I beg to move,
That this House notes that the pay of Armed Forces personnel has been capped at 1 per cent in 2017-18 and that this represents another below inflation pay settlement; further notes that the size of the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and Royal Marines is below stated targets; notes that dissatisfaction with pay has been identified by service personnel as a reason for leaving their respective force; and calls on the Government to end the public sector pay cap for the Armed Forces and give Armed Forces personnel a fair pay rise.
Our armed forces represent the very best of what this country stands for. Across the House, we recognise their dedication and their professionalism and, especially at this time of year, we honour the sacrifices that they make on our behalf. Yet when it comes to their pay, our armed forces personnel have not been treated with the fairness and decency that their service deserves. In every year since 2010, the Conservative party in government has made a conscious decision to give our brave men and women a real-terms pay cut. As a result, regardless of rising rents in service accommodation and cuts to tax credits, the pay that service personnel receive has lagged way behind inflation in each of the past seven years. This sorry state of affairs means that the starting salary of an Army private has been cut by over £1,000 in real terms since Labour left office. Is it any wonder that the Government are presiding over a crisis in recruitment and retention?
Of course, pay is very important. However, does the hon. Lady accept that in a survey conducted among 12,000 members of the armed forces this year, pay did not feature in any of the top five categories, and that in fact the Government are doing a huge amount to ensure that terms of employment are right and that the armed forces have a good service model?
I am not quite sure where the hon. and learned Lady has been, because that is not evident in the materials that I have been reading. For example, AFCAS—the armed forces continuous attitude survey—clearly states that two thirds of personnel do not find levels of pay satisfactory. That is one of the main reasons why people consider leaving the armed forces.
I do not want to drone on about it, but I was in the Army for 14 years, and not once has someone spoken to me about their pay. Looking incrementally at how we are paid compared with our NATO allies or those in the US, the British armed forces have a respectable pay deal that goes up each year in pay bands with the X factor. It is simply disingenuous to say that there is a military out there that is deeply disaffected by how much it is paid.
It surprises me to hear the hon. Gentleman say that, because not only do we have the evidence in the AFCAS report, but the pay review body itself has talked about frustration with levels of pay and identified that as a real source of concern within the armed forces. I think we must be living on different planets.
Perhaps it depends on where you come from, because certainly in Wales plenty of people are complaining to me about pay issues in the armed forces, and people are struggling to cope with their bills. People have rung me this morning concerned about press reports on the cutting of the £29-a-day allowance for service in Iraq, which they see as a further cut to their capacity to cope while remaining in the armed forces. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this debate forward today. It is an issue and I am glad we are here to discuss it.
I represent Chetwynd barracks and am very proud of the great service of the Royal Engineers there, and I am a former Minister in the Ministry of Defence, with responsibility for welfare. I have to say that pay was not, and is not, on the list of concerns of those constituents who serve so well in our armed forces. Accommodation is another matter, but it is not about pay. With great respect to the hon. Lady, perhaps those listening to this are not being done a great service. There are other issues about our armed forces that we should be debating, but not this one.
I find the comments of Conservative Members quite astonishing, because I remember as a Defence Minister being harangued by Conservative Members in opposition arguing that we did a bad deal for the armed forces, even though we accepted the pay review body’s recommendation. With regard to the X factor, in 2013 the pay review body chairman was sacked because the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, did not want to recommend an increase in the X factor.
My hon. Friend refers to an absolutely shocking situation. It is very disappointing that Conservative Members are starting this debate on such a negative note.
More and more personnel are choosing to leave the armed forces, and every one of the services is shrinking in size. A recent Government-commissioned report by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) found that recruitment to the services was “running to stand still”, leading to the “hollowing out” of our armed forces. Yet rather than getting to grips with this problem, the Conservatives’ record is a litany of missed targets and broken promises. Their 2015 manifesto pledged to keep the size of the Army above 82,000. That was hardly an ambitious target, considering it was well over 100,000 when Labour left government, but miss the target they did, and the trade-trained strength of the Army is now just 77,600.
The figure of 82,000 had mysteriously disappeared by the time of the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto. That fateful document simply promised to
“maintain the overall size of the armed forces”.
We can add that pledge to the rubbish pile along with the rest of the Tory manifesto, because since June’s election we have seen a reduction in the size of the Army, a reduction in the size of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, and a reduction in the size of the Royal Air Force. Now we are in the shameful position where the Defence Secretary cannot rule out cuts to our Royal Marines, or even promise that the Army will not shrink further.
The Government may be complacent about the diminishing size of our armed forces, but we are not. At a time of immense global uncertainty—
I was for 15 years chair of the defence unions and responsible for our membership of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in north-west Europe, where 80% of our war dead are buried. I saw at first hand their heroism and their history. Does my hon. Friend agree that at a time when our country faces an ever more serious threat to our national security, it is absolutely wrong to cut tens of thousands from the armed forces and to say that those who remain will suffer a pay cut?
The hon. Gentleman needs to take cognisance of the fact that in every year we were in office, we spent considerably more on defence than the 2% of GDP commitment. In fact, in our last year in office, we spent 2.5% of GDP on defence—a figure that this Government have never matched.
I am a former soldier and not a mathematician, but I suggest that the hon. Lady studies the figures that the Ministry of Defence has released, which show that in 2015 its annual budget was £34.3 billion, and that in 2020-21 it will be £39.7 billion. That number is clearly going up, so overall the budget is increasing. To characterise the situation as a landscape of cuts is, frankly, erroneous.
Indeed, the number needs to go up, because costs are escalating. We have said clearly that we would match that increase, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that costs are escalating far higher than that figure will accommodate.
At this time of immense global uncertainty, we cannot allow numbers to continue to slide, month after month, while all we get from the Government is warm words and crippling complacency. The Government’s chosen recruitment partner, Capita, is completely unfit for the job at hand. We have had warning after warning that Capita has not fulfilled its basic obligations, but as the number of personnel recruited continues to fall, the amount paid to Capita has grown and grown.
We propose to take real action to begin to address that state of affairs, by lifting the public sector pay cap and giving our forces a fair pay rise. I recognise that that alone would not be a silver bullet for the crisis in recruitment and retention, but we know from personnel that pay is one of the main reasons why they choose to leave our armed forces. Satisfaction with basic rates of pay and pension benefits is at the lowest level ever recorded. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has found that there is an
“over-riding sense of uncertainty and an increasing view that the offer will only get worse”.
Barely a third of service personnel are satisfied with their basic pay, and 42% have said that pay was a push factor for them in choosing to leave the forces. Is that any wonder, when our servicemen and women have had to shoulder real-terms pay cuts that have left them badly worse off? Between 2010 and 2016, the starting salary of a corporal fell by nearly £2,000 in real terms, whereas for a flight lieutenant that figure was £2,800.
At the same time as they have been hit by real-terms pay cuts, our servicemen and women have faced rising costs in forces housing because changes to charges for service family accommodation mean rent increases for nearly three quarters of occupants. The Government’s future accommodation model risks adding to that pressure because it fractures forces communities by forcing service families into the private rented sector, with all the additional costs that that brings to them and the taxpayer. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has warned of a “perfect storm” for personnel who face increases in rent and national insurance contributions, at the same time as their pay is cut in real terms.
Let us be in no doubt that the responsibility for the below-inflation rises lies firmly with the Government. Since the Government lost their majority at the general election, Ministers have made great play of the supposed independence of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. They would have us believe that the pay review body sets the rates and Ministers merely implement them, as if it were some coincidence that the body had not recommended an above-inflation rise since 2010. But that is little more than a cynical attempt by Ministers to shirk responsibility, because of course they instruct the pay review body to work within the context of the cap. Despite all the warm words from the Secretary of State and Ministers, the Treasury has said that it will not fund increases above and beyond the 1% cap; that is a fact.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is worse than that? The idea is that the pay review body should be independent and able to make recommendations for Ministers and the Government to look at, but in 2013 the then Prime Minister sacked Alasdair Smith, the chair of the pay review body, because he made recommendations that the Treasury and the Government did not like. Does she agree that that is outrageous?
I am listening carefully to the points that the hon. Lady makes, and as a current reservist I have every sympathy with the idea that pay should rise. However, does she appreciate that within ranks in the armed forces there is pay progression? It is right to talk about starting salaries, but one also has to appreciate that pay will progress within particular ranks.
Has the hon. Lady taken into account the non-contributory pension that applies to the armed forces? Despite the fact that the 2015 changes represented a deterioration in terms and conditions, the pension still represents a wonderful gold standard that is the envy of both the public and private sectors.
In any career, one would hope to have career progression. The hon. Gentleman also refers to the fact that the pension offer is not as generous as it once was. The problem is that people still face a perfect storm of rising costs and pay that is not keeping up with those costs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our Conservative colleagues seem to be confused about the difference between a pay rise and a pay increment? Those are two very different things; one of them is an entitlement and the other is in the gift of the Government.
My hon. Friend expresses that perfectly.
Of course, the pay review body can recommend a higher award for a specific group of personnel, but if it did so, it would have to reduce increases for others. In other words, it would be robbing Petra to pay Paula. Even when increased pressure on recruitment and retention has been raised with the pay review body, it has been unable to recommend a pay rise to deal with the problem, given the Treasury’s insistence that it will not provide the funds.
Rather than passing the buck, is it not time for the Government to do the right thing and lift the public sector pay cap across the board so that our armed forces and, indeed, all public sector workers—firefighters, nurses and ambulance workers—get the pay award that they deserve? That is a popular policy that commands support across the country. More than three quarters of voters, including 68% of Conservative voters, want to give public sector workers a pay rise. I hope that that straightforward proposal will command support in the House this afternoon.
Let us remember that while other public sector workers have unions to work on their behalf, our armed forces do not, so it is all the more important that we in this House speak up on their behalf. I say to Conservative Members that there is no point in saying that they back our forces personnel if they refuse to stand up for them when it counts. There is no point Conservative Members pretending that they want forces’ pay to improve if they are not prepared to vote for it. Members should listen to what our service personnel are telling us. The pay review body has found:
“Service personnel are becoming increasingly frustrated with public sector pay policy. They feel their pay is being unfairly constrained in a period when costs are rising, private sector earnings are starting to recover, and the high tempo demands on the Armed Forces have not diminished.”
Those men and women work tirelessly to keep us safe. Surely the very least they deserve is fair pay for their service.
The fact is that we cannot do security on the cheap. Whether we are talking about moving the goalposts so that we barely scrape over the line to meet NATO’s 2% spending target, cutting corners with short-sighted defence cuts that have weakened our defence capabilities or imposing a public sector pay cap on our brave armed forces personnel, the Government simply will not stump up the cash to invest in our national security. I make this challenge to Conservative Members: they have talked the talk, but are they prepared to walk the walk into the Lobby with us this afternoon and show the courage of their convictions in their vote?
I am grateful to the Opposition for giving me the opportunity to discuss armed forces pay. The motion reflects a shared sense on both sides of House of the value our armed forces bring to the nation. It reflects an appreciation of their unparalleled bravery and enormous efforts all around the globe—whether fighting Daesh in the middle east, providing vital reassurance to our Estonian allies against Russia aggression, or bringing essential humanitarian aid to those whose lives have been devastated by hurricanes in the Caribbean. Lastly, it reflects a desire that those who put their lives on the line should receive the reward that is their due. At the same time, the motion presents but a partial picture of a complex issue, so I welcome this opportunity to correct some the misconceptions and provide some of the missing context.
I was going to say 2.14%, but it is 2.16%.
First, there is the broader fiscal context. We should not forget why pay restraint was imposed in the first place back in 2010. It was a consequence of a large inherited economic deficit. The whole public sector, not just our armed forces, was subject to the same conditions. Given that a huge chunk of the defence budget is spent on personnel—currently, just under £9 billion, which is more than we spend on equipment support—the MOD had an important part to play in supporting the Government’s efforts to restore the UK’s economic credibility. After all, a stronger economy means stronger defence. Having taken those tough decisions, we have since seen the deficit reduce by three quarters and the economy grow, while taxes are low and employment is high, which benefits us all.
Most of us in the Chamber sat through the proceedings on the ten-minute rule Bill, and no one spoke against it. Tribute was paid to the courage, the service and the sacrifice of our armed forces—not only in Northern Ireland, but in Iraq—and the Minister put his tribute on the record at the beginning of his response. There is a moral obligation, so I do not want to hear about fiscal reasons. I want this Government to recognise their moral obligation and duty to our armed forces and to lift the 1% pay cap in recognition of the armed forces’ courage and sacrifice for the country and the Queen.
I will move on in a moment to that very question. I would add that many of us also sat through Prime Minister’s questions, and I would simply refer the hon. Lady to the very powerful argument that the Prime Minister made in response to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) on the very subject she has raised.
The second point this motion ignores is the impact of pay progression. Officers and other ranks are tied to incremental pay scales, and they routinely and regularly move up the bands. The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) talked about privates. The average private soldier starts on a salary of £18,673. After one year, through incremental pay alone—not including the 1% pay increase—that rises to £20,029, which is an increase of 7.26% in one year. After three years, the salary rises to £21,614, which is an increase of 15.8%, not including the 3% increase that would have been given. That is an increase in pay of almost 20% over the three years.
The Minister is wrong. The point is that, in any job, people get a pay increase because they are being trained and their ability to serve increases as that goes on. The fact is that the yearly increases my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) mentioned affect a private’s pay because they affect the levels of the bands and the percentages. He cannot argue that, just because somebody gets pay progression, not giving them an increase in their basic pay every year will not affect their ultimate pay. Of course it will.
I am slightly worried about the hon. Gentleman’s approach. We have actually been great friends in this House for many years, so I am somewhat surprised that he called me disingenuous. I am sure that I will get my revenge at some point. As somebody who continues, after 29 years, to serve in the armed forces, I would like to think that accusing me of all people of being disingenuous when it comes to the armed forces is slightly unfair. I like to think that I have done my bit.
At the end of the day, I do not think that a private soldier receiving £18,673 in their pocket on day one—admittedly before tax—and then receiving £21,614 after three years will care too much whether that is due to pay progression or annual increases; it is money in their pockets.
Order. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) should not keep hollering from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the stance taken by the Minister. Apart from anything else—he is chuckling about it—it is marginally discourteous to his hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who had requested an intervention and had it granted, before it was ripped away from him by the hon. Gentleman’s unseemly behaviour.
Talking about the figures, I was very concerned to read in the London Times this morning that the Government are considering scrapping the £29 deployment allowance that applies to soldiers on the frontline in Iraq. The Minister is an agreeable chap, and I would like to give him an opportunity to deny that categorically at the Dispatch Box.
I am a very agreeable chap, but this is yet more speculation from The Times. No decision at all has been made to scrap the operational allowance. Every year since the operational allowance was introduced 12 years ago, there has been a review of where it should and should not apply. Soldiers have not been told that they will not receive it when they go to Iraq. I am deeply proud that this Government have doubled the operational allowance from £14 to £29. Finally—to get the last word, for the time being at least, with the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)—none of those figures takes into account the substantial rise in the personal tax allowance introduced while this Government have been in power.
I will not give way at the moment—I am taking my revenge—but I am sure he will get another chance.
Despite fiscal constraint, salaries in the armed forces throughout this period have not stagnated. Indeed, they have actually risen on average by 1.5%. What is more, the MOD has the option of introducing targeted payments where there are particular recruiting and retention issues. These payments can range from time-limited financial incentives through to longer-term recruitment and retention payments that recognise the particular challenges we face in retaining certain specialisms, such as military pilots or submariners.
That brings me to the third aspect of the pay story, which has been conveniently glossed over. Joining our forces comes with a range of often unacknowledged additional benefits: a non-contributory pension scheme, subsidised accommodation and food, access to free medical and dental care, and allowances packages—I have just mentioned one of them—towards additional costs. It is therefore unsurprising that pay is neither the primary reason why people enter the service, nor the primary reason why they leave.
Let us be absolutely clear: the subsidised accommodation costs that our service personnel are charged are approximately two thirds—I repeat, two thirds—of what they would pay in the private sector. There has been a readjustment across the range, because some of the bands were completely out of date. For example, accommodation was graded according to how far it was from a public telephone box. What relevance does that have in 2017 compared with access to broadband? So there was a readjustment, but let us not forget that members of the armed forces pay considerably less than they would if they worked in the private sector.
I am glad to hear my hon. Friend talk about non-pay benefits. My constituents at Catterick garrison and at RAF Leeming most often talk to me about the day-to-day hassle and unfairness they face as a result of their service. To that end, will he confirm the Government’s commitment to the armed forces covenant and perhaps develop further what they are doing to ensure that nobody is penalised by their service in our armed forces?
I am delighted that perhaps we have a moment of consensus across the House when we talk about the military covenant. It is indeed one of the success stories of recent years. When I was in my previous role, which is now filled by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), we managed to convince the nation of the value of service, and to see so many companies signing up to the armed forces covenant—well over 1,400—is a testament to its success. Indeed, every local authority in England, Scotland and Wales—
I thank the Minister for giving way. May I take him back to his comment about military salaries rising in real terms? Can he explain to the House why the Ministry of Defence publication of 1 September 2017 states:
“Fig. 11 highlights that growth in military salaries fell below inflation from financial year 2010/11 to 2014/15.”?
Will he source where his evidence is coming from, as opposed to the evidence that the rest of us are having to rely on, which is taken from the MOD’s own website?
Will the Minister give way?
I have been generous, but I am going to make progress. I will give way again before I finish my speech.
In other words, when it comes to armed forces pay, context is all, and the decision to award a 1% pay increase in 2017 did not happen in isolation. It followed a recommendation by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the Senior Salaries Review Body. They were clear that their decision
“broadly maintained pay comparability with the civilian sector”.
Critically, the AFPRB and SSRB are independent organisations that make annual recommendations. Their reports are detailed, comprehensive and take time to compile. For 2016-17, they gathered written and oral evidence from everyone from the Defence Secretary down, including more than 2,300 service personnel and 154 spouses. They held 186 discussion groups before arriving at a decision. Such a thorough, evidence-based approach is precisely why it would be wholly wrong to start introducing ad-hoc in-year reviews, as some people have suggested.
Focusing solely on the pay award also excludes the other reforms we have made to pay—reforms supported by the AFPRB itself. For example, in 2016 we introduced a new pay scheme, more effectively to reward personnel for their skills and simplify an individual’s pay journey. Consequently, people are better able to predict their future career earnings and make better-informed decisions.
At the same time, we recognise that, in an increasingly competitive world, we need to do more to plug skills gaps in parts of the public sector, such as engineering, if we are to continue delivering world-class public services. That is why the Government’s recent announcement that greater flexibility will be available in public sector pay remains key. It means the independent pay review bodies can now make their own judgements on future pay awards to mitigate any potential future impact. So, for 2018-19, the AFPRB will no longer have an across-the-board requirement to keep its recommendations within a total 1% maximum award. But let us not jump the gun. The 2018-19 armed forces pay review is still to come. It will be agreed as part of the budget process and we expect its recommendations early next year.
The Minister is extensively quoting the AFPRB, but it is also clear that it says that
“if inflation continues its upward trajectory, we could foresee recruitment becoming more challenging and morale being adversely impacted... we would need to consider very carefully whether a one per cent average limit on base pay was compatible with continued operational effectiveness”.
He knows my concerns about the recruitment figures and that I accept that pay is not the only issue affecting recruitment and retention, but will we see those recruitment figures going up, and will he listen to what the AFPRB is clearly saying?
Over the past year, we have seen 8,000 applications to the Army, which is an increase of some 20% on the previous year, but I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s view. I was deeply surprised to discover while reading a national newspaper that part of Labour’s plan is to use the money for marketing—some £10 million a year—as one source of income to give soldiers a pay increase. We have approximately 150,000 armed forces personnel, so that would be an increase of about £5.50 a month per member of the armed forces, but it would involve scrapping the one thing that delivers recruiting. So, no marketing budget for a bottom-fed organisation? Does he agree with that? Does he agree with the plan of his Front Benchers to scrap the marketing budget?
Marketing is obviously a crucial part of the recruitment process, but the Minister needs to be clear. He has given me an answer that makes it clear that every single course—including those at Catterick in the constituency of the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), who has just left—is under-recruited. Every single course at Sandhurst since 2015 has been under-recruited. It is his Government who are leading us to this recruitment crisis. Pay is one part of that, and a crucial part, but he is the Minister and he is in charge.
So we have a crucial marketing budget. Would that be scrapped? I am going to Catterick in two weeks to be the passing-off officer for the latest group of Gurkhas to pass off. That is a fully recruited course; not all courses are, but I am delighted to say that the last Sandhurst course was also fully recruited.
As the Minister knows well, newspapers do not always report things the right way round. The point we are making about the marketing costs is that they have rocketed. The question is, what value for money are those costs providing? What value for money is the contract with Capita providing? What evaluation have the Government done of whether the money spent on Capita—spent on marketing—is providing value for money in view of the returns they are getting? That is what we want to see.
The point that I was making is that there has been a massive increase in the marketing budget for zero returns in additional recruitment. That is the point—is it value for money? The Government are running the contract. They are employing Capita. They need to answer as to exactly what value they think they are getting out of Capita.
I am going to do the House a favour and move on.
As alluded to earlier, for those joining our armed forces, pay is not the be all and end all. People sign up to challenge themselves, experience adventure and learn new skills. The most frequently cited reason for leaving, according to the 2017 armed forces continuous attitude survey, is the impact of service on family and personal life. That is why we are keen to do all we can to improve life for our personnel. Some 70% of our people told a recent MOD survey that they wanted more flexible working opportunities, so we are introducing a flexible working Bill. It will enable regular service personnel temporarily to change the nature of their service, enabling part-time working or protection from deployment to support an individual’s personal circumstances “where business need allows”.
I will in a minute, but only once more because others want to speak in this short debate.
At present, a woman considering starting a family, or an individual with caring commitments, faces a difficult choice over leaving when their circumstances change. We do not want to lose good people with knowledge, skills and experience from a more diverse workforce, and we should not have to.
By providing a more modern and flexible employment framework for our people, we will help to improve morale, retain and recruit the very best, and increase the overall effectiveness of the armed forces. More than that, we will also help to attract recruits from a wider cross-section of society—those who might otherwise not have considered a military career.
Pay and flexible working, in and of themselves, do not offer a silver bullet to address the issues of recruitment and retention, as highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford in his excellent report “Filling the Ranks”, but taken together with our broader people programme, we believe that it will have a significant impact.
I thank the Minister. Many colleagues have mentioned the overall package, but may we go back to service family accommodation? I shall be talking about pay later, but the reality is that SFA and the CarillionAmey contract are the No. 1 issue, in addition to pay, that is raised with us every day. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, I think that SFA is becoming a headache for everybody and needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency.
The hon. Lady makes a very valid point. In my previous role, I spent a lot of time with CarillionAmey. I took the chief executive on a walk around Woolwich to see the standard of some of the accommodation. I think that there is acknowledgment across the House that the situation has improved, but there is still an awful lot more work to do. We recognise that and are determined, as were the previous Government, to address this issue. Of course the better defence estate strategy is part of the key to that. As we begin to consolidate our barracks, we will have less mobility of our armed forces; we will be able to dispose of some sites and all that money will be reinvested.
I really welcome the contribution by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), my colleague on the Defence Committee, because this whole debate comes down to credibility. Yes, we would always want more money; people will always want to be paid, but that is not the No. 1 issue. Generally, we have a good offer for our servicemen and women. We have deep challenges with accommodation, veterans’ care and mental health, but this has to be a credible debate, and it is simply not the case that our men and women have a raw deal on pay and experience.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point.
It is worth being clear about what this programme entails. It will see us offering greater help to personnel, so that they can live in private accommodation and meet their aspirations for home ownership. It will see us develop a new employment offer for new joiners to the service from 2020, better meeting the expectations of future recruits and targeting resources on the people we need most.
No: I have been very generous.
The programme will also make it easier for people to move between the public and private sectors during their careers—retaining and making the most of their skills in areas where they are most needed.
Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford outlined, there is still more to do, whether recruiting more people from ethnic minority communities, improving accommodation or making sure that all our people are fit mentally as well as physically; but we are now hard at work developing an action plan to take forward his recommendations, including a planned medical symposium.
Our people will always be our greatest asset. As a Minister and a reservist, I have nothing but respect and admiration for achievements of our armed forces personnel. Of course I appreciate the impact that pay restraint has had, but I also believe we are taking a balanced approach. On the one hand, we are ensuring pay discipline, which is critical to the future affordability of public services and the sustainability of public sector employment. On the other hand, we are doing our utmost to make sure that our overall package not only reflects the value that our people bring to our country but retains the flexibility that is so vital in attracting the best and the brightest.
Armed forces pay structures and levels are regularly reviewed, and I look forward to hearing the AFPRB’s latest recommendations. In the meantime, I am personally committed to doing everything I can to make sure that our exceptionally talented and hard-working men and women continue to receive the recognition that is their due.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for bringing the motion before the House.
In the short time that I have been the Defence spokesperson for my party, it has become abundantly clear that the Secretary of State—who, unfortunately, is leaving us at this moment—is not so much running a Department as presiding over a shambles with, I believe, the fourth-biggest spend in Whitehall. You have to hand it to Ministers, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it takes some brass neck to come to this House time and time again and seek to portray this team as in command of its ship, when the reality is that when you lift that thin veil, the chaos and the haemorrhaging of money is there for all to see, and it is like nothing I have seen in the two and a half years that I have been a Member of this House.
On the issue of pay and the broader issue of terms and conditions, I wish to bring the House’s attention to a piece of work that will be led by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan)—a commission set up by my party to review what offer we think should be made to members of the armed forces. That will look in detail at the issues of pay, pensions, a trade union or representative body—which was mentioned today and in a previous debate this week—and, of course, housing and homes for veterans and their families.
On the pay cap, it should be noted that the Scottish Government were the first Government anywhere in the UK to commit to lifting the 1% pay cap right across the public sector. We believe that it is the very least that workers in uniform—be they nurses, police officers or those who protect us in the armed services—truly deserve. The pay freeze—which, as has been mentioned, is in reality a cut to their wages—is one of the many, many components making up the crisis in recruitment and retention. Inflation has pushed the cost of living up for everyone, meaning that their take-home salary is being stretched like never before. For too many, there is too much month at the end of their money.
Let me just adumbrate for Ministers, with inflation sitting at 3%, what that means. If your base pay is £21,000 you receive £21,210 after your 1% rise. When you account for inflation, Madam Deputy Speaker, it leads to a real wage loss of £420. So how Ministers and Government Back Benchers can come to this House and participate in the inevitable crescendo of backslapping and chest thumping, claiming to be the party that backs the armed forces—no doubt we have a couple of hours of that to go—is beyond me. I would be embarrassed to defend this Government’s record on armed forces pay.
Having outlined—[Interruption.] I shall come to the nuclear deterrent; I am glad that the Whip, the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), mentions it from a sedentary position. Having outlined, as many speakers no doubt will, the bravery and sacrifice that those in our armed forces display, and what they are asked to live with, it would take some nerve to do anything other than support the Opposition motion and offer my party’s support for it. But there is a deeper, more fundamental issue that we cannot ignore, and that is how this Government and previous Governments have chosen to spend money defending the nation, which brings me to the Government Whip’s point.
There are certainly many arguments against Trident, and I have had very honest disagreement with those who support Trident. The cost is certainly one argument against it. The drain that the cost puts on our ability to defend ourselves is, I believe, unsustainable, and more and more people in the defence community are realising that.
Let us put that cost in context. The Government’s own figure for Trident is £31 billion, so if we take a starter Army officer’s salary of £26,000, it equates to over 1.1 million new staff officers. Clearly we do not need that many, but when the picture is laid out in those terms, against a backdrop of a recruitment crisis, broken manifesto pledges on the size of the army, and forces numbers at their lowest since King George III was on the throne—since Arthur Onslow was the Speaker of the House of Commons—it puts the draining cost of Trident on our conventional capabilities into some perspective. And that is before we even get to the £100 million of efficiency savings that commanders have been asked to make in addition to cuts to already threadbare budgets for training, for maintenance, for accommodation and for travel.
I want to return to those numbers: 82,000 was the commitment made by the Conservatives in their manifesto. It was their pledge, not mine, and it was not one number—
Before the hon. Gentleman completely leaves Trident behind, is he aware that the Defence Committee recently took evidence from a group of senior academics who told us that it would be wrong to assume now that North Korea is incapable of reaching the United Kingdom with a thermonuclear warhead? In other words, they think that the North Koreans are already there, or extremely close to it. Given the unstable nature of the North Korean regime, is not that a very strong argument for retaining our own independent nuclear deterrent to deter whatever those in Pyongyang might think?
Perhaps I can offer some information about deterrence. Some of the real, tangible threats that we face, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been faced by people such as my brother, who is a reservist, so not even a regular member of the armed forces—some Members of the House know him. Investing in the people at the frontline is more important than Trident, which is sitting in Faslane and doing nothing but gathering dust.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am trying to resist having a debate on Trident and to stick to the issue at hand. Of course the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) can quote academics who are in favour of Trident, just as Members on my side of the debate can quote academics who are against it. We would be more than happy to debate another motion on that.
The Conservative party’s manifesto set out a commitment to 82,000 for the size of the Army, and not one number below that. We know that the Government have failed to meet that commitment, as the number has fallen to 78,010, which is a shortfall of 3,990 fully trained troops. As if that was not bad enough, just five months ago, when pressed on the numbers at the Royal United Services Institute’s land warfare conference, the Secretary of State had nothing to offer in response but obfuscation, which is deeply concerning when we consider how that prejudices our ability to field a short-notice, war-fighting division of 40,000 troops, which is seen as absolutely critical by our allies.
On recruitment, the Government clearly do not see the issue with their reputation as an employer. They have increased spending on advertising by 50%, yet the numbers keep sinking.
I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman, and I praise the work that his hon. Friend’s brother does in the Army Reserve. We are one Army and all the same, whether reservists or full-time regulars. That is how it was when I served and how it always should be. One area where we are desperately short and struggling to recruit is the Scottish infantry regiments, which is unusual. Has he any idea why people in Scotland do not want to join the infantry? Might it be that they are frightened they would be dragged out of the British Army and into an independent Scottish Army?
I am up for a debate on Trident or independence. I do have some respect for the right hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to him for his service. I recall him appearing before the Transport Committee when he was a Minister, so I know that he is a thoughtful Member of the House. To answer his question bluntly, no, the threat of independence is not what is putting off potential recruits. If he stays for the rest of the debate and listens to what other Members have to say, he will realise that there are serious things that are putting people off. I say that not because I want to have a bun fight across the Chamber, but because we want to see that sorted. Even if Scotland became independent tomorrow, it would still be in our interests for England to have a strong Army. I am not interested in having a constitutional bun fight, but I will allow him to intervene again.
That is not my intention either. I was the Armed Forces Minister before my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) took over the role—he is doing a fantastic job, because he has much more experience in the Army than I ever had. The point I was trying to make is that the English regiments have always been augmented by Scottish troops, particularly in the infantry—the corps are full of Scots and Welsh, but particularly Scots—but now the Scottish infantry regiments will be augmented by English recruits. I have no problem with that, but it is interesting, and it is not just about pay; it is very often about the package. I will stay for the debate and I will speak, probably for about seven minutes.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, and I look forward, as always, to hearing his contribution. To be fair to Members on the Opposition Benches, I do not think that anyone has said that this is just about pay. In fact, we had a very thorough debate earlier this week on flexible working, when many other issues were also addressed. I see that his colleague, the hon. Member for Burton, is nodding in agreement. [Interruption.] I understand what the motion is about. He is shouting from a sedentary position, but if he allows me to make a little more progress, perhaps he will hear what else I have to say on what might be stopping Scottish people joining the armed forces.
Colonel Kemp, who took command of UK forces in Afghanistan in 2003, has criticised the Government’s reliance on outsourcing with Capita, which in 2012 took over regular and reservist Army recruitment in a contract valued at around £44 million over 10 years. That seemed to cause a bit of a bun fight across the two Front Benches. I ask Government Members, and the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Burton, who seems determined to shout me down at every turn, why will they not heed the advice of a report part-authored by one of their own colleagues, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, which recommended in July this year that the Government should accelerate work on an alternative to the Capita contract? That thoughtful recommendation, which we support, was set out in a report part-authored by a Government Member.
I want briefly to mention pensions, because that is another area. I note that the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) has now left the Chamber, having asked me to talk about other areas, which is a shame. It is well known that the Ministry of Defence is working on a new joiners offer, which I would like to hear more about. On pensions, I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that the Ministry is working on new joiners’ offer arrangements. If so, how does that square with the promise, given a few years ago, that pension arrangements were safe for 25 years? Will any new scheme apply only to those joining after a particular date, or will the cut be retrospectively applied to those currently serving?
There is clearly a lack of consensus across the House, at least between the Government Benches and these Benches. Would the armed forces of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland not be better served by consensus, as we see in countries such as Denmark, where there is trade union representation for members of the armed forces, and where pay, housing and health are part of a consensual approach, and not just by Government but by those serving, through their trade union membership?
My hon. Friend makes a thoughtful point, and I noted Government Members shaking their heads in disagreement. In the Netherlands they have not just one trade union, but four. I do not see what the Government would have to fear from a trade union, or certainly from a body similar to the Police Federation, which could stand up for members of the armed forces when discussing these matters.
In conclusion, when all these issues are considered in the round, added to the huge number of issues faced by armed forces and veterans families, I hope that the chest thumping and backslapping that we normally see in such debates will give way to something of a lento and a decrescendo, so that a sober reflection is what drives Members in their contributions and voting this afternoon. The Ministry of Defence must urgently bring back some decency and honour to the way it treats our armed forces and veterans communities.
Defence—proper defence—cannot be bought on the cheap. That is as true of equipment and platforms as it is of the people we ask to defend us every single day. A career in the forces should be something not only that people are proud to pursue, but that the Government can offer with pride, but they cannot do so seriously if they continue to preside over wage cuts for those who protect us every day.
This morning, along with 20 other MPs and peers, I attended a brief act of remembrance at the Guard’s Chapel in Wellington barracks, where we paid our respects to the fallen. I think that it is an underappreciated fact that over 30 Members of this House have themselves served in the armed forces, in either the regulars or the reserves, including myself, the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). Another of those people is my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, who served in the Royal Naval Reserve and who was present this morning. However, he has asked me to offer his apologies to the House because he had two unbreakable commitments this afternoon and therefore could not, as he usually would do, contribute to this debate.
Our armed forces are currently under pressure. As of May 2017, the total strength of the regular armed forces was 138,350, some 5% below their establishment strength, and the shortages are far worse in specialised trades. In the year to April 2017, over 2,000 more people left the regular armed forces than joined.
As I argued in the House recently, a combination of lower retention than expected and failure to achieve recruiting targets means the under-manning in the armed forces is worsening. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are now running at around 10% below their annual recruiting target, while for the Army the shortfall is, unfortunately, over 30%.
This continuing process of “hollowing out” in the ranks also threatens to compound the problem by increasing the pressure on those personnel who remain. In order to address these problems, the Ministry of Defence needs to improve its recruiting performance, particularly among black, Asian and minority ethnic personnel and female personnel. The MOD has a target, set by the Minister for the Armed Forces, for 15% of all recruits to be female by 2020. In the year to 31 March 2017, female personnel represented 10.2% of the regular armed forces, while the proportion for the reserves was somewhat higher, at 14%.
The RAF, which for some time has had a programme devoted to nurturing female talent, has three female officers of two-star rank, and there is one female officer of two-star rank in the Army, but, unfortunately, there is none in the Royal Navy.
As the right hon. Gentleman had to correct me on Monday to inform me of the position, may I ask whether he agrees that we hope that, at some point, the senior service, the Royal Navy, will catch up with everybody else and ensure that we have a female leading officer sooner rather than later?
Yes, I would like one day to see our new aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, which is named after our wonderful Queen, captained by a woman.
The MOD has been able to make much of female representation in media terms in order to show the career progression that is possible for female officers, but clearly it would be desirable to see female candidates reaching three-star rank or above in the relatively near future. The independent service complaints ombudsman has three-star rank, but she is independent of the armed forces. In addition, as a ministerial example, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) was, I believe, the first female Minister of State for the Armed Forces in history; she held the post from 2015 to 2016.
The MOD is now also introducing women in ground close combat, meaning that in future women will be allowed to serve in the Royal Marines, the infantry and the RAF Regiment. Places will be made available to female candidates who can pass the requisite physical standards, which will be maintained as the same as for their male counterparts; that is important in maintaining confidence in the process. In addition, women will be allowed to apply for posts in the special forces, again entirely on merit, thus clearly demonstrating there are no longer any areas of the armed forces that are off-limits to female personnel.
The RAF Regiment was opened up to suitably qualified female candidates this September, and women will be able to take places in the Royal Armoured Corps and the infantry in 2018. It will take some time for the absolute number of women in ground close combat to build, but the opportunity should be used at an early stage, with exemplars, to demonstrate unequivocally that there are no longer any restrictions of opportunity for women serving in the armed forces.
The flexible engagement system, which we debated in the House on Monday evening and to which several Members have already referred, will positively affect the ability to attract and retain a diverse workforce. FES is designed to allow individuals to decide on their level of commitment, including opportunities for work in full-time and part-time capacities, with the current barriers between regular and reserve being reduced. That flexibility should be particularly helpful in assisting women to enjoy full careers in the armed forces over a period of time, while reducing concerns female recruits may have about the longevity and potential progression of their careers.
Overall, female recruitment—including representation at senior level—is starting to show real success, and this is one area where the Ministry of Defence can afford to be more ambitious. The 15% recruitment target by 2020 seems likely to be met and the Royal Air Force is already intending to raise its target to 20% by 2020. If the Department wants to continue the momentum that is currently being developed in this area across the three services, I believe it should set a new stretch goal of 20% of recruits being female by 2025. In addition, maximum publicity should be given to the introduction of women in ground close combat, to highlight that all areas of the armed forces are now open to female talent.
Two years ago, the Government set up an armed forces credit union to help armed forces personnel on low pay who might be vulnerable to payday loan companies charging very high rates of interest. Two years on, the three armed forces credit unions are well-established, but could do with the MOD taking steps to advertise their services more widely. Given that 15 years ago the right hon. Gentleman showed a brief interest in co-operatives, may I encourage him to join me in encouraging the Minister to think through what else the MOD might do now to encourage awareness of that armed forces credit union among military personnel?
The hon. Gentleman’s researcher has clearly been on the ball. I know that in the United States service credit unions are far more advanced than here; there is a big movement in America. I for one would ask Ministers to look munificently on the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I am now feeling guilty for not giving way to the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas). He makes a very reasonable point. I am very pleased with the progress we have made with the credit unions, but there is always more we can do. I will look into this point, and write to the hon. Gentleman.
We appear to have got some consensus there.
In July 2013 the Government published a White Paper entitled “The Reserves in the Future Force 2020: valuable and valued”, which envisaged an ambitious revival and expansion of Britain’s reserve forces, under the heading of Future Reserves 2020, or FR2020. The roll-out of that programme was initially complicated by a combination of excessive bureaucracy, delays to medicals for recruits and IT problems.
In response, the three services—in particular the Army, where the greatest problem lay—committed additional resources to reinforce the recruiting effort, and now, several years on, that has borne fruit. As of May 2017, the trained strength of the Army reserve is 26,730 as against a target of 26,700; the maritime reserves, including the Royal Marine Reserve, stood at 2,590 against a target of 2,320; and the figures for the RAF reserves, including the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, were 2,140 against a target of 1,860.
Reserve recruiting now enjoys support from across British industry, including the Business Services Association, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors, and is an important part of the armed forces covenant. In addition, considerable success has been achieved by offering “recruitment bonuses” to ex-regulars who have left the services but have then joined their reserve counterparts.
There is no room for complacency. That has only been achieved with considerable investment, of both money and effort, by the regular as well as the reserve forces. If the targets in FR2020 are to be met, it is vital that this earmarked funding is continued and not sacrificed to in-year savings, which would run the risk of seriously compromising the momentum achieved to date. Overall, however, the reserves story is now becoming a successful one, and is far healthier than it was only a few years ago.
An important aspect of the overall quality of life in the services is represented by service accommodation, and this is where the Ministry of Defence must do better if it wishes to retain the support of service personnel and, particularly, of their families. Remember the saying: “Recruit the serviceman, retain the family.” The UK tri-service families continuous attitudes survey, published in July 2017, shows that the level of satisfaction with the maintenance of service families’ accommodation remains low following a large decrease in 2016. In particular—this follows on from the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth)—there are issues surrounding the delays in the MOD’s housing contractor, CarillionAmey, responding to requests for maintenance and also with the quality of the maintenance and repair work subsequently undertaken. Only 34% of those surveyed said that they were satisfied with the responsiveness of the contractor and only 29% were satisfied with the quality of maintenance or repair work that it undertook.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the problems with that contract is the existing key performance indicators? The contractor gets a big tick for turning up within 24 hours, but that does not mean that the boiler has been fixed. That could take another eight days. The letter of the contract might be being fulfilled, but it is definitely not being fulfilled in spirit.
The hon. Lady anticipates what I am about to say. I will come on to boilers in just a minute. Her point about acting to the spirit of the contract is well made, and I agree with her.
The FCAS report states:
“Satisfaction with most aspects of SFA fell markedly in 2016 due in part to underperformance by the National Housing prime contractor and changes to the SFA charging method in April 2016.”
Similarly, the Army Families Federation—sometimes affectionately referred to as the Army freedom fighters—reports that housing continues to be the biggest concern for Army families. There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence about the poor performance of CarillionAmey and, put simply, we are not honouring our people by providing them with this shoddy service. We send a serviceman halfway around the world to fight for their country and we call them a hero, as that is what they are, but back at home their wife spends weeks trying to get their boiler fixed because of the startling ineptitude of the people we have hired to keep their home warm. And then we wonder why people leave.
This has gone on for too long, and it is simply unacceptable. Either CarillionAmey should materially raise its game on behalf of our service personnel or it should be unceremoniously sacked and we should find someone competent to do the work instead. Housing associations and registered social landlords around the country have been carrying out basic maintenance and repairs as bread-and-butter work for years, so why cannot CarillionAmey do the same?
There are a variety of reasons why people are leaving the armed forces at present, and pay is one factor but—as has already been pointed out—not the predominant one. As the Minister rightly said, the armed forces continuous attitude survey published in May 2017 points out that the primary reason for people wanting to leave the services is the effect of separation or long hours on their family life. That is the greatest challenge that Ministers have to grapple with. The Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which we debated in this House on Monday, should help in this regard, as it will allow service personnel to vary their commitment, rather than face an acid test of only being able to leave the services in order to reduce the pressure on their family. In other words, it might persuade some personnel to stick rather than twist when their family are under pressure because of their commitment to their country.
The issue of pay itself has now become something of a challenge, particularly in relation to retention. The AFCAS notes that only 33% of personnel are satisfied with their basic rate of pay, and that only 27% are satisfied with their pension benefits, although it should be pointed out that the armed forces have one of the few remaining pension schemes anywhere in the public sector where employees do not have to pay a contribution of their own—something that I know MOD Ministers have fought valiantly to defend.
Recommendations on pay are made by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and its recommendation in January 2017 was essentially for a 1% pay increase, although certain personnel would qualify for additional increments and also for specialist recruitment and retention pay, particularly if they serve in areas where the armed forces are struggling to retain specialists. Any further pay increase for the armed forces will be subject to the next recommendation of the AFPRB early next year, so we will have to wait and see what it recommends. It is likely that any increase above 1% would need to come out of the defence budget, which could have implications for some elements of the equipment programme, for instance. However, given that the police have now had an above 1% pay increase, if the AFPRB were to recommend something similar next year, I think that Ministers would have to take it seriously.
I cannot say what the AFPRB is going to recommend. In fairness, we will have to allow it to go through its deliberations and see what it concludes. However, given that the police have been given an increase above 1%, I am sure that there will be strong views in the armed forces about what should happen to them. But let us await the recommendation of the AFPRB.
In conclusion, our armed forces, on whom we rely so much, continue to be under pressure in the fields of recruitment and retention. Although the principal reason for people leaving the armed forces is pressure on family life, pay also appears to be entering into the equation, and I think that Ministers in the Department are cognisant of that. We must also do something about the poor quality of repairs and maintenance of service accommodation. I urge the Ministers sitting on the Treasury Bench this afternoon to formally review the performance of CarillionAmey and to be prepared, if necessary, to re-let the contract unless the company succeeds in materially raising its game. We have to continue to attract the brightest and the best to serve us in uniform, and we must continue to provide the resources to make that prospect a reality. We also need to ensure that those people have homes that are fit to live in.
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a great many people want to take part in this important debate and that there is limited time. I am therefore putting on a formal time limit of seven minutes, which is likely to be reduced later if there are a great many interventions in everyone’s speeches. To speak without hesitation now is Kevan Jones.
The Government are nothing if not consistent, as Conservative Governments have been throughout history, in that in opposition they call for more expenditure on the armed forces and argue that they are proud supporters of the armed forces, but when they get into power the first thing they do is cut the defence budget and show no respect for the men and women of the armed forces in terms of their pay and conditions. We have heard some remarkable things today. Conservative Back Benchers—including the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who must have quite a few members of the armed forces in his constituency—have been suggesting that pay is not important. Well, I am sure that will be news to those members of the armed forces, when they get that message.
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that what I was trying to say—and what I did say—was that pay was not the No. 1 issue for service. It would be disingenuous to suggest that it was. There are a number of reasons why people serve, and a great experience is on offer to the people of this country who serve. Pay is important, but it is not as important as this debate suggests.
I find that remarkable. The hon. Gentleman is letting down his constituents by not supporting what we are arguing for, which is a fair deal on pay for members of our armed forces. If I were in his shoes, I would be making sure that I did.
The last Labour Government, during which I served in the Ministry of Defence, had a proud record of accepting the recommendations of the pay review body every single year. For example, the increase was 3.7% in 2001 and 2002 and 3.2% in 2003, and that goes right up to 2010, when the increase was 2%. However, this Government have put in an artificial cap, completely ignoring the pay review body, and it was remarkable to hear the Minister say that that does not matter because people are receiving increments. I am sorry—this may be the trade union official in me coming out here—but where someone starts affects where they end up. A 2% incremental increase may mean an increase in pay, but a 2% increase on the basic level of pay is a damn sight bigger, and we need to recognise that.
Something else that cannot be forgotten is this idea that armed forces pensions are, as I think someone said, gold plated and generous. However, people do not recognise that that is taken into account by the pay review body. I also want to remind the Conservatives that if I had sacked armed forces personnel or made them compulsorily redundant weeks away from their retirement date when I was in charge, I would have been rightly condemned. That is just another example of a Conservative Government saying one thing, but doing another. Making people compulsorily redundant is astounding.
As for the independence of the pay review body, it is clear that the Government have completely ignored its recommendation, but things are even worse than that. The previous Prime Minister David Cameron sacked the head of independent pay review body in 2013 because he did not like what it said about the X factor and pay increases. The Government have not just ignored the pay review body; they have interfered in the independent process. Conservative Members may say that pay is not important, but I am yet to meet anyone in life who does not think that getting a decent reward for their efforts is important to them.
Alongside that, we have seen declining morale. One of the Conservative Government’s betrayals is that they say, “We stand up for the armed forces.” Well, the armed forces stood at 191,710 personnel in 2010, but that is now down to 149,366. The situation is worse than that, however, because there are artificial caps on numbers in the individual services, including the Navy, which is leading to real deployability problems. Ships are not sailing because they do not have the crews. As I said, the Conservatives say that they stand up for the armed forces, but if they genuinely want to do that, they should pay people accordingly and recognise the efforts and sacrifices that individuals make on our behalf. Empty words are fine, but actions in government are different. I am proud that the Labour party—not just in the last Labour Government, but throughout its history—has always stood up for our armed forces by supporting personnel and by ensuring that our country is defended.
That last Labour Government, for which the hon. Gentleman presumably has some responsibility, left a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. By contrast, this Government are increasing defence spending. Does he accept that he has some responsibility for that and that the Conservatives stand up for the armed forces?
I thought the Cameron Kool-Aid had been dispensed with. That figure was plucked out of thin air. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman look at the 2010 National Audit Office report that says that there would be a £6 billion so-called black hole over the next 10 years. The Conservatives dishonestly tried to give the impression that there was a £38 billion black hole to be met in 2010. Both the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), his successor as Defence Secretary and now Chancellor, miraculously got rid of that black hole within 18 months and said that it had been plugged—do not ask me how they did it. If they could get rid of a £38 billion black hole in less than 18 months, they are in the wrong job. That was complete nonsense. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) should stop repeating things that are just not true. I give the Conservatives credit for their great job of changing the narrative at the time, but the actual facts are different.
No, because I am about to finish. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman looks at the black hole that exists in the current Government’s procurement plan. I am not suggesting that it is an in-year black hole; this is about the 10-year equipment plan. The hon. Gentleman may want to look at that, the NAO report and the excellent report out today on how the Government are cannibalising equipment. Please look at the details.
I will finish with a non-partisan point. Everyone across the House recognises the dedication and service of the members of our armed forces, and they deserve that recognition. In just over a week’s time, we will remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and there is a consensus across the House of support for our armed forces, but if we are to support and recognise the sacrifices they make, they need to be paid and resourced at an acceptable level.
In about two weeks’ time, millions of people around this country and around the Commonwealth will pause for various public, private, simple and not-so-simple acts of remembrance to remember those who, in the words of the Kohima epitaph, gave their today for our tomorrow. For example, my great-uncle Samuel Coyle fell aged 19 at Gallipoli in 1915 and now lies alongside 600 other British and Commonwealth soldiers at the Pink Farm cemetery in Turkey.
Over the past 12 years or so, I have been lucky enough to have attended many moving remembrance services. In 2008, I was just along the road at the Cenotaph as part of the team that organised the 90th anniversary commemoration of the end of the great war. As a young sub-lieutenant fresh out of Dartmouth, it was incredibly humbling to meet Harry Patch, Henry Allingham and Bill Stone—the three remaining veterans from that incredible generation who endured so much. In 2015, I stood, with colleagues from the European Parliament, in Loos in northern France, taking part in a simple but solemn act of remembrance with local mayor and townspeople as a grey dawn broke across the row upon row of gleaming white headstones, illuminating some 20,000 names of officers and men who fell in that one battle—600 of whom were from the Gordon Highlanders from the north-east of Scotland.
However, the place I think of more than any other at this time is the San Carlos cemetery in the Falkland Islands. I was there in 2007 as young midshipman on my first deployment. It was 17 June and we were commemorating the 25th anniversary of the conflict. Standing there in near sub-zero temperatures, with freezing rain swirling around—I remember it well—I was surrounded by veterans of that war, including Paras, Marines and Welsh Guardsmen, who less than a quarter of a century before had been storming through the freezing waves and upwards on to the rough terrain. Along with islanders who had lived through the terrifying invasion, we stood shoulder to shoulder with the sailors of HMS Sheffield, HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope. Standing there, thousands of miles from the UK, brought home for the first time how much we truly owe to those who were and still are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend us, our country and our way of life.
This debate is about pay and retention, but Government funding and the duty of care towards armed forces veterans is another issue. The planned cessation of residential services at the Audley Court combat stress facility means that many Welsh veterans suffering from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder will no longer have access to residential care. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in pressing the Government to ensure that veterans have access to the sort of care that they may need in the future.
I would be happy to join the hon. Lady in demanding that veterans are given the due care and attention they deserve, having given so much for this country.
To enable people to do their job effectively in our name, it is essential that our armed forces are properly funded and resourced and that they have the tools to do the job. I am sure that the old adage that the three enemies of the Royal Navy are, in reverse order, the enemy of the day, the French and Whitehall is one that still finds sympathy in many mess decks and wardrooms around the fleet, but the fact is that the Government remain steadfast in their support for the armed services.
That support has been shown not just in words but in action. In that regard, the Government cannot be accused of being found wanting. The defence budget will increase by £1 billion a year until at least 2021, ensuring that we remain the country with the second highest defence budget in NATO, the largest defence budget in the EU and the fifth largest defence budget in the world. Seven ships and submarines are in build right now in UK yards. Some £178 billion is being spent on equipment for all three armed services, including the new aircraft carriers, 50 upgraded Apache helicopters and nine Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. The Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill will, of course, bring our armed forces into line with modern working practices and will make them more adaptable to the demands of 21st-century life.
Those are the actions of a Government committed to our national security and to the serving members of our armed forces. But, of course, it is right that we debate the pay of personnel currently serving on land, at sea and in the air. When this Government came into office, tough decisions had to be taken to attempt to strike a balance between
“the need to recruit, retain and motivate suitably able and qualified people”
and maintaining comparable pay to the civilian sector. That was why the Government took the tough decision to budget for a 1% pay rise across the public sector, including the armed forces. This year, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommended a 1% pay increase.
However, it is right that in this place we hear the concerns of those who think that the 1% pay cap could be a factor in recruitment and retention, and I am persuaded that greater flexibility on pay rates could be required in order to ensure that our armed forces have the personnel to continue operating at such a high level. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), I do not recognise such flexibility as a priority on the long list of things that my friends who still serve complain about daily.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the approach to this debate carries the danger that it becomes very simplistic? Evidence tends to suggest that other issues, such as accommodation—the RAF housing at Carterton in my constituency very much needs attention—and the effect on family life, are more important than pay alone.
I could not agree any more with my hon. Friend. Accommodation is at the top of the very long list that friends of mine remind me of on a daily basis.
I welcome the Treasury’s announcement in September of greater flexibility on pay across the public sector next year, and I look forward to seeing the next recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body.
The Government value our armed forces personnel. As I have said, we owe our armed forces personnel and all who served before them an immense debt. The Government’s actions in investing record amounts in equipment, in raising our defence budget in real terms, in introducing the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill and in signalling their desire for more flexibility on public sector pay across the board are the actions of a Government committed to the defence of this country.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about how the Government support the armed forces so wholeheartedly. How would he respond to the very recent surveys showing a consistent drop in morale, consistent anxieties about the level of pay and consistent concerns about the direction of travel?
The hon. Gentleman raises some pertinent points but, as has already been said, there are various reasons for people leaving or not joining the armed forces, and pay, which is what we are debating this afternoon, is not the sole reason for the drop in morale.
The actions of this Government are those of a Government who are committed to the defence of this country and to those men and women who join our armed forces to do just that.
I begin by paying tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions to this debate. They have spoken with insight and conviction about the importance of ensuring fair pay for our armed forces personnel, not just as a point of principle but as an essential guarantee for our future recruitment and retention across all three services, which in turn ensures that we will have the right people in the right place and in the right numbers to keep us safe.
We speak here today because our armed forces and their families make daily sacrifices to protect us, so it is only right and proper that we do our duty and look after them. I am therefore delighted that today’s motion, tabled by the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), directly mirrors an early-day motion I tabled earlier this year on the need for enhanced salary levels for our armed forces personnel.
I am privileged to chair the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, and it is because of that role that I wish to contribute today. At a time when we and our allies face renewed threats from a resurgent Russian Federation, when the global order is facing unprecedented realignment and when we see global terror attacks on the news bulletins on a weekly basis, not least the horrendous scenes in Manhattan last night, we find ourselves with a Government who seem to be missing the point. It is our service personnel who keep us safe, and we need to ensure that their overall terms and conditions are good enough to recruit and retain in post.
Let us be clear about the current challenge. As other hon. Members have said, we find ourselves facing a personnel deficit of 5%, with stories of declining morale and faltering recruitment targets, and with no fewer than 38 operational pinch points across the three services—gaps that threaten to have a detrimental impact on our planned and contingent operations. We need to ask ourselves, why?
We expect our armed forces personnel to do the extraordinary every day. It is challenging and, all too often, life-threatening work. We ask them to make incredible sacrifices and to cope with intense physical, mental and emotional challenges in the line of duty. From engineers to infantry soldiers, bomb disposal experts to intelligence officers, logisticians to caterers, and pilots to submariners, all our armed forces personnel, at whatever grade and in whatever role, are exceptionally skilled and dedicated men and women.
Our armed forces personnel do not do the job for the money, and we should be in no doubt that people of their calibre may well be able to earn more in other fields, but they do need to pay their bills, as we all do. They deserve recognition, including financial recognition, for their service. It is unacceptable that anyone who makes sacrifices to keep us all safe should struggle to support their family. As chair of the all-party group, servicemen and women and, as importantly, their families tell me that they are struggling. The House needs to recognise that we have a problem when they are earning less in real terms than they were seven years ago.
The pay cap has meant real hardship for many in service, and it is undoubtedly one obstacle to recruitment and, more so, to retention. Not only that, the pay cap is symbolic of how much—or should I say how little?—the men and women of our armed forces mean to the country they serve. The cap’s removal would be symbolic, too.
I welcome that the Government are now back-pedalling on the continuation of the 1% pay cap for armed forces personnel. Their recognition that the men and women of our armed forces deserve better than they have been subjected to for these past seven years can only be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House, but I am sure I speak for many when I ask the Minister, what took so long?
My fear, however, is not just the pay cap, which many others have raised today. We need to look at the terms and conditions of our service personnel in the round. Too many servicemen and women have contacted me with concerns about potential cuts to their tour allowances and bonuses for me not to be worried that the Government are planning to rob Peter to pay Paul to fund pay rises. This may all prove to be smoke and mirrors, and our proud servicemen and women might end up no better off next year because they lose the X factor, the tour bonuses from Iraq or other things.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Let us be clear about realities: where someone’s base salary is not increased, their pension, which is based on that salary, is also affected. So this affects everybody.
That brings me on to my next point. No trade union can advocate for our armed forces and no staff association can stand up to the Government for them. It is therefore down to us in this House to ensure that they are well paid and to fight their corner, because no one else is going to do it for them. They follow orders—that is what we pay them to do and train them to do. Therefore, they are never going to challenge us. So while they do their duty protecting our national security, at home and abroad, we must do our duty and look after them and their families. Next week, we have Remembrance Sunday and although our servicemen and women do not consider themselves heroes, we should. Heroes do not want handouts—they just want a fair deal. It is the very least they deserve.
Let me say from the outset, as a former young soldier who joined the Army in 1974, that pay is important—it is what sometimes makes the job worth while—but it was not the reason I joined, and it is not the reason why most people stay in the armed forces. They stay in for myriad reasons and we must be conscious of the fact that, even though pay is not the most important thing, we must not take them for granted. I think that across the House we would agree with that today. There would be no argument that pay is important, but I can honestly say that pay was not in the top 10 in the leavers surveys that used to sit on my desk when I was Minister for the Armed Forces.
If Her Majesty’s Opposition do not get copies, I ask the Minister to allow them to see those surveys. These people are leaving, so they have no reason to lie or to try to get some favour from their units. Lots of other things aside from pay were in these surveys—it was not right up there. Where they were going to go during their career was one such thing—people always had aspirations. Even young guardsmen like me, who knew they would not get past acting corporal, had aspirations. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, you start at the bottom and you want to work up. I became the Minister for the Armed Forces, the first one ever from the ranks—from a junior rank—and that to me was exactly what our armed forces should be aspiring to do.
Many of them face many other challenges, and that came out in the surveys I saw. On my first day in the Department, I had all the chiefs in and said, “Is pay the biggest issue? Why am I losing so many servicemen?” As well as recruitment, retention is massively important. It is almost more important, because those people who are in are by far our best recruiters. They go home on leave—they go home to their families and loved ones—and they talk about their experiences in the armed forces. We train them and we spend huge amounts of money on them. They have dedicated themselves to us, so we want to keep them in.
One thing that I tried to do was to deal with the situation where someone is upset with the unit they are in and they start that process to leave. I wanted us to try to pause them for a fraction and get someone to talk to them, so that they might stay. Perhaps this would be someone in a different unit—in a different part of the armed forces. As the Minister will know, at the moment someone from their own unit usually talks to them to try to convince them to stay, but that person could well be the problem they have had in the first place. So trying to keep these people in the armed forces is massively important. No young soldier, no young matelot, no young Air Force man is ever going to turn around and say, “Don’t give me any more money.” Of course they are not going to do that.
I went around Catterick recently and I went to the Mons part of the barracks, and I would not have put my dog into some of the accommodation the people there were having to live in. I came back and went absolutely berserk, and I understand that those repairs have now been done. But it should not be for the Minister to turn up and see that; these things should be done. Comments were made about CarillionAmey earlier, but I had the pleasure of sacking Atos when I was at the Department for Work and Pensions and, should I be the Minister responsible, it would be my great pleasure to do something similar to other companies when they let us down.
The motion is narrow. Her Majesty’s Opposition, in good faith, missed an opportunity for us to have an open debate about the package that our armed forces need—what we should be offering them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we were to broaden this debate, the Opposition would find wide support for challenging a lot of the pertinent issues. Their narrow focus on this one issue makes it impossible for us to focus on the constructive argument around it.
My hon. and gallant Friend has hit the nail on the head for me. Nobody in this House does not have respect for our armed forces. Nobody would not want to pay them more. But where does the money come from? What part of—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham is chuntering from a sedentary position. When he was the Minister he should have been paid, because he did it for free and I respect him for that. [Interruption.] Well, he should have been paid a lot more for what he was doing. We have bandied this around for many years. The situation for me is: where would the money come from?
I am one of the Conservative Members who wrote to the Chancellor months ago saying that we need to phase the cap out. I passionately believe that if we are in the position now, we have to do it. I was the Policing Minister and I cannot be disingenuous and pretend that I did not push to have it removed for the police; I was also the Fire Minister. The nurses also need it removed. But where is that money going to come from? As the Opposition Front Bencher said, it should not come from expenditure on equipment—I could not agree more.
People cannot just make promises that they are not going to be able to deliver, because that is the worst thing for morale in the armed forces: making promises that we cannot fulfil. If I went through the Lobby to support the motion not knowing where that money was going to come from, I would be ashamed of myself. I cannot actually do that. Do I want the armed forces to get more pay in the long run? Of course I do. I also want this in the short term, but I want them to have the right equipment and the right accommodation. I want them to have the right package, and then we can say that we respect them properly.
Let me start by joining other right hon. and hon. Members in acknowledging the work our armed forces do in protecting Britain, both at home and overseas, in difficult circumstances. I wish to specify two people in the armed forces in particular. The first is the erstwhile Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland or, as he is known after passing out at the weekend, Private Tom Blenkinsop of 243 Provost Company, Norton Detachment, 1st Regiment, Royal Military Police. Tom may no longer be an hon. Member in the parlance of this place, but we can all agree that he is certainly an honourable man and still a good friend to many of us.
The second person I wish to mention is Corporal Andy Reid, from Rainford in my constituency. Andy lost both legs and his right arm to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, yet this year he and Warrant Officer Glen Hughes cycled 400 miles, kayaked 175 miles and ascended 17,500 feet to raise funds for veterans. I was very honoured, along with the Veterans Minister, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), to host a reception here for Andy.
I use those two cases to illustrate that, as hon. Members have said, money is not the motivation for people to join the armed forces—no one is suggesting it is for a minute—but we do have a duty not to exploit that sense of duty or service, and to treat people and pay people properly. I am sorry to say that I do not think the Government are doing that, and this is causing difficulties for serving personnel and a crisis in recruitment. The Government must address and get to terms with the chronic under-recruitment affecting the Army, but they have been in denial for the past seven years about this. In 2013, when I was the adviser to the then shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and to the then shadow Defence Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), we opposed the Government plan to cut the Regular Army and expressed deep concerns about a lack of reserve recruitment. The then Defence Secretary, now the Chancellor, said:
“to halt that or to seek to reverse it at this stage would simply create confusion in the ranks.”
If the Government continue on their current path, there will not be any ranks left to confuse.
Earlier, the Minister gave the impression that the armed forces covenant was working well throughout the country. I am absolutely clear that I am a huge supporter of the implementation of the armed forces covenant, but if it is going swimmingly everywhere, why on earth did it have to be specifically written into the deal between the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party?
The hon. Lady makes an important and interesting point. We have certainly tried hard in my constituency and the Metropolitan Borough of St Helens more widely to implement the armed forces covenant, but there have been issues with its implementation in Northern Ireland. I am sure we would all wish to see those issues resolved and its full implementation in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK.
Despite the Government’s target in the strategic defence and security review to have 82,000 full-time fully trained troops, as of April this year there were just 78,000 soldiers in the Army. By any measure, that is an abject failure on the Government’s watch, and it was rightly identified as a key problem by the former commander of Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons. The recent report by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) confirmed that the Regular Army needs to recruit 10,000 people a year to maintain its strength, but managed to attract only 7,000 entrants last year.
Worryingly, alongside all that, the figures show that the numbers leaving the part-time Army Reserve, which we were told would be increased to meet the decline in numbers in the Regular Army, increased by 20% between 1 June 2016 and 1 June 2017. At about the same time, in the most recent financial year the reserve intake fell by 18%. The Government do not seem to have a strategy to turn these falling numbers around. In fact, their only solution so far has been to sack another 120 members of the armed forces personnel who serve as recruiters and replace them with civilians from Capita. I say gently to the Minister—as I said earlier, he is an agreeable chap—that he has a bit of a cheek on him to criticise our plans for recruitment and what we would do with the budget when he is taking money out of the pockets of armed forces personnel and giving it to a private company.
I do not wish to contravene the rules of the House by getting into a debate with the Minister, but I am not sure that he can express particular confidence that the target of 30,000 reserve recruits will be met. The Government started to publish the figures only after pressure from the Opposition several years ago. We will continue to monitor progress on that in particular, because although, like the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) said earlier, I am not a mathematician, I know that if we need to recruit 10,000 and we are attracting only 7,000 to the Regular Army, and we have not met the quota that we defined to meet national security needs through recruitment to the reserves, it is not going to add up. It is not going to add up for the armed forces, and it is not going to add for the British public.
There is a huge issue with respect to the figures, but there is also a problem in thinking that we can replace regular soldiers with reserves. The truth is that this Government have cut the Army, and they have cut it to below their own target, which was 20,000 below how things stood when Labour left office. There is worry about recruitment and there is worry about capability. With the proposed further cuts, there is a real danger that, in a very dangerous and uncertain global context, Britain’s defence and security could be undermined and, indeed, compromised.
On this Government’s watch, the armed forces have been cut, their pay is down, key capabilities are being hollowed out and our world-leading defence industry is being left behind—the latter is perhaps something we can debate on another occasion. The armed forces and the British public deserve far, far better.
In 2017. The Government accepted that recommendation. They declared that they were moving away from a blanket 1% cap on public sector pay, and we anticipate that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body will make suggestions that the Government will accept. We must bear in mind that good news when we discuss this issue.
I am sorry, but what the hon. Gentleman is saying is just wrong. Over the past six years, the Government have completely ignored the pay review body. I do not know where he gets the idea—I must have missed this—that the Government are going to accept its future recommendations, because I am not aware of such an announcement.
If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention back in September, he would have noticed that the Government indicated that there will be a move away from a blanket 1% public sector pay cap. If the pay review board makes a recommendation to the Government about increasing pay, it is likely that the Government will accept it, so it is entirely erroneous to paint a picture of armed forces pay being cut.
We must recognise that, broadly, the offer to the armed forces is good. In addition to increases in basic salary, armed forces personnel enjoy subsidised housing and non-contributory pensions. That is important and we must recognise it. There are of course concerns, and we must be vigilant in safeguarding and improving the experiences of our armed forces personnel, but the offer is good. I hear from people in my constituency concerns that are more related to kit and equipment, and to opportunities for training and deployment.
The issue of pay should not be a political football to be kicked around by Opposition Members. There is a good story to tell and we should be positive about the broad offer that the armed forces present to people. Sadly, the Opposition are talking it down; to demonstrate how, I shall quote the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn).
I shall make some progress before I give way.
A few years ago, the Leader of the Opposition said:
“I would like us to live in a world where we spend a lot less on defence.”
In 2015, he said:
“Why do we have to be able to have planes, transport aircraft, aircraft carriers and everything else to get anywhere in the world?”
Shortly after that, he said:
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every politician around the world, instead of taking pride in the size of their armed forces, did what the people of Costa Rica have done and abolished their army”.
What a disgraceful indictment of the Leader of the Opposition’s attitude.
I look forward to every single opportunity in this place to demonstrate my commitment to the armed forces, but playing the games of the Opposition will not be included in my repertoire.
I was pleased during Prime Minister’s questions to extend a warm invitation to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to visit my constituency, Aldershot, the home of the British Army, and the Aldershot garrison. In the spirit of public service and the national interest, I extend that invitation to the Leader of the Opposition. If he made time in his diary to spend time with some of the regiments we have in the garrison—including the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, the 1st Battalion the Scots Guards, the 4 Rifles and the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment—that would not only improve his turnout, but generate a greater degree of sympathy for the armed forces that he would do well to express in future.
On a slightly more serious note, the message that we send to our young men and women who are considering a career in the armed forces must be positive and upbeat. We live in a time of unparalleled global instability: the middle east is in flames; NATO is being challenged by Russia; and there is a potential nuclear conflagration in North Korea. We have huge global threats and challenges. I am very pleased that the British armed forces will be able to deliver on a global scale both hard and soft power over the coming years. We should make it very clear to the young men and women who are considering serving in the armed forces that the future is very bright. If there are any young people who are watching this debate, they should know that there are tremendous careers available in the armed forces. If they do join up, they will be doing their country proud.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate today—and of course a great pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), not least because it means that his speech has come to an end.
On a more serious note, as the hon. Gentleman would say, in 11 days’ time all of us will be standing around our local cenotaphs. One thing that moves me greatly is meeting the families of military personnel—both former and present—and hearing the issues that they raise. One such issue is below-inflation pay settlements, but there are other problems relating to accommodation and how rises in costs are not met by those pay settlements, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan).
Mention was also made earlier about the credit unions, which were an excellent initiative. Let us not forget that those unions were set up because research showed that 20,000 military personnel—and former military personnel—were relying on payday loans. That is the reality of the situation. I pay tribute to the Government, as they listened to the Royal British Legion on its campaign. I wish to use this debate in the hope that they will listen to the Royal British Legion on another campaign—the “count them in” campaign. In that campaign, the Royal British Legion is asking for a designated question or questions in the census so that more information can be provided on who our military and former military personnel are, so that they can be better served in our communities.
I hope that Ministers will welcome the fact that the Office for National Statistics made a very positive report on this subject. It said:
“Our understanding of the user need for information on those who have served, and now left, the UK armed forces has grown.”
The ONS has noted that linked data only partially meets the users’ needs. We now know also that 88% of people surveyed by the ONS think that it is acceptable to ask these designated questions. The ONS further comments:
“Based on the testing so far, the ONS have concluded that it will be possible to finalise a question that works and is broadly acceptable.”
I really hope that, at this time of year and before the next census is prepared, our Government honour the campaign of the Royal British Legion; honour what is being requested by many military families around our country; listen to the very thoughtful words of the ONS; and fully support the “count them in” campaign so that we as a country can better serve those people who have served and are serving us.
I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in this debate. I must admit that I was a little surprised when I read that this was the topic that had been chosen by the Opposition, given that the Leader of the Opposition, when faced with the option on Armed Forces Day to honour the British armed forces, chose instead to go and stand in a field in Glastonbury to talk about dismantling Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent.
It is important to place all this in context. The allegation being made is that the UK Government are not supporting the armed forces. Well, let us take a look at that. The British Government have the second largest budget in NATO and the largest in the EU. We are meeting the 2% target, which, by the way, Germany, Italy and Spain are not. Furthermore, spending is forecast to increase. Seven ships and submarines have started to be built. There is a kit projection of £178 billion between 2016 and 2026. What does that translate into? It translates into jobs in my constituency. For example, the excellent CDS Defence Support will be supporting that investment.
Something that has not been mentioned thus far is the fact that £1.9 billion will be invested in intelligence spending, so that GCHQ in my constituency will be able to expand and to keep us safe. It is concerning that that £1.9 billion seems to have been forgotten. To put it in context, that is about half of the total amount that we spend on prisons. That is something that the UK Government are supporting. Let me add this: spending supports not just the valiant and skilful men and women of our armed forces and intelligence services, but the local economy. A cyber-innovation centre has been set up in Cheltenham and is doing great work. The finest minds are going in and out of places such as GCHQ to nurture small businesses.
Of course the issue of pay is important, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) has said, it is part of a basket of issues. It is not for me to advise the Loyal Opposition on what to talk about, but it might have been more judicious to broaden the scope and the basket of issues. Some issues, such as accommodation, are clearly very important. To focus the whole debate purely on pay is, I say respectfully, ill advised.
In 28 years, I cannot recall a soldier complaining about pay. However, they often complained about allowances, particularly when changing from one theatre to another on operations and losing their local overseas allowance. That is correct. They do complain about that, and it is something that we should look at, because service personnel, particularly those in the junior ranks, find it very difficult.
That is exactly the kind of sophistication that should be brought to this debate. We should be looking at specific issues, that can improve the lives of serving soldiers, sailors and airmen and women.
The principles that we should apply are tolerably simple. First, we should listen to independent experts—the pay review bodies—and, secondly, we should build in flexibility where there is a skills shortage. I will return to that briefly in a moment. It is right, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated in Prime Minister’s questions today, to look at the context of the public finances. She said that we are spending £50 billion a year on debt interest alone. That raises a really important moral argument. When we talk about the future of our armed forces, we do not just want armed forces for today, tomorrow or next week; we want our children to be able to enjoy the protection of the armed forces as well.
What is Labour’s suggested solution to this? Notwithstanding the fact that we have public borrowing of about £58 billion each year and a national debt of £1.7 trillion, its remedy is more borrowing, more debt and more tax. Where does that leave us as a country? If we were to borrow an additional £500 billion, as has been suggested, our national debt would go from £1.7 trillion to £2.2 trillion. What happens to that £50 billion that we are spending each year? It goes to about £65 billion. Basically, before we pay for a single soldier, a single police officer, or a single nurse, we will be spending £62 billion a year when the entire defence budget is £36 billion. There will be people born today in our country who in 30 years’ time, through no fault of their own, will either knock on the door of the welfare state because, as an entirely deserving case, they need assistance, or they will want the protection of our armed forces, but the cupboard risks being bare if the Opposition are able to achieve what they want to achieve.
With respect, that argument has been made with tedious regularity. It betrays a complete lack of understanding of the public finances. This country borrows £58 billion every single year. The nation spends £803 billion a year. Yet, Labour wants to borrow £500 billion, which in turn would increase our annual payment by something in the order of £12 billion. That would be monstrous and disastrous for the UK economy and future generations. There is an issue of generational justice, and that is a message that Labour has not learned.
With respect, that is complete financial illiteracy. The top 1% in this country are paying 28% of total spending. That is a higher figure than ever. The hon. Lady fails to mention that people started to pay tax at earnings of a little more than £6,000 under the last Labour Government. We do not require the lowest paid to pay tax after £6,000 now; the threshold is up at £11,500. That means more money in the pockets of low-paid people. We have increased the national living wage, which also puts more money in the pockets of ordinary people. It is the complete inability to engage with the figures that, with respect, undermines Labour’s position.
It is important, of course, that we do everything that we possibly can to support our brave men and women. It is also important that we increase flexibility where there are shortages, which is why it is important to observe that there may be extenuating circumstances—for example, in GCHQ, where there is sometimes difficulty getting and retaining the brightest and the best. We want brilliant armed forces today, tomorrow and in the years to come, and that is why I will not support the Labour motion.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate.
I reflect on the values and standards that I was taught in the service. A fundamental one was the notion that credible leadership is derived from serving others and serving the interests particularly of those we lead. This House could demonstrate its leadership and its credibility in the leadership of our armed forces by ensuring that our service personnel have the adequate remuneration that reflects the nature of their service and dedication to our country. Only 33% of service personnel are satisfied with the basic rate of pay, so it is clear that there is dissatisfaction. It is a rather ill-observed point that, just because pay is not the primary driver of someone’s behaviour and career development, it is not important and not worthy of discussion in this House. It is, in fact, very worthy of discussion in this House, and I repudiate those sentiments utterly.
It has been mentioned that the X factor of incremental pay reflects the antisocial nature of the career of regular forces and that it makes up for the fall-off and restraint on pay. But it does not; only a quarter of the personnel surveyed think that it is sufficient compensation for the disruption it causes in their lives. A key thing to bear in mind is that the X factor is not much of an X factor at all.
An interesting observation about service pay that has been made across the House is that service in the armed forces provides a great opportunity for career development, particularly for young people. One of the great advantages of joining the armed forces is that the lower increment for minimum wage does not apply. It would be great if the Scottish National party could reflect that sentiment in ensuring that we continue to extend the opportunity to serve in our armed forces to 16 and 17-year-olds.
It is reassuring indeed that the SNP spokesperson on defence matters continues to uphold the principle that young people should be allowed to join the armed forces and develop their careers in the service. That is most welcome.
Consider a serviceperson on the lowest basic rate of pay. When on 24-hour deployments—on exercise or operations—their basic pay could actually go down to a notional value of £2 an hour. Is that really the value of our armed forces when they are dedicated to that extent? Any plans to remove the increments associated with overseas service are totally unacceptable. We should bear that in mind when we consider appropriate rates of pay for our armed forces. We talk about the great opportunity that a career in the service provides, particularly for skills development, apprenticeships and trade opportunities.
We are making the point that, by virtue of that great opportunity for development, these people are very attractive to the private sector. When inflation picks up and private sector salaries respond, we will see increasing pressure on retention in the services, especially if pay continues to lag behind that in the private sector. We need to address the situation urgently if we are to continue making our armed forces capable.
In Plymouth, the private sector is already poaching some of the engineering grades in particular, and pay is one of the reasons why people are leaving the armed services to work in the private sector. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the case?
Yes, I absolutely agree. Engineering and air crews in particular have urgent issues of undermanning in the service.
It is alarming that the entire Regular Army can be comfortably seated in Wembley stadium now that its numbers have fallen below 82,000 and it is 6% undermanned. In contrast, the Regular Army numbered 103,000 when I joined in 2006 and it could not fit into Wembley stadium.
The defence budget has fallen from 2.5% of GDP to under 2% over the term of this Tory Government. There is a chaotic equipment programme. Whether it is Nimrod or the cats and traps on the carriers, fiasco after fiasco has bled resources out of the armed forces through a lack of efficient management of equipment programmes. It is shocking that armed forces pay should suffer as a result.
I just want to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to correct what he just said. It was the Labour Government who chose to abandon cats and traps, and who slowed down the building of the aircraft carrier, which cost over £1 billion on top of the original bill. That is what happened to the aircraft carrier under a Labour Government.[Official Report, 20 November 2017, Vol. 631, c. 3-4MC.]
I have to correct the Minister. That is factually incorrect. I worked at BAE Systems at the time. The project was commissioned as a result of the 2010 strategic defence and security review, and £1 billion was utterly wasted before the project was cancelled.
I will quickly draw my comments to a conclusion. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has highlighted that the 2016-17 pay review was not an increase in real terms at all because of the impact of national insurance increases and the changes to housing cost allowances. From 2010 to present, it actually represents a 5.3% cut in real-terms pay for our armed forces. The reality is borne out by the evidence presented today, and it is comprehensive. We have seen a litany of failure, falling expenditure and stagnating incomes. That leads to a fall in morale. As a result, outflow has exceeded recruitment since 2011. Let us come together in this House today to recognise that there is a vicious cycle of downsizing. We must move towards a virtuous cycle of investment that will stop the continued degradation of our armed forces and ensure that the operational effectiveness of our armed forces is secure for the future in a very dangerous world.
Thank you for squeezing me in, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was not going to speak today but I felt compelled to come to the Chamber and give my two pence-worth. I very much enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), but it would be remiss of me not to point out how narrowly he danced on the line between delusion and fiction. He was veterans Minister in 2008-09, when I was fighting those campaigns. This is not about me or about anybody’s personal service; this is about truth and fact, and the fact is that the equipment with which we fought those campaigns and the care for veterans were simply appalling. I cannot stand here and allow Opposition Members to say that Labour’s record on defence is so—
I was proud to introduce the Army Recovery Capability, which made sure we supported the armed forces coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq with severe injuries. I was proud to be a part of a Labour Government who introduced the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004, which for the first time brought in lump sum payments for those severely injured. The track record of our Administration on support for veterans will stand up to any scrutiny in comparison with what the Conservative Government have done since.
It may be worth the hon. Gentleman putting that debate on our offer to our veterans and service personnel to the court of public opinion. The time between 2003 and 2015 saw the biggest explosion of military charities this country has ever seen because of the lack of provision that he presided over. It would be a good thing to put that into the public domain and to see whether his argument bears out the facts.
It is important that this debate is grounded in fact. This should not be a partisan issue. We should not be talking about what Labour did or what the Conservative Government did. There are areas—[Interruption.] I have to talk about it, because of the fiction coming from the Opposition. We need to work harder on some serious elements of defence—mental health, veterans’ care, what we want our armed forces to stand for, and, crucially, what we do not want from our armed forces as we move forward to the period post-Brexit—but we must ground this debate in credibility and reality.
Yes, when it comes to pay everybody would like to be paid more. I could not find a single serviceman or woman in the UK armed forces today who would not like more money, but it would be disingenuous in the extreme if I were to stand here and say that that is the single blanket issue that drives down recruitment and reduces our ability to retain skilled men and women, or to say that a career in the armed forces is not worth it or completely constrained by appalling terms and conditions. That is not the case.
I want to address what is one of the most frustrating things about this place. We have a world-class military. Of all the things I can be accused of, of which there are many, being a Government lackey on defence is not one of them. If Members look at my record on the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and defence spending, or have a brief conversation with the Minister for the Armed Forces, who recoils at the very mention of my name, they will know that I am not a defence lackey. On our capability, yes, we had more ships in the Falklands and more tanks and so on, but in the Falklands a lot of the guns and the ships did not work. The Type 26 frigate is one of the world’s most capable combat ships. Members can shake their heads and say, “Well, it doesn’t employ millions of people and the steel did not come from exactly where I wanted it to,” but we have a world-class military. It is therefore extremely disingenuous to the people of this country to constantly use this as a political football between the Labour party and the Conservative party over who is doing better on defence. We have deep challenges, but I gently suggest that pay is not one of them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reasons why some fall out of our armed forces are hugely complex? There are all sorts of different reasons. It could be accommodation. It could be that they often find it difficult with their spouses, who want employment and some sort of family life. In an increasingly modern world, that is often thought not to be compatible with military service. There is a rich and important mixture of different things; it is not just one thing and it is not just pay.
Absolutely. That is why the Government are trying hard. I come back to the fact that I am not going to stand here and say it is all rosy when it comes to defence. On Monday, the Government had the Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill, which will fundamentally change the offer we give. We have to constantly challenge the offer we give to our armed forces personnel, but to pretend that pay is the limiting factor as to why so many people are leaving and why we have so many challenges on recruitment is not fair on the Government and not fair on the people who serve. We are making them think it is an issue when it is not.
We have a lot of work to do on defence, but pay is not a part of that. Let us put the debate into the realms of reality, so we can get somewhere and deliver something for those who I know will be watching this debate and scanning it for credibility. They will not, I am afraid, have seen much of that today.
No one believes that our armed forces are anything but among the best in the world. There is no division about that. Everybody knows as well that it is not just pay, but I think there are some real challenges facing our armed forces today both in terms of retention and recruitment.
I would like to use the Government’s own statistics, published on 12 October straight from the MOD. I think pay is relevant and is one of those challenges. I agree about accommodation and all the other comments that have been made, but pay is a factor. It is really important for the Minister to understand the scale of the challenge we are facing as a country in the recruitment and retention of our armed forces. The key points and trends from the Government’s own figures show that the strength of UK armed forces personnel is down. Full-time trained strength—down. I say to the Minister that that is with the new way to judge what are full-time personnel, where people do just phase 1 training, not phases 1 and 2. Deficit against the planned number of personnel needed—up. People joining the UK regular armed forces—down. People joining the future reserves—down.
No. I am sorry, but other Members would not be able to speak.
People who have left the future reserves—an increase.
I am not saying to the Minister or the House that we are all doomed, but we would be neglecting our responsibilities if we did not look at what is happening. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), in an excellent speech, pointed out the difficulties in relation to hollowing out. There is good news, but there are also real problems. It is the same with pay. The Minister said that pay had gone up, yet his own documentation shows, in figure 11, that armed forces pay has actually gone down. Either the Minister is publishing wrong information on the internet, or his speech is wrong. We also learn that the real growth of military salaries is negative, at minus 0.1% during 2015-16.
I just wanted to put those facts on the table, because there is a real challenge for us as a country and a Parliament in terms of what we do about this issue. We have been debating recruitment to the armed forces for years. We have been debating the retention of armed forces personnel for years. We can argue about who is right and who is wrong, but this country faces a very real difficulty with this issue. I think pay is one aspect of it, and accommodation is another.
However, I want to point out another thing to the Minister—members of other bodies to do with defence have heard me say this before. The policy briefing—this is part of the issue—talks about the main factors affecting decisions about the size of the armed forces required by the Ministry of Defence to achieve success in its military tasks. It lists a number of things, but the crucial one is an assessment of current and future threats to UK national security. We need to explain to the public what we want our armed forces for, what we expect them to do and, therefore, why we wish people to join them. Some of that is about having a grown-up conversation with people. Yes, we should talk about recruiting, but we should have a clear vision of why we are proud of our armed forces and the job they do, and why we need them to pursue the objectives we as a country have, whether abroad or defending our citizens at home against the threats we face.
There are real challenges, and they are set out in the Government’s own documents. The Minister needs to say how things will be different, so that we can see success, rather than these perennial debates about what we will do about the fact that we are not recruiting enough people and not retaining enough people for long enough.
I thank the Opposition Front-Bench team for calling this important debate, and I will be supporting the motion.
This is an opportunity to debunk some of the myths and misrepresentations we have heard during the debate about the Labour party’s defence policy. In the Labour party manifesto “For the many not the few” it is written with complete clarity that Labour supports a
“strong, viable and sustainable defence and security policy”
and that that
“must be strategic and evidence led”,
and not the financially driven defence agenda of the Conservative party.
The manifesto also says:
“We will ensure that our armed forces are properly equipped and resourced to respond to wide-ranging security challenges.”
There is a suggestion that the Conservative party is somehow the guardian of probity and competence, but there are many examples—the Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, the 18-month delay with the RFA Tidespring and the disbanding of the Harrier force—where the Government’s procurement decisions have impacted on the defence budget. Labour is also committed to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, and we
“will guarantee that our Armed Forces have the necessary capabilities to fulfil the full range of obligations”
that are set for them.
We have a duty to properly reward and remunerate our armed forces. It is clear that, under the Conservatives, they have been hit by rent rises, pay restraint, and changes to tax and benefits, which has put real pressure on service personnel and their families. Labour will ensure that servicemen and women get the pay and living conditions their service merits.
I do not have a military base or establishment in my constituency, but I am fortunate to have a strong and active forces community, and it has a noble tradition of high levels of recruitment to all three armed services. This Sunday—5 November—there will be a unique act of remembrance in my constituency. Last year, the Remember Them Fund constructed a huge poppy, using thousands of painted beach pebbles—I live by the coast next to Seaham harbour—to create a stunning tribute to the servicemen and women of our armed forces. This Sunday, at the foot of “Tommy”, a renowned piece of local artwork commemorating the last moments of world war one, another unique tribute is to be unveiled. It is to be called “Fruits of the Sea”, and it will use natural materials collected from the award-winning east Durham coast, such as seashells, scallops and shingle, to form a huge poppy.
I am delighted to have been invited to unveil this year’s poppy artwork. In a spirit of solidarity and generosity, I would be very happy to invite the Minister to accompany me. He would be more than welcome to visit Seaham this weekend to help to highlight this year’s poppy appeal. I hope that in his closing statement he will commend the work of all the volunteers who have spent many months planning this tribute in support of our service personnel. It is one of many examples of how communities honour the armed forces covenant, which is a really important aspect of how we treat our veterans.
I am sorry that because of the shortage of time I am not able to develop these arguments. Marvellous work is done by terrific charities such as the Royal British Legion, SSAFA and, in my area, the Remember Them Fund. We have a moral obligation to the men and women who risk their lives to protect us. The nation owes them a debt of honour and we should ensure that we fulfil that debt. The modest armed forces pension is another issue that many veterans identify to me as causing them significant problems. I urge the House to support the Opposition motion.
I thank Opposition Front Benchers for calling this debate.
I was recently approached by the wife of a serving member of the armed forces who described to me the daily struggle that her family face in the light of the fact that her husband, a private in the Army, has not had a real-terms pay increase under this Government. In fact, figures from the Armed Forces Pay Review Body show that they have had a 5.3% real-terms reduction in pay since 2010. As with many families of service personnel, they rely on this income due to the fact that a life in the military often stations families away from their support networks, with real financial and childcare implications. She recently received a letter from the Combined Accommodation Assessment System, or CAAS, which outlines a year-on-year increase in the charges for their quarters. How does the Minister suggest that this family make ends meet as they face greater charges on the one hand and a real-terms pay cut on the other?
I am sorry, but I must make progress.
On top of this, as a family of five, they have been hit hard by the Government’s two-child cap on child benefit. The personal experience of the woman I spoke to is reflected in the findings of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, whose latest report says:
“A common theme from our visits was that the one per cent basic pay award for 2016-17 was not perceived as an increase as it coincided with increases in National Insurance, changes in tax credits and CAAS increases…that left a number of Service personnel seeing a reduction in take home pay”.
It is no wonder, given these circumstances, that servicemen and women are leaving the profession and that the armed forces are now facing a recruitment and retention crisis.
Like most Members on both sides of the House, I am wearing a poppy to commemorate and honour those who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our country. The best way to honour those who put themselves at risk is to make sure that their families are not living hand to mouth. As my former constituent said to me—she is no longer my constituent as the family have been stationed away from her home county of Yorkshire for some time—she is one more ill-advised Government reform away from not being able to afford to feed her family. This is again reflected in the report of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, which says:
“On levels of pay generally, our visit programme made clear that Service personnel are becoming increasingly frustrated with public sector pay policy.”
Last week, we saw a BBC “Panorama” programme that showed a mental health nurse brought to tears, a firefighter forced to take a second job, and a homeless police officer. If we add to that the family of an Army private struggling to cope, we get a full picture of the destruction that is caused by this Government’s systemic squeeze on living standards and public sector pay. I would like Ministers to consider this: we once built a land fit for heroes—what has happened?
We have had a very good debate today. Members of the House have made excellent contributions, but I do not have time to refer to them—I apologise.
It is true to say that our armed forces face enormous problems. They have a huge problem with recruitment and retention and face the scandalous inadequacy of the levels of remuneration for the men and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line to defend this country. Those problems are linked. In a report commissioned by the Prime Minister and published in July this year, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) talked about a perfect storm against which military recruiters have had to battle. As he said, the regular strength of the UK’s armed forces is some 5% below what was planned. There is also the problem of retention, with more personnel leaving the services than joining them.
Although there are several reasons why the armed forces are in such a predicament, a large part of the blame must rest with how the Army recruits its personnel, for which Capita bears a large measure of responsibility. The “hollowing out” in the ranks, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to in his report, is caused by several factors. Without doubt, the privatisation of Army recruitment and the outsourcing of aspects of recruitment for the other services has played a major role. The poor quality of living accommodation for servicemen and women and their families is another important factor.
I am sorry, but time is short. Another huge problem is the levels of pay in the armed forces. As the most recent pay review body report indicates, members of the armed forces
“feel their pay is being unfairly constrained in a period when costs are rising, private sector earnings are starting to recover, and the high tempo demands on the Armed Forces have not diminished.”
Time is limited, as the Minister knows. I respectfully ask him to sit down.
The Government say that they are introducing flexibility in the future pay regime, but let us be clear. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body stated in its 2017 report that the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury sent it a letter to say that the Government’s policy of pay restraint remained in place. The letter states:
“We will fund public sector workforces for pay awards of an average of 1 per cent a year, up to 2019/20.”
The pay review body report makes it clear that that is the context in which the body was obliged to work, and that point has been well made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones).
If there is to be greater flexibility, as the Secretary of State has hinted, where will the extra money come from? The MOD is already undertaking a mini defence review and significant cuts are already being considered, with 1,000 Marines, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion ready for the chop. It would be totally unacceptable for any pay increase to be funded by further cuts to the defence budget. Will the Minister indicate when he responds that the Department has the courage to stand up to the Treasury and demand that extra money be forthcoming for our brave men and women in the armed forces?
Where will the money come from? We will call for extra contributions of up to 5% from large corporations and we will demand that the super-rich pay a little bit more, instead of enjoying the largesse that the Government have given them. I am not hopeful that that will happen, however, not least because I understand that rather than fighting for more resources, the Secretary of State and his friends—[Interruption.]
Order. It is up to the shadow Minister to give way, or not. My understanding is that there was no giving way earlier, so if there is tit for tat, that is up to each individual; it is not for the Chair. What I do not want is this continuous barracking across the Chamber, with Members saying, “He is not giving way” and, “Will he give way?”. [Interruption.] Order. There are no more contributions, are there? Wayne David, please.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think that the chuntering and the interruptions are indicative of the crass behaviour of the Ministry of Defence, which we are debating this afternoon.
I am not hopeful that Ministers will stand up for the armed forces, which they claim to support, not least because I understand that rather than fighting for more resources, the Secretary of State for Defence is considering scrapping the special allowance given to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the Minister, in his response—I will give him time to respond—make a commitment not to cut the special service allowance?
As we approach Remembrance Sunday—several Members mentioned it, including my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones)—it is surely imperative that the House unites in support of our armed forces. This afternoon, many contributions have strongly supported lifting the pay cap. I very much hope that all of us will support the motion, and call for a fair pay rise for our armed forces. Especially at this time of the year, our armed forces deserve nothing less. [Interruption.]
Order. The Minister should sit down for a second.
Mr Lancaster, I do not know whether you are deliberately trying to frustrate the Chair—I am sure that is not your intention—but you are going a good way towards doing so. Let me help you. It is up to the Opposition spokesman when he sits down. The Minister has asked for extra time to respond, so you should be thanking Mr David for sitting down to give him that extra time. Let us have less chuntering, and let us hear from Minister Ellwood.
It is a pleasure to respond to what has been a passionate and mostly constructive debate. It is a real pleasure to add my support, as expressed on both sides of the House, for our noble, gallant and brave armed forces.
Before I respond to the debate, may I join the Prime Minister and I am sure the whole House in sending our best wishes, thoughts and prayers to those affected by yet another terrorist attack in Manhattan in New York? That place is close to my heart: I was born there, and I have worked there as well. The attack reflects the type of security challenges we continue to face not just in this country, but across the world.
As the Minister for the Armed Forces said, we need to see this debate in the wider context of fiscal responsibility, and that must be the backdrop to any discussion on pay. It is only with a growing economy that we can responsibly make any changes to funding for Departments. Let us not forget that we inherited a deficit of almost £150 billion. That is now down by three quarters, but the annual interest on the nation’s debt continues to be more than £50 billion every year, and we cannot simply take money if it does not exist. Under this Government, the economy is growing, employment is up and it is now possible to lift the 1% pay freeze imposed by the Treasury, which is good news.
This debate has focused primarily on armed forces pay, but that cannot be directly compared with other types of public sector pay, such as in the NHS and so forth—we must look at the other aspects that make wearing the uniform very different. We have to recognise the subsidised accommodation and food; the X factor pay, which many hon. Members mentioned; the pensions package; the free medical and dental care; the allowances, including operational pay; and of course the automatic pay progression, which has also been mentioned. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body considers all those factors before any changes are made.