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Military Personnel: Strike Action Cover

Volume 826: debated on Monday 19 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the deployment of military personnel over Christmas to replace Border Force staff, ambulance drivers, and other public sector workers taking industrial action; and what plans they have to give those military personnel additional pay.

My Lords, defence always ensures that military assistance to civil authorities does not incur unacceptable impacts to defence outputs. Any request for military support is governed by the military aid to civil authorities, or MACA, principles. These set out that military support is to be called on only when aid from elsewhere in government or from the commercial sector is not available. The issue of additional pay is under consideration and is being explored with the Treasury.

My Lords, it is the role of the Armed Forces to defend and support this country and its people in difficult times, including times like this. Many of us will remember the serried ranks of Green Goddesses parked up in 1977-78 under the Callahan Government, when they were fighting the firemen’s strike. That is absolutely fine. However, while the Government praise the Armed Forces so often, not only are we cutting numbers but we are not paying them sufficiently—and we have just been discussing public sector pay. Kipling’s Tommy Atkins springs to mind: you might rephrase it as “Saviour of the Government when the unions go on strike”. The people who are going to be working over Christmas are probably paid a lot less than those who are on strike and whom they are replacing—and, by the way, they do not get overtime in the Armed Forces. Will the Minister ensure that every soldier, sailor or airman who works, say, five or six days over the holiday period is given extra-duty pay, which I say should be in the region of £1,500 a head?

I can reassure my noble friend that the Ministry of Defence is acutely conscious of the sacrifice our Armed Forces are making this winter to ensure the smooth running of essential public services amid widespread industrial action. As he may be aware, arrangements already exist to compensate Armed Forces personnel for short-notice disruption and the changing of leave arrangements, because that is not uncommon. They are compensated for it as a part of the military X-factor that they receive in their pay, and a number of other benefits have been given to our Armed Forces personnel. However, I have great sympathy with the point made my noble friend, and decisions are currently under consideration by the Government, although none have yet been made.

My Lords, I welcome the announcement that consideration will be given to additional payments for members of the Armed Forces. At a time when there is widespread—and potentially even more widespread—industrial action, and the British Army is at its lowest since the Napoleonic wars, will the Minister weigh heavily on the words of the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said that we should not fall into a practice of regarding the Armed Forces as surplus labour to cover every contingency? In that context, will she—as someone who I know has the respect of the Armed Forces—distance herself from the comments this morning from Jacob Rees-Mogg, paraphrased in the Daily Mail as telling the Armed Forces to shut up and just do as they are told? That is no way for a former failed Minister to speak to people who have pledged their lives—even until death—for this country. I hope she will make it plain that that is not the view of Ministers.

I have detected frequently in this Chamber—I do not think it necessary to seek that reassurance again—that there is huge respect and affection for our Armed Forces, a respect and affection which I personally try to embody and observe. While we are committed as a Government to protecting people from strike disruption during a challenging winter, we are sensible to the fact that repeated employment of our Armed Forces in routine domestic tasks, for which civil authorities are responsible, is not a viable long-term solution. There, I agree with the noble Lord. We are also very conscious of our public obligation to keep core services running. That is why I applaud the Armed Forces who are responding to the MACA request and will do their level best to mitigate the suffering that is currently so widespread.

My Lords, from these Benches as well, we support our Armed Forces. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of the size of the Army? As the Chief of the Defence Staff said, our Armed Forces cannot be “spare capacity” in times of strikes. Are our Armed Forces really large enough for everything that the Government expect them to do?

I reassure the noble Baroness and the House that I and my ministerial colleagues are clear about the primary task of the Armed Forces: defence of the realm. We would not approve a request for military aid if it put our ability to undertake that task at inappropriate risk or if we felt it compromised our operational effectiveness. We would not allow that to happen.

My Lords, I remind your Lordships’ House of my interest as a serving member of the Armed Forces. As a Minister responsible for many MACA tasks a few years ago, two things became very clear. First, while the Treasury rules are there, the MoD sometimes did not help itself by failing to send a bill to the other department, meaning that we created a dependency culture and were often the first port of call and not the last. Secondly, other government departments simply failed to have adequate contingency plans in place, meaning they always came back to the MoD—to echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Reid. Will my noble friend ensure that other government departments have appropriate contingency plans in place to limit the call on the Armed Forces?

The Secretary of State, my right honourable friend Ben Wallace, is very clear about his primary obligation to the MoD and our Armed Forces, whom we depend on and on whom we are calling. He is very sparing in agreeing to MACA requests. I again reassure the House that there is a very fine filter through which such requests have to pass. My noble friend is quite right: the commissioning department has to pay the bill, but my right honourable friend is very keen on sending out bills.

My Lords, bringing in the military to break strikes is, in my view, an appalling use of our Armed Forces. As my noble friend Lord Reid said, top military brass are saying that this is, at the very least, slightly perilous. Does the Minister agree that our public sector heroes, the same people we banged pans for every week as they kept our vital services running through the pandemic, deserve the same pay rise as Unite members at Rolls-Royce, who have just secured a 17.6% increase in wages? My advice is to pay the nurses what the public think they deserve or pay the price at the next election.

The noble Lord will appreciate that I am here to answer questions on behalf of the MoD. However, I can say that despite the complex range of national security threats we face, our Armed Forces are also heroes of the public sector. We will always be the ultimate guarantor of national resilience. That applies equally when industrial action compromises the safe operation of core functions of the state as when flooding or fire threatens the homes and lives of British citizens. That is once again why we are so thankful to have the dedication and commitment of those professional and skilled people.

My Lords, given that the Armed Forces are trained to obey orders regardless of the circumstances, will the Government be sure not to take advantage of that situation?

As I indicated earlier, we exercise a robust test when we get a MACA request from another government department. Strict principles have to be observed, and we would never willingly offer help if we felt that it was available elsewhere in government or, indeed, from the commercial sector.

My Lords, MACA requests—that is, military aid to civil authorities—are being used routinely, when guidance states that military assistance should be used

“responding to emergencies or in maintaining supplies and essential services”.

Such requests create increased domestic pressure on our Armed Forces at a time when the Government are pushing ahead with cutting a further 10,000 troops from the size of the Army. Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s refresh of the integrated review will take account of this and halt any further cuts?

To reply to the first part of the noble Lord’s question, it is the case that a proportion of our Armed Forces have been identified to be deployed to MACA tests—the figure I have at the moment is a total of 1,455. That is a relatively small proportion of our combined Regular Army and reservists. As I said earlier, we are comfortable with offering that help in terms of not compromising national security and not in any way impacting on our ability to do our fundamental task, which is the security of the realm.

As for the integrated review refresh, we are always vigilant about the nature of the threat, the character of the threat, and what we think we need to respond to it. We will be flexible and open-minded as to how to we submit our views to that integrated review refresh.