Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create a staff association to represent the interests of members Her Majesty’s Armed Forces as employees; and for connected purposes.
In a week in which there has been much division and rancour in this place, I am glad to say there is one area on which we can reliably reach a broad consensus: when we talk about the service rendered by those who serve in our armed forces, not only in the way they willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect that which we hold dear, but the way in which service fundamentally shapes anyone’s life, dictating where personnel live, how often they move, and, ultimately, how often they can see those they love. It is a sacrifice too few of the population understand.
If I am being honest, Mr Speaker, serving in the armed forces is a choice that many do not consider because of those immense sacrifices. I include myself in that category, even if it has proven to be an effective route for the advancement of diminutive working-class boys from the west of Scotland like myself. I do, however, come from a services family: my father a Royal Engineer, just like my nephew, and my brother beginning in the Highland Light Infantry, the 52 Lowland Battalion, before ending up in 6 SCOTS, where he currently serves.
If there is one thing I have noticed, it is the anomaly between those family and friends who have put themselves in harm’s way wearing an Army uniform, and those who have put themselves in harm’s way wearing a police or fire brigade uniform. Put a hero in a uniform and call them police or a firefighter, and they have a professional body or trade union to represent their interests; put them in an Army, Navy or RAF uniform and they do not. I cannot for the life of me see why. Similarly, as we talk of these public servants in such heroic terms, we often forget that they are also normal employees, with almost—almost—the same rights as anyone else.
Let me be clear for all hon. Members—and, I would hope, all hon. and gallant Members—here today: this Bill honours a commitment in my party’s manifesto that seeks to create an armed forces representative body on a statutory footing, just like the Police Federation we have in each of the nations of these islands. Crucially, just like the Police Federation, it would not have the power to strike and thus it would not be appropriate to call it a trade union. However, I consider this to be very much one major missing piece in the ongoing struggle for the rights of employees, albeit one that I believe that both those on the Front Benches of the Conservative and Labour parties have not deemed important enough to consider throughout any of the periods they have had in government. I can only hope they follow the Scottish National party’s lead here today and support the Bill, although I do salute the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who presented a private Member’s Bill on this matter nearly 10 years ago.
Quite simply, if the armed forces can speak with one voice, all 194,140 of them, then that voice would be one that the Government of the day would have to listen to. Improved economic and working conditions would follow. The current status quo is failing service personnel, and ultimately, the relatively weak position that the disparate stakeholders find themselves in is not working in their favour.
Of course, serving personnel may join trade unions or professional associations linked to the work that they do, along with sectional groups that specifically represent their interests inside the armed forces, and we know that the work of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the service complaints ombudsman is always welcomed. We also know that those in Main Building have often found it too easy to disregard their findings.
While the excellent network of the service families charities—I had an interesting meeting with the Naval Families Federation in my constituency office last Friday—along with SSAFA, Poppyscotland and many others, are diligent and determined champions for those in the armed forces community, I cannot help but conclude that their excellent work is no substitute for a united organisation whose single and unambiguous duty is to its members, and only its members. While there is a British Armed Forces Federation, it does not have the same level of recognition from the Government as similar bodies elsewhere.
It is actually an arrangement that is not so unusual among the small, northern European states in our neighbourhood, along with Germany and Australia. Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands all have different forms of armed forces representative bodies, some of which are trade unions and some of which are more informal, but which, none the less, are recognised negotiating or welfare bodies.
Some of those examples may have been what provoked some of the criticism of this Bill when it was written about in The Sunday Post last weekend. While I expected the usual nonsense about representation and advocacy somehow leading towards a permanent decline in standards and discipline, I was astonished at some of the bad faith arguments by those who would consider themselves experts in defence and security. Let me be clear again to anyone who would seek to block this Bill: all that is needed to secure better pay and conditions for those in the armed services is some more money from the Treasury and good will from Main Building. They are not living in the real world.
The personnel challenges faced by the Ministry of Defence are not insignificant, and to be fair, nor has its pecuniary response been, with some £664 million being spent over the last five years on recruitment and retention initiatives, and so I would hope that better representation and better prospects for those thinking of enlisting would help to drive that figure down. The recent NAO report into overcoming what now amounts to a skilled personnel shortfall of 5.7% overall, and significantly more in the pinch point trades, makes for eye-opening reading, and ultimately concludes that the current settlement is not sustainable, particularly when skilled forces personnel can make far more on civvy street. This situation will only be exacerbated as the skills expected of personnel move into the next generation of cyber and electronic warfare. In the real world, the armed forces must be able to compete with the tech start-ups.
However, the most compelling argument for an armed forces representative body comes not from looking to the future, but from looking at history. While much of the attention in the Chilcot report ultimately focused on the decision to go to war and the intelligence used, for many of those who served there the most damning sections came near the end, when the failures in personnel and equipment planning came to the fore. For those of us, like me, whose loved ones served in the conflict, and even more for those—some may be here today in the Chamber—who were there, we have to wonder why it took so long for the Government to take action to address these programmes, even though we know so many raised concerns through the chain of command. I leave everyone here to draw their own conclusions as to whether the Government would have been as slow to react to personnel speaking with one strong voice.
If we consider that the end of UK operations in Iraq and Afghanistan also dovetailed with the beginning of austerity, pay freezes and the swingeing cuts to our military that this entailed, it is no surprise that there has been an adverse effect on the morale of those who serve. Indeed, it is no surprise that last month’s continuous attitude survey saw overall happiness in the armed forces continue to fall. But there is a disconnect somewhere, because we all know that so much has been done in recent years to improve public perceptions of serving personnel, to make Armed Forces Day more prominent and to make it easier for personnel to make the transition to civilian life.
As I come to a close, let me posit a theory. Those who serve in our armed forces do so for a variety of reasons. I am fairly sure that “being a hero” is not usually one of them. The more that any Government fetishise the idea of heroic sacrifice, while failing in their basic obligations on pay and conditions, the lower morale will fall. What those who serve need is not platitudes from well-meaning politicians, but for the basics to be done right: to be paid, clothed and housed properly; to be supported and nurtured throughout their career; and to be able to deal with an employer that knows that if it does not meet its obligations, it will face 194,140 people speaking with one strong voice.
I am grateful to you for allowing me to rise to oppose this Bill, Mr Speaker. Although I share many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) in introducing his Bill, I have to say that I do not recognise the complaint that he seeks to address. I have spent time in the Ministry of Defence—admittedly not in the personnel role, but having met countless serving personnel across all services and at all levels—and not once in the nearly four years that I spent there did anybody ever suggest to me that a remedy for some of the natural complaints that serving personnel have from time to time would be the creation of a trade union or staff association. One of the reasons why nobody raised this as an issue—that I was aware of—is that there already are, as the hon. Gentleman touched on, a plethora of existing families federations across each of the services that do a very good job and exist to advocate on behalf of forces personnel and their families some of the issues that he is trying to address through the Bill.
Welfare of serving personnel is the top issue that they seek to contend with, and accommodation is another issue that is always high on their list. It is well acknowledged by service chiefs, the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, which has responsibility for military quarters, that a considerable amount of work needs to be done. There is persistent investment in the military estate to try to bring up to contemporary standards some of the historical garrison accommodation, some of which is not only decades old, but goes back over 100 years. That is something that the Secretary of State is committed to trying to resolve and is working through the families federations to do so.
In addition to the families federations, there are the plethora of charities that support serving personnel, and in particular, veterans. The hon. Gentleman may or may not be aware that there are over 400 service-facing charities up and down this country helping veterans when they leave the service. I pay tribute to the work of COBSEO, which is the organisation that acts as an umbrella for these charity groups. It provides a signposting service for serving personnel as they seek to find their new career and come out of the armed forces, once they have served their tour of duty, to identify the areas where they might need help and support—much of the kind of work that I envisage the hon. Gentleman’s putative staff association might be able to do. It would be nothing short of confusing to add another tier of advice and support through the body that he proposes, because one of the biggest challenges for a service leaver who decides that they need support for a particular direction, whether that is to find employment, housing or medical care, is where they turn to. That is why the existing structure of COBSEO does such a great job. In addition, there is the Veterans’ Gateway, an online resource, funded, I believe, by the MOD, which enables individuals to find the right organisation to support them.
I must ask the hon. Gentleman, because it was not clear from his remarks, what wrong he is trying to right. If he is looking for a voice for serving personnel, as he indicated he was, I must point out that this exists through the families federations. If he is looking for access to the chain of command to represent personnel, I must point out that that is what the chain of command is for. The charities that support personnel in each of the services have continuous access to the chain of command and civil servants in the MOD and directly to Ministers through regular dialogue with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is sitting on the Front Bench today.
The hon. Gentleman speaks frequently on military matters on behalf of his party, and there is broad agreement across the House, from all parties, that we wish to provide for our serving personnel the highest possible standards of welfare and pay so as to recruit and retain the armed forces we need to keep this country safe. Nobody would doubt the commitment of the Conservative party, and I do not doubt his commitment, to meeting that objective, but I say to him gently that if he really wants to do the right thing for the personnel who serve in Scotland, he should ask his colleagues in the Scottish Government to think very carefully about whether making people pay more income tax simply for the pleasure of serving in Scotland will help us to recruit and retain experienced military personnel. That is a more significant and material measure that could damage the armed forces in Scotland, and he would do well to think about that, instead of pressing this Bill. I will not press my opposition to a Division, but I hope the House has heard the strength of concern that I have and which is shared by others on the Conservative Benches.
Question put and agreed to.
That Martin Docherty-Hughes, Ian Blackford, Liz Saville Roberts, Carol Monaghan, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, Douglas Chapman, Angela Crawley, Stephen Gethins, Stewart Hosie, Chris Law, Angus Brendan MacNeil and Pete Wishart present the Bill.
Martin Docherty-Hughes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 233).