Before I call the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) to move the motion, I should emphasise that a large number of Members wish to speak in this debate, which is why a six-minute limit has been put on Back-Bench speeches. May I also ask for restraint from Front Benchers, so as to enable as many Back Benchers to speak as possible?
I beg to move,
That this House supports establishing in law the definition of the Military Covenant, in so doing fulfilling the Prime Minister’s pledge of 25 June 2010 to have ‘a new Military Covenant that’s written into the law of the land’; believes that this commitment should not be diluted or sidestepped; and further supports service charities’ and families’ calls for a legally-binding Military Covenant which defines the principles that should guide Government action on all aspects of defence policy.
I start by adding my condolences to those properly offered by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition earlier today to the families of Private Lewis Hendry from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, Private Conrad Lewis from 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment and Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. They will be loved for ever by their families, and I hope that they will be permanently honoured by our nation.
The motion before us has a straightforward purpose. It aims to fulfil the Conservative party’s pledge to introduce a new military covenant that is written into the law of the land. It will properly fulfil the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to establish a tri-service military covenant. It aims to address the concerns articulated by the Royal British Legion and other service charities, and to set out in law the definition of the covenant so that there can be a legal basis for the principles that the Government must uphold in order to provide the forces community with the highest level of care and support. Inexplicably, the Government have already voted against an amendment in the Armed Forces Bill Committee that would have fulfilled the aims of today’s motion.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving give way, because I am keen to interrupt him at the beginning of his interesting speech. We are grateful for his support for our proposal to bring the military covenant into law. If he casts his mind back over the past 13 years, can he remember any occasion on which Labour either put a proposal to do that in its manifesto or committed itself in any way, shape or form to putting any kind of military covenant into law?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his keen sense of anticipation for my interesting speech. I have already said that, on reflection, we should have gone further towards taking the covenant out of the cut and thrust of party politics—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I hope that all those on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches who are now chiding us for not having done that will have the courage of their convictions and take this opportunity to vote for their manifesto commitment later this evening.
Many Members, of all parties, and most people in the country will be hoping that the Secretary of State will use today’s debate as an opportunity to reconsider the Government’s policy. This debate is important because the covenant is the unspoken contract between the nation and our services that guides us to serve with the utmost respect those who serve our country with incomparable courage. As our country continues to change, those values should remain constant. There is a tangible feeling up and down the country that that moral bond between the nation and the forces should be strengthened.
I want to make it clear from the outset that any criticism that I offer today is not mine alone. The Army Families Federation received 2,000 complaints about the Government’s cuts from its members by e-mail in five days, many of which expressed real concern. The director general of the Royal British Legion, Chris Simpkins, has said of the Government’s defence of their Armed Forces Bill:
“The Legion is concerned that this looks like the beginnings of a Government U-turn.”
In truth, if the Government fail to back today’s motion, that U-turn will be complete. Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore, the chairman of the Forces Pension Society, has described the Government’s plan for the covenant as “incredibly wet and feeble”, stating:
“It is flute music and arm waving. There is nothing of any substance, with just a couple of no-cost ideas”.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that for almost three years the last Labour Government were in complete denial about the adequacy of Snatch Land Rovers to protect our troops in Helmand? Does that not constitute a breach of the military covenant?
We massively increased the number of armoured vehicles going to Afghanistan, and that was the right thing to do.
The former commander of the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan, Colonel Stuart Tootal, said at the weekend:
“There is a real fragility of morale in the Armed Forces at the moment.”
It is regrettable that a Government so young should find themselves in a position so undesirable. That is of concern to Members in all parts of the House. These are real issues, which demand a more serious response than Ministers have given in the past few days and weeks.
The hon. Gentleman knows that not to be the case. Stuart Tootal made his position very clear at the weekend.
I do not doubt the sincerity of Ministers’ words. I have made that plain at each and every turn when I have spoken from the Dispatch Box. However, there is real confusion and concern about their actions. The reason for the growing anger is that they know that the Government’s actions are sometimes enormously unfair, and, in the case of defining the covenant in law, utterly confused.
Let me explain why I think that the Government’s position is flawed. In the Armed Forces Bill, the Government have provided for an annual report on the covenant, explicitly using the term “covenant”. However, Ministers are choosing to overlook the fact that there is no legally binding definition of the term to accompany its use, which means that Ministers can themselves determine how it is interpreted.
In his evidence to the Public Accounts Committee last month, the most senior official in the Treasury, Sir Nick Macpherson, said that
“there was a point in the middle of the last decade where the MOD lost control of public spending.”
Can the Minister explain what impact that has had on the military covenant?
At the same time the hon. Gentleman’s party was demanding more spending on the Army, more spending on the Navy, more spending on the Royal Air Force, more aeroplanes and more ships. When there was real concern about funding, his party was demanding ever more spending. He cannot be in denial about that.
I would rather rely on the evidence of one of the hon. Gentleman’s own Ministers in the debate on the Armed Forces Bill. He was very clear, and the Secretary of State must be clear as well in terms of meaningful commitment. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), the veterans Minister, said that the Government had no intention of placing in law a legal definition of a covenant.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the sense of responsibility enshrined in a military covenant must also reflect care for service communities that are threatened with base closures? Does he agree that lessons could be learned from the United States, where there is a “transparent” commission which considers base realignment and closure, and an Office of Economic Adjustment, which gives substantial funds and support to closure-hit communities?
The hon. Gentleman knows, as I think everyone in Scotland knows, that we do not agree on everything when it comes to the armed forces, but he makes an important point about the impact on wider societies and communities of any base closures. During the last two years or so of the Labour Government, we considered the future of the firing range in the Western Isles, and it was not until we had received a full impact assessment of the impact on the community and the fragile economy of the islands that it was decided to halt the closure.
In Committee, the veterans Minister said:
“The covenant is a conceptual thing that will not be laid down in law.”––[Official Report, Armed Forces Public Bill Committee, 10 February 2011; c. 21.]
The whole country will be simultaneously grateful to the Minister and disappointed that he has made the Government’s position clear. It seems that the Government’s main line of defence is to attack a non-existent threat. No one is arguing for a set of justiciable rights. No one really wants to campaign for such a thing.
The forces charities themselves said that they wanted the principles defined in law—they did not want new statutory rights—and that is what our motion sets out to achieve. In answer to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) in the Select Committee that considered the Bill, the Royal British Legion’s director general said:
“I understand the point about rigidity, specific definition and a detailed Covenant being included in law. I am not making that point at all. What I am saying is that the principles of which a Covenant should take account should be clearly stated and understood.”
The Prime Minister’s pledge was not made before the election in the heat of a campaign, but after it. In June last year, he said that the Government would have
“a new Military Covenant that’s written into the law of the land”.
Given the clarity of that pledge, will my right hon. Friend care to speculate as to why the Government would not fulfil that commitment?
That is probably going to be the hardest question I am asked all day. Just why have the Government U-turned on this issue, given that it was not a pre-election promise, but a post-election commitment? It is for the Secretary of State and his Ministers to articulate the reasons for their Government’s action.
I come back to the point about principle rather than statutory obligations.
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about what happened in the past. Will he take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of the previous Government for sending our troops to war without the correct equipment in 2003 because he did not want to alarm his own Back Benchers that his Government may have already decided to go to war in Iraq?
The fact is that I am remarkably proud of much of what my Government did in office in support of the armed forces: we produced the service personnel Command Paper and the first ever cross-government strategy; we made improvements for dependants waiting on NHS waiting lists; we provided support for and investment in the NHS; we ensured better treatment in the allocation of public housing; and basic pay went up in line with recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body in full for 11 years in a row. That is a remarkable set of investments, of which I am rightly proud.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s desire to take a Maoist year zero approach to all this. Leaving aside the obvious exercise in shamelessness, he nevertheless left a £38 billion black hole in the MOD, which has made it much harder to look after our troops in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman suggested that Conservative Members were pointing the finger elsewhere. Does he not agree with his parliamentary colleague, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who, as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, agreed with the following finding:
“The Department has failed to develop a financial strategy identifying core spending priorities”?
The report in question also said:
“The Department’s poor financial management has led to a…shortfall of…£36 billion”.
Does he agree with his parliamentary colleague? Why was the military covenant not part of his Government’s core spending priorities?
No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman so I shall make some progress.
On the military covenant, the amendment to the Armed Forces Bill that the Secretary of State and his friends were intent on rejecting said:
“The Secretary of State must by Order through Statutory Instrument establish a written Military Covenant (henceforth referred to as “the Covenant”) which sets out the definition of the word “covenant”, used in Clause 2, line 6 of the Armed Forces Bill. The definition would set out the principles against which the annual armed forces covenant report would be judged.”
That is the amendment that the Government have found so dangerous and refused to accept in Committee. That is the amendment that they claim would create a whole set of new justiciable rights when it would do no such thing.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that the deficit that the Government now blame us for was accumulated over nearly 30 years, so they are as responsible for it as anyone? Does he agree that they should not have signed up to a covenant that they never intended to carry out?
The fact is that prior to the financial collapse across the world and the banking crisis, we had pared down the debt. [Hon. Members: “Oh.”] There is no point in that crowd on the Government Front Bench moaning about this: throughout that period they demanded ever more spending on our armed forces. They cannot deny that.
Returning to the military covenant—
In a second. So far, we have not had a single intervention from a Conservative Member who has said whether they are willing to back their own manifesto commitment. I do not mean that as a negative comment on the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) because I know he takes a keen interest in all these matters. I will happily give way to him.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. He knows that I have raised with Governments of different complexions issues from the treatment of the wounded to the state of married quarters. In my 24 years here, representing a garrison city, I have never once had a serviceman or service family come to me and say, “This is all about producing a legal definition of the military covenant.” What they want is to be treated decently and that is what the Government are trying to do.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that various issues of concern to military families will be included in the report on the military covenant and that the content of that report should be determined by the external reference group and not by the Secretary of State?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The military covenant should not be whatever the Government of the day determine it to be. It should not be at the whim of Ministers to decide in a report what is and is not in the covenant. My hon. Friend makes a very important point.
The Government say that it is not necessary to detail the military covenant, in principle, in law, because they are already taking action. They mention the covenant in the report and it was mentioned in the Armed Forces Bill Committee. All those involved in the debate today—except, perhaps, for you, Mr Deputy Speaker, because you are free from involvement in these debates—will have received an e-mail from the Royal British Legion, which stated:
“As the nation’s guardian of the Military Covenant, we would be very grateful if you could urge the Government to honour the Prime Minister’s welcome commitment last June to enshrine the Military Covenant in law. We do not understand why the Government is now claiming that the commitment to produce an ‘Armed Forces Covenant Report’ is somehow the same thing as enshrining the Military Covenant in law. It is not the same thing at all.”
I urge hon. Members from both Government parties to listen to the legion’s voice and vote for the motion today.
The military covenant cannot be whatever Government Ministers of the day deign it to be. It should be defined in law so that it is removed from the cut and thrust of party politics. If the Secretary of State is true to his word, which I believe him to be, he should meaningfully define the covenant in law. What is needed is specific legislation to put the definition of the covenant on a legal footing. In the words of Chris Simpkins, the director general of the Royal British Legion:
“To suggest an annual covenant report would be as effective as a piece of legislation is nonsense and would be evidence of the Government doing a U-turn on their explicit promises.”
I know the hon. Gentleman understands that it is not for me to give a legal definition of the military covenant at the Dispatch Box. It is for the Government to define the principles of it in a legal sense, along with the armed forces and their families in public consultation. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary is screaming at the top of his voice that there is no definition. If the Conservatives were in any way interested in the matter, we could arrive at a definition of the armed forces covenant on a cross-party basis, involving armed forces families across the entire nation. In truth, they have turned their back on their own manifesto, will not listen to the British Legion and refuse to act on the issue at all.
The shadow Secretary of State opened his comments with a tribute to three soldiers from the Colchester garrison. Some 3,000 of my constituents are in Helmand province, and if any of them get to watch or read about this debate, I do not think they will be impressed with the contributions that are being made. I urge Members on both sides of the House to show respect. Playing party politics with our armed forces is not what they want.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I have responded to each point raised in turn, and I will continue to do so.
We are asking the Conservative party to maintain its manifesto commitment, and to vote for it. We will vote for its manifesto commitment today, and the country will expect Conservative Members to do the same.
Today’s debate also provides an opportunity for the Government to reflect again on their decision on the chief coroner’s office. It would give families who have lost those closest to them, often in tragic, painful and extremely difficult circumstances—the type of people whom the hon. Member for Colchester was talking about—the right to the best possible investigations and military inquests into those deaths. On this day of all days, when the constitutional relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is being considered, it is important that we listen to the House of Lords on that important issue.
I turn to the wider of issue of Afghanistan and its impact on the covenant. We have made it clear that we will support the Government on Afghanistan whenever possible, as we did on Monday. I welcome their continued commitment to update the House on progress there, particularly in the diplomatic effort, which seems far less advanced than the military campaign.
Those injured in Afghanistan face enormous burdens and a life of dramatic change. That places a huge responsibility on the Government and politicians of all parties to support them, so that the country fulfils its responsibility to them. Public services, public servants, charities, the private sector and Government must continually consider how best to support all our forces, particularly those who are injured. We should try to generate consensus on that at every possible opportunity.
Why does the shadow Secretary of State think that the wording in the Armed Forces Bill, which reflects the will of the country to honour the covenant, is not what the people want? How does he think it fails to cover all the issues that he is talking about? A lot of armed forces personnel and their supporters undoubtedly believe that it does cover them.
As I said earlier, the British Legion has been pretty critical and straightforward about that. The problem is the word “covenant” being used but not given a legal definition, which allows Ministers and Governments of all parties to interpret and reinterpret it in an annual report. That is why the principle of legal definition is important.
No, you didn’t. The hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister and before that was on the Defence Committee, will remember from his experiences on the Committee that the Labour Government’s big failure on the duty of care was that they were unable to define clearly what it meant.
I shall make some progress before giving way.
As I said, it is important that where we can, we should build consensus, such as on support for the operation in Afghanistan and on the treatment of those who return, but there is one matter on which it is difficult to support the Government: the switch from retail prices index to consumer prices index for forces pensions and benefits. That is a highly charged and emotional issue—rightly—but I shall make my case carefully, and I look forward to the Secretary of State being equally careful and detailed in his reply.
The impact of that switch will be felt by generations of our bravest, from those who jumped from landing craft on to the beaches of Normandy in 1944 to those facing the Taliban today in the Afghan desert sand. A corporal who has lost both legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan will miss out on £500,000 in pension and benefit-related payments, and the 34-year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan will be almost £750,000 worse off over her life.
There are only two possible justifications for that policy. The first is that Ministers think that the support that forces personnel and their dependants currently receive is overly generous, but I have not heard any of them say that. The second possible justification is, of course, deficit reduction, which Ministers do pray in aid. However, that argument does not add up. The impact of those measures will be felt long after the deficit has been paid down and the economy has returned to growth. The deficit is temporary, but those cuts will be felt for the rest of our forces’ lives.
The right hon. Gentleman said that we should reflect on the British Legion election manifesto and its 15 or 16 demands. The manifesto never mentions the covenant, but it does mention lots of solutions to help the welfare of our veterans and current serving personnel. What part of the Government’s progress is he unhappy with in relation to the British Legion’s manifesto, and what parts of the manifesto would he adopt sooner rather than later?
The hon. Gentleman has vast experience in such matters and I do not doubt his commitment, but there is limited validity in him brandishing last year’s British Legion document when he does not accept what it says in its e-mail today—it makes it very clear that it is unhappy with the Government’s position and that it would like a legal definition of the military covenant. Of course we should work on a cross-party basis on this, and I would be happy to do so—
I concur with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that this should be a non-partisan debate, but my right hon. Friend is right to remind the House that during the Labour years, the then Opposition constantly criticised the Government on the lack of spending on protective equipment, as did the generals. We understand why the politicians criticised the Government, but why did the generals criticise them, and why have they suddenly gone quiet in the short period since the election?
I do not wish to reopen that debate, but my hon. Friend is free to make that point whenever he wishes to do so.
It is clear that to date, the Government’s policy on the covenant and their policy on the RPI-CPI switch are policies without a patron. No Government Minister has defended them, yet Ministers expect Back-Benchers to suspend their consciences and their sense of right and wrong to vote through a policy that they have not backed.
I remember being in the Government and playing that game of saying to the Opposition, “Name your next manifesto,” but it is a desperate tactic. It took me 10 years to use that tactic, but it has taken the Defence Secretary only a few months. Today, he is at the Dispatch Box but will not even stand up for his own policy. Let me give him another opportunity to do so. Does he think it fair that when the deficit is temporary, this cut should be permanent? I am giving him a chance to articulate his own policy.
This merely proves the economic illiteracy of the Labour party. Even when the deficit is going down, the total debt is going up and the debt repayment is going up. It will take a very long time, even when we are into positive growth, to see the debt coming down. The Labour party knows no more about economics in opposition than it knew in government.
This comes from the right hon. Gentleman who, when in opposition, demanded more spending on absolutely everything; even in the midst of financial crisis, he was demanding more and more spending. If this move is driven by deficit reduction, the Government should come forward with a temporary measure rather than a permanent change.
Finally, the military covenant goes to the heart of the relationship between the military, society and the Government. It should never be the exclusive property of one political party, but these permanent cuts undermine the Government’s claim to be honouring the military covenant. Sir Michael Moore, chairman of the Forces Pension Society has said:
“I have never seen a government erode the morale of the Armed Forces so quickly.”
That is a worrying position—one that we all hope to see reversed.
The truth is that this Government have lost the courage of the conviction and conscience they had in their manifesto. One day in June last year summarises this Government’s approach to the covenant. On 25 June 2010, the Prime Minister stood on the decks of the Ark Royal, surrounded by members of the Royal Navy, with Harrier jets as a backdrop, and promised a new military covenant that was written into the law of the land. Parliament did not get a vote on the decision to scrap the Ark Royal and Parliament did not get the chance to express its view on the grounding of the Harrier fleet. Today, however, Parliament has the chance to make its voice heard. We should say it loud and clear, fulfil the Conservative party manifesto pledge and define the military covenant in law.
Let me too begin by expressing our condolences to the family and friends of Private Lewis Hendry, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment; Private Conrad Lewis, 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment; Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall, 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment; Private Dean Hutchinson, 9th Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps; and Private Robert Wood, 17th Port and Maritime Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps, all of whom have died in action in Afghanistan. Every death is a personal tragedy; they are not simply numbers, and their loss is felt by families and friends. We in this House remember them all in our thoughts and prayers.
There is no doubt about the general desire in this country to improve and develop the armed forces covenant. It encompasses those of all ages and social groups, those with different politics and those with none. It does not and cannot exist in the abstract, however. It cannot be a wish list separated from the economic reality in which we find ourselves. A covenant between the armed forces and the British people cannot ignore the financial predicament in which the British people and their Government find themselves.
The starting point of this debate has to take account of the economic situation inherited by the coalition Government and the state in which the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence find themselves at the end of 13 years of Labour Government. In short, the issue for the Opposition, as set out in their motion, is one of credibility, so we should examine the credibility of Labour Members on the issues that the shadow Defence Secretary described as important.
In a moment.
There are three charges that still hang around the necks of Labour when it comes to defence, the armed forces and the military covenant. In 13 years of power, their response to equipping our forces was often too little, too late; their spending priorities were wrong; and there was too much waste and inadequate budgetary control.
We have learned from the Chilcot inquiry—an independent inquiry—that it was purely for political reasons that the Labour Government failed to order enough equipment, including body armour, for troops in the lead-up to the Iraq war. They did not want to send the message that they were preparing for war, and the result was under-prepared, under-equipped forces sent into conflict.
In 2006, they failed to send enough troops and equipment into Helmand province and were painfully slow at providing more capable armoured vehicles to counter improved explosive devices. That led to a number of high-profile subsequent resignations from the Army, as has been pointed out. They went 12 years without a defence review, even though, according to numerous former Defence Ministers and service chiefs speaking at the Chilcot inquiry, the 1998 SDR was never properly funded. They overstretched our armed forces by fighting two wars on a peacetime budget.
I will give way in a moment.
The Labour Government overspent and overheated an equipment programme that contributed to a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. In Labour’s final year in power, the MOD saw a record overspend of £3.3 billion in the equipment programme. In fact, we inherited an equipment programme that has its top 15 projects £8.8 billion over budget and a cumulative delay of 32 years. When we were fighting two wars, their idea of commitment to defence and our armed forces was to appoint four different Defence Secretaries in four years, including one who served simultaneously as Defence Secretary and Secretary of State for Scotland.
Labour left a situation in which 42% of service single living accommodation in the UK, and 52% of overseas single living accommodation, was in the worst grade on a four-point scale—although in a speech that lasted half an hour, the shadow Defence Secretary did not once mention the quality of accommodation for our armed forces.
With all that going on, Labour Defence Secretaries spent almost £250,000 on modern art for the Ministry of Defence. As former Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mike Jackson said in his autobiography, they
“preferred to spend on abstract art money which might otherwise have directly benefited soldiers and their families. It may seem a small point, but to me it was so indicative of the cultural divide in the MoD”.
The list goes on. In this country, we judge politicians not by their words but by their actions. The Labour Government had 13 years to put matters right; we have had nine months so far, and I will set out what we have done already.
I am glad to give the Secretary of State a moment to calm down from his election speech. On 11 January last year, he wrote to Mr Yeomans in Clevedon that the Conservative Government would review the rules on awarding medals, particularly the proposed national defence medal, which has been supported by nearly 200 right hon. and hon. Members in an early-day motion. Earlier this week, however, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Astor of Hever, stated in the other place that the Ministry of Defence would not review the role or membership of the committee that would award the national defence medal if it is granted. That is a remarkable U-turn in one year. Will the Secretary of State address that point and discuss it with his ministerial colleague?
I would like to judge the Secretary of State by his actions rather than his words. What progress is he making towards the establishment of a Government-funded post-traumatic stress treatment programme as promised in the armed forces manifesto?
Did the Secretary of State know about the evidence given by officials who served the Labour Government that it was the ministerial decision to delay the SDR that made the black hole that was left so big and the difficulty of getting matters in order so much greater?
We could spend a great deal of time detailing the failures of the previous Government. Labour Members constantly talk about making changes as though we were in a vacuum or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, at year zero. We are in a very difficult economic predicament largely of their making, yet they talk about not only the military covenant but almost everything else as if there were no financial cost and as if we should not take what is happening in the economy into account when it comes to pensions and programmes in the Ministry of Defence.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the short term, while the economic situation is so bad, top priority should be given to the education of the children of those who have fallen in action or who have been so grievously wounded that their future earning power will never be restored?
As I might have expected, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. In the programme for government, we listed a number of measures that will start the process of rebuilding the covenant, and I am pleased to be able to set out to him those that we have already accomplished.
As I have said on a number of occasions in the House, no decisions taken in the strategic defence and security review will have a negative impact on our mission in Afghanistan. In fact, we have already made great strides in improving the conditions for those serving on the front line. In our nine months in office, we have doubled the operational allowance that was paid under the previous Government to over £5,000. Labour could have done so, but did not. We have changed the rules on rest and recuperation, so any lost days of leave—due to delays in the air bridge or any other operational requirements—will be added to post-tour leave. The previous Government could have done that, but they chose not to. We have also pledged to provide university and further education scholarships to the children of members of the armed forces who have been killed since 1990. The previous Government could have chosen to do so, but in 13 years they did not. The current Government have now included 36,000 service children as part of the pupil premium, recognising the uniqueness of service life and its effect on service children and service communities. Labour could have done so, but did not in 13 years.
I want to concentrate on a more serious issue, which I would like the Secretary of State to—[Interruption.] May I complete what I am saying? The Secretary of State has focused on the past Government’s record, of which I have also been critical, but last week the current Government introduced an immigration fees order which I objected to, and which I see has been carried on a deferred Division today. The explanatory notes explain that it introduces for the first time the power for the Government to charge fees for the registration as British citizens of the children born to British armed forces personnel serving abroad. It cannot be right that we are penalising the children and families of service personnel serving abroad on our orders. I ask the Secretary of State to liaise with the Home Secretary to ensure that she exercises her discretion to waive these fees.
Not at the moment.
I have set out a number of areas where the Government have already acted in just nine months. Some £61.6 million has been allocated in the current financial year for the upgrade of, and improvement programmes for, service accommodation. That will include upgrading some 800 service family homes to the top standard, with a further 4,000 properties benefiting from other improvements such as new kitchens and bathrooms.
Of course, in the current tight financial situation priorities must be established. My welfare priority will be mental health. We have accepted in full the mental health plan for service personnel and veterans set out in the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). That will provide a range of improvements in mental health care, including increasing the number of mental health professionals from mental health trusts looking out for veterans and introducing structured mental health surveillance inquiries into routine service medical examinations and all discharge medicals.
The Government are committed to improving health care for our service personnel and have committed an additional £20 million in the SDSR for this purpose, part of which will be used to deliver further enhanced military mental health care services. I believe this must be our priority because it is all too easy to see the physical wounds of war, but the unseen mental wounds of war have too often gone undiagnosed and untreated, and all our society demands that we do not allow a mental health time bomb to be created.
I want to ask the Secretary of State about 160 Brigade. As he knows, it is the Welsh brigade based in Brecon. Secret discussions have been going on over the last few weeks about collapsing the brigade and joining it with the West Midlands, which would mean there was no longer a Welsh brigade. Can he give an absolute assurance that that will not happen?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are ongoing discussions in the armed forces, but as he has heard me say on a number of occasions, I am very keen that we have United Kingdom armed forces and that we maintain the footprint as widely as possible across the UK. If he wants to talk to me directly about that, I shall be happy to meet him.
Labour’s legacy means that there is not enough to do all that we would like to do, but we can make a start. None of it alone will instantly rebuild the covenant, but it is a step in the right direction. In the difficult economic circumstances the coalition Government have inherited, where all parts of society are making sacrifices, repairing the covenant will not be straightforward. The armed forces are subject to the difficult decisions we have had to make on pay, pensions and allowances across Government.
Neither the Prime Minister nor I came into politics to see cuts in the armed forces, but we have to deal with the reality of the legacy. Every Department has to make a contribution to deficit reduction and the Ministry of Defence can be no exception. We have to put the economy on the right track for the sake of our national security.
The coalition agreement recognises that we have to do more to ensure that our armed forces and their families have the support they need, and are treated with the dignity they deserve. Some of what we need to do will cost money, and with budgets squeezed, we may not be able to go as quickly as we want, but we will make progress where we can. The recent report on the covenant commissioned by the Prime Minister from the military historian Professor Hew Strachan suggests a number of ways to move forward. We are implementing some of them now and will announce in the near future the other recommendations we support.
As Members know, the military covenant was conceived as an expression of the mutual obligations that exist between the nation, the Army and each individual soldier. In consultation with service charities and others, the Government are rewriting the covenant as a new tri-service document—the armed forces covenant—which expresses the enduring, general principles that should govern the relationship between the nation, the Government and the armed forces community as a whole. It will include all three services, veterans, family members and local communities, thereby broadening the scope of the covenant. We shall publish it in the spring.
The reserve forces form an intrinsic part of the UK’s defence capability and thus the armed forces community. The Ministry of Defence is responsible for ensuring that reservists are treated fairly and with respect, and that they are valued. In the drafting of the armed forces covenant, reserves have been considered equally alongside regulars. That will set the tone for Government policy aimed at improving the support available for serving and former members of the armed forces, and the families who carry so much of the burden, especially, as we remember today, in the event of injury or death.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an extraordinary situation for the Opposition to call a debate on the military covenant, which by their own admission they cannot define, yet we have heard from my right hon. Friend a clear definition of the covenant, which is being written into the law of the land?
It is surprising that the Opposition should be so desperate for a definition of the military covenant in law, yet fail to produce one themselves. It is just as absurd as their claim that they are trying to implement the Conservative manifesto on the subject. I happen to have the Conservative manifesto of 2010 in my hand and I see no commitment whatever to writing the military covenant into law. Indeed, we have gone further than our manifesto commitment in the coalition agreement by trying to take that forward. It is one of the elements that shows that the coalition Government were able to work together to go further than either party had done in the manifestos that we issued at the general election.
We need to ensure that progress is made, year on year. That is why we have brought forward legislation in the Armed Forces Bill requiring the Defence Secretary to present an armed forces covenant report to Parliament every year. I hope to deliver the first of those reports in the autumn.
We are for the first time recognising the covenant in law. We are setting it out in law in the Armed Forces Bill that the Secretary of State for Defence will be required to come to the House of Commons, and when we have published the tri-forces covenant, the House of Commons will be able to decide whether the Government have lived up to their part of the bargain. I find it extraordinary that nine months into the new Government, when we are writing that into the law, we get complaints from the Opposition, who did not once try to do so in 13 years in power.
The covenant will set out how we are supporting our armed forces, their families and veterans in key areas such as health care, housing and education. It will be the first time the existence of the armed forces covenant has been recognised in statute. For that, I think all fair-minded people would believe that the coalition Government deserve some credit.
Although I applaud what the Secretary of State is saying about his support for veterans and former members of the armed forces, may I draw to his attention the case of my constituent, Ann Dexter, whose son Richard Coombes is suffering from dire mental health problems as a consequence of his injury on active service? The Ministry of Defence was ordered by a judge to pay him £130,000 compensation but still, three years later, not all of that compensation has been paid. Will my right hon. Friend look into that case urgently and get back to the family to explain why the Ministry of Defence has not paid the compensation that it was ordered to pay?
I am very surprised that three years after it was ordered by a judge to be paid, that compensation has not been paid. I will certainly look into the case that my hon. and learned Friend mentions.
The Government alone cannot provide all the support required so we are determined to strengthen the links with the charitable sector, which does so much good work, often unsung. In many ways those organisations are also heroes in our countries when it comes to the armed forces. Involving the charitable sector is the only way we can make a reality of the armed forces covenant, because the duty of care is on all of us, not simply the Government.
From now on, however, the Government are obliged to report progress on the covenant to Parliament annually. That will ensure that this Government, and indeed all future Governments, are held to account by Parliament. I made it clear last month on Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill that the external reference group, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), will also continue to monitor Government progress. But it is about progress on the covenant on all sides, not just the Government’s. The covenant is not just between the Government and the armed forces. It is a covenant with the whole of society. That is why I find the external reference group to be of such value. It will bring independence and clear-mindedness.
When the Secretary of State refers to communities, does that include local communities where there are currently armed forces bases? What about the contribution that they have made over the years, and what about the economic impact on those communities of the closure of bases?
As the hon. Lady knows, we are spending a great deal of time and effort getting the balance of the bases correct, primarily for our national security needs, but we will also take into account the social and other impacts that the changes will have. The hon. Gentleman from the Scottish National party who is normally in his seat usually intervenes at this point. We are aware of the changes—
The point is well made by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. We understand the problems that we face, but it was inevitable when we had to make reductions under the SDSR that there would be changes to the basing. We are sympathetic to the local needs that she mentions.
I speak not as an Irish or Scottish nationalist, but as a Northern Ireland Unionist. I know that the Secretary of State has already responded on the need to look after those with health and mental health conditions, but I have recently met people who had lost limbs, whether legs or arms, so will he indicate what help will be available for those people, because they have had the trauma of the physical disablement and of the resulting mental disablement? I am keen to hear what he will do to help those people.
Those who suffer traumatic amputations, and often multiple traumatic amputations, increasingly get very high-quality care in this country, both from what the military and the NHS are doing. [Interruption.] Members on the Opposition Front Bench say that that is thanks to the previous Government, and I acknowledge their work on that front. With regard to the interface between the NHS and other services, we are again working increasingly to ensure that we get constructive action between them. Any Member who has visited the medical service or Headley Court will realise just what a high-quality service our armed forced get in this country. It is something of which the whole country, irrespective of politics, should be proud.
Looking after people who are currently serving is only part of the covenant; the duty of care does not end when active service ends. The community of veterans in Britain is estimated to be around 5 million strong. The vast majority of men and women who serve make the transition to civilian life successfully. Many of the skills they learn in the armed forces are highly sought after, as are their character traits: self-discipline, self-reliance and leadership. However, for a small number the transition is not so easy. Some find it difficult to get work or struggle to fit in. Others may suffer more serious problems, both physical and mental, as a result of their service, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has pointed out. Those are the people who most need our help.
First, we need to give people the help they need when they leave. It takes time to turn a civilian into a soldier, so we should take time to turn a soldier into a civilian. Our resettlement programme helps service leavers to navigate civilian life; everything from finding a job, to benefits, education and retraining. We are making sure that it is focused on those who need it most.
For example, ex-service personnel now get more support to study at university. The Department for Education is drawing up plans to create a new programme called “Troops to Teachers” to get experienced, high-quality ex-service personnel into the teaching profession. In a country where it is often claimed that there are not enough role models, believe me there are plenty in the armed forces.
Secondly, when a veteran falls on hard times, there should be somewhere to turn. The problems can result from debt, homelessness, addiction or mental illness resulting from their service. Such difficulties can occur years after leaving the services, so we need a proper partnership between all arms of government, national and local, and with the NHS. That means ensuring that veterans get fair access to local housing schemes, providing more money and more nurses for mental health and working with the charitable sector to get the right support to the right people at the right time.
Having worked as a doctor for some years with service personnel and their families, I have seen at first hand some of the difficulties and stress surrounding service life. Many of the pressures are the same faced by ordinary families up and down the country, but others are unique. Those have to be dealt with sensitively and appropriately.
The Secretary of State is being very gracious, and I do appreciate him letting me in.
Will the right hon. Gentleman be a little clearer with me about the definition of “military covenant”? In the Bill Committee last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) said that he thought the military covenant was a “conceptual” thing, a “philosophical statement”, and that it would have
“the same legal position as the service Command Paper”.––[Official Report, Armed Forces Public Bill Committee, 10 February 2011; c. 22.]
Is that the case? Can the Secretary of State give me his definition of the military covenant, so that he might explain to his Minister what it is?
I have already set out that what my right hon. Friend says is true. There is a concept of what the covenant means in terms of the relationship between the armed forces and the people of this country, and the responsibility that the people of this country have not only to those serving in the armed forces, but to their families and to veterans. As I said very clearly, however, we are setting out and will publish in the spring a tri-service covenant for the first time. It has to go beyond the traditional covenant, which related to the Army; we are discussing the issue with the charitable sector and the armed forces; and we will publish that new tri-service covenant in the spring.
I am aware of the time constraints, Mr Speaker, so let me just remind the House of the point with which I began. This year, the £43 billion that the UK will spend on debt interest payments—the debt that the previous Government left behind—amounts to more than the Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and international aid budgets combined. If we did not have it hanging around our necks, how much more could we do on service housing, health care or allowances? Instead, we will get absolutely nothing back for that money. We cannot sustain that level of deficit and debt without losing our influence in the world or being forced to limit our foreign policy and defence options. If we learned anything as a country from the cold war, it was that the stronger our economy, the better our national security and the more we can do for our service personnel.
Labour’s economic policies created a national security liability that goes behind the hard end of national security and impacts on how we treat our armed forces, their families and the veterans through the covenant. Labour wants to, but cannot, wash away its legacy by ignoring its actions while in government—a Government of whom Opposition Members were a part.
There is no point in the people who left us broke complaining that we are not doing enough. There is no point in the people who had 13 years to deliver, but failed to, telling us that we have not done enough in nine months. The shadow Defence Secretary is a very decent man, but he represents a party that failed in its duty to the armed forces. It has no creditability on the issues that should have been dealt with when the money was available in earlier years.
Because of the nation’s dreadful finances, we as a Government are being forced to take some tough decisions—including on allowances and on pensions. We do not do so because we want to; we do so because we have to. We do so because, as the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury actually said in his note, “Sorry, there is no money left”. Perhaps it was a joking matter for Labour, but it is deadly serious for the armed forces.
The coalition Government are taking the difficult decisions required to deal with Labour’s legacy, and we will continue to rebuild the armed forces covenant. I wish we could go faster, but we will go as fast as we can. Opposition Members got us into this mess; this Government will get us out of it.
My dad landed in France and ran up the beach on D-day. If he was alive today, he would tell us that it was the fastest that he ran in his entire life. He would freely admit that, as he crouched in the landing craft heading for shore, with bullets pinging off the infrastructure, he was petrified of the doors opening. When they finally opened, his stomach turned over, and he went up that beach in full kit faster than Linford Christie. He made it unscathed to the top, but the next day he had most of his stomach blown out by a German shell in a field just beyond the beach. He suffered for it every day of his life for the next 48 years. In return, he received a small pension from the Government and spent the rest of his life worrying about losing it. He was grateful for the money. He spent most of it on beer, if the truth were known, but he enjoyed every pint. Was he worth it? Damn right he was, every penny, because without him and his mates, there would be a foreign flag flying over this Parliament— assuming, that is, that this building existed at all. We owe him, along with thousands of his comrades, a debt of honour. We must never forget that.
The very same applies to our present-day forces. They may be small in number, but when they put their lives on the line we have a duty to look after them, and their families.
I will get to that point.
We do not expect our forces to join a trade union or allow them to go on strike, so they are entitled to be treated differently. My dad lay in that French field for two days before he was found, but he was eventually flown back to the UK and put back together. When he recovered, he voted Labour, and he never missed the opportunity to vote Labour in every election until the day he died. I make that point simply because this is not a party political issue. Many of his comrades returned to vote Conservative, and Liberal, and other weird things, as was their entitlement, and some did not bother to vote at all. So it is shameful to turn the matter of the covenant into a point-scoring party political issue, as the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) did.
We all know that we are in difficult circumstances, but I do not know what my dad would say about cutting soldiers’ allowances at the same time as Barclays pay their investment bankers 20% more—not to mention making Afghan veterans redundant by e-mail, which is even worse than when John Major made Bosnian front-line veterans redundant by post. I suppose that the MOD has at least come up to date.
In any event, it was shameful. Whatever my dad would have said about it, I assure people that it would not have been pretty.
The truth is that our defence expenditure is already too low, and has been for years when measured against our foreign policy aspirations. The most important pound that we earn is the one that we defend our families and our country with whenever we are in danger. When we are at war, it should be the last pound that we cut, and we must certainly never cut it from the people who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for us.
Over the next few years, we will be spending countless billions on aircraft carriers, on fighter planes, on unmanned aerial vehicles, on nuclear submarines and on nuclear missiles; it will no doubt end up being very much more than the MOD’s current estimates. So what are we playing at in cutting a relatively small sum from our armed forces’ children’s education? Last year in June, our Prime Minister stood on Ark Royal and talked about making formal commitments on matters such as education for military children and care for those injured on the battlefield. He said:
“I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that’s written into the law of the land.”
He did not say, “I want an annual report.”
Let me give the Prime Minister a tip, and perhaps the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence will take note: if he expects to retain any political or personal integrity in life, he must not make promises that he cannot keep. We can understand Liberals making promises that they do not expect to keep, but the Tories should know better.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), who has been an excellent member of the Defence Committee for several years. The moving story of his father reminded me of a T-shirt that we had printed when I commanded a bomb disposal squadron. On the front it said, “I’m a bomb disposal officer,” and on the back it said, “If you see me running, try to keep up.”
I start, of course, by declaring my interest as a serving member of the armed forces. It was an honour to serve in Bosnia and Kosovo, and I am grateful to the previous Government for allowing me to serve in Afghanistan in 2006. I wish to make it clear that any limited experience that I have pales into insignificance compared with that of those who are serving in Afghanistan today.
Much of the debate has been about whether the Government should enshrine the military covenant in law, or whether there should be a report on the military covenant by law. I am not a lawyer and, to be honest, I do not know about that. As a member of the armed forces and like fellow members of the armed forces, I do not really care. What is important to me is not whether we enshrine it in law. That is a process point which demonstrates how out of touch the House of Commons is with our armed forces. What is important to me is that this and future Governments are judged by what is achieved—by the output of the military covenant. I reserve the right in future years to come back and give my assessment on this Government and future Governments when we have reports on the military covenant in this place.
We have talked a lot about morale in the armed forces, and I will pinpoint one moment. I was excited in 2006 when the previous Government introduced the operational allowance, and I pay tribute to them for that. I received it, and for the record, I donated it to the Royal British Legion because I thought that was the right thing to do as a Member of Parliament. However, I also remember the horror when we discovered that, at the same time, the longer service separation allowance had been cut by almost exactly the same amount. There was a great fanfare by Tony Blair about the introduction of the operational allowance, and yet the cut to the longer service separation allowance was made quietly. Although I fully support this Government’s doubling of the operational allowance, I give the caveat that members of our armed forces will be looking carefully at their payslips in future, such is the cynicism of many of them. We must be very careful on that point.
Another example is the introduction of the new payment system, the computerised joint personnel administration system. It had many gremlins, but such is the way with computer systems. One of the biggest problems with that system, which really upset members of the armed forces, related to the allowances. If somebody went from A to B, rather than being told what their allowances were, they had to go and find out. It was a pool system and people were not notified of what their allowances were. Like many of the benefits that were introduced, people were not automatically entitled to them. That needs to change.
The air bridge was mentioned in the opening remarks of the debate. I experienced the problems of the air bridge in 2006: being woken up five hours before the flight; getting stuck in Cyprus; not being able to ring home to tell the family that one would be late; finally getting back two days later; missing some leave; and having one’s rifle sent to Aldershot, one’s bag sent home and one’s other kit sent elsewhere. I raised those concerns in the Chamber and there has been some improvement, but there are still major problems. I welcome the Government’s move to ensure that any leave that one misses as a result of those problems is added to the end of one’s post-tour leave. Some say that should happen in that two-week period, but that is impractical. It would be simply impossible for a commanding officer in Afghanistan to man his various companies without knowing when soldiers may return.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the reserves. As a reservist, I was delighted that the Secretary of State mentioned the reserves in his opening remarks. There was deep concern back in 2009 when, as reservists, we were told out of the blue that there would be no more training for six months because of mid-year savings. That decision was wrong, so I was delighted that the then Government saw the error of their ways and corrected it. However, that decision should never have been taken. If we are to promote a one-Army concept, we cannot treat the reserves as second-class citizens. I would like a reassurance that such silly measures, which target the Territorial Army and undermine the one-Army concept, will not be introduced again.
The Government’s move to recognise the military covenant in a Bill for the first time is to be welcomed. We can argue about the semantics, but as I said at the start of my speech, I and many other members of the armed forces will judge this and successive Governments not on the detail, but on what is achieved.
I am incredibly pleased to follow the first two Back-Bench contributions to this debate. I hope that my contribution will be of the same incredibly high order, because it is that high level of debate that our armed forces want to hear from this Chamber, not the yah-boo politics that we heard from the Front Benches.
The military covenant is about the duty of care and the principles of that duty. It must set out the responsibilities of the Government and the country to those who serve and have risked their lives, just as the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) did and as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) has done. The military covenant is about people who do not have a choice over where they go or what they are called on to do—people who have no right to strike or raise objections; people who have no voice. The military covenant should give a voice to those voiceless, and it must be enshrined in law.
Why must the military covenant be enshrined in law? At the moment, our military is suffering from insecurity and instability. Morale is at an all-time low. Everyone in the Chamber has talked to military families. They will have had military families come to their surgeries who are concerned about how they will weather the strategic defence and security review, the cuts in allowances that have suddenly come upon them and the job losses, whether they are civil servants, many of whom are ex-military, or serving military personnel. There are pressures and tensions everywhere across our armed forces.
The sacking of personnel by e-mail has sent shock waves through the armed forces. The failure to follow through on the training commitment to those young people—many were hours away from completing four years of training to achieve a qualification that would have carried them through the rest of their lives—has devastated families and young people.
Why has the British Legion taken the unusual step of writing to Members of Parliament to ask that the military covenant be endorsed in law? This is a matter of trust, but I do not think that we demonstrate a tremendous amount of trust when we descend into making party political points about the military covenant. I am sorry to say that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have already become the parties of broken promises and broken commitments—[Interruption.] I have to say that promises have also been broken by my party.
All of us have a duty to make the highest level of commitment to our armed forces, and we should be judged by our actions. We can all make a list of the things we have done and the things we have failed to do, but what we really need to do is think of the consequences in our communities, because families can be devastated by the decisions that come out of this Chamber. Young people’s futures can be destroyed when their dreams of serving their country are thrown away, after they have read about the decision in a national newspaper.
The military covenant must not be simply a concept or a philosophy; it must be something that people can hold in their hands and feel secure about. It must be something that we, as a country, stand up to and stand by. Our armed forces and their families need to know that, whatever Government are in power, we will stand strongly by our commitments to them and that we will honour those commitments. As I have handed over veterans badges across my constituency over the past few years, I have seen the pride that people still felt about their years of service. They felt that those were the best years of their lives, and the times when they were most alive. We must honour those people, and make a commitment to them in law. If we are to have only a report, there must at the very least be a commitment to a free vote on the covenant for every Member of the House.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who more than lived up to her own billing. She spoke with great passion and great insight. I was also amused to hear the account from the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) of what his father had done on D-day. If anyone had asked my father what he had done in the war, he would have said, “Actually, I was a D-day dodger.” My father was wounded three times in Italy, but the events there never got the coverage that the troops in France did. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution was a fascinating one. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) gave us his insight into his own service, albeit as a reservist, and being called up to the front line. That was extremely interesting.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is preparing a document on the military covenant, and I have recently been asked what the covenant means to me. I was brought up to believe that the military covenant was the link between soldiers and officers, and between the nation and those soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines and their officers. Even more importantly, it is the link between the nation and the families, to whom the nation owes so much. I would like to pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Bridgend made, which is that the military covenant stands way above party politics. Yesterday’s urgent question showed the House of Commons at its absolute best. It was about looking after the little people who do so much to defend this nation. I will expand on that in a moment.
In 1996, I led Nottinghamshire’s own regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, through what was to be my constituency of Newark. We were essentially a peacetime army: we had come back from Northern Ireland and from Bosnia, but we were essentially a peacetime army. The burghers of Newark were polite, courteous and enthusiastic. The town was glad to see us.
Two years ago, the successor to that battalion, now sadly called 2 Mercian, paraded after its last tour in Afghanistan, where it had picked up a record number of conspicuous gallantry crosses—more than any other battalion in the British Army. The town was mobbed. There was standing room only. Women and children were out on the streets. Union flags were being waved; regimental flags were being waved. The boys were overwhelmed by what they saw, and I was overwhelmed as well. I could not believe it. This was the military covenant put into practice.
What we must understand is that we are mere representatives of those people who were either marching or waving their flags. We must not make the mistake of believing that those kids off the streets of Newark, be they serving in Afghanistan or clapping from the pavements, understand or care about the semantics, the language and the legalities which we use so much and find so precious. What this is about is making sure that we honour our men, our women, our fighters and their families. Whether it be in law or whether it be simply talked about, as we are talking about it today, that is the important thing.
I do not think that anyone in the House disagrees with what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he agree that legislating for a military covenant would allow military families to trust the Government to provide everything that he mentions?
I do not know and I do not care. What I do know is that when it works, it works superbly. I hope to say more about that shortly, but first let me explain how we have let our troops down and how the military covenant has been compromised.
Let me point out to all Members who were serving here at the time that this week in 2006, on 14 February, we had a debate which my friends and colleagues on the Opposition Benches will particularly remember. Troops were being committed to the Helmand valley in Afghanistan, an area where, in 1880, a British brigade lost 1,000 men in four hours, and where a Russian regimental unit lost 700 men over three days. We committed troops to that area without enough guns, without enough helicopters, without enough ammunition, and without enough bayonet power to do the job. That was the worst sort of compromise of the military covenant, and it was not done by Ministers wittingly. Most of it was done by career officers who did not understand that the military covenant involves the people who will do the fighting, not the talking and the theorising. That is what we must get right.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned the notice given to troops who were made redundant after Bosnia. I do not remember that, but I do know that in battalions such as the Cheshire Regiment, whose reputation stands high, the news of that measure was given by the commanding officer personally, because leadership was exercised. That is the point. The military covenant is about the exercise of leadership by officers and Ministers, and by the families whom both represent.
Yesterday, we heard about the most awful nonsense that had occurred some time earlier. A major had given news by e-mail of the sacking of a number of warrant officers who were serving all over the world. I appreciate that that was difficult to administer, but is notable that an urgent question was asked, that the Speaker allowed it to be dealt with in the Chamber, and that Members on both sides of the House stood up for those warrant officers against the leviathan that the Army can be. That was the Chamber at its best, and the military covenant at its best, because we were looking after the people whom we have a sacred duty to look after. I do not care whether that is written into law; the point is that we must get it right. We must honour these men, we must honour these women, and we must honour their families. That is a military covenant.
It is an incredible pleasure to follow all the Back Benchers who have spoken this evening, as their speeches have shown the House of Commons at its best in terms of expertise and the passion with which Members have been speaking.
I start by paying tribute to our forces and the sacrifices they make for our country, and by referring to the grief of the families of those who have been lost. When I recently went to Afghanistan with the Select Committee on Defence, we visited a forward operating base—I believe this was the first time the Committee had done so—and the dangers faced by our soldiers on a daily basis were obvious and very humbling. Through the work taking place there and at Camp Bastion, together with the training of the Afghan army and police, we are seeing real progress, but for me it was the professionalism of our forces that shone through. The best part of the visit came when we spoke face to face with members of the forces. I was left in no doubt that they are extremely worried about their terms and conditions, and their future pension arrangements, and that many did not feel that they were being treated fairly. I had similar conversations when the previous Government were in office and I acknowledge that members of the armed forces were not happy then either. We have to acknowledge that much more can be done. The shadow Secretary of State outlined what had been done, but we need to make more progress.
In the House, we are rightly always hearing warm words of appreciation for our forces, but they can ring hollow if they are not put into practice in the military covenant and if promises are made and then not kept. In the Armed Forces Bill Committee, the Minister responsible for veterans said that the covenant is a “moral obligation” and a “philosophical statement” and therefore does not need to be spelled out in detail or enshrined in law. That is, of course, the exact opposite of the promise that the Prime Minister made on the Ark Royal—the “Ark of the covenant” perhaps.
My constituency in the south-west of Scotland covers large parts of Ayrshire that are closely associated with the Covenanters, who stood for the preservation of Presbyterianism against all attempts to re-establish Catholic or Episcopalian Church government—that is perhaps not the happiest of illustrations for our Front-Bench team of Murphy and Doyle to take on board. My point is merely that covenants are scattered throughout history, nowhere more so than in biblical times. They often represented the most deeply held beliefs and were of life and death proportions. The adjectives most commonly associated with them were words such as “solemn” and “binding”. It was seldom enough for them to be written in the hearts and minds; it was far better for them to be written on tablets of stone or in blood.
The military covenant is no less a thing; it is not a mere service level agreement and it is more than a bundle of moral obligations or philosophical statements. Moral obligations and philosophical statements do not pay the bills for our service personnel or veterans, nor do they give guarantees in legislation, which is the promise that was made and the promise that should be kept.
My hon. Friend is making a tremendously impressive speech on this issue. The people of Barnsley, in my constituency, have great regard for the armed forces and they expect the Members they elect to this House to reflect that fact in not only everything they say, but everything they do. Does she agree with that?
Yes, very much so.
We are fortunate that both the Armed Forces Bill Committee and the Defence Committee contain Members who have served with distinction in the armed forces, for example, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who spoke with such authority. I have not served in the forces, so I am grateful that I have had the chance to take part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. As hon. Members will know, the scheme allows MPs to spend some 22 days a year with a particular service. Surprisingly enough, in my case it was with the Royal Marines and although it was in no way equivalent to the experience of actual service, it certainly opened my eyes to the reality of the job being done, as well as providing opportunities to speak frankly and off the record to the rank and file. I commend the scheme to hon. Members who might not be aware of it—it is very useful, especially given that relatively few Members of the House have served with the armed forces.
One issue that worries me about the Armed Forces Bill is the narrow way it is framed in terms of specifying the issues that should be included in the covenant. Education, health and housing are very important, but none of them comes under the remit of the MOD. That is not an adequate list of the many issues that exist and, as hon. Members have said, are by no means the only matters of concern. Pensions are of major concern and not just in relation to the retail prices index/consumer prices index debate: widows’ allowances are also of concern. The agreement on pensions is being changed retrospectively and members of the armed forces feel aggrieved about that because they joined the forces in the belief that they would be guaranteed a decent pension. Now they feel let down. I mentioned the external reference group earlier because I think it is important that we have a level of independence. I do not make a party political point: I believe that Governments of any persuasion have a vested interest in highlighting the areas that suit them and ignoring those that do not. For example, why have pensions not been included even though they are obviously a hot issue?
Health care is extremely important and I was delighted to hear that the Secretary of State is prioritising mental health services. Combat Stress in my constituency does a tremendous job for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, including through cognitive behavioural therapy. I strongly welcome the prioritisation of mental health services and I look forward to the development of further services, but I repeat that a promise made should be a promise kept.
I thank Back Benchers on both sides of the Chamber for having retrieved the debate, as Hansard will record. The debate will be read by many service personnel and former military personnel and, as I said in an earlier intervention, it does not go down well to play party politics with our armed forces.
Having served on the previous Armed Forces Bill—now the Armed Forces Act 2006—and on the Committee debating the current Armed Forces Bill, I pay tribute to the previous Government for the many advances that were made regarding the welfare and interests of our serving personnel and their families.
I have no recollection of the military covenant—now known as the armed forces covenant—being mentioned in our deliberations on the previous Bill. That concept has been brought about by the efforts of the Royal British Legion, to which I pay tribute. I also thank the Secretary of State for praising reservists and for reiterating that praise when I intervened on him, because that is part of the one-Army concept. Serving reservists and their families are sometimes left out of the debate.
The armed forces covenant will be enshrined in law when the Bill is enacted because those words will appear in legislation for the first time and because the Secretary of State will be required to come to the House each year and make a report. I am pretty confident that any Secretary of State who for whatever reason tried to airbrush out matters of concern would be quickly picked up, and quite rightly so, by any Member who thought such issues were being ignored.
The hon. Gentleman says that the covenant will be enshrined in law, but he attended the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill the other day when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), said of the covenant:
“As I have explained already, it will be a conceptual, philosophical statement, and it will have about the same legal position as the service Command Paper”.
To say that it will be enshrined in law is complete nonsense.
I am not a lawyer; all I know is that the Bill, which I hope will become an Act, refers to the armed forces covenant. Should there be more than that, or should there be less? I do not know, but I do know that as the years unfold, that concept will be developed and built upon. Not only the Royal British Legion but other charities are involved. We have heard about the external reference group, but in fact a breakdown of that group has shown that the majority of its membership is within Government. It is more of an internal reference group, with a few very important external people added on.
The hon. Gentleman will recall from the activities of the Bill Committee that the devolved Administrations are involved in the external reference group. So far, that is the only way in which they have been consulted on the Bill. Does he agree that such consultation is important?
I have every confidence that the devolved Assemblies and elected representatives from the areas that they cover will not be silent on the Bill.
On Monday, members of the Committee visited the Colchester garrison, Merville barracks. They witnessed a virtually deserted barracks, because virtually ever soldier of 16 Air Assault Brigade is currently serving in Helmand province. I should like to place on record my admiration of, and thanks to, all soldiers in that brigade, including those from other nations who are attached to it. I understand that three people from the Danish army attached to it have lost their lives.
Members of the Select Committee also saw the modern housing there, which is single person’s accommodation, for which the last Government can take credit. I do not agree with its being funded by a private finance initiative, because it will cost the public purse more in the long run, but it is the yardstick by which the provision of all accommodation for single military personnel will be judged in future. However, the Committee also saw the outside of some of the family accommodation. Although we did not go inside, it is accepted that some of it is not as good as it should be.
Across the road, former Army housing, now acquired by a housing association, is having millions of pounds spent on it from the public purse to provide additional rented accommodation for civilians. That accommodation is welcome, but when an Army family living in their substandard house see public money being spent across the road on modernising the most up-to-date housing available, they have to ask what the military covenant is doing. How can the Government find money to do up houses for civilians, which of course I welcome, yet tell us that there is no money to modernise the housing of people whose soldier husbands are serving in Afghanistan and putting their lives on the line? That has to be addressed. I am not making any party political point, because the families we met were not bothered about party politics as far as I could tell. They just wanted their Government to do something about the problem.
I shall end by talking about education, which is one of the three subjects covered by the covenant under the Bill, although others will flow from them. The pupil premium has been mentioned, and I welcome the concept, but it has not yet been spelled out to me what the criteria will be for that money stream to come forward for the children of military personnel. It will be one thing to identify military children on Army, Navy and Air Force bases, where the majority of the children at the local school will be from a military background. However, we know that increasing numbers of armed forces personnel do not live on military bases. How will the pupil premium find its way to young people from such families?
I welcome the Armed Forces Bill, and I believe that the armed forces covenant will be enshrined in the law of the land. I do not want to argue about the legal semantics, but the Bill is a huge step forward and we should thank the Royal British Legion for all its work.
I am proud to represent my constituency, which has a long military history—the arsenal at Woolwich is on our doorstep, and the new town of Thamesmead was built on arsenal land—but I am also proud to be a member of the Thamesmead Town and Abbey Wood Royal British Legion, and it is on behalf of my fellow members that I want to make just one point.
The Conservatives said in their armed forces manifesto that they would look into Lord Boyce’s armed forces compensation scheme review to see whether the reforms were improving things for veterans. I suggest that they also look at how the policies of other Whitehall Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, will affect the conditions for current and future veterans. The scale of the reduction in benefits following the switch from RPI to CPI will wipe out the increases in lump-sum payments that the previous Government introduced following the Boyce review. Far from improving conditions for veterans, that change will be a backward step and a huge blow to members of the armed forces, war widows and their families, because they rely on pensions earlier than other public sector workers. In their lives, members of the armed forces face the risk of injury—both physical and mental—and so rely on getting their pensions earlier, as do the widows and widowers of servicemen and servicewomen who are killed early in their careers.
Those groups, and those on the war pension scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme, will experience a greater diminution of the relative value of their pension over a greater period. Because of the switch to CPI, a 40-year-old squadron leader will lose £300,000 by the age of 85, which is not right. We should not be telling those who have risked their lives for this country that they must suffer a financial loss on such a scale for the sake of reducing the deficit as quickly as possible. As we heard earlier, the deficit is temporary, but the changes to the pensions of members of our armed forces and of other public sector workers will be permanent—the year-on-year reduction in their pensions will continue long after the structural deficit has been reduced.
I oppose in principle the switch to CPI from RPI, and I am unconvinced by the Government’s argument that the former is a better measure. The Government need to postpone that change and to rethink their policy for all public sector workers, but members of our armed forces are a special case. They have served their country, often making huge sacrifices. That also applies to the wider families of personnel. The military service of personnel means that it is likely that they have been away from their families for long periods. We talk about the right to family life in the House when we talk about ourselves, but serving personnel should also have that right. The families of personnel worry every day about the injury or death in service of their loved one, waiting for that phone call or that message, which must be the most awful way to live.
Cutting the pensions of members of the armed services is not the way to reduce the structural deficit. I believe that the deficit can be reduced by greater investment, and a solid strategy for growth over time in a society in which everyone who is able to work does so, and in which we support those who cannot. I urge the Government to review that aspect of their pension policy and to abandon their short-term thinking on the economy, so that members of the armed forces and their families do not pay the price for the banking crisis, in which they had no part.
As the general secretary of the Forces Pension Society, Major-General John Moore-Bick, says, the armed forces pension is “the bedrock of trust” on which members of our forces rely. They know that they or their families will be taken care of in the event of death or wounding, and they can trust that they will have a decent life after active service. We alter that bedrock of trust at our peril, and to our shame.
I will be as quick as I can. I love the idea of a military covenant. Of course our armed forces are a special case. They are a martial profession: people who join them do not do so to join a nursery school; they know they are going to take risks and they know they may lose their lives. As we know, they are in a unique profession, so we have to deal with them uniquely. That is why we must look after them. I repeat: we must look after them.
The military covenant is a work in progress. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who is no longer in his place, and others who say that it is the idea of the covenant that counts rather than law. We feel strongly that the tri-service military covenant being looked at now, as work in progress, could get better. I feel that the military covenant comprises three crucial aspects, which I will quickly run through.
What the Defence Secretary said this afternoon, which was also said in recent proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill, is that a document called “the armed forces covenant” is being worked on now and will be produced later this spring. If that is the case, and the Prime Minister is clear that the covenant should be written into law, why is it not part of the Armed Forces Bill? When an amendment was proposed last week to enshrine the covenant in law, why did the hon. Gentleman’s party vote against it?
The answer is I do not know, but I will continue and I will be quick.
What is crucial to whatever we call the military covenant is how we respect our soldiers when they are killed. As a boy, I remember watching my father’s battalion come back. He was the only officer who had not been killed and I remember watching the bodies come off the back of an aircraft at RAF Khormaksar in Aden. We have come a long way since then, and we must respect people properly. Secondly, the families must be looked after properly. When someone dies in the service of our country, we have a duty as a Government to look after those families for the rest of their lives. And my third point is that we have a duty to look after those who are hurt badly for the rest of their lives, too.
I am happy that the military covenant is going to be part of the Armed Forces Bill. I like the idea of having a report every year. I commend the idea of the Queen’s regulations. When I was serving, they were my bible when it came to dealing with my soldiers and how I should behave. Perhaps the tri-service military covenant will in due course become part of the Queen’s regulations.
Members on both sides of the House must try to do whatever we can in these parlous economic times to look after our soldiers so that we will remember them.
There have been some excellent and thoughtful contributions to the debate. I am pleased that the Royal Welsh Regiment has been given the freedom of the borough in Blaenau Gwent this weekend.
Last week, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the Government’s proposed changes to armed forces pensions. I have also tabled early-day motion 1367, which is now supported by 118 MPs from all parties. I welcome today’s opportunity to raise the issue of the military covenant.
For service personnel and veterans in my constituency, pensions are a key component of the military covenant. Unfortunately, they do not believe that a permanent move from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index in calculating pension increases is fair, and neither do I. This change will slash the lifetime income of disabled servicemen wounded on active service. They have been targets of the Taliban and others; they should not be targets in their retirement.
I am proud of Wales’s contribution to Britain’s defence; it has been long and distinguished. The Welsh Assembly has an admirable record in providing for our armed forces. That is why armed forces personnel now get special help through the Assembly’s homebuy scheme. It is good that the Welsh Assembly goes that bit further for our armed forces. That, I believe, is in contrast to the Government’s policy on pensions for the armed services.
As my right hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary pointed out, the Opposition accept the need for pay restraint in public sector pay and pensions in the current economic circumstances. However, a permanent move to uprating pensions every year in line with CPI rather than RPI does not recognise the unique condition of military service and retirement. It will, for example, mean that those invalided out, and widows who lose their partner at a relatively young age, will lose out—and big time.
The impact of the Government proposals on pensions uprating are stark and startling. For example, a disabled, double amputee, 28-year-old corporal would lose £587,000 by the age of 70. I do not believe that is fair, given the sacrifices made by our armed services and servicemen and servicewomen. Lyndon Moore, the secretary of the Nantyglo British Legion in Blaenau Gwent, supports me in standing up for servicemen, who, he feels, have been let down by the Government in their hour of need. I applaud the coverage of this matter in The Times and in the Pensions Fit for Heroes campaign of the Daily Mirror in recent weeks.
The Government have acknowledged that the e-mail sackings were a dreadful mistake, and the Defence Secretary’s apology yesterday was a full one. However, let us reflect on how it must feel to have one’s long-term national service terminated by e-mail, especially when one has served the country with distinction. The Government must sharpen up their act so that that dreadful mistake does not happen again.
I hope that in the short time left before the Budget, the Defence Secretary will make the case to the Chancellor for a rethink on armed services pensions uprating. We need an informed discussion on how we devise CPI and RPI. The International Association for Official Statistics has said that there is a risk of loss of public faith in official data. The public are sceptical about a measure such as CPI, which excludes housing costs. Service pensioners know that housing costs are a long-term element in their monthly outgoings, particularly for invalids and war widows. That is why CPI increases are so problematic for them, and that should be emphasised today.
Service personnel should be assured that the change in pensions uprating from RPI to CPI will be as brief as possible. Surely the Minister does not want to penalise service families for ever and a day. If the Government change their mind, it will be an important boost to service morale and will ensure that the military covenant is credible. Importantly, it is the right thing to do.
I pay tribute to the fantastic contributions that we have heard in the House today. In comparison, my speech will probably sound quite parochial, as I speak as a member of a forces family: my husband is a Royal Navy officer, so perhaps I should declare an interest as I am one of the people under discussion.
We have heard comments about political point scoring and making promises that we cannot keep, and those are the two issues on which I want to focus. The armed forces is not a homogenous mass or fighting machine, but soldiers, sailors, airmen, wives, husbands, kids, mothers and fathers. We are asking people not just to lay down their own lives but to lay down the lives of those whom they love most in the world, to protect our country and its interests. We must remember, every day in this Chamber, that those are the decisions that we are making.
I fully endorse the renaming of the military covenant as an armed forces covenant. The many Navy members of my constituency—it is a military constituency—have often felt that “the military covenant” is an Army-centric term, and they like the fact that the Navy and RAF are included in the rebranding of the name.
I want to reinforce the point made by some of my hon. Friends this afternoon that it is missing the point and the sentiment behind the covenant to talk about enshrining it in law. Forces families have heard it all before—[Interruption.] Hon. Members can chunter all they like, but I can talk only from personal experience. Successive Governments have promised to take care of the armed forces and failed to deliver.
Forces families do not want special treatment. They just want a level playing field; they want the same treatment as everybody else and the same opportunities as non-service families. Sadly, forces families are no strangers to having their hopes raised and then dashed. For example, MODern Housing Solutions offered itself as a revolution in delivering maintenance and repairs for forces accommodation. Everybody in married forces was very excited about that, but it failed to deliver its promises.
When I was newly wed to a naval officer, I was told by the wife of a more senior officer that the only thing I could guarantee in my life as a Navy wife was that the day my husband told me he would be home from sea is the only day he would not be home. That sums up the situation. Such changes of plan are unavoidable of course, but the MOD must work on its communication skills. Families can often be seen as a bit of a nuisance, and they are often the last to find out when their loved ones will be home.
I would love to give way, but I will not do so as I am also thinking about other Members who wish to contribute.
An unhappy family makes an unhappy service person. We need to rebuild the trust of our armed forces, and if we make a promise we must stick to it. Making promises that are achievable and then exceeding expectations is far better than seeking to enshrine things in law.
The UK’s armed forces have been working at a sustained rate for decades. Whitehall is lined with statues commemorating the valour of servicemen and women, but what would be a far more fitting commemoration in their honour is a tangible covenant that can respond to the changing needs of our armed forces and that keeps its promises to them and makes them feel safer abroad and more valued at home.
I will try to be brief by asking the Minister to answer the questions of others, not points raised by me.
The director general of the Royal British Legion, Chris Simpkins, said:
“We’re seeing various allowances paid to the armed forces being reduced…If we then see that the Government isn’t prepared to give a legal commitment to an armed forces covenant I feel that may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and will have a very harmful impact on morale.”
In case there is any doubt, he talked previously about
“the need to define and enshrine in law a set of principles in a military covenant.”
Let me put some points made by serving armed forces families. J. Winfield of Nottingham says:
“Once again a new Government have got into power on the back of broken promises. For those of us in the military, we have seen a cut in take-home pay (not a pay freeze), an attack on our pension scheme (against the charter) and basically a complete betrayal by this Government. When the economic climate improves they need not worry about compulsory redundancies as experienced personnel will be leaving in droves. But let us remember ‘we are all in this together’.”
Hilary Adams of London says:
“I’m constantly amazed that anyone in the Army is surprised when they get dumped on by Government. Haven’t you people realised you’re nothing more than cannon fodder? They made a big PR issue of upping other perks to soldiers when they came into power. It should surely have been obvious that they would pay for that by taking it away from you elsewhere!”
Let me conclude by quoting some comments I have taken off one of the armed forces sites. As the Government Front-Bench team will know, these sites can use fruity language, so I have edited the comments.
“How many of you are actually aware that as we speak, the Government are to steal from each and every one of you who have served your country and earned your pension tens of thousands of pounds because they are to change the way the annual increase is worked out?...I just like thousands of other soldiers, sailors and airmen have done my time plus some more and now they have decided to change the goal posts. I stayed in and I am still in because of the pension, not because I like being institutionalised…For me integrity is important; if you promise something to a person, you keep that promise and give it to them. The next person to come along does not necessarily have to get the same deal, this is the way life is. I was promised something, and I want it in the same form I had become used to expecting I would receive it. I honoured my side of the agreement, will they”—
he is referring to the Government Front-Bench team—
“honour theirs? I doubt it.”
“I shall be next year, aged 43, forced into possible unemployment because the option to remain serving isn’t there for me like many others. Perhaps if enough of us actually give a hoot, and took action he”—
the Prime Minister—
“may have second thoughts. Wake up, people, if you are entitled to an Armed Forces pension you are going to lose tens of thousands of pounds over your lifetime. What really annoys me is that it seems many of you either don’t know this is going to happen”—
speaking to his other colleagues—
“or don’t give a damn. Please start to take action now before it’s too late. We are getting royally bent over and”—
I leave the rest to the imagination of the House.
If the Government do not honour that covenant given on the Ark Royal, what will they do? Servicemen and their families are asking the House to honour the covenant. That is what the debate is about.
I declare an interest as I am attached to Royal Navy Reserve, King Alfred, Portsmouth.
I want to make three points. First, many Members have pointed out that the covenant and defence are not the turf of one political party or another; they are far too important, and must be beyond political gain. Those of us in the Chamber today, and those of us who speak regularly on these issues, must work with our parliamentary colleagues to build understanding and interest in the contribution our armed forces make not just to security but to our entire way of life.
We need deeper understanding of the challenges that our armed forces and their families face in doing their duty, and I am pleased to announce that this year, for the first time, we will be holding a Trafalgar night in the House of Commons to showcase the contribution the Royal Navy makes to our way of life. I am delighted that the shadow Secretary of State has agreed to co-host that event with me. It shows how we can build depth and breadth in our colleagues’ knowledge of defence and related matters.
Secondly, I repeat a point made by the Secretary of State. The covenant must be about actions, not just about words. We judge our service personnel in a binary way. Did we win? Did we secure our objectives? Our armed forces invariably do so. As politicians we do not have the same reputation. Given the catalogue of anecdotes about the failures of previous Governments, it is unsurprising that we face a sceptical audience in the armed services and their families.
The debate has been about words—about legal status—but our focus beyond today must be on action and results. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his ministerial team; they have done a lot in a short time on operational allowances, mental health services, rest and recreation and education, but the covenant is about much more than welfare issues, which leads me to my third and final point.
The covenant is just as much about our industrial strategy, the size of the defence budget and the voice of the military in future defence reviews as it is about welfare issues. In future months, I shall be arguing not just for service pensions to be linked to the retail prices index, for medals for submariners and the Arctic convoy, for damp-coursing in naval housing and additional allowances for those who search for improvised explosive devices, as well as for those who dispose of them, but also for a larger defence budget in future years, support for exporting Royal Navy-designed ships and for military representation on the secretariat of the National Security Council. Why? Because if the armed forces covenant is to be realised, it requires funds. It requires that we make the right procurement decisions and that we have a Parliament that listens to and learns from the concerns and day to day issues of service personnel.
In that sense, the subject of the debate is a decoy. Despite wonderful contributions, it is a piece of theatre. We know that the military covenant will be enshrined in law, but it will be the subsequent actions of the House on the broader, more fundamental issues that ultimately decide whether the covenant is worth the paper it is written on. I urge the shadow Secretary of State to focus on that in future Opposition day debates.
I shall make three quick observations. If the covenant is about anything, it must be about human resources and how we deal with people. First, will the Minister look at the composition of the Defence Board? If that was the board of a large international company, it would include human resources representatives. It does not, other than a human resources representative of one of the outside companies.
Secondly, the defence cuts go to 17,000 service personnel and 25,000 civilian personnel. Will the Minister ensure that we do not end up making the military, which will be on higher wage rates, perform functions that cheaper civilian personnel had performed, and that the proper resources are made available? Thirdly, will he consider whether, if the budget is not increased, he will be able to withdraw British troops from Germany in 2020? Will he bear in mind that military personnel deserve some stability in their life, and that making promises that he cannot keep is not a good idea?
We have had an excellent debate this afternoon, including the speeches that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). We called for the debate today to enable Members to hold the Government to account for the promises that they made to our service personnel. The Government said that the military covenant is shattered, but they have failed to offer a clear plan to strengthen it, and they have broken their promise to write the covenant into law.
Numerous Members paid tribute today to our armed forces and they are right to do so. None did so more movingly than my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), who paid tribute to his father. Our servicemen and women do difficult and dangerous work all over the world and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that they make to safeguard our liberty. We must not forget our armed forces families, as the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) reminded us. Theirs is a huge sacrifice too, having their husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters spend many months away from home risking their lives. That puts a great strain on families, but their support is priceless. We owe them our sincere thanks, but we also owe them fair treatment.
There was great progress on support for our armed forces under the previous Government. We delivered a cross-Government approach to forces’ welfare. The Service Personnel Command Paper 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 for those seriously injured. We proposed strengthening the military covenant by enshrining the rights of our service personnel, their families and veterans in law through an armed forces charter. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) explained why that measure is so important.
I am obliged to the hon. Lady. It has been a pleasure to serve with her on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill and now on the Bill Committee. She mentioned enshrining the covenant in law, but she heard the evidence of General Mans, who told the Committee on 8 February 2011:
“I don’t think there is a requirement to set down standards”.
In the same Committee sitting she heard the evidence of Admiral Montgomery, who said:
“I have detected no appetite for legally enforceable measures within this covenant, none whatsoever.”
Why are those gentlemen wrong and why is she right?
Indeed, it has been a pleasure to serve with the hon. Gentleman on that Bill Committee. As he and I have already discussed, there has been some confusion over two separate issues. One is about a highly prescriptive covenant being written into law, and the other is about enshrining the covenant into law at all, which the Armed Forces Bill does not do, but which his own Prime Minister has said he wants to do.
That takes me neatly to the main thrust of today’s debate—the Government’s approach to our armed forces and to the military covenant. In opposition the Conservatives declared that the covenant was “shattered” and they promised to rebuild it. That does not fit with the coalition Government’s record of action since they have been in office. Last week, on 10 February, a spokesperson for the RAF Families Federation, in evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Committee, said:
“At the moment, there is a real feeling within the armed forces that they are being battered from all sides.”
The Government must pause and reflect on those comments.
The hon. and gallant Members for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) spoke about their own service experiences. They both said that they do not know and they do not really care whether the armed forces covenant is enshrined in law. I entirely respect that position, and I entirely respect their service. My concern is that the Prime Minister promised that the military covenant will be enshrined in law, and that the Armed Forces Bill, as drafted, does not do that.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos made wide-ranging pledges on covenant issues, but we have heard little about how, in government, they will take those forward. The Government’s plan to link public sector pension rises to the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index, means that inflation will hit service personnel and war widows hard, as my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) explained. That change is fundamentally unfair on the people who serve to defend our way of life, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) noted, which is why we have suggested an alternative, fairer approach.
What action have the Government taken on the covenant? The Prime Minister established a taskforce to seek out
“low-cost, innovative policy options to help rebuild the military covenant”.
The Government have said that they will ensure that our brave soldiers will get the best, but can the Minister really look them in the eye and assure them that that will happen, given that the Government have said that they want it done on the cheap?
As I have mentioned, Labour have proposed enshrining the rights of our armed forces in law. Last summer, it looked as though the Prime Minister had adopted our idea. He visited the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and promised her sailors that
“Whether it’s the schools you send your children to, whether it’s the healthcare you expect, whether it’s the fact that there should be a decent military ward for everyone who gets injured…I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that’s written into the law of the land.”
Fast-forward eight months and what a change we have: HMS Ark Royal has been consigned to the scrap heap and the Prime Minister’s promise has not fared much better. The Government have not enshrined a military covenant in law, and nor do they propose to do so in the Armed Forces Bill. We have had much debate on this point in the Bill Committee, with Ministry of Defence officials tying themselves in knots, frankly, arguing both that the covenant should not be laid down in law and that the Bill will in fact enshrine it in law—it was quite a sight to behold. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who is responsible for veterans and is serving on the Committee, has finally admitted that the covenant will not be laid down in law.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) raised the concerns of the Royal British Legion. Its e-mail to MPs today stated:
“We do not understand why the Government is now claiming that the commitment to produce an ‘Armed Forces Covenant report’ is somehow the same thing as enshrining the military covenant in law. It is not the same thing at all.”
Neither the covenant, nor the principles by which we would understand it to operate, will be enshrined in law. The Government are not being honest with our armed forces. They promised a military covenant enshrined in law, but what is being offered is little more than fuzzy assurances and woolly platitudes. They should fulfil their promise, as our motion seeks to make them do, and ensure that they offer nothing less than the unshakable commitment and the cast-iron guarantee that our servicemen and women deserve.
Furthermore, like service personnel and charities, we have concerns about the annual covenant report that the Government plan to introduce. It is too narrowly defined and lacks the independence from Government required to ensure that it is an effective tool for improving the lives of members of our armed forces. It is to be welcomed that the Secretary of State will lay a report before Parliament for debate, as the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned, but as it stands, only health, education and housing are specifically cited as issues to be considered in that report. That is insufficient.
Of course those issues are vital to service personnel, their families and veterans, but there are many other concerns that affect their daily lives. I visited Colchester garrison this week, along with other members of the Bill Committee, and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) spoke with pride today about the 16 Air Assault Brigade currently serving in Afghanistan. The concerns raised with me on Monday were about cuts to allowances, cuts to pensions and the difficulties faced by service family members seeking employment. As things stand, the Secretary of State would not be obliged to report on how those issues affect our armed forces. I think that he should at the very least report on issues that fall within his remit.
The Opposition have proposed that the scope of the covenant report should be expanded to include issues such as mental health care, pensions, benefits, employment and training. The Government have rejected our proposals in Committee in a clear indication that they want the Secretary of State to decide which issues should be reported to Parliament. I would like to address many other issues, but time does not permit me to do so.
Today’s debate has been an important opportunity to hold the Government to account on their approach to our service personnel, their families and veterans. Our brave servicemen and women would be right to expect a lot from this Government, given their pre-election rhetoric, but they are not being honest. They have U-turned on a pledge delivered personally by the Prime Minister to enshrine the military covenant in law. It is no wonder that the chairman of the Forces Pension Society has said:
“I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly.”
Our brave servicemen and women, their families and our veterans deserve better.
The British people and, indeed, a great many Members will have been puzzled by today’s debate, because all parts of the House agree on the substance of the issues and on looking after the armed forces, and we have heard from both sides how much people care about armed forces personnel, their families, veterans, the injured, widows and so on. So what we have heard, I fear, is a synthetic debate about semantics—dancing on the head of a pin. We on the Government Benches are absolutely concerned about results, not about party political point-scoring.
I shall turn my attention first, if I may, to the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), who gave a very moving account of his father on D-day. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we all, of whatever age, owe a huge debt to those who fought in the second world war on D-day and on other occasions. I have to say, however, that I am sorry he thought that people who went off after D-day and voted Conservative were voting weirdly; I have always thought that it was a bit weird to vote Labour, but never mind. We agree also on defence expenditure, but if I may say so gently, we cannot spend money that we do not have, and that is why we have to cut the defence budget.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) made, without doubt, the best joke of the day. He also spoke sensibly from experience, including recent operational experience, and I say to him, “Trust me. We will not forget the reserves.” The reserves review will report this year to me.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) started calmly and asked to be non-political, but then I found that, rather sadly, she turned tribal and became rather party political. I do not doubt her sincerity, however, and I assure her that I and Her Majesty’s Government similarly care deeply for the armed forces.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) spoke from experience and, again, rather movingly, this time about the covenant manifested in Newark. I thank him for his contribution, and he is right: we must, indeed, look after our people in the armed forces.
Turning to the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), I am sorry to say this, but “the Ark of the covenant” was without doubt the worst joke of the day. Again, however, I do not doubt her commitment to, and support for, the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is a great supporter of the armed forces and, indeed, of the covenant, and he made a sensible and knowledgeable contribution.
The hon. Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) spoke about pensions, and again I do not doubt their sincerity. We are deeply concerned about, and looking specifically at the issue of, widows and maimed personnel in terms of pensions. The hon. Lady referred to a 40-year-old squadron leader and how much his pension might be affected, but she should know that I have drawn a pension from the armed forces for more than 20 years, and although she may not think it, I have managed to earn a little on the way as a Member, so we need to be realistic about the issue: we cannot exempt everybody from the change to CPI from RPI. People who think we can are totally in denial about the state of the public finances, which the previous Government left to us. We have to clear up that mess, and we have no other duty than to do so before we deal with other matters.
We did not appreciate quite what an awful state—[Interruption.] I could point the House to innumerable references to, “When we open the books, we will find out what things are like.” We did not appreciate the awfulness. We certainly did not know that the MOD budget for the next 10 years was overspent by £38 billion. I am not sure what promise the hon. Lady is alleging that we are breaking, because I cannot see one.
I have had many discussions with representatives of the War Widows Association and the Forces Pension Society, and we are looking at particular cases and how we can perhaps take this forward. I cannot make any concrete commitment, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that should we make any progress or change, I will let him know.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his contribution. He, too, has been in receipt of a pension for a few years—a bigger one than mine, but there we go.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), although not gallant herself, is married to a gallant officer. I am grateful for her contribution, in which she spoke from her experience of service family life. She is of course absolutely right: we have to look after the armed forces, and that is what we pledge to do.
I was rather surprised when the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), for whom I have always had a bit of affection, started to quote from blogs. I think we all read blogs from time to time, but most of the stuff that is written there is not worth repeating.
Far from blogs, I also quoted Chris Simpkins of the Royal British Legion, who said:
“The British public has shown it sees”
the role of coroner
“as vital in ensuring bereaved Service families can have confidence in the investigations of their loved ones’ deaths. We believe it is fundamental to the inquest process and to the fulfilment of the Military Covenant”.
The Minister should not respond to the blogs but to the Royal British Legion.
I will come to that if I have time at the end.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) might qualify as almost gallant in her role in the Royal Naval Reserve. I am grateful to her for what she said. She is absolutely right that this Government believe in action, not words—not spin, but results.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) made three swift points that seemed pretty reasonable. I would love to respond and wonder if she could write to me about them.
I now turn to the Front-Bench contribution by the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy). I expect that he now regrets having called this debate, because he has not come out of it with any credit. Like the hon. Member for Ogmore, he quoted at length the Royal British Legion. I have here the Royal British Legion’s initial comments on the proposed armed forces covenant, dated 21 January—not four weeks ago—in which it says that it broadly welcomes the proposals. I am afraid that one can quote selectively at any stage, and Labour Members are doing so.
I am afraid that the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) regurgitated the arguments that we have heard in the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, and they had no more resonance. The Committee has made three visits—to the Nottingham reserves centre, to Colchester and to Headley Court—and I am disappointed that of the six Labour Members on the Committee, who make so much fuss about these things, three did not come on any of those visits.