Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful to have the opportunity to introduce this Question for Short Debate. Well before the strategic defence and security review, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty, was published, the Church of England already wanted to contribute to the wider debate on our national concern for global security. That was when I was asked, as someone with a background in foreign affairs—albeit mainly in ecclesiastical settings—to be a spokesperson for the church on defence and global security issues. We are also keen to reflect on the nature of the military covenant, whereby we underpin our commitment as a nation to those who risk their lives on our behalf. The impetus for this debate predates both the review and the Strachan report on the military covenant.
The response to the SDSR, when it was published, produced at least as much heat as it did light and, if it is not mixing metaphors too much, it was easy for that to cloud serious reflections on the issues at hand. In my own contribution to the debate on the review, I drew attention to what I believed to be a lack of any full narrative about the global role that we might expect Britain to play and the corresponding resources that might be needed to sustain this. I remain convinced that we should urgently return to that. Of course, the national security strategy has provided some of that narrative in terms of what we ought to be doing as a nation. It is still not clear, however, whether that yet dovetails with the answers that the SDSR gave about what is possible for us to do as a nation, given our finite resources.
We are all sharply aware of the financial restraints placed upon us following a serious global recession. That made the publication of the review a matter of urgency. Indeed, I noted in my reflections that the review had an interim feel to it. There is no time to be lost in making a realistic assessment of the resources available in this next decade and deciding how we might most profitably deploy them so as to make an effective and strategic contribution to global security. I hope that we shall return to a principled debate on strategy in the near future in this House and in the other place.
In preparing for this debate I have consulted a number of people who, from their experience as senior military personnel, have a better reservoir of knowledge than I could ever have. They have generously commented as well on aspects of the military covenant. I shall focus more immediately on the covenant itself, and I begin with a brief local vignette. Six months ago I presided at the service at Halifax Minster for the laying up of the colours of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. The regiment has now become a battalion within the Yorkshire Regiment. It was a very moving occasion, provoking not only powerful feelings among the military personnel present, and there were plenty of them, but equally powerful responses from the citizens of Halifax, both young and old. The Duke’s regiment had been their regiment and often the soldiers had been their soldiers, so the memories—some black and sorrowful, some heroic and inspiring—were their memories. It was an instructive and very personal indication of the significance of the relationship of mutuality, trust and respect between a community and its military personnel. In other words, here was the military covenant earthed in a local community.
The stream of funerals at Wakefield Cathedral of service personnel from Afghanistan has been another sharp reminder of the cost of war and of what we expect of those who offer their lives for military service. There is no other role within society where the reality of giving one’s life is so sharply within focus, or where the expectations of the role—that is, the covenant with servicepeople and their families—has quite the same edge. Death is one reality that cannot be ruled out, and the rawness of our emotions cannot be downplayed.
This short debate gives us an opportunity to look afresh at the military covenant and how it was covered by the SDSR. I shall focus on the welfare issues within the covenant, allowing others to focus elsewhere if they wish. We can do so, of course, alongside the recommendations of the Strachan report, on which I believe the Government should be duly congratulated. That task force has stimulated fresh ways of thinking about how the Government and society as a whole can fulfil their obligations to develop further the military covenant which, rather like our constitution, is unwritten and is perhaps best left in that form.
All in this House would doubtless agree that ensuring that the covenant is in robust health is as much a moral imperative as it is a strategic one. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who have served and continue to serve in our Armed Forces. I have already alluded to the potential costs to individuals and families. I shall use this occasion also to pay particular tribute to the dedicated and loyal service provided by those who support them, including our military chaplains past and present. I also pay tribute to reservists, now numbering some 20,000 recently serving. I should say that that includes two clergy from our own diocese, who have been on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan in these past years.
That moves me on to ask some practical questions. First, what steps have been taken to update the existing package on terms and conditions of service, and what is the envisaged timeframe for the development of a new employment model? Alongside this, I am prompted to ask for some indicators in education. The Strachan report points to education throughout the service career as a priority and the SDSR highlights support to ex-service personnel to study at university. I have commented on the Browne report’s impact in another debate in the Chamber and would welcome assurance that the changes in higher education funding will not delay the SDSR’s recommendations in this area.
I revert to the excellent work of the Strachan task force. As I have hinted, the avoidance of semi-legal language is much to be welcomed. Those noble Lords who have sight of the more scurrilous of the tabloids will know that the Anglican Communion is itself struggling to put together a covenant. Similar issues of legalism or non-legalism have arisen there. I am sure that legalism is best avoided all round. Interestingly, the Old Testament is riven with a number of different models of covenant. The most attractive feature of all of them is an avoidance of a language which legislates. Instead, the model is one of gift. Each partner willingly gifts to the other. Here, we begin with a gift of military service and a paired gift is offered by the nation to all in military service. That gift is shared by government and the wider community. It is eloquently set out in the task force’s document.
Within all that, however, we need confidence that such gifting is assured, especially from government. Here there are lacunae. In neither Strachan nor the SDSR is there an analysis of the welfare needs of serving personnel and veterans. Any research into that has been ad hoc and piecemeal. There are real questions about the ability of regiments and corps individually to look after families. There are also specific issues about the adequacy of support for reservists as they return to their normal work following the pressured extremes of military service. These issues argue for a permanent mechanism through which we can review the situation in the future. I realise that the question of how we assess the treatment of Armed Forces personnel has been raised in another place within the context of the Armed Forces Bill. As I understand it, the independent external reference group, which assesses annual progress against the service personnel Command Paper, is due to be phased out or brought in-house to the Ministry of Defence, where its independence is less assured. Could the Minister shed some light on the logic of that decision?
Finally, I accept that this time of financial stringency is hardly one in which to encourage the setting up of new posts and appointments, but ought there not to be someone who effectively acts as the reviewer of armed services welfare? That might be combined with other work while remaining a distinctive function. The reviewer would report to the Secretary of State for Defence perhaps once every four years. Such a statutory measure might help depoliticise our discussions on the military covenant and ensure that the sacrifices that I mentioned earlier are responded to by a proper sense of giftedness from the nation’s side of the covenant. Without a clear assurance here, one cannot guarantee the relationship essential in a military covenant. Field Marshal Montgomery commented:
“Leadership is the capacity and will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence”.
This confidence must be rooted in a mutually assured covenant which has clarity about both its purpose and its commitment. Again, Montgomery noted—and I conclude—that:
“Theological virtues amount to this: get your major purpose clear, take off your plate all which hinders that purpose and hold hard to all which helps it, and then go ahead with a clear conscience, courage, sincerity and selflessness”.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield has done us all a service both by initiating this short debate and in his thoughtful and interesting speech. He has done so close on the heels of the debate earlier today held by my noble friend Lord King. I will again concentrate my remarks on the reserves of all three military services, to which the right reverend Prelate referred, and the relevance of the military covenant to them.
I have read the Report of the Task Force on the Military Covenant—the Strachan report—which was published in September. On page 19, paragraph 2.5 addresses the issues of reservists. I very much endorse what it says about the lack of on-base support, which is mostly available to regular service families. In particular, there are practical difficulties for reservists who return rapidly from deployments to their civilian occupations, far removed from military units. I dwelt on this in my noble friend’s debate this morning. My interest in this lies, as my noble friend on the Front Bench knows, in my long-serving capacity as honorary colonel and honorary air commodore to medical reserve units.
I will highlight three of the report’s policy options in relation to reservists. First, on recognised identity cards for reservists, I was astonished to discover from the report that not all reservists are regularly issued with identity cards. As the rubric at the bottom of the page says, some get them but some do not. Even I get one, much to my astonishment, as the honorary air commodore of a Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadron. What is being done to address this issue, which would perhaps allow such benefits as the practical opportunity to access the joint personnel administration system remotely? What can be done to help those who do not work with the reserves all the time but spend some of their time in civilian employment?
Secondly, there is the question of providing information to reservists’ general practitioners. It seems bizarre that, evidently, there is currently no system to transfer an individual’s Defence Medical Services records back to his or her GP after deployment. Having spent many years in health administration, I would say that this is extraordinarily poor clinical governance, which should be put right at once. There should also be help for GPs in making available help for reservists. My noble friend on the Front Bench made some encouraging remarks about this earlier. In the days of digital data transmission, I simply cannot believe that it is too complex an issue to administer. I would be very grateful if the Minister could write to me about it in greater detail.
Thirdly, support from employers is part of a theme that I and my colleagues on the National Employer Advisory Board addressed over many years. There should certainly be support from employers but there should also certainly be support for employers, so that they can more readily understand the nature of military service of any kind, but particularly reserve service. We used to have a scheme known as Employers Abroad, which the Americans and Australians call Boss Lift. It allowed employers to visit reservists on exercises and operations so that they experienced some of the activities, witnessed the camaraderie and sense of purpose that existed among their employees’ service units and developed a sense of what these individuals do and how that can be brought back and made use of in the civilian workplace. I have taken part in several of these.
However, I understand that the Employers Abroad scheme was stopped, or at least put on hold, some six months ago, following a Cabinet Office directive to do with a freeze on marketing. Frankly, sometimes I despair. My colleagues and I have spent 10 years or more, during deployment on two huge operations, at the highest levels of the MoD, explaining the need to win and maintain the support of reservists’ employers at a time when some 10 per cent—more than the 20,000 referred to by the right reverend Prelate—of reservists had been deployed. I hope that my noble friend will accept that it is wholly counterproductive in the longer term to diminish that effort and put at risk all the relationships that have been worked on so hard, particularly by SaBRE—Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers—which has worked at the coal face on this with civilian communities up and down the country. As page 5 of the report on the military covenant says:
“Many people in Britain have little or no contact with the Armed Forces and have little understanding of military life. There is a need to build on public support to create a greater and more enduring understanding”.
The right reverend Prelate referred in his comments—perhaps elliptically, although I know that he meant to refer to it—to something called defence career partnering, which is another issue that I was deeply involved with as chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board. It stemmed from a wish to see much more flexibility in the careers of individuals, whether regulars or reservists. However, as we have heard, it has recently developed legs, so to speak, and has produced innovative concepts, some of which are very relevant indeed to the military covenant. They could be helpful across a broad range of circumstances.
It was not always easy to advance the concept of defence career partnering. I spent two years or so as co-chairman of the MoD steering group on the subject. There were those who readily grasped the possibility of positive outcomes for the benefit of defence and industry, but some were not so easily convinced. What surprised me, however, was that there was a very real enthusiasm on the part of industry in many forms to find partnering opportunities, not just in terms of careers but in a much wider sense, so I am encouraged to begin to believe—perhaps my noble friend will confirm whether I am right—that, whereas defence career partnering is not a whole answer to many issues, it is at least part of the answer. The fact that it is owned now by the MoD, not by a single service, is of huge benefit. In some elements of it, I can well understand the complexities in terms of career planning, such as sorting out terms and conditions of service. Some of the issues are closely related to what the right reverend Prelate said about returning servicemen and so on.
We are talking about mutual benefit. If we are fully to grasp the notion of the big society, so strongly advocated by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, does my noble friend not agree that we have to be rather more broad-minded in what can be achieved through flexible and willing partnering relationships? Will he perhaps take the time to review the progress to date, in particular the very genuine offer of support from industry and others, and does he not agree that such an initiative could do much to enhance the value of the military covenant?
My Lords, first, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate on initiating this debate. I declare interests as vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on the Armed Forces and president of the relatively newly formed Liberal Democrat Friends of the Armed Forces.
In recent years, particularly during the conflict in Afghanistan, there has been a welcome upsurge in support for our Armed Forces: increasing support through the media; increasing support here in Parliament, welcoming the returning troops; and, of course, a much wider support among the general public. Prior to the 2010 election, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats commissioned reports into the state of the military covenant. The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, published in May 2010, made a commitment to,
“work to rebuild the Military Covenant”.
In June, the Prime Minister indicated that the military covenant would be enshrined in law for the first time. Then, in summer 2010, the coalition Government established a task force on the military covenant, chaired by Professor Hew Strachan, who was referred to earlier, to support taking that work forward.
The SDSR, published in October 2010, talked of rebuilding and formalising the covenant, and went on:
“The Covenant represents a promise of fair treatment, on behalf of the nation, to ensure personnel are valued and respected as individuals and that they and their families will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service”.
However, there was also the ominous warning:
“We cannot shield the Armed Forces from the consequences of the economic circumstances we face”.
What we have to do, as interested and supportive politicians, is to compare rhetoric with reality—to congratulate but also to question and, perhaps, to admonish where necessary.
Fairness demands that we acknowledge some of the previous Government's achievements: doubling the compensation payments for the seriously injured; doubling the welfare grant for families of those on operations; giving better access to housing schemes and healthcare; giving free access to further education for service leavers with six years’ service; and more phones and internet access for those deployed in Afghanistan.
The coalition Government started well, doubling the operational allowance for Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan and providing university and further education scholarships for children of those killed in action since 1990. However, I have to question some of the reductions in allowances that were announced last week. Taking away or reducing existing allowances can create disproportionate ill feeling and in my view should be contemplated only where allowances are grossly excessive or overgenerous. Changes have been made to the home-to-duty travel allowance, which assists personnel with the cost of daily travel between their home and place of duty. At present individuals are responsible for the first three miles of their journey. In future this will increase to nine miles—heaven knows why that figure was chosen and where it comes from—even when they have no choice in the location of either home or duty premises. This change will be introduced over three years. The disturbance allowance is to be reduced by 10 per cent. For those with children, the additional elements previously paid will be reduced by 53 per cent. The “get you home (early years)” allowance is designed to enable junior members of the services to maintain links with close family as they adjust to service life by funding four journeys to the family home per year. In future, it will be available only to those undergoing initial training and for all personnel under the age of 18. The “get you home (seagoers)” allowance is designed to support retention of seagoing personnel by reducing the impact of routine separation. The current provision of 12 journeys to the individual’s place of residence will be reduced to 10. Some of those reductions are a little mean and disappointing.
In preparing for this debate, I carefully read Hansard covering the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill on 10 January in the other place. Interestingly, virtually all the debate focused on covenant issues. The Secretary of State said that,
“the Bill sets out the framework for the covenant”.
Perhaps most importantly he gave a specific commitment to lay,
“an annual forces covenant report”,—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/11; cols. 47-48.]
before Parliament each year covering healthcare, education and housing, with discretion to go beyond those topics.
As regards service accommodation, we all know the financial pressures that the MoD faces but it is vital that necessary repairs and maintenance are carried out, otherwise a much greater liability develops. I wish to ask my noble friend one or two questions. What extra provision is being made to accommodate serving personnel and their families when they return from being based in Germany, as half will return by 2015 and the remaining half by 2020? The previous Government originally promised that all the proceeds from the sale of Chelsea Barracks would go back into Armed Forces accommodation. The site was sold for £959 million. How much of that was actually spent where it was intended to be spent? The previous Government said that the final £159 million of the proceeds would be subject to negotiation with the Treasury. Has the money definitely been spent on accommodation?
However, not everything can, or should, be done by Government. Charities such as Help for Heroes have achieved outstanding results, but there are also smaller, yet very successful, supportive specialised charities; for example, Tickets for Troops, a registered charity which provides free tickets to musical, sporting, entertainment and cultural events for members of our Armed Forces, and is led by the noble Lord, Lord Marland. This was launched in November 2009. Since then more than a quarter of a million tickets have been donated and 85,000 troops have signed up to the scheme.
My Lords, I too congratulate the right reverend Prelate on obtaining this debate. Having spent many happy hours and days in Bishop’s Lodge, Wakefield, when my father was the bishop, I am sure that under him it is in equally good hands.
Yesterday the Cross-Benchers had the great pleasure and privilege of having the Prime Minister address us for nearly an hour. I made a point of asking him what he meant by, and intended by, the Armed Forces covenant. He replied that it was a debt that the nation owed to the Armed Forces in return for them putting their lives on the line that amounted to a fair reward and lifelong support for them and their families. I cannot think of a better description.
I was extremely glad to note that the Armed Forces covenant was mentioned in the SDSR, which showed that, although a lot of it was about equipment, people have not forgotten that Armed Forces issues are essentially about people. However, I hope that nobody thinks that the Armed Forces covenant is merely an SDSR issue to be revisited in 2015. It is a living issue, today and every day. There is a particular purpose to it which I will come to.
As Professor Hew Strachan mentioned in his report on the Armed Forces covenant, commissioned by the Prime Minister, the covenant is not one covenant but three covenants in one. The first is between the Government and the Armed Forces. That essentially covers the care and support of members of the Armed Forces during and after their service. I make no apology for returning to an issue that I raised this morning in the debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, namely the question of a Veterans Minister. I believe firmly that unless there is a named person responsible and accountable for overseeing the covenant, it will not happen.
The Minister took me to task because he thought that I was suggesting that there should be centralised control and direction. I was not saying that at all. I have said many times on the Floor of this House that there is “what” and “how” in making certain that things happen. The Government should deliver the “what” and the “how” should be left to local areas. This morning I quoted examples of local areas that are implementing this. The trouble is that recently people have been swamped with “how”. We do not need it: we need “what”, and somebody needs to be doing it.
My reason for mentioning the Cabinet Office was highlighted by a letter that I was copied into from the rehabilitation services group in the Ministry of Justice. It states:
“Our Minister is aware of the content of The Murrison Report”,
into mental health issues, which we discussed this morning,
“but as it does not contain specific recommendations for the MOJ it has not generated the need for formal response at this time. However, we would of course want to support any work which improves the delivery of health services to offenders. To that end, if DH”—
Department of Health—
“policy is sufficiently developed in the future to include new and/or veteran specific elements then we will want to engage to ensure that delivery of that to prisoners and offenders in the community is as effective as possible”.
In other words, we are doing nothing until somebody co-ordinates it. This relates to the covenant.
The second part of the covenant is between the nation and the Armed Forces. The return from the nation is seen most obviously in the donations given to service charities, and in the use that the charities put them to.
The third part, which we must never forget, is within the command chain. My ancestor, Sir John Moore, laid down the ethos of the Rifle Brigade, the regiment that I joined. He said that it was a mutual bond of trust and affection between officers and riflemen, which the officers had to earn. That is very true: the mutual bond of trust and affection between the structure of the forces and the people serving is something that has to be earned. That structure includes government. There have been examples of where it has not been earned. The covenant is the most obvious demonstration that that trust is understood and is being earned.
I am very glad that the right reverend Prelate mentioned veterans, whom we discussed earlier. I will say something briefly about those who I am very worried might become veterans prematurely unless the full implications of the Armed Forces covenant are implemented and understood. I remember a black year in my service, 1977, when the Government of the time implemented what was known as the Irishman's pay rise, when the pay increase was less than the charges made on soldiers. I remember commanding officers resigning because they refused to stand up to tell their men that what was being offered was good, because they knew it to be bad. I am very concerned that the chain of command must be told the truth—not least at a time when we are asking enormous operational sacrifices by our men and women, as one can hear for oneself if one goes to talk to them.
So it was that last week, I saw allowances being cut. When I see all the heat being engendered by the Officers' Pensions Society over the reduction in pensions, I think back to that time and I am enormously worried about the trends that I see creeping into retention rates, particularly of experienced people, commanding officers and bright young people, before their service is ended. If ever there was a warning sign to the Government, that is it. Please, please, please do not tamper with the covenant. It means something. It means that the Armed Forces will be there on behalf of the nation to do what the nation expects them to do, as it has had so vividly and regularly illustrated over the years.
My Lords, like others, I thank my friend and colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for making this debate possible.
The themes of both the military covenant and the strategic defence and security review require of us an understanding and valuing of identity and role: our identity as a United Kingdom in today's and tomorrow's world and, therefore, our potential role in military terms, including strategic defence and security. Just as those are issues in the review, so it seems to me the issues of the identity and role of our military personnel lie deep within our understanding of the military covenant, which links us with those who risk their lives on our behalf—and on behalf of peace and security in other countries—and whom we so greatly value, appreciate and honour. As we heard from the Minister in the earlier debate today, there are already 236,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. As he also reminded us, many of those are young. I will return to that later.
I can identify with my friend and colleague the right reverend Prelate about the military covenant being earthed in local communities. Your Lordships will not be surprised to learn that that is represented very strongly within Hereford diocese, with all our links with the Rifles and the Queen’s Dragoon Guards. The regiment was given the honour and freedom of the city of Hereford and is held in such high esteem throughout the county—and, indeed, much more widely—as shown by the number of people who turned out in our streets to honour the servicemen on their return from Afghanistan, the numbers in attendance when the freedom of the city was given to the regiment a few years ago and the increasing number who are there on Remembrance Sunday as well as, tragically, when needed, on the occasion of funerals.
As we have been reminded, part of the military covenant is to provide care not just for our military personnel but for their families. I pay tribute to the introduction of the Elizabeth Cross and its recognition and valuing of the families of those killed in action. I know from first-hand experience how much that is appreciated and what a difference it makes to them.
I turn to the theme of the consequences of the cuts in allowances, which has just been mentioned by the noble Lord. I also express concern at the way in which the current salami-slicing weakens how our military personnel are valued. Sadly, I know of soldiers for whom that salami-slicing has become a tipping point for their leaving the armed services—just as we heard other accounts of that earlier. That lack of valuing leads potentially to a weakening of morale as well as to people leaving the services.
Perhaps I may also observe that military personnel may be lost easily but, as some noble Lords will know far better than me, replacing them takes much longer and is much more difficult. For example, it may take many years for the regiment near us in Hereford to replace or build up its numbers due to the length and demands of the training. That is a further reason why we should not take lightly the consequences of the recent reduction in allowances.
Care for military personnel once they finish their service is also a vital area, which was again referred to in our earlier debate. Once more, such care seems to be an area in which we need to improve as much as possible because that, too, is part of the covenant with our personnel. As noble Lords referred to earlier, there needs to be ongoing healthcare, both physical and mental, and we also need to ensure that we provide as best we can the support, encouragement and opportunities for employment that younger veterans go on to when their term of service comes to an end.
We were also reminded earlier by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, that there is a special need to care for the families of wounded service men and women, including widows and widowers as I have already mentioned. Therefore, I add my voice to those calling for the utmost care to be taken in any reductions in allowances, given the potentially deleterious effect on reducing morale and weakening the covenant. There may also be consequences on the length of time and difficulty involved in recruiting new people if such salami-slicing does indeed become a tipping point for people leaving.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to a second debate on defence matters in your Lordships’ House today. The subject that we are discussing now is as important as the topic of our earlier debate. The theme running through both is the duty that we, the nation, owe to those who risk their lives and serious injury for the sake of our security. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield on providing the House with the opportunity to debate these vital issues.
The importance of the military covenant has attracted increasing focus in recent years, not least as the terrible suffering incurred by those who have served in military conflicts has become increasingly apparent. The first duty of government is to secure the defence of the realm, and undoubtedly the most vital asset in that endeavour is the people who undertake that task. That is the basis for the military covenant, and it is our obligation to ensure that we consider and address their needs. Unhappy service families can result only in unhappy service personnel, and that would represent a failure to meet the terms of the military covenant.
There has been much academic interest in and commentary on the various components of the strategic defence and security review. The themes of these commentaries have been included in the wider debates that we have had in your Lordships’ House on defence matters, including our consideration of the strategic defence and security review in November last year. The strategic defence and security review contains much to be welcomed—not least that this was the first such review for 12 years. Much has changed in the nature of the threats that we face, in the nature of our Armed Forces and in public opinion over that period. To ensure that we continue to align effectively the changes with the requirements of the military covenant, I welcome the Government’s commitment to make these reviews a regular occurrence.
However, it is important that we do not forget the context in which the review was conducted. Commitments and overspending on defence projects under the previous Government totalled some £36 billion—three times the annual defence budget. In that context the delivery of an 8 per cent reduction in the Ministry of Defence budget was an extreme challenge. We should not diminish the seriousness of the situation in which the strategic defence and security review was prepared and considered.
Those who serve our country have the right to expect that the Government will look after their well-being and the well-being of their families. Whatever the deficiencies of previous approaches, we must make sure that we live up to that ambition, and I believe that the Government have made a good start. However, they have started from a low base. The outcome of the Armed Force Continuous Attitudes Survey in May 2010 revealed that only 32 per cent of our Armed Forces felt valued. That should cause us all alarm and alert us that action needs to be taken.
An example of the Government’s commitment to reverse this negativity can be seen in the decision to double the operational allowance. That, in the climate of wider fiscal tightening, is a sign of the priority that the Government attach to those serving in our Armed Forces in theatre. The Armed Forces Bill, which is currently under consideration in another place, contains provisions that will require the Secretary of State to produce an annual report to Parliament on the health of the military covenant. That is a bold and decisive step and will enable us to keep a much tighter, focused scrutiny on how the military covenant is being advanced. It is right that more rigorous attention should be paid to how the military covenant is being delivered and that the Government are able to explain how we are meeting our side of the bargain.
The decisions that had to be made in constructing the strategic defence and security review were undoubtedly complex. Balancing the nature of the threats that we must overcome with the horrific fiscal pressures that confront us as a nation in order to arrive at a balanced and coherent strategic posture is not simple. Undoubtedly, repairing the damage to the military covenant that has arisen in recent years cannot be done in a vacuum and the Minister has a difficult path to tread. In that context, I should be grateful if he could confirm that the Government’s commitment to the military covenant is not conditional. I know that the Government have been working very hard to identify areas for savings and where better outcomes can be delivered most cost-effectively. In guiding his approach to the military covenant, I hope that the Minister can assure us that his focus will continue to be on the needs of those who serve in our Armed Forces, the needs of their families and the needs of those who are now veterans, and that the important measures contained in the strategic defence and security review will contribute to our efforts in restoring and then maintaining the military covenant. Our troops—present and past—deserve nothing less.
My Lords, when he was Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister David Cameron made this assertion:
“Everyone should know what an enormous priority the Conservative Party attaches to our Armed Forces and to keeping Britain safe, and we will always make the spending necessary to deliver that”.
I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for initiating this crucial debate at this time.
All jobs are important, but the military are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, so they are always a special case. There has to be a special arrangement to compensate for that sacrifice. I always thought that the special arrangement ought to be delivered through government. I always thought that it was through government that the gratitude of the people could be expressed, and servicemen and their families looked after and remunerated well, and their equipment, clothes, weaponry, accommodation at home and abroad and trauma care supplied and subsidised at the best possible level by a nation that is committed for a lifetime. This is where we as a country have gone down a slippery slope. In India, my father was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Central Army Command. There I know a soldier’s family is cared for for life, well after the death of the serviceman, as my grandmother and my mother have experienced. There is a commitment, a strong bond, that holds the soldier to his country, and the soldier’s family is born into the military family, as I was. This trust and care encourages camaraderie, morale and esprit de corps, which you cannot buy.
The previous Government got the balance between the public and private sectors completely wrong. I have said this before a number of times. Public spending went up to nearly 50 per cent of GDP when it should be nearly 40 per cent. As for the Armed Forces, we have got it the wrong way round. Public pay is not high enough, and we are making further cuts, as we have heard. Cuts worth £250 million are being made to servicemen’s allowances. Surely these are the people who should suffer last at a time of economic austerity, given what they are sacrificing. We must view the NATO level of 2 per cent of GDP on defence expenditure as a base, not a ceiling. While defence expenditure is set to go up over the spending review period in cash terms, as a percentage of GDP it is actually going to go down. Over the past three decades, our defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP has halved from 5 per cent. In 2009, it was 2.5 per cent. We are at war at the moment and, if you do the sums, you could argue that we are already at 1.5 per cent of GDP.
Our Armed Forces are spread too thinly. The SDSR is all about means, it is not about ends. We have aircraft carriers without aircraft and nuclear submarines without AWACS, and I fear that that is where the covenant is heading. It is now written in law for the first time in the Armed Forces Bill, but there is little action to justify those words. I just heard first hand a story from my son at boarding school. His friend’s uncle is a commanding officer and has recently had to use his own money to buy clothing and boots for his troops. Are we really stooping to this level? This parsimony reaches well beyond equipment. I am sure that most of us remember that in June 2008 the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Dannatt, who is in his place, pointed out that the starting salary of a new recruit was, on average, £16,000 compared, at that time, with the basic salary of a traffic warden of over £20,000. The pay scale has risen, but in line with inflation. It has not risen in line with the level of sacrifice that these men and women are making.
This SDSR has been drafted in wartime. We have to keep in mind the future. People’s memories can be short, especially when we enter a peacetime period. Our Armed Forces need to know that the covenant will be honoured in peace and in war. To protect the needs and interests of our Armed Forces, including our reserve forces, at home and abroad is not a choice the Government must make. It is compulsory. It is required because the Government are not just making good on their own commitment, they are holding true to the promise of the people. I do not think that any of us can question the strength and emotion of the people of this country. We see it expressed time and again. Just look at the support garnered through charities and the private sector. This is the big society at work. We have Help the Heroes, the Army Benevolent Fund, the Soldiers’ Charity and the Royal British Legion. I could go on.
It is very good to hear that the Government plan to start to right the discrepancy between compensation for physical injuries and for mental illnesses. For too long, the mental stresses and strains of our servicemen have had to be endured. They have not been recognised and have been undercompensated. Just this month, a professor at the Department of Psychology, Harvard University, told me the harrowing fact that in January 2009, for example, more United States soldiers committed suicide after returning from the battlefield than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
It is the people’s promise to repay the tremendous debt of gratitude that this nation owes to its Armed Forces. We know that soldiers attempt to fulfil their duties, whatever the circumstances; it is the commitment that they have made. But soldiers’ confidence and morale reaches much higher levels when they know that they have the support of the people back home, and the trust and support of the Government. They must know that the country can trust that the Government will take care of them while they are fighting, that they will take care of their families, that that is a priority, and that they will always show that commitment.
How can they feel that it is a priority when they see the way in which so many veterans are treated and some of the appalling accommodation that is available during peacetime and wartime? How can they feel that it is a priority when they are worried about the well-being of their families? In India, after my father died, my mother was, and still is, given the utmost level of care, affection and respect by the Indian Army. It is a lifetime commitment. We need to guarantee that veterans never feel as though their sacrifices have been forgotten.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, suggested that we should have an independent commissioner. I believe that we should have an independent veterans’ commission. A veterans' commissioner would co-ordinate outside the MoD and look at pensions, social security, prisons, health and charities to ensure that our veterans are protected and cared for because of the incredible contribution that they have made. There needs to be a balance between the MoD and the Armed Forces. The NHS has scared me greatly because doctors and nurses are often overshadowed by NHS managerial staff. In the MoD and the Armed Forces, is the tail wagging the dog?
In conclusion, the services are called the services because they serve our country. The right reverend Prelate spoke about leadership. Last week, this was explained to me by Professor Ranjay Gulati at Harvard Business School as a tripos: logos—the knowledge and experience needed to garner trust and respect from those who follow you; pathos—the emotional intelligence and understanding needed to form bonds with those who follow you; and ethos—the possession and adherence to a set of moral and ethical values that are important to those who follow you. The Armed Forces epitomise service leadership.
At Sandhurst, where my grandfather was commissioned, the motto was “Serve to Lead”. At the Indian Military Academy, where my father was commissioned, the motto was:
“The safety, honour and welfare of your country, come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command comes next. Your own ease, comfort and safety comes last, always and every time”.
The Army is keeping its side of the covenant. I know that the Minister believes in the covenant. Unfortunately, the Government do not, and we as a nation should be ashamed of this.
My Lords, many years ago the Times had a very influential leading article headed, “It is a Moral Issue”. I was particularly glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield referred to the moral dimension of the military covenant. I believe that military service is a huge privilege for those who are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve. My brief and wholly undistinguished national service in the Army, in which I never heard a shot fired in anger, has had a lifelong influence on me. Perhaps most of all, it has given me some understanding of the Armed Forces and certainly a lifelong interest in their welfare.
I was very glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, refer to the Prime Minister’s definition of the military covenant, which is clearly an extremely good one. In the short time we have to speak, I would like to explore some of the detail. First, we must never forget that the military covenant is of a higher order than the obligations of the Government towards any other people they employ. There are two reasons for that, the first being that people in the Armed Forces are less able to enforce or even advocate their own interests than any other employees of the state. The second reason is, of course, that they might die. If we try to analyse what the military covenant is all about, it is the obligation to ensure that our Armed Forces are given the resources and conditions with which to carry out the missions that are assigned to them. The first thing is indubitably obvious, but sadly in recent history it appears not to have been obvious. It is that the Government of the day must ensure that a proper analysis is made of the proposed commitment before any forces are committed to a theatre. We will not know for a few months yet exactly how that did or did not apply in the case of Iraq, but I am afraid it is clear that it was not properly worked out when it came to Afghanistan.
The individual components of the obligation are many, including the quality and quantity of equipment required, which means everything down to the fuel and the ammunition, along with the other supplies for that equipment. It includes adequate training of all personnel before they are committed to the field, proper sustenance in the form of food and clothing, and medical services, particularly on the battlefield. One of the most moving experiences of my life was the opportunity to visit the hospital at Camp Bastion. It is a most amazing institution. The whole question of service families has been referred to several times. Families matter most to their members and therefore it is essential that things like housing, education and facilities for children are fully taken care of. Then, as is the case for anyone, there is the need for decent career prospects, which all too often are not taken into account.
I am afraid that there has been a lack of understanding of the Armed Forces at the highest levels of the Civil Service, particularly in the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and even the MoD. The Treasury seems to see the Armed Forces as a sponge to be squeezed. That is not a good attitude to take towards the Armed Forces, and we have been given some examples today of the attempts to squeeze the sponge. Part of the reason for this is the fact that probably no one in the Civil Service today has ever served in any of the forces. After all, National Service ended some 50 years ago in, I think, December 1960. Indeed, relatively few people in the other place have ever served, but there are some, including some very distinguished ones. It is particularly lucky that in the Ministry of Defence we have several Ministers who have served in Her Majesty’s Forces. If we accept that there is a lack of understanding, experience and sympathy at the top of the Civil Service, it is absolutely crucial that our political leaders make up for it and ensure that what we call the military covenant is honoured.
It is crucial that the three service chiefs and the Chief of the Defence Staff continue to have direct access to the Prime Minister. That itself is part of the military covenant. If the covenant is not maintained, the supply of first-class people for our Armed Forces will diminish. That will be a betrayal of the crucial obligation of any Government: the defence of the realm.
My Lords, first, I declare two interests. I am president of the Army Benevolent Fund and colonel of a regiment, the Life Guards, which is currently serving in Afghanistan. Secondly, like other noble Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield for introducing this extremely important debate.
I am delighted that the Government are addressing seriously this very important subject, with the Prime Minister inviting Professor Hew Strachan to produce a report. Charities such as the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, SSAFA, the Army Benevolent Fund and many others have made very helpful contributions to the debate. By supporting the concept of a military covenant, much has been achieved by both the present and the previous Governments, particularly in the medical field; for example, treatment of the wounded at Selly Oak and Headley Court.
However, the Government need to realise just how difficult it will be to honour the covenant without continuous commitment to it. The need for that commitment is unlikely to go away in any of our lifetimes. The services have suffered for years from financial neglect. Other great departments of state have core budgets which increase greatly—for example, the Department of Health, the Department for Education and DfID—but not the Ministry of Defence, which for long periods has been taken for granted. The quality of life of service men and women has deteriorated. I hope that it is realised that great dangers are being run. Those in the services understand that defence has to accept a share of the pain in order to pay off the debt facing the country. However, the aggregate of what people are facing in terms of allowances, together with decreasing promotion opportunities, is making high-quality service men and women think very hard about their futures.
The last three commanding officers of 22 SAS, a regiment of which I have just ceased being colonel, have either left or are leaving the Army. They are worried about the future and the future of their families. The Army needs to hang on to such quality. I could give your Lordships other examples. Allowances are being changed. Soldiers largely accept this, but what really concerns them is the logic used to justify it. It is couched in terms that do not recognise the demands of military life. Continuity of education allowances is an example. They are not just a perk for officers; they affect all ranks. More stability may be promised, but if people want to be promoted, they will have to move to gain experience. If they do not do that, the services will be worse off.
Many service men and women are now worried about their pensions. They feel that the unique requirements of the Armed Forces are not being recognised in the review of public sector pensions. I suspect that one of the reasons that we are in this predicament is that the Ministry of Defence, although proclaiming the importance of people, does not always reflect that when allocating the defence budget. Accommodation, barracks, married quarters, education, pay and conditions of service have suffered when compared with expensive equipment programmes. When savings have to be made and made too quickly, too often the only way to get the money is to look at the MoD estates, people and conditions. Too often, unlike people, the equipment projects are protected by contracts, and I think that we have the balance rather wrong.
In sum, I hope that the Government realise just how difficult it will be to honour the covenant. Too many service men and women feel that the MoD, the Treasury and other departments of state and political leaders of all parties do not really understand the difference between the military and civilian life and that those who serve the Crown are not foremost in their thinking. The Government must acknowledge how serious the situation is today and must remain committed. If they do not remain committed, the services, which are almost on the point of haemorrhaging, will haemorrhage quickly, and we will damage one of the great departments and institutions of state.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield on securing this debate. He is an expert on the meaning and purpose of covenants, since the idea of a covenant comes from scripture and is used in the Old Testament to describe the relationship that God has with his chosen people. A covenant is a mutual relationship of obligation and care; both sides promise to look out for the other and, in return, both sides can count on each other, too. That in essence is what the military covenant is about: a covenant between the Government, the nation and its Armed Forces. We had a debate earlier today about the physical and mental rehabilitation of military veterans, including our responsibilities to them under the military covenant.
We have the covenant for a number of reasons, not least because we recognise the role and duties of the Armed Forces in defence of the state and that carrying out such duties can result in serious injury or death in action for service personnel. We recognise their commitment and their courage and their devotion to duty and, as part of that, we recognise that we have a responsibility to support them and care for them and their immediate dependants during and after service.
The military covenant is a subject on which the Government have expressed some very firm views. Towards the end of last year, the Secretary of State for Defence said that he would,
“rebuild the Military Covenant left shattered by Labour”—
a clear indication that at times, at least, that gentleman is not enamoured of the idea of maximising the extent to which a bipartisan approach to defence can be secured. He set up a task force to find,
“low cost, innovative policy ideas”.
It reported recently, and the Secretary of State committed to taking forward two recommendations. The first was an Armed Forces community covenant, encouraging volunteers to support their local forces, and the second a commendation scheme, thanking individuals or bodies who give support to the forces. The chairman of the Forces Pension Society described the task force proposals as, “incredibly wet and feeble”, and added:
“If this is all the Government can offer to rebuild the covenant, we have a long battle ahead”.
The Government have not yet given their response to all the task force proposals, and perhaps the Minister will be able to update us on that point and on the work being undertaken on the military covenant by the Ministry of Defence.
The Government plan to publish an annual Armed Forces covenant report which, if it is going to continue the previous Government's plans, will provide an annual assessment of the Government's progress in implementing commitments to strengthen the covenant. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that that is an issue that the Government's proposed annual Armed Forces covenant report will address.
One of the innovations we introduced in 2008 was the impartial oversight of the Government's progress at strengthening the military covenant. The External Reference Group, as the right reverend Prelate said when opening this debate, was set up as an independent monitor to be a check on the Government’s implementation of the service personnel Command Paper, the first cross-government strategy on the welfare of Armed Forces personnel, which incorporated some significant improvements. It is essential that such reports are independent, expert-led and above politics. The Royal British Legion has raised concerns about this issue. Can the Minister say who will be doing any scrutiny and assessment and producing the annual forces covenant report? What issues and subjects will be covered in that report? Will it be undertaken by independent people or will it be a report by Ministers? What will be the future role of the External Reference Group?
When in Opposition in 2009, the now Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox, said that,
“the Government must look at issues of housing, healthcare and veterans' welfare if it ... wants to avert a serious crisis in recruitment and retention”.
These are obviously matters that would come within the ambit of the covenant. Can the Minister say when they intend to build on the improvements the previous Government made to service accommodation in the light of the strategic defence and security review, which appears to indicate that cost of accommodation is a target area for savings?
The Government have been criticised for their intention to scrap major reforms to the system of inquests into military deaths. The changes we legislated to introduce and were due to be implemented imminently were supported by service charities and families. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 would have delivered a better inquest service and ensured that the coroner undertaking military inquests had the training necessary to conduct an effective investigation. It would also have created a system of appeals against a coroner’s decisions. This has now been undone by the Government’s intention to scrap the office of the chief coroner and abandon the reforms that families want. In view of the vote in your Lordships’ House to save the office of the chief coroner, can the Minister tell the House whether the Government will now accept the outcome of that vote in the light of their commitment to the military covenant.
Then there is the issue of pensions. The Government plan to link public sector pension increases to the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index. This will result in lower pension increases than people had previously anticipated and expected and will disproportionately affect members of the Armed Forces and their dependants who rely on their pensions at earlier ages than almost anyone else. The reduction over the years in the anticipated and expected level of pension payment to some individuals, including seriously injured service personnel and Afghanistan war widows, will run into hundreds of thousands of pounds as their anticipated pensions are reduced for the rest of their working lives. When challenged on this last November, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said:
“It is not possible to treat the armed forces differently from other public servants”.
Can the Minister say whether that statement represents his view and that of his defence ministerial colleagues? Is such a statement consistent with the intention and meaning of the military covenant?
At the time your Lordships’ House debated the strategic defence and security review, there were reservations, in some cases strong reservations, about some of the decisions that were part of that review. The Minister prayed in aid the Government’s analysis of the financial situation, and will perhaps do so again today. No doubt, that is the Government’s justification for their approach to Armed Forces pay, which is hardly designed to improve morale. For a military covenant to have credibility among and within the Armed Forces, it is imperative that the Armed Forces are provided with the resources to undertake the commitments, clearly defined and with clear objectives, that they are expected to carry out and meet, and are not expected to undertake commitments which cannot be, for whatever reason, properly resourced. That relates not just to equipment and manpower, but to the welfare of service personnel and their families, given that that also helps to maintain morale and ensure operational effectiveness.
I do not doubt for one moment the personal commitment of the Minister to the military covenant or his own determination and, I am sure the determination of his defence ministerial colleagues, to try to ensure that the commitments our Armed Forces are expected to undertake are clearly defined and continue to be backed up by the level of resources needed to show that the military covenant is a meaningful and credible covenant which reflects the admiration and esteem that the people of this country feel for our service personnel.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield on securing this important debate on the military covenant. In addition to the excellent debate that we had earlier today in the name of my noble friend Lord King, we had a debate on 12 November on the SDSR. As I said then,
“the SDSR is the start, not the end, of a process that will give us the Armed Forces that we need to face the challenges of the future while meeting the demands of today”.—[Official Report, 12/11/10; col. 393.]
The SDSR was the first review in 12 years and the first specifically to incorporate a security dimension—an acknowledgement that today defence and security are indivisible.
In setting out our defence and security strategy for the coming years, our overwhelming priority was to ensure operational success in Afghanistan, not least by giving our Armed Forces, who continue to deploy so courageously, all necessary resources. In addition, we had to work within the constraints of the biggest financial crisis in a generation and to reach our conclusions without damaging essential capability, the military covenant or critical industrial capability.
We recognise the need to do more to ensure that our Armed Forces veterans and their families have the support that they need and are treated with the dignity that they deserve. Members of our Armed Forces are second to none. They willingly accept the sacrifices that they may be called on to make. They enter into a lifestyle that can, at times, prevent them from enjoying aspects of life that many of us take for granted. That sacrifice is also borne by their families.
The military covenant originally set down the mutual obligations that exist between the nation, the Army and each individual soldier in recognition of the extraordinary commitment and sacrifice that soldiers may be called on to make, including the ultimate sacrifice. Those soldiers and their families should expect to be treated fairly and to be valued and respected. This debt of honour enshrined in the military covenant is something that I am sure noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords would acknowledge. While we were in opposition, however, we felt that the covenant was beginning to fracture. Consequently, the Government are rewriting the covenant as a tri-service document, the Armed Forces covenant, which expresses the enduring general principles that should govern the relationship between the nation, the Government and the Armed Forces community.
The Armed Forces covenant will provide a framework for government policy that aims to improve the support available for serving and former members of the Armed Forces and the families who carry so much of the burden, especially in the event of injury or death. The Armed Forces Bill currently going through the other place contains a clause requiring the Secretary of State for Defence to present an Armed Forces covenant report to Parliament every year. That requirement for an annual report will be enshrined in law and the report will play a crucial part in holding the Government to account to ensure that they are honouring the covenant.
One of the first things that the coalition Government did was to set out a number of concrete measures to rebuild the covenant. The programme for government described a number of measures that are designed to rebuild the covenant. They range from support for the education of service personnel to increasing support to veterans’ mental health needs. We have already doubled the operation allowance and changed the rest and recuperation arrangements. It is right that we properly support the families of those who have sacrificed or are prepared to sacrifice so much. In December last year we announced details of a new scheme to provide further and higher education scholarships for the children of service personnel killed on active duty. The scholarship will meet the cost of tuition fees and living expenses. Nothing can make up for the loss of a parent, but we hope that the scheme can in some way demonstrate the overwhelming gratitude of the nation for the sacrifices that some of our service families have made.
We also believe that it is important to support our service leavers as they transition to civilian lives, and that we should do all we can to help to make that transition successfully. In December, for example, we announced enhancements to the scheme that enables service leavers to go to university. Investing in their education is an investment in this country’s future prosperity, so we are reducing the qualifying period from six years to four and removing the qualifying period completely for personnel who are medically discharged.
In England we have announced the introduction of a pupil premium within state schools. This additional funding aims to enable schools to provide the extra support needed to mitigate the effects of frequent changes of school and the effects of separation from a serving parent deployed on operations.
In addition to the measures within the programme for government, the Prime Minister ordered the creation of a covenant task force under Professor Strachan. Its remit was to develop a series of low-cost policy ideas to help rebuild the military covenant, focusing particularly on ways of involving charities, private companies and civil society. Professor Strachan’s report was published on 8 December and we immediately accepted two of its recommendations: the community covenant, which aims to encourage support locally for the Armed Forces community; and the Chief of the Defence Staff commendation, which aims to recognise those who have shown support and assisted our Armed Forces in many different ways. We aim to launch both of these schemes in the spring. We are now consulting across Government and with other stakeholders on the report, and will issue a full government response commenting on each of the 90-plus recommendations, also in the spring.
We are committed to meeting the mental health needs of our people. Last year we accepted all the valuable recommendations in my honourable friend Dr Andrew Murrison’s excellent report, Fighting Fit: A Mental Health Plan for Servicemen and Veterans. The report focuses on improving the identification of mental health problems and better outreach, assessment and information services. It sets out 13 recommendations to encourage engagement with serving and former service personnel with mental health problems. We are now working hard to bring all these improvements together in one overarching strategy.
Stability and mobility are often competing forces in service life. We believe that we can better organise our Armed Forces to provide greater stability and minimise the mobile nature of the role that is so often the root cause of many of the difficulties that our Armed Forces families are faced with. Financial pressures are making it difficult for us to do as much as we would like to improve the accommodation that we currently provide for service families, but I am pleased to say that work started in December on a project to provide 260 new high-quality sustainable homes for soldiers and their families on the Canadian estate at Bulford, near Salisbury.
I turn to questions that I received. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield asked about the timetable for the development of a new employment model. This is a project aimed at the long term. Work is now getting under way but it cannot be implemented immediately. The study will be conducted over the next 12 to 18 months. Timelines for implementation will be devised following the concept phase. The new employment model project will review current terms and conditions of service and make changes where appropriate, to bring the expectations of service personnel and the demands we place on them more into line. At the heart of the new employment model is a recognition that, where mobility is required for service reasons, appropriate support and compensation must be available.
I assure the right reverend Prelate that it is not our intention to phase out the external reference group. We will continue to call upon and welcome the input of the external reference group, which brings together representatives from across Whitehall, the key service charities, the three families federations and academia, and delivers an independent judgment on the Government’s efforts in supporting the Armed Forces community. Indeed, we were able to offer reassurances to the group when it met last week.
My noble friend Lord Glenarthur asked three questions, the first of which was about ID cards. Many reservists already have a permanent ID card. I am looking into the issue and will write to my noble friend as soon as possible. I will also write to him in response to his question on medical information being passed to reservists’ GPs. On support to employers, the MoD aims to build support from employers of members of the volunteer Reserve Forces through its SaBRE campaign. We run a website and a free phone support line to communicate the benefits associated with employing a reservist.
My noble friend Lord Lee asked about the return from Germany. As announced by the Prime Minister, as part of the strategic defence and security review the Government have decided to accelerate the rebasing of 20,000 military personnel in Germany with a view to returning half of them by 2015 and the remainder by 2020. Work is ongoing to look at how best we do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made a point about the Veterans Minister. We absolutely accept that we must work across government to best support veterans and I pay tribute to the work done by the previous Government to improve that. We must now take that further. The question is whether simply moving the location of the Veterans Minister would be the best way to achieve that.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford, the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Bilimoria, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, mentioned allowances. I am well aware of the strong feeling on that issue and know how seriously my right honourable friend the Prime Minister takes the covenant. A strong economy is a national security imperative. The Government conducted the SDSR against the background of the dire fiscal situation, which requires difficult decisions on reducing public spending. Proper support to our service personnel is equally essential. An appropriate set of allowances is an important element of that support and will remain so in future. However, it cannot be immune from careful scrutiny to ensure that it remains appropriate. While reductions in that area will never be welcome, the package of changes that we are introducing has been developed in full consultation with the service Chiefs of Staff and represents the best balance between affordability and fairness.
I have run out of time. I will write to the noble Lords who asked me other questions. Again, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for giving us the opportunity to discuss these important issues today. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our Armed Forces have the support that they need and are duly recognised for the important role that they fulfil and the sacrifice that they make in the defence of the nation. Neither they nor the nation should expect anything less.
House adjourned at 5.42 pm.