of experience. The first is as chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces. Several of my co-chairmen and vice-chairmen are present in the Chamber this evening. It is a humbling experience to see each of the brigades returning from Afghanistan marching through Carriage Gates, arriving at the east door of Westminster Hall and going down to the Terrace for a reception.
At the most recent event, when 4 Mechanised Brigade arrived, I was particularly struck by one soldier wearing his combat kit cut off where his boxer shorts would be. It was only afterwards that I discovered the reason. He was marching in the column. He was not a casualty. The reason for that rather unusual form of military dress was that the third degree burns to his legs were so severe that he was unable to take even the light cotton of desert combats against the skin. None the less, he was determined to march in with the rest of them. I pay tribute to such people. Very few of those in the Chamber tonight could compete with that level of true heroism.
I say the same thing about many of the people whom I meet week by week and day by day in the high street of Wootton Bassett. Large numbers of the regiments and the fallen soldiers’ families come to our events in Wootton Bassett, which are held twice a week. The heroism that they show and the bravery and pride that the families show about their close relative who has been killed in Afghanistan is a humbling experience.
With that as background, we have to think about what we as a nation and as a Parliament are doing with regard to our armed services. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire asked whether the military covenant was about improving the lot of soldiers by comparison with other citizens, or whether it was about removing the disadvantage suffered by soldiers. If somebody has to serve under the most appalling privations, as they do in Afghanistan and elsewhere; if somebody has to close the Queen’s enemy, risk being killed by them or, even worse, have to kill them, not something that any of us would want to do; if somebody has to risk the most appalling injuries, to which some of those whom we have seen visit Parliament over the years stand tribute; and if somebody has to suffer as our soldiers suffer, we as a nation owe them more than we owe other public servants.
Of course, public servants such as firemen and all sorts of people do useful things, but, when we require a person by his job to do the things that we require our soldiers to do, we owe them more than we owe any other public servant. So, with the military covenant, we ought to seek not just to resolve the disadvantages that our soldiers face, but to add to the covenant the idea of improved citizenship, as I think my hon. Friend called it.
A number of us in the Chamber have been out to Afghanistan, and I was there not so long ago with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). When one says to soldiers and, come to that, sailors and airmen, “What sort of things are you worried about? What are your problems here on the very front line? Are you worried about the kit?”, the answer by and large is, “No, we are not. The kit that we are issued with now is second to none in the world.” When one asks, “Are you worried about the Taliban, being shot at, being deployed, being hungry, being cold or the desert conditions?”, one finds that they are not concerned about that at all. Those of us who come to this place and say that somehow or other our soldiers are worried about that sort of thing are wrong. When one meets someone on the very front line and asks, “What is it you are most worried about in your service career?”, they say, “I am worried about the family back at home, the housing, my pay and conditions and what I am going to do after I have left the Army.” They are not worried about the ordinary, run-of-the-mill occupation of being a soldier, because they signed up. They recognise the dangers of being shot at, killed, serving in awful conditions and all those things. What they do not recognise are the appalling consequences for their marriages, families and lives after they have left the services.
Earlier in the debate, there was a rather sterile, academic and statistical discussion of whether a disproportionate number of soldiers find themselves imprisoned or suffer from drug or drink abuse after they have left the services. Those people do suffer after they come back, however, and it is thanks to us sending them there—our decision in this place. We decide to send them to Afghanistan. They face all those privations, they come back and many experience prison or mental, drug or alcohol problems thereafter, and we have to bear responsibility for that and put it right.
The military covenant aspect of the Bill is in some ways the most important part, although all the legislation has much to recommend it. With that as a background, it is important that we first thank and congratulate the Government on their commitment to recognise the military covenant and to put it into law. Secondly, we should very much recognise that they have taken some steps to do so, and that in the Bill we have clause 2, because in the military covenant’s long history it has never once been recognised in law.
Without being difficult, however, I have a couple of questions for the Government on which Ministers might choose to brood before they come to reply. First, I have some difficulties with the constitutional aspect of taking something that should be a ministerial or political duty and trying to put it into law. Law is something for which there is a sanction if it is not adhered to, so I wonder what would happen if some subsequent Government—I am sure not this one—20 years from now failed to fulfil the covenant. What would be the sanction against the Secretary of State? Would he come before the House and get ticked off? Would he go to prison, pay a fine or lose his job? What would be the sanction inherent in the Secretary of State failing to perform under clause 2? The same applies to a number of Bills that we passed before the general election on climate change and child poverty. They are not capable of sanction, and I slightly wonder whether there is a constitutional difficulty with putting the covenant in the Bill as it has been. In other words, should it not be a matter about which Ministers are overwhelmingly concerned, whether or not it is written into law? If they were not, they would lose power at a subsequent general election, so there is quite an interesting constitutional conundrum in the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend also agree that there is a danger regarding who decides whether the law has been broken? Will the matter go before the courts? Will we see judicial intervention on the matter of whether the Secretary of State for Defence has broken the military covenant?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point—exactly what I was driving at. Who decides whether the provisions of the clause have been achieved in years to come?
That leads to me to the second part of my question. My party’s manifesto went to great lengths to say how important the covenant was and how we as a party in government would put it into law. We talked about a broad spectrum of things in the run-up to the general election, but before us we have a relatively modest clause, simply saying that the Secretary of State will bring forward a report once a year. He will draft it and say what is in it, although it will be about education, housing and health care and in such other fields as the Secretary of State may determine. So, he will sit down, write a little essay about all the things that he has done to achieve the military covenant and bring it before the House.
We do not know from the Bill whether there will be an oral statement, thereby allowing hon. Members to question him, a written statement or a statement to the Defence Committee, thereby enabling us to scrutinise it carefully. What form will the statement take, and what powers will the House have to hold the Secretary of State’s feet to the fire? Is it possible to imagine a situation in which he comes to the House and in his report says, “I am extremely sorry. This year we have broken the military covenant in a great many ways and done terribly the wrong thing by our armed forces”? Of course not. The Secretary of State will come along every year with his statement and say, “Look what marvellous things we have done with regard to the covenant,” and hope not to be too carefully cross-examined over it.
Given how strongly I feel about the importance of the military covenant, and given that I feel we owe it to our soldiers, sailors and airmen, whom we ask to do such awful things that we ourselves would never consider doing, I slightly question—I do not mean to be disloyal—whether the clause achieves what the coalition Government set out to achieve. Is it actually a rather sad little clause? Could it be strengthened? When the Minister responds to the debate, I would like to know in particular how the Government see it operating. Will it be a mechanism by which this House holds the Government to account? Will it enable us to hold the Minister’s feet to the fire and say, “Secretary of State, you’re not living up to the military covenant. You’ve broken it”? Or is it just going to be a little PR exercise, enabling successive Secretaries of State to say, “Haven’t we done well by way of the military covenant?” If it is, it will be not worth the paper it is written on.
I declare an interest as a serving member of the reserve forces. Unlike my smart friends who were in the Chamber earlier, my hon. Friends the Members for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), I am a private soldier, not an officer. I had the honour and privilege of taking part in Operation Herrick 9 in Afghanistan with 3 Commando Brigade as a gunner in the ranks and enjoyed it very much, so I suppose that gives me a different perspective. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, who said he was not going to be partisan, I am, so I hope that anybody reading Hansard tomorrow will see that my speech was not delivered by an officer and understand where I sit on the political spectrum.
Today’s debate on the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill is most welcome. Since the first few weeks of the coalition, the Government have put the welfare of our nation’s servicemen and women at the top of the political agenda and moved swiftly to ensure that any lapses in the commitment between the Government and our armed forces are rectified.
I am concerned that the result of the strategic defence review and the basing decisions now being taken might have caused some uncertainty—I am thinking of RAF Marham in my constituency. What is my hon. Friend’s view on how to maintain the military covenant in these difficult times?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. We Members have a responsibility to ensure that, when there are issues in our own constituencies, we bring them to the House, question Ministers and raise them in debates, so that it is on the public record that we are doing our utmost the protect the interests of service people in our constituencies.
I shall focus my contribution, as others Members have, on clause 2, which I very much welcome. It ensures that provision is made to place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the effects of service in our armed forces and on the welfare of serving and former members of the armed forces and that of their families. That provision will ensure that the military covenant, which the Government are rebuilding, will be advanced year on year.
We ask our armed forces personnel on operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere to face paying the ultimate price for the protection of our country, its citizens and our freedoms and way of life. We should do that only if they are properly equipped for the task, if they are trained to the highest possible level and if they and their families are provided for when they retire, or are wounded or killed, in recognition and admiration of the sacrifices that they have made.
The unwritten contract between the state and the men and women whom we ask to defend it is rightly a long-standing tradition. In the dangerous, unstable world that we face today, and in the ongoing war on terror, its continuation and development is more important than ever before. Disappointingly, the previous Administration reneged on the covenant. They did not adequately equip our troops for the most hostile of conflicts, they neglected the welfare of our service families, our injured personnel and our veterans, and they left a £38 billion hole in the Ministry of Defence budget at a time of war.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his valiant service overseas; I know that he still hopes to go back.
Government Members are so keen to talk about the £38 billion hole. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that that comes from a single line of a National Audit Office report that actually said that if future Governments did not adequately fund commitments through this decade there would then be a £38 billion hole? It was not referring to the previous decades of funding, but to the forthcoming decade. It is therefore possibly not quite accurate.
There is not only a £38 billion hole in the defence budget, but a £40 billion hole in respect of cuts that were not allocated and a structural deficit of £109 billion. Every single household in this country is effectively borrowing £4,000 this year as a result. Is that not an outrageous state of affairs?
Yes, it is. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that point to the debate.
If Labour Members have any uncertainty about the extent of the neglect that they caused, the evidence in the results of the May 2010 armed forces continuous attitudes survey may offer some clarification. It showed that just 32% of serving personnel said that they felt valued. Let today’s debate be one of the first crucial steps that we take to restore the moral commitment that was broken—the crucial step that will ensure that our armed forces have the support that they need and that their families and former service personnel are treated with the dignity that they deserve.
It was a great encouragement that on 11 June last year, not even a month into the new Parliament, the Prime Minister announced that the operational allowance for the armed forces would be doubled and backdated from 6 May. From the very start, the Government have ensured that the welfare of our service personnel is at the very top of their agenda.
In the programme for government, the coalition set out its policies for rebuilding the military covenant, all of which are aimed at improving the welfare of service personnel, veterans and their families. That is more than just words on a page; the Government have acted swiftly to ensure that the military covenant will be enshrined in law so that never again will our promise to the servicemen and women of our country be broken. The informal understanding of the state’s duty of care to its armed forces will cease to be regarded as an obligation; it will be a firm rule that all future Governments will have to adhere to. As the Prime Minister said, the time has come for our commitment to be
“refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that’s written into the law of the land.”
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous. He is absolutely right to say what should happen, but does he not accept that the one group of people who are not legally responsible will be the Government? They are putting legal responsibilities on local government and the health service, but not on the MOD. That is a shabby situation.
As I just said, the fact that for the first time the military covenant will be enshrined in law is a massive step forward in accountability.
In early December, Professor Hew Strachan published the report, commissioned by the Government, that his independent task force developed. As a demonstration of their commitment, the Government immediately began work on implementing two of the report’s recommendations: the armed forces community covenant, which encourages communities across the UK to volunteer support for their local armed forces; and a Chief of the Defence Staff commendation scheme, which will allow the head of the UK’s armed forces to thank individuals or bodies who give exceptional support to the armed forces. Those are great initiatives along the way to restoring the covenant, and I look forward to the full response of the defence personnel, welfare and veterans Minister to the report in the spring.
It is a great honour to speak in this debate. I am conscious that night draws inexorably onwards, so I shall try to keep my remarks as brief as possible.
This debate on the Armed Forces Bill is an historic one. That is not so much because of the provisions, some of which may appear a little pedestrian, but because it is one of the great parliamentary symbols, such as the Outlawries Bill or the Septennial Act—one of the great reminders of the struggles that we have had through the centuries to build liberty over tyranny in our country. Some Members have already mentioned that we now ask our servicemen and women more often to go abroad and fight for liberty, to protect our liberty here at home.
Each Armed Forces Bill seems to contain some innovation; as a new boy, I am learning that. The last such Bill—now an Act—enshrined a single set of military law. The great innovation of this Bill is to provide the Secretary of State with an obligation to prepare and present to Parliament an armed services report—a military covenant report, if you will—that will detail a range of issues in the Bill. I am thinking of how the Government and the nation will build their responsibilities in respect of our armed forces.
As the Royal British Legion has driven the updating of the military covenant, perhaps its representatives should be involved in the Secretary of State’s annual report to make sure that they are satisfied.
Incidentally, Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise. I said that you had signed the early-day motion that I mentioned. That was not quite correct. You seconded it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that the Minister will take account of his suggestion that the Royal British Legion should be able to give advice about the content of the report.
Many Members have focused on clause 2, and that demonstrates its importance and the interest that we all have in it. Last year, the Prime Minister said that we all—the Government, the private sector and voluntary organisations—have a responsibility to go that extra mile for our armed forces. There is no doubt that over the past several years, our armed forces family and those beyond it have taken the view that we have not gone the extra mile for them.
Colleagues have already mentioned that on the very day of the general election last year, the armed forces continuous attitudes survey showed that just 32%—less than a third—of our armed forces feel that they are valued. Such a report on such a day sent a clear message to the outgoing Government that soldiers, sailors and airmen and women felt that that Government had failed them. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I should say that it sent a clear message to the incoming Government that our military expects a lot more of them.
The writing has been on the wall for a few years. General Guthrie said as far back as 2007 that the Government were failing to keep their side of the bargain in the military covenant. A friend serving in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who has been to Afghanistan said the same thing in rather more colourful language that it is not parliamentary to repeat here this side of the watershed. If personnel from the Chief of the Defence staff all the way down to a solider driving a recovery vehicle around Helmand are saying the same, we have a real challenge to rebuild faith between our national leaders and our armed forces. That is a challenge the Government must meet. In introducing the Bill and clause 2—the provision for the military covenant report—we are beginning to meet that challenge. We are sending a signal to our armed forces that the things that they and their friends and families are concerned about are the things that the Government are also concerned about and will act upon. I commend clause 2.
I hope that when the Secretary of State and his colleagues consider what should be included in the report—my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) made this point—they will take great heed of and look closely at the work of Professor Strachan and his taskforce and their recommendations to bring to life the military covenant. Two things need to be included in the report to give it teeth: first, forces’ accommodation, which has already been mentioned and is in the Bill and the Strachan report; secondly, personnel kit and training, which is neither in the Bill nor the Strachan report, unless I have missed it.
It is a very old joke to say that soldiers like to grumble, but it is no joke when 36% of servicemen and their families who live in services accommodation say that the accommodation is below standard. That is one of the biggest complaints I hear from my friends and constituents who are in the military. If we are prepared to send young men and women overseas to risk their lives, we can at least ensure that we give them and their families a decent roof over their heads here at home. I therefore hope that the Government will look closely at the Strachan recommendations to enhance accommodation allowances. I know that we are in difficult economic straits, but I hope that the Government will consider that recommendation.
I also hope that the Government will consider expanding the shared equity scheme pilot introduced by the previous Government, and that the Secretary of State will ask the Chancellor to sit down with the banks and persuade them to offer forces-friendly mortgages, so that we can get more service people into their own accommodation. It seems to be a sensible long-term aspiration to offer servicemen and women and their families the opportunity of a stable home with a fixed address and a foot on the property ladder. Incidentally, that would also offer an opportunity to the Ministry of Defence to reduce some of the forces’ accommodation costs, which are currently running at about £285 million a year. The state of some services accommodation, which needs to be improved, means that those costs will only increase. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the recommendations of the Strachan report, and I hope particularly that the Treasury will be invited to look at them.
I would also like to discuss servicemen and women’s kit and training. Those issues have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—neither of whom is in his seat—which demonstrates there is some bipartisanship on the issue. One of my oldest friends is an officer serving with the Royal Welsh who has two tours of Afghanistan under his belt. An issue that he raises continually with me is that although, as Members from all parties have said, it is right that the kit provided to servicemen and women deployed to operations has improved considerably, the time available to train in the kit has not. All too many of them say that all too often kit such as the ACOG rifle sight and Osprey body armour are provided only just before they deploy on operational service, so they are not as prepared as they might be because they have not had enough time to train with it before they deploy. We are also told that Vallon metal detectors, which are essential in identifying mines, are not widely available for training purposes, as that sort of kit should be. I hope that when my right hon. and hon. Friends think about the content of the covenant report, they will consider including such issues so that our servicemen and women feel that we are as serious about their safety abroad as we are about their welfare here at home.
In a short space of time, and despite the difficult economic circumstances that we face, the Government have made some great strides forward in rebuilding the military covenant by doubling the operational hours, maximising R and R, introducing the covenant report, investing £189 million in new kit, and spending another £67 million on countering IEDs. That shows that they have an unbending resolve to support the welfare of our armed forces, and I hope that we get that message across.
I have been looking at the MOD website, where there is a quote that defines a serviceman’s covenant:
“In putting the needs of the Nation, The Army and others before their own, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. So, at the very least, British soldiers should always the expect the Nation and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals, and to sustain and reward them and their families.”
That is as succinct and straightforward a compact as could be written, and I trust that the Secretary of State will include it as the foreword to his every report.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate.
I am a Member of Parliament for one of Britain’s principal naval ports and the issues raised in this Bill will resonate in one of the homes of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. In the course of the past 10 years, I have promised that I would say to Ministers that Plymouth is not Portsmouth—we are not 20 minutes away from Bristol, and we need to ensure that we are not ignored. One of the things that the Government could do, if they were so minded, is to consider making Plymouth the centre for the veterans weekend in 2012. I know very well that my right hon. Friends have heard that before, but it is worth repeating on a regular basis.
Going to war is not just about bombs and bullets; rather, it is about those people who put their lives at risk to defend British interests, and about protecting our freedoms and our way of life. If we expect our servicemen and women to fight for this cause, we have to make sure that they feel valued—that is incredibly important. This Bill, together with the military covenant, goes some way towards delivering that, and I hope that it will play very well down in Plymouth.
In just a few weeks’ time, 3 Commando Brigade, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) served a little while ago, and which is based in my constituency, will be deployed back in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 14. War, of course, is not a means in itself—it is the final episode following our failure, as politicians, to get a diplomatic solution to the problems that face regions of the world. I have always been, and am, very supportive of the interventions that we have made in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but I am well aware that we failed to think through the exit strategy that would leave those countries with a stronger political leadership and able to deliver peace and a strengthened economy. The public were initially behind both conflicts, but as time moved on, the number of casualties rose and they looked increasingly like becoming stalemates, so public support waned.
The quid pro quo for those who fight for their country is that they should be valued. I hope that the Bill goes some way towards delivering on that contract. As an aside, I believe that we must spend more time and effort in looking at ways to avoid conflict. The old adage that prevention is better than cure rings true. For too long, we have seen defence just in terms of scenes from films such as “Saving Private Ryan”. Our priority should be to do more to prevent conflicts and to ensure that servicemen and women are valued when they make their sacrifices. Placing a warship in a port can make a real statement. When President Obama put a US aircraft carrier off Korea recently, it helped to calm down the potential for conflict in the far east.
Inevitably, war has produced dreadful legacies not only in the countries where conflicts have taken place, but for the lives of servicemen and women and their families. That is why I will certainly support the Bill in the Lobbies tonight, should there be a Division. It will make it a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State for Defence to make an annual report to Parliament on the military covenant. I take on board the points of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). One thing that we can do is to ensure that we have a regular debate of this sort for a full day, just as we are doing today, so that such issues can be aired.
The Bill will enshrine the military covenant in law. If we are asking our service personnel to put their lives on the line, Parliament must not only give them the kit, pay and the health and social conditions to do the job; the military covenant says that the state should also maintain a long-term duty of care for them and their families.
When the names of the casualties are read out in this House, we always say, “We will remember them.” That places on us a requirement to remember them by looking after their wives, children and husbands for the rest of their lives. That is included in the military covenant, although it may not be written down. We have a responsibility to care deeply for people who have given their lives in the service of our country. We must not just say, “We will remember them,” because we do not remember them individually, but we should remember them by caring for the people whom they have left behind.
My hon. Friend makes a fair and timely point. Shortly before Christmas, I attended a Christmas party for the families of serving personnel with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). Those families were apprehensive about the departure of their partners and family members to Afghanistan and prayed that they would come back without physical or mental injury.
That brings me to the crux of what I wanted to say: mental health among veterans is a growing problem. This weekend, I was told by Combat Stress that the King’s Centre for Military Health Research published a report recently that warned that almost a quarter of Iraq veterans admitted to suffering from mental ill health. Many have depression and turn to alcohol and drugs. In my city of Plymouth, we have to come to terms with that issue.
Will the hon. Gentleman, from my neighbouring seat in Plymouth, join me in commending Hasler Company at HMS Drake, which I was fortunate enough to visit again last Friday, for the excellent work that it does for people with complex problems, particularly mental health problems? Will he join me in encouraging it to keep doing what it is doing? Sadly it needs some additional funding. It is getting some from the Royal British Legion, I believe, and certainly from Help for Heroes, and I hope that the Government will consider supporting it as well.
I most certainly join the hon. Lady in that, and I thank her for her intervention—I must say that I have some trepidation when Members decide to intervene on me, for obvious reasons.
The King’s Centre found that nearly 5% of Iraq veterans display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It believes, having projected its statistics on to the 180,000 servicemen and women who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, that as many as 48,000 veterans could suffer from some form of mental health problem, and that 9,000 could potentially develop PTSD.
Last October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the Government would implement the recommendations of the excellent “Fighting Fit” report written by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who sadly is not in his place at the moment. I pay tribute to him for the hard work that he undertook. The report contains 13 action points, including funding for an additional 30 mental health nurses and a dedicated 24-hour helpline for veterans.
The 2011 to 2015 Ministry of Defence business plan outlines a number of deadlines, including for drawing up a detailed plan to implement the recommendations of my hon. Friend’s report. I understand that that plan was completed in December. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could confirm when and if it will be published and put into the public domain. I would be grateful also if he could explain why the MOD’s structural reform plan monthly implementation update is still not complete, despite the deadline having been in November. I am happy for him to write to me about that, so I am not asking for a result this evening. Perhaps he could tell me when the production of the update might be achieved.
I know that there is a March deadline in the MOD’s business plan for the introduction of 30 mental health nurses, and it would be helpful if we could be told whether that is still on track and what measures the Government are undertaking to deliver greater co-ordination between the charitable sector, Plymouth city council and other organisations.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must know not only when the Government are going to implement the recommendations in the excellent report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) but whether that implementation will be fully funded? There is precious little purpose in having the report in the first place if its 13 recommendations are not fully funded. I hope that the Minister will let us know whether those recommendations will be funded to the letter.
That is a very fair point.
Plymouth is proud of its Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Army heritage. It has a large number of veterans—I suspect, although I have no proof, that it has one of the largest numbers in the south-west. It is a wonderful place to which to retire, where people can play golf and sail, and there seem to be an awful lot of people there who have been in the services. I understand that Combat Stress now has a regional welfare officer working in Sir Francis Drake’s home city, and I look forward to meeting the welfare officer in the near future.
All of us in Plymouth want to play a significant part in delivering the reforms that the Bill heralds. I would welcome a chance to meet Ministers to discuss how we might work with our friends in the Department of Health, the city council, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and other charitable organisations to help the Government implement the “Fighting Fit” agenda in our historic part of the south-west. Failure to get the matter right in that city, which I am proud to represent, could have a severe impact on our local services, so I firmly believe that it needs to be action stations today.
I represent Dover and Deal, which today still feels like they are at the front line of the nation in its dealings with the continent, not all of which have been happy in the past. Not so long ago, in the second world war, we were the front line and responsible for helping ensure the success of Dunkirk. Before that, in the 18th century, the channel fleet was stationed off the coast of Deal and we retain a strong link with the Royal Marines. I was privileged to be at the installation of the captain general of the Royal Marines as the captain of Deal castle. We also have the lord warden of the cinque ports in Walmer castle, Admiral Boyce, and a brigadier in Dover castle.
The constituency feels strongly about the military covenant. It has a strong cadet movement. It is a privilege for me to be the honorary president of the Deal Air Training Corps, 2235 squadron. It is a considerable privilege for us to have so many Gurkhas living in Dover and Deal, who go on active service and do great things for our nation. I am therefore proud of what our constituency has achieved in the service of this nation and of our military links. The constituency takes a strong and passionate view of the military covenant.
As someone who deeply respects all those who put their bodies and minds in danger on our behalf, I want to stress how pleased I am that we are finally putting the military covenant on to a statutory footing in clause 2. It is absolutely right that the Bill will give the military covenant the increased recognition that it should have had long ago. By enacting the measure, we will give legislative force to the “Army Doctrine Publication”, particularly chapter 1.
However, it is not a no-cost option to back the military covenant in statute. With it comes responsibility, which, in recent years, has been lacking. We must ensure that service personnel and their families are properly cared for, not only in health but when they are hurt, particularly when that hurt happens on active service. What has been going on is not good enough. However, each small measure brings us closer to what we mean by the term “military covenant”.
I can do little better than quote from chapter 1 of the “Army Doctrine Publication”, which states:
“Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices—including the ultimate sacrifice—in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the nation and the Army before their own, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service… This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant”.
Chapter 3 states:
“The system’s loyalty to the individual—its obligation in the Military Covenant—is manifested in justice, fair rewards, and life-long support to all who have soldiered”.
The reason for the national debate on the military covenant is the sense that that lifelong support had wavered, that the nation was not completely on the side of the military, as it should have been, and that the military did not have the backing and support that it should have had.
Recently, senior officers such as Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, said:
“There is now a feeling—probably stronger than I can ever recall—that the Government are not keeping their side of the bargain and honouring the Military Covenant”.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, said in his Chief of General Staff’s briefing team report in June 2007:
“My firm aim is to restore the balance of the Military Covenant—it is clearly out of kilter at the moment”.
The Royal British Legion raised its concerns in its general election manifesto, “It’s time to do your bit”. It called for Government action to ensure three key matters: that families of service personnel were properly looked after; that bereaved families were given the support that they need, and that veterans were properly looked after, with health care and poverty fighting prioritised. These points were hammered home to me by my own excellent and active British Legion in Deal, which time and again has raised this issue and pressed for action. Wider concerns have also been raised about mental health, forces accommodation—we often hear about that—armed forces equipment and personal kit, compensation, and even voter registration. As a result of these concerns, morale in our armed forces is not as high as it should be.
The latest armed forces survey found that only 35% of personnel were satisfied with equipment and only 32% felt valued at a basic level, while 37% said morale was too low and 36% said accommodation was not good enough. Such statistics should concern all Members, and they highlight why it is right that in bringing forward clause 2 we hammer home that we are on the side of our armed forces, so that they know that when we put them in harm’s way and they are under fire, our hearts and minds are with them and they have our full support and backing.
The clause’s requirement that the Secretary of State must make a report every year is welcome because it will focus minds that bit more. It is right that health, education and housing should be specifically listed, and I hope that the Secretary of State will also consider including priority health care. I look forward to seeing the new tri-service covenant. Priority health care matters a lot because survey after survey has shown that most GPs have not got a clue about that principle and most hospitals do not know much about it either. We must hammer home the message that our armed forces and veterans should have that priority.
The House of Commons Library has produced an excellent research paper briefing, and I suggest that Ministers should take into account what it says. It observes that the Bill does not explicitly state what welfare provisions must be provided for under the military covenant, such as priority health care, or any minimum standards of care. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the sort of detail that we will want in the Bill when we get it into Committee?
I am not certain that just chucking that in the Bill is the most important thing, but I hope very much that the Secretary of State will pick up on my hon. Friend’s comments, and also on the other issues mentioned, and that he will make sure that they are given a proper hearing and are properly understood. I hope he will make sure he puts them in his report.
We should enable the Secretary of State to have that kind of flexibility because other issues that our armed forces are very concerned about, and that will need to be addressed, will arise. The three issues I have mentioned are included in the Bill, but I hope that priority health care will be as well. It is important that when people who serve in our nation’s cause return home, they are properly looked after, because they are much more likely to have serious health issues, mental as well as physical. It is right that we as a country honour that covenant and ensure that they get priority treatment because of their service.
It is right that we should have had Professor Strachan’s report. I do not agree with the Opposition that it is just a damp squib that is a bit wishy-washy and not very interesting. It is important that there is the armed forces community covenant. It is important that the accommodation scheme, which is there to thank people who give their support through the armed forces, is in place, because it will engender a sense of direction and the message that it is right to be on the side of our boys and girls out in the field and that we should support our armed forces.
It is also right that the Government give further, and more detailed, consideration to the other measures that were in the report. That is why the Opposition are wrong to write off this report. It encourages greater help in respect of military housing and greater home ownership. It also proposes that there should be a champion for veterans and better training.
We have also discussed the issue of medals this evening. Some want to hand them out like confetti at a wedding, while others want to be more parsimonious. Whatever happens in that respect, it is important that the MOD makes the following change: the citations for medals should be public from the beginning. I have a constituency case involving a Mr Pile who has written to me saying that he wants to tell his children about his father’s heroic activities. What could be better than for someone to balance their kids on their knee and say, “Do you know what your grandfather did? He served heroically, he got a medal and here is the citation”? But he cannot get his own father’s citation, because he fell out with his stepmother and his father is dead, so the MOD has said, “Sorry, data protection! You can’t know the citation.” So he cannot tell his own children.
Actually, he can get his citation, if it is a gallantry award, because it will be in the London Gazette, unless there are special circumstances. If my hon. Friend is saying that there should be citations for campaign medals, that is extremely difficult, because everyone who serves for 28 days—or whatever the qualifying period is—gets the medal. The only way someone could get a citation for that is to understand what the campaign was about. Citations for gallantry medals are obtainable via the London Gazette.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend. This issue was raised with me, and the MOD wrote to me saying, “Data protection means that we cannot tell you.” The position is ludicrous. All medal citations should be automatically public and transparent.
Finally, the doubling of the operational allowance and the Government’s efforts to increase the rest and recuperation for military personal have been positive steps. However, there needs to be an improvement on kit and operational duties. That is vital. We have started to see that, which I welcome, and I also welcome the Bill and the military covenant finally being enshrined in law.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke).
We have made it clear that Labour will support the Bill, not least because it is a continuation of key reforms introduced by the previous Government. The Armed Forces Act 2006 resulted in the biggest overhaul of the system of military law for 50 years. It consolidated and modernised all the previous service discipline Acts and replaced them with a single system of service law applicable to all service personnel wherever they are based in the world. The Act introduced a fair, modern system of criminal justice to the armed forces while recognising the special circumstances, risks, dangers and demands that we place on service personnel.
The Bill will build on the 2006 Act and introduce other important reforms, including measures to increase the powers of the service police and provisions to strengthen their structural independence. The Bill will ensure that the service police disciplinary systems are consistent with the European convention on human rights; introduce the service sexual offences prevention orders to protect members of the service community outside the UK; strengthen the independence and impartiality of service complaints and procedures; and update regulations protecting prisoners of war detained by UK forces. We on the Labour Benches welcome those changes.
The reforms that we introduced in the 2006 Act, which will be continued and updated through this Bill, were part of a wider body of work by the previous Government not just to improve the system of law governing the armed forces, but to show our wider commitment to the brave servicemen and women in recognition of the unique contribution they make on our behalf. We have heard many excellent speeches in which numerous Members have praised our armed forces. They are right to do so, and I will add my own tribute, particularly to those serving in Afghanistan right now. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women who do extremely dangerous and difficult work in conflict zones all over the globe. They are a generation who have seen active service in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, working hard to protect us and make our world a safer place.
We must not forget those who have gone before, those who have been injured and those who have lost their lives—veterans of conflicts going right back to world war two—who fought to secure the freedom that we enjoy today; and we must not forget the families of our armed forces and veterans. It places great strain on loved ones when husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters spend many months at a time away from home. Service families make huge sacrifices to support those on the front line, and we owe them just as big a debt of gratitude as we do those in combat. We owe it to them to help them address the unique challenges they face as the families of servicemen and women. We also heard today about the important role of reservists and cadets from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and other hon. Members, some of whom are reservists themselves.
The previous Labour Government were the first to deliver a cross-government approach to forces welfare. The service personnel Command Paper, published in summer 2008, set out improved access to housing schemes and health care, free access to further and higher education for service leavers with six years’ service, and extended travel concessions for veterans and those seriously injured. We guaranteed fair pay for all our forces—that included the first ever tax-free bonus for those on operations abroad—while strengthening our support for their welfare. We invested hundreds of millions of pounds to reverse a legacy of decades of neglect in forces accommodation. The level of homelessness among service leavers was sharply reduced and the law was changed to give them better access to social housing. We also introduced Armed Forces day and veterans badges to make sure that the achievements and contributions of all our armed forces heroes are properly recognised.
Labour’s 2010 manifesto proposed enshrining in law the rights of forces, their families and veterans in an armed forces charter, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) mentioned. I am delighted that this Government have agreed on the need to improve the military covenant by guaranteeing rights in law, although we still await specific plans to make that a reality.
We heard much about rebuilding the military covenant, including in considered contributions from the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). As the Opposition, we have made it clear that we will support the Government on measures to show further our commitment and duty of care to our armed forces. However, as the shadow Secretary of State set out, we have some important questions for the Government on their position on the military covenant.
The Bill contains a specific proposal that the Secretary of State will publish an annual report on the Government’s progress on the military covenant. We have heard discussion of the external reference group, which the previous Government established to chart the progress made by Departments in delivering the commitments made to our armed forces in the service personnel Command Paper. The ERG includes representatives from service charities and service families federations, and provides an unbiased and independent progress report. I am aware that informal assurances have been given that the group will be consulted, but that is quite different from the ERG producing its own report. Unfortunately, MOD Ministers were accused in newspaper reports yesterday of politicising the military covenant. That may not be the intention of the Government, but we are very concerned that the important independent scrutiny in the form of a progress report by the ERG is being removed. That concern was raised by the shadow Secretary of State, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and by some on the Government Back Benches, including the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). The Royal British Legion has called for an assurance to be given that the ERG will be retained and will continue to produce its own annual report. As such, I urge the Government to re-examine the matter to ensure that both Parliament and the public have an objective view on the Government’s progress or otherwise. If that does not happen, the independent expert scrutiny provided by the group may well, unfortunately, be lost.
Excellent as the external reference group is, does the hon. Lady agree that it has one major defect, which is that it is not answerable to this House? The Bill’s proposal strengthens that area considerably by saying that Ministers must come here to explain to us what they have done on the military covenant. That does not happen with the existing report.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As we have said, we welcome the fact that such a debate will take place in this House. However, as I have also said, we are in danger of losing the independent scrutiny that the ERG provides and we do not want that to happen.
I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend’s comments about the ERG, because I am sure that we will want to tease out and press these issues a little further in Committee. If she intended to cover this next issue later, I hope she will forgive me for asking about it now. I visited my local naval base on Friday, when I was made aware that the MOD police are very concerned about cuts in their numbers as a result of cutbacks. How will that affect their ability to carry out the additional investigative work that is set out in the Bill, which of course we welcome?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the gap between Government rhetoric and action. The cuts mean that we will not necessarily see action living up to what is being promised. The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said that we need some indication of what the outcome of the covenant report will be. It would be appreciated if the Minister said whether there will be any tangible measure of whether the Government have made progress on armed forces welfare.
As I have said, we are awaiting specific proposals from the Government on what the new covenant will include and when it will be written into law as promised. We do not yet know what welfare provisions will be included, or what minimum standards of care there should be under the military covenant. Some existing problems were raised by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). The Government commissioned a taskforce to make recommendations, and it has now reported. They have accepted two of the taskforce’s recommendations, but we are still waiting for the full response.
When the Government do make their full response, they should pay due attention to the taskforce’s view that
“Meeting obligations to the military community should not impose significant costs on local government”.
I would be grateful for a guarantee that any measures that are implemented as part of the military covenant will be fully costed and funded, and that the costs will not merely be passed on to local authorities or the NHS.
I raise with the Minister, as I did at Defence questions last month, the issue of the veterans card, which the taskforce specifically recommended. The previous Government proposed introducing a veterans card, which would help service providers to identify former members of the armed forces to enable them to get better treatment and better access to treatment. At that time, the plans were welcomed by the Royal British Legion, but since coming into power the Government have scrapped those plans, and the veterans Minister, in letters to hon. Members, ruled out an ID card for veterans. Given that the taskforce has recommended that, will the Minister now give a specific commitment, which he did not do last month, to reconsider that matter and the Government’s position on the veterans card?
The taskforce report appears to encourage home ownership to reduce the cost of upgrading existing service accommodation. Measures that assist service personnel to gain better access to the housing market are welcome, but can the Minister give a guarantee that the policy of merely encouraging greater home ownership among the armed forces will not be adopted instead of upgrading service accommodation? The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife rightly acknowledged that we have some way to go on that.
The taskforce report suggests that service personnel should be shown special treatment where individuals have been seriously injured, and we obviously support that view, but the taskforce report also states that it
“has assumed that it is not the role of the government to provide special privileges for Service personnel across the board.”
The idea behind the military covenant is surely that the unique nature of military service should be recognised in the provision that the Government make for their servicemen and women. Can the Minister say whether the taskforce was correct to make that assumption, and does he agree that the Government should not provide special privileges for service personnel across the board? That would somewhat change the expected nature of the covenant and the legislative entitlements that have been promised.
Much of the report focuses on suggested measures to be taken at local level. Indeed, one of the two accepted recommendations, which has already been implemented, is on the armed forces community covenant. That is a welcome step. The Government must, however, be careful about being over-reliant on local measures to reinforce the military covenant. Indeed, the report highlights problems with the application of a 50% council tax discount for those serving overseas. That highlights the postcode lottery that can result when decisions are taken locally. A heavy reliance on local and voluntary measures would contradict the Government’s stated intention to enshrine the military covenant in law.
Parties on both sides of the House have pledged to support the memorial to the 55,573 airmen of Bomber Command who died in world war two. The Bomber Command Association raised the £5 million necessary to pay for the memorial in Green park, but the Government scheme that exempts memorials from VAT expired on 4 January. The association is now faced with raising another £250,000. What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor and has he requested that the Treasury waives the VAT to allow the memorial to go ahead?
I have covered some of the specific questions about the content of the taskforce’s report, but let me return to some of the more general issues. I want to know what more we can expect from the Government. In opposition, they said that the covenant was shattered, but in government they have failed to match their bold promises to rebuild the covenant with sufficiently tough action. The Conservative manifesto states:
“Our brave men and women, their families, and our veterans deserve the best for putting their lives on the line to protect our liberties. We will ensure they get the best.”
No one would disagree with that, but it does not fit with the Government’s actions now that they are in office. The Prime Minister established a taskforce and asked it to come up with low-cost, innovative policy options. Can the Minister look our brave armed forces in the eye and say that they will get the best when his Prime Minister has asked for policy options, but only on the cheap?
Since taking office, the Government have appointed a taskforce to suggest some low-cost measures. There is no doubt that many of the measures included in the report, such as the veterans card scheme, could make a difference, but the overall content of the report was labelled “incredibly wet and feeble” by the chairman of the Forces Pension Society, as was mentioned earlier. Essentially, the Government will need to do a lot better and improve drastically on their record so far. They have failed to bring forward a comprehensive package of proposals to back up the rhetoric that they will rebuild the covenant. The action they have taken has completely undermined those discussions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I am afraid that neither was it built on the cheap. We are awaiting a bit more action from the Government.
Let us take as an example the Government’s plans to link public sector pension rises to CPI rather than RPI inflation, which my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East. They explained that that will impact disproportionately on members of the armed forces, who draw down their pension much earlier than other public sector workers. Servicemen and women, some of whom have suffered horrendous injuries in battle, could see the value of their pensions reduced by hundreds of thousands of pounds. War widows will be affected likewise. The change is fundamentally unfair to the very people who give their service to defend our way of life, and that is why we have suggested an alternative and potentially fairer approach.
The Government have also been accused of a betrayal by forces families following their decision to scrap major reforms to the system of inquests into military deaths. The changes that the previous Government legislated to introduce and that were due to be implemented imminently were supported by service charities and families. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 would have delivered a better inquest service and ensured that the coroner undertaking military inquests had the training necessary to conduct an effective investigation. It would also have created a system of appeals against coroner’s decisions.
Anyone who has lost a loved one has the right to know and understand the full circumstances surrounding their relative’s death. Families need to have confidence in the inquest system and these changes would have made a huge difference. By scrapping the chief coroner and abandoning the reforms that families want, the coalition has made a real error. In Committee on the Public Bodies Bill in the other place, their lordships voted to save the office of the chief coroner by a substantial majority. I hope that the Government will reconsider their view on this matter.
The coroner has been mentioned several times this evening. Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to say that the coroner in Oxfordshire in days gone by and, more particularly, David Masters, the excellent coroner in Wiltshire, have done a superb job of running inquests over the past few years? Leaving aside the debate on the chief coroner that she has described, the system at the moment works rather well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I would certainly agree that we want that excellence to be available throughout the United Kingdom, which is why we support these reforms.
These issues seriously undermine the covenant as well as the Government’s claims that they are seeking to rebuild it. It is no wonder that the chairman of the Forces Pension Society said:
“I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly.”
For the sake of morale in the armed forces and for the sake of our individual servicemen and women and their families, I sincerely hope that the Government will rethink their actions.
The debate has given us an opportunity to discuss the finer points of this important Bill, which builds on the work done by the previous Government in overhauling many procedures in the armed forces, particularly in relation to military justice and discipline. The Bill will ensure that the armed forces can perform more effectively, and it will make the lives of our service personnel safer. The debate has also given us the opportunity to contrast the Government’s rhetoric on the military covenant with their record of action. They have been found wanting, and they must reconsider their approach to the covenant.
I am grateful to the many hon. Members who have participated in the debate. After hearing the rather fierce winding-up speech by the shadow Minister, I point out that two Labour Back Benchers participated in the debate and that substantially more Conservative Back Benchers took part, which shows how much interest there has been in the House.
If the right hon. Gentleman were any good at maths, he would work out that one Liberal means that at least five Labour Back Benchers should have participated.
Leaving that to one side and returning to the Bill, the Government are required to introduce an Armed Forces Bill every five years, because those Bills provide the legal basis for the armed forces and for their discipline. Five years ago, the Armed Forces Act 2006 established a single system of service law, which applies to all members of the armed forces wherever they are serving in the world. It was a significant piece of legislation. The Bill that we are considering today is much smaller, and much of it was implemented under the previous Government. We are, in fact, pursuing the policies that the previous Government introduced, so I was particularly saddened by the shadow Secretary of State’s extraordinary speech. [Interruption.] The term that applies to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is “chuntering”.
The covenant has engendered a great deal of discussion in the debate, and we are fulfilling the Prime Minister’s pledge to put the matter on a statutory basis in this Bill. Every year, there will be a report on the covenant, which the House may wish to discuss. Returning to the hon. Members who have spoken, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who is an extremely sensible friend, made some interesting points. He asked about the air bridge, which we are working on. Because, like me, he has travelled on it and been delayed on it, he knows that part of the problem is the age of the aircraft. He asked whether we will add days lost on rest and recuperation to post-tour leave, which is now our policy and is happening already.
My hon. Friend gave his view, which comes from serving in the Territorial Army, on medals. He also mentioned reservists. I agree with him entirely that support for such servicemen who return from operational tours is difficult. I pay tribute to those whose day job is not serving in the armed forces but who go out on operational tours and do excellent work helping our regular armed forces, and I pay tribute to their families, too.
Turning to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd)—[Interruption.] I think that I am more Welsh than the hon. Member for Rhondda.
If it is the case that the hon. Gentleman is, in fact, Welsh, contrary to all expectations and signs, of course I withdraw the remark.
The armed forces are under-represented in the prison population. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd did not mean to do this, but it is important that we do not patronise our soldiers, sailors and airmen, who are more law-abiding than most. Of course some of them go to prison, but we are talking about responsible adults, some of whom commit crimes. Interestingly, the chances of being in prison if one has been in the armed forces are considerably less than if one has not. Our armed forces members want to be treated as responsible adults and not as victims.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison)—he is a doctor and he is very gallant—for his extremely important report “Fighting Fit”. He asked whether we should call the armed forces covenant the military covenant in the Bill and I shall look into that. There is a legal issue involved, but I can certainly say that the covenant report will not be a tick-box exercise.
The very Welsh hon. Member for Rhondda was particularly keen on armed forces members from Wales being able to serve in Wales, but my experience of young people—both those going into the armed forces and those going to university—is that they often want to get away from their home environment. I have not heard many complaints about this before and I think they might not wish to be close to home. In my period in the armed forces, a very long time ago, I spent a disproportionate amount of my time training in Wales—in the Brecon Beacons at Sennybridge, in Snowdonia and in other places. The hon. Gentleman was very disparaging about Sennybridge, but I rather liked it.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) referred to the system of having a Bill every five years as technical, but I disagree entirely. I notice that he read history, but I do not know whether he got his history degree.