I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Armed Forces Personnel.
Tomorrow, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the nation will unite in an act of remembrance. We will honour the memory of all who have paid the ultimate price in the service of their country. In November 1919, on the first day of remembrance after the great war, King George V asked that the nation observe a two-minute silence in memoriam, so that, in his words,
“in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”
I am sure the whole House will join me in urging the nation once again to observe remembrance, as it does every year, with that same deep respect.
Remembrance is not a political occasion, and it is not about one’s personal views on this conflict or that. It is about recognising that the real price of war, any war, is a human price—a price paid not just by those who have died but by their families and by all those who have returned wounded, physically or mentally. We therefore remember the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people from the UK and the Commonwealth who fought and fell in the two world wars of the last century.
This is also about those who have fought for the country in more recent times. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, in which 253 members of Britain’s armed forces were killed liberating the islands. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Gulf war, in which 44 service personnel were killed.
Will the Minister shed some light on this matter? The Times today says that there is a cut in the funding for the National Memorial Arboretum. The Ministry of Defence has said that that is not correct and the Leader of the House previously said that there was no cut in grant in aid. Will the Minister confirm that there is no cut in any funding streams from Government sources to the arboretum, in which, as he will know, I took a very close interest when I was veterans Minister?
I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. There has been no cut in the funding of the National Memorial Arboretum. I am afraid that the journalists, in framing their story, did not compare like with like. They counted in the previous figure a one-off capital grant and conflated that with the annual grant in aid, which had the effect of making it appear that there had been a cut. There has been no cut: the level of grant in aid remains as it was, and the capital works for which the previous project money was granted by the previous Government are now complete.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to begin his speech by recognising Remembrance day. All hon. Members will wear poppies tomorrow and on the weekend to pay tribute to those who have been either killed or injured in the wars. However, will he join me in condemning a small but naive group among the younger generation who choose to desecrate, damage and rob war memorials, which shows a growing distance between a younger generation and a generation who made the huge sacrifices for the very freedoms that we enjoy today?
It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in his place today, and I should like to thank him for his work in his previous role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. I entirely agree with what he says. It is a tiny minority who behave in that completely deplorable manner. I am sure that all like-minded people would have no hesitation whatever in condemning them and in applauding the work not only of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but of local authorities and others up and down the country who work assiduously to maintain war memorials.
The 1991 Gulf war was not the end of the loss of British lives in Iraq. One hundred and seventy-nine were killed on Operation Telic between 2003 and 2009. Last month, we marked 10 years since the beginning of operations in Afghanistan, where 385 servicemen and women have been killed. The House will have heard about the death of a soldier from 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment on patrol in Helmand yesterday. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time as they come to terms with their loss.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is in theatre as we speak, preparing to observe Remembrance day with our troops there. That is because while we honour the memory of those who have died, those who fought and those who returned bearing the wounds of war, we keep in mind all those currently serving in our defence. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to them. Those serving do a very dangerous job not only on operations, but in their many other duties, as the sad death of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham of the Red Arrows reminds us.
I do not want to repeat what I said yesterday to the Prime Minister—there is no need—but on the wider issue of personnel, my hon. Friend will want to take this opportunity to emphasise that the Ministry of Defence will leave no stone unturned to ensure the safety of the Red Arrows and their personnel. We want to keep RAF Scampton open because the skies are safe there. However, personnel directly suffer iniquities from the RAF closing bases and not thinking about the future. There is further reportage in today’s papers on the return of all personnel from Germany by 2020. Will the Minister bear it in mind that we have a wonderful base in RAF Scampton, which could remain open to welcome back those who are returning?
I note what my hon. Friend says and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the RAF, but in respect of this week’s fatal accident, I must stress that the Military Aviation Authority is beginning a full and proper investigation of what happened and what led to the tragedy. It would be quite improper for me, as a Minister of the Crown, to say anything at this stage that would pre-empt that process. In the fullness of time, I have no doubt whatever that he and others will have the opportunity to raise questions about that.
The armed forces of today are different in many ways from those who fought on the Somme or at El Alamein. The conscription that created the massed forces of the world wars was a reflection of the existential threat facing the country at that time. When world war two ended in 1945, there were around 5 million men and women in uniform. Almost every family in the country was connected in some way to the sacrifice that had been made, and service in the armed forces was woven deeply into the fabric of the nation, but for many years now, our armed forces have been a smaller, professional, all-volunteer force, including reserve forces, which have been used widely in recent conflicts.
As the older generations who fought in the world wars or undertook national service dwindle, and as the services have reduced in size since the end of the cold war, public understanding of our armed forces has declined as a result. I am suggesting not that the respect and esteem in which our armed forces are held by the nation has in any way diminished—the way the people of Royal Wootton Bassett chose to mark the return of the fallen is surely testament to that—but that people understand less how members of the armed forces view risk and reward, and what motivates them to do the dangerous job they do.
What a life in today’s armed forces is like and the impact that service life has on modern families is also less widely understood. That is why, as we seek to reinvigorate the armed forces covenant, we must raise people’s understanding of the impact of service life. Fulfilling the armed forces covenant has to be a whole-of-society enterprise: it is not just for the Ministry of Defence but for all Departments; it is not just for legislators here in Westminster but for legislators at all levels; and it is not just for the Government, but for charities, the private sector and private citizens.
My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech. Does he agree that that challenge will increase markedly once the Afghanistan operation is over as people see less of the armed forces on their television sets? Does he also agree—he may be about to come to this point—that one key area in which we can build that connection is through the Ministry’s plans for the reserve forces and cadets?
I had a feeling my hon. Friend would intervene on that matter. It is certainly the case—this has been tangible in the past few years—that the amount of media attention that is quite rightly devoted to the conflict in Afghanistan has had an impact on public recognition and awareness of the work that the armed forces are doing. As we know, their conflict or fighting role in Afghanistan is due to end by 2015. I suppose my hon. Friend is right in saying that there could be a risk that public awareness of the daily and regular actions of the armed forces will diminish, but of course, nobody at this stage can anticipate what demands will be put on our armed forces thereafter. In an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world, I fear it is unlikely that our armed forces will disappear or have a period of inactivity, but he is quite right to suggest that the increasing role that we plan for reserves, and the investment that we intend to make to build up their capacity and professionalism in the next decade or so, will, I sincerely hope, have the effect that more people in society will have some connection and contact with those who serve and awareness of what they do.
I recognise the valuable groundwork done by the previous Administration to reinvigorate the armed forces covenant: the 2008 service personnel Command Paper, produced by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) when he was Minister for the Armed Forces, provides much of the intellectual grounding for the first formal tri-service armed forces covenant published in May. He will find the principles in the covenant familiar, particularly where it states:
“Those who serve in the Armed Forces…should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.”
Now that the Armed Forces Act 2011 has received Royal Assent, these principles have been recognised in statute for the first time. In my view, that is a considerable step forward, and we are already acting to give the covenant life, particularly through encouraging action at a community level. This is about local authorities, devolved Administrations, charities, businesses, communities and individuals coming together to offer their support to the services and the service community in their local area, and to improve understanding and awareness among the public of issues affecting the armed forces community. That is why we call it the armed forces community covenant. It is a voluntary statement of mutual support between the civilian community and its local armed forces community.
In August, the MOD launched the community covenant grant scheme, which aims to support local projects that strengthen the ties on mutual understanding between members of the armed forces community and the wider communities in which they live. Some £30 million has been allocated to the scheme. The covenant has to be seen to be bipartisan, non-political and as an all-society effort, if it is to be meaningful and lasting. The Labour party should take a share of the credit for the progress being made, given that it put in place some of these useful steps.
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the previous Government for the measures they took. The veterans badge is another measure that has helped many of our former military personnel to show their support now that they are on civvy street. Does he agree that the armed forces community covenant would be further boosted if those who served in Her Majesty’s armed forces—often national servicemen—were allowed an armed forces service medal, which they could wear with pride on Remembrance Sunday? They served King and country, Queen and country.
The principle of an all-encompassing medal has been considered several times, but to date, at least, it has been ruled out because it cuts across the usual principles on which medals are issued. For the time being, that remains the situation. I understand the calls that some make for such a medal, but the principles on which medals are awarded will not allow for that, unless they are amended.
Is the Minister aware of the concern that the armed forces personnel who will be made redundant, but who otherwise would have qualified for the diamond jubilee medal, might not receive it? What is the Department’s thinking on that?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We will take it away and give it some serious consideration, and I shall come back to her and the House in due course. We will need to reflect on that point.
As I said, the armed forces covenant has to be an all-society and bipartisan effort, if it is to be recognised and respected, and if it is to endure.
On the point about the principles and practical application of the military covenant applying across the board, does the Minister agree that it has to apply in all parts of the United Kingdom? Will he therefore join me in supporting efforts to ensure that, through legislation, the devolved regions are required to implement and follow through on the military covenant?
We certainly want the covenant operating, in practice and effect, across the whole UK. The armed forces are drawn from, and stationed across, the whole UK, and it is certainly our view that this should be a whole-UK effort as well.
Unfortunately, owing to the fiscal situation, we have had to make some difficult decisions to balance the defence programme and to begin building the formidable, adaptable and sustainable armed forces that the country will need for the future. I regret to say that this has also affected the pace and sequencing of measures to improve the welfare of service personnel, their families and veterans. I know that some of the decisions required to bring balance to the defence programme directly affect people—for instance, decisions on pay and allowances, and the decisions to reduce the size of the armed forces establishment. I greatly regret that we have had to take some of these measures, just as I regret the need to cut the defence budget as a whole to contribute to deficit reduction, but that is the reality of the situation the country is in.
Does the Minister agree that one cut that has hit families particularly hard has been the decision not to refurbish 49,000 units of armed forces accommodation? Yet again, many, many families will be spending a desperate winter in unfit and unsuitable accommodation. Will he consider that point, especially in the light of the plans to save £250 million by bringing troops back from Germany? Perhaps some of that money could be invested in our armed forces families’ accommodation.
Unless I misheard, the hon. Lady suggested that the impact would be felt this winter. The regrettable pause announced to the housing programme will not take effect for another two years, so there is no question of it having a marginal impact this winter. It is a matter of profound regret that we have to pause the programme, but I must stress that the majority of family houses in the defence estate are in the upper two quality bands. Obviously, however, it remains the commitment of any Government to get all the housing into those top two bands over the long term.
I want to make it perfectly clear that routine maintenance and repairs are not affected, and specific improvements to kitchens and bathrooms will continue during the pause. Furthermore, as the coalition agreement states, we will continue to look for savings elsewhere in the Defence Infrastructure Organisation budget, and if we can make them over the next two or three years, we will put them back into the housing improvement programme in due course. I hope very much that we can achieve that. However, the hon. Lady makes a perfectly valid point, and it is one that I acknowledge and regret. I hope that we can do something about it, but this is the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves.
We cannot do all that we would want to do straight away to improve the welfare of personnel, because the money simply is not available. As a result, we have had to prioritise ruthlessly in order to ensure that any extra money that we can spend, we spend wisely and on those things that are most urgent. So let me set out what we have done. First, there is operational welfare: operations have to come first to ensure that those in the firing line have the tools and protection that they need to do the job. That is not just about strategy and equipment, but about ensuring that personnel and their families are looked after too. As Montgomery set out in his principles of warfare,
“the morale of the soldier is the most important single factor in war”.
The morale of the soldier is uppermost, but following on from the previous question, my hon. Friend has seen for himself examples of where the Government have found money, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, to modernise former MOD housing on one side of a road and into which civilian families are now moving—good news—yet where, on the other side of the road, there are identical but un-modernised houses occupied by the families of soldiers who, this time last year, were serving in Afghanistan. Why can the Government not find the money for soldiers’ homes, if they can find it for former MOD homes?
As my hon. Friend rightly says, I have seen that for myself. I visited that area earlier this year and I know exactly what he is referring to. He makes a good point, and if I were living in those military houses, I would feel just as put out about it as I know the residents do. I take the point entirely. As I have just explained, we are in a tight financial situation. Other Departments have had to set their priorities and also make big cuts in their budgets. Fortunately for those of my hon. Friend’s constituents who happen to live in the other part of the estate, they have had good news sooner than those living in the military housing. However, let me reaffirm the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to return to this issue as soon as funds allow in order to ensure that we continue the programme of improving defence housing.
One of the first actions taken by the new Government was the doubling of the operational allowance paid under the previous Government, taking it to over £5,000 for a typical six-month tour. We have changed the rules on rest and recuperation, so that any days of leave lost due to delays in the air bridge or any other operational requirements will be added to post-tour leave. This year we have doubled council tax relief from 25% to 50% for all personnel on operations, including in Libya. The deployed welfare package is kept under constant review to ensure that it meets the needs of both the service person and their dependants. Free phone calls are available for 30 minutes a week. Wi-fi access has been extended in operational areas, while texting and internet facilities have been improved, even in the forward operating bases. Those measures have been particularly important in ensuring that the home front and the front line can provide mutual support at a time that is difficult for families and dangerous for personnel.
Our focus on operations has meant that we have been unable to go as far or as fast as we want in other areas, as is certainly the case with housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) has pointed out. However, that means that the initial key pledges in the coalition agreement have already been addressed. They include not only the operational welfare measures that I have mentioned, but providing university and further education scholarships to the children of members of the armed forces who have been killed since 1990. So far, 49 children have received scholarships. We have also included some 45,000 service children in the pupil premium system, recognising the uniqueness of service life and its effect on service children and service communities.
My hon. Friend is touching on an extremely important point. Will he confirm that we have started to return to what was universally recognised should happen until 12 or 13 years ago—that is, the costs falling where they should fall and not on the defence budget? It is the duty of the nation as a whole, not just the defence budget, to look after the children of the fallen.
I can assure my hon. Friend that he is quite right about that. The changes made are important, and we have discussed them with colleagues in other Departments. We are pleased that the Government have been able to agree them, but he is absolutely right that the costs will be met where they fall and that the Departments responsible for providing those services will be the ones paying for them.
We have endorsed all the proposals made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) in his report on improving mental health care, in particular: a structured mental health component in existing medical examinations performed while serving; an uplift in the number of mental health professionals conducting veterans outreach work from mental health trusts; the trial of an online early intervention service for serving personnel and veterans; and the means to allow the newly formed veterans information service to contact service leavers after they have left the armed forces. The new round-the-clock veterans mental health helpline is funded by the NHS and run by Rethink Mental Illness on behalf of Combat Stress.
Will the Minister confirm that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Royal Marines and charities such as Combat Stress for highlighting the need to focus on mental health issues in the military? They have helped to make mental health issues not something that people hide, but something that they seek help for—something that people are proactive in admitting is becoming a problem and in dealing with before it becomes too difficult and damaging for themselves and their families. We owe those groups a debt of gratitude for working to make it acceptable to seek help.
We certainly do, and I agree very much with what the hon. Lady says. The Royal Marines were undoubtedly pathfinders in being the first to take measures to address the issue, and I know that the other services have sat up and taken notice of what they did. I believe that awareness of, and attitudes towards, mental health are shifting throughout the services, and I pay tribute to those in the services who have helped to bring that about. However, the hon. Lady is also right to pay tribute to those outside the services who work with them and who are beginning to address what, for many people, is a real problem.
We know from previous conflicts that some of those presenting with symptoms of mental illness as a result of their engagement have sometimes come forward many years later. However, the statistics show that people are coming forward rather sooner from the current operations in Afghanistan and the previous operations in Iraq, and they will probably continue to do so for many years. Far more have come forward far sooner than in the past, which must in some way reflect the changing attitude towards and awareness of the issue, and the growing availability of support and help to people on the outside. I pay tribute to everybody who is involved in all that.
That co-operative structure in delivering support—government at all levels working with professionals and charities—is being taken forward in other areas too. The defence recovery capability, which is a joint venture between the MOD, Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and other service charities, is taking the way we support our wounded, injured and sick personnel to a new level. For complex cases, world-class care is provided at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court for serving personnel. Personnel recovery centres and recovery and assessment centres are being established in major garrisons, where recovering personnel will be in a position to take advantage not only of excellent medical and rehabilitation services, but of the full range of facilities in large garrison areas. In prosthetics, the Government will work with service charities, including Help for Heroes and BLESMA—the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association—as well as specialists in the NHS, to ensure that high-quality NHS facilities are available to our servicemen and women once they leave service.
The Hasler unit in my constituency does an enormous amount of work on prosthetics and so on. May I encourage my hon. Friend to come down to Plymouth to see for himself the excellent work being done there?
It is very kind of my hon. Friend to issue that invitation, but I have actually already visited and seen the work at Hasler for myself. He is right to pay tribute to the terrific work done there. [Interruption.] I did indeed tell my hon. Friend. I visited various parts of the facility in Plymouth, but he was perhaps unaware that the trip was on my itinerary that day. However, he is right: the facilities at Hasler are first class, and I can see the difference that they have made for people. That is an example of good practice that we would hope to emulate everywhere else. The Department of Health will introduce a number of national specialist prosthetic and rehabilitation centres for amputee veterans across the country, because we recognise that they will continue to need help and support throughout their lives. Those are just a few of the initiatives that we have been able to take forward, despite the testing budgetary circumstances we face.
On rehabilitation, I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the work done at Headley Court, in the same vein as he did to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) mentioned. Headley Court is due to close down in the near future, so will the Minister provide some clarity on the time frame for when this excellent facility will move further up towards Selly Oak?
May I correct my hon. Friend? Headley Court is not due to close in the near future. We are talking about a development that is still a good many years off. The new facility in the midlands will be ready towards the end of the decade. It will be a much bigger facility, and it will initially offer support to armed forces personnel, although we hope that, in the fullness of time, the campus will allow for a modular approach that will enable veterans and members of the wider society to take advantage of it. Also, the clinical support there will be quite close to the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, which will enable an even higher standard of care to be delivered. I am pleased to say that all the relevant stakeholders—the trustees at Headley Court, Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and others—are entirely aware of the scheme and supportive of it, so I see no reason for it to cause any disappointment or grief.
What has been achieved at Headley Court has been nothing short of remarkable, but we have to recognise that a country house in the Surrey countryside is not the ideal location if we are trying to build a modern, state-of-the-art facility. The opportunity afforded by a completely new build in the midlands will allow us to take what is being done at Headley Court on to a greater scale altogether, which will be of help to a greater number of people. I would not want anyone to think that the move was imminent, but the plans are in place and they will be rolled out towards the end of the decade.
Real estate is clearly important, but does my hon. Friend agree that one of the chief advantages of the relocation is the potential for far greater integration with the national health service? That will mean that the excellent service provided at Headley Court will be more likely to be emulated throughout our national health service not only for our service personnel but for everyone.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to say that that will be the outcome. I say again that what has been achieved at Headley Court is absolutely remarkable, and everyone involved deserves the highest praise and thanks from all of us for the work that they do. We must, however, take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the new facility to provide a national centre, which will be of lasting benefit. As I said earlier, some of those who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries will need support for the rest of their lives, and I am sure that the new national centre will have a part to play in that.
Looking to the future, the strategic defence and security review has set the vision for our people, including the development of a new employment model, which aims to provide an attractive package that better suits the demands of modern life. Those who serve today, and their families, have very different expectations and needs from those of even a generation ago. Moving towards a new employment model will mean looking not only at the terms and conditions of service but at different approaches to basing, accommodation and supporting family life. It is clear that a large number of service personnel and their families would benefit from a more stable lifestyle, involving everything from schooling the children and buying a home to providing better stability for spouses’ careers. It is also clear that the defence budget would benefit from such a proposal, as it would enable us to reduce housing stock and relocation costs. It would also allow us to reduce spending on allowances that would be no longer necessary.
On the other hand, the predictability and stability that someone with a growing family seeks might not be the same thing that motivates a young man or woman to join the armed forces in the first place. Their motivations might include learning a trade, seeking adventure, seeing the world or serving their country. Getting the balance right in recruitment and retention at different points in a career will present different challenges for each of the three services. Succeed we must, however, because military effectiveness is not built simply on getting the right equipment; it is built on people. The men and women of our armed forces are the greatest asset we have, and we must ensure that we provide them with what they need to succeed in the dangerous jobs that they do.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is perfectly clear that taking pre-emptive measures to prevent conflict can be very successful. It can certainly save many lives and prevent a great deal of suffering, and it will increasingly become part and parcel of our work. I am reminded of an analogy that the right hon. Member for Coventry North East used when he was Defence Secretary. He said that the logic of defence was akin to that of a football match. We do not defend our own goal by sticking all our players on the goal line; we do it by keeping our players at the other end of the pitch. Similarly, sending people out to try to the tackle problems before they arise is always the most effective approach, and it will be part and parcel of what we do in future.
At this time of year, as we pin the poppy to our jackets and coats and remember the great sacrifice that has been made over many years, it is a time for each of us to pause and reflect. The armed forces covenant is not just about what the Government can do; it is also about what the nation can do. That is not just about the financial support that is provided through taxes or directly to charities; it is also about the moral support that the nation provides to our armed forces.
The Minister might have heard earlier the suggestion from the Leader of the House, in response to my question, that we should recognise the contribution of all communities to the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, including the British Muslims about whom we heard last night from the Muslim Army chaplain.
May I also seek the Minister’s moral support for the application that I am helping my landlady to make at the moment? She is now 98, and would be very grateful to receive the medals for her late husband, Major Hamish Wilson, who died in 1943. She will be making that application shortly, and I think that it is very appropriate at this time of year.
Order. Minister, you have been very generous in giving way, but you might not be aware that there is a time limit on Back-Bench speeches because so many Members wish to participate in the debate. Perhaps I can draw that to everyone’s attention.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I was indeed coming to the end of my speech. I entirely acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has just made about the contribution of the Muslim members of our armed forces. I was pleased to attend a Downing street reception to acknowledge that contribution a little while ago. In regard to the individual case that he mentioned, I will certainly look into the matter if he would care to write to me about it.
This House is an important part of the moral support that we offer to the armed forces. On Remembrance Sunday, politics is put to one side as wreaths are laid at the Cenotaph. Serving personnel are joined by ranks of veterans from the United Kingdom and from every corner of the globe to march down Whitehall. We are no longer graced by the presence of the brave souls who fought in the trenches during the great war, but we will remember them.
I should like to begin by joining the Minister in his thoughts on the loss of the soldier in Afghanistan this week, and on Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham. They served their country in different ways, and with great distinction, and their sacrifice should be remembered not only today but over the coming years.
It is fitting that we meet today to debate armed forces personnel in the lead-up to this weekend’s remembrance of those who have lost their lives in the service of their country. We must remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, as well as their families. We must also remember those who have suffered serious injuries as a result of their service, whether on active service or in training. We should also pay tribute to those who are serving their country—not just those on active service abroad but all those who, through their dedication and hard work, protect the freedoms that have been hard fought for over many generations. Their actions at home and abroad make the streets of Britain safer, and we all owe each of them an immense debt of gratitude.
Today’s announcement on the reorganisation of the Army footprint in the UK will have a major impact on the lives of many thousands of armed services personnel and their families. The announcement in this morning’s The Guardian and the subsequent press release from the Ministry of Defence about rebasing from Germany will equally have an effect on servicemen and women and their families. The fact that the Secretary of State chose to inform The Guardian yesterday and to put out a press release this morning rather than make a written ministerial statement to the House is not acceptable. The announcement on Germany was not included even in this morning’s written ministerial statement on the realignment of the Army footprint in the UK, which seems completely illogical to me.
The written ministerial statement on Army restructuring and the press release on Germany raise more questions than they answer. The press release states that the savings to the Ministry of Defence will be some £250 million a year, but no reference is made either to the investment needed to achieve that or to the year in which the £250 million will first be realised. Many will conclude that the cuts to Army numbers—both those announced in the strategic defence and security review and those announced in July by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox)—are paying to make these moves possible. I ask the Minister to confirm in his winding-up speech that these Army redundancies are subsidising this restructuring.
I think the hon. Gentleman conflates two things. A written ministerial statement has been issued today, which covers some big-picture decisions taken at a national level in the Ministry of Defence concerning the divisional and regional headquarters of the Army throughout the United Kingdom. The decisions have an impact on people throughout the UK and have been communicated to all relevant parties.
The hon. Gentleman also talks about tactical decisions to move certain units, which are made all the time and are never normally the subject of ministerial announcements. He portrays them as though they were all to do with moves back from Germany, whereas the reality is that three quarters of them are nothing of the kind. Two units are being moved back from Germany—one involves a total of 450 people, the other involves 120—but such things happen all the time and are not suitable for announcement in a ministerial statement.
I am absolutely astonished. The Minister had 40 minutes in which to make an announcement, but did not choose to do so. I have to say that he is completely wrong. His written ministerial statement this morning rightly dealt with changes to Army headquarters in the UK—something that I was already on to when I was the Minister. He put out a press release—I have it here with me—that mentions the savings that could be made from the draw-down from Germany. Clearly, The Guardian was briefed last night on the major changes proposed regarding the withdrawal from that country. I am sorry, but I do not accept the Minister’s statement that these are minor movements around. These are major reorganisations that will affect many thousands of armed service personnel, civil servants and their families. The Minister said that some £250 million a year would be saved at the end, but the press release does not say exactly when that will be achieved.
As the Minister who used to be responsible for the defence estates, I know the figure I was given in relation to the rebasing from Germany. It was roughly £3 billion.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have been listening to the evidence given by James Murdoch to the Select Committee. He has admitted that members of the Committee were followed at the point when the Committee was undertaking an inquiry into the phone hacking activities of News International. This is obviously an extremely complex matter, but I wonder whether a breach of privilege might be involved.
Anything going on in respect of evidence given to a Select Committee is a matter for that Committee to deal with. If the hon. Lady believes that a breach of privilege has been committed in any way, as an individual Member of this House she should write to Mr Speaker about it. It is not a matter that would be dealt with on the Floor of the House.
I know that the consultants brought in by the MOD estimate that the figure would be more than £3 billion. I do not know whether pennies have suddenly dropped from heaven for this investment or whether since the departure of the former Secretary of State the Treasury has given the MOD an early Christmas present. It will be interesting to find out where this extra investment is coming from. We need a clear statement on that, particularly in respect of the converting of Cottesmore and Kinloss from RAF bases into Army bases.
In addition, the total footprint in Germany is 47,000 individuals if civil servants and dependants are included. What will be the cost on other Government Departments and local authorities of relocating these individuals to their new local communities? For the Minister and the MOD to have any credibility about these plans, we need the answers published and we need a detailed time scale for when people will return from Germany and how the moves will be funded. We need to know how the money will be spent and where exactly it is coming from. If we do not have that, there will be some incredulity about how the plans will be affordable and how they will affect the lives of many thousands of armed service personnel.
Let me clarify the moves for which the Army has preliminarily planned: 7 Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps will move from Bielefeld in Germany to Cottesmore, with some 450 service personnel moving by the summer 2013. This will allow a saving of £55 million a year from 2014-15. In the other move, 43 Close Support Squadron Royal Logistic Corps will move from Guterslohe to Abingdon in 2012. There are small capital costs involved, which the director general of the Defence Intelligence Organisation is perfectly content can be found from within his existing budget.
I am sorry, but I just do not accept that. It is all very well to say these are small matters. Why will he not publish the overall plan? He has set an ambitious target of bringing the Army back from Germany. Why will he not set out clearly what the investment will be and what the costs of withdrawing will be in compensation and reparation payments to the German Government? It is not good enough to say that these are preliminary announcements. Why stick out a press release this morning, stating that £250 million a year is going to be saved and that this will somehow boost the British economy by £650 million, when the Minister has just admitted that these are preliminary plans? It is not good enough for our armed forces to be treated in this way. [Interruption.] The new Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), chirps from a sedentary position to question whether this is the right tone. These are issues that will affect many thousands of individuals and their families, so we need to ensure that we have the answers. Without that, credibility will not stand much scrutiny.
As we debate the future of our armed forces personnel, it is important, as the Minister said, to focus on the military covenant and how it can be strengthened. I also think it important to take account of what we have achieved over the past 10 years. The Minister rightly referred to the service personnel Command Paper, which was published by the previous Government and which was the first piece of work to make the welfare of our personnel a mainstream commitment in Government Departments.
Like the Minister, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) for his championing of the policy, not just through the MOD but across Whitehall. I believe that it genuinely changed the way in which the armed services and their families, and veterans, are perceived in other Departments. It brought about, for instance, the armed forces compensation scheme, the doubling of welfare payments to those on operations, the advancement of education services for service leavers who have served for six years, increased access to the NHS—I am grateful to the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for continuing that work with the NHS—and improvements in accommodation, including accommodation in Colchester, as I saw when I visited the town with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). Most important, it brought about increases in pay.
The Army recovery capability was another key achievement, and I am pleased that the Government are following it up. It will not just change the way in which we look after injured service men and women while they are in service, but enable us to ensure that they receive care and support throughout their lives. I want to record my thanks to the service charities, with many of whom I worked closely while I was a Defence Minister. They not only look after our veterans, but increasingly support men and women who are currently serving in our armed forces. We need to uphold the principles of the covenant, but we also need to ensure the upholding of the basic principle of the Command Paper that no disadvantage should arise from service.
I know that welfare support for the men and women of our armed forces and their families is a priority for Members in all parts of the House, and it is important that, on occasion, we speak with one voice in support of our veterans and service men and women. However, Labour Members will also scrutinise the Government’s policies carefully, and will make it clear when we think that they have got it wrong, and I think that the way in which they have addressed a number of personnel issues needs to be examined more carefully.
I welcome the Government’s progress in regard to, in particular, the enshrinement of the military covenant in law. Unfortunately, however, that was not done by choice, but was forced on Ministers by the Royal British Legion. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Colchester is chuntering, but he voted against the enshrinement of the covenant in law when the Armed Forces Bill—which became the Armed Forces Act 2006—was in Committee. He should remember what he did then, when it was open to him not to support the Government.
I am sorry that, having embraced the unity of the House on the subject of Her Majesty’s armed forces, the shadow Minister should nitpick on the armed forces covenant—he should use the correct description—when he knows full well that members of the Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill were united. The Committee argued only around the edges, and that is what we are talking about here. The hon. Gentleman should not be churlish.
It is not churlish to remind the hon. Gentleman what he did at that time. When we tabled an amendment to enshrine the covenant in law, he voted against it. I know that he is a Liberal Democrat, and thus can pick and choose and place a certain interpretation on what he does, but he must be reminded of the fact that he voted against that amendment. It was only after the Royal British Legion’s campaign that the Government were forced to change their policy and the covenant became law.
While preparing for the debate, I wondered whether the Opposition would raise the issue of the covenant. They had 13 years in which to introduce such legislation themselves. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the personnel paper and I concede that it was a good step forward, but it was not legislation. The fact that, after 13 years of Labour government, the covenant is now enshrined in legislation is thanks to our Government, not his.
No, actually, it is not. In July 2009, I produced a Green Paper on the covenant. I do not think the hon. Gentleman read it and I do not think many of the new Ministers did either, because they clearly fell for the civil service tricks that were tried on me. They were obviously told how hard it would be to implement such a measure, although they finally realised that it could be implemented.
Although not widely read in the House, my Green Paper was widely welcomed by the services community. It received a good deal of coverage and would have formed part of our programme had we been re-elected. It is not true that it was not on anyone’s radar screen when we were in government. I suggest that everyone should read the very well thought out Green Paper that I produced. Even the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), the current veterans Minister, has admitted that it covered the main points.
One of the Government’s policies we are concerned about relates to armed forces and war widows’ pensions. The year-on-year change to uprate pensions using the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index will disproportionately affect members of the armed forces community, who rely on their pensions at a younger age than almost anyone else. The impact will be felt not just by the present generation, including those who are fighting today in Afghanistan, but by those who landed on the beaches of Normandy.
The Forces Pension Society estimates that, as a result of the Government’s changes, a disabled double amputee of corporal rank aged 28 will lose some £587,000 by the age of 70, and that a war widow with children will receive a basic per annum pension that will be £94 less next year. The society has said:
“The extent of devaluation of Armed Forces pensions has become a matter of deep concern to Service people, past and present.”
The society’s chairman, Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore, has said:
“I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the Armed Forces so quickly'”.
Julie McCarthy of the Army Families Federation—I had the privilege of working closely with her when I was a Minister, and I pay tribute to her and to the representatives of the RAF and Naval Families Federations—has said:
“The demands of the service have not gone down... but”
“are seeing their pay frozen, the threat of redundancy and now allowance cuts.”
[Interruption.] In the light of that, I wonder whether the Minister will tell us why—[Interruption.]
Order. We really do not need a continuous commentary from Members who do not wish to intervene. A Member who wishes to intervene must stand up and make his or her point if the Member who has the Floor gives way. Otherwise, Members must not shout across the Chamber.
As I was saying, I wonder whether the Minister will tell us why that change has been made permanent. It will extend even beyond the target date for the end of the deficit reduction period.
Another matter of concern to many Members involves the office of the chief coroner. As the military covenant states, no member of the service community, including dependants, should suffer disadvantage arising from service, and special provision should at times be made to reflect their sacrifices. That is why the post of chief coroner is so important. It can provide an independent, expert service for bereaved families, and scrapping it undermines the Government’s commitment to the covenant.
I do indeed. It worries me that, not only the Royal British Legion and other service charities, but a range of organisations that deal with the bereaved cannot see the logic of the decision. It disturbs me that the cross-party support I saw when I served on the Armed Forces Bill Committee in the last Parliament seems to have been withdrawn.
On the subject of no disadvantage, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is highly regrettable that the Administration in which he served allowed the MOD to pay for expensive barristers to argue the Department’s corner in coroners’ courts, which are supposed to be non-adversarial situations? That has been represented as a genuine concern in the context of no disadvantage, whereas the office of chief coroner has not.
I disagree. We put in place, with the Royal British Legion, support for bereaved families at military coroners proceedings. That was important, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East was very keen to do it. I simply do not accept that not having a chief coroner will help bereaved families to get the answers they want, and I cannot see why this Government have suddenly changed their position from the one they held when in opposition.
The RBL has said the change in policy is
“a betrayal of bereaved armed forces families”
and that it
“threatens the military covenant.”
The Government’s stated reason for the change in policy is deficit reduction, but the costs of the office are widely disputed and both the RBL and INQUEST are prepared to work with the Government to find a more cost-effective option. It is regrettable that Justice Ministers—not MOD Ministers, I accept—have not listened to the RBL’s well-founded concerns.
It is difficult to understand the Government’s deficit reduction measures, especially when we learn that a firm of consultants, AlixPartners, has been employed by the MOD on a £4,000 a day contract, meaning that it earns more in a week than a front-line soldier in Afghanistan earns in a year. I urge the Minister to ask his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to listen to the RBL’s arguments about the chief coroner.
Substantial numbers of armed forces personnel have been made redundant in recent months. That is, of course, only the start of the service personnel cuts that are to be made over the next four years. When the strategic defence review was published in October 2010, we were told that 17,000 personnel across the three services would have to go. As of July 2011, however, as the Government prepared to issue their latest round of redundancies, we were told that the number had risen to 22,000. When outlining the further reductions, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for North Somerset, failed to offer the armed forces any clarity on what the precise size of the armed forces would be by 2015. We are still waiting for confirmation of exactly how many redundancies there will be on top of those sketched out in the strategic defence and security review, and of whether the new Secretary of State agrees with the statement made by his predecessor. The new Defence Secretary has said that he “regrets” cuts to our armed forces, but it is not yet clear whether he has the courage of his convictions and intends to act on those regrets.
The redundancies issue is not just about numbers, though; it is also about the individuals and the skills that are being lost to all three services. When I hear that some of the individuals I once worked with when I was a Minister are now leaving the services, it makes me concerned about whether our armed forces and this country can afford to lose those capable and well-trained individuals. Greater clarity is the very least our armed forces deserve. If there are to be cuts, we should know where they will fall. Service personnel must be allowed the opportunity to plan for their futures and the futures of their families.
One of the most worrying aspects of the latest round of redundancies last month was that 800 members of the Royal Navy actually volunteered to leave. They were not asked to leave by the MOD, but instead felt that they would be better off outside the service. They made that decision at about the same time as we learned that morale in all three services is in decline. It is essential that today we ask why that is the case. We must ask why 800 members of the Royal Navy believed they had better opportunities elsewhere. It is vital that our forces are able to attract the best talent and retain it, and I am worried that we may be left with skills shortages as a result of the short-term budget changes currently being put in place.
The Conservatives did exactly the same thing when they were last in office in the 1990s, and in the following decade we had to deal with the problems that caused—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Devizes chunters from a sedentary position very often, but does she realise that as a Parliamentary Private Secretary she should be the eyes and ears of the Secretary of State, not his mouthpiece? A bit of quiet from the hon. Lady would be a better idea. She might want to take some lessons from the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who sat in the Chamber quietly while serving very effectively as PPS. May I put on the record my appreciation of the good job he did in that role? I was very sad to see him replaced, especially given what we have experienced today. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is obviously not listening: it does not help Ministers if she sits behind them whingeing and making snide comments. She should seek advice from the hon. Member for Bournemouth East, who might be able to give her some tips on how to do the job properly.
When he winds up the debate, will the Minister of State say what the MOD is doing to ward against the decline in morale in all three services?
In the context of morale, the shadow Minister has not yet mentioned the condition of armed forces housing. Although I acknowledge the situation the last Labour Government inherited, they had 13 years to sort it out and those were years of relative economic prosperity, so can the hon. Gentleman explain why his Government did not modernise all the Army family housing in my constituency and across the country?
That question is a bit rich—although the hon. Gentleman is a Liberal, and we know we have to accept such things from them. I visited Colchester garrison with him, where we saw the investment that had been made not only in recreation and training facilities, but in housing. He knows as well as I do the problem we all grappled with and that the current Government are still grappling with. I understand, of course, that the hon. Gentleman is hinting at the Annington Homes issue, but to get to the bottom of that, we have to go all the way back to a decision made under the previous Conservative Government. The Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), is present, and his fingerprints are on that decision, which was not a good decision for the taxpayer and limited what we could do to improve armed forces housing. None the less, we made great strides in both married quarters and single-living accommodation in the Navy, the RAF and the Army, and it is now some of the best accommodation of its kind to be found.
Although the Minister hinted at possible future provisions, there is a question whether we should provide housing at all, or whether we should instead move to an allowance system, so that individuals have options in housing, rather than being wedded to a contract, which was also very bad news for the taxpayer.
What has happened at Catterick and in other places is very interesting. People are speaking with their feet, as it were, by commuting large distances. At Catterick, many people stay in single-living accommodation during the week or commute to Tyneside or even further afield. We have to recognise that the way people organise their lives is changing. The hon. Gentleman talks about examining how we provide housing and allowances, and we need to do that. The piece of work that I kicked off—I do not know whether it is still going on—looks at the options, including paying allowances or working with, for example, housing associations to provide accommodation where people want it. In all three services, many people are choosing to buy or rent accommodation far from their workplace and travel at the weekend. That creates new challenges for the armed forces in providing single-living accommodation, and these are things that we need to examine.
We ask our armed forces to risk all on our behalf. In return, we must make sure that we give them the proper equipment, training and financial support that they deserve. The sacrifices that service personnel make for the country are such that they should not be treated as other public sector workers. They deserve special recognition. In that spirit of recognising the unique nature of military service, I look forward to hearing the contributions to today’s debate. The debate about our armed forces mainly concentrates on equipment, and that is important, but this is an opportunity to recognise the work that our armed forces do. We should not forget that without the input of the men and women of our armed forces, some of the fantastic, dangerous and, in some cases, unique things we ask them to do would not be possible.
I have listened with interest, amusement and, often, respect to the words of the shadow Minister. I hope that he will have a stiff word with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who interrupted him, in the middle of a perfectly good argument, to talk about something that has absolutely nothing to do with this debate. He was a troublesome member of the Select Committee on Defence, but an extremely effective one, just as he was an effective Minister. So, too, is my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, whose words I also listened to with interest and respect.
I wish to thank the Government for holding this debate on armed forces personnel and for its timing. I have been looking through my records and it seems that this is the first debate on personnel since January 2009. Can that really be the case? I say that because it is our armed forces personnel and the training that they receive which make our armed forces the envy of the world. I have to say that the arrangements for having these debates on armed forces matters or on defence equipment are simply not working. I am relieved and pleased that the Leader of the House is having discussions on how to change things. One matter that I would point out to the Backbench Business Committee—I cannot immediately see any of its members in the Chamber—is that the pressure of time in this debate is such that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, on a day when there is no vote at the end. There is no shortage of interest in this matter and I hope that the Committee’s members will take that point away with them if ever we go back to ask for further time.
It is not surprising that there is no shortage of interest in this issue, given what the armed forces are going through. There is turmoil in the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces because of the degree of change that is having to be forced through. There are redundancies, restrictions on money for exercising and training, and changes to the allowances, not to mention the fighting that they are doing at the same time. The Defence Committee has been doing work on all those things, as the House would expect.
Sometimes people believe that it is the job and the role of the Defence Committee to speak for the armed forces, but strictly speaking that is not true. We are not a lobbying organisation for the armed forces or for the defence industry. Our role is to ensure that the MOD does its work as well as it can in the circumstances. Our lobbying role is to lobby for the country; we are not lobbyists for the armed forces. Lobbying for the country, we realise, as people and as a Committee interested in defence, that the country wants certain things. It wants its armed forces to be treated fairly and properly. It also wants its armed forces treated with respect and honour, and the Royal Wootton Bassett phenomenon is a demonstration of that.
There has been a discussion in the newspapers over the past few days about the issue of wearing a poppy and about the question of whether people feel compelled to wear one. There was even an article in The Independent by Robert Fisk entitled, “Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?” I read that article not with anger, but actually with a degree of sympathy. However, I concluded that it had got entirely the wrong end of the stick. He talked about his father, who had fought in the first world war, stopping wearing his poppy because he did not want to see so many damn fools wearing it. His father felt that those who wore the poppy had no idea what the trenches of France were like, and what it felt like to have your friends die beside you and then to confront their brothers, wives, lovers or parents. Of course, to a large extent that is true; those of us who have not been in the armed forces cannot imagine quite the horror that is involved. We may think we can but we cannot. Few of us in this House—there are honourable exceptions, and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in his place—have had that experience.
As Wilfred Owen pointed out,
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”—
it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country—is actually a lie. Horace, who wrote those words, did not follow his own advice. Interestingly, he did fight at the battle of Philippi, but he later claimed that he survived that battle only by running away, having thrown his shield away. I do not blame him for that. But we who have not fought do not wear the poppy because we claim to understand what war is truly like—as I say, we cannot do that. We wear a poppy for other reasons.
Robert Fisk’s article says that he declined to lay a wreath at the Menin gate because it was something of which he was not worthy. I think that that is a shame because, in those terms, which of us is worthy? I do lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday, and I do not do so because I am worthy—I am not. I do so for many of the constituents I represent: the incredibly brave Chinook pilots who rescue our wounded under fire; the former Gurkhas who have done so much for our country; the families who bear so much of the brunt of death and injury; and the pensioners who survived the second world war and who fought in the Korean war. Those are the people who are worthy and I do it for them.
I also wear a poppy. That is partly because of my grandfather, who, like Robert Fisk’s father, fought in the first world war but who died at the second battle of Ypres. But wearing a poppy is also a public acknowledgement of debt, a public reminder of continuing need in the armed forces community, a public display of respect and a public expression of thanks. It is really not a public announcement, “Look I’ve given the Royal British Legion a bit of money.” Although it is true that sometimes politicians and others may feel obliged to wear a poppy because if they fail to do so they will be subject to public disapproval, one really should not get hung up on that sort of thing. The vast majority of people wear a poppy out of pleasure, and they wear it because they want to, rather than because they must—at least, that is my reading of the situation.
Like my right hon. Friend, I have never fought, but is there not one further argument, in addition to the powerful ones that he puts forward for wearing a poppy? The men and women who went off to fight in the two world wars were a huge cross-section of ordinary people, many of whom had no military experience at the time, yet on the eve of the battle of the Somme, not one single man was reported absent without leave.
My hon. Friend has got military experience, even if he has not fought. He highlights a point that my hon. Friend the Minister made about the current shortage of experience—within a cross-section of the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) said—in what the armed forces do. I think that is, as my hon. Friend says, a reason for wearing the poppy.
Our constituents also wear a poppy with pride, and it is not pride in themselves. It is pride in their country and pride in what our young men and women, who are prepared to sacrifice everything they have and all that they are, do. In the end there are times when it is right to go to war. If diplomacy fails and if people are determined to behave as Hitler and Gaddafi did, they must be stopped, and we should give respect, honour and thanks to those who are prepared to do it for us.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), my colleague on the Defence Committee, and his comments about the poppy.
The debate today is about armed forces personnel, so I shall talk about them and not necessarily about Parliament. It is interesting to find out who the people who currently serve are. Over a number of years, through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have had the opportunity to engage with our forces in theatre and out of theatre. One finds that a fantastic variety of people make up our armed forces. They have a fantastic array of skills, some of which we bothered to give them and some of which they come along with in the first place.
I remember being in Kabul doing some canvassing for the presidential elections. I was masquerading as a soldier at the time and it was not for any particular candidate; it was about the process of presidential elections. I said, “Come on, boys. We had better go over here. We’ll go to the caff and have a word.” They said, “You’re good at this, aren’t you?” I said, “Well, one thing I ought to be reasonably good at is canvassing. You do the soldiering, I’ll do the canvassing.” We were walking up the street when all of a sudden the Fijian flanker I had been given to look after me started to chat to the locals. I said to him, “How come you speak the local language?” He said, “I’m Fijian. I went to school with people who speak Urdu, and I can get along with these people.” I asked, “You’re not an interpreter, then?” “No,” he said. “I just get on and do it.”
The Gurkhas seem to have some Babel fish in their ear. Wherever one goes with them, they are always in some way or another able to communicate with the local people. When I was in the Balkans, there were Chileans and people from the area with a Gurkha in the middle. For some reason or another, he was able to make those people understand one another in some fashion. In the Balkans, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) will know, the Welsh also serve. Our communications fell down. The only reason we could speak to one another was that there were two Welsh boys with mobile phones and they could speak Welsh to one another, just like the wind talkers did for the Americans in south-east Asia.
There is a fantastic array of skills among our armed forces, but we have to equip them as well. They come with these skills by default and we use them, but we must not abuse them. One of the things that is missing from the debate is how we enable them to do the things we want them to do. I was in Iraq and the place was jumping, as it usually was when we went to Iraq. I was talking to an American, who said to me, “See, the difference is that we train warriors. They go forward—blitzkrieg—they can fight anything in front of them, but you train soldiers. Once the fighting is done, they take their helmet off, put the beret on and start to engage with people. They are multi-skilled, so it’s different. I don’t know what you do, but you train different people.”
That does not come about by accident. We must equip our armed forces and enable them. If, as the Minister said, we need to understand them, then we need to engage with them. I would recommend any Member to use the facilities of the armed forces parliamentary scheme to get under the wire and go and live in a tent or a ditch with those people for two or three days. Very often it will be, “And another thing—” so the Member will soon find out who they are.
The “Taffia” is at work. That is true. At the local field hospital at Camp Bastion when we visited, Andy Morris, who is now Major Morris, was there as a paramedic. These are the people who jump in the back of helicopters and bring people out. He is a reservist, not a regular. There is a real debate to be had about what the balance of forces is going to be. The report by the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is seminal. A decision will have to be made about the balance between regulars and reserves. We do not want to cheapen their capacity or their labour. We need to maintain and improve that quality. We must not make the mistake of using it as a way of cheapening the price, rather than improving the value.
The moral component is important. We heard reference earlier to war memorials. We all have the problem. I would like to find the bandit who nicked the bayonet off the Aberfan war memorial. We probably know who he is and where he lives, and we will get it back, but that is not the point. It is about respect. Tomorrow I will be in Rhymney comprehensive school, laying a wreath at the school at its memorial with the children. I will be visiting the cadets and the reserves at Maindy. We must engage with the people.
I do not have a big poppy. Perhaps the size of the poppy is important; I do not know. I have a 90th anniversary badge, given to me by the British Legion in Dowlais. There is a whole community involved. The social and economic impact that the Ministry of Defence has in all our communities is huge. We need to recognise that in deploying the resources that we have, because we also ask people to deploy.
Let me say a little about some of the things that we are discussing on the Defence Committee and the changes that are being made. Reference has been made to how it is possible to divide communities, as well as bringing them together. We can say that armed forces personnel have special interests, and therefore should have special services. By doing the right thing, we can inadvertently do something else and create divisions. Be careful that there is not a problem with consistency, rather than uniformity, in the application of these services across the United Kingdom. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) mentioned that earlier, and the same applies to Wales. The National Assembly for Wales yesterday published a document about what it will do to improve services for veterans.
The organisation of the health service will be different, because it is very problematic, as is housing and the rest of it. There is a variable geography and the operational delivery of services varies between Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, but the Ministry of Defence must understand that the covenant is a UK document that will apply to service personnel wherever they are in the UK. If it does not have some consistency of application, it will get it wrong. That is a real problem it needs to grapple with, and I hope that we can help.
The Defence Committee—perhaps I am giving away secrets—plans to produce a report on housing in the same way as we produced reports on veterans and casualties. As my friend the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire said, the Committee’s work is to bring those matters to Parliament, because it is a servant of the House and our work should be debated here. Frankly, it is a disgrace that the House has not had a proper debate on the matter in more than 12 months. However well meaning Front Benchers have been in today’s debate, they have their political knockabout and absorb the time and the way the debate is conducted is not in the hands of Back Benchers. I know that the Backbench Business Committee has become some sort of petitions committee by default, but I appeal to it to provide time for the House to debate the work the Committee has been doing and allow Back Benchers to say what they want to say beyond the direct control of the Executive, rather than by any other process.
I would like to say one more thing about understanding people. We deploy the armed forces, so we need to protect them. One of the current debates about respect relates to people’s respect for how they are deployed and what we send them to do. The armed forces are sometimes uncertain about their legal and moral status, and if we are not careful, that will cause difficulties for the operational capacity to do things on the ground. It is known in the trade to those of us who discuss these things as the “lawfare-warfare” debate; is it legal, but is it also morally defensible? If we want respect and legitimisation, we must not only enable and provide for those people, but give them and the community on whose behalf they work some certainty that they are being properly deployed to do things that they feel comfortable being deployed to do.
I agree that the Geneva convention sets out an important architecture, but let me give an example to illustrate my point. We were once running an internment camp—not a detention facility—in Iraq because that is what was required. That was legitimate and part of the UN mandate. It was legitimised, but it had to be reviewed from time to time and the authority to run it had to be agreed with the new Iraqi Government following an exchange of letters and all the things that go with UN activities. Otherwise, our military personnel, from Colchester and elsewhere, who were running the camp, which was not anything like Guantanamo Bay, needed to know that they were secure in what they were doing. They now serve alongside others, more often than not in coalition.
The Americans are not signatories to the International Criminal Court, but the United Kingdom is. Often there are people on the ground in a foreign place with some sort of architecture of legitimacy between the Government who have asked them to go, or the United Nations, and individually they may well find that domestic and international law are different from one another. That issue needs to be considered. At the moment we put in place mechanisms that we believe protect our individuals who are on the ground, but they are citizens serving abroad. There is a relationship between international and domestic law that we need to be very careful about, and the subject will need debate, because I see operational service personnel second-guessing their decisions. Rather than doing what they would normally do, they send it back up just to make sure. The window of opportunity is gone.
I could give a practical example of that relating to the current problem of piracy in the Gulf, but I am not allowed to. The person concerned did not do wrong; they did right in order to protect themselves. What we must have in place is a decision-making process that enables us to take all those things into account with the speed that they need to be taken into account so that the decision-making process does not disadvantage the individual when they do the job that they are required to do, not later after some gang of lawyers have assessed whether it is right or wrong. We must celebrate all those who have served, all those who do serve, and all those who will serve, but we must be careful how we make organisational changes to do the things we wish to do.
It is a great pleasure to follow my friend and Select Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), and indeed our excellent Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot).
As we remember those who gave their lives in earlier generations, we honour those who serve today. To visit them, whether on operations or on exercise, is to be humbled by the sheer quality of the men and women who serve in our forces, but over the generations since the cold war the structures that planned and organised them lost direction.
On the day after another young Territorial has died in Afghanistan, I want to talk about reserve personnel, but first I shall give the House some context—when tension between operational pressures and funding is especially tight. The Ministry of Defence has become distorted by the shape of most conflicts during the 20 years between the Gulf war and the Libyan operation. For most of that period, the main effort has been a single, medium-scale expeditionary force, led by the Army with air support. Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan mostly followed that pattern.
The intensity of the conflicts varied enormously, but each saw a brigade-sized expeditionary force supporting air elements in six-monthly rotations and in line with defence-planning assumptions, hence a strong temptation for the planners to configure our forces around that model. Resurgent problems in Northern Ireland and the 7/7 bombings figured very little in pre-strategic defence and security review planning, and two important overseas outliers were widely overlooked.
First, there was the planned invasion of Kosovo in 1999, when 1 million desperate refugees fled the Serb army. Almost all our allies demurred from sending ground forces and the MOD initiated a confused blizzard of call-out notices, summoning many reservists at a few days’ notice, even from units that it was in the process of disbanding. Britain was spared humiliation, of course, when the Serbs backed down under Russian pressure at the very last moment.
Secondly, in 2003-04 we were stretched well beyond expectations, as the continuing operation in Iraq overlapped with the incursion in Afghanistan.
The national security strategy rightly dismisses the assumption that our forces should be optimised almost entirely for medium-scale, Army-led expeditionary operations. It includes other roles, including, crucially, homeland security and upstream intervention, and there is even a faint hint of the scenario that dare not speak its name—general mobilisation for an unexpected crisis. Libya was Royal Air Force and Royal Navy-led—and led brilliantly, a point that I note in the week when we mourn the loss of Flight Lieutenant Cunningham of the Red Arrows.
How can we address so many scenarios, therefore, when the money available is so tight? The key surely is to reverse the slide towards an impossibly expensive manning model in which most units are full time, with costly payrolls, pensions, housing and so on. Of course they are worth it, but we cannot afford enough of them. Between two fifths and half the armies of our English-speaking sister countries are made up of volunteer reserves. On paper, ours make up less than one fifth, and in reality estimates suggest that the true figure is nearer 10%.
The US deploys National Guard armoured infantry brigades and fast-jet fighter squadrons to Afghanistan; Canada had a reservist company with every infantry rotation; and Australia has deployed formed companies and handed over its main commitments in Timor and Bougainville to reserve-led forces.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Three quarters of the US National Guard’s fast-jet pilots are ex-regulars, so they are not wasting several million dollars in training when they leave, and the remaining quarter have to be very experienced pilots to be allowed to join.
As we stand in silence at war memorials up and down the country, let us remember that the vast majority of those who served and fell were not professionals, and that the volunteer reserves were the key link between our brave but small professional forces and the wider community. They also provided back-up that was immediately available and, crucially, a framework for expansion into a national effort.
In the great war, the Territorial Army provided almost half the combat units, winning 71 Victoria Crosses. The Royal Naval Reserve won 12. In the battle of Britain, the Auxiliary Air Force squadrons comfortably out-shot their regular RAF counterparts. Although those forces were trained in peacetime at a fraction of the cost of their regular counterparts, they were available when they were needed to fight—and fight they did.
When overstretch peaked in 2004, our small volunteer reserves provided a fifth of our forces in Iraq and one-eighth of the number in Afghanistan. Yet over the next two years, they were rewarded with a cack-handed reorganisation, recruitment ceilings and a demoralising freeze on collective training. Despite all that, they continued to achieve some remarkable successes. In 2007, when commenting on a company from the London Regiment, its commander Brigadier Lorimer—now General Lorimer —said:
“Somme Company was an outstanding body of men: well trained, highly motivated and exceptionally well led.”
More than 25,000 reservists have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and 28 have given their lives, including the young man yesterday. Yet, in 2009, all formed deployments to Afghanistan apart from field hospitals were stopped, and the use of reservists has degenerated into the backfilling of regular units, unlike what happens in the countries of our English-speaking counterparts.
Not surprisingly, the strength of the reserves rapidly dwindled, with the greatest deficiency among young officers. As the House knows, I was recently privileged to serve under General Sir Nicholas Houghton on his review of reserves. Two or three units I visited had no young officers left at all. While we were carrying out our study, the unhappiness among TA officers was compounded by the truly disgraceful announcement by the Military Secretary’s branch in July that an unprecedented four-fifths of TA commands were to go to regular officers, despite there being 25 Territorials in the frame who had all the necessary qualifications.
Our study recommended that we should move towards a better balance between regulars and volunteer reservists in the Army, with 30,000 trained reservists by 2015, and that they should
“no longer simply be used as individual specialists and augmentees, but as formed units and sub-units”.
The Royal Naval Reserve has plans to expand several areas, including its highly cost-effective air branch, which took over the training pipeline for some months in the overstretch crisis of 2004. It also has imaginative plans for the Royal Marines Reserve. The commission was disappointed with progress on the RAF, which has a pool of flying volunteer reservists that is only about a quarter of the size of that of the Royal Navy. Although there were some more imaginative ideas in the background, the recommendations it actually put forward were all rather expensive and seemed to be very modest in their actual value. That is why we recommended an independently led follow-up study on the RAF.
There are three keys to rebuilding our reserves: first, we must get out and recruit officers from the thousands of young men and women passing through our university officer training corps and restore the proposition. If we reintroduce demanding collective training for units and sub-units, it will restore the capability of the TA to deploy formed bodies and provide those leadership opportunities that are so vital for the commitment of young officers.
On a recent visit to 7 Rifles, I was told that four regular officers had just applied to join. I was astonished to hear, however, that some of them were stuck waiting to receive security clearance. Why on earth do we have security clearance for regular officers transferring to the TA?
That brings me to my second point. We need fit-for-purpose administrative systems, so that people can enlist, have their medicals and be fed into training without the endless delays that characterise the current dysfunctional system. My local unit, 3 PWRR, has had more than 100 recruits in a few months. Yet, the sheer incompetence of the MOD personnel administrative systems has already put off a large number of them.
Some regular officers are claiming that the TA cannot reach a trained strength of 30,000 by 2015. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who made an excellent speech earlier, not to listen to them. It is the dysfunctional system and the blockages in the regular-dominated training pipeline that is holding our reserve numbers back.
Hence, my third and final item on the shopping list is this. Let us reintroduce regionally based phase 1 training, so that Territorials are not scrabbling for a place at the back of the queue in the regular establishments. In July, the former Secretary of State announced a £1.5 billion investment in the reserves over a decade. I am certain that my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State is still committed to that. May I advise that it must be spent on rebuilding viable and usable structures to meet the 2015 deadline, not siphoned off to meet shortfalls elsewhere while that crucial date is allowed to slip?
Rebalancing our armed forces will enable Britain to afford more capacity within tight budgets—to expand the pool of talent available for defence, to increase the footprint for national resilience and, above all, to reconnect our excellent but increasingly remote regular forces with the nation they serve so well.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who chairs the Defence Committee with great integrity, honesty and ingenuity and sets the standard that the rest of us aspire to reach, and my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), my fellow Welsh member of the Select Committee—the Committee has a great tradition of having a large number of Welsh members. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) is also a member of the Committee, and he always seems to have a downer on the RAF.
Last year, I spent Remembrance day not in my constituency but in Warsaw, where I took part in a remembrance parade there as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which was gathered in that city. As we stood there and looked across at the veterans from the Polish army and the Polish resistance, we really understood what Remembrance day was about. We never truly experienced, as those people did, the real horrors of war. When we are at war, defence is not the responsibility of our armed forces alone. Let us not forget others who gave their lives: our firefighters; the merchant navy, which lost more people than all three services; the munitions workers; the agricultural workers; the Bevin boys; the home guard; and the ARP workers. Defence is a whole community responsibility.
We are here today to talk about our armed forces personnel. It was with particular delight that this week I hosted an event here in the Commons for the RAF presentation team. In the very first words of introduction, we spoke about the team’s need to talk to local communities about why they fund their armed forces and why that funding is essential for the defence of the country.
We then went on to host people who had taken part in NATO’s Operation Ellamy and Operation Unified Protector. They talked about the commitment, creativity and, in these days of defence cuts, the increasing needs of our armed forces personnel, as well as the huge capacity that our people have. They talked with great passion about the partnerships within NATO. I know that Italy is going through a period where there is a certain amount of humour about its financial difficulties, but they spoke with great passion about the help and the support that they had received from our Italian NATO allies. For example, they described having arrived at a base in Italy where the accommodation they were given was ill equipped and had poor facilities—the equipment and services that we would have offered on many of our bases would have been similar. The Italians sent their people in and they worked 24/7 to bring it up to the standard that they knew that a NATO ally deserved. We should honour that commitment from a NATO ally to our forces, because it is about their recognition that that NATO partnership is important and that our service personnel, wherever they come from, respect each other.
Those service personnel also talked about the partnership that is essential to all armed forces personnel when they go into theatre, including the partnership with their families, who support them in going and send them messages of support. The support and safety of their families is integral to their ability to do their job well.
Isolation and worry are significant problems for many families when their loved ones are away. Does the hon. Lady agree that support networks such as Troopers Mums in my constituency, which do good work in keeping families calm and holding everything together while our military personnel are away, ought to be congratulated and encouraged?
I most certainly do congratulate such organisations. Service personnel have mentioned to me how important community support is for their families—for example, it is important to know that teachers are aware if children in their class have fathers who are away on operations. I am talking about Operation Ellamy, but I am sure that this is equally important for service personnel in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. However, when personnel leave at short notice, as was the case in Operation Ellamy, it is even more important because they do not have time to prepare their families. The support of the organisations that the hon. Lady talked about is absolutely integral.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) said, one problem is that when reservists and people who live away from their camp are deployed, their wives and families are left isolated. The Ministry of Defence is trying to find a way to ensure that people who are not on base are looked after properly, because they get extremely worried when they feel isolated. I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees with that.
I most certainly do agree. It is even more important that we recognise the need to give such service personnel help and support to reintegrate into their families. Often, their families have not had help and support from other service personnel, so when their family member comes back, their anxiety can add to the tension within the family and cause a lot of conflict.
It was interesting to hear about the important role played by employers, particularly the employers of reservists, in supporting people in going away and returning, so that they can settle back into their normal employment. When one has been working with the brakes off, 24/7, in the theatre of operations, it is difficult to come back to the slower pace of civilian life. That is an important lesson that employers need to build into their approach when they welcome service personnel back.
Industry is also important. Everybody has made a great deal of distancing themselves from industry today, but in Operation Ellamy, we needed the support of industry to ensure that the forces at the front of the fighting constantly had the supplies they needed, and so that Operation Unified Protector could provide the protection that was needed. That team spirit and can-do attitude is incredibly important.
The service personnel also talked about the range, reach and accuracy of our weapons—I see smiles on the faces of those who were at the meeting. We need to recognise that new is not always best. They talked with delight about how the VC10 is still such a valuable piece of kit.
I would like to mention briefly a wonderful piece on the front of Defence News entitled, “Stop Doing Things That Are Stupid”—a lesson that the Ministry of Defence should always bear in mind. Perhaps it should be on the front of every Minister’s desk. The USA is giving front-line personnel reports to send back about kit and equipment so that they can say, “This works,” or “If you did this it would work better,” or, “This is useless. Get rid of it.” We should stop asking people back at the Ministry of Defence to answer those questions. Why can we not follow the US example and get our front-line personnel to tell us what they want and what works best in theatre?
One of the sad things we heard was that NATO bases’ interoperability has been lost. I will take that up in my role as a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. We need our forces to be able to move around the NATO countries and know where they are and where they can find the things they need to make us more effective. A matter that we have repeatedly heard discussed is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In refuelling, we have relied on the Americans, but we cannot continue to expect them always to meet that requirement. It is critical that we consider how to develop and increase our own resources.
We owe the RAF, Navy and Army pilots a debt of great thanks for their professionalism. There were no deaths among our forces on Operation Ellamy, and they ensured that civilian deaths were kept to an absolute minimum. They showed a new way of operating in theatre. With few forces on the ground, they had to take greater responsibility for civilian life.
I wish briefly to discuss the military covenant. I have been extremely distressed to see the Royal British Legion being treated pretty shabbily for its involvement in the campaign and accused of delaying reform. The RBL is a vital voice for our armed forces, and especially for our veterans. I also struggle to understand why the chief coroner has come to be seen as surplus to requirements. I hope that the Ministry of Defence is considering that matter.
We have heard briefly about mental health. We know that American studies show that one third of American veterans needed psychological care, while one in five soldiers suffered combat-induced psychological problems post-Iraq. We also know that members of the reserve forces are more susceptible than others to mental health problems. We must commit to ensuring that every serving armed forces member and every veteran has access to the help and support they need, whether it is while they are serving, in theatre, when they come home, or many years later. We must not allow compassion fatigue to mean that as the years go by, we forget the service that people have given.
On accommodation, I welcome the Minister’s statement that money will go back into the accommodation budget if it can be found, but Julie McCarthy, the chief executive of the Army Families Federation, has said:
“The feedback we are getting is one of resigned disappointment. The upgrades that are being cancelled involved a total rebuild of houses—new roofs, windows, carpets, kitchens and bathrooms.”
The programme was about not just repainting a few rooms, but making quarters habitable. Our armed forces deserve habitable accommodation. They deserve the best that we can give them, and I hope the Minister will find the additional money needed.
I start by declaring my interest as a service pensioner and a current member of the reserve forces.
It is a great pleasure to follow four current and past members of the Defence Committee. I wish to develop a point that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) made in his extremely considered contribution, which is about the universality of the military covenant. I share his concern that we may forget that it is not a local covenant, or an English, Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh one, but a UK covenant. In preparing my report “Fighting Fit”, on veterans’ mental health, and more recently a report on military amputees, I have been extremely aware of the need to ensure that the complexity of the devolved arrangement is worked through. I have been buoyed up by the understanding of that necessity among officials and Ministers throughout the UK. There is a strong understanding that we must ensure that the covenant is applied throughout the UK and in equal part. From my experience of preparing that work, I am confident that it will.
I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says and congratulate him on behalf of all hon. Members on his work on both those matters. I hope he is correct that a consistent approach will be maintained over time. My concern is that the process needs to endure not just for the next five years or the next comprehensive spending review period, but for a long time into the future.
I entirely agree.
Last week, with a number of hon. Members, I rattled a tin for the Royal British Legion in Westminster tube station. That is always an enjoyable occasion and it is particularly pleasurable to importune colleagues as they come through the barriers, and to fix one’s gimlet eyes on precisely what goes into the tin—indeed, it restores one’s faith in politicians. Perhaps I should not name names, but without exception, they were all extremely generous. Such occasions are well appreciated in the House and I recommend that all hon. Members participate in future.
Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I shall pay my tribute this weekend—in my case at the war memorials in Trowbridge and Warminster. In each of the 10 years that I have been the local MP, I have noticed an increase in the number of people who wish to pay their respects. I was asked this morning on my local radio, which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) knows well, why we should wear a poppy. One point made earlier was that there is an imperative pressure to wear one. The truth is that it is an individual choice—nobody should feel obliged to wear any badge or mark of commemoration. However, purely anecdotally, it seems that more and more people are choosing to wear a poppy, and they are sometimes people whom we would not necessarily expect to do so. They do so not out of a sense of militarism, nationalism or patriotism, but out of a sense that we need to mark the sacrifice and contribution of people who have fought in conflicts. We might or might not agree with those conflicts, but nevertheless, those who fought in them have shown the best of us in their soldierly conduct. That is why people choose to wear a poppy and to be so generous to the poppy appeal and the Royal British Legion.
I look forward to the armed forces covenant interim report later this year. I welcome very much the evolution of the external reference group into the covenant reference group, and particularly Ministers’ insistence that it should be independent. The evolution of the Armed Forces Act 2011 was interesting—as has been said, the Royal British Legion certainly made a big contribution to it. I do not entirely share the perspective of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), but nevertheless, the Royal British Legion’s contribution was an important one. I look forward to seeing both the interim report and the covenant reference group’s response—its independence is extremely important.
I welcome Professor Hew Strachan’s work and the report of his independent taskforce, which was published in December last year. I hope we have an opportunity to discuss progress on the points in the interim report that have been accepted by the Government when it is debated later this year.
Absolutely. The military covenant is not laid down didactically in the Armed Forces Act. It was debated at great length when the measure went through the House and the other place, and it is absolutely right that it should not be set in stone in those sorts of ways, although clearly we can talk about it. However, the armed forces, which are meant to be the subject of the covenant, will be pretty unimpressed if it is not followed with tangibles. We will always ask for more, particularly those of us who represent military or naval areas, and no doubt we will never be entirely satisfied. However, in difficult circumstances, the Government have continued the best of the work done by the previous Administration in trying to improve the lot of those who serve in our armed forces.
Mention has been made of the chief coroner. The Royal British Legion is an excellent organisation in almost all respects, but I take issue with it on this matter. I have counselled caution on its insistence that we retain a chief coroner. I have a particular interest: many of the military inquests that have been necessary over the past 10 years have taken place in Trowbridge in my constituency. I have visited those inquests, and I have spoken with David Masters, the then coroner. Coroners are independent judicial office holders, and have been so for hundreds of years. In this respect, part of the value of the coronial service has been that it has been prepared to be very outspoken, and there are Ministers who served in the previous Administration who bear the scars on their backs of the coroner’s many interventions, particularly on kit. That is absolutely as it should be. The whole point about the coroner’s contribution in the past 10 years is that he has spoken out, particularly on kit, and I have absolutely no doubt that that policy was changed for the better as a result of the comments of David Masters and Andrew Walker. I would be very cautious about altering a system that has delivered such good effect to the benefit of men and women at the front line.
This week we remember the fallen. Remembrance is an integral part of the covenant between the armed forces and the nation. In 2014, we will commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the great war. In the UK, we have a tradition of commemorating and celebrating the end of conflict, not the beginning, which is a good thing. However, we need to make an exception in this case, because the great war was the seminal event of modern history. Not only did its outbreak herald four years of desperate, terrible carnage, but it set in place the conditions for the second world war. Both those conflicts have shaped and formed how we live today, and it is appropriate that we take the opportunity to reflect on and commemorate the early days of the great war.
There are a number of reasons for that. First, it is not right that the sacrifice of those millions of people between 1914 and 1918 should go unrecognised 100 years on. What sort of people would we be if we did not mark out this anniversary? It is a deeply human thing to wish to commemorate sacrifice on that scale. However, there are also lots of things to be learned from the great war, and there are messages for us today, particularly for children in our schools who, as has been mentioned already, we hope will grow up in a world without conflict of that nature, but who, nevertheless, need to know the full horrors of war, so far as they possibly can, so that we may try to avoid them as best we can.
The UK Government have been criticised for being slow off the mark. That is a little unfair. Next year we will, I hope, have our annus mirabilis, in that we will celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the London Olympics. However, we should keep our eye on what is to follow. This week President Sarkozy will unveil the Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux, a purpose-built museum for the great war, and it has been suggested that the British Government should do something similar. However, I would ever so gently point out that the British Government did do something similar, in 1917, before the great war was even concluded. I have been extremely impressed by the preparations of the Imperial War museums—plural—to mark the beginning of the great war. If fully carried out, their programme will, in my view, eclipse the Musée de la Grande Guerre in France, and I look forward to seeing it.
As we approach 2014 and decide how we will mark and commemorate the occasion, it is important that we focus heavily on the local and the parochial, the human and the personal. All of us as constituency MPs will have examples of small-scale projects in our areas that celebrate the contribution of local people—I certainly do in my area. I hope very much that all those projects, supported by the lottery fund and others, will come together in a national memorial—co-ordinated, I suspect, by the Imperial War museums—so that we can show a proper mark of respect in 2014 and commemorate the occasion in a way of which we can all be proud.
It is a privilege to take part in today’s debate, especially at a time when the whole of Britain and the Commonwealth is preparing to mark a weekend of remembrance in the most dignified and unique way, and, here at home, in a very British way. The great British sailor, soldier and airman are the very best in the world. Throughout our nation’s rich history, our armed forces have never let us down—generation after generation of excellence and endeavour, courage and commitment, dedication and delivery; never turning away, even in the darkest hour; always the first to stand between home and danger. It is right that Remembrance Sunday is a focal point for Britain and that the whole country pauses to remember.
Does my hon. Friend share with me a great sigh of relief that it has finally been agreed that those service personnel who were awarded the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal will be able to wear it this year and at last honour their colleagues who fell in the service of this country in Malaysia?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I share her thoughts about that medal. I know from previous experience that the very subject of medals can be controversial, but in this case I absolutely share the sentiments that she has expressed.
As I prepare, for the first time since leaving the Army earlier this year, to mark Remembrance day in my Barnsley constituency tomorrow, I am reminded of Sergeant Andy McFarlane from the Adjutant General’s Corps, who wrote a poem while serving in Afghanistan in 2008. It begins:
“The news is spread far and wide
Another comrade has sadly died
A sunset vigil upon the sand
As a soldier leaves this foreign land”.
“Bravery” is a word that is all too often used, but rarely earned. Those words speak of our bravest men and women, who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country—not in pursuit of personal gain or individual glory; not without knowing the risks; not while surrounded by the comforts of home; but in a foreign land where danger and uncertainty are, in fact, the only certainty.
For me, this weekend—and this debate—is simple. It is about the families at home, with their loved ones serving overseas. It is about veterans who live on, carrying the scars, mental or physical. Most of all, it is about the fallen. For two minutes tomorrow Britain will stand united, shoulder to shoulder in remembrance. Tomorrow, I will be remembering all who have served our country, but in particular I will be remembering my own regiment, the Parachute Regiment. Among others, I will also be remembering the soldiers of the Yorkshire Regiment and the soldiers of the Light Dragoons.
I will be remembering the late Corporal Bryan Budd VC of the Parachute Regiment, and his family. I will be remembering the late Corporal Mark Wright GC of the Parachute Regiment, and his family. I will be remembering the late Barnsley-born Captain Martin Driver of the Royal Anglian Regiment, and his family. I will be remembering the late Major Matt Bacon of the Intelligence Corps, and his family. I will also be remembering the late Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe of the Welsh Guards, the highest-ranked fatality in Afghanistan, and his wife, Sally, who joined me and other colleagues in Parliament earlier this week. Tomorrow, I will also be remembering in particular the soldier from 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment who was killed in Afghanistan only yesterday. I am sure that I speak for right hon. and hon. Members across the House when I say that our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this most difficult time.
Every life is equally precious and should be equally remembered. For those of us who have had the great honour to serve, despite leading very busy lives, every day brings quiet moments of reflection and remembrance. For me, they happen in this place every single day as I am walking down the long Westminster corridors, in the lift on the way over to the Chamber, or sitting behind my desk late each evening. For us, it is not just about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Every day, I find myself pausing to remember friends with whom I served, who never made it back to their loved ones. Every day, I find myself thinking about my own children, and about what might have been, had I not enjoyed the luck that I did. Every day, I am very grateful, and every day, I remember the families who will always be missing a mother or father, a husband or wife, a son or daughter.
I knew 10 of the first 100 men and women killed while serving in Iraq. At that point, I stopped counting. I felt that I had to. Despite what many believe about the wars and their implications for global security, for international legitimacy and for the nature of UK-American relations, no one should doubt that those who have fallen were among our very best and our very bravest. They are at the heart of all that is still great about Britain today.
I believe, however, that we must strive to do better as politicians in shaping the debate about defence, to ensure that the forces community receives the support that it needs and deserves.
My hon. Friend is moving on to the point that we need to do more for those who have not adjusted as well as he has after coming out of the Army. I have seen many people not only with physical injuries but with the kind of mental scars that often do not appear until many years later.
My hon. Friend makes a useful point, which has already been highlighted by other Members in the debate. The reality is that those people who have served in the most difficult circumstances in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere often do not present symptoms from those experiences until many years after the conflict has finished. It is therefore incredibly important that we, as a society, as politicians and as a Government, keep a close eye on those people.
We must remember the last 10 years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, contentious though they have no doubt been. Support from the Government, in Parliament and across the UK for our veterans and their families must always be unequivocal. We must remember the value of charities such as the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, Help for Heroes and many others, all of whom contribute so much. For more than 90 years, the Royal British Legion has been a constant, a continuing pillar of strength for those who have served and for their families. I believe that its call, which was shared by many others, to leave the chief coroner out of the Public Bodies Bill was the right thing to do for our armed forces and their families. We should have listened to the legion when it made that important point.
We must also remember that, when the shots stop firing and the last bomb has detonated, our support for our forces must be absolute and unending. When Afghanistan and Iraq are consigned to the history books, our armed forces’ physical injuries and mental recollections of those wars will live on for ever.
Our veterans deserve not adequate, not better, but the best support. On Friday, a veteran and his wife, Mark and Helen Mullins, were found dead, having killed themselves in despair. We must not forget those who served but now struggle, those who fought but now feel forgotten, those who stood-to but now stand alone. We, on all sides of this House, have a duty to protect our armed forces and to ensure that public support for them endures.
I quoted earlier from Sergeant McFarlane’s poem, which concludes:
“Reveille sounds and the parade is done
The hero remembered, forgotten by none
They leave to start the journey back
In a coffin draped in the Union Jack”.
Mr Deputy Speaker, the fallen. We must not forget and we must always remember. I know that I am enormously proud to have been in our armed forces for 15 years. I know that this House is enormously proud of our armed forces. I know, too, that this weekend, our country will demonstrate our pride in the best armed forces in the world.
It is highly appropriate that we conduct this defence debate only a few hours after armed forces veterans gathered at their own private commemoration in the churchyard of Westminster Abbey, where His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh was present.
I always wear a poppy between 1 and 11 November, but I do not need to wear a poppy—it is actually on my heart. The date I particularly remember is not this weekend but 6 December 1982, when six men were killed and 35 wounded under my command in Northern Ireland.
This debate is about personnel, so I shall concentrate on that. Getting the manning right is crucial for defence. When I commanded the Cheshire Regiment, I commanded about 600 people. When I joined it, the Cheshire Regiment had 700 people. In my time, tank regiments went from having 56 main battle tanks to having 42. Commanding officers are expected to do just as much as before, but with fewer people.
Of course, reducing manning has a direct impact on operational effectiveness. The strategic defence and security review suggests that Army strength should be at 82,000 with 30,000 reservists. I remain worried about how we shall get 30,000 reservists within a few years. The strength of the Royal Air Force is planned to be 39,000, with only 2,000 reservists. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who is worried and thinks that the RAF has to rethink the matter of reservists. He made the point to me privately—and I think he mentioned it in his speech—that it was reservist pilots who were the most effective in the battle of Britain.
I am worried about how the fitness levels of reserves will be monitored. Will they pass their annual fitness test and their annual personal weapons test? How will they do that? What about their dental records? They have to be dental fit, ready to go almost immediately. Mobilising reserves is not necessarily cheap—certainly not as cheap as some people might think.
The armed forces are still quite top heavy. Apparently, there are more than 250 officers of one-star rank in all three services. During the second world war, a three-star officer—a lieutenant-general—used to command about 100,000 people. That is the current all-out strength of the Army today.
I understand, although I am open to correction, that there are 33 officers of two-star rank and above in the Royal Navy. There are two full admirals, six vice-admirals, and 25 rear-admirals. If we include one-star officers, that means that the Royal Navy has more than one admiral for each of its 40 fighting ships—and, by the way, each officer of one-star rank or above receives a salary of about £120,000 a year.
I will not leave the Army alone, however. The Army has five four-star officers, who are generals, and, although I am not sure, I believe that it now has 17 three-star officers, who are lieutenant-generals.
Does not part of the difficulty lie in the MOD, whose civil servants, during both my hon. Friend’s service and mine, have been keen to equate themselves with starred officers? I believe that that has driven some of the current inflationary pressure. Does my hon. Friend agree that the first priority for Ministers must be to deal with that management overhead?
I entirely agree, and I am sure that the Minister does as well. We must get that under control. Someone told me—again, the Minister probably has the figures at his fingertips—that the Army has some 1,700 lieutenant-colonels. If that is the case, they could man three battalions, and we have only 38 of those.
I will not go into the same details about the Royal Air Force, but the principle is the same: it remains quite top-heavy. I know that the Government intend to have a crack at reducing the problem. What we want in our armed forces are people coming in at the bottom—that is, people who actually do the business, rather than those who are in the background sitting behind desks.
That is the dilemma. We want to encourage people to stay in the Army; we want to retain the experience of senior officers; and, in the event of something that we may not care to mention—a general war—we will require those officers to expand the Army, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury suggested.
As for the basing of our troops, I am still worried about where they will go when they come back from Germany, if we have to get them all out by 2020. The details of how many will go to which places are yet to be planned. I am particularly concerned about where those extra troops will be trained, because the training areas already seem to be mightily over-booked. Cost is another issue. Converting Kinloss, which is currently an RAF station, to enable it to house, say, an Army battalion, will not be simply a case of “All out, one in”. We should also ask where the families will go. As was said earlier, it would be a good idea to try to enable them to live further away, but there will be a problem with morale when there is a deployment and wives and children are separate from the main unit.
Finally, let me say a little about Afghanistan. I have heard an increasing number of complaints—some as recently as this week—about the suggestion that a quota of reservists are going there while regulars are being left behind. That quota, which may not be formal, is nevertheless causing some resentment. I ask the Minister to check on that. It costs more to deploy reservists; as regulars are already being paid for, they do not cost as much.
I am very concerned about reports this week that the United States will be withdrawing from Helmand. That has manpower implications. The gains from 2007 onwards might be in jeopardy, and who will take up the slack? It must not be us. We have three years to go before we are formally committed to withdraw from operations in Helmand and Afghanistan generally, although we will stay there in a training role. If the Americans withdraw, the commander in Helmand will have fewer manoeuvre units and fewer available reserves. I do not want us to reoccupy bases we have occupied previously, such as Sangin, Musa Qala and Now Zad.
It is also crucial that we maintain our own security as we withdraw. I know the Minister realises that; I am not trying to teach him to suck eggs. Withdrawing from an operational theatre is very complicated, however. It is often much easier to go in than to come out, and that can be very dangerous. We do not want to take pointless casualties, and we must not repeat the mistake of 2006, when we allowed our troops to be put into isolated locations unsupported. When we are withdrawing, we must not leave a thin line at the front and thin out from there. We must withdraw properly. I will not talk in detail about the tactics, but we must not leave our troops isolated and in a precarious situation as we withdraw.
I shall conclude now, but I should first apologise to the House as I must beg leave to be absent from shortly onwards as there is a constituency event I must attend. I do not wish to leave the Chamber, but once I have done the decent thing by listening to the next speech, I would like to be allowed to depart. Please forgive me, colleagues.
I am sure the engagement that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) must attend is a pressing one, and I do not wish to detain him.
Some hon. Members have served in our nation’s armed forces, and there are others who have not served themselves but who have close relatives who are serving. As I fall into neither of those categories, I shall keep my comments as brief as possible.
My concern is as a constituency Member of Parliament. Last week, I brought to the Prime Minister’s attention the concerns of my constituents Alan and Linda Eastwood, who are very worried about the Government’s plans to abolish the post of chief coroner. Their son, James, is a corporal with 1st Battalion The Rifles; he is 28 and has a wife and a two-year-old child. This week in a local newspaper, Mr Eastwood made the case for keeping the post of chief coroner much better than I could, so I shall quote his comments:
“James has only just returned from Afghanistan. We are one of the lucky families. James has colleagues who have been killed and colleagues who have come back with no arms or legs. I just cannot understand the Government’s position at all. To upset people who have suffered the loss of one of their family... I cannot see how the Prime Minister can justify it.”
It is no secret that I am a Labour politician, whereas Mr Eastwood tells me that he has never voted Labour in his life. I do not personally hold that against him, but I hope that I might be able to change his mind. Even if I cannot, partisanship is not the point in this issue. As a layperson, I believe that the point is that if Parliaments and Governments are to decide that young men and women are to be sent to situations where, in worst-case scenarios, they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice, the very least we can do is listen to those service personnel, those families and those organisations with the know-how—the people who know best. That is why I sincerely hope that the Prime Minister will listen to families such as the Eastwoods and to the Royal British Legion on this most important, personal and sensitive of matters.
I have one brief further point to make. Before I came to this House, I worked in the voluntary sector for 15 years, latterly for housing and homelessness charities. Nobody works for organisations of that nature without coming across the problem of the number of ex-service personnel who become homeless. In 1997, a well publicised survey from the Ex-Service Action Group on Homelessness found that about a quarter of street homeless people had a background in the armed forces. I remember that there was outrage and intense media scrutiny at the time, as indeed there should have been.
Jointly, Government action and Government action in partnership with many extraordinary voluntary organisations reduced the problem—one study by the university of York found that this action led to a fall in homelessness from about 22% to 6%. I accept that producing such figures is not an exact science, but everyone accepts that a significant reduction was made. None the less, any homeless figure, however welcome any reduction achieved, is still too many. I know that many today fear that the Government’s caps on housing benefit and cuts to homelessness provision, and the significant job cuts within our armed forces, are likely to make the situation much worse. I therefore hope that the Government will not reduce the MOD’s resettlement programme and that they will carefully consider the arguments I have made today. Finally, I hope that they will also reconsider their decision to abolish the post of chief coroner.
I start by declaring my interest as a member of the reserve forces. I regret that I cannot make the same declaration of interest as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) as an Army pensioner, but that is probably because he is rather more senior than I am. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear that, apparently, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) is an Army pensioner.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who made a very powerful case on behalf of veterans and especially their families, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who has just left the Chamber. I must say that I am not convinced that his readjustment to civilian life is best served by becoming a Member of Parliament, but that is another matter.
In discussion just now with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), I realised that I first wore a uniform in 1983—that can probably be bested only by the Minister—when I joined the combined cadet force in Kimbolton school, where I hope to return briefly this weekend. Every year since then—so for some 28 years—I have either marched or worn a uniform on Remembrance Sunday. This Remembrance Sunday, I will be in Newport Pagnell in my constituency for the eighth consecutive year. Above its war memorial is a small plaque, which is easy to miss, commemorating George Walters’ Victoria Cross. He was born in the town on 15 September 1829 and earned his Victoria Cross on 5 November—appropriate for me as a firework manufacturer—in 1854, some 157 years ago.
In those 28 years of attending Remembrance Sundays in uniform, I have seen an interesting transition. In the early days in the 1980s, attendance was probably not what it should have been, but over subsequent years, it has grown and grown. There has also been a change in the perception of the general public, from imagining that veterans were old men, recalling images of the first world war, to realising now that veterans come in all shapes and sizes—I am not looking at my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham when I say that—and some are very young indeed. I feel obliged to say that to my hon. Friend, as there was a suggestion earlier that reservists—I say this as I suck in my stomach—were being mobilised without passing their combat fitness test. I reassure him that that is not the case. The act of remembrance on Remembrance Sunday is now embraced by a far wider community than it was 20 years ago. That has to be a very good thing and one that I hope we all continue to encourage.
Earlier this year, it was an honour to serve on the Armed Forces Bill. There have been some comments about whether or not the armed forces covenant was enshrined in law, as well as some slightly party political comments about whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, who voted for it and who did not. I take the view shared by most members of the armed forces: I do not really care one way or the other. I repeat what I said earlier in the year: this Government will be judged not on words, but on actions. In years to come, this Government and their successors will be judged on whether the armed forces covenant was effectively enshrined in law by what is done, not by what is said.
The Bill dealt with three principal subjects, the first of which is housing. I welcome the fact that £61.6 million will be spent on service housing this year, but if one goes to Lympstone, for example, one sees that an awful lot more money will have to be spent in future years if we are to get the standard of housing up to the level that our armed forces deserve. The £400 million Firstbuy scheme, which will allow some 10,000 service and veteran families to get access to housing, is equally welcome. That is very good news, but 10,000 families is only a start; the scheme will have to be continued in years to come.
Secondly, on education, I welcome the £3 million being put into the pupil premium to help service families. Some years ago, when I was on the Defence Committee, we had an investigation into education. Such a policy was suggested at the time, although it may not have been called a pupil premium, and it is good news that it has been implemented.
Thirdly, on health care, I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire is no longer in the Chamber, because he has done a tremendous job in highlighting the mental health issues of servicemen and veterans. I have seen for myself the very good work that is being done and it is right that we pay tribute to successive Governments for that work. It has not been done instantly in the past 18 months; it has been done over a number of years, and I trust that that will continue in years to come.
I turn briefly to the strategic defence and security review. I was on HMS Portland about two weeks ago, where I came face to face with a young sailor who had been told that he would be made redundant, not voluntarily, but compulsorily. Members of Parliament should come face to face with people in that situation. It was a difficult conversation, which put the whole subject to the fore of my mind. He accepted what was happening, and I found it deeply encouraging that a redundancy programme is being put in place over the next 12 months to ensure that that young man will have the training and resettlement assistance that he needs to go back into civilian life. That is vital and I urge the Government to do more. Under no circumstances can that resettlement package be cut.
In my last few minutes I shall look forward to the future composition of the Army. We are set to have some 112,000 members by 2020—82,000 regulars and 30,000 reserves by 2015. I am particularly interested in the future of the Army in the context of contributing to the Government’s building stability overseas strategy. As we slowly withdraw from Afghanistan and end our commitments in Iraq, there is an acceptance that in future we will have to look at upstream intervention in fragile states. The comprehensive approach across Government, with the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence all coming together like three strands of a rope, will be vital to this country’s future interests. If I am honest, though, I feel that the Government document is slightly light when explaining how that upstream intervention will be carried out.
We all know that every £1 spent upstream can save £4 downstream, and I am delighted that DFID is committing 30% of its future investment in fragile states, but how exactly will we do that? How will we increase defence engagement in future years and grow the capacity of other nations? Will it be done by setting up a series of courses that we can support? With our current UN involvement, only a handful of British armed forces members are in the Democratic Republic of Congo or doing UN monitoring missions around the world. I believe that once we draw down from our commitments in Afghanistan, we can begin to make a real contribution to upstream intervention, and in the months to come I would like exactly how that will be done to be fleshed out.
I will finish with a few comments on the reserves. It will be challenging to get 30,000 reserves by 2015, but it can be done. Of course, only seven or eight years ago we had well in excess of 30,000 members of the reserve forces, and in the 1990s we had 58,000. I am convinced that in our society people are prepared to join the reserve forces, but it will not be straightforward. We will have to invest. We also have to realise that often the only link between Members and the armed forces in their constituencies is perhaps a cadet unit or Territorial Army unit, but the footprint we currently have, which forms such a strong link to our society, might not be the exact footprint we will have in future. It will be hard to find that balance, so it will be testing for hon. Members to find out what that footprint will be in future. Just because we are getting bigger does not mean that the footprint will automatically get wider.
I want to pick up on a point my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham made about mobilisations of reservists being almost compulsory. As a bomb disposal officer, I hosted a dinner here on Saturday night for 156 other bomb disposal officers. My old squadron, 217 Field Squadron (EOD), is now part of one of the hybrid regiments, 33 Engineer Regiment, which is a regular regiment. A couple of the young officers—I will not name them, because if I did they would be in front of their commanding officer next week—told me that they are under pressure to ensure that reservists are mobilised rather than their own regular forces, which is causing minor resentment. That is something that the Ministers needs to ensure we address, because the future of our armed forces must be as one Army, in which we work together without resentment between the regulars and the reserves.
Let me start by adding to the tributes paid by Members on both sides of the House and offering my sincere condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment who was killed yesterday while on patrol in Afghanistan and to the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, the Red Arrows pilot who died on Tuesday, whose dedicated service to the RAF included several operational tours in Iraq. Our thoughts are with them at this most difficult time.
As we approach Remembrance day, it is important to remember all those who have served our country. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and delighted to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and many other hon. Members who made moving speeches, including my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis).
In my constituency I come across many people who remind me of the courage and determination of so many in the east end during the second world war. I will never forget the elderly lady who survived the blitz but lost her family overnight, or the many other stories of sacrifice and loss. The night of 7 September 1940 marked the start of a sustained bombing attack on London by the Luftwaffe. On the first night alone, 430 civilians were killed and 1,600 were seriously wounded in east London. The structural damage to London was enormous, and the east end was so badly hit that when Buckingham palace was attacked at the height of the bombing, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, said:
“It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”
In the Bethnal Green tube disaster, my constituency suffered Britain’s worst single loss of civilian life during the second world war. On the night of 3 March 1943, a large crowd tried to take cover in the tube station during an air raid, but, tragically, on entering the station via the steps on the south side, about 300 people became trapped, and as they slipped and fell on the steps there was a crush, leaving 173 people dead and 60 injured and needing hospital treatment.
In March this year, I joined my constituents and many others from throughout the east end to commemorate the 68th anniversary of that disaster and to remember those who lost their lives so tragically. Their memory is served by the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust, which is working hard to establish a fitting memorial to remind future generations of the sacrifices made, and I appeal to the Minister to lend his support to that important campaign, which requires another £200,000 for the project to be completed.
We must honour the memory of those who served our country, and do so not only with our words but with our actions. It is therefore right that we protect the memorials that have been established in honour of those military personnel and civilians who lost their lives. My Labour predecessor, Oona King, fought tirelessly through the Civilians Remembered campaign to establish a memorial to those east enders who lost their lives during the second world war.
The Hermitage memorial garden in Wapping, in an area that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) represents, commemorates those civilians who died during the blitz, but recently the memorial was vandalised and protective gates have had to be erected around it. It is of paramount importance that we ensure memorial sites such as the Hermitage garden are protected from vandalism and continue to serve as a reminder of those who sacrificed so much.
By the end of 2014, UK troops will have completed all combat operations in Afghanistan, marking 13 years of UK involvement there. The sacrifice of our armed forces has been great, and we will never forget the 385 UK military personnel who, with their lives, have paid the ultimate price for our country.
The welfare of our troops is paramount, and we must ensure that they have the support they deserve during active service and in retirement. We must ensure also that their families have the support they need. I welcome the Government’s decision to enshrine the military covenant in law, but, as other Members have pointed out, it was disappointing when they failed to support the amendment that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) tabled to the Public Bodies Bill to retain the office of the chief coroner, which the previous Labour Government proposed.
My constituents are concerned that, without that office, there will be no independent and impartial advice for bereaved families, who should have the right to challenge the findings of any inquiry that they consider to be insufficient.
One of my constituents, Gareth Turkington, who lost his brother, wrote to me and said:
“Our family lost our son and brother Lt Neal Turkington 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles on 13th July 2010 in Nar-e Saraj, the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
Neal selflessly committed his life to helping make our nation safer and to help make a difference by bringing freedom and prosperity to Afghanistan. His death was as a result of an Afghan National Army soldier carrying out a well planned and executed attack within the ISAF/ANA shared patrol base PB3. This happened despite three similar conflict related attacks at US/ISAF bases, resulting in 24 deaths and up to 40 injured.
My family and I were at his inquest. It was one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives. Today you have the chance to help ensure that both bereaved Armed Forces families and bereaved families in general don’t have to go through everything my family went through.
You have the chance to signal your personal support for all bereaved families by voting for Andrew Percy’s amendment to remove the Chief Coroner from the Public Bodies Bill.”
I appeal once again to the Minister to think again and support those families who are calling for that action.
Finally, our armed forces are among the best in the world. This is a poignant time to remember the huge sacrifice that our servicemen and women have made to defend our country. We must do everything to ensure that our freedom and liberty is protected by supporting them.
I am not a regular contributor to such debates—not least because I am usually outranked and certainly outpensioned by half the people who speak—although they are very important. I was in the Combined Cadet Force in the 1970s and my main contribution was trying to avoid carrying the Bren gun over the Brecon Beacons whenever we were on exercises.
My constituency has some very proud associations with the military—for example, with the Rifles in the Army and with HMS Cattistock, which is one of our minesweepers; its skills are admired by all, including the US navy. Indeed, we have a Royal Marines base in Poole, where the Special Boat Service is based. That service includes some of the most professional and admired specialists in the world.
Like many hon. Members here, I will be attending a Remembrance day ceremony in Poole park. I have done so more times than I care to remember. In my early years as a Member of Parliament, it was clear that the vast majority of people at the ceremony were world war two veterans, although some people had done national service and there was the odd person who had served in Northern Ireland.
What has changed is the number of young families turning up with photographs of fathers or mothers who have been killed in action. That has been the biggest change during my time in Parliament and it makes me think very carefully about the decisions we, as politicians, make about war and peace, and life and death, because people have to deal with the consequences of the United Kingdom’s policy. Given longevity, some of the youngsters who have lost fathers may well be around for another 70, 80 or 90 years—long after we have gone. Our legacy must be not only to support the military covenant, but to ensure that we look after those families who have lost a loved one. We must provide the best possible support we can to our armed services, which we all value so much.
Service accommodation is a very important issue. Over the past few years, there has been a great effort to improve the standard of all housing in the United Kingdom. A lot of money was spent on council housing to bring homes up to the decent homes standard. Yet much service accommodation remains not that good. I have had many conversations with the wives of Royal Marines in Poole, some of whom work as nurses or health visitors. They often say that when they visit people on benefits in Poole, their housing conditions are substantially better than those of some of the people in the Special Boat Service. Many have often said that they are a little ashamed to ask people back to their home because the standard is not very good.
I understand, as I think we all do, the economic situation that our country is in and the fact we have to make economies. However, as soon as money becomes available, we need to invest in providing decent housing standards for the families of people in the armed services. When we commit people, as we have done in the past, to 12 months in Afghanistan, we want them to be able to leave their families in a home we would all be proud of. Therefore, much work needs to be done on that matter.
One of the problems that my hon. Friend highlights is that the armed forces are the only people who have to compete for funding in terms of their housing and the provision of weapons to keep them alive. It is not easy to work out how to resolve that dilemma.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point; of course, he is very experienced in this area. That raises the question of whether another organisation should be supplying the housing instead of the Ministry of Defence. Having looked at the resources made available to Poole Housing Partnership, which deals with the several thousand council houses that we have in Poole, it is clear that it could easily maintain and upgrade the hundreds of MOD houses if there were some kind of tie-up or support. We need to think rather more creatively about how we can channel the resources that are available. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made a powerful point about a case in his constituency of homes on two sides of the road, some of which are being done up with public money and some of which are not, because their funding happens to come out of different pockets. It should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of our country to find a way through this.
It is terribly important that we understand the angst of service families who leave the service having been unable to buy a home because they have been serving in different areas, and so have to go on the social housing list and then find that they cannot be allocated housing. I hope that changes made at the end of the time of the previous Government and under this Government will make that somewhat easier. Most ex-military people should be at the top of the housing queue, not at the bottom. My general view of what has been happening with my constituents suggests that there is now a much better understanding of that, and that housing authorities are much more willing to find accommodation for them.
We all know about the difficulties there have been with people who are in combat one minute and getting on a jet to fly back to the United Kingdom the next. Within a day or two of being in combat, they have to adjust to being home. I am pleased that this country has done a lot more as regards the military hospitals and mental health back-up needed for the people in our armed services. I was also pleased to hear what has been said about resources to help service families and their children in relation to education.
We seem to be finding our way to a far more holistic approach towards support for the various aspects of the lives of those in the military. Certainly, there is a much better understanding of the importance of our military. Like many Members, I am sure that when I am in Poole park on Sunday for our usual parade, many more people than we saw years ago will turn out to commemorate service personnel. There is much more public support for the military. We must maintain that support for, and investment in, these very brave and exceptional people. As has been said, the United Kingdom armed forces are second to none; they do our country proud. We must invest in them and their families, and I hope that this debate plays some small part in progressing that.
I am honoured to follow the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who talked passionately about the importance of supporting the families of servicemen and women in this country.
I think that I bring a slightly different dimension to the debate because I am possibly the only person here who is the partner of somebody within our military, and therefore feels absolutely passionately—
Absolutely. My point in raising this is simply to say that the concern for all of us who are interested in the welfare of our armed forces is not only about the people who serve but about those who support them. We have to support not only our armed services but those in their families who are affected by what they do.
Each of us is here today to remember the sacrifices of those who have served within our communities and our country. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) admirably put on record our gratitude to the people who, unfortunately, have lost their lives in the past few weeks alone. I echo those sentiments. I also want to put on record the gratitude that I am sure we all feel towards the people from my own community in Walthamstow who gave their lives. Let us therefore say to the family of Regimental Sergeant Major Darren Chant of the Grenadier Guards, who gave his life for our safety on 3 November 2009, that we will never forget his sacrifice.
I also want to recognise the contribution of those who have served and come home. In particular, I put on the record my thanks to Rob Richier, who retired recently after 35 years of service in the forces. He is now leading the Royal British Legion in Walthamstow. I was honoured to host a dinner for 150 people for his retirement and in support of the work that he is doing in Walthamstow. I have seen at first hand from working with him what a difference he is making to support members of the armed forces in Walthamstow.
I wanted to speak in this debate to raise a particular concern that affects forces families. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) referred to the tragic case that many Members will have seen in the press yesterday of a serviceman and his wife who felt so forgotten that they took their own lives after they had fallen badly into debt and were struggling with their financial situation. A critical issue that we must address in dealing with the welfare of our armed forces and their families is their finances. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) raised the particular concern of homelessness in relation to the armed forces. I want to consider the experience of the armed forces in accessing finance. I will draw on evidence of how the American military have dealt with this issue and of their concern about how armed forces personnel manage their money.
In 2006, the Department of Defence in America conducted research into the impact of payday lending on servicemen and women and their families. It recognised that companies were targeting them because of a number of factors, not least the relative youth of the military and the cash-flow fluxes and shortages generated by life in theatre and at home. Another factor was that the American military took a strong line on indebtedness among their members, which meant that many of them did not seek debt advice and counselling early on to avoid debt problems.
What is particularly striking is that the American military recognised the problems of debt among their servicemen and women as a threat to military readiness. They recognised that debt was the second most stressful aspect of the military lifestyle and that it outpaced separation from families and being on deployment. In particular, they recognised that because military families were not necessarily able to access credit in the way that the rest of can, they were particularly vulnerable to a reliance on high-cost credit. The research found that the average borrower in the American military had taken out nine payday loans in a year and was paying back $834 for a $339 loan.
Consequently, the John Warner National Defence Authorisation Act was passed in 2006. It closed the loophole that allowed American lenders to exploit service personnel and introduced an interest rate cap to make it impossible to lend to military personnel at more than 36% APR. Clearly, there are still problems in America with indebtedness in military families, but awareness about the issue has been raised, as has the protection for those families. Indeed, America’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau now has a special service dedicated to soldiers, the Office of Servicemember Affairs, which is headed by Holly Petraeus. One of her many acts is to promote credit unions to service people.
I raise that example not simply to say how much the Americans have done to support the families of those who serve in the military, but to raise my concern that exactly the same problems are happening among military families in the UK. The payday loan companies that have exploded in the UK in the past 18 months are already targeting the military. Loansite.co.uk markets itself as the forces loan finder. Easymilitaryloans.co.uk—the title alone is a giveaway—makes a virtue of lending to service personnel in the UK with poor credit histories. QuickQuid, whose interest rate is 1,734%, states on its special military site:
“You provide security and protection for your country—shouldn’t your armour against financial problems include access to military loans when you need them?”
The consequences of that targeting are becoming all too clear, not least to the Royal British Legion, which has a dedicated benefits and money advice service that does fantastic work to help service personnel and veterans with debt problems. That service is up against it in the current economic climate, especially given the rate at which the high-cost credit industry is growing. It is particularly striking that whereas in its first year of operation in 2007 the service helped 2,500 army personnel, last year the figure rose to 11,000. It predicts that the figure will keep rising. The most telling point for this debate is that nearly a third of the service’s clients turn to it because they have taken out unsecured loans.
We know that high-cost credit is increasingly used by those who have no access to mainstream credit. Indeed, research in Sheffield found that 40,000 people in that city alone were in that position. We know that a worrying proportion of people taking out payday loans are doing so just to make ends meet. One in four of them need the money to buy food or essentials, with 44% of them using it just to pay off other debts. In that context, people who are financially fragile because they or a member of their family serve in the military are particularly at risk.
The Royal British Legion states that debt problems tend to be much more complex for Army personnel than for civilians, and that they require a higher level of debt advice. It estimates that 63% of the debt advice that it offers is classified as specialist advice, compared with just 12% of the casework of normal citizens advice bureaux. Such figures demonstrate not only the importance of what the Royal British Legion’s money advice service does but the uniquely complex nature of the debt problems that many of our service personnel face.
We know that the payday loan industry is growing rapidly in this country, and that the risk of its targeting our military service personnel is increasing. We know, too, that we could act quickly to regulate the market as a way of providing real protection not just to service families but to the 6 million people in our country who are financially fragile. That was why I wanted to raise the issue today.
I hope that I can encourage the Minister to consider doing exactly what the American military have done, and at least commission research into the nature of debt in our forces’ families in the UK, so that we can understand the consequences of payday loan companies and the difficulty that those in the military face in making ends meet. I also hope that when he has seen that research, or even the work that the Royal British Legion is doing on welfare advice, he might be persuaded to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to talk about how it would be possible to introduce a cap on the cost of credit to protect people. I also encourage him to consider how to ensure that we have a credit union that serves the UK military and their families, so that they can access affordable credit.
We all remember today the service of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives for a better tomorrow. I have simply raised my points to ask that that better tomorrow does not include debts, and that we as a Parliament act as quickly and appropriately as we can to ensure that we give all our citizens protection from payday loan companies.
I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak, especially on the eve of Armistice day. I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces for naming Plymouth earlier this year as the venue for next year’s national armed services day events. I am sure the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) also welcomes that. Plymouth, needless to say, is a very proud city with a very fine Royal Marine and Royal Naval heritage. The authorities there will most certainly handle armed services day with enormous professionalism, and it will be incredibly well organised.
Tomorrow, 3 Commando Brigade, which is based in my constituency, will march through the city. I am absolutely sure that there will be a very big turnout of people who wish to demonstrate just how loyal to the brigade they are, and how proud they are of the service personnel who have acted in Afghanistan during the past few months or so. Tomorrow and Sunday will provide an opportunity for us to show our respect, alongside civic leaders. It will tinged with sadness, of course, because there have been some casualties, including Corporal Mark Palin, whose funeral I attended in the summer, who lived in Devonport and made the ultimate sacrifice.
In passing, I wish to thank FIFA for deciding, eventually, to allow our English footballers to wear their poppies. That is appropriate, because in 1915, in no-man’s land, there was a ceasefire at Christmas, so the soldiers could play football. Unfortunately they did not play cricket or rugby, but they decided to play football. That is a clear indication of the part that football has played.
Today’s debate is about how we value our armed services, and valuing them is very important. As a Navy brat, with a father who served in the Royal Navy and was partly responsible for getting the gold and the King of Norway out of Norway in 1940, and with a whole series of family members who have served in the services, I can safely say that I think I have had a fairly good understanding of what it is like to serve in the armed forces and make the ultimate sacrifice.
Not only do I represent one of the principal naval ports, but as vice-chairman of the armed forces all-party parliamentary group with special responsibility for the Royal Marines, and through my participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have gained a much better understanding of how the armed services play such a significant part in the defence of our country.
During the summer on a trip from Malta to Majorca with one of the ships, I had the opportunity to see first hand how our Royal Navy people go about their jobs. One thing they talked about was how they felt let down that they did not have the opportunity to receive a medal for their anti-piracy work. They said that they got one from the EU but were not allowed to wear it because it has not been approved by the Queen. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister ensure that that situation is looked at?
I understand that there is to be review of the body that is responsible for giving medals, which is an obscure and almost secretive organisation. Should not that responsibility lie with the House and not with some obscure group of flunkies somewhere in a back room?
The Honours and Decorations Committee might be obscure, but it exists to give advice to Her Majesty the Queen, who is the fount of honours and who gives medals, not this House. In my opinion, with which hon. Members may disagree—the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) is right that we are having a review—it is important that politics and party politics should not be involved in decisions on medals, because that should be done in the chain of command. I have been under pressure to intervene in gallantry awards for people whom I have never met. However, the granting of honours must be decided not by politicians, but by others who are involved in campaigns.
It is the job of the Queen to make decisions on who gets such honours.
In the few minutes available to me, I want to concentrate on the mental health of those members of the armed forces who serve to defend our country. Other hon. Members have spoken with some knowledge of that, especially my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), whose paper on mental health and combat stress, “Fighting Fit”, has made such a significant contribution in helping us to determine our armed forces covenant and the Armed Forces Act 2011.
There is a great deal of difference, however, between passing legislation and ensuring that recommendations are put into action. For many, serving in the armed services will be one of several careers that they will have. It is important that they do not find themselves handicapped from having other careers and doing other jobs. Some might go into teaching and others might go into security or whatever, but it is important that we ensure they can go into other jobs.
A great deal of publicity was given to the fact that a significant minority of servicemen and women suffer from mental ill health as a result of their experiences. It is important that we ensure they are capable of going into other jobs, but according to research by the excellent Combat Stress, which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, was set up in 1919 and which currently helps 4,600 veterans, suggests that of the 191,000 personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 4.6%—about 7,600 people—could develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and that another 37,600 people, or 19.7%, could be battling other debilitating mental health problems, such as depression, mood disorders and anxieties. It can take up to 13 years for mental illness to become apparent. We must not waste any time in finding a solution and putting a strategy in place. I welcome the Government’s changes to the delivery of our health services, but I am keen that there be a strategy to ensure that our general practitioners and other health professionals think through how to handle those mental health issues, especially in a garrison town such as Plymouth.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said about the incidence of mental ill health and the need for the health service and other bodies to cope with the mental health needs of those in the armed forces. Does he agree, though, that younger people in the armed services suffer more from mental health problems as a result of their involvement in combat after the age of 18? Given that the United Kingdom is the only country in Europe that still recruits soldiers from the age of 16—last year, 17.4% of new recruits were aged 16 and 29.8% were under 18—is it not time to review the age from which we recruit? Should we not recruit over-18s only?
If I may say so, that is a non sequitur. A range of people, from across the board, regularly come into my office suffering from a mental health issue, and it is important that we look after all of them, not just a small number.
In preparing for this debate, I spoke with representatives of Combat Stress, who told me of their concern about the lack of detail in the Government’s approach, and asked for assurances that either health care or other policy areas would cover the mental health of armed forces personnel and veterans. It noted that the stigma surrounding people with mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, was still preventing veterans from seeking help.
Last month, I attended, in the Speaker’s apartments, the launch of Combat Stress’s anti-stigma campaign, which aims to highlight the plight of veterans suffering from mental illnesses owing to the scars of war. I was told that 81% of veterans felt ashamed or embarrassed about their mental ill health, and that their fear of stigma and discrimination meant that more than one in three did not feel able to tell their families or friends about their problems. The other day in Lympstone, I met a Royal Marine who told me of his experience. He went home and told his wife about his problems, but she said, “Don’t talk to me about that. I had to deal with 200 e-mails today. I have a lot on.” He went off to find his mates, but that was not good enough either, so ultimately he had to find his fellow Royal Marines. We need to ensure much better connectivity for those people.
Finally, I am concerned about how the reservists are taken care of. We have in place a very good system under which regular armed services personnel can get a lot of help, but I am told that there are problems for reservists leaving theatre and re-entering their community, and that we do not necessarily do as good a job looking after them. I urge my right hon. Friend to do something about that. Reservists take time off from their normal jobs, and their employers expect them to go straight back again, which they will almost certainly do. However, can we do something about that? If we do not sort this out, we risk creating a ticking time bomb that will need much more resources and attention further down the line.
The wonderful thing about defence debates in this Chamber is that they are so well informed. When we stand to speak, we feel that we are really speaking to people who have expertise—people who served in the forces; people who are partners of people in the forces; people who serve on the Select Committee on Defence.
I cannot start a speech in a defence debate without congratulating the Royal British Legion. Yesterday, attending Prime Minister’s questions, regardless of whether I agreed with what the Prime Minister said, I could not help but notice the sea of red poppies on both sides of the House. The Royal British Legion truly deserves to be congratulated on the success of its campaign and on making the poppy a fixture every November. As an aside, I pay tribute to its “Time to do your bit” campaign. On Sunday, I did my bit by running seven miles along Cwmcarn scenic drive, which, as anyone who knows it will agree, is very hilly. I think I speak on behalf of my parliamentary researcher Dave when I say that, rather than just doing our bit, we were both in bits by the end, but there we go.
Since I became a Member of Parliament, the most amazing thing—a great honour, too—is that I am invited to so many remembrance parades. This weekend I will join people in Oakdale, Pontllanfraith and Meas-y-cwmer as they come together to remember the war dead. However, when we think of remembering people, we should be aware that there is a group of people in this country, only 1,011 in number, who have a case to be remembered that is rarely heard in the House of Commons. They are, of course, the nuclear test veterans—those who suffered illnesses related to the nuclear bomb tests in the Indian ocean in the 1950s and 1960s.
We are proud in Islwyn that we have the only commemorative stone to mark the commitment of those veterans to our forces; it sits in the memorial garden in Risca. I cannot mention it without paying tribute to a local councillor, Stan Jenkins, who is responsible for the stone. When he was the mayor of the old Islwyn borough council, he met with a nuclear test veteran and was so moved by his plight that every October he organised a march through Risca, with the whole community coming together to show its support for those boys, and this year is the last year it will be held. Their standard has been placed in St Mary’s church in Risca, and until it turns to dust over time, the cause endures and the fight goes on.
We as politicians are rarely faced with serious decisions, but in years to come, when children go to the memorial garden in Risca with their parents or grandparents and read what it says on that stone—a simple sentence: “Justice is all we ask”—and when they ask their parents or grandparents, “Did those soldiers have justice?”, what will we say? Will we say, “No. The Government stood behind judges and law courts and they kept frustrating them, so that they died without being compensated”?
When I was the Minister for veterans, I made an offer to settle those cases. It was the lawyers representing the nuclear test veterans who rejected that settlement proposal. I feel—I know the current Minister feels this too—that the injustice in this case is not helped by the lawyers representing those veterans.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Coming from a mining area, he knows as well as I do how much the lawyers frustrated justice for our miners too. I say this to the lawyers: if the Government have made an offer that is fair and acceptable to the veterans, they should accept it.
I am grateful to hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. May I suggest that he says that to the lawyers in terms—not just in the House of Commons, as it is well known that anyone who wants to keep a secret should reveal it on the Floor of the House, but in the “Risca Herald”, or whatever it is called, and that he also talks to a firm called Rosenblatt?
I agree, and I have said it before. I digress from the debate, but the miners’ compensation scheme was a wonderful scheme, yet it was frustrated by the claims farmers and other bloodsuckers who came along and tried to make money out of it. I think I have the support of the whole House in saying that. However, we have an opportunity to give those veterans justice. The Government need to stand up to the lawyers, and we need to do something about them.
When we discuss veterans, we often hear people in this House talking about “the forces family”. When I hear such phrases, I hope that they are not marketing speak or—dare I, a Labour Member, say it?—spin. I hope that they mean something. A member of a family is cared about regardless of what they do in their life; they know that help is available to them. Yet I hear all the time about veterans who leave the forces and receive no help, and in 2005, the Royal British Legion produced a report that stated that 6% of those leaving the forces had welfare issues and nowhere to go. I want the Government to do more.
It is easy, especially at this time of the year, to think of veterans as the old folk who walk in remembrance of their fallen comrades, but a veteran can be anyone—a 21-year-old or a 60-year-old—and we must do all we can to honour them. It is time for the Government to honour them properly, and that means creating a department for veterans. In the United States, George H. W. Bush said:
“There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America.”
That is what we should have in this country: the voice of veterans right next to the Prime Minister. At the moment, the Minister for veterans also has responsibility for forces education and accommodation. When my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was the Minister, I think that he was even in charge of the weather. My predecessor as MP for Islwyn was also a veterans Minister, and he always said that, in the year that he was Minister for veterans and in charge of the weather, the sun always shone and we had the sunniest summer on record. I do not know how true that is.
Veterans need a voice to stand up for them. We have a wonderful organisation in Veterans-UK, but people do not know about it. Its name should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, just as those of the BBC and many other organisations are. More should be done to advertise it, so that when people leave the forces, they know that there is an organisation that can help them.
I really should not say this, but I am going to give the Government a bit of advice. If they really want to be popular and if they really want to see their poll ratings go up, there is one thing that the Minister could do, right here, right now. He could make veterans day, on 27 June, a bank holiday. In that way, everyone could celebrate, just as they did during the royal wedding. They could celebrate veterans by holding street parties to thank them for all that they have done. That is the least we can do.
We ask our servicemen and women to do a job that most of us have no idea about. We are not asking them to join Barclays bank, or Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s, to do a job of work from nine to five. We are asking them to make the ultimate sacrifice. It is therefore right that, on Sunday, and tomorrow during the two-minute silence, we stand together to thank them and celebrate them. Let us do that in the summer as well; let us put a smile on everyone’s face for once. That is the least the Government can do.
I am delighted to inform the House that this year’s Remembrance Sunday “Songs of Praise” will come from the garrison town of Colchester. It will be broadcast on BBC1 at 5.25 pm on Sunday. Tomorrow, we will have the two-minute silence, and on Saturday there will be the festival of remembrance in the Royal Albert hall. There is also the field of poppies next to Westminster Abbey. On Sunday, in cities, towns, suburbs, villages and hamlets the length and breadth of the country, we will remember those who have fallen in the two world wars and in other conflicts over time.
This time last year, 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is based in the Colchester garrison, was in Helmand province on its fourth deployment to Afghanistan. I had the great honour to visit it at Camp Bastion in March this year. Along with many other Members, I was also able to welcome representatives of 16 Air Assault Brigade when they came to the Houses of Parliament on their return. There was a huge welcome home parade, as we would expect, in the centre of Colchester where many thousands of residents came out to say, “Thank you, and welcome home.” There was then a most moving service of thanksgiving and commemoration at Bury St Edmunds cathedral. The most dramatic moment in this moving service was, for me, a song from a choir of Fijian men and women who serve in 16 Air Assault Brigade—evidence of how our armed forces have thousands of young people from the various countries of the Commonwealth serving with us.
I have already referred to family housing, and it is my hope that the Defence Committee, to which I have recently been appointed, will hold an inquiry into all aspects of service housing. At my advice bureau on Saturday, the wife of a serving soldier shortly to be deployed elsewhere told me how the state of her house, an Army house, is an utter disgrace, and that her infant child is crawling over mouldy carpets. On the education side, I am delighted as a Liberal Democrat to say that the pupil premium has been a real plus for the children of our military personnel who are serving our country.
This is a debate on military personnel. When we were in opposition, we complained to the Government of the day that our armed forces were overstretched and under-strength. Clearly, that situation has not altered. In fact, it is going to get worse. I asked the Library for comparative figures on the size of the Army and Navy in 1911 and 2011. I was informed that in 1911 the Royal Navy had 106,245 serving members, while today it is 35,430 and falling. The size of the Army in 1911 was 168,239, while today it is 101,300 and falling.
I am not necessarily a great fan of the Daily Mail, but on Thursday last week Steven Glover wrote an article with the headline, “I simply fail to understand how a Tory-led Government can’t muster a single warship to protect this nation’s shores”. He said:
“When you go to sleep at night you may imagine that somewhere out there in British waters there will be one or more warships flying the flag, and keeping an eye on possible dangers to our national security. Indeed, there usually is and has been for as long as anyone can remember. And yet since the beginning of October there hasn’t been a single British frigate or destroyer fulfilling this task. The Royal Navy, once the mightiest in the world, could not muster even one vessel to protect our shores.”
The article goes on at great length, but let me read out just one small further excerpt:
“The truth is, that the Government has so reduced Britain’s naval and military resources that we can no longer play the part of even a minor world power.”
Let none of that detract from our pride in the professionalism of our serving members.
I feel obliged to intervene because it really is misleading to use a bit of the Daily Mail to pursue an argument in that way. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman used it, he clearly believed it and tried to make a point with it. What it shows, dare I say it, is a level of ignorance in his understanding of how the British Isles is defended. We have the Tyne-class sea patrol vessels, which do a fantastic job. There is also the point that if we were to surround Britain with warships, we would still not be able to cover much mileage. We cover our sea and air space with aeroplanes, which do a fantastic job. I hope the hon. Gentleman will consider that.
I am obviously grateful for that informed observation. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have ensured that that has been conveyed to the Daily Mail and Mr Glover in particular so that the record can be put straight.
All Members can take pride in the armed forces covenant. We should be thinking not just of current members of the armed forces, but of those who have served in the past and their families. In that context, I remind the Minister that the Equality for Veterans Association is calling for pensions for all who have served in the forces, and has presented a petition to No. 10 Downing street.
I also think that we should link armed forces day, for which the last Government can rightly claim credit, with the armed forces community covenant and with the need for an armed forces service medal, which I mentioned earlier.
I was not aware of that. All I am saying is that a campaign has been organised by people who are seeking recognition.
Let me say something about the work of the independent medical expert group and “The Review of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme—One Year On”, which refers specifically to the issue of noise-induced hearing loss. Earlier this afternoon, I had a brief meeting with representatives of the charity Action on Hearing Loss, formerly the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. They told me that the United Kingdom’s compensation scheme involved a high threshold, and that in the United States personnel with a level of hearing loss half that required in the UK were entitled to compensation. I sincerely hope that that will be addressed in the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the armed forces covenant.
I should like the Minister at some stage to make a statement to the House on the future of the Ministry of Defence police. The last Government slashed the size of the MOD force in Colchester from 30 officers to three. That has had a significant effect on the policing of the Army estate, because the burden has fallen on the Essex constabulary, who do not have 27 officers to pick up the slack.
As for anniversaries and special events, reference has been made to the need for us to prepare for a commemoration, in 2014, of the start of the great war. I hope that we can begin preparations for another commemoration the following year, that of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. I am sure that—in a spirit of European unity—the French, who joined in our commemoration of the start of the great war, will also join us in commemorating the Waterloo anniversary in 2015.
We have all been shocked in recent weeks and months by the theft of war memorials listing wartime events and the names of those who have died. I cannot come to terms with how anyone could steal such a thing, but they would also have to sell it to someone, and there must be dealers out there who know full well that a memorial of that kind must come from a dodgy source. I think that Government and Opposition should come together to produce legislation preventing people from dealing in that sort of scrap metal, because metal dealers must know that a bronze plaque marked “1914” and listing names and ranks has been stolen.
The issue of the chief coroner has been discussed. It is my understanding that the MOD believes that there should be more specially trained coroners so that the military get a bespoke service by having multiple coroners. It is thought that that would be a better deal. I hope that we can work together on this issue.
I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, on its 90th anniversary, for all it has done, and to all the other veterans groups for all they do. I also pay tribute to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity—formerly the Army Benevolent Fund—the War Widows Association, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, Veterans Aid, Combat Stress and Help for Heroes. Without them, the lot of our current and past military personnel would be much poorer. Let me finally say that it is a special pleasure to represent a garrison town.
I thank those Members who were responsible for securing this debate and, in particular, the Prime Minister.
It appears to me that more poppies have been worn this year than in previous years, and I find that heartening. That is certainly not down to “The X Factor” and the sparkly bright poppies that are worn by those who appear on television, but more young people are wearing poppies and it does my heart good to see that. Reference was made earlier to the Royal British Legion and there being, perhaps, an age barrier. It might have been the case that young people did not respond very much to past conflicts such as the first and second world wars and Aden, but the young people of today clearly do relate to the Royal British Legion. Those who are serving in Afghanistan and have served in Iraq recently are of their age group.
I can only imagine how good it must be for those who have family members serving, or those who have served themselves, to see younger and older people alike wearing the poppy with pride. That is a show of support for the services, and it signals that at this time of year the nation remembers those who have served their country and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
I recently had the privilege of attending a coffee morning in a local town hall to raise funds for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. That event is held annually and it is a practical expression of support for the troops. By holding it, the people of Ards and Strangford have contributed more than £10,000. Everyone who entered the hall and donated, and had their coffee or tea and sticky bun—they were all home-made, I understand—did so for the same reason: to show support and express thanks to the troops. The window of the local wool shop in Newtownards carries an advertisement telling people that the store will contribute free wool to knit hats for our serving troops, and that it will send them out to them, too. Hundreds have already been knitted and sent out. In all our local shopping centres there are dedicated Royal British Legion personnel standing at poppy stalls. I see that the vast majority of people in the town are supportive of our troops, and I now have an opportunity to speak for them in Parliament.
The latest figures show that Army recruitment is up across the board in Northern Ireland. That is noteworthy. In these times of economic uncertainty, people are having to look outside their normal comfort zone to find work, and it appears that the Army is filling a gap. There has been a rise in recruitment everywhere but particularly in what would have been nationalist areas. That speaks volumes about how members of the younger generation see themselves today.
When Newtownards celebrated the homecoming of the Irish Guards recently, one soldier remarked that the troops had been told that they could not parade through the streets of Belfast. They were bemused by that as many would have been returning to their home town. I was told that religion was not an issue between the troops, and I knew that would be the case anyway. When people put on the British uniform and serve in the British Army, they are our brothers—or sisters—full stop.
As these soldiers marched, there was a real buzz about the town, with thousands of people lining the streets to say thanks and to cheer on those who are out there fighting for Queen and country. For many of those involved it was a homecoming as they come from Ards. The Ards and the Strangford area has the largest Irish Guards association in the whole of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom. One’s heart could not fail to be touched by the mothers who were crying and smiling at the same time. It is not impossible to do that, as I very clearly witnessed. Among the familiar faces that we all saw, I also met some young men who had been injured on the battlefields in Afghanistan. Despite Northern Ireland having a population of only 1.8 million, 20% of all serving personnel—soldiers and those in the Air Force or the Royal Navy—hail from my own beautiful Northern Ireland. We have every right to be proud.
The service at St Mark’s before the parade was poignant and touching, as we sat with the soldiers and heard them pray for each other. They also prayed for the Afghans that they had met. The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) mentioned the special qualities of the British soldier and they are just that. The British soldier does his job in uniform and he very clearly does his job afterwards as well.
In January I had the privilege of meeting members of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment in Nad Ali, where I witnessed them starting the new initiative of local policing. The reason they could do that was because of the very qualities that the hon. Gentleman talks about. They could speak to the local people about their agricultural development in a way that they could relate to, and they were doing fantastic work in terms of not only security, but of building consent for a new Afghanistan.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He gave me his card and he said, “You can speak in English or in Welsh.” As an Ulster Scot, I choose English. I was not sure about the other bit, because I would probably have got it wrong.
The number of people lining the street from St Mark’s through the town was incredible, and the streets were glowing with pride as crisp Union flags flew from every shop and every house, and were in the hands of many of the people who were there. There was a sense of pride and honour, which permeated through gender, age and religious barriers. All were united when they considered our troops and what they had done, and thanked them for it. That raises the question that we have the opportunity to speak about today: how can this House be more supportive?
As we come to Remembrance Sunday, we have a timely reminder of the sacrifices that allow us to stand in this Chamber and debate any topic—we are here because of what has happened before. My childhood favourite, Winston Churchill, stood in this House debating the merits of war and the need for war in eloquent fashion on numerous occasions, as the history books show. I do not do that today; today, I stand for our troops and say, “Recruit them, train them, equip them, feed them, speak with them, help them and support them.” For me, and I believe for everyone in this House, “We will remember them” is not a phrase but a promise.
We have had the opportunity to go to Afghanistan on a number of occasions through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, of which the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney is a member, as indeed are other Members here today. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), the Secretary of State for Scotland and Lord Maginnis were part of the group that went out there in March. Our troops need help on the battlefield, and we were much impressed by Camp Bastion and the medical facilities that were available. People there say, “If you ever get injured, make sure it is in Afghanistan and close to Camp Bastion, because you would not get the same medical help if you were involved in a traffic accident back home.” That is what we were seeing. On that occasion, two helicopters arrived—this was not planned, it was just the way things happened—with some American casualties and we witnessed at first hand the injured being taken into the medical centre and saw clearly the good work that is being done. I commend the staff for that.
The shadow Minister said that wherever we go in the world there will always be a soldier from Merthyr Tydfil. Wherever we go in the world there will always be a soldier from Strangford too. I say that because when I was in Afghanistan I had the opportunity to meet a young lady in the military police whose father I had helped with a planning application and whose mother I had helped with other issues. I also met a sergeant-major in the Irish Guards, who was from outside my constituency but whose uncle and aunt were personal friends of mine. I also had a seat at the Royal Irish barbecue there—for the record, it was a dry barbecue in Afghanistan, as there is no drink there. It was the first time that I can recall being with an Irish regiment at a barbecue where it was all water and lemonade. I sat across the table from a young guy who said, “Jim, it’s nice to see you here. I voted for you.” A guy in Afghanistan is able to tell me that he voted for me. I said, “That’s the reason I’m your MP—because you voted for me.” The service personnel asked me as a parliamentarian, and I believe they have asked every Member of Parliament, to be their spokesperson in the House, and I want to speak for them.
I also had the chance to be on a five-day exercise with the 1st Mercian Regiment in Catterick in north Yorkshire, which gave me the opportunity to speak to the troops and hear what they wanted. They are looking for security of their pensions and for continuity of service. They want the uncertainty of where they are posted to be sorted out quickly. They are looking for their housing issues to be resolved, for confirmation of their jobs and training, and for contact with their family. The Minister spoke earlier about wi-fi and the phone system. We witnessed that clearly in Afghanistan. The voice down the phone was their wife, their mum, their dad or their family and friends, and we noticed how important that was for the troops. We also witnessed the fact that they need a great deal of support.
The troops mentioned an issue which I hope the Minister will address in his closing remarks. They told us that they get 14 days leave, and sometimes on their way home they may find that they have to spend two days sitting in Cyprus, for example. That is two days lost out of their 14 days.
We have now ensured that if service personnel lose some of their 14 days’ rest and recuperation on their journey because of problems with the air bridge, the weather or whatever the reason may be, those days are added to their leave at the end of their tour. That gives people extra leave without disrupting the operation.
I thank the Minister for that positive response, which will take care of some of the concerns that were expressed to us when we were in Afghanistan and by other soldiers.
I commend the Minister and the MOD for the work they do for those who are injured, who experience life-changing events, who are emotionally or mentally traumatised, or who have to come to terms with the loss of limbs. I met two such soldiers with the 1st Mercians some time ago, and I have to say that the work done within the MOD was tremendous. The improvement was clearly visible, and the work continues afterwards. One may see the physical changes resulting from the injuries that have taken place, but one does not always see what is happening inside. That is what concerns me.
In conclusion, we send our service people out and ask them to do and to see things that most of us here would not have the stomach or the understanding to see or do. What do we need to give them in return? I believe the unanimous voice from the House will be that we need to give them support. We must support them, and I appreciate the motion being brought before the House. We need to do more than consider our armed forces personnel, as the motion says, but I believe it goes further than that. A commitment has been given, and I believe everyone will support the motion, as I certainly will.
Armed forces personnel issues are very close to my heart. My daughter serves as a Royal Navy officer and I grew up in my constituency with the knowledge of the importance of HMS Raleigh. I have heard first hand the concerns of Royal Navy personnel throughout that time, but I have recently learned of issues that concern me and I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to provide me with some answers today.
One area where civilians frequently come into contact with our armed forces personnel is search and rescue. According to a Library paper of 22 February this year on the search and rescue service, the RAF has 16 Sea King mark 3 or 3A helicopters in service, with 272 personnel currently employed in roles directly related to search and rescue activities, and that the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm has nine Sea King mark 5 helicopters, with 81 similarly employed personnel. That means that the average number of service personnel for every search and rescue helicopter is 17 for the RAF, but nine—almost half—for the Royal Navy. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister explain this difference between the two services?
The figures seem to suggest that some services are already more efficient than others and, therefore, that there is less fat to cut. A parliamentary written answer on armed forces deployment confirmed:
“Each service operates different harmony guidelines. Royal Navy personnel should not exceed 660 days deployed in 36 months, the Army 415 days in 30 months, and the RAF 280 days detached in 24 months.” —[Official Report, 14 December 2009; Vol. 502, c. 820W.]
Those figures equate to a diverse average deployment length across the three services. The separated service figures show that the term “overstretched” means three different things to the three services. Coupled with the reputed average deployment length, the Army deploys for around six months at a time, the RAF rarely deploys for longer than three months and the Royal Navy deploys for around six to nine months. This suggests that the deployment burden on certain sections of the three services is higher than others.
As a result of the differences in separated service, the frequency of deployment also varies between services. A Royal Navy warfare or engineering rating, or a warfare officer, can expect to deploy repeatedly year on year. I know of one warfare officer—not my daughter—who has deployed for seven to eight months in each year from 2008 to 2011. This deployment burden should be taken into account when demanding redundancies, as any squeeze that increases the burden further could have consequences for manning those key positions.
Finally, I want to address the redundancies. Royal Navy personnel were informed of the outcome of the redundancy selection boards on 30 September this year, almost a month after the RAF and Army announcements on 1 September, placing all Royal Navy personnel at a disadvantage. It meant that they were the last to register in the career transition partnership, which will be working at maximum capacity anyway to manage the surge in service personnel taking redundancy. I understand that the delay allowed financial resources to be drawn from two financial years.
The disadvantage was confirmed in a letter I received from my constituent, Mr Spencer. He wrote to me about the recently announced redundancy tranche implemented by the Royal Navy. His stepson is a serving Logistician Steward and has been given 12 months’ notice of redundancy. He was informed at the end of September and it is now proving extremely hard to place him on any meaningful course to prepare for civilian life. Most college apprenticeships and other vocational courses start at the beginning of the autumn term, in September, and he is finding that the best training courses are fully subscribed until the end of the summer term 2012. Mr Spencer feels that little thought appears to have been given to this by the MOD, and I believe that it has done Royal Navy personnel a major injustice by badly timing the date on which individuals were informed. His stepson also approached the local armed forces careers office in Plymouth to inquire about entering the RAF as a regiment gunner or the Royal Navy to pursue a career as a Royal Marine. Both branches are recruiting new entrants, but he was told that he will not be able to apply to join either service for 18 months from the date on which he was informed of his redundancy.
Mr Spencer feels that that rule is rather narrow-minded, and the armed forces careers office was unable to give him the reasons for it. He points out that his stepson is fully trained in weapons handling and first aid, has the other basic military skills that one would expect of him and presents a low training risk. More importantly, he loves life in the forces, and, although he accepts the reasons for his redundancy, he considers it ridiculous that he is not able to apply for other branches of the armed forces when they are actively recruiting. Perhaps the Minister, when he sums up, will provide me with some answers to those questions.
I should like to put on the record my admiration for our armed forces and, of course, for the service of our veterans. We have the best armed forces in the world, and with Remembrance weekend coming up, when I shall attend two parades, in Runcorn and in Widnes, I put on record my appreciation of the Royal British Legion, and its work not just to raise millions upon millions of pounds through the poppy appeal, but to support throughout the year, every day, our armed forces, their families and veterans. Halton British Legion, in particular, does an excellent job locally through its support for service personnel, their families and veterans.
There are many organisations, however, that do not receive the same recognition as the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, but organisations such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association and Combat Stress are very important. The regimental associations also do a tremendous amount of work to support serving personnel, their families and veterans—particularly at this difficult time.
I work closely and have a close association with the Irish Guards, which do a great job of supporting families, service personnel and veterans, and I shall attend their service on Saturday evening. I have a close association, too, with the South Atlantic Medal Association 1982, which represents those who fought in the Falklands and also does an excellent job.
On Sunday morning, I shall be at a parade in Widnes, standing opposite the war memorial where I will be able to see the name of my great uncle, who died in 1917 from his wounds. My grandfather also fought in that conflict, and he was awarded the military medal for his outstanding bravery as a stretcher bearer and was, himself, wounded.
I make that point, because I was most honoured to be made the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence and also veterans Minister. One thing that drove me to do my very best in that job was the fact that my grandfather, like many of his comrades, died in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave. That was a common experience, and he did not get the support that he should have received, or that he was promised by people such as Lloyd George.
Today, with the support that is available through the MOD, the Veterans Agency and the many service charities and voluntary organisations, I do not believe that anyone should be in that position. They can and should get help, but we know that people slip through the net, and it is important that we do as much as possible to—I hate this word—signpost or make available information not only for our serving personnel and their families but for our veterans, so that they can get help and support when they need it. There is lots of it out there now.
The previous Government did a lot to improve services for veterans, and for our armed forces personnel in terms of medical support, treatment and rehabilitation. Not enough was done, but some improvement was made to housing, and that was crucial. As a Minister I saw some of the housing, and I was quite appalled by it, so more needed to be done.
On mental health, the previous Government also took up a number of initiatives, and they were important in dealing with the issue, which had not been dealt with properly before, so I was very pleased that that work took place. Many good things happened, but we must always look to make improvements, so it is important that we continue to press the Government to make those improvements.
I would like to make a point about the National Memorial Arboretum. I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed that there will be no cuts to its funding. It is a tremendous memorial to the sacrifices of our armed forces’ personnel and anyone who has not been there should make sure that they go because it is truly stunning. Just a few weeks ago, I was there with veterans of the Greek campaign in the second world war. They have not received the recognition they deserve for that campaign. In Crete, we nearly inflicted the first proper defeat on the Germans—it was a very close run thing.
What concerns me is that a lot of negative things are being said about the Greeks as a result of the current economic crisis. We should not forget that the Greeks defeated a larger, better equipped Italian army and suffered as much as anyone under Nazi rule. In Crete, it was a Greek regiment that allowed many of our Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen to get away and be evacuated. We should remember the sacrifices and help of the Greeks in the second world war. They fought with us in 1941, and it is important we give due recognition to that.
I am aware we have limited time, so I shall just make a couple more quick points. I do not support the Government’s cuts; I am against them. We need armed forces that can be deployed anywhere in the world in our national interest for whatever reason. That will not happen under the Government’s current strategy and with the cuts that are taking place. We should have strong armed forces across the piece—Navy, Air Force and Army—and there should be support for them.
I also do not agree with the policy of giving a date for when we pull out of Afghanistan. I cannot recall an historical equivalent when we have said to the enemy in the middle of a battle, “We’re telling you when we’re leaving the battlefield.” However, that is what has happened. We must recognise the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces, and the improvements they have brought about in Afghanistan. We should not be leaving Afghanistan until we are absolutely sure we have done the job properly. We should support the Afghan people and not leave them, possibly in the future clutches of the Taliban should they return. I am opposed to the cuts that are being made by the Government and supportive of ensuring that we have strong armed forces.
In conclusion, as I said, I am privileged and honoured to have been a Minister in the MOD and to have seen first hand on visits to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere the amazing work our armed forces do. They deserve to be supported by all parliamentarians, and I will continue to do all I can while I am a Member of Parliament to do so.
It is an honour to participate in this debate. I begin as others have done by declaring an interest as a member of the Territorial Army and by paying tribute to the brave and dedicated professional troops we send into harm’s way. It is appropriate to have this debate the day before Remembrance day. I wish the best to my old regiment, 5th Battalion The Rifles, which is now deployed in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 15. It is commanded by Colonel Tom Copinger-Symes and is now based in Nar-e Saraj as part of 20th Armoured Brigade led by Brigadier Patrick Sanders.
I congratulate the ministerial team on the work it has completed in just over 15 months. My goodness, what a situation it inherited: the finances were in a state and there was an absence of Whitehall leadership and interest in the MOD, and a lack of clarity in strategy. We have heard today the usual sounds from Labour. They have complained about the contents of the strategic defence and security review but, of course, they did not have one for more than a decade. Earlier today they quibbled about the detail of the armed forces covenant, but they failed to provide any form of legislation in 13 years in office. They talk about the morale of the armed forces, yet they led us into two very complicated campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan without a coherent post-conflict plan.
What has changed? First, the SDSR has provided clarity and strategy. The costly procurement overruns are now under control, thanks to the new major projects review board. The long overdue restructuring of all three services has now taken place, and today we have had the first announcement on the troops returning from Germany. Our defence export programme has expanded. Very importantly, the injustice done to the pilots killed in the Mull of Kintyre tragedy and their families has been reversed.
Specifically for armed forces personnel, we have doubled the operational allowance, we have provided more than £60 million for upgrading accommodation, council tax relief has been increased by 50%, and—this is very important and welcome to the armed forces—university and further education scholarships have been created to assist the children of service personnel killed on active duty. I think that Main Building is starting to look, feel and operate like a modern, professional and effective organisation, and I am grateful to the ministerial team for achieving that.
Let me turn to Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) served diligently as a Minister in the Department, and my comments are not directed at him because I know that he was very passionate about the armed forces and continues to be so. He raised concerns about cutting costs while we are still involved in a campaign and said that we should be doing the job properly. I would suggest that we did not send our troops into that campaign properly, and that we are now testing the nation with the length of time that we have been engaged in it—more than a decade. Although we can be proud of what is being achieved in Helmand, we do not work in isolation and it has taken us a long time to get Helmand right. A series of brigadiers were going out there, one after another, redefining and reinventing the wheel of what they should be doing.
I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. That is not the way that we should be using our armed forces personnel—sending them into danger. There was a lack of clarity in that mission, as well as mission creep, and there was no strategy.
I visit Afghanistan and Helmand province regularly, as do other hon. Members, and I have got the message that there was almost a conspiracy of optimism—telling us what we wanted to hear. I am afraid that that comes down to the level of interest, direction and clarity from Whitehall. It is all very well for our armed forces to do an incredible job in creating an umbrella of security, but we have to be concerned about what happens underneath it.
There are two aspects to counter-insurgency: working on economic development and reconstruction and on governance. Neither of those things happened while our service personnel were in Helmand, and in that vacuum they have had to do that job themselves. Our platoon commanders have been going into villages and townships, setting up jirgas with the elders and trying to get local and district governance working. That is way beyond what a platoon commander is instructed or taught how to do at Sandhurst.
It has taken a long time for the Department for International Development to recognise its role in providing support for governance and reconstruction and development—getting roads built so that the locals can use them and we win over hearts and minds. I am pleased to say that the culture in DFID has changed completely. That is not only because of what happened in the latter years of the previous Government but because of the leadership of the new Secretary of State for International Development.
If we are to task our service personnel with going into these places, there must be a coherent plan—a strategy. We must bear in mind what we do with our armed forces these days. It is not simply about kinetic war fighting. When there is a foot and mouth outbreak here in the UK, it is the Army we lean on. When the fire brigade goes on strike, it is those personnel who drive the Green Goddesses or the fire engines. If there is an earthquake in Haiti, that is not about war fighting—it is very much about support and humanitarian work—but it is the military we lean on. The skill sets that our service personnel now require are quite varied, and we must bear that in mind.
I have three observations to make about that. First, the versatility that we now expect from our armed forces is quite staggering and very different from years gone by. Secondly, given that we must now conduct operations that are not limited to the armed forces alone, we need to think about more interoperability with other agencies and Government Departments. Thirdly, we must focus a little more on strategy—on educating our officers and soldiers about these aspects.
General Charles Krulak wrote about the “three block war”, in which soldiers in an operation move from war fighting to peacekeeping and then to nation building. Nation building requires an understanding of how the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and the Department for International Development operate. Those are skill sets that we need to expand on. At the moment, we are just touching on those areas and there is work to be done.
On interoperability, I believe that winning the war fighting is only half the battle. We should remember President Bush standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003 and saying, “Mission accomplished,” in reference to Iraq. How many years later did we actually get some peace there? We need to think about post-conflict operations and planning. We need to arm our service personnel with the skill sets they need to achieve that and to work with other organisations.
My final point is about improving strategy. We used to be very good at that. I ask the Minister, how can we hang on to knowledge after a conflict? How can we keep an open mind in dealing with the latest conflict and not use the strategy, tactics and doctrine from the last conflict, which might be out of date? How can we better prepare for the next conflict, wherever that might be? There are various ways in which we could do that. I would like to see an improvement in the role of the defence attaché. At the moment, they are like the major character in “Fawlty Towers”. They get sent to various embassies as passed-over senior officers to see out the end of their careers, but the role of the defence attaché is pivotal in establishing upstream relationships, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) mentioned. Those skill sets are worth developing.
How can we select our brightest and best, which is not necessarily the same as the most academic, to develop those strategy skills sets? How can we nurture the next Alan Brooke, Ismay, Parker, Guthrie or Richards? These are things that we need to get good at. We used to be good at them and we can excel at them again and offer those skills within NATO. It is not just about reading Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, which all military personnel do as they grow up. It is no coincidence that the word for general in Greek is strategos. Strategy is something that we need to work at.
I will end where I began in my first intervention: on the damage that there has been to war memorials. I pay tribute to those who have served and who continue to serve in our armed forces. I hope that those thugs who choose to rob the very memorials around which we will gather tomorrow realise what an insult they mete out to those, past and present, who have given so much to our country.
Bearing in mind your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall tailor my remarks and speed of delivery accordingly.
It is always a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). It is also a great challenge to follow such eloquent Members as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and the ever-eloquent hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who is not in his place. He is truly the heir to Aneurin Bevan—at least I am sure that is what his memoirs will say.
First, may I put on the record my admiration for the work of my local battalion? The Staffords, the 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, have just returned from Afghanistan after a 10-month tour of duty. They will be proudly marching through Tamworth on 29 November and I, for one, will be there to welcome them, to honour them and to remember Private Gareth Bellingham, who unfortunately lost his life during the tour.
Because I appreciate that time is brief, I will simply focus on the message that I heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) and the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) about service housing. There is an old joke that soldiers like to grumble, but it is no joke that on the very day when the Government took office, 36% of those living in services accommodation said that they felt it to be inadequate. The biggest complaint that I hear from serving soldiers in my surgery and from friends and relatives who are serving is about services accommodation. I hope that when the Minister examines the Strachan report, and when we debate it, he will consider closely the recommendations about housing.
I was very pleased and honoured to serve on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, and then on the Public Bill Committee. I believe that enshrining the military covenant in law is a huge leap forward, but I would like the Minister to focus on housing. I do not want to repeat and reheat what others have already said, but I wish him to consider three things in particular.
First, will the Minister consider enhanced accommodation allowances for our service personnel? Secondly, will he consider developing the shared equity scheme that the previous Government piloted? Thirdly—this one will cost him nothing—will he encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to sit down with banks and encourage them to offer forces-friendly and flexible mortgages, to help our servicemen and women? They need a stable, fixed address and the opportunity to put their feet on the property ladder. If they can do that, it will help us to reduce the £285 million a year bill on the 50,000 units of service family accommodation, which often needs to be upgraded. These people have put their lives on the line for us abroad. The very least we can do is offer them the opportunity of having a good home at home.
I begin by acknowledging, as many others have, the welcome and historic breakthrough of enshrining the armed forces covenant in law. However, as the Prime Minister himself has said, the challenge is to make the Government live up to the obligations in it in reality. It is critical that we bring the aspirations that we all have for the covenant together with the realities that we are faced with in trying to deliver it.
The awful reality is that members of the armed forces and their families may have to face death or injury while they are serving. If the worst happens, it is extremely important to ensure that the right processes are in place and to make certain that the wishes of those who have been killed or wounded are carried out. I wish to focus my few remarks on that.
All armed forces personnel are advised in pre-deployment briefings to make a will. A form, MOD 106, is provided for the purpose. Unfortunately, no advice is given on making the will, nor is there any compulsion to do so. Little information is given to those serving on the risk of mental incapacity following a tour of duty, or on the fact that if there are such complications, the management of financial affairs will not be sufficiently dealt with by a will. In reality, members of the armed forces would need to have a legal power of attorney document to be used in those circumstances, but it must be registered before the mental incapacity happens to make it valid for use when an injury occurs.
Many complicating factors conspire to mean that in many cases, our service personnel may not be properly legally protected in such situations. First, there is a cultural battle. Many young men and women who want to serve are less likely to make a will, because they feel invincible before a tour of duty after undergoing sustained training, or sometimes because they do not want to tempt fate. Secondly, a will speaks only from death. Many personnel are under the misconception that a will covers all eventualities, including mental injury, but it will not. That means that there is a real need to deal with the legal power of attorney option properly.
The consequence of not having a legal power of attorney document can be far-reaching and cause enormous problems for those left behind. I have been made aware of the case of a young man who tragically lost his life. He had made a will, but did not have legal power of attorney in place in the right way, which caused some difficulties. The will was also out of date, which meant that the benefits did not go the people he intended them to. Similarly, another person was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, and his will did not work as he wished. The outcome was that it did not accurately reflect his updated wishes, which caused major complications for his family.
As we know, more people who serve in the armed forces are surviving terrible injuries that they would not have survived 10 years ago. Some are unable to manage their affairs when they have recovered from physical injuries, which means that someone must do so on their behalf. An LPA would solve a lot of problems in such cases. It is true that an LPA pack can be downloaded from the Office of the Public Guardian, but it costs £130 to register the LPA when all the forms are completed. That will seem like a lot of money to service personnel, many of whom are young people who might believe that nothing will happen to them—an LPA is probably the last thing they want to spend their money on. Defence instructions mention that document, but I am given to understand that they lack detail and contain errors.
If no LPA is in place, a deputyship must be applied for on behalf of the injured service person, which can be extremely expensive, as can the ongoing maintenance costs of a professional deputyship. I am aware of one case of a deputyship costing about £60,000 per annum to service. Solicitors who manage compensation claims will choose to instruct a professional deputy when a lay deputy is perfectly viable, which drives up the costs that take away from compensation schemes—they will have to borne by the MOD.
I see this as a specific covenant issue: if we are prepared to send young people off to fight and possibly die or be gravely injured for their country, and if we invest so heavily in the correct equipment and training for them while they are on operations, we must also have a duty of care to ensure that their affairs are in the order that they would wish them to be in if they are injured or killed. We have concentrated on equally important matters until now, but this issue needs to be looked at again in more detail as part of the pastoral care package that is offered to service personnel.
I am not seeking to embarrass the MOD or the Minister—this is a constructive suggestion on which I have worked with hon. Members on both sides of the House—but the Mental Capacity Act 2005 made this issue real, which is why it needs further examination. What should be done? I would like all those on deployment, and ideally all service personnel, to have an up-to-date will and LPA in place. It would be best to have a will pre-enrolment, but personnel should certainly have one pre-deployment.
I have also had meetings with a group who have a proposal for an organisation called the services trust—I met the group earlier this week. They would like to assist the MOD and serving personnel with information on some of the gaps to which I have drawn the House’s attention. The group could also help with processing LPAs and could act as deputies if necessary.
It would be useful to train admin officers to give relevant information on the consequences of not writing a will or of having no LPA. In fact, the Office of the Public Guardian held a consultation on what groups of people should be exempted from the £130 LPA fee, but it did not include the MOD. That unnecessary oversight needs to be corrected.
It should be feasible to spread the cost of an LPA over a number of months and to take it from the wage packets of personnel at source. That is done for a variety of costs, and it would be a simple matter to add it to the joint personnel administration system. Payments could even be taken out with payments for the armed forces insurance scheme.
To return to where I began, the Government have made a commitment to the welfare of the armed forces by enshrining the covenant in law. It is essential that that commitment is extended to ensure that not only their financial and operational needs are met, but their legal needs. I respectfully ask the Minister to give an indication of whether he is prepared to meet me and other hon. Members, and representatives behind the services trust proposal, to establish what can be done to address that proven need in our armed forces.
I declare an interest as a Royal Navy reservist, and I would add, for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is no longer in his seat, that I am a reservist who has to run 1.5 miles in a particular time each week and who, if she does not have an in-date fitness or swim test, is no longer trained, let alone deployed.
I wish to make a few brief points. The first concerns redundancies, particularly Royal Navy redundancies. As the picture becomes clearer, anomalies are emerging, as my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) alluded to. I am concerned about certain ships’ companies that have been particularly hard hit. I understand that as many as 10% of one ship’s company might be made redundant.
I am also concerned about badly hit families. For instance, one person in a couple, both of whom are serving, has volunteered for redundancy and the other has been made redundant. Both will lose their job and, because they are in service accommodation, their home as well. I have been reassured about how the redundancies are being managed, but I would like the Minister to reassure us that, as those things crop up, they will be dealt with.
The second point concerns the military covenant and local government representation. I urge the Minister to work with his colleagues in local government to ensure that, when they consult on local matters, such as planning, traffic-calming measures and so on, they take into account our servicemen and women, who might not be able to go to public meetings and vote on those things. Some straightforward things can be done to ensure that they are properly consulted and included in their community life.
The third point concerns the deployment of reservists. I want to stress to the Minister that, like the regulars, reservists join to be deployed. That is why we join; that is why we train. I urge him to ensure that our reservists get sea time and flying time. It is why they do the job.
I want to make a general point about the need in the House to broaden, as well as deepen, our understanding of the armed forces. I was proud to co-host, with the shadow Secretary of State, the House’s first-ever Trafalgar night a few weeks ago. One of our colleagues, who kindly came along to the event and was keen to help and learn more, approached a Royal Marine and, bravely, asked him what the hell the Army was doing at that event and what it had done at Trafalgar. That incident shows that someone is keen to learn more about our armed forces, but it also shows that there remains much ignorance in the House about what the armed forces do, who they are, the different colour uniforms and so on. I encourage all Members with an interest in defence to ensure that we learn more about our armed forces.
We have heard this afternoon that we have too many admirals and that the admiral-to-ship ratio is not as it should be, but I would really like an admiral to be looking after our nuclear deterrent. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to the fleet-ready escort, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) mentioned other ways in which we protect the UK. I can reassure them that the fleet-ready escort has, is and, I am sure, always will be a standing commitment of the Royal Navy.
Finally, I want to put on the record my thanks to all the armed forces personnel who live and work in Portsmouth. I am optimistic about the future. I smiled when my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East caricatured our defence attachés, but I am sure that our latest appointment as defence attaché to the United States has nothing in common with Basil Fawlty.
Once again, we have had a good debate. Like others, I want to begin by expressing my condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment who was killed in Afghanistan and the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, who was so tragically killed in an accident.
Like others, I want to pay a personal tribute to the men and women of our armed forces and to their families, who are an integral part of what they do. As has been said, this day—the day before Armistice day—and the days before Remembrance Sunday could not be a more appropriate time to have this debate. I am sure that all of us in the Chamber today will take the time tomorrow to observe the two-minute silence and remember all who have paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country, in the many foreign lands where they served, to enable us all to experience the freedoms that are taken so much for granted.
Over the years this Chamber has witnessed many defence debates, in which strong views have been expressed in all parts of the House. However, the one aspect of those debates on which there has been general consensus is the paying of tribute to all who serve our country. That said, it was only natural that we would witness some dividing lines today, especially when so many right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the reductions in the future numbers serving in our armed forces, and when many other elements arising from the debate on the strategic defence and security review have been raised.
In mentioning Remembrance Sunday, I also want to put it on record that the correct decision was reached in allowing the many holders of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal to wear it proudly at the many services being held across the country on Sunday.
Let me turn to the many fine contributions that were made from both sides of the House. I want first to highlight the speech by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who started by talking about turmoil in the Ministry of Defence, redundancies and changes to allowances. He clearly laid out the role of his Committee—a good Select Committee, one that, frankly, does the business. He encouraged us to think about the debate about wearing a poppy. He said that he lays a wreath—let me tell him that he is worthy of laying a wreath—on behalf of his constituents. We all wear our poppies, as a public acknowledgement of that debt, respect and thanks. We wear them with pride in our country and for those who have given their lives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) surprised me somewhat when he talked about canvassing in Kabul. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House would ask themselves, “Does this man have no boundaries at all? Is there no line that he wouldn’t cross?” He talked about the array of skills that people pick up, as he said, by default. It was interesting to hear about the concept that the Americans train warriors, whereas we train soldiers. We know that those we train and whom we put on the front line have additional work to do beyond that. There is a peacekeeping element that we train our military for. My hon. Friend is right, and what I think he wanted to do today was make a plea for more time to debate defence issues. When we look back at the number of debates we have had and what is happening with defence in this country, we see that we need more debates.
There has been a rich variety of contributions today. Let me turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier)—who, with perfect timing, has just appeared, as if by magic. I congratulate him on the part he has played in studying the whole issue of the reserves. He has what I would describe as limitless knowledge of the reservists, as he indicated when comparing them with reserve forces from other nations and how they prepare and perform. He has done a tremendous job. He was also critical of dysfunctional systems, and rightly so.
Another member of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), also contributed to the debate. It was interesting to hear that she spent Remembrance Sunday last year in Poland, and saw the commemoration of many aspects of the Polish resistance. We should never neglect our constituents or the work that we have to do in our constituencies, especially on Armistice day, but we should, if we can, take the opportunity to see how people from other nations view their history and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I was among several Members here tonight who gave up some time the other evening to listen to the RAF presentation team talk about Operation Ellamy, and it was interesting to hear the recognition of the support for and from our NATO allies.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the problems of short notice to deploy, and of families feeling isolated when they are left behind. Help is really important in those circumstances. I do not come from a military family, but I know from talking to my constituents and from contacts in my area that, when people are left alone, perhaps with children, it is more than family help that is required. We must be able to give families further support.
My hon. Friend also expressed disquiet—I will put it no more strongly than that—at the treatment of the Royal British Legion in the light of its struggle over the covenant. At the end of the day, however, I think that we, as a Parliament, got there, and that is what matters more than anything else.
The “forces’ pensioner”, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), was right to say that the covenant must be applied right across the country, and that there must be no differential between one location and another. It must be there for all. I saw him last week in Westminster tube station collecting for the poppy appeal. All credit to him and others who did likewise. When I left London last Thursday morning for Swindon, I saw a Guardsman doing the same on Paddington station. When I returned some eight hours later, he was still there. He was in uniform, and he was attracting people to make a significant financial contribution. It is through such sterling work that people show their support for the poppy appeal.
If that is the case, we should congratulate all those who have made the effort to reach that sum.
The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire also mentioned 2014. We often commemorate wars coming to an end, but he is right to suggest that we should commemorate and reflect on the outbreak of the great war. I fully support his proposal. I must, however, share with the House a certain anxiety, because 2014 is also the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, and I suspect that some people—not necessarily from my party, but from others—might wish to celebrate that as well.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) made a poignant speech in which he clearly impressed on all of us the significance of this weekend. That was not lost on anyone. The hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has had to leave for another engagement but he said that it was important to get manning levels right. We are expected to do just as much as before, but with less, so the manning levels have got to be right. He shared with us his concerns about the reservist figures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) referred to her concern about the chief coroner’s office and the issue of homelessness and resettlement, which a number of Members have raised.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) spoke about the covenant, housing and health care. As to the strategic defence and security review, he made it clear that when it came to redundancies there should not be a cut in the resettlement package.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) referred to the tragedy in her constituency during the second world war. As others emphasised, she too highlighted the need to protect and preserve memorials and I say to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that legislation that might be relevant is already in place—though I stand to be corrected—regarding the handling of stolen goods. The question is how honest those in a position to receive something are going to be about reporting the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow also mentioned the chief coroner’s office and said, basically, “Think again.”
The hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) mentioned the Special Boat Service, his support for the covenant and the importance of overall assistance for families. He also referred to social housing and housing waiting lists. Let me share with the House the fact that one of my registered social landlords has, thankfully within the last two or three weeks, agreed that when people know they are about to leave the forces, he will treat them as having been in tied accommodation and make a serious attempt to house people before they leave the military. That, I think, is the first registered social landlord in the whole of Scotland who is doing this. I hope that good practice like that can be shared with others. People who have served in the military should not find themselves homeless on leaving it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), whose partner is currently serving, talked about the vulnerability of individuals. This was a speech I would have expected from her because of her deep concern about the debt problems that people can face. There are issues there: with the Royal British Legion ending support for people with debt problems, more needs to be done.
I am conscious of the time and want to hear the Minister speak. Let me quickly say that there were good contributions from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who spoke about mental health issues and combat stress, while my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) made loud and clear a plea for the veterans who were victims of nuclear tests.
Incidentally, the Minister pointed out that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was responsible for the weather when he was the Minister, but I have also been assured that he was the Minister for UFOs—but we will not go into that.
The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned military accommodation, as we would expect, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) paid tribute to the Royal British Legion and local support for military personnel. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) raised her concerns about search and rescue and the important matter of the length and frequency of deployment. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) spoke about regimental associations and service charities, and the need for ongoing support for veterans on all fronts.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) was the first to speak about the inheritance with which his Government was left and he also spoke about the strategic defence and security review. Only time will tell how strategic it is, but let us hope that there will be no serious consequences.
The hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) spoke about service housing, which, as he said, is a vitally important subject. I thank the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for allowing me to attend the meeting on the services trust the other day. I sincerely hope that the Minister will take all that on board. The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) made important points about redundancies, and about those who should qualify for the diamond jubilee medal.
I must end my speech there, although there are other issues that I should have liked to raise. We have heard some excellent contributions that gave us plenty of food for thought, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Let me add my condolences to those that have been expressed in relation to all our service personnel who have been killed in Afghanistan. It would have been strange if we had not all shed a tear at some stage for those who have come back from that country in coffins. Let me also mention, in particular, the Red Arrows pilot who was killed in a tragic accident earlier this week.
This is a fitting day for our debate, and, just in case anyone thought that the timing was a coincidence, let me make it clear that it was not. Over the next few days, ceremonies will take place and wreaths will be laid throughout the nation to commemorate local sacrifices and local heroes. I am sure that every Member in the Chamber will be taking part in them. In Afghanistan, services will be held to remember not only the many who have given their lives in past, but friends and colleagues whose memory is very fresh and very real.
Several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), mentioned the appalling desecration of war memorials. One can hardly believe that it takes place, and it reflects very sadly on those responsible. I have my own views on what punishment they should receive, but all I ask is that an exemplary punishment be imposed when some of them are caught, for reasons that we all understand. That is not Government policy; it is only my own opinion.
I am sure the whole House agrees that the nation’s true feelings towards the armed forces, particularly the fallen, have been demonstrated spontaneously over the last few years by the people of Royal Wootton Bassett, and, now, outside Brize Norton. It is about honouring the debt to the fallen.
I believe that 25 Members spoke in the debate. I shall respond to some of them as quickly as I can, and I hope the House will forgive me if I do not take interventions.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) about a great many things, but I thought that the tone of his speech was churlish, if I may quote my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. The record will show that it was depressingly partisan and carping, and self-congratulatory at the same time.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned pensions and the change from RPI to CPI. I declare an interest: I am in receipt of a military pension. The hon. Gentleman knows that public sector pensions must be sustainable. The public sector pension time bomb has featured in the newspapers and other media for well over a decade, and it is incumbent on Governments to make difficult decisions. The previous Government ignored the time bomb, but this Government are dealing with it. In Greece and elsewhere in the eurozone, untrammelled Government spending and debt are leading to huge problems. It is no good the hon. Gentleman’s shaking his head; I am afraid that that is what is happening.
Many Members raised the issue of the chief coroner, and I understand why people become concerned about it. It is incredibly important for coroners to be properly trained, and we are taking steps to ensure that they are. We are looking at ways in which we can improve the position still further. That is, of course, the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. The question is, do we want box-ticking or do we want results? The answer is that we want results.
In my view, the campaign on this issue has been somewhat depressingly overstated. According to a document that I have here, recent ComRes polls clearly support the case for a chief coroner. Sixty-six per cent. of people questioned
“believe that a Chief Coroner is needed to ensure that coroners treat bereaved Armed Forces families sensitively.”
The poll was taken in September, before it really got going, and I suggest that 95% of people on the streets of our constituencies had never heard of the issue before that. What is important is the results of inquests and the good treatment of people at them, and we will get that right.
The hon. Gentleman told us a mere seven times that he had been a Minister, yet he took no responsibility for the dreadful state of affairs that we inherited in the MOD. There was a £38 billion black hole. [Interruption.] There most certainly was. Much as he may carp about the painful decisions taken in the strategic defence and security review, he must also answer for his responsibility as a member of the previous Government.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee, brought us back to a more balanced view of life. He made a very sensible and thoughtful contribution, and I especially agree with him about wearing poppies.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) also made a thoughtful speech, in which he rightly emphasised the legal and moral complexities of armed forces’ international work, as well as the practical issues of support and equipment. I thank him for that.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) for his work on Future Reserves 2020, and I agree with him about young Territorial Army officers. I am looking into the security issues involving 7 Rifles officers, but I understand the people concerned had left several years earlier. We should be pragmatic and sensible on this issue, however. Since I first entered the House a depressingly long time ago, my hon. Friend has been a consistent champion of the reserves.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) reminded us of the whole nation’s role and responsibilities in respect of the defence of the nation. She also reminded us of the excellent performance in Libya of the RAF, the Navy and, indeed, some soldiers. I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for his excellent work on prosthetics and mental health, and I look forward to hearing more from him about world war one, and to working with him on plans for world war one commemorations.
The hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) is no longer present, but he drew our attention to remembrance and to our responsibility in this place to the armed forces, and especially to bereaved families. I agree with him on that.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is also not present. He said there were 15 three-star generals, and I may not at the time have responded accurately; I said there were not that many, but I may have given the wrong number. There are, in fact, eight three-star generals in the Army at present. He made a valuable point about the fitness of reservists—and I know he will be leading by example on that.
The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) paid tribute to James Eastwood and his parents, and I agree. Everyone who serves in Afghanistan deserves proper treatment, although I am not sure that a chief coroner would improve the service received by bereaved families. We are certainly concerned about anybody who is homeless, including ex-service personnel. It was said that 25% of homeless people are ex-service personnel. I think that would have been an exaggeration even 10 or 15 years ago. The proportion now is approximately 3% or 4%.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) made an important point about fragile states and concerns about Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development involvement. I will look into the issue of the 217 Field Squadron (EOD) reserve, and I will be happy to speak to him about it.
The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) reminded us of the sacrifice east enders made in the second world war, and we agree entirely about vandalism to war memorials.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) mentioned the constant need to maintain, refurbish and upgrade housing. All of us who own houses know about that, so I agree, but that is particularly difficult and the previous Government found it difficult and worked hard on it as well.
I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has taken a break from tweeting or twittering—or whatever the Prime Minister called it. She raised an important point about debt. I had not heard of QuickQuid and the targeting of service personnel, but we are not complacent and I have asked questions about this already. This specific point has never been raised with me, however, and I will look into it further. She was talking in particular about those who have left the services being targeted. All personnel get financial planning as part of their phase 1 training. That will include advice on not taking on a loan at ridiculous interest rates—I agree with her about that. Furthermore, we put particular emphasis on resettlement training, including for those early service leavers. I have never heard of payday loans, but I will look into the matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), who is a champion for his constituency and for the Royal Marines, concentrated on mental health issues, raising very real problems. I walk on eggshells when discussing mental health issues, because the subject is very difficult, but we and the armed forces are very concerned about it. Again, I refer him to the “Fighting Fit” report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire and to the work we do with Combat Stress.
I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) about the standard in St Mary’s church in Risca, because I believe that the reredos behind the altar is in fact a memorial to my great grandfather, but I will check it out. He referred to some lawyers as “bloodsuckers”—his term, not mine. All I would say is that those who served in the 1950s, when of course there was national service, deserve our respect. They were doing their duty when they were at the nuclear tests. We do study these things and, in fact, if someone was in the forces, including in that cohort who witnessed the nuclear tests, they are less likely to be dead by now—their mortality rate is lower—than those who were civilians at the time. So we need always to work on the basis of facts rather than emotion on this. Those people who have suffered or think that they have suffered as a result of their service watching the nuclear tests have been given war pensions, because the balance of probability means that it is very much on the Ministry of Defence to prove that we were not responsible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester stood up for the armed forces, as always, and I would like to thank him for his great contributions to the debates on the armed forces and on the Armed Forces Bill. I say to him that mouldy carpets are absolutely not acceptable and I thought he was a very brave Liberal Democrat to quote from the Daily Mail.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that people in Northern Ireland have every right to be proud of their contribution to the UK’s armed forces, and I agree entirely. I was discussing that contribution only yesterday with Edwin Poots, the Health Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, and we also talked about the Camp Bastion medical facilities, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I look forward to hearing his next contribution in Welsh.
I will need to come back to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) on search and rescue, but she did ask an interesting question about manning discrepancies between RAF and Royal Navy helicopters. I am told that they are not that large, but we can see. I have been to the Naval Families Federation in Portsmouth, and she is absolutely right to say that the harmony arrangements in the Royal Navy are extremely difficult. I am sorry about the redundancy announcements. They are actually chosen not by Ministers, but by the armed forces and single services. However, she made a very good point about timings. All redundancies are painful, and that is certainly the case when they are compulsory.
The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), to whom I pay tribute for his work as veterans Minister, was right about the situation in 1919. We have moved on, for a number of reasons, but I am old enough to remember the stories about ex-servicemen with one leg selling matchsticks on the corner. We have gone a long way beyond that, and rightly so, but we must go further still. He referred to the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces in Afghanistan and the need for success there, and I am entirely with him on that.
I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for his work as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the MOD and I am delighted to see that he has a new job in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. [Interruption.] He has got another job, so the hon. Member for North Durham should not worry. My hon. Friend made my speech for me on both our policies and the early failings of the Afghanistan campaign.
I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) for his work on the Armed Forces Bill. I agree with him about the serious housing issues, on which we will continue our work. We have a group, involving the Housing Minister, that discusses the difficulties that service personnel face in buying houses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) raised the important issue of wills. I recently met a young lady who made some sensible suggestions on this subject. Her fiancé was killed in Afghanistan and she has had the most terrible time. We are looking at this, but we cannot compel people to make wills. We are including a software check-box that people must tick if they have not completed a will. I will certainly talk to my hon. Friend further about this issue; I am very happy to meet him to discuss it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) talked about naval redundancies, which are painful. Community covenants, which we introduced, allow local government organisations to take proper note of service families. I agree that reservists want to deploy and about the need for education. That is why I commend the armed forces parliamentary scheme for the work it has done for so many people.
Our soldiers, sailors and airmen are good people and they deserve our respect. We have had to take some very difficult decisions in the light of the dreadful state of the defence programme that we inherited. That is a matter of regret, but I am proud of what we have achieved in the past 18 months. Tomorrow—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Government statement today on Project Avanti, which is about Army restructuring, is very interesting, and is made all the more so because it appeared in an American defence magazine on 7 November. It is important that we understand why the American defence community knew about the statement in quite a lot of detail, including naming names, three days before the House did. Will the Secretary of State for Defence, when he is available, come to the House to give an explanation or, at the very least, instigate an investigation within the Department into how that happened?
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was not aware of that. I will most certainly ensure that it is looked into very closely and I will let the hon. Lady know.