I beg to move,
That the draft Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2019, which was laid before this House on 24 January, be approved.
It is a pleasure to seek the support of this House for the order. In doing so, may I immediately begin by paying tribute to those who have worn the uniform and who wear the uniform, both as reservists and as regulars? I also pay tribute to those who support those in uniform; it is those in the armed forces community that we must also pay respect to, and we should be thankful for the sacrifices they make in supporting those who serve in the Army, the Air Force and the Royal Navy.
In Defence questions, we spoke about the duty of care—something that is critical to making sure we continue living up to the standards we have shown over the years. We have an enormous standard of professionalism in our armed forces, as a deterrent. Our allies revere us and want to work with us, and our foes fear us because of who we are.
I entirely support what the Minister says about our recognition of those who support members of our armed forces; the armed forces community is very important. I know the Minister has that community very much in his heart and has their best interests in his mind, and he will be as concerned as I am that satisfaction with pay and pension benefits is the lowest ever recorded. What is being done in armed forces legislation and in the policies of the Government to try to increase morale and satisfaction among the people the Minister paid such warm tribute to?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that important point. I will be honest with the House and say that pay is becoming an issue. It was not before—people signed up because of what lay ahead of them, not because of the money. Today, however, the competition that we have in civilian life is such that when people make the judgment as to whether to step forward or not, pay is becoming an issue. We do not want it to be a deterrent to people joining the armed forces.
We are going through the armed forces pay review process, as we do every year, and I will do my utmost to make sure that we are able to pay our service personnel what they deserve, so that it does not become a reason for people not to step forward. I can say the same about accommodation. The reason I articulate these points is that we are shortly to have the spending review. When we talk about the spending review and the armed forces, the immediate assumption is that we are talking about equipment, training and operations. I do not take away from the fact that they must be invested in, but for my part of the portfolio it is critical that we look after the people, and pay is one aspect of that; accommodation is another. I am not able to build accommodation fast enough because of limits in funding.
As we make the case to the Treasury for further defence spending, I simply say that welfare issues must be considered in addition to the other big-ticket items that are normally discussed. Is the hon. Gentleman content with that answer?
It is the first time I have ever been positively encouraged to intervene—it could catch on.
I share the Minister’s views about the wider issues alongside pay. One of the other issues raised with me by members of the armed forces community is the sense of strategic vision on what the Army is for now. I challenged the Minister on this in Defence questions an hour or two ago and he said that there was a strong strategic vision for the Army in 2019. Can he tell us a bit more about what that is, because it is not entirely understood by some people who serve?
Before my right hon. Friend gets on to defence posture, can he tell us whether he has taken note of the Army Families Federation’s recent report, which suggests that the future accommodation model is a major cause of concern among Army families, and a disincentive to remain in the armed forces?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s service and the work that he has done in this area. I would not go so far as to say that the new FAM is causing the problems that he suggests. It needs to be rolled out faster. Those who are serving want to be able to get on the housing ladder, for example, and perhaps invest in a property outside the wire. We want to give individuals three options—to stay inside the garrison, which they might want to do when they sign up; to rent a property outside the wire; or to invest in a property, perhaps using the Help to Buy scheme, for example. My hon. Friend is right that it has taken longer than we wanted to roll out the pilot schemes to test the model, and I hope that will happen in the near future.
My right hon. Friend is right to talk about improving pay, conditions and accommodation. In addition, it is important that we collectively continue to say thank you and appreciate the work that our armed forces do. Will he join me in thanking the Royal Anglian Regiment, which happens to have the freedom of the town of Basildon, and all my constituents who serve in the regiment and across our armed services more widely?
I am more than happy to pay tribute to the Royal Anglian Regiment. I served in the Royal Green Jackets, which was another infantry regiment—it is now the Rifles, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who served in the Scots Guards. The Anglians show the benefit of having a local relationship and recruiting from the community. That is how the Army has developed in strength, with reservist communities and so forth. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to that regiment.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Society of Conservative Lawyers recently published a pamphlet on the decision to go into a conflict situation. In its foreword, General Lord Houghton makes the point that it is very important for Army morale that a decision made by the Government can be implemented immediately, that the element of surprise over an enemy can be garnered in that way, and that therefore it should not always be necessary to have a parliamentary vote before committing armed forces. What does my right hon. Friend think?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I am probably going to get into trouble by saying that—thankfully the Whips are not listening at the moment, so I can get away with much. I absolutely agree. The main example in my lifetime is August 2013, when we invited Parliament to make a judgment on whether to send in troops. One MP—I will not say who it was—did not feel qualified to decide and so invited members of the public to inform them of which way to vote. We should be able to make such a judgment—an Executive judgment—ourselves. Sometimes the delay in making a judgment on whether to step forward allows the adversary to regroup, hide or move on.
I say this out of interest, rather than because it is where I want to go, but the United States has the War Powers Act, which obliges the President to go to Congress to seek to continue any campaign that he or she might implement. I think it is absolutely imperative that we get back to that point. It is almost a matter of opinion; I appreciate that. However, if we are to become less risk-averse, we often need to move very quickly. As I will say shortly, there are ever fewer nations that are ready to stand up and protect our values in a fast-changing world. We are one of them, and we should not be held back by having to go through a parliamentary process.
I would just like to dispel some of the gloom that has been spread by the Opposition in relation to the morale of our armed forces. I frequently meet members of the armed forces in my constituency of Aldershot, which is the home of the British Army. I meet fine young men and women from 1st Battalion the Scots Guards, 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, 4 Rifles and the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, and their morale is extremely high because they are involved in an array of operational engagements overseas, and soldiers like to be busy. Young people watching this debate should be reassured that there is no better time to join the British Army, because they will be operationally deployed and morale is extremely high.
I am pleased to hear that, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in his constituency—I have joined him there and am aware of those important contributions. I also speak to the families federations, who ensure that my feet are kept on the ground and that I understand the reality of the challenges. Youngsters joining today expect different standards from those that he and I experienced when we joined—they want single-living accommodation and wireless internet access, for example. They want a different set of standards from those that we appreciated in our time. My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point.
I thank the Minister for what he has said. We are fortunate to have a Minister who has a heart for his job, understands the job and responds to the issues that Members across the House bring to his attention; he does that extremely well. He mentioned accommodation. I gently remind him of the issue of recruitment and the fact that Northern Ireland was able to recruit a greater percentage than the rest of the United Kingdom, which may be an opportunity. Some of the soldiers joining up tell me that they would like the opportunity to train overseas. I want to ensure that that opportunity will be in the strategy, as well as help for the families.
I pay tribute to those who serve and step forward in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have visited his neck of the woods a number of times, and I am very grateful for what they offer. He touches on our important commitment to improve accommodation. We have a £4 billion process of upgrade. That requires tough decisions to relinquish some of the armed forces’ assets that we have accumulated over the last couple of hundred years, but it also means that we can regroup and consolidate into super-garrisons, which are fit for purpose and, I hope, will attract the next generation to serve their country.
I thank the Minister for giving way, and it is welcome that we are talking about the armed forces on the Floor of the House. We have heard in some remarks a focus on how we can encourage people to sign up, but does he agree that it is more about how we retain people, particularly when they get to the stage in their career when they have a family and perhaps need property beyond the barracks accommodation that they were happy with when they signed up?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The chances are that when someone joins the armed forces, they are single and have little responsibility. As they move ahead in life, they are likely to develop a family and so forth, and therefore their accommodation requirements will change. The armed forces must accept and be ready for that. That is the single issue that the families federations state as the reason for people choosing to leave, and it needs addressing; there is no doubt about it.
Seeing as we are discussing this important issue on the Floor of the House, it might be worth speaking to a wider audience and reminding people that when they join the armed forces as a young person, the training they receive is often through the formal provision of an apprenticeship. Our military services are one of the biggest providers of apprenticeships in the country, and people leave the services with full and proper qualifications.
I am looking around the Chamber, and I see that there is life after the armed forces, with so many characters who have served and ended up here. That is fantastic. On a more serious note, the skillset that people develop in the armed forces arguably is second to none, compared with other areas of life. Grit, tenacity, determination, leadership skills, commitment and team-working are all transferrable skills, and it is so important to recognise that. If we have a challenge, it is the fact that the cohort of people who are familiar with what the armed forces have to offer is getting smaller, because the armed forces do not have the same direct exposure. Our challenge is to ensure that every HR director, personnel officer and person charged with recruitment in a business is aware of what our brilliant armed forces can offer.
It is worth spelling out the wider aspects of what our armed forces do, because we are here to give consent to their continued existence.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Does he agree that the real significance of the order is that it continues the system of command and of justice that applies through command in the armed forces? It is therefore crucial that we renew for another year, so that the system of command and discipline can continue.
I do agree, and that goes to the heart of what we are debating. It is important that the disciplinary aspects of the armed forces continue; because they change, we are obliged to come back to the House and re-confirm them.
It is important to recognise that our armed forces do much more than what we see day to day in the newspapers. As Operation Telic and Operation Herrick are removed from the frontlines, and we see less about this on the front pages and hear less and less about these issues, we should recognise what amazing work our armed forces do in keeping UK citizens safe in this country and, indeed, abroad. We play a leading role in NATO, providing collective assurance and deterrence in the posture that we build. Along with our international partners, we are also conducting and targeting counter-terrorism activity.
We support multinational peacekeeping operations and build stability overseas, which ensures the freedom of navigation and the UK’s access to global resources. We safeguard strategic choke points and protect essential lines of communication, not least across our oceans. We also keep the skies safe—not just in the UK, but in Europe and beyond. Newer to the portfolio, we are ensuring we monitor movements in outer space. The House will be aware of what we do to tackle piracy on the seas and high seas, and to reduce poaching in Africa—we have done much to tackle the illegal wildlife trade in Africa—and we of course assist in delivering overseas humanitarian aid relief during emergencies and disasters.
All that involves a wide variety of skillsets, which our armed forces are expected to understand and execute. It is important that we recognise that these are not things we see every day in the newspapers, but they are things that this House expects them to do when a crisis happens. It is to them that we turn when diplomacy fails and when this country faces challenges.
My right hon. Friend is being extremely generous with his time. In describing the expansive nature of our military presence globally, does he agree with me that the new naval facility in Bahrain, and the activities and patrolling carried out by the Royal Navy there, are an important demonstration that we are committed to the security of the Gulf and to providing reassurance about the free passage of trade around the peninsula?
My hon. Friend cites an acute example of exactly what we are doing. HMS Jufair is a fantastic illustration of our having permanent exposure, with a permanent facility, and of our working not just with the Bahrainis, but with others in the middle east. We set standards and values and share tactics and operational capabilities, and we improve governance, the rule of law and so forth in doing so. I pay tribute to those who have made that facility work. If memory serves, I actually visited the facility with my hon. Friend in the recent past.
We have touched on the long-established reputation of our armed forces in defending not just our shores, but our values. At this juncture, I would comment on how the world is changing rapidly. It is getting more dangerous and it is getting more complex. The threats are more diverse than ever before. I would argue that if the instability we are seeing is unchecked, it will become the norm. These are threats not just from a man-made perspective—extremism and resurgent nations, as well as cyber-security—but from climate change. We are reaching or testing the limits of what our fragile planet can actually do, and if we do not act soon, there will be huge consequences with migration, the movement of people and so forth, as well as the stockpiling of food and a threat even to our ability to grow the crops we actually need.
The world is changing fast and it requires a collective effort if we are to meet some of these challenges. Britain has been a nation that again and again steps forward to lead the way—not always to do the heavy lifting, but certainly to show leadership. I certainly believe that, as I say, this is an important juncture at which to regroup and look at the rules—established mostly through Bretton Woods, after the second world war—that are now out of date. They need to be reviewed to recognise the new world that we actually face, before this becomes the norm and we are unable to change and set the standards for the next number of years.
The rate of change and level of uncertainty are outpacing governance and unity. The old rules need to be updated, and, because of human empowerment, it is easier for individuals to have greater access to means of causing harm, through computers and so forth.
My right hon. Friend is painting a picture of the complexity and severity of the challenges we face. That threat has changed over the years, to the point at which the level of skill required across a broad range of disciplines is growing. I was fortunate enough to be the envoy for the Year of Engineering last year and saw how our armed services use engineers both on the ground and behind the scenes to tackle some of those threats, particularly on cyber-security. Will he therefore join me in promoting engineering within the armed services as a way of meeting and tackling the challenges that he is talking about?
I fully concur. It was a pleasure to participate in the Year of engineering last year. It is important that we encourage STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and we are doing that, as was mentioned earlier, through our apprenticeship schemes. The skillsets that even the basic infanteer requires from a technology perspective are enormous, and so different from when I served. It is absolutely important, through schooling, apprenticeships and all aspects of our armed forces, that we encourage these things.
I was talking about the fact that the tried and tested diplomatic instruments and conventions that we have relied on are no longer fit for purpose and about the importance of the fact that we are now threatened with greater human empowerment through technology.
It used to be said that atomic weapons were the biggest threat we faced. I was moved by a book written by David Sanger, a New York journalist and a specialist in cyber-warfare. He now says that cyber-warfare has taken over as the biggest threat that we face, because attacks can be conducted state on state and there are no repercussions and no rules. There is no Geneva convention to say, for example, that elections or hospitals are out of bounds for a cyber-security attack. There are no repercussions or recognition above board of what the penalty or punishment is, or even of what rules a cyber-security attack breaks.
This is more dangerous because, unlike with nuclear weapons, it is not just states that use such attacks—any individual can. That shows the requirements and the pressures of what our armed forces are up against in today’s changing world, with accelerating technological advancement, the increasing environment of stress that I mentioned and, of course, the change in population growths and habitats.
My right hon. Friend is painting an interesting picture of our defence requirement. When it comes to cyber-security, both in terms of defence and offence, is he confident and reassured that cyber-capability will be front and centre in the modernising defence programme as it moves from adoption to reality?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we discuss upgrading and recommitting the existence of our armed forces, it has traditionally been around those conventional capabilities of Army, Air Force and Navy, and now it must expand to this fourth dimension, which includes cyber and space. These are the volatile and vulnerable areas that we absolutely need to invest more in, and I am pleased to say that that is exactly what is happening.
My right hon. Friend is articulating a rather alarming picture of the changing nature of the challenges. He has mentioned the resources required. Does he agree that although we are committed to paying 2% of our GDP on defence to make sure that these international threats are adequately attacked, other countries also need to make similar commitments?
I am on the record as saying that we need to spend more than 2%, as that is a very arbitrary target. Ultimately, the important thing is whether people turn up for the fight as well. If we take Operation Ellamy, which was in Libya, as an example, many NATO countries did not bother turning up even though they were NATO signatories. I appreciate the 2% and, yes, we want countries to pay, but ultimately they need to be ready to fight as well.
I am very grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene again. I just want to take him back to the comments he was making a moment ago about cyber-warfare and hybrid warfare. Does he consider cyber-warfare to be warfare? If so, who are we at war with?
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. There are no accepted rules, and post Brexit Britain and the rest of world collectively need to recognise that. From a NATO perspective, article 5 does not apply. If there are no rules, how can we punish anybody? How can we identify who is responsible for what? This is a whole world that we need to address very soon indeed.
That point allows me to move on to a point about having an honest conversation with the public—this touches on the 2% issue. The general public have a huge admiration for our armed forces, who are the most professional in the world. However, I would also say that there is a collective naivety about what we can actually do. We are facing some very real threats that we need to wake up to.
I do not mean to digress too much, but because this place made so much noise about potholes, which was because local government made so much noise about potholes, the Chancellor then provided the money to address the problem of potholes. We are not making enough noise about our capabilities and where we are versus the threats we actually face.
Our main battle tank is 20 years old. It has not been replaced in that period. Meanwhile, France and Russia have upgraded their tanks two or three times over that period. We have some fantastic kit coming on board, but there are other areas where we need investment. We need to tell the public that if they want Britain to be able to step forward when it is required, we need to pay for that. That is the conversation we need to have, as well as talking about the threats we have touched on and have articulated quite adequately today. As I say, ever fewer nations are willing to step forward.
I will not give way. I need to make progress because I am getting that look from Madam Deputy Speaker—other hon. Members want to participate as well.
It is important to recognise where we are and to have a more real debate with the public. There is a Russian proverb that says that it is better to be slapped in the face by the truth than kissed with a lie. Without being too provocative, I believe that we are trying to sell a capability of the armed forces, which we are very, very proud of, but that the nation is in denial about the real threats appearing over the horizon. It is our duty as the Executive, as the Government and as parliamentarians to express that to a nation that, if it fully understood the picture, would be more willing to say, “Yes, let’s spend more money.” I hope that message will come through in the spending review.
I turn to the Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2019. We seek the consent of the House through the annual consideration of the legislation governing the armed forces: the Armed Forces Act 2006. The draft order we are considering this afternoon is to continue in force the 2006 Act for a further year, until 11 May 2020. This reflects the constitutional requirement under the Bill of Rights that a standing Army, and by extension now the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, may not be maintained without the consent of Parliament.
I am sure the House will be familiar with the fact that the legislation that provides for the armed forces to exist as disciplined bodies is renewed by Parliament every single year. That is what we are doing here today. The requirement for annual renewal can be traced back to the Bill of Rights 1688. Time prohibits me, Madam Deputy Speaker, from going into detail on that, but I am happy to write to hon. Members if they would like further information on that front.
Every five years, renewal is by an Act of Parliament. The most recent was in 2016 and the next will be in 2021. Between each five-yearly Act, annual renewal is by Order in Council. The draft order that we are considering today is such an order. The Armed Forces Act 2016 provides for the continuation in force of the Armed Forces Act 2006 until the end of 11 May 2017 and for further renewal thereafter by Order in Council for up to a year at a time, but not beyond 2021. If the Armed Forces Act 2006 is not renewed by this Order in Council before the end of 11 May 2019, it will automatically expire. If the 2006 Act expires, the legislation that governs the armed forces and the provisions necessary for their maintenance as disciplined bodies will cease to exist. Discipline is essential. It maintains the order necessary for the armed forces to accomplish their mission to serve our country, whether at home or abroad.
The Act contains nearly all the provisions for the existence of a system of command, discipline and justice for the armed forces. It creates offences and provides for the investigation of alleged offences, the arrest, the holding in custody and the charging of individuals accused of committing an offence, and for them to be dealt with summarily by their commanding officer or tried in a court martial. Offences under the 2006 Act include any criminal offence under the law of England and Wales and those that are peculiar to service, such as misconduct towards a superior officer and disobedience to lawful commands. We should not forget that the Act applies to members of the armed forces at all times, wherever they are serving in the world.
If the Act were to expire, the duty of members of the armed forces to obey lawful commands, and the powers and procedures under which this duty is enforced, would no longer have effect. Commanding officers and the court martial would have no powers of punishment for failure to obey a lawful command or other disciplinary or criminal misconduct. Members of the armed forces would still owe allegiance to Her Majesty, but Parliament would have removed the power of enforcement. Service personnel do not have contracts of employment and so have no duties as employees. Their obligation is essentially a duty to obey lawful commands. The Act also provides for other important matters for the armed forces, such as their enlistment, pay and redress of complaints.
In conclusion, the continuation of the 2006 Act is essential for the maintenance of discipline. Discipline, in every sense, is fundamental to the existence of our armed forces and indeed, to their successes, whether at home in supporting emergency services and local communities and protecting our fishing fleet and our shores; playing their role in counter-terrorism or in combating people and drug smuggling; distributing vital humanitarian aid; saving endangered species; or defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
We owe the brave men and women of our armed forces a sound legal basis for them to continue to afford us their vital protection. I hope that hon. Members will support the draft continuation order.
Before I begin, I echo Mr Speaker’s words from earlier this afternoon, and the very fitting tribute paid by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), in respect of Paul Flynn, who served Newport West with absolute distinction and tremendous wit. He was also a great friend to many of us and we shall miss him sorely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. Our armed forces represent this country across the world, fighting to liberate civilians from the scourge of Daesh; providing vital training to other nations; serving on peacekeeping missions; and stepping in to provide humanitarian relief in the wake of hurricanes and other disasters. Most importantly, of course, they stand ready to defend this country day and night. Across the House, we are all immensely proud of our personnel and Labour Members will be supporting the order this afternoon. However, I want to press the Minister in greater detail on a number of issues that we touched on at Defence questions this afternoon concerning our armed forces.
I will deal first with forces numbers and the alarming downward trend across each of the services. When Labour left office in 2010, we had an Army of 102,000 regulars, an RAF of 40,000 and a Royal Navy of 35,000. Now they are all substantially smaller. The Army and RAF have been cut by 25% each and the Navy is down by nearly 20%. The trajectory is most worrying of all: every single service has fallen in every year since the Conservatives came into office. The latest figures are due to be published on Thursday and I sincerely hope that they will buck the trend, because at a time when this country faces growing security challenges, it is simply not acceptable for the Government to be failing to deliver its manifesto pledge to
“maintain the overall size of the armed forces”
year after year.
At Defence questions earlier this afternoon, I asked the Minister for the Armed Forces to confirm that the Government are still committed to a Regular Army of 82,000. While I would not like to suggest that the Minister did not understand that we were talking about the number of full-time personnel, he did seem to get slightly confused and started talking about reservists, so I wonder whether his more courteous colleague, the Under-Secretary, can confirm that the target of 82,000 does still stand.
While I welcome any upturn in interest that recent adverts have stimulated, Members across the House have repeatedly raised the failings of Capita and its botched recruitment contract. It is simply not doing its job of recruiting enough personnel to the Army. I am sure I am not the only Member who has had complaints from constituents because of lengthy delays. I am talking about young people who actively want to join the Army and serve their country but whose enthusiasm is being undermined by Capita’s incompetence.
We have said very clearly that Labour would terminate this contract, and I am glad that the message may finally be getting through. The Secretary of State said recently:
“If it becomes apparent in the next financial year that Capita are continuing to fail in what they do, we are going to have to look at different options in terms of the contract.”
That is welcome, but it does seem to be yet another example of kicking the can down the road in terms of holding Capita to account. It is over a year since the same Secretary of State said he would give Capita a red card if it did not perform. Can the Minister set out what action the Government will take right now to get to grips with the problems?
This is not just an issue of recruitment; it also comes down to retention. The steady decline in service morale is a significant worry. The proportion of Army personnel reporting high morale in 2010 was 58% for both officers and those of other ranks, but that fell to 46% for officers and a mere 36% for other ranks in 2018. As well as it being wrong in principle for personnel to feel this way, we simply cannot afford to have servicemen and women choosing to leave the forces because of their view of service life. What plan does the Minister have to deal with this?
Satisfaction with pay remains at the lowest levels ever recorded, and given the seven years of below-inflation rises, that is hardly surprising. We all welcome the long overdue rise that personnel have received in the current financial year, but that was delayed and paid retrospectively. Will the Minister set out where we are with this year’s settlement?
The Opposition have previously expressed our concern about the future accommodation model and the possibility that it may be used to push more personnel and their families into the private rented sector, with all the uncertainty and added cost associated with that. New research from the Army Families Federation highlights a number of flaws in the information provided on FAM. Forty-eight per cent. of respondents said they had received no information at all about FAM and only 2% said they had received a great deal. Where people had received information, most of it had come from the federation itself, as opposed to the MOD or the chain of command. Uncertainty around FAM was also a feature of the federation’s comments on the covenant report late last year. Will the Minister commit to doing much more to make personnel and families aware of the changes?
Finally, in January, we were all deeply concerned by the report of the Defence Safety Authority that identified serious concerns. Will the Minister update the House on the progress made in implementing all the recommendations in that report?
This statutory instrument is vital and not Brexit-related. It is an annual requirement that Parliament restate its approval for the raising of our standing Army, Navy and Air Force in the modern world. Without it, we could not defend our citizens from enemies or send our armed forces to assist our allies around the globe.
We have many dedicated and highly skilled armed forces personnel. Our Royal Marines are working with allies to train in the toughest conditions on the planet hundreds of miles north of the Arctic circle, as our Secretary of State for Defence discovered for himself this weekend—we are all grateful that he did not die plunging into the frozen ice. As the House knows, I have visited twice to learn about the survival training that our young commandos undergo in order to take on some of the most challenging military tests. We are also training US marines up there and working closely with Dutch forces to build this uniquely challenging skillset. Furthermore, with the approval of this statutory instrument, we hope this year to see the development of the littoral strike group to allow the Royal Marines to go back to sea—back to their roots.
As the defence lead on the Public Accounts Committee, I hope to see the MOD making efficient and value-for-money purchasing decisions for the ships they will be using. Getting the right kit—not necessarily gold-plated—is so important if we are to offer our exceptional Royal Marines the skills that will enable them to cross the globe to where they are needed, whether for military or humanitarian intervention.
As part of our world-class and worldwide-respected Royal Navy, our Royal Marines will also be an element of the carrier strike group which we hope will develop in the coming year. The new carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are world-leading national assets. I look forward to hearing Ministers set out more fully the Government’s strategy for our aircraft carriers. For all the young sailors who are already serving on HMS Queen Elizabeth, it is an exciting and challenging posting, and many will look forward to serving on her in the years ahead. The last commanding officer of HMS Prince of Wales has probably not been born yet, so we will need many more before that last posting is required.
Our Royal Navy reaches across the globe to deter enemies, above and below the oceans, and to keep our sea routes safe for civilian trading traffic. Below the surface, quietly, members of our submarine service are out and about 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. For 50 years this April they have provided a continuous at-sea deterrent to protect our nation, support our allies and ensure that enemies are deterred from taking us on. That is a terribly important part of military procedure, because the nuclear threat is so great. It is, in my view, the greatest weapon of peace that man has ever invented, because it deters—forever, we hope—those who would start world wars.
Those submariners are often forgotten, because they are not seen and we do not generally talk about them, although I do occasionally. We forget, so often, the important and continuous work that they do. While they are under the oceans and the Navy is on the oceans, our own islands are kept safe 24/7, thanks in great part to the quiet but critical work that is done at RAF Boulmer in my constituency. The air defence that is provided by the aerospace surveillance and control system force commander—I had to read that out, because I would never get it right otherwise—is crucial work. It takes place, unseen, in a bunker deep below ground, with remote radar heads across our far northern borders watching the skies.
From RAF Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides—which I was privileged to visit a couple of years ago—to RAF Brizlee Wood, which is in my constituency, to RAF Buchan and the new RAF Saxa Vord on Unst, the most northern of the Shetland Islands, RAF personnel who live in my constituency watch and manage all the data provided by the radar heads, watching for enemy aircraft and so much else. I had the privilege of visiting the bunker recently, and was taught how to identify space junk, the international space station—which comes round twice a day—and much else besides. Extraordinary technicians have learnt to identify those who enter our airspace illegally, and, if necessary, are able to call RAF pilots to challenge them. All that happens quietly underground at RAF Boulmer.
I was not given that much training, but I think it is safe to say that one of the most extraordinary things that was explained to me is that there is now so much space junk—objects that have broken up over the years—that it is incredibly difficult to find a clear route in order to launch any new satellite into space. The ability of our RAF personnel to understand what is there, and to recognise it as it comes round on the radar screens again and again, means that they are vital components, understanding and supporting the civilians who want to work in space and the military who continue to view it as one of the new potential areas of combat. I am enormously proud to represent that team of exceptional RAF personnel, and also to represent their families.
I set up the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant when I was first elected, because I was shocked by some of the poor housing in which RAF families have to live. I was confused by the fact that the Government had not done more to act on the multiplicity of evidence that clearly exists to show that family comfort is critical to our retention of the highly trained personnel, in whom we have invested so heavily, to serve their country for as long as they want to do so. When the families are unhappy and feel that they cannot cope with the challenges that military life brings, we lose some of our most wonderful personnel. Moreover, they have cost us a fortune: we have invested millions of pounds in some of our most sophisticated and highly trained RAF pilots, for instance. To lose them because family housing is too much of a problem is a bad investment decision, quite apart from the human cost.
In the knowledge that the Minister is passionate about getting this right, let me ask again whether the Government will consider changing their financial models so that we can make joined-up decisions on, for instance, housing investment and how the Defence Infrastructure Organisation spends its money. We do not want to find that commanding officers cannot secure the decisions that they need in order to keep the personnel they want. We should be able to make joined-up decisions on access to schools, so that the Department for Education understands that if a family is moving outside the normal cycle there must be a framework to ensure that the children get into the right schools, and on access to healthcare when families are suddenly posted elsewhere and are no longer able to be on the same waiting list. The theory is there, but the practice does not always work. Our military families, who support the extraordinary people who have chosen a career which, as part of their contract, means that they agree to put their lives on the line for us all, can know that Parliament values them if it demonstrates that through policies that work.
It is always a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), whose constituency is just across the border from mine.
This is a very important debate, although it may not seem so to some Members who are watching it outside the Chamber. Two members of the Defence Committee are present: its Chair, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). He and I have similar surnames; I will leave it at that.
The Minister set out the requirements for our armed forces, although I wish he had faced the Chamber while he was making his speech; that would have made things a wee bit easier. He told us what was required for the systems of command, discipline and justice, as well as designating the remit of the services police for the jurisdiction of the powers of commanding officers and the military. On a personal level, I fundamentally get that. I have a brother who served both in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan, and I know that the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) is a submariner. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, submariners constitute a section of the armed forces that is seldom mentioned. Many elements of the armed forces do not have a voice, including the medical element, which provides services on the battlefield that save lives—not just those of our own wounded, but even those of adversaries.
I will be brief, because I know that others want to speak. The Minister said that members of the armed forces were not employees. I think that, in the 21st century, that is a dreadful situation. We hear a lot about the state of housing for members of the armed forces and their families, and we hear a lot about pay, which the Minister also mentioned, but where is the voice of the armed forces when it comes to improving those elements?
We are told about the service families who do such a fantastic job—some of them recently gave evidence to the Defence Committee—but when it comes to employee rights, we need a armed forces representative body. That is what my hon. Friends, at least, believe, and indeed, during Defence questions, not only my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West but a Labour Member called for it. It would not have the ability to strike—no one would call for that—but it should be possible, in the 21st century, for members of the armed forces to be able to call themselves employees and to enter into negotiations with their employer. That is possible in many of our NATO allied armed forces systems. It is disappointing that that is not mentioned in the statutory instrument—but of course it would not be, because it is an element that has to be gone through every couple of years—but I hope that the Minister and some of his team, and perhaps Labour Members as well, will be in the Chamber on 8 March, when I will present a private Member’s Bill on the establishment of a representative body, thus making a commitment to my party’s manifesto.
I think it important that we recognise the service given by members of the armed forces. As was pointed out by both the Minister and the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), we should recognise that service not only in the context of military capability, but in the context of the assistance that they provide through peacekeeping. I often reminded myself of these words:
“Nothing is lost by peace; everything may be lost by war.”
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and not to be last, which is my usual position in the batting order. I will keep my remarks reasonably brief—I say particularly to those who have had the joy of sitting through my speeches on Fridays—to ensure that the two Members who are waiting get an opportunity to speak in this debate as well.
This order is welcome. It is a practical part of ensuring our armed forces continue and that their structure, law and governance, particularly the court martial system, continue. It is also symbolic, as it is a reminder that the armed forces serve our country—our nation and our democracy. This is not a country where the military can exert power over the institution of the state; it is one where they defend the nation and the democracy that lies at the heart of this nation. Indeed, many people over the past couple of hundred years have sacrificed their lives in doing so, showing the truth of the expression that freedom is not free. Too many times in our history, our military and armed forces have had to be called upon to make those sacrifices.
We must address how we can ensure those in the military today feel that they wish to be doing their job and to give that service. The Minister rightly said people do not just join the military for the salary package or because they think there might be an opportunity for some foreign travel; they join because they fundamentally have a calling to want to serve this nation. That is the core of why people volunteer to serve in our military. Indeed, it is a fact that many volunteer; there has not been conscription in this country for decades. At least two generations of men have not been conscripted into our forces, yet so many do still want to join, but it is important that we do not just rely on their spirit of service always coming first.
That is particularly relevant to the issue of accommodation. The escalating cost of housing over recent years means we have to be practical about the financial and other packages we offer and also about the lifestyle generally that is offered. Those in Torbay who have served in the military often talk about what life was like when they were commissioned; they would go on tours and their wives—as they would have been at that time—were pretty much expected to follow them. At that time, it was highly unlikely that their wives would have careers of their own, but that is clearly no longer the case, and indeed many spouses will be serving officers themselves with an equal commitment to our nation, given the welcome move to open up all roles in our military to both sexes. It is therefore important that those packages are considered.
The Minister touched on looking at the estate. I grew up in Plymouth, seeing the Royal Citadel there. Ironically, it had more guns facing over the town than the sound. That was because of history: it was built by Charles II and he wanted to remind Plymothians what might happen if they rebelled against him as they had rebelled against his father, holding out for Parliament and thereby denying a crucial port to the royalist forces. It is right that 300 years later we move on to having a more modern military estate. Some of my family grew up in Stonehouse and have memories of the Stonehouse barracks. They might be worthy of history, but 300-year-old barracks with dormitory accommodation are not the sort of place where the most elite soldiers we train should be housed in the 21st century.
We must not, however, turn the military into just another form of employment. While I agree with much of what was said by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), I do not think going down the path of this becoming like any other job is what the vast majority of the military would like to see; nor would it be a sensible decision for our nation. Being in the military is a unique role: it brings with it obligations of service but also a huge amount of respect in exchange for taking on board those obligations. It clearly would never be possible to have some form of strike arrangement, and I suspect the hon. Gentleman made that clear in his contribution, but going down the path suggested would be neither useful nor appropriate. Our system has served us well.
I think it safe to say that one thing that has been consistent since the armed forces were formed is that there have always been gripes and comments put up by those who serve, and rightly so, but we would expect them to be dealt with by chains of command and in appropriate areas. Having a separate representative body of the military would not be the best way forward, and I do not see that as the solution.
Does my hon. Friend agree that military families sometimes do not feel that they can, as civilians, contact their own MPs to raise concerns—not about military matters their partners might be involved in, but about matters for the family unit? There is often a real lack of confidence that families can talk to Members of Parliament, and we should be doing much more to help them in that regard.
No one should feel afraid to contact their Member of Parliament in any scenario. At the end of the day, we are here to act as our constituents’ advocates and champions, and ultimately, if necessary, to do so confidentially. I am always clear that my surgeries are open.
I frequently see serving soldiers in Aldershot, the home of the British Army, some of whom were previously in my own command when I was back in the Scots Guards. I am always there to help them, and any serving member always knows that if they have any kind of personal problem, they can go and see their platoon commander.
It is great to hear of the service my hon. Friend is still offering to his constituents where he was once their commander but is now offering that as their Member of Parliament. He brings vital experience to this Chamber from his own military experience, representing the home of the British Army.
I have been going on for seven minutes now and am conscious that other Members are waiting to speak. This motion needs to be passed, and I do not think it will attract any particular opposition given that that would be rather bizarre, even though there might be one or two fringe views in this Chamber about abolishing our military, which we sometimes hear. This motion has my full support, and it is vital that it passes today.
I rise to support the motion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) did. While this is a motion that many might have expected was limited in scope and was likely to be passed without much comment, the Minister, of whom I am a big admirer in the job he does, has broadened its scope and other Members have taken him up on the challenge he posed. He made a remarkable speech; I cannot think of many times where a Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box and been so implicitly critical of the Government they speak on behalf of. I entirely support his call for greater investment in our armed forces and will expand on some of the arguments he made about our investment in equipment.
I would not want the hon. Gentleman to mislead the House and say I was somehow not supportive of the Government. I am absolutely, of course, supportive of the Government—a loyal Minister. I am simply encouraging the advancement of policy; I think that is how I would delicately put it.
People will read the right hon. Gentleman’s speech and make up their own minds on whether he was urging the Government to take action in a different direction, but if he wants the advancement of policy, he is in exactly the right place to do that as a Defence Minister. He was right to say that we absolutely recognise the professionalism of those who serve and to point to the admiration he has—and I have, and Members right across the House have—for people who dedicate their lives to our armed forces, but we must also ask ourselves some serious questions about the way in which we support them, and I will come to those in a moment.
If I was to have an area of disagreement with the Minister, it would be on his challenge to the public about the fact that we need to have an honest conversation with them. It does not seem to me that it is the public who are preventing the Government from spending more on our armed forces or meeting greater than the 2% spending commitment. We had a debate here about having greater spending on our armed forces and there was widespread agreement across the House that that should happen. I have never had a member of the public say to me in my surgeries or when I am out door knocking on a Saturday that they disagree with greater spending on the armed forces. I do not think that we need to convince the public of the need to spend more; in fact, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister who need to be persuaded to spend more money on our armed forces.
The Minister spoke about his commitment to the armed forces community and his disappointment that there was such low morale on pay and pensions. He introduced accommodation as another real bone of contention, and I support him entirely on tackling those issues. He and the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) both said that we should not regard a job in the armed forces as being similar to any other job, and I agree with them. Of course there is a level of commitment required from members of the armed forces that is not present in other jobs, but that does not let the Government off the hook when it comes to pay and pensions and to treating people who serve with the respect that they have the right to expect. When it comes to saying to the loved ones of members of the armed forces that we value their support, pay and pensions and accommodation are among the ways in which we can show that we recognise their commitment. I absolutely recognise that working in the armed forces is not the same as any other job, but that does not let the Government off the hook when it comes to ensuring that the pay for members of our armed forces keeps pace with inflation and that they are no worse off at the end of the year than they were at the start of it. That is a very basic commitment.
Another very basic commitment is that we make the necessary investment in equipment, in training, in deployments and in the commitment that we expect of members of the armed forces. We need to pose some serious questions to the Government about those things as well. The Minister said that we had the most professional armed forces in the world, but it is important that we should not be complacent. As he mentioned, the battle tank is 20 years old. As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have had the privilege of speaking to members of the armed forces, and they absolutely want me to hold the Government to account over investment in equipment. They share many of the reservations that he has. They also share reservations about the level of experience of some of the people in our armed forces. Huge numbers are leaving, many of whom had been through engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and were absolutely match fit. The people who are now in those roles, while well trained, are much less experienced than the people who would have been in those arenas eight or nine years ago. I absolutely express our admiration for the people in our armed forces, but we must never be complacent about what we actually have on the ground.
I had the pleasure of going over to Kenya as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme to visit the British Army training unit Kenya—BATUK—but I know that many training courses have been cancelled over the past year or so and that that facility is being used a lot less than it was previously. That investment in the training of members of our armed forces to ensure that they are used to the different theatres they might face is incredibly important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) mentioned the Tory manifesto pledge for the Army to be 82,000 strong. Will the Minister give us absolute clarity on whether the Government still consider themselves bound to that commitment, or whether, as it was not featured so explicitly in the 2017 manifesto, it is now more of an aspiration than a commitment? Either way, it is a commitment that is not being met. I entirely support the motion, but I also share many of the concerns that have been raised today. I absolutely pledge my support to the Minister in his campaign to persuade the Treasury to give our armed forces the support that they need and deserve.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak in the debate today. I am pleased that the Minister chose to use this opportunity to lay out the challenge of transformation that our national defence faces in this era. I have been pleased to see the outline that the Ministry of Defence has given this in the modernising defence programme, following the doctrine of the need to mobilise, to modernise and to transform. I think we are reassured that this document—the modernising defence programme—is a clear statement of intent that takes us forward to the comprehensive spending review and really goes into battle for a strong national defence. I for one am right behind it, but the proof will be in the pudding when it comes to how much money is secured in the comprehensive spending review. If we want what the document describes as the Joint Force 2025—a maritime task group, a deployable land division with three brigades including a strike brigade, a properly resourced combat air group and a special forces task group—we will have to pay for it. We will also have to pay for the equipment programme, which involves some excellent new platforms but also has some significant financial holes. As I have said, the proof will be in the pudding.
As well as needing to pay for all this, there are other things that we will need to do if we are to make the vision in this document a reality. We must ensure value for money, and that is about ensuring that we use big data to make the management of our military much more efficient, especially in areas such as fleet management and the management of large numbers of people. We have to use big data in order to become more efficient, and we need to reform the way in which we do defence procurement. We also need to win the data war. We have heard from the Minister about the cyber threats that we face, and we need to up our game in that regard. We need to acknowledge that the world is connected in a way that it has never been connected before. That is not just a matter of defence; it is also a matter of offensive cyber.
We also need to adopt a global posture. The global deployments in Bahrain, in other middle eastern countries and around the world are a force multiplier, and I am proud that soldiers from my constituency are involved. The Scots Guards are deployed in Cyprus, the Grenadier Guards are in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 4 Rifles—a specialised infantry battalion that is absolutely match fit and purpose built for engagements that involve the training of foreign troops—are deployed right around the world. They are a terrific force multiplier, and that is something we should be proud of.
Alarmingly, the document does not mention our defence response to China. That is a central challenge that we will have to grapple with in this new era of transformation. I invite the Minister to mention that in his closing remarks. Whether we like it or not—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Moving on swiftly—we will also bring our allies with us. We are committed to NATO, but we need to demonstrate that commitment by exercising at scale. Perhaps we could do a “brigade plus” exercise in Poland to show resolve against threats on our eastern flank. We need to nurture sovereign industries, such as the ones in my constituency, which in turn nurture incredible defence innovation. We also need to get the legal framework right for foreign deployments. If we are to have a military that deploys with confidence to inflict violence on our behalf, soldiers need to be able to do that without fear of being pursued through the courts on their return.
I want to turn to the central argument in all of this. It is the argument, which we need to win, about hard power. The Minister mentioned this, and it is the central argument that we will be making as we move forward to the comprehensive spending review. We have been somewhat bruised by the past 18 years of the war on terror, which has informed this generation’s understanding of conflicts abroad, and it is easy to think that the public have a limited appetite for foreign intervention or foreign deployments. However, I actually believe that the reverse is true.
The British military conducted itself in Iraq and Afghanistan with such remarkable professionalism and courage that, whatever one thinks about the politics, there is wholehearted support among the British public and an acknowledgement that our armed forces can and will do a remarkable job on our behalf when deployed. There is absolutely no hesitation at all among the British public when it comes to supporting increased defence expenditure, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) noted. That argument is wrong, we need to debunk that myth, and we need a new commitment to a fully funded national defence in the comprehensive spending review. I look forward to making that argument in a clear, resolute and confident manner for the sake of a strong national defence in this great era of transformation.
The Minister made the point that this renewal—this continuation statutory instrument—is not normally discussed on the Floor of the House, but being able to do so is a great opportunity. The SI goes to the heart of the existence of our armed forces, because the British armed forces quite simply cease to exist without it. The Bill of Rights 1689 contains an assertion that the Army, and by extension the RAF and Navy, cannot exist without the explicit consent of Parliament. Provisions within this SI also enable the chain of command to deliver good governance within the armed forces themselves.
I do not intend to rehearse the arguments that may come about during the proceedings on the Armed Forces Representative Body Bill. It is an interesting idea that has been taken up by other armed forces around the world, but I think that the responsibility and the nature of the relationship between the chain of command in the British armed forces and the soldiers, sailors and airmen and women that they command is dependent on a fundamentally different relationship, which I think a representative body would be in danger of undermining.
I have, and I do not like it.
Also inherent in this SI are provisions for enlistment, pay and the redress of complaints, and all those things at heart are J1 considerations, so I intend to restrict my short speech to the people carrying out the J1 function—the men and women who serve in our armed forces—and our responsibility and, as the Minister mentioned during his opening speech, our offer to them.
The armed forces currently face a challenge with regard to recruitment and retention. Ironically, it is a challenge that has been brought about through good news. The British economy currently has record low levels of unemployment, including record low levels of youth unemployment. It is the sad truth that it is a lot easier to recruit into the armed forces when there are few jobs available in the civilian world. Therefore, because actually unemployment is at a record low, the talented young men and women that we seek to recruit into our armed forces have other credible options.
The shadow Minister mentioned that the delay in the processing of recruitment applications through Capita has had a detrimental effect on our ability to recruit the brightest and best young people whom we need and want in our armed forces. People who are credible—people who have other employment options—are exactly the people we want to recruit and exactly the people who will be snapped up by civilian employers, who are currently competing with our armed forces to recruit them. We have a duty to improve and speed up the recruitment process—not just a duty, but a self-interest.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that we change part of the medical assessment program for recruitment? Those who are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder—often Asperger’s—should not automatically be disbarred from applying. We are looking to select young men and women who have that sort of skillset—that particular unique kind of mind—and we need to find a way to ensure that the system is changed so that those people make it through the system.
My hon. Friend makes an important point—one that I will touch upon briefly later in my speech—about the changing nature of conflict and the skills mix that we require from young people coming into the armed forces. We need to ensure that we are able to be a meaningful and relevant set of armed forces in the here and now, rather than think about the conflicts that we have had in the past.
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about recruitment, but that is only one side of the picture. The other side is the huge number of people who have left the armed forces in the past few years, and people left because they were kind of encouraged to do so by the Government, who made it absolutely clear that they were looking to reduce the size of the British Army. This is not just about recruitment, but about the skills we have lost.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the loss of skills, and that is particularly true of what may be thought of as legacy skills. We have been very focused on two main conflicts over the past decade or so—Operation Telic and Operation Herrick—but it is important that we are able to be active in a whole range of future potential scenarios or conflicts. This is not necessarily true of the old cold warriors, but we do not want to lose the skills of people who were trained in a more diverse range of potential conflicts. We must ensure that they are able to pass on that knowledge and experience to new generations.
I turn to recruitment. The British Army advert that was rather lazily described as the “snowflake” advert was greeted with a degree of derision. In my experience, that was unfair, and this goes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan). There was a time in the not too distant past—about a century ago—when there were passionate advocates for the retention of the horse as the main method of conducting conflict, and they fought hard against the mechanisation of the British Army. We have a habit—this has also happened in militaries around the world and throughout history—of fighting the last war, rather than gearing ourselves up to fight the next war.
The definition of a snowflake—I had to look this up—is apparently someone who whinges a lot. I did 28 years in the Army, and I have never known a soldier who did not whinge, so the snowflakes outside will be joining the snowflakes inside the armed forces.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. I was once told by my commanding officer that I did not need to worry about much, but if my soldiers stopped moaning, I needed to start worrying. However, the point about the recruitment campaign is that it highlighted the need not only for people who are physically robust and self-reliant, but for people who have empathy and are able to develop and deploy soft skills. When the toughest soldiers in the British Army, the Special Air Service, were deployed during the Malaya insurgency, they really understood the requirement for hearts and minds. Winning conflicts through kinetic means—through bombs and bullets, to pick two words at random—is one way to do it, but doing it through hearts and minds really matters.
I am getting those looks again, so I will draw my remarks to a conclusion shortly. We must make sure that the skills of the young people we recruit and retain in the armed forces match the threats and risks presented not just in the here and now but in the timeframe of their service. The people we are recruiting in the here and now have to be ready, able and capable of matching the threats that could present themselves in 10, 15 and 20 years’ time. That means people with adaptability as a core skill and who have the intellectual flexibility to take on new skills. Lifelong learning should not just be available to people in the civilian world; it should be available to people in the armed forces, too.
I am particularly proud of two things that my party has introduced in government. The first is flexible working throughout the armed forces. It would be unacceptable if talented, well-trained, experienced soldiers, sailors and airwomen were prevented from fully reaching their potential because they have taken maternity leave. Soldiers, sailors and airmen who also wish to make good on their family commitments should also have the opportunity to take periods out of frontline service so they can discharge their familial duties as well as their military duties and not feel that their promotion will be held back because of it. We do not have the luxury of seeing such talented people as disposable items, and we have to make sure they are valued throughout their time of service.
Finally, allied to that is that all roles in the military are now available to any woman who is good enough to discharge them. Quality should be the only metric against which selection is made. The fact that we have now done that and that our armed forces are now gender blind and focused purely on quality is a step in the right direction.
This has been a far more thorough and wide-ranging debate than I imagined it would be, and I welcome that. I hope that in future years, when we come to update the House on the continuation of the armed forces, we can have the debate in the main Chamber.
I hear what the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) says about recruitment and Capita—she raised the point in Defence questions, too. The Minister for the Armed Forces is better able to respond, so I will ask him to write to her with more details. The future accommodation model is about choice, and I have touched on that.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the Defence Safety Authority and its report, which I take very seriously. I stress to the House that there have been fewer fire issues than in previous years, but the issue is about management, and every effort is being made to make sure we honour the report’s recommendations. Again, I will write to her with more details on how that will be achieved.
My good and hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) made a wide-ranging speech. She underlined the importance of the bond between US marines and the Royal Marines and their work to create a formidable relationship, which has developed over the years. She also praised the Secretary of State for jumping into the Norwegian sea—he is doing a fantastic job. She also touched on the Kessler effect, and a spiral of junk satellites bumping into each other is a huge concern. It would take us back to the 1950s, and we are working on it.
I am afraid that I do not have time to take interventions.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) mentioned peacekeeping, and anyone in uniform will recognise its importance. It is not so much about defeating the enemy as enabling the local population, and nowhere is that more pertinent right now than in Iraq and Syria. Murders are happening every day, and ISIL is still active. ISIL is not in our headlines, but that is not to say it has dispersed. We need to make sure that we help with stabilisation, peacekeeping and rebuilding those nations in whatever way we can, obviously with their agreement.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) spoke about being honest in our conversation with the public. I make it clear that France is about to overtake us in defence spending. We have to make the case to the nation, because we queue up with every other Department in asking for more funds from the Treasury. If we take the nation with us in calling for it, we are more likely to get where we want to go.
I have mentioned tanks, but we had 30 RAF squadrons in Operation Ellamy, and we are now down to seven. We cannot build two new aircraft carriers without extra money and not have an impact on the rest of the surface fleet. These are important issues, which is why the Defence Secretary and Defence Ministers are all making a potent case through the defence modernisation programme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) mentioned, to say that we need to upgrade the defence budget. I am pleased with my hon. Friend’s contribution; he touched on the importance of cyber. If we think the last 10 years have seen a change in our world, wait for the next 10 years. Artificial intelligence, 5G and the internet of things will change our world fundamentally, and I am not quite sure whether we are ready.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) speaks with such experience. He talks about our offer—what is our offer to our armed forces?—and that is so important for us to recognise and understand. More than 20 operations are taking place around the world, and Operation Toral, the continuation in Afghanistan, is just one of them. They do not make the headlines, so they are not the recruitment sergeant that Iraq and Afghanistan have been. Because of the greater employment rate, it is a testing environment to let people recognise how the armed forces can be a fantastic career. He also touched on flexible working, which is important, and how roles have been opened up to women right across the piece.
Following this full debate, I hope the House will support the draft order and recognise its contribution to upholding the constitutional position that the armed forces may not be maintained without the consent of Parliament.
My final words are to anyone thinking of signing up. I could not encourage you more. You will learn things about yourself that you did not know, you will do things that you never thought possible, and you will visit places that you never thought you would be able to visit. When you finally march off that parade square, after you sign up, you will not only be serving your country but you will be making your mum and dad so proud of you.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2019, which was laid before this House on 24 January, be approved.