[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2010-12, The Armed Forces Covenant in Action? Part 1: Military Casualties, HC 762, and the Government response, HC 1855. Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2012-13, The Armed Forces Covenant in Action? Part 2: Accommodation, HC 331, and the Government response, HC 578.]
I beg to move,
That this House celebrates and commemorates the contribution of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and their families, in particular those currently serving overseas; recognises the important introduction of Armed Forces Day in 2006 and urges the nation to come together and champion the Services’ achievements throughout the decades; pays tribute to the UK’s Forces, their families and the charities who do so much to support them; recognises the enormous contribution of the staff who support the UK’s Forces from within Government and the workforces in industry who supply them with world-class equipment; urges all those in public life to seek additional ways to support the Armed Forces Covenant; urges the Government, local authorities, business and charities to deliver the best possible post-service support; and considers the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant essential to uphold, through public policy, the provision of welfare and frontline support.
I am pleased to start what I think is an important debate in advance of Armed Forces day on issues that should transcend party politics. The care and support that we offer those prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of others in our nation’s name across the globe is something that we rightly celebrate every day and in particular this weekend. The patriotism, courage and dedication of the men and women who serve are immeasurable. The first duty of any Government to protect our citizens would not be possible without our forces’ commitment, and they must at all times be properly valued and rewarded.
I want this House to know again that the Government will always have the support of those on the Opposition Benches when they seek to support our service personnel. This is more important as Armed Forces day approaches. That is an opportunity for people across the UK to come together locally to celebrate the contribution our forces and their families make, not just to our national security, but to local communities. So it is in that spirit that I offer my comments today. In doing so, however, I cannot guarantee the tone or the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) will wind up today’s debate.
I strongly agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman said about Armed Forces day and about support for our armed forces. Having read his motion carefully, I strongly agree with every single word in it and I am most grateful to him for proposing it. However, I look forward to the response of his hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). Is it not the job of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition not simply to propose a motion on which we all agree, but to try to point out what is wrong with what the Government are doing? Why has he wasted the opportunity to do so?
There are 364 days of the year to point out where the Government are going wrong. We have chosen today in advance of Armed Forces day to celebrate the contribution our armed forces make and to offer, as the hon. Gentleman will realise as he listens to the rest of my comments, some of the ways in which we think the country and our politics could further improve the service and support for our armed forces. But I will take his advice and when I next return to the Dispatch Box I will do so in the spirit of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, rather than making my own comments.
There will be opportunities throughout the debate for right hon. and hon. Members to make their own assessments of the strength of the Government’s defence policy, but my intention today, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, is to make constructive suggestions about how together we can do more to honour our armed forces and support their families.
I have visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency a number of times and know how passionately he argues that case. Of course military bands play an important role, as we saw at trooping the colour a couple of weeks ago on Her Majesty’s official birthday. I think that the remarkable sights and sounds of military bands are celebrated by the entre nation.
I knew that I would enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s second intervention. Someone shouted from a sedentary position “Good luck” in relation to his not seeking to intervene again. All I will say is that I will not give way to him later in my speech. I am pretty proud of the changes and reforms introduced by the Labour Government with regard to our armed forces. Members today will offer their observations and criticisms, but on balance I am pretty proud of our record.
Our armed forces stationed overseas are rightly at the front of all our minds, including those stationed in Afghanistan. They operate in the dust and danger of a far-away terrain to protect security on our streets at home. Of course, after the pain of the past few years, many people understandably ask why it is in our interests to engage in such causes and to confront unrest in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The answer, in my opinion, is pretty straightforward: we do so because we do not want it to visit our shores.
We have recently seen UK personnel operating in Libya and Mali, alongside the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, in a sign of the unpredictability of today’s security landscape. Today the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way do so in a rapidly evolving defence environment that will demand new skills, technologies and strategies alongside their timeless courage and ingenuity.
I endorse the right hon. Gentleman’s preliminary remarks. Are not many armed servicemen and women worried about any future entanglement? Will he take this opportunity to share with the House the answer to this question: do Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition support or oppose arming the Syrian opposition forces?
As my right hon. Friends the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary have already made clear, there is a great degree of scepticism and worry about any decision to arm the Syrian opposition, not least because it is not possible to quarantine the arms provided or guarantee who will be the end user. We look forward to hearing the Government make their argument. I thought that the Prime Minister, at Prime Minister’s questions the week before last, had an argument, but he did not make it very well.
Our purpose in the world is to defend our interests and promote our values, but the means by which we achieve those ends and the threats that challenge both our interests and our ideas are increasingly diverse, complex and intense. The global population is growing rapidly, putting massive pressure on resources and space and forcing migration from poor to rich states. Climate change will reduce available land, food and water, exacerbating the drivers of state failure. Weak and unstable states already outnumber strong and stable ones by more than 2:1. A youth bulge is seeing rising aspiration and great emotional urgency in the desire for political change. The advance of information technologies and biotechnologies threatens international security infrastructure, while nuclear proliferation and cyber-attacks pose the potential for mass destruction.
Within this context, it is our duty collectively to ensure that our forces are designed to meet new threats, with a strategy defined by adaptability, prevention and partnering with our allies. Labour has argued that our recruitment plan must be advanced and affordable, defined by discipline in budgetary management as well as maximising modern technology and a new multilateralism, and that our armed forces must be higher-skilled, focused on stabilisation, cultural embedding and building other nations’ underdeveloped forces so that they can share the burden of future heavy lifting. We see a new role for our services based on earlier intervention, to prevent the need for the large-scale conflicts of our recent history. However, it is our duty to ensure that such capability is based on reform throughout the ranks.
Our duty to forces on the front line is matched, of course, by our duty of care to them when they return. The armed forces covenant, enshrined in 2010 following a campaign by the Royal British Legion, has at its heart the principle that no one should suffer disadvantage as a result of their service. That principle should infuse all our work in support of the covenant and those men, women and their families.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend about the armed forces covenant. I am sure he welcomes the news that all three local authorities in my area have signed up to the community covenant. Indeed, this Saturday morning we will name the town square in Corby after Lance Corporal James Ashworth, who, as my right hon. Friend will know, made the ultimate sacrifice fighting in Helmand, Afghanistan. He was awarded the Victoria Cross—only the 14th person to receive the honour since the second world war. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to encouraging local authorities to recognise the sacrifice of our troops.
My hon. Friend speaks again with great passion about Lance Corporal James Ashworth. This is not a partisan point: my hon. Friend has been in the House for only a short time, but no Member on either side of the House could fail to be impressed by the diligence with which he has taken an interest in armed forces and defence issues. The whole House is improved by his contributions. I am sure that, like my hon. Friend, Members across the House will be doing their bit in their own town and city centres this Saturday. I will be in Nottingham at the national celebration of Armed Forces day.
Only recently did we graphically witness both the danger that our forces face and the unity that they can inspire. The atrocious murder of Drummer Lee Rigby sickened us all—a feeling whose intensity was matched only by the resolve to defeat the extremist sentiments that shaped the minds of the murderers. The result was not division, apart from that in respect of an exploitative minority; instead, it was a simple act of Britain standing together to defy that violence, hatred and intolerance.
When that dreadful murder occurred, it was suggested that the uniform be removed and people should go out in civilian clothes. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that was a bad idea? Like other Members, I am glad that that did not happen. We should stand up to such acts and be proud that the uniform of the Army, Navy or Air Force is worn in this country.
I fully endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman says. I recently enjoyed visiting his constituency in an unusual bout of sunshine; coming from Glasgow, I was not used to that.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. For understandable reasons, our armed forces were, for a number of decades, to some degree invisible to the public eye because of the republican extremist violence emanating from Northern Ireland. Although there were questions during the first few hours after the attack the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it is right that we have settled on the position that our armed forces should continue to travel and be visible to the public mind and public affection. Although such a position is always taken under the best available advice, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
I will comment on that a little later. It is an important point. The Regular Army is being cut to about 82,000 and the reservist force is being doubled to about 30,000. It is crucial for our country that that is done in the right way. The issue is partly about how the Government interact and explain the benefit of having reservists in the workplace. I shall come back to that a little later.
I hope that Armed Forces day, in recognition of all those who have fallen, will be a reflection of the emotions that we feel—a commemoration of loved ones lost and a celebration of all they achieved and their comrades can continue to achieve; I am thinking not just of their deeds in the armed forces, but the love they gave, the friendships they built and the memories in which they are held.
The covenant is a statement of collective purpose, as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) said. Its principles cut across classes, sectors, regions and nations of the UK. Businesses, local communities, central Government and local authorities all have a responsibility to deliver the highest possible levels of care and support to the service community. Of course we operate within financial constraints, but a pooling of our commitment and imagination can lead to better policy and meaningful results. That is why we have urged local authorities to have veterans champions—a dedicated person at each council to develop support for service leavers to help them to resettle into civilian life. On return from the front line or in departing the forces, many service leavers struggle with the transition from military to civilian life.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in praising all of Scotland’s local authorities for signing the covenant. On pooling, does he think that there is a useful model in understanding the work of Veterans Scotland, which brings together 53 veterans’ organisations to work with the Scottish Government and the UK Government to ensure that veterans have the appropriate policy delivered at a Scottish and a UK level?
It is a rare occasion when the hon. Gentleman and I are in full agreement on defence matters, because we have an entirely different vision for the future of UK defence. He makes a very important point. It is a cause for some celebration that all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities have community covenants. Of course, there is an issue of scale in England, but achieving 100% in Scotland is a remarkable achievement. I would like to put on record the whole House’s congratulations to all those local authorities.
Mention of Scotland raises in my mind a prospect that many of us regard as unfortunate: that the contribution made by Scotland over many years—hundreds of years—to the British Army might in some way be prejudiced were Scotland to become independent and create its own armed forces. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that tradition is worthy of protection and is as powerful an argument as any against the idea that Scotland should hive off from the United Kingdom?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is exactly right; he makes an important point. One of the remarkable things about the patchwork nature of the United Kingdom is the way in which our four nations come together in some of our most important institutions, none more so than our armed forces. For very many people in Scotland, but also across the UK, the idea of tearing that apart demonstrates that independence is a powerful idea of the 19th century that is ill suited to the complexity of the 21st century.
All this work and all this support from veterans’ champions are crucial to ensure that the armed forces covenant becomes a reality on the ground. For some time, I have reflected that although an Opposition party is formally out of office, it is not out of power. That is why we, as the Opposition, have worked with business to develop and deliver the veterans interview programme, which encourages employers to offer veterans a guaranteed interview or other form of enhanced employment support. It is a voluntary scheme that gives veterans a chance to show employers how their skills and experience could benefit their businesses. The Department for Work and Pensions has agreed to roll it out nationally.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that with the several hundred charities that now exist all facing in the right direction, there is perhaps a lack of co-ordination in bringing their efforts together for the best benefit of the veterans concerned?
The hon. Gentleman, who served with such gallantry, makes an important point. The work that COBSEO—the Confederation of Service Charities—is doing could be important in this regard. Understandably, a plethora of new organisations has been created, born out of the remarkable emotion in the country whereby people wish to do something—anything—to support our armed forces. In a little while I will announce one more organisation that will be doing important work in future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares my sense of satisfaction about that.
Through the veterans interview programme, about which I have just spoken, we are working in partnership with some of the nation’s largest employers. This morning, in another partnership with business, I updated the Opposition’s Fighting Fitter campaign, through which health and leisure centres provide discounts for members of the forces and their families. Five national health companies are taking part: Nuffield Health, Pure Gym, David Lloyd, Virgin Active and ukactive. Between them, they have more than 450 sites that will offer discounts for the armed forces. We hope that others will do the same this weekend and beyond.
I was joined at the launch this morning by an Olympic athlete. When I tweeted that fact earlier this morning, people got in touch to find out which Olympic athlete would be joining me on the publicity trail. The top suggestions were Jessica Ennis and Sir Chris Hoy. However, if you will forgive me on this one occasion, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the misuse of parliamentary terminology, it was not Sir Chris Hoy, but another knight: our very own Sir Ming Campbell. As the House will know, he competed a blink of an eye ago in the 1964 Olympic games in Tokyo. His other claim to fame, as he has said before, is that he defeated O. J. Simpson on the running track. We were joined, I am pleased to say, by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), in the House of Commons gym in an all-party show of support for the Fighting Fitter campaign.
There is no chance of me ever being an Olympic athlete. I would like to inform the House what happened when the shadow Secretary of State visited the Marines. Apparently, they sent him on a run and he beat the lot of them. Since then, they have never recovered.
Defeating the Marines in a run is one thing; defeating the shadow Chancellor in the marathon is another. I know which one I will pay for the longest. I think that he was only two hours behind me —[Interruption.] However, I do not keep records of these things and, I am sure, neither does he.
Let me get back to what I am meant to be reading out. The Opposition believe that it is vital to protect through anti-discrimination legislation those who protect our nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said, recent polling shows that one in 20 service personnel have suffered abuse in the street. My hon. Friend referred to the attitude of businesses in the survey. A private Member’s Bill presented yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) proposes that abuse of the forces should be treated as aggravated, thus guaranteeing specific punishment for those who attack our forces. The polling also demonstrates that 18% of service personnel have been refused service in a public place. The Bill also proposes to outlaw discrimination against members of the forces in the provision of goods and services. That is vital if we are to tackle disadvantage that arises from military service. Although I am certain that the Bill can be improved technically, I hope that it will gain cross-party support.
We hope that the whole House will support the initiatives that I have mentioned: the veterans interview programme, local armed forces champions, the Fighting Fitter campaign and the anti-discrimination legislation. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, whom we also did not invite to our session at the gym this morning. I hope that he will reflect on each of those initiatives which, although launched by the Opposition, are free from party politics.
Before the right hon. Gentleman moves on from veterans, does he think that it is important that we recognise the role played by British nuclear test veterans? Those veterans played a unique service role at the dawn of our nuclear weapons programme, but the country has never recognised them properly. We rank pretty close to the bottom of the international table of decency on this issue compared with other nuclear countries. Does he think that it is time to put that right?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important and long-running issue. All I would say is that I have met, and will continue to meet, representatives of those veterans, as do hon. Members on all sides of the House. I am sure that the Government are grappling with this matter. Under the previous Government a settlement offer was made, but my recollection and understanding is that that was blocked, seemingly by legal process and by lawyers. If that had not been the case, compensation might already have been provided. It is disappointing and regrettable that that has not happened.
An essential element of duty of care is how we support those who have served to get back into work post-service. Being in the armed forces often provides personnel with friendship, if not near-familial support. It can be disorientating and disconcerting when bonds with compatriots are suddenly broken and the norms of military life are lost.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a challenge for people who have tremendous skills and expertise from their time in the armed forces? When they move on, potential employers who have suitable vacancies often do not employ them because they do not have relevant industrial experience. Does he see a role for organisations such as ForceSelect and others to work with those leaving the armed forces and with potential employers to help ensure that they have the opportunity for a long-term career outside the forces too?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He and his wife continue to do so much to support armed forces charity. I had the opportunity to attend one of his functions, which managed to raise thousands of pounds. His point about the relationship and interaction between potential employers and service leavers is crucial. The Government, as part of a national effort, should help to lead the way in breaking down some of those barriers and fostering a greater degree of understanding. The approach that we favour, as the hon. Gentleman hinted at, is to enhance post-service support and introduce much more rigorous in-service training. That would not only ensure that those who leave have the skills and structures to help them advance in new careers, but strengthen the operational effectiveness of the services by increasing the skill levels of personnel while they are still serving.
On post-service support, we want to see a permanent umbrella body, set above the brilliant but sometimes fragmented third sector, that will be a one-stop shop for leavers and that would vastly increase access to support and services.
I, with other members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, recently met the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which produces a “bible” for veterans. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need to have something similar in this country: a one-stop shop for all the services, support and benefits that are available for veterans?
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about how we can learn from international experience. A lot of information is available online, but not in print. If he wishes to suggest to the Government that they produce their own bible, I am sure that the Education Secretary would be happy to write the foreword. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I am sure that those on the Government Front Bench are listening.
While it is right that members of the armed forces—this relates to the point about an additional organisation—do not have a union and cannot join a union, I want to mention for a moment the role of trade unions in the important work of post-service workplace support. I know that some in the country, and perhaps even some in the Chamber today, bemoan the role of unions, but I am delighted to inform the House that earlier this afternoon I attended an event with the general secretary of the Community union, Michael Leahy. I hope that the whole House will welcome the news that the Community trade union has announced its intention to work with parliamentarians on all sides and other stakeholders to position themselves as the UK veterans’ union. It is well known that Community supports me in my work as shadow Defence Secretary, and from now on it will be able to offer specialist, bespoke provision to help veterans find gainful employment and continue to make a valuable difference.
Changes in post-service support should be just one side of the reform we need, which is why we are arguing for faster academic attainment within the services. In recent evidence, the Defence Select Committee said:
“The provision for meeting the literacy and numeracy needs of our service personnel would benefit from further improvement.”
A system where many of those who defend our country are left without additional basic skills is bad for our troops, the Army and our country. We believe that through close collaboration with the MOD, the Department for Education and the devolved Administrations across the country, there can be opportunities to reach level 2 within two years for those without qualifications. This should apply across the UK because while education may be devolved in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, our collective responsibility to our forces is not. I want to make it certain that members of the forces would benefit from such changes, no matter where in our islands they live. There should also be specialist training in literacy teaching, increased provision of Army apprenticeships within the infantry and easier conversion to civilian qualifications. Enhanced in-service education would be a genuine means of progression for military men and women.
Turning briefly to the issue of reservists, the House will be aware that in the light of the Government’s structural change in the Army—as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South has mentioned—realising defence planning assumptions rests largely on doubling the number of reserves to 30,000. Labour Members support a larger role for the Army reserve, as it will rightly be known, but we are concerned that plans are as yet insufficiently available in detail to give members enough information and senior military figures have raised public concerns about their confidence in the success of the current process.
In advance of the forthcoming White Paper, there are a number of policies that we believe the Government should consider, not least to ensure the compatibility between longer training and deployment time periods and the employment of a larger reserve force.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the people of Dudley on the contribution they make to the reservists through A squadron of the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, which is based in Vicar street, Dudley? It is the best recruited squadron in the country; it recently took on 47 new trainees and is processing another 60 now, and has had two dozen volunteers on active service in Afghanistan.
My hon. Friend has been so strong in support of his Territorial regiment. When I was in Dudley, the campaign was so fierce that it was the one issue about which the local media wanted to talk. I congratulate him, and the Government will have to take into account the point he makes, not only about the high regard in which the unit is held in Dudley but the fact that it is recruited to full strength and is indeed over-subscribed. I look forward to the Minister responding to that specific point.
There must also be real protection for reservists. Current legislation says clearly that an employer has a duty to re-employ a returning reservist in the occupation they were employed in before their service and on the same terms and conditions. There is, however, no legislation to prevent an employer from discriminating against reservists in their hiring procedures on the grounds of their military affiliation. The Government should now consult employers specifically on new legislation to protect against discrimination in hiring reservists, which would need to be coupled with an obligation of transparency from reservists to declare their status.
Is the shadow Secretary of State’s concern compounded by the fact that if we look at the present mobilisation rate of the existing TA, which stands at about 40%, we see that plugging the gap left by the loss of 20,000 regulars would require 50,000 reservists and not 30,000? Does the rundown of the TA forces in recent years, including the closure of TA centres and the fact that TA numbers are in decline, worry him?
The hon. Gentleman has raised these matters in Defence questions and other defence debates, and he will continue to do so. He sounds a clear warning to the Government and anyone who wishes to govern that in order to be successful, this policy—of boosting reservist numbers, engaging with employers and getting right the proportion of regulars to reservists and the relationship and integration of units and individuals—has to be done almost faultlessly. It is an enormous challenge to cut the Regular Army at this pace in the expectation that reservists will fill the gap, and I know that he will continue to raise that point.
Finally, the evidence shows that some reservists can suffer worse post-service psychological issues than regulars, in part because of the speed of the transition from military to civilian settings, so we should consider how we can increase access for reservists to military medical services in order to tackle the potential mental health problems that a minority—I stress, a minority—experience.
The Opposition will regularly disagree on many aspects of domestic and on some aspects of defence policy, and the decision to leave certain key capability gaps following the defence review will remain controversial and continue to provoke enormous debate, but Armed Forces day should be defined not by a political contest between parties, but where possible by consensus and celebration. The groups comprising our national defence—the high-skilled industrial work forces that make world-class equipment, the civilian government work force who do so much to support our forces, the charities whose unrivalled support and commitment to our armed forces personnel provide a lifeline when often another does not exist, and the families, who are sometimes forgotten, but who make sacrifices to support the actions of their family members on the front line—will each participate in this Saturday’s celebrations, but uppermost in our thoughts will be the hundreds lost in recent conflicts and the thousands in service overseas this weekend and unable to be at home and to join in the commemorations and celebrations. We remember them, we thank them and, this weekend, we celebrate them.
Order. Before I call the Minister, I want to give notice to all Back Benchers that there will be a six-minute time limit, which, depending on how the debate goes, it might be necessary to reduce in order to ensure that everybody who wants to participate can.
I welcome the opportunity to speak for the Government in this important debate. Although this is technically an Opposition day, there is evidently a good deal of consensus in the House on this issue, and without wishing to tempt fate, I suspect that the mood will be slightly different from the last time the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) and I crossed swords—over the Lisbon treaty—on behalf of our respective parties.
The members of our armed forces, past and present, regulars and reserves, have made an incredible contribution to this country, some having made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. We owe our armed forces an enormous debt, and it is right that we continually strive to recognise, repay and honour this debt. The sheer breadth and pace of operations over the last decade have raised awareness of the bravery and dedication of our service personnel, and public support for our armed forces is arguably at an all-time high—something that I am sure the whole House will welcome and endorse. Excellent work has been done by all sections of society—by the public sector, the private sector and charities—to help harness this support. Earlier this month, for instance, we paid tribute to those veterans who stormed the Normandy beaches to help free Europe from Nazi tyranny. I was privileged to lay several wreaths on behalf of the Government. This was personally poignant for me as my father, Reginald Francois, served aboard a minesweeper on D-day 69 years ago.
Armed Forces day this Saturday is just one of the many ways the public show their support for our service personnel. It is an important occasion, because it allows us to come together on a single day to show our appreciation for what they do for us every day. Since its inception as veterans day in 2006—it became armed forces day in 2009—it has allowed millions of people to celebrate the achievements and remember the sacrifices of our soldiers, sailors and airmen and women. The event has gained real momentum in the past few years, thanks to the backing of the royal family, charities, businesses, the armed forces themselves, and thousands of volunteers up and down the country. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who give their time and effort to make Armed Forces day the success that it has now become. This year, there will be more than 300 events taking place all over the country—including, I am proud to say, in Rayleigh—ranging in scale from the small to the large, and the formal to the informal.
Having seen the programme, I am happy to confirm that that is the case. I heard the Colchester military wives choir perform in Portcullis House some months ago, and if it gives as good a performance on Saturday as it did then, all my constituents who attend the event will be very impressed.
I shall be in Victoria park in Denton on Saturday to celebrate Armed Forces day. Another way in which the public can get together to celebrate our armed forces is through the homecoming of our troops. The Minister will be pleased to hear that we have had huge crowds in Tameside and Stockport for the homecoming of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and the Mercian Regiment in the past few weeks.
I am absolutely delighted to hear that. The support that we see at homecoming parades now is much greater and more heartfelt than it was a few years ago. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will give an Essex example. In Basildon, the police estimated that some 10,000 people were present when the Royal Anglian Regiment returned. It is marvellous, when our brave service personnel come back from operations, to see their own communities across the country welcoming them home. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for doing the right thing by his local regiment on Saturday.
I should like to reinforce the Minister’s point about the importance of Armed Forces day. It has given people like me and my constituents who have either no or relatively little military experience an opportunity to show our gratitude. In Rossendale and Darwen, we have been packing parcels that will be sent over to Afghanistan, and I have been overwhelmed by the public support for the project. It has given people an opportunity to say thank you, in their own small way.
I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend says. Armed Forces day has gathered momentum in the past few years. It has become a bigger event in the calendar of every community around the country, and there will be 300 events across the United Kingdom on Saturday. I hope that it will gather even greater momentum in the months and years ahead. I shall now give way to a knight of the realm.
My right hon. Friend has paid tribute to the excellent Colchester military wives choir, but can I assure him that he has not lived until he has heard the Aldershot military wives choir, which is even better? Unfortunately, it will not be performing here in Portcullis House as originally planned, but it will be available to perform in Aldershot, and I hope that I can encourage all my hon. Friends to come and hear it.
I can assure my hon. Friend that I most certainly have lived, but we won’t go into that now. I do not want to start anything more than friendly competition between the different military wives choirs, but if his choir is anything like as good as the one from Colchester, it will have achieved a very high standard indeed.
Another important point about Armed Forces day is that all the events will be slightly different, and personal to the groups and individuals involved. That is an important aspect of the day: it is people-led. The Ministry of Defence is supporting the day financially by allocating grants totalling some £320,000 to 100 of this year’s events, but we do not dictate the nature of the events. We do play an organisational role in supporting some of the larger gatherings, however. This year’s national event will be held in Nottingham, and the city has fully embraced its role as host. It will be attended by Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Minister for the Armed Forces, the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff and, I am pleased to say, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence as well.
Our support for members of the armed forces must be more than just symbolic. While it is important to pay tribute to them on Armed Forces day, we must make sure that we provide them with the practical support they deserve all year round. That is why this Government made honouring the armed forces covenant an important objective and why we enshrined in law its two key principles: that the armed forces community should not face disadvantage with regard to the provision of public and commercial services, and that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, particularly for those such as the injured and the bereaved who have given the most.
The Secretary of State for Defence is now obliged to report annually to Parliament and to the country on the implementation of the covenant, and the first of these reports was published in December last year. It is important to this Government to make sure that we support our armed forces as best we can. The Chancellor demonstrated this by allocating £35 million from the fines levied on banks for attempting to manipulate the LIBOR interest rate to support the armed forces covenant, mainly through grants to service charities. The first tranche of this funding included £1 million for Fisher House, which provides accommodation for the families of wounded personnel being treated at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham. Fisher House was opened by His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, only last Friday; I was privileged to be able to attend and to have the opportunity to visit some of the wounded while I was there.
I would like to join the whole House in celebrating our armed forces. An issue that concerns me—a number of my constituents have contacted me about this—is that a significant number of ex-armed forces personnel still find themselves homeless. Does the Minister share my concern, and what are the Government doing to try to deal with the homelessness of armed forces personnel?
If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall address that point specifically when I talk about the community covenant. I hope that I will be able to satisfy him when I get there.
The covenant is a contract between the armed forces and the whole of society, and we understand that society is much larger than just central government, so I am pleased that initiatives such as the armed forces community covenant have gained such momentum. The community covenant is designed to deepen the integration of military and civil communities at the local level, ensuring that local authorities and other local organisations are well placed to understand and respond to the needs of their armed forces communities. To date, over 330 local authorities have signed up—including all in Scotland—and the total represents more than three quarters of all the local authorities in the United Kingdom. We are witnessing many examples of the benefits that this scheme can bring in practice.
I commend the Government for their work on implementing the community covenant. I would like to pay tribute to both Dudley and Sandwell councils in the west midlands for signing up to the community charter. Does the Minister agree that it is important for both councils to take a proactive role in supporting legions in my constituency, such as the Halesowen British Legion, the Blackheath British Legion and the Cradley British Legion, which lies just outside my constituency, and to drive forward the work they do in the local community?
I pay tribute to the two local councils in my hon. Friend’s constituency for signing the community covenant and to the Royal British Legion for everything it has done specifically to encourage the community covenant campaign. As I said, over 330 councils have already signed up. I understand that another cohort of councils is likely to sign up to it to coincide with Armed Forces day and that another cohort is then expected in the run-up to Remembrance day 2013. I hope that, by the end of this year, the vast bulk of local authorities in the UK will have signed a community covenant.
In areas of the United Kingdom such as Northern Ireland, where there are some problems in trying to get the establishment of the community covenant and where those of a political disposition such as Sinn Fein and others might for whatever reason have a problem or an issue with it, does the Minister agree that whatever the resistance or opposition of those groups, they should at least have the maturity to stand aside in a mature, professional and even-handed fashion and allow the rest of the community—of all sides—to be able to pay tribute to our armed forces?
I am well aware of that background, which is complex in some respects. I recently gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on precisely the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. I also visited Northern Ireland, and was briefed in detail by the commander of 38 Brigade on the implementation of the covenant at ground level. In terms of practical day-to-day measures, it is working quite well. The after-care service is a very good example of the covenant in action in a bespoke Northern Ireland context. Nevertheless, I hope that, over time, local authorities in Northern Ireland find themselves able to sign the community covenant.
Let me give some examples of the way in which the community covenant is working in practice. Hampshire county council is sharing best practice in the support of service children attending schools in its jurisdiction. Devon county council is identifying and supporting its staff members who are reservists, helping to ensure that their views and needs are represented. Westminster city council is changing its procedures on housing allocation so that service personnel will not slip down the list if they are posted overseas on operations. We encourage local authorities to give special consideration to veterans when considering the allocation of service housing; I hope that that helps to address the pertinent point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark). Cumulatively, those measures are having a positive impact on local armed forces communities.
I think it fair to say that, when it comes to the community covenant, local government has well and truly stood up, and I pay tribute to the Local Government Association and to local government more broadly for all that they have done. The covenant is producing real and tangible results, and we are grateful for everything that local government has done to enhance that.
I agree with the Minister that local government is playing an ever more important role in supporting our armed forces community, but will he join me in welcoming other organisations, such as Community Union, of which I am a member? It has shown its commitment to the armed forces by pledging to become the armed forces union, reflecting its long association with the armed forces in this country.
The hon. Gentleman told us earlier about the renaming of a local square, which I think is very appropriate. He also referred to something that had been mentioned earlier by the shadow Secretary of State. [Interruption.] Give me a moment, and I may be able to say something more. My understanding is that people who have left the armed forces are already perfectly at liberty to join a trade union, but the one mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is clearly an additional union that they can join if they wish.
We have focused intensively on the provision of health care for our service personnel. We have a duty to provide those who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf with the very best health care and support. I have taken a strong personal interest in the issue. Since I took up my post some nine months ago, I have visited the Defence Medical Services headquarters in Whittington, the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Queen Elizabeth hospital, Birmingham, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, the Battle Back Centre at Lilleshall—which uses sporting activity to improve recovery—the personnel recovery centres at Tedworth House and Colchester, the residential care centre run by Combat Stress at Tyrwhitt House in Leatherhead, and New Belvedere House, the Veterans Aid hostel in Limehouse in the east end of London. I hope the House will accept that I have been able to see for myself that real progress has already been made.
The Government have announced the provision of an additional £6.5 million to ensure that next-generation microprocessor prosthetics—the so-called bionic legs—are available to injured serving personnel with above-the-knee and through-the-knee amputations when that is clinically appropriate. Those new legs are being fitted now. In his report, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), recommended that a small number of multi-disciplinary centres should provide specialist prosthetic and rehabilitation services to ensure that veterans have access to the same high-quality care that the armed forces provide, and the Government have committed £6.7 million over the next two years to ensure that nine such NHS facilities are funded to provide that service.
We have also made advances in the field of mental health. The signing of a strategic partnership by the MOD, the four national health agencies, including those of the devolved Administrations, and Combat Stress ensures that we will all work collaboratively to support the psychological needs of the armed forces community.
There is shared MOD and Department of Health funding of the Big White Wall website. Serving personnel, veterans and their families are allowed to join the site anonymously if they wish, and it provides innovative, patient-centred support for those who may need it. Our armed forces can also draw on a process called trauma risk management, or TRiM. This is a peer group support system, developed by 3 Commando Brigade, that is helping to identify those who may be at risk of mental health problems and provide support to them. In addition, as troops go through their decompression period in Cyprus on return from operations, they are provided with briefings, including specifically on mental health. That is particularly helping to tackle the stigma associated with mental health issues.
There has also been an uplift in the number of NHS mental health professionals providing veteran-focused mental health services. Working in partnership with Combat Stress, we now have around 50 professionals in place—more than the 30 originally recommended by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, in his “Fighting Fit” report.
In addition, in terms of our obligation to provide wider, non-clinical support to the wounded, injured and sick, there was a landmark achievement earlier this month when the defence recovery capability reached its full operating capability. The DRC provides members of our armed forces with a tailored and holistic support package to help them readjust and recover from injury or illness, helping to make sure they are provided with the best care available. The Government have contributed a quarter of a billion pounds for that purpose, but this would not have been possible without the very significant contribution from service charities, in particular the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes. This has been the largest single donation ever made by military charities, and we welcome it and the fact that that whole capability has now gone live.
The shadow Secretary of State raised the subject of education. We take pride in the fact that our armed forces provide challenging and constructive education and training opportunities for young people, equipping them with valuable and transferable skills. The services are among the largest training providers in the UK, with excellent completion and achievement rates, and the quality of our training and education is highly respected.
With support for education ranging from entry-level literacy and numeracy to full postgraduate degrees, service personnel are offered genuine progression routes which allow them to develop, gain qualifications and play a fuller part in society either in the armed forces or in the civilian world. We raise literacy and numeracy achievement progressively through a soldier’s career up to level 2—equivalent to GCSE grades A to C. Our basic training establishments are inspected by Ofsted, which has rated most of them good or better. The MOD works closely both with BIS, through its Skills Funding Agency, to support skills development, and with an extensive range of colleges and other providers to deliver the education that its soldiers need.
The Army also enrols more than 95% of soldiers on an apprenticeship or advanced apprenticeship, with an achievement rate of almost 90%, the majority achieved within two years of enlistment. This is one of the largest employer-based apprenticeship programmes in the UK, encompassing over 35 different types of scheme or apprenticeship, and was most recently recognised by Ofsted as good. In the latest academic year, there were over 10,000 apprenticeship completions by armed forces personnel. I am sure the whole House will welcome that. Studying in the workplace and doing relevant contextualised learning has been shown to be very effective, particularly for some who did not have positive experiences at school.
In addition, the Troops to Teachers programme offers a route for ex-service personnel to qualify as teachers and bring military values to the classroom. This is an excellent example of people taking values and experience they have learnt in the armed forces into the classroom and transferring them to our young people. There has been a successful pilot scheme, which is now being rolled out more widely across the country, particularly from the beginning of the new academic year in September.
The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire mentioned legislation to deal with the disrespecting of service personnel in public. He may recall a private Member’s Bill debate on the issue involving the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to achieve, although at the risk of chiding him gently, I would remind him that the previous Labour Government looked at exactly the same issue and rejected legislating on it. It would therefore appear that there has been something of a change of heart by Labour. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman attempts to intervene from a sedentary position, but I did give a commitment when I debated this issue with the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife on that Friday that we would examine it in the context of the armed forces covenant report 2013, and that commitment will be honoured. I just make the point that the Labour party considered whether to legislate on this issue a few years ago and decided not to do so.
On legislation on reserves, the right hon. Gentleman has similarly sought to float the idea of anti-discrimination legislation for employers. As a number of hon. Members have pointed out, to make the growth of the reserves succeed it is important to carry employers with us and make maximum use of their good will. Threatening them with legislation from the outset may not be the best way to do that, but he will have to wait to see what we say in the White Paper, where we do refer to the issue.
Let me say something about the situation post-2014 and then I will seek to bring my remarks to a close so that others can speak. The current level of backing for service charities is testament to the British public’s support for our armed forces. They understand that they have been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, but that is changing. Afghan security forces are now assuming control of their own security, which represents a real milestone in our progress towards ending combat operations in Afghanistan. We are starting to bring our people back home, and they are rightly being welcomed as heroes as they return. This moment represents an opportunity. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned the possibility of more clearly encapsulating the services we provide for veterans. We have work ongoing in the Department to do exactly that, and I hope to be able to say more in the months ahead.
We have rightly talked up how we deal with health care, housing and so on for veterans. What about soldiers in the Army who want to remain in it but have been told they are being made redundant? On Monday I had a call on my voicemail in my office from my constituent Mr John Bisset, who told me that his son has served for 16 years in the Black Watch but has now been told he will be made redundant next year. How do we deal with that? How do we justify it?
We have had to take some extremely difficult decisions, and although I do not wish to spoil the bipartisan nature of this debate, the hon. Gentleman will know what lay behind many of them: the very difficult financial situation we inherited in the Ministry of Defence. Having made that point, I will not dwell on it. From memory, just over 60% of those affected in tranche 1 were applicants who had applied for redundancy, the tranche 2 figure was just over 70% and I believe the figure for tranche 3 was 84%, so a larger proportion of those in tranche 3 have applied to go voluntarily. However, we do realise that these are very difficult decisions and we provide support for all those leaving as redundees via the Career Transition Partnership, which has a very good track record of getting people into employment within six months or so of their leaving the forces. When people do leave the forces, we therefore do everything we can to support them, but I say again that we had to take some very difficult decisions because of what we were bequeathed.
Let me return to the point I was making about the post-2014 situation. As we shift from a period of operations to one of contingency, we cannot and must not take the public’s support for our armed forces for granted. We need to put in place now processes and procedures that will endure well beyond the end of operations in 2014 to harness all that public support and put it to maximum good use. In that respect, we have been having detailed discussions with the business community on how best to co-ordinate and maximise its support for the armed forces. We hope to have more to say about that in the very near future, and given that the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire has said that when we do the right thing he will support us, I hope we will enjoy his support for what we are going to do with business for our armed forces in the months and years ahead.
The role of reserves in our defence is vital. Since 2003, there have been more than 25,000 mobilisations of reservists, serving alongside their regular counterparts, and 30 have paid the ultimate price in the service of their country. In the future, the reserves will be a fully integrated component of the armed forces and reserve elements will routinely be required on most military operations.
Is the Minister aware that for Welsh people who particularly want to serve as reserves in the Royal Navy, the only opportunity to do so is at HMS Cambria? Unfortunately, that is purely a land-based opportunity and they can have no at-sea training. Will the Minister see whether it is possible to ensure that HMS Cambria can provide Welsh people with the opportunity for sea-based reserve training and opportunities?
I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the White Paper, which I can assure the House will be with us very soon, but I will take away the specific point that the hon. Lady has raised on behalf of her constituents and seek to come back to her with a reply, which I will place in the Library of the House.
In conclusion, defence of the realm is the first duty of any Government. The men and women of our armed forces and the families who support them make that responsibility a reality through hard work, bravery and the application of incredible skill. In character and aptitude, they represent the best people our society has to offer. It is only thanks to their sacrifice down through the years that we can live in a free and safe country and for that we should all be eternally grateful.
We have done much in just a few years to develop the armed forces covenant: to improve health care, to support mental well-being and to tackle the many other issues that are important to servicemen and women and their families. But we need to do more, including, as I have said, harnessing business support for the armed forces covenant.
On Armed Forces day this Saturday, we will pause to remember how important those people are. Then we will come back to this place with renewed vigour, concentrate on how we can support them better and get on with it.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. In Sheffield, we are very go-ahead—so go-ahead, in fact, that we had our armed forces and veterans day celebrations last Saturday. It was a pleasure and honour to be present and to have the opportunity to speak to many of our veterans, some of whom are now well into their ‘90s and served in the second world war. There were veterans from throughout the age ranges as well as cadets, embarking on what we hope will be a career in the armed forces.
Sheffield is not just go-ahead with the day on which we celebrate our veterans and armed forces. We are very go-ahead with the community covenant that the city has signed—I have a copy in my hand. The community covenant is meant to involve as many people in the community as possible, and on Saturday, alongside stalls from all the different services, a stall was set up by Sheffield city council to encourage local people to sign up and make a difference.
The covenant includes a commitment to recognise the contribution made by the armed services; to remember the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces community; to share knowledge, experience and expertise to provide help and advice to members of the armed forces community; and to encourage integration as people move from service life into civilian life.
The covenant is not just a statement of aims, but an active process. I have a copy of an update, completed only this month, on the actions taken in Sheffield. For example, work is ongoing on a lettings policy that will recognise that those leaving the armed services have a priority need for housing. Other work is going on in schools, to see what can be done with the curriculum.
There is a community covenant, which brings in many businesses in Sheffield. Companies offer work experience opportunities so that those leaving the services have the chance to try out a job before they apply for it. Support is also offered for making applications. We have big companies involved in that and small businesses also offer support to our armed forces. There are also opportunities for leisure, with Sheffield international venues making available a free life card to anybody from the services.
It is not all sunshine and light, I am afraid. The first signature on the covenant is that of the lieutenant colonel of the 38th Signal Regiment, whose headquarters is in my constituency. The Signal Regiment has squadrons and troops in Aberdeen, Banbury, Croydon, Leeds, Kingston, Milton Keynes, Nottingham, Rugby and its headquarters in Sheffield. It plays an enormously important role. It provides information communication systems to the emergency services and local government in an emergency. That is not something that it just practises and trains for, something that I have seen troops doing when I have attended their annual camp. This has been brought into action in recent periods. The regiment provided support to the Regular Army in the floods, and during the foot and mouth and fuel crises.
I am concerned that one of the changes that the Government have seriously considered is moving the headquarters of this enormously important regiment from Sheffield. Members will have heard the spread of the regiment, and as it goes right from Scotland down to the south of England, one would think that Sheffield was a good place for its HQ, being somewhere in the middle.
Perhaps more important, the community of Sheffield supports our armed forces, not just in words but in deeds. We recruit the armed forces and we have good cadet forces. We encourage our businesses to provide support for people to take part in the reserve forces and take on the kind of tasks that we have been discussing today. So I am most concerned that the Ministry of Defence, as part of its review, is considering removing that headquarters, taking a significant reservists’ base away from one of the largest cities in this country. That cannot be right. The Minister has time to change his mind on this, look at it again and do something about it.
As the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, the home of the British Army, I am delighted to participate in this important debate today. I am delighted that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition have brought forward this subject for debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), I could not possibly disagree with a single word in the motion. I hope that the newspapers and other media will take note that the House of Commons is today united in support of our armed forces, and that we have complete respect for them and all that they do for our country. That is a substantial change from what it was like when I first came here 30 years ago, when there was trench warfare between the parties—to use a military expression. That does not apply today.
I salute the attempts that the previous Government made to engage the British people. I have no doubt that Armed Forces day, previously Veterans day, has served as a valuable focus to draw the public’s attention to the role played by our armed forces and to get behind them. That is evidenced by the huge amount of money that the public willingly give to a range of charities—not just Help for Heroes but wonderful charities such as Combat Stress. They have done a great job, as did General Lord Dannatt in encouraging the public to express their support for Her Majesty’s armed forces.
We will be marking Armed Forces day with a military festival in Aldershot for the whole of next week, and the Aldershot military will be part of the celebrations. I pay tribute to the outgoing military commanders in Aldershot: Colonel Mike Russell, the garrison commander, who has done a fantastic job over a short time of liaising with the local community and running the garrison; and Brigadier Neil Baverstock, the commander of 145 Brigade, who might be more widely known to hon. Members and has also done a superb job. He retires from the Army this week to assume a role with a wonderfully outmoded title in the other place, which he will be starting next month.
In addition to taking part in Armed Forces day, Aldershot will benefit from 750 extra troops who will be coming to us following the repatriation of our forces from Germany. With the new building that is going on in Aldershot and the forthcoming Aldershot urban extension, we have much about which to be encouraged regarding the Army in Aldershot.
The context of our debate is more difficult, however. As the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), mentioned, we are having to make cuts to our armed forces, but that is difficult for Conservative Members, because we believe that the defence of the realm is the first duty of Government. However, the public finances that we inherited had been completely destroyed, so we have had to make unpleasant decisions. I hope that our withdrawal from Afghanistan will reduce the pressure on our armed forces, but I cannot be certain that Her Majesty’s Government will not be faced with other emergencies throughout the world. Given that the Prime Minister rightly wants the United Kingdom to play the significant role of trying to fashion the world in which we live, rather than simply reacting to it, our armed forces are unlikely to be kicking their heels on the parade ground in Colchester, Aldershot, Catterick or Tidworth.
Our armed forces are respected not only at home but abroad, and they leverage fantastic influence for the United Kingdom. I welcome the defence engagement strategy, which I had some part in preparing when I was a Minister. There is a focus in the Ministry of Defence on that strategy and on how we leverage defence diplomacy to the advantage of the United Kingdom to influence events in the world, as well as in the wider context of supporting our defence industry. I am delighted that the Opposition’s excellent motion—I salute them for this—refers to the work force of the British defence industry and the support that they give to our armed forces, because they deserve recognition.
There will be continuing debate in the House about the pressure on our armed forces. There is not time to go down that avenue today, save by quoting General Ray Odierno, the chief of staff of the United States army, who said a couple of weeks ago:
“As the British Army continues to reduce in size we’ve had several conversations about keeping them integrated in what we’re trying to do…In a lot of ways they’re depending on us, especially in our ground capabilities into the future.”
We must bear in mind the role that the British Army and our other services play throughout the world and alongside the United States. That is relevant to this debate as although we are talking about the armed forces covenant and support to the armed forces, we must be careful, because if there is not a worthwhile career in the armed forces, we will face difficulties.
Time is short, so let me just say that our defence exports are fantastic. They were worth £9 billion last year, which was a record year, and Britain continues to dominate. However, I would also say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the recent Supreme Court ruling was an absolute disgrace. It will do severe damage to the capacity of our commanders to ensure that they can make military decisions without being second-guessed by the courts.
More than eight months ago one of my constituents contacted me, fearing that, come April this year, her sons would be left homeless, owing to what has become known as the bedroom tax. Like thousands of other people across Teesside and East Cleveland and the United Kingdom, my constituent, Alison, would have had to find an extra £100 per month because she was deemed to have spare rooms. For those hon. Members not familiar with Alison’s story and therefore questioning the relevance of the bedroom tax to this debate, I hasten to add that her two sons are both serving in the armed forces, one of them on the front line in Afghanistan as we speak. We have a proud military tradition in Teesside and East Cleveland and Alison’s story rightly began to attract attention from the local media.
It was not too long ago that the armed forces covenant was enshrined in law. This was meant to recognise that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and their families, and it established how they should expect to be treated and to redress the disadvantages that the armed forces community faces in comparison with other citizens.
Alison has been a tenant of the same housing association for nearly two decades, and in this home she had single-handedly brought up her twin boys. Despite this history, she spoke to her housing officer about moving to a smaller property, only to be told that the association does not have enough one-bedroom properties to meet the needs of everyone. Alison was not opposing the Government’s policy out of stubbornness. She was trying her hardest to adapt to it but, as we are finding out across the country, the policy is one of the most ill-thought out that this Government have implemented, and the appropriate accommodation simply is not available.
In the months after Alison initially brought her situation to my attention, national interest in the issue understandably peaked. Alison’s case was even raised by the Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister’s questions, in which the Prime Minister insisted that the changes were “fair”. Nevertheless, in early March this year, the coalition Government performed an apparent U-turn when they made the following exemption:
“Adult children who are in the armed forces”—
including the reserve forces—
“but who continue to live with parents will be treated as continuing to live at home, even when deployed on operations…In addition housing benefit recipients will not be subject to a non-dependent deduction, that is, the amount that those who are working are expected to contribute to the household expenses, until an adult child returns home.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 9WS.]
Members may now be thinking that that is an excellent outcome and that the Government have realised their mistake and put it right, as did I, but unfortunately Alison’s story, and more than likely that of many others like her, does not end with this apparently successful change in policy.
It has been almost three months since the bedroom tax came into being and I am sure Members will have noticed the impact of the policy on their work load. Alison’s family has still been hit by the bedroom tax and she is now in rent arrears. The rushed U-turn has left the new rules unclear, with local authorities interpreting them with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, because of the way in which the Government have worded the regulations, only a tiny number of personnel, primarily reservists, will be exempt. If they lived in barracks prior to going away on operations and/or prior to commencing pre-deployment training, the Department for Work and Pensions holds that they are not the claimant’s non-dependent children. Operations include deployment abroad, pre-deployment and the debriefing process at end of deployment. Therefore, the exemption applies only to a small number of people, and DWP Ministers have confirmed this in response to written questions. To all intents and purposes, the Government seem to be redefining what adult children who are members of the armed forces register as their homes.
It is true that people can have a number of residences. However, for tax purposes, only one home or domicile is used. If, as seems to be suggested by Ministers who have responded to questions on this issue from me and from the shadow Work and Pensions Minister, the Government consider barracks the home of adult children who usually live there, the barracks should be used for tax purposes also. The regulations suggest to working-class young men and women that joining the forces may jeopardise their parents’ home—hardly a wise recruitment strategy.
It is grossly unfair to differentiate on this basis. It is a very mean-spirited technicality. The motion we are here to debate today is one to celebrate and commemorate our armed forces, and the armed forces covenant is a key way for us to do this. It recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the armed forces and their families, and it establishes how they should expect to be treated. If that is the law, the least our young adults serving in the armed forces deserve is to have their ability to live in their homes with their families respected, and not to have to worry about their parents while they are on operations and serving their country.
The Government urgently need to clarify their guidelines that were supposed to exempt the families of members of the armed forces from the bedroom tax, yet Ministers seem to have created another discrepancy that is a direct attack on those who are putting their lives on the line to keep us all safe. The Government cannot get away with statements that appear to resolve an issue but which, in reality, are deliberately intended to be obtuse so as not to deliver any such promises. I hope Ministers will be willing to meet me and other concerned MPs to exempt our armed forces finally from this tax.
I congratulate Her Majesty’s Opposition on the spirit of the motion and both the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) and the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), on their speeches. In endorsing everything said from both Front Benches, I wish to put on the record my appreciation of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is based at the Colchester garrison. I wish to praise all the armed forces charities, including Combat Stress, Veterans Aid, the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, ABF The Soldiers Charity, formerly the Army Benevolent Fund, SSAFA and a host of others, including regimental charities.
The Minister referred to the military wives choirs, of which there are now about 80, which I think is an incredible achievement in a relatively short period. I pay tribute to all those choirs. I am particularly proud of the Colchester military wives choir, because earlier this month it had the great honour of representing this country and the military wives choir movement at the Canadian international military tattoo in Hamilton, Ontario. I know that they were warmly welcomed because I was there cheering them on.
I referred earlier to military bands, which I believe are an important part of the fabric of this country that bring together the armed forces and the general public. In 1997 there were 29 Army bands, but today there are 22. Only last week, in answer to a written question, the Minister said:
“The number of army bands is currently under review as part of the Future Music 2020 re-organisation programme, although no decision has yet been made.”—[Official Report, 19 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 720W.]
I sincerely trust that there will be no further cuts.
Military bands actually have another role in battle. I used my military band to calm down a situation. In particular, I remember a piper playing on the roof of my building, which stopped the battle completely. People were perhaps wondering what the noise was, but it worked amazingly well. Military bands are very important in war.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that helpful contribution.
Earlier this month the Treasury put out some ignorant comments about the number of Army horses and tanks. Following that to its logical conclusion, I assume that next year’s trooping the colour will take place on bikes.
The hon. Gentleman said that those comments came from the Treasury, but I gently point out to him that the person who actually made them is a member of his part of the coalition.
The Minister is absolutely right, but of course the briefing was given by Treasury officials. I do not think that the Defence Minister is saying that he is never briefed by his officials. If that is the case, it is a very worrying situation.
With regard to the armed forces covenant, the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, recently conducted an inquiry into education for the children of service personnel. There is a conflict between the armed forces covenant and the Education Act, both of which are laws of this country, and that conflict needs to be addressed. Other conflicts are emerging already between the armed forces covenant and the definition of social housing for single former military personnel. I think that there has to be a ruling on that, because some local authorities are interpreting it differently from what the armed forces covenant means. I am concerned that the community covenant might, in some cases, be paying lip service, rather than being a reality. We need to look at that.
We also need to look again at serving Commonwealth soldiers being obliged to leave compulsorily on health grounds and then not being treated by the armed forces covenant. Again, the covenant is not being fair in the way the financial packages for voluntary redundancies are being looked at. I have a constituent who accepted the terms of redundancy based on his years of service, only to have the financial package withdrawn after he agreed to leave. I think that case might end up in the courts, so I will leave it there.
The armed forces covenant has a long way to go with regard to the condition of Army family housing. The Government have been able to find money to upgrade former military housing for use by civilian families, which I support, but they claim that they do not have the money to upgrade Army housing. I recognise that every pound of public money spent on those houses boosts their value for Annington Homes—in a shameful act, the last Conservative Government privatised the houses and in 13 years the last Labour Government failed to deal with the issue, although I raised it on many occasions.
Will the Ministry of Defence look at how the pay and dine operation works in practice? A car will run only if it has petrol in the tank; our soldiers can operate at full capacity only if they eat the right amount of food at the right times and in the right quantities.
Having praised those in uniform, I want also to praise the civilian work force, without whom our armed forces could not operate. I include the Defence Support Group, the MOD police who under successive Governments have taken a massive cut; in my constituency, 33 MOD police officers have been reduced to zero. I should also mention other guard services, the MOD fire service and all the support staff—not forgetting Garrison FM, which operates in the principal garrison towns of this country. I wish to broaden the wider military family and include the cadet forces.
The reduction in the size of the Army is not good news. I repeat what I said to the Prime Minister:
“On the Prime Minister’s watch, the Army will reduce to its smallest size since 1750 and will be half the size it was at the time of the Falklands war. Does he accept that history is not kind to Prime Ministers who are perceived to have left our country without a strong defence capability?”—[Official Report, 11 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 309.]
I do not think that trying to plug the gaps of a smaller regular force with reservists is the way forward. I support reservists, of course I do—we have fantastic Territorial Army people in my constituency. However, cutting the Regular Army and trying to plug the gap with Army reservists is not the solution. The move is being driven by the Treasury. Those at Treasury questions today will know the response to my question about how many civilian employees at HM Treasury had volunteered to join the Army reservists since requests for civilians were made in January this year: zero.
Armed Forces day in my constituency was launched yesterday in the town hall, with the mayor and garrison commander in attendance. The town and garrison have excellent joint facilities, including the athletics track and the Phoenix club house, which I opened earlier this month.
I end by praising the last Government for providing the new Merville barracks, the best in the country, and welcoming the current Government’s proposals for the first world war commemorations, which will commence in August next year.
I want to pay tribute to all the men and women who serve in the armed forces and say how important it is that debates such as this are held so that we can express our gratitude for the service they give, the risks they face and the bravery they show on behalf of the rest of us.
As I said earlier, the people of Dudley make a huge contribution to the armed forces through the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, a Territorial Army regiment with a base at Vicar street in Dudley. The regiment has a history in the region dating back to 1794, and A Squadron has had a base on Vicar street for more than 20 years. It attracts recruits from across the black country, having recently taken on 47 trainees; it is processing another 60 at the moment. Two dozen volunteers are currently on active service in Afghanistan. It is a popular and expanding squadron in a popular and expanding regiment with deep roots in the local and regional communities. In fact, it is one of the best recruited yeomanry regiments in the whole Territorial Army.
Ministers will be pleased to hear that the regiment is making exactly the sort of contribution they are asking for as they seek to double the size of the TA in the next few years. However, under current proposals, the regiment could be disbanded to make way for a new Scottish regiment. A Squadron in Dudley would be merged with B Squadron in Telford, and the Telford base would cease to be a regional headquarters, becoming part of the Royal Yeomanry regiment based in Croydon. The Telford squadron would end up paired with a new Queen’s Dragoon Guards regiment in the regular Army, based in Norfolk. Together with other changes to squadrons in the midlands, this means that the RMLY would be disbanded, despite its history and the contribution that people in Dudley and the wider black country make to it. The midlands would lose half of its five squadrons and a regional HQ. If we lost the Vicar street base, people who have done a full day’s work in Dudley would have to travel 30 or 40 miles to do their training and fulfil their responsibilities in Telford, which is unlikely.
Dudley would lose a central part of the community at the heart of events that unify people in the town, such as Remembrance day and our St George’s day parade, all to create a Scottish yeomanry, with great difficulty and huge expense, even though similar plans have failed twice before. Even if bases in Dudley and Telford are maintained under the new structures, I worry that they could be at risk in the long term because local reserve squadrons are best managed locally, not from a headquarters 140 or 150 miles away.
Hannah Bragg has created a petition against disbandment, gaining huge support and over 1,300 signatures already. However, I urge the Minister not only to listen to what she has said, and what I am saying, but to seek the advice of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), a former commanding officer of A Squadron in Dudley. Will the Minister visit Dudley to see for himself the brilliant work that is being carried out at Vicar street? Everyone accepts the case for pairing reserve units with their regular counterparts, but other alternatives have been proposed. What thought has been given to, for example, preserving the RMLY and pairing it with the Light Dragoons for closer co-operation? I hope that he will consider the alternatives.
In their responses to questions I have tabled and letters I have written, Ministers have so far refused to comment on the future of the regiment. I very much hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to guarantee the future of the Territorial Army in Dudley, and guarantee the future of the RMLY, so that my constituents can continue to make the huge contribution to our nation’s defence that they have done so far. Will he join me in congratulating the 47 new recruits and the 60 new leads that are being processed? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of contribution that he wants local communities to make if we are to hit this Government’s targets?
The people of Britain show huge respect and support for the work of our armed forces. Nowhere is this more true than in Dudley, where our local squadron and the wider regiment are at the heart of the community and have the freedom of the borough. It is hugely important that the TA is not reorganised in a way that puts that in jeopardy.
I, too, welcome this debate and this opportunity to celebrate our armed forces.
Very few communities are more shaped by their relationship with our armed forces than my constituency of Gosport. One need only look at the scale of our community engagement in events such as the Remembrance Sunday parade, where thousands of people turn out to watch representatives from all our military establishments parade through the town. Last year saw the parade for the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war, when veterans from around the UK came to the town of Gosport. Indeed, two of my favourite Doorkeepers from the House of Commons were among those who took the time to parade through Gosport. The Falklands Veterans Foundation is based in Gosport, offering invaluable support to our brave veterans.
Everywhere you look in my constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker, there are historic buildings that tell the story of our armed forces through the ages. You may not be aware that it has even crept into our daily language. The expression “Up the creek without a paddle”, or more colourful variations thereof, originated from Haslar creek, where back in Nelson’s day wounded sailors were taken up to the Royal Navy Hospital Haslar to recover, or otherwise. Of course, in those days they were not necessarily as keen to be part of the Royal Navy as people might be these days. They were held prisoner so that they did not desert while being treated, and some tried to escape by going through the sewers to the creek. I hope that these days people are much more inclined to remain part of our armed forces.
It is estimated that the armed forces community in Gosport comprises about 5,500 people. We have a very proud military wives choir—Portsmouth and Gosport military wives choir—and I went to hear them record tracks for their album. Fortunately they did not make me sing, which would have been a disaster for all concerned.
Gosport also has a high proportion of people who are in receipt of armed forces pensions. At one in 16, it is the highest proportion in Hampshire and the second highest in England.
The armed forces community covenant was signed by Hampshire county council in June 2011. Last November, on Remembrance Sunday, the Gosport armed forces community covenant was established to formally acknowledge Gosport’s long affiliation with the armed forces. Those covenants are voluntary statements of mutual support between the civilian community and serving and former members of the armed forces and their families. Above all, they are about respect underlined with action.
The demands imposed on the armed forces in the course of their duties are unique and set them apart from others who serve and protect our society. However, there is the potential for disadvantage if national and local government policies, as well as local communities, do not tackle the problems that military families encounter.
One of those issues is the opportunity to balance military and family life. That is a particular problem in the Royal Navy, which has the most unfavourable harmony arrangements of the three main services. That is why it is so important that shore-based military training is delivered as close as is possible to the big military communities. In Gosport, the marine engineering training at HMS Sultan, which is rated outstanding by Ofsted, gives Navy families a rare opportunity to live as a normal family, with husbands and wives coming home every evening.
Another big challenge is service mobility, which risks disadvantaging personnel and their dependants with regard to access to local public services, such as doctors surgeries, schools and social housing. The rate of home ownership is lower among service personnel than in the nation as a whole. Accessing school places has always been a challenge. The pupil premium that forces families now receive is hugely welcome. However, accessing school places continues to be a challenge. In big military communities, it is difficult for schools to maintain places for forces families. One of my constituents has five children at four different schools, which causes enormous difficulty.
The final problem relates to ongoing treatment and support. Serving in the armed forces comes with the inherent risk of serious physical and mental injury, which can result in the need for ongoing treatment and welfare support for service people and their families. I have talked about the legacy of the military buildings in Gosport, but there is a legacy in the people too. Many of my constituents have served in the armed forces. Many have given up the best years of their life and their good health for our country. Tragically, this country has not always given enough back. I have been troubled on countless occasions by the stories of ex-service personnel who have not received the help that they need to make the difficult transition from the front line to civvy street.
Many community organisations in my constituency help service personnel who have not made that transition very well. The veteran mentors scheme that is run by the Hampshire probation trust helps former service people who find themselves on the wrong side of the law by giving them mentors who have also been in the armed forces. As we all know, the armed forces, and the Royal Navy in particular, have their own language. I often receive e-mails that say “BZ” at the end. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that means “well done”. I hope that those people feel the same way after I have finished making this speech. It is important that military personnel are mentored by people who share that common language.
I am proud of some of the things that the Government have achieved. Taking the armed forces covenant seriously has been a great achievement. I am proud that they are finally addressing the inequality with regard to medals for Arctic convoy and Bomber Command veterans. As a country, we are right to be proud of our military past. We can now be proud of the future that we are securing for our service people and veterans.
It is apposite that we are having this debate today, because this evening I will have the huge pleasure of hosting an RAF Bomber Command dinner as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces with responsibility for the RAF. This evening, we will welcome Douglas Radcliffe MBE, a wireless operator; Commodore Charles Clarke OBE, a navigator; Alf Huberman, Bob Gill DFM and Harry Irons DFC, air gunners; Doug Newham LVO DFC, an observer; and Les Temple, who was on special duties, all of whom were part of Bomber Command during the last war.
The House will remember that Bomber Command played a crucial part in maintaining this country’s freedom: 55,000 airmen lost their lives during the second world war, a truly staggering death rate of 44.4%; 8,500 were wounded in action; and 10,000 were captured and interned. They were very young men—the average age was 22. The group I am hosting this evening are, on the whole, very old men, but men with a proud history of service to their country. I am pleased that many colleagues will be joining me to welcome them here to this House tonight.
Armed Forces day is very important. Not only are we recognising the past, but we are looking at what we do for our armed forces in the present. My local authority, Bridgend county borough council, has signed a community covenant, and the leader of the council, Mel Nott, has become our veterans champion. We take that responsibility very seriously. On Friday, I will be attending a Royal Navy eve of Armed Forces day reception at Coopers Field in Cardiff. The event will include a cadet field gun demonstration. I am sure that the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) will be pleased to know that the Royal Marine band corps of drums will be playing, and there will be a presentation by the Royal Navy presentation team. The following day, I will be joining veterans, councillors and community organisations who are coming together for the Armed Forces day parade in Bridgend.
I raised a number of issues in an Adjournment debate earlier this year. Following that debate, it was brought to my attention that the Armed Forces Act 2006 contains an anomaly for which I can find no reasonable explanation. The Act contains a list of what are known as schedule 2 offences, and requires a commanding officer to report those offences to service police. Explicitly spelled out in the Act is the exclusion of sections 3, 66, 67 and 71 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 from schedule 2. These sections cover sexual assault, exposure, voyeurism and sexual activity in a public lavatory. This means that if an individual reports any of these offences to their commanding officer, there is no requirement in law for that report to be referred to the service police—the report can stay within the chain of command. I can find no explanation for that. It was not clarified in the Public Bill Committee’s deliberations, and the House of Commons Library was unable to shed any light on it. To date, I have not received a reply to a letter I wrote to the Minister on 23 April on this issue.
In the civilian world, no individual would be required to report a sexual assault to their employer; they would go straight to the police. Their military counterparts are at a distinct disadvantage. I draw the attention of Ministers to the YouTube clip of Lieutenant-General David Morrison speaking on sexual offences in the Australian military. It is a fantastic clip, in which he makes it very clear that sexual offences have no place in the Australian military. He says that armed forces personnel should either
“sign up or get out.”
I hope we take that stance in this country. Men and women must be able to serve with equality and safety in our armed forces.
I have also talked of the need for a service ombudsman. Yet again, the Service Complaints Commissioner has said that the service complaints system is not working efficiently, effectively or fairly. There seems to be resistance from the chain of command, who fear it would undermine their authority. We cannot continue with a halfway house. Our servicemen and women deserve an ombudsman who can take forward their complaints, so that they can have a right to justice.
I draw the House’s attention to my interests as a member of the reserve forces.
I start by paying tribute to all our armed forces, all who support them and, given the flavour of previous speeches, to the awesome Portsmouth military wives choir, but it will be no surprise to the Minister that I wish to focus my speech on the issue of the Service Complaints Commissioner. I am extremely pleased with the work that Ministers have done on this, and with their recognition of the importance of the role and of the fact that it must be reformed. It is vital that we get this to work, especially in very serious cases such as physical and sexual assault, or where psychological and medical help is needed, or where the family is in need too.
In one case I have dealt with, the armed forces completely failed a young soldier who was beaten, burned and sexually assaulted by men in his unit and, after making a complaint, was placed back in the unit with the assailants. He received no help, despite two suicide attempts. When he was returned to his parents’ home, the family were unable to cope with his considerable distress and no help was made available to them.
This experience, and evidence gathered by the Defence Select Committee, has led me to conclude that the role must be able to compel the armed forces to act. The commissioner’s role must be to intervene when a complaint is live, to be proactive and to be able to spot trends, act on them and head off trouble. Arguments deployed against the Service Complaints Commissioner having an ombudsman role have included that it would interfere with the chain of command and that the role would constrict the complaints commissioner from acting on live complaints. The Defence Committee has outlined how both of these concerns can be met within an ombudsman role.
I am pleased with the work that Ministers have done on this issue and that they have made it a priority. I believe that they are extremely sympathetic to reforming this position, but I know from the few years that I have spent in this place that a Minister knowing the right thing to do is the easy part; it is making it happen that is the tough part.
May I take this opportunity to urge the ministerial team to pursue the request to beef up the role? The British Legion has highlighted that an ombudsman role would be much better understood by service personnel themselves. It must be able to act on live complaints and to compel the armed forces to act and a complaint must not necessarily close if a service man or woman is killed. Where there are systematic problems in our armed forces, they must be dealt with proactively. Our armed forces have nothing to fear from an ombudsman role and everything to gain. I urge Ministers to pursue this agenda relentlessly. We must settle it way in advance of a new Service Complaints Commissioner coming into post.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. There is an incredible amount of expertise on and passion for the armed forces in Parliament, as we have heard today, and as the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, it is a privilege for me to be able to see that passion regularly come through in the events that we organise.
I would like to make a few points. They include: the importance of the armed forces as institutions in this country; their changing nature, as the Government seek to replace professional servicemen and women with an increased reserve force following the strategic defence and security review; and the challenges and opportunities that will confront us as we approach the end of over a decade of expeditionary operations.
Since becoming an MP, I have had the opportunity to increase my familiarity with the armed forces, particularly with the Army, a great deal. I have visited British Army Training Unit Suffield in Canada, the armour centre in Bovington, the Army Foundation College for our youngest personnel and, of course, Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. I have spent time everywhere, from my local recruiting office in Manchester to the Defence Academy at Shrivenham. I have done that because if I have to make decisions about voting to deploy British service personnel abroad—putting them in harm’s way—I want to know first hand about the training, equipment and preparation they have received.
The high standard of training and the professional identity of armed forces are extremely impressive. The British armed forces are among the best—if not the best—in the world. I believe that that strength comes from three things: the quality of our recruits, the quality of the training they receive, and the common identity that is instilled in our people by the units themselves and, in particular, the regimental system. I am extremely proud of the regiments associated with my constituency: the Mercians, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Everybody in the House is worried about the recent High Court ruling, which has already been alluded to. It is extremely difficult for commanding officers to make decisions that put their men or women in peril, but now they have to consider whether they might be dragged before a court of law for a decision they make in good faith and in the height of a battle. The House has to sort this out and direct the law accordingly.
I appreciate that intervention from the hon. and gallant Gentleman, who speaks with particular authority on this matter. I am glad he has had the opportunity to put that on the record, and of course he can give us a greater insight than perhaps anyone else in the House on that point.
The people I represent have tremendous pride and faith in the regiments associated with my constituency, which unfortunately has had to contend with a considerable number of casualties in Afghanistan. I have seen how the regiments continue to support those families and how they become part of their own family, but I do not think that this is widely understood or appreciated by the public. I cannot begin to understand how a family must feel when, knowing that their child is away on operational duty, they open the door to see military personnel standing there and realise that it cannot be good news. When I talk to families in my constituency who have been in that position, I am impressed by how the regiments continue to support them. I believe that all the branches of the armed forces, but particularly the Army, are fundamentally important national institutions, and part of being a one-nation party means promoting those national institutions that bind the country together. The Army is a particularly fine example of such an institution.
The make-up of the Army is changing considerably under the Government’s plans following the strategic defence and security review. The Army will now comprise a smaller regular force and be more dependent on reserves, as we have heard. I have the greatest of respect for our reserve forces, especially given the role they have played in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this will pose substantial challenges. We should carefully consider what the effects might be on our reservists, their families and their employers, particularly if we find ourselves embarking on another military deployment of a similar scale to the one now drawing to an end in Afghanistan.
Let us consider what we ask of our reserves: we expect them to train in their spare time to reach the same standard as full-time professionals; to be prepared to put their civilian lives and civilian jobs on hold for lengthy tours of duty, possibly involving combat; and then to slot back seamlessly into civilian life at the end of it, only perhaps to do the same again within a year. That puts a real strain on people, so I urge the Government to consider whether the harmony guidelines that exist to maintain a balance between time on deployment and ordinary service will still be suitable for a military comprising a greater number of reservists. We might also have to consider stronger statutory protections for reservists who serve on operations and to promote and praise employers who correctly recognise that it is strongly in their interests to support employees who wish to do this.
The SDSR is not the only reason we should give serious thought to our armed forces over the next few years. As we near the end of our involvement in more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, it will soon be an appropriate juncture to ask what lessons we can learn from that deployment. I am not seeking a grandstanding public inquiry or suggesting a political reckoning; I am simply saying that we must critically evaluate how we have fought and managed this difficult conflict. Do we believe, for instance, that the strategic decisions made were the right ones? Did we initially get our force rotation right? Did the frequent change of tactics with each new deployment hinder our initial progress?
We have made real improvements in Afghanistan, but that has come at a great cost to this country in blood and treasure, so we owe it to constituencies such as mine, which have suffered a lot, and to the armed forces as a whole to evaluate the mission critically and to seek to make improvements for the future. We can never do enough to make our people safer, better cared for and better equipped to succeed.
This Saturday, as we celebrate the contribution our armed forces make to our country, hon. Members should consider how we can maintain the identities and institutions that are fundamental to the strength of our armed forces; what new issues we need to address as reservists play an ever greater role; and what we can learn from more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan. I am extremely proud of our armed forces, and I believe we must honour our duties to them as dutifully as they protect us.
We can disagree with nothing in the motion, but without wishing to break the consensual mood of the House, I think that this is too good an opportunity not to ask at least some questions of Ministers, in the hope that they will at least reflect on them and perhaps return later.
I am concerned, as are a number of Members on these Benches, that by keeping on cutting defence expenditure, we risk creating imbalances on a variety of fronts. Can it be right, for example, that the budgets of Departments dealing with health, welfare and international aid are being protected, if not expanded, as a percentage of Government expenditure? That puts disproportionate pressure on other Departments, such as Defence, when trying to save costs. I also wonder whether imbalances are being created in regard to our transatlantic relationship. Our defence capability is one of the key anchors of that relationship, but it is not a one-way ticket. There are obligations on both sides, including our own. If we keep shaving our defence capability, might we put elements of that relationship at risk?
I also suggest that we might be creating imbalances in other areas, such as our capability to meet our foreign policy objectives, whatever they might be, and defend our interests overseas. The House knows that I have not been supportive of our military interventions over the past decade, but let us put that to one side. There have been moments during those interventions when our resources have not matched our ambitions. It was not the fault of the troops on the ground, but in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular the necessary resources were lacking, and that had a knock-on effect on our ability to achieve our objectives.
I have other concerns but, as an ex-soldier, I shall focus on the Army. The plan to disband 20,000 regulars before knowing whether the plan to recruit 30,000 reservists to take their place will work is high risk, given that we do not know whether those reservists will be able to plug the gap from a capability point of view, or from a boots-on-the-ground point of view. I ask Ministers to ensure that that issue is centrally addressed in the forthcoming White Paper. There are key questions that need answering very soon, because redundancies are taking effect as we speak, and we do not know whether the plan will work.
There is a real danger that Government proposals will prove a false economy, in financial terms and in terms of military capability. Let us take cost savings as an example. I am conscious of the figure of £1.8 billion over 10 years, and more details will follow in the White Paper, but at the moment the Government are long on promise and short on costings and details. They have admitted in the Green Paper that it costs more to train reservists than regulars. The financial incentives being offered to regulars to join the reserves mean that they will be on a better scale of pay than a serving brigadier, if we include the £5,000 sign-up bonus, the bounty, the daily rate and so forth. There is also the question of civilian salaries being matched, although I am aware that the Government are considering capping an element of that. Again, we need to see the details. And all that is before we even consider the fact that the reservists will not be deployable in their first year.
I have already raised the question of the number of reservists that will be required. According to Ministry of Defence figures, the present Territorial Army mobilisation rate is 40%. If we apply that to the 20,000 regulars, we will need 50,000 reservists. I look forward to seeing the details of how that magic figure of 40% is going to be increased. It will take a concerted effort to achieve a mobilisation rate of much more than 40%, given that many people in the Army believe that we are not even hitting 40% at the moment.
There is also the question of the capability gap. In the 1980s, when many of us served, the TA did a very good job that basically involved reservists being transported out to Germany, digging a trench and waiting for the Soviet or Warsaw pact forces to arrive. Today, asymmetric warfare is becoming the norm. The skills base will become much higher, and our requirements will be much more demanding, yet I understand that the number of training days is being increased to 40 overall—an increase of only five days. I question that on the capability front, particularly when those forces are going to be mobilised as groups rather than as add-ons. That factor must be considered.
Does my hon. Friend share my fear that, with the scale of priorities we have at the moment, there is a danger that if we reduce the size of the Army much more, they will all be able to fit into the single first High Speed 2 train?
Let us hope it is not a one-way ticket!
Let me finish with a concern some of us have about the potentially distorting effect on the ground. Excellent, well recruited battalions, such as the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, are being axed, while more poorly recruited battalions are being saved. It is costing millions of pounds to keep over-strength battalions up to the mark. Such a policy is, in many respects, simply reinforcing failure.
In conclusion, I think this is a high-risk policy, and I ask Ministers to make sure that they cover the base very carefully. In my view, we need to see concrete evidence that the reservist plan will take effect and will work—before we let the regular battalions go. Here we are dealing with the defence of the realm, and this is happening when many countries not necessarily friendly to the west are arming and increasing their expenditure on defence. No one here can tell when or where the next threat will come from. I therefore ask Ministers to consider these points very carefully.
I rise to thank the shadow Minister and the Opposition for bringing this motion before the House for debate today. Every Member will be aware of my support for the armed forces. I have been a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army in the past and I have had the opportunity to travel with other Members through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. That allowed me to see a glimpse of what our armed forces do. I have been on a Navy ship and been to Afghanistan, and I have had the privilege to watch the intensive and back-breaking training done by each man and woman who serve, whether it be at Catterick, Sandhurst, Canada, Kenya or Cyprus. I am a keen supporter of our armed forces, and I will continue to be so.
We must all agree today that the armed forces are deserving of our respect, support and help. The veterans’ flag will fly this Saturday in the town of Newtonards in my Strangford constituency. Through the hard work done by the Ards borough council and the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association Northern Ireland, a veterans’ event has been arranged for September this year.
I am pleased that the motion makes reference to the armed forces covenant—a subject to close to my heart, for which the Democratic Unionist party has been pressing in Northern Ireland. Let me quote from a debate on Northern Ireland affairs:
“A recent report published by the World Health Organisation on post-traumatic stress disorder found that Northern Ireland had a higher incidence of PTSD and trauma-related illnesses than any other conflict-related country in the world”—
ahead of Lebanon and Israel. The study showed that
“nearly 40% of people in Northern Ireland had been involved in some kind of conflict-related traumatic incident.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 642.]
The survey estimated that about 18,000 people in Northern Ireland had developed mental health problems as a result. There is already a huge demand on relevant services from across Northern Ireland as a result of trauma-related illnesses arising from this conflict, which underlines the seriousness of the issues. This tells us that there is such a heavy strain on these services that they are not able to take care of our service personnel, which we should be able to do.
We need a covenant in place. That is the issue to which I ask the Government to respond. We need our Government to follow this through with specific funding, as befits MOD issues, as well as action to bring Northern Ireland up to the standard of the rest of the United Kingdom. We have heard much about what is happening in England, much about what is happening in Scotland, but I want to see the same thing happening for Northern Ireland.
I was dismayed to read a report of what was said—I pay no disrespect to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)—in the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee. When asked about the Welsh level of care in comparison with other devolved nations, he said:
“We have a particular challenge in Northern Ireland because of some of the Sinn Fein-run authorities’ views on the covenant and what it represents. In Northern Ireland, this is particularly sensitive and difficult, so if you’re talking about a score card we would have to take that into account.”
That is not acceptable to me or to the people of Northern Ireland; nor is it acceptable to the families of service personnel who come back changed and need specialised and specific help.
Northern Ireland, despite her small size, still contributes 20% of the reserve forces to the Army. Recruitment spans the Catholic and Protestant divide, which is to be encouraged. It is good to see things moving forward. The Northern Ireland cadets, for instance, have had the largest number of recruits for years. In some sections of the cadet force, the ratio of Protestants to Roman Catholics is 50:50. That will give the House some idea of how far things have advanced as a result of the Northern Ireland political process, and of the positive effect of what we have been trying to do.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, especially as I was not able to be present at the beginning of this important debate. Will he take this opportunity to put on record the deep appreciation that is felt by many people throughout Northern Ireland for the Royal British Legion, and for the many other charities that have supported the armed forces throughout the worst of the times and the troubles, and continue to do so in what are now, thank goodness, peaceful times in Northern Ireland?
I certainly subscribe to that sentiment. We have been extremely lucky to benefit from the work of the many organisations, including the SAAFA group, Combat Stress and Help the Heroes, which have done so much for us.
The Ulster Defence Regiment and the Home Service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment operate a care service that could perhaps be extended to those serving in the British armed forces. I also ask the Government to consider using buildings that were used during Operation Banner for the benefit of ex-service personnel. I think that we should do more than just ask the House to accept the words in the motion.
Let me end by saying that, to me, “We will remember them” is not merely a phrase; it is a promise. We should not wait any longer to demonstrate that ex-service personnel in Northern Ireland are in our remembrance—today in the House, and tomorrow, as we begin to implement the changes that are so desperately needed.
I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his brevity, which has enabled me to speak in the debate.
I welcome the motion. I have been in the House for three years, and this is one of the first Opposition days that I can remember on which I have been unable to object to the cut of the jib of those on the Opposition Front Bench. What does disappoint me is that there is no military wives choir or band for me to say a great deal about.
I shall speak first about the importance of Armed Forces day, then about charities that support our armed forces and veterans, and finally about the penultimate section of the motion, which refers to the role of those in public life and to what more can be done by central and local government to help veterans.
I think that 10 or 15 years ago there was a great deal of apathy in the country about the work of our armed forces, but over the past decade or so that has given way to a return of great enthusiasm for them. One of the few positive consequences of our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq is the fact that the armed forces are now treated far better, and are seen in a far better light. Armed Forces day has become a vital way of enabling the country to show its appreciation and support for our forces. I shall be in Nuneaton on Saturday to support Armed Forces day. I look forward to that, and to the launch of the Defence Discount Service’s privilege card, which will also take place on Saturday. That is a small thing for most people in the armed forces community, but it provides another way for us to show our support for them.
Let me now say something about the charities that support our armed forces. I want to focus on the work of Veterans Contact Point, a wonderful organisation that is based in Nuneaton town hall. It has three notable features. First, it is entirely run by volunteers, who are former members of the forces themselves and who understand the issues that confront service personnel when they arrive on civvy street. Many of those who run the organisation have also experienced problems after leaving the services, and are therefore well placed to provide our veterans with advice, guidance, signposting and other forms of practical support and help.
The success of Veterans Contact Point lies in the help that it gives to the cohort of people with whom it engages most: those who find it difficult to reintegrate when they leave the armed forces and return to civvy street. Many of these people have a problem with dependency on drugs or drink, or have been in trouble with the police or have been in contact with the probation service, and might have been in prison. The project is led by Len Hardy, the Warwickshire Probation Trust veterans champion, who has done a magnificent job. It has been extremely effective in providing a holistic service for our veterans in Coventry and Warwickshire, because it has brought together elements of Government and our charities. I want to mention in particular the important input of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the local Nuneaton and Bedworth branch of the Royal British Legion, the Scraping the Barrel charity, ABF The Soldiers Charity, which was known as the Army Benevolent Fund, and the European Social Fund. I would like a Minister to come and observe this excellent service in action, because it provides a huge amount of community good and a huge amount of support for those coming out of our armed forces.
My third point is about how people in public service, local authorities and the Government support our veterans community. Veterans Contact Point has had a very mixed response from local government and as a result may have to move venues. I do not want to be political, but we need to make sure, across the piece in local and national Government, that we do all we can to support such organisations. I have had some discussions with Veterans Contact Point about the community covenant grant scheme, and we need to address the way in which it works, as my understanding is that some of the bureaucracy has caused an issue in relation to accessing grants.
I endorse the sentiment of the motion. I will support Armed Forces day on Saturday, and I look forward to seeing a fantastic response to our armed forces, veterans and their families across the country.
I thank the Opposition for this opportunity to pay tribute to the courage and commitment of all our armed forces. My constituency has a strong military heritage, contributing many winners of the Victoria Cross—far more than would be expected from a town of its size. I have had many gallant predecessors myself, too, including the first, and first Liberal, MP for Cheltenham, the hon. Craven Berkeley, and Douglas Dodds-Parker, who was a Conservative MP in the post-war period and who served in the Special Operations Executive in the second world war with great distinction. I should also mention his successor, Charles Irving, who was deemed insufficiently robust for front-line service and famously bayoneted a retired lieutenant-general in the backside while on service in the Home Guard.
More distinguished service was seen by many Gloucestershire soldiers, airmen and sailors in two world wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Korea and in earlier conflicts. The Gloucestershire Regiment is now part of 1 Rifles, whose soldiers still proudly wear the back badge won by the “Glosters” at the battle of Alexandria in 1801, when they showed almost inhuman courage by turning back to back to face simultaneous French attacks from front and rear. They showed equally heroic courage at the battle of Imjin river in Korea in 1951, tragically losing 620 men in that one battle. Gloucestershire’s military tradition is also still represented by the Gloucestershire Hussars. As part of the Territorial Army, it counts Tobruk and Gallipoli among its battle honours. I hope such local connections are not lost in the future reserves development.
We also have the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps in Gloucestershire, an astonishing outfit of 16 nationalities capable of deploying for NATO at five days’ notice. It is, perhaps, a model of the kind of new flexible, fleet military that we need to create for the 21st century.
We also have strong connections to the defence industry, started by George Dowty in the 1930s and now represented by companies such as GE Aviation and Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, and companies like the Omega Resource Group, started by former soldier Jon Penhale. I am very grateful to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for meeting me to discuss Omega’s approach to providing employment and training opportunities for soldiers designed by former soldiers and recognising the unique challenges that they face.
Not only are the Government doing the right thing to develop an armed forces fit for the 21st century, with much greater emphasis on better integrated reserves, but they are right to have tackled some of the difficult challenges of the Ministry of Defence budget and defence procurement. Those are difficult things to face up to, but they are necessary steps that have to be taken if we are to make an armed forces that are not only fit for the 21st century in military terms, but financially sustainable.
I am happy to endorse Armed Forces day today—
First, I thank the 13 Members for their contributions to a good debate that has highlighted the respect that Members of the House have for our armed forces and the importance that they give to their role.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) talked about the contribution of Sheffield and her constituents to the armed forces. She described how the local community covenant was not just a piece of paper and discussed the work that was happening practically on the ground with local people and businesses. I know that Sheffield has a proud history, because when I was Veterans Minister, I had the privilege of meeting 300 women of steel. These 300 women helped to keep the Sheffield steel industry going during the second world war and they are held in high esteem in that city.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) —a very old friend of mine from our days on the Defence Committee—talked about the contribution of his constituency to the British Army. May I join in his comments about the tremendous contribution that Aldershot makes to the British armed forces? He also highlights the important role of defence industries across the UK. We could not equip our armed forces and carry out the operations we ask them to do without the support of those industries. He also congratulated the previous Labour Government on Veterans day and the formation of Armed Forces day. I am not sure that he will agree that he will also want to thank Lord Davies of Stamford, who was the architect of Veterans day in his report. The hon. Gentleman will also wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), who was also instrumental in developing Armed Forces day.
The hon. Gentleman said that, as a Conservative, he did not get elected to cut members of the armed forces and then digressed into what we usually hear by blaming the previous Labour Government for the deficit. We must recall that he was an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and they supported our spending commitments right up to 2008. May I gently remind him that he was also calling for a larger Army, a larger Air Force and a larger Navy?
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) rightly raised the case of his constituent Alison, and I pay tribute to him for how tenaciously he has championed her interests. She finds herself in a terrible situation, where she proudly has two sons in the armed forces but is losing out because of the Government’s bedroom tax. I know that the Minister has sympathy with this case and I share his frustration that the decisions of other Departments sometimes have an unintended impact on the members of the armed forces. However, this situation does need urgent clarity, because Alison and many others will rightly feel let down by the fact that she thought the Government had done a U-turn on this but they clearly have not. This should be pursued as a matter of urgency. When I challenged the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) on it, he was not sympathetic at all, but I am sure that the Minister in this debate will raise these issues with him.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) reminded us, as if we needed any reminding, that 16 Air Assault Brigade is based in Colchester and gave us the first reference to the military wives choir. He also referred to Army bands. As the Minister for the Armed Forces rightly pointed out, the person who was arguing for fewer military horses was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is a Liberal Democrat. Then again, the hon. Member for Colchester is one of those individuals who, as Liberal Democrats quite easily can, protests against the cuts in the size of the Army when he is part of the Government who are making them. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman grudgingly agreed at the end of his speech that the previous Labour Government did a lot to improve housing in his constituency. I tried to unpick the shambles of the Annington Homes contract, but it was not possible, and he is right that it was a very bad deal for the taxpayer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) mentioned the contribution his constituency makes to the armed forces, as well as the RMLY and the fantastic job it is doing to recruit reservists to the reserve forces. I congratulate the 47 individuals who have joined.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) helped me out for the next pub quiz I attend by giving the meaning and background of the phrase “up the creek without a paddle”—I am sure that many Defence Ministers must think on occasion that they are. That information will obviously be of great use. She also made an important point about family life. We sometimes forget that families are important through the support they give to members of the armed forces.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for the work she does on the RAF for the all-party group. She is a great advocate for the RAF in this House. I also congratulate her for organising tonight’s Bomber Command dinner, which I will be attending. I looking forward to meeting many of the veterans she spoke about. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) mentioned the armed forces ombudsman. I, too, pay tribute to Susan Atkins, the service complaints commissioner for the armed forces. I remember when the post was brought in following a good report from the Defence Committee on the tragic events at Deepcut, and the resistance from service chiefs, who thought that it would be the end of the world if we had a service complaints commissioner. It clearly has not been. The hon. Lady said that the armed forces had “nothing to fear” from an ombudsman. I reiterate that and totally agree with her points. I hope that the Government will take that on board.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned the Army’s links to the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the proud history of his constituency’s links with the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment and the Fusiliers. He rightly did not forget the casualties that have taken place in Afghanistan and other conflicts and raised questions about the strategy the Government are pursuing on the Afghan draw-down.
The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who has a great deal of experience in the reserve forces, raised the legitimate concerns of many people, even in the reserves, about the Government’s gamble in reducing the regular Army before putting the detailed plans in place to recruit reservists. It is a little like putting the cart before the horse and I agree with him that that is a high-risk strategy. Recruitment levels will be difficult to achieve and without proper protection in the workplace, many people will not be willing to volunteer for the armed forces. We will see how the plans are rolled out, but it would have been useful to see the White Paper before the Government embarked on the strategy, rather than halfway through the process.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the contribution of the people of Northern Ireland to the armed forces. I pay tribute to them. When I was a Minister I visited Northern Ireland on a number of occasions and witnessed the tremendous dedication of veterans, their proud history and the contribution that members from both communities in Northern Ireland are making today to our armed forces.
The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) mentioned the Veterans Contact Point in his constituency. He made the important point that many of these people are volunteers. I take this opportunity to put on record my thanks and those of the House to the army of volunteers who work tirelessly within all charities throughout the country to support our veterans and members of the armed forces.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) raised the proud history of Gloucestershire and the joint rapid reaction force. I am glad that it is bedded in. It was set up on my watch in the MOD and it was a complex move, but I think it was a successful one. He also rightly paid tribute to the defence companies, both large and small. There are many large defence companies in the UK, but we should not forget the SMEs and small companies, which make a huge contribution.
I thank all for their contributions today. Let us hope that the events of this weekend will not only reinforce the public’s support for members of our armed forces but give us an opportunity to remember those who have lost their lives in recent conflicts and those who have been wounded both physically and mentally in the service of their country.
I am pretty sure that I do not have to, but I will anyway, declare that I am in receipt of a service pension so I have an interest in this debate.
I will not be able to respond to all the points that have been raised today, but I will try. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will not be hesitant in sending me letters if they want a particular point answered to which I have not been able to respond.
Today’s debate has been remarkably consensual, which I welcome. It has demonstrated that Members of the House care passionately about supporting our service personnel. We are fortunate to be able to rely on the men and women of our armed forces, for whom as Minister for the Armed Forces I have some responsibility. It is a much over-used word, but it is a real privilege to have that responsibility and to work with members of our armed forces. I know that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has done that, as well as others in the House.
The dedication of our armed forces to maintaining our security and protecting our interests and values means that Britain is able to act as a force for good in the world, defending our national interests and our international obligations. We are all proud of what they do.
I was in Scotland this morning visiting one of our deterrent submarines and the submarine service on the Clyde, and it was extremely impressive and very professional. I know that other hon. Members will have seen that as well. The role of the armed forces both in the deterrent and elsewhere is difficult and sometimes dangerous. I pay tribute to their bravery and professionalism, which represent the very best qualities our nation has to offer. We owe them and the families who support them an enormous debt of gratitude. That is why the Government are committed to supporting the success of Armed Forces day, which was indeed introduced by the previous Government. It allows the public to express their appreciation of those who have served their country.
I was going to say that the right hon. Member for East Ranfrewshire, sorry Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy)—
Sorry, it is for me. I was going to say that he was better at running a marathon than—but then he was very consensual, so I won’t. I pay tribute to his time for the marathon. As he knows, I set him a target, which he beat very easily. Well done.
I am afraid that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) will have to wait for the White Paper for a decision about moving 38 Signal Regiment from Sheffield. I would like to have heard more discussion from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) about the Supreme Court judgment last week on extending human rights to the battlefield. It is a subject on which Members from both sides of the House may wish to comment. I know that we will be looking carefully at that judgment, and that we have some concerns.
I was sorry to hear about the constituent of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop). I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), wrote to him only yesterday and we do not believe that this is a general problem. Leaving aside the armed forces and reservists, I thought that the Opposition had accepted that we need to make serious savings, as we have been doing over the past three years, for all the reasons that he understands. On this day the newspapers have published the letter from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) which says that there is no money.
The Government’s policy clearly states that armed forces personnel families are supposed to be exempt but, after three months, it is clear that they are not and that councils throughout the country are interpreting the policy in such a way that only reservists count, not permanent members of the armed forces.
As I said, my right hon. Friend the Minister has written to the hon. Gentleman. They should have further discussions, because my right hon. Friend knows the details, but I fear that I do not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) made a wide-ranging speech in which he stood up for Colly, as soldiers used to call Colchester, although I think that they were referring particularly to the military corrective training centre. He also talked about bands. From the Government’s point of view, bands are an integral part of the Army, and indeed of the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force. Anyone who has ever marched to a band knows how stirring that is. I remember Academy Sergeant Major Huggins at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst saying, “If the hairs on the back of your neck don’t prickle when you hear a military band, you are in the wrong business.” On the Ministry of Defence police, I saw them yesterday at Coulport. They do a good job there and I pay tribute to them on my hon. Friend’s behalf.
The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) talked about the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry. I fear that I cannot pre-empt the White Paper, but I certainly would not want any damage to be done to the recruitment of reservists in Dudley.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) talked about the proud and close relationship between the Navy and her constituency. Indeed, my undistinguished service career began at the admiralty interview board in Gosport. I thought that “Up something or other creek without a paddle” was from Falstaff, but my excellent officials tell me that I am wrong, although I am still going to check it all the same.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) does excellent work with the RAF all-party group. It will astonish many to know that I got on so well with Bomber Command that I was made an honorary member of it, so I might just drop in for a quick chat later. My right hon. Friend the Minister tells me that she will certainly receive a reply to her specific question before the summer recess.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) talked about the service complaints commissioner. I am afraid that she will have to discuss that further with my right hon. Friend, but I understand that we are looking at the matter closely.
I was glad to hear the support of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for the armed forces. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and I have not dissimilar backgrounds. No Defence Minister wishes to see cuts to the armed forces or defence spending, but I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for coherently explaining the continued need to maintain defence spending throughout the current review. I think that he has done a pretty good job, and the story has been in the newspapers. On my hon. and gallant Friend’s point about reservists, he will also have to wait for the White Paper.
I pay tribute to the hon. and gallant Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his service in the Ulster Defence Regiment during difficult times in the Province. He stood up for Northern Ireland, and he was absolutely right that Northern Ireland makes a great contribution—indeed, a disproportionate contribution—to our armed forces.
I share the respect of my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for service charities, which do fantastic work. We will ensure that someone gets up to see them, but that might be my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. My advice to my hon. Friend is that a good start would be to set up a military wives’ choir, and I am sure that military husbands and the non-military could be involved.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) was rather cut off in full flow, but I agree with him about the ARRC. I shall shortly be visiting it and its commander, James Bucknall, who is also colonel of the Coldstream Guards, as I am sure that that hon. Members know. On hearing about Charles Irving, I feared that the lieutenant-general whom he speared with a bayonet was British, rather than German. The hon. Member for North Durham and I have sparred across the Dispatch Box for more than three years, but his speech was the most consensual that I have ever heard him make.
I am extremely proud of our armed forces, as I know that we all are, but I am also proud of the work that the Government have done to help to improve the support that we give them. In a consensual manner, let me say that we have built somewhat on work that was done previously. We owe our armed forces our very best efforts, because that is what they give us day in, day out, wherever they are stationed and whatever the conditions. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said in his opening speech, the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm, and we must never forget, and we must thank our armed forces for, the service that they provide in fulfilling that duty on behalf of everyone in the House and the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House celebrates and commemorates the contribution of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and their families, in particular those currently serving overseas; recognises the important introduction of Armed Forces Day in 2006 and urges the nation to come together and champion the Services’ achievements throughout the decades; pays tribute to the UK’s Forces, their families and the charities who do so much to support them; recognises the enormous contribution of the staff who support the UK’s Forces from within Government and the workforces in industry who supply them with world-class equipment; urges all those in public life to seek additional ways to support the Armed Forces Covenant; urges the Government, local authorities, business and charities to deliver the best possible post-service support; and considers the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant essential to uphold, through public policy, the provision of welfare and frontline support.