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We have not mentioned the armed forces parliamentary scheme, but it is an important element of the way parliamentarians obtain information from those who have served or are reservists and from others from other backgrounds, and ensure that that informs our debate. In my time in the scheme, nearly everyone I met in the armed forces-this is not a partisan point-came from
a Labour constituency, but all the sites we visited were in Conservative constituencies. That is not because anyone has decided to put them in Conservative constituencies; it is just because of a series of historical flukes. I urge the Government, as they consider what to do about the redeployment from Germany, to think about whether there is a base, for example, at St Athan, that might be used to base Welsh troops in Wales. I say that not as someone who supports a separation of Welsh armed forces from British armed forces but as someone who wants to reinforce the Welsh armed forces.
I believe that there are several elements to the covenant that are not mentioned in clause 2 but are equally important. We have debated one-equipment-at some length in the past few years, in particular because our troops are in theatre in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes North said that he felt that the equipment he was given when he was last deployed was far more suitable and up to date than previously. He is right, but there is going to be a constant process of change.
Likewise, ensuring that our troops have the most up to date, effective training possible is important. Several hon. Members have referred to whether it is possible to unify posts between the three services in relation to the military police. I argue that we need to go much further and extend that combination of training. Those who have had an opportunity to visit Shrivenham will know that bringing the training of officers in the Army, Air Force and Navy together in one place, which was at one point thought unthinkable-the idea that the Royal Navy would leave Greenwich was believed to be unthinkable-has brought enormous dividends to all three services. Notwithstanding the decision that seems to have been made in relation to St Athan and defence training, we need to be able to do more of our training on a shared forces basis because there is more that each of the services can learn from each other.
The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd has a long record of campaigning on veterans issues, for which I pay tribute to him. All too often, people think of veterans as people who served in the first or second world wars, but many of the veterans in my constituency are 25, 26 or 27 years of age and their service will not just be for the few years that they spent being paid by the armed forces; in terms of the psychological and physical issues that they have to deal with, their service will be for the whole of their lives. Not only will they be serving in that way, but their families will, too. He is right to point to the need for continuity of care beyond-in many cases far beyond-the day when someone goes into civvy street.
I caution the hon. Gentleman, however, as I tried to do earlier-this crops up quite regularly in our debates-about the difference between correlation and causation. For example, it is often argued that couples who co-habit and have children are far more likely to split up than those who marry and have children. It is factually true. The question is: is that because they got married, or because they are the kind of people who felt differently about the institution of marriage in the first place? In other words, is there correlation between these statistics, or is there causation?
That is where we need to be precise in relation to the ongoing care of those in the armed forces. Many of the young people who join the armed forces from the Rhondda
go in with many of the problems that they will leave with. They go in, as we know, with lower levels of literacy, which is why the armed forces in recent years have had to do much more to ensure that our troops have a high level of literacy. Some of them will have difficulties with other educational issues that need to be addressed.
The point is that it is not necessarily because those people were in the armed forces that some of the problems follow. Where the problem is because they were in the armed forces-perhaps because their training was so effective that they do not realise the lethal nature of the punch that they could deliver compared with someone else-it is all the more important that the MOD and the whole of society take action to ensure that young people, as they go into the armed forces and see through their years in service, and when they leave, have the full support and training that they need.
I know that many others want to take part in the debate and I do not want to delay others from speaking any further, but I hope that the Minister will respond on the issue of Welsh troops being based in Wales because it is one of the ways that we can ensure that there is continuity for young people who are removed from the Rhondda to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, or who spend all their service career living in Wiltshire. When they are finished, they come back to the Rhondda-
By that uprooting, those service personnel are not given a proper chance when they go back. The key element is ensuring that that matter is addressed not just by the MOD, but by the Welsh Assembly Government.
Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): It is a great honour to take part in the debate. I do so not with the great knowledge of some hon. Members who have contributed today. I have not given the service that they have given. However, I am the Member of Parliament for the Weeton army barracks, and that makes me incredibly proud of the men and women who serve there. It is currently home to 1st Battalion the Royal Green Jackets and the Kings Division Normandy. On visits to the barracks, one sees and hears first-hand the people who serve our nation with great distinction.
Before I expand on that, I want to pick up on comments from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). Two key points were made. First, we should not seek to ignore the work that is put in to support the psychiatric services that support those who come back from the armed forces. Secondly, we should not fail to understand the importance of getting the Army into schools and of engaging with young people at a young age. Communities such as that in Rhondda and in the area that I originally come from are great respecters of authority and tradition and the British armed forces are a great example of that. It would be a great shame if, as a result of union activity or the activity of other people who have an axe to grind, we stopped allowing our armed forces into our schools to engage with young people.
I want to focus on clause 2 and the issues to do with welfare. When I visited Weeton Army barracks, one thing that gave me great encouragement was the existence of the Sure Start centre. Let us not forget that when one is dealing with young children-particularly very young children-one of the most important things in their lives is stability and continuity, as well as support for their parents when the father is serving in the armed forces overseas. I went away that day encouraged by the work of the Sure Start centre and I hope that when we consider some of the Bill's provisions the work done by Sure Start centres on Army bases-I am bothered not about what we call them, but about what they do -continues.
The other thing I took away from that visit was the importance of Commonwealth soldiers. We tend to think of members of the armed forces as being from our communities, but in many cases the armed forces-and in some cases a significant number of them-are made up of men and women from other corners of the globe. A number of armed forces on Weeton Army barracks are from Fiji. Forgive me, as I do not have the full details on this point, which is one about which I want to write to the Minister, but one thing that concerned to me was the issue of visas and the payment for visas for the wives of Fijian soldiers. The figure I left with in my mind was £700 and if we are asking the wives of Fijian soldiers to pay £700 to be in this country and to be with their husbands, who are serving our country, that makes me feel deeply uneasy. Immigration is another matter, but if we can be hospitable to other people then, my goodness, we need to be hospitable to the wives of Commonwealth soldiers. I hope we can consider that at some point- [ Interruption. ] Sorry, the hon. Member for Rhondda corrects me: British overseas territory soldiers.
Weeton Army barracks have an excellent school, albeit an old one. Weeton can be no different from many other bases up and down the country. At a time of financial constraint, we must ensure that local authorities do not take the easy option and cut funding or do not invest in new buildings for schools located on Army barracks or other military facilities in favour of others that might be more high profile. The school at a barracks is attended not just by children from the base but by children from the local community. That is an excellent way in which people from the non-military community can integrate and get a good understanding of military service.
Finally, as regards ensuring that the military covenant is maintained, a political aspect that we always used to talk about was the quality of housing. It is not just about the availability of good-quality housing but about ensuring that those homes are sufficiently maintained and are maintained in a speedy and timely manner. I have had representations from members of the armed forces that involve stories that we would not tolerate for any of our constituents in social housing or in properties owned by a private sector landlord. However, we seem to think that it is in some way acceptable for members of the armed forces. We must ensure that those homes are maintained and, when they are not maintained, that people are quickly held to account.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): May I begin, Mr Deputy Speaker, by wishing you and the whole House a very happy new year? [ Interruption. ] I am just disappointed that it is Opposition Members who have all the festive cheer at this time of year-[Hon. Members: "Where are they?"] I am pleased to see so many Conservative Members in the Chamber today; they obviously were not encouraged to go to Oldham to support the Lib Dem candidate in that by-election.
I pay tribute to our armed forces, who continue to serve overseas, often in difficult circumstances. Like many other Members on both sides of the House, I have had constituents who have tragically lost their lives in the service of the country. I know that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
I have both a dockyard and a naval base, HMS Caledonia, in my constituency. I have a particular interest in this subject as so many people have such a long and proud tradition of serving our nation in the armed forces. Although the Opposition obviously support the principles of the Bill-as the Secretary of State said, it is in some ways a technical requirement to maintain our armed forces-I and, I am sure, other colleagues have some specific concerns that are as much to do with what is missing from the Bill as what is in it.
First, let me turn to the issue of the armed forces charter or covenant, or the military covenant, depending on one's viewpoint. As some hon. Members might recall, late last year I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on an armed forces charter. Although I do not intend to rehearse all those arguments, I said at the time that Opposition Members share the concerns of the Royal British Legion that the Ministry of Defence needs to do more to introduce more effective prevention and treatment strategies to tackle mental health problems, binge drinking and drug abuse. Both the Opposition and the legion, as well as other service and veteran charities, are deeply concerned that of the 50,000 service personnel homes in the United Kingdom, two thirds do not meet the MOD's standards for family accommodation. Under the spending outlined by Ministers, it will take 20 years to bring all the family accommodation up to an acceptable high standard.
Thomas Docherty: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, which allow me to point out that under the previous Labour Government, 75,000 single bed spaces were brought up to-or had funding put in place to bring them up to-standard.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful for the opportunity provided by her sedentary comment to point out to her that we achieved a great deal more than that in terms of armed forces standards. It is disappointing that that level of funding has not been continued by the current Government.
Bob Russell: I wonder whether I might help the hon. Gentleman by being devil's advocate and pointing out that it was the previous Conservative Government who privatised the Ministry of Defence housing through Annington Homes. That is the root cause and this Government need to do more to put right what the last Labour Government failed to do.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who, as ever, shows his fancy footwork, blaming both his Government and the previous Conservative Government. I must agree that his Government are not doing enough to support housing.
Opposition Members are deeply concerned that although the Ministry of Defence is happy to place new onuses on local authorities and the NHS, the one group of people that should not have statutory responsibilities according to the MOD is, funnily enough, the MOD. By that rather large omission, clause 2, which covers the charter, is in effect toothless. The organisation that, more than any other, has responsibility for the welfare of our service personnel, their families and our veterans is, of course, the MOD. When he replies to the debate later this evening, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) will assure Labour Members that the MOD will re-examine that glaring omission.
The hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) and others often accuse Labour Members of not coming up with funding solutions to meet such commitments. I will indulge her by providing a simple example of where we can find more than £100 million, which could be put into accommodation for service personnel. According to the MOD, we spend-before she jumps to her feet, I accept that the previous Government did not do enough to tackle this issue-£110 million on private school fees for the children of service personnel. Almost half that money-some 40%-goes to officers in the top ranks of lieutenant-colonel and above, who are effectively the top brass, while only 10% goes to the ranks of staff sergeant and below. It is, in effect, a subsidy for public schools.
Mr Robathan: I want to shoot this canard, fox or whatever you like. People in junior ranks, both officers and non-commissioned officers, tend to be younger. Guess what? They do not have children who want to go to such schools. In fact, there are private soldiers whose children go to private schools, and there are junior officers whose children go to private schools. They are not at home, and they need the continuity of education provided by that allowance.
Thomas Docherty: I thank the Minister for spelling out his position. This evening, I have tabled a written question to clarify how many of the service personnel who receive the £110 million subsidy-the schools get the money-are serving overseas. One of our concerns is that those officers are on not two or three-year furloughs overseas but six-month deployments. The MOD is, in effect, providing a ring-fenced sum of money for public schools, which is disappointing at a time when we are seeing job losses in both the armed forces themselves and in companies such as British Aerospace. When the MOD made cuts, it did not take a penny out of the continuity of education allowance, and that decision should be re-examined.
Dan Byles: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that when soldiers return to the UK after perhaps two years, their children should move schools, and that when, two years later, they are posted overseas again or to a different part of the country, their children should return to boarding school? That does not make sense.
Thomas Docherty: I shall clear that up before giving way to the Minister: if the argument for spending £110 million a year on public schools is based on soldiers being posted for six months to Afghanistan before returning to Britain, it is not an acceptable use of public money.
Mr Robathan: As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are tightening up the rules on the continuity of education allowance. If he would like to come along to the MOD and meet them, I can introduce him to people who will tell him, as they tell me, that their children have changed schools as many as four times in five years, which is not good for continuity of education or for keeping good personnel in the armed forces.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the Minister for his offer to meet me to discuss the matter outside the House, which I shall certainly take up. I will not labour the point for much longer, because other hon. Members want to speak. As we move to withdrawing troops from Germany in 2015-perhaps it will be slightly later, if the MOD does not get its timetable right-it is the right time to consider scrapping or phasing out the continuity of education allowance.
Mr Gray: Has the hon. Gentleman considered what effect that would have on the excellent Queen Victoria school in Dunblane, which is close to his constituency and located in my home town? It is a private boarding school for the sons and daughters of other ranks in all three services.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that school. I have specifically referred to the continuity of education allowance. As the Minister will confirm, that school and its sister school in Dover-if the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) is listening, I am sure that he will confirm this-are directly funded by the MOD. That funding does not come through the continuity of education allowance.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): I represent a naval port. Families are moved from Plymouth to Portsmouth, Faslane or Rosyth. It is difficult for those families to get their children into schools, because they may be moved in July, by which time the local authority has already made its decision. The issue is about providing continuity, safeguards and security for those children's education. If those children are moved on a regular basis and do not get into the right school, it can make life very difficult. I am the son of a sailor, and my education was moved around during the course of my life. We must ensure that children have the opportunity to go to school with continuity in order to safeguard their futures.
I seek further clarification, because the hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point. The purpose of the continuity of education allowance is to
help those personnel who are serving overseas, but he has said that it applies to personnel who serve in different parts of the United Kingdom. He has mentioned Rosyth, and we have some excellent schools in West Fife. There would be no problem with the children of personnel getting into some of our excellent schools, and I am happy to recommend some of them to him.
Dan Byles: I will put the matter in context for the hon. Gentleman. In my nine years of service, I was posted to Colchester, Kosovo, Catterick, London, Bosnia and Tidworth-six locations in nine years. People do not know whether they will be posted overseas. The posting order sometimes gives them as little as a month's notice of where their next posting might be-if they are lucky, they might get two or three months' notice. The issue is about not only being posted overseas, but about having a completely disjointed lifestyle.
Thomas Docherty: It is strange that Conservative Members are unwilling to draw a comparison with the private sector. In my eight years in the private sector, I lived in a number of locations. I know many people who work in the private sector-and, indeed, in the public sector-who have to move home every two or three years. It is regrettable that as a result of some of the decisions that have been made, that trend will increase. It is unusual to hear Conservative Members say that moving home and uprooting one's family is not part and parcel of a modern career path. I accept the point about interrupting the education of those pupils who currently receive the continuity of education allowance. That is why we need to consider phasing out the scheme, so that no child who is currently in receipt of it is adversely affected.
I want to move on to an issue that I am disappointed has not made it into the Bill, and I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister will reflect on this point in the days before the Select Committee begins its deliberations. The issue concerns ensuring proper scrutiny and a proper process for base closures. Labour Members and many Government Members, including the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), have long held the view that the correct order of decision making on military matters begins with determining our national security threats and foreign policy objectives. We should then determine the defence postures needed to meet those objectives and threats, and then make decisions on the basing, equipment and personnel levels required to meet those defence postures. After that, we should decide how best to structure the funding.
Mr Gray: I, too, feel strongly about this matter because RAF Lyneham in my constituency is threatened, but will the hon. Gentleman explain which aspect of the Bill has any bearing whatever on the basing considerations?
Like other Opposition Members, I would like a clause on this issue to be inserted into the Bill. As the Secretary of State has said, the Bill presents an opportunity to legislate on the armed forces and that opportunity comes around about once every five years. As he said, this is the Ministry of Defence's opportunity for a Christmas tree Bill, to use American parlance, on
which to hang additional amendments and clauses that do not necessarily fall within the strict area of military discipline. That is what Opposition Members seek.
I have just outlined the usual process and it is disappointing that the coalition has turned that process on its head with the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury telling the Secretary of State for Defence, "This is your budget: this is all you are going to get-go and make it work," rather than taking any real cognisance of the vital national security role. That is why we are in the absurd situation of having aircraft carriers with no aircraft. Even if the French get their aircraft carrier to work, we will go a decade without any fast jets because of the folly of Treasury decisions. That has led to communities facing a great deal of uncertainty regarding base closures. Having attended some of last year's debates in the House-as did the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray)-I have heard the concerns felt by communities around the country about the Government's process of determining base closures.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to go to the United States with the British-American Parliamentary Group and I strongly commend that scheme to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have not had the chance to get involved in it yet, because it gave us the chance to meet, among others, representatives of the Pentagon, the Department of State and the National Security Council. On that trip I learned that the US has a legislative process for base closures. With such a system, we would not get the current absurd situation in which the Secretary of State for Defence has said that base closures would be a purely strategic defence matter, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has said that they would be motivated by socio-economic matters and the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have both told us that they will be driven by financial needs. Such confusion does not arise in the US because there is a clear process and military personnel have at least two years' notice before any base may be closed.
The base realignment and closure process, as it is officially known, was set up in the late 1980s by the Reagan Administration to act as an arbiter between the Department of Defence, congressional leaders, individual Congressmen and communities who were understandably fighting-I hope hon. Members will pardon the pun-tooth and nail for each base. Going back to the question of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire about why this issue should be part of the Armed Forces Bill, it is because such a change would require an Act of Parliament in the same way that it required an act of Congress in the US. The BRAC process begins with a threat assessment.
Mr Gray: I am sorry to come back to this issue, but as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned me, perhaps it is reasonable for me to do so. The long title of the Bill shows that it deals with very specific issues to do with discipline, civilian courts, the Naval Medical Compassionate Fund Act 1915 and a number of other matters, but under none of the headings in the long title could the basing debate be considered. If it is in order to discuss this issue, I feel a lengthy speech on RAF Lyneham coming up.
The hon. Gentleman is an excellent orator so we will all look forward to his speech, which I am sure will not feel lengthy to anyone. We are guided
by the Clerks and the advice that we have received is that it will be entirely appropriate for us to table additional clauses in Committee. I am sure that the Clerks will advise hon. Members on the process for amending the long title of the Bill if that is necessary and practical.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall press on. The independent commission in the US is appointed by the President in consultation with members on both sides of the congressional aisle-I understand that there are two nominations from the Democrats and two from the Republicans and that they are traditionally former service chiefs. The commission carries out a very transparent process in which it is given a list of bases and works according to the criteria set out in law. The highest criterion is defence-I am sure that Members on both sides would agree that that is appropriate-but the commission is allowed to take into account, as a secondary consideration, factors such as the economic impact of closure on local communities. Regional public meetings are held to give the public an opportunity to give their input into the process. When the commission has completed its work, it forwards its recommendations to the President who can accept the proposal as a whole or simply reject it. If the President accepts the proposal, it is forwarded to Congress, which then has a debate and what is called a straight up-and-down vote on the list in its entirety. That is important because it prevents cherry-picking and means that the strategic objective of securing the best base system for the nation is not lost.
I conclude by asking the Minister to answer two questions in his response. First, he will be aware that many of the functions of supporting veterans fall on the devolved Administrations. What discussions between the devolved Governments and the Ministry of Defence have taken place and will take place as the Bill goes forward on how to ensure that there is no difference of interpretation or implementation between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Secondly, will he clarify whether, given the comments of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and others, it is technically in order for Members to seek to add new clauses in Committee, without prejudicing what the MOD's thinking on that matter might be?
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): At the outset, let me place on record my admiration for and appreciation of soldiers from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, approximately 3,000 of whom from the Colchester garrison are currently deployed in southern Afghanistan. I thank the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State for their opening words and I also thank the Secretary of State for his recent visit to Camp Bastion and his generous words of support there. I pay tribute to the families back in Colchester and around the country and to the rear party who do important work but are seldom mentioned. So, I thank the rear party and the men and women of our armed forces, including of 16 Air Assault Brigade, and I mention especially the regimental band of the Parachute Regiment who spent Christmas and the new year in southern Afghanistan.
The previous Government can be congratulated on many good things that they did, most notably for veterans, partly by giving them a profile that did not exist before. The introduction of Veterans day and the veterans
badge have been well received right across the United Kingdom. We have already accepted the principle of the veterans badge, but there is one additional thing that I ask the coalition Government to take forward: the award of an armed forces medal. Not everybody who joins Her Majesty's armed forces is deployed to a theatre where a medal will be awarded, and we should recognise that there are important members of Her Majesty's armed forces who do not necessarily get a combat medal.
Bob Stewart: But that is the whole point of the medals: they are awarded for service in an operational theatre. We do not want to make this about having a Mickey Mouse parade on one's chest. The reason why a medal is awarded is that someone has served a set time in an operational theatre. Let us not make us glorified toy soldiers.
Bob Russell: Putting aside the hon. Gentleman's closing sentence, I am aware of the counter-argument, but there is a strong argument the other way, too. We respect all who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces; that is what the veterans badge is about, but it is not quite the same. I do not qualify either way; I merely make the point on behalf of those who have raised the matter.
Looking around the Chamber, I think that I am the only Member present who served on the last Armed Forces Bill Committee, and I was present when that Bill was debated on the Floor of the House, too. It has served the country well, and it is right that we should now revise it. As to whether I will be on the new Bill Committee, we will have to wait and see.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the quality of housing for families, but the issue of single persons' accommodation has not been raised. Colchester is blessed with the most modern barracks in the country, Merville barracks. I disagree fundamentally with the way in which the last Government used a private finance initiative to fund those barracks, because over time it will be far more expensive than using traditional methods of funding public assets. However, the barracks are the benchmark for all our military accommodation for single people.
There are many ways in which family accommodation around the country leaves a lot to be desired. I hope that the coalition Government, notwithstanding the financial legacy that the Labour Government bequeathed us, will realise that if we want the best from the best armed forces in the world, we have to provide them with accommodation, and particularly family accommodation, that is fit for purpose.
I ask the Minister to define what is meant by "education" in the Bill. Is it education of the serving man or woman, education of the children of military personnel, or education in the round? I genuinely do not know the answer. In the previous Parliament, the Defence Committee reported on service children's education. The Armed Forces Bill Committee, when constituted, may want to look back and see what that report said, because the issue is not just the education of our serving military, though that is obviously important-increasingly important, sad to say-but the education of their children.
I mentioned war widows and the fact that they have to pay tax on their pension. I understand from one of the young war widows in my constituency that it is not described as a war widow's pension. When she has need
to mention the pension, the documents do not say that she is a war widow. That, to her, is very important, because her husband lost his life in Afghanistan nearly three years ago. I cannot remember what the description is, but it is not "a war widow's pension." It may be just a small tweaking of words that is needed, but it is important.
I pay tribute to the reservists, whom Members have mentioned. We need to see whether we can somehow inject that issue into the Armed Forces Bill. As has been said, reservists are increasingly an important, integral part of service. When I went to Iraq as a member of the previous Armed Forces Bill Committee, we certainly saw a lot of reservists, and I have also seen them in my visits to Afghanistan. They have a very important part to play.
Mention has been made of the cadets. Last year was the 150th anniversary of the Army cadets. Reference has been made to the fact that sea cadets are not funded on the same basis as the Army and air cadets. Perhaps we can look at that in Committee.
Just as a throwaway line, on the overseas territories and the Commonwealth-I asked a parliamentary question on this-please understand that nearly 10% of the British Army is not from the United Kingdom. The Commonwealth obviously accounts for most of that figure, but other nations around the world have citizens serving in Her Majesty's armed forces.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I endorse the hon. Gentleman's commendation of reservists, as an ex-reservist myself. Does he have a view about the people who enable reservists to take part in all the activity that we now require them to take part in? When I was a member of the Territorial Army, the most dangerous place we ever went was Warminster, but things are now very different, and I suggest that when we commend soldiers, we should also commend those people, often from quite small businesses, who enable them to undertake their duty on our behalf.
Bob Russell: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Frequently, without the understanding and support of the employer as regards training and deployment, that could not happen. He is right to draw my attention and that of the House to that point, and I am more than happy to put on record our appreciation of the employers who enable that to happen.
The Bill refers to the Ministry of Defence police. At the commencement of the last Labour Government, there were approximately 30 members of Ministry of Defence police serving on the Colchester garrison lands and properties; there are now three. I have been to see Ministers about that, and have raised the issue in debates time and again, but unfortunately, the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall decided that Colchester garrison now needs only three Ministry of Defence police officers where, 13 years ago, there were 30. That has had a serious impact, and I have flagged this up in the past in Committee, as the officials who were present, and Hansard, will confirm.
Ministry of Defence housing stock was reduced, and houses were sold off and became part of housing for the civilian population. It is a fact that Army family housing has a military, self-imposed discipline, which is
sadly not reflected in civilian housing. In Colchester, the former Army housing estates increasingly house private citizens, if I may use that term, who, like any other civilians, have late-night parties and a social life that is not the same as the self-imposed discipline of military families. Over the past two or three years, I have picked up complaints from Army families who say that their lifestyle is being impacted on by the civilian population. If the Ministry of Defence police were there, that would help. They should have been replaced by the Essex constabulary, but with the best will in the world, the Essex constabulary do not have 27 spare police officers to replace the 27 MOD police officers. There has therefore been a huge reduction in policing, and I hope that we can discuss that issue in great detail in Committee.
I am talking about a huge reduction in security for the Army families, which is not good. Fortunately, we are living in more peaceful times in the United Kingdom. At the time of the IRA troubles, like any other military town we needed all the security that was going.
Thomas Docherty: My understanding is that like the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the terms of operation and the rights of the MOD police are much more limited than those of the civilian police forces. Is that correct?
Bob Russell: No, that is incorrect. A Ministry of Defence police officer has marginally more powers than an ordinary police officer because he is a police officer plus. He has the military addition. We must not get confused with the red caps. In Colchester we now have a combined police station, with the Royal Military Police-the red caps-the Ministry of Defence police and the Essex constabulary all working out of one police station. MOD police officers-as Private Eye calls them, MOD Plod-are police officers plus, because they are also part of the garrison Army family.
Until the last general election, I was one of three parliamentary advisers to the Royal British Legion. As the Labour and Conservative Members who advised it stood down at the election, it decided to end that arrangement. It now has other ways of bringing matters before Parliament. I mention that because reference has been made to the military covenant. Early-day motion 1 in November 2007 was tabled by myself and was eventually signed by 203 Members throughout the House, 17 of whom are now Ministers-four are in the Cabinet, and three are Defence Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who is on the Treasury Bench. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, also signed it, along with Mr Speaker, who was not the Speaker then.
Alongside the Royal British Legion, which does valiant work, we have the Army Benevolent Fund, or ABF The Soldiers Charity, as it likes to be called; Veterans Aid, one of the smaller specialist charities, if I may use that term, which does fantastic work for former military
personnel who are at the bottom of the pile and is based down the road in Victoria; Combat Stress; and numerous military, regimental and other charities. We need to get their recommendations, advice and views when we consider welfare and so on. Help For Heroes has taken off. I am pleased to say that one of its first rehabilitation centres, if not the first, will be in Colchester.
I suggest to the Committee that it visit the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester, which takes people from all the services who have been given a custodial sentence and whom the Army, Navy and Air Force wish to have return to the service. The centre is almost like a finishing school. The vast majority of those who go there are Army, it must be said, and the vast majority of those who graduate from it return to their units as better soldiers, sailors or airmen as a consequence. The centre also deals with those who have been given a military sentence before they are discharged. I mention that not because I am advocating that our civilian prisons should become military-far from it; I was very much against a previous Government's boot camp policy-but because I am sure the civilian Prison Service could benefit from the education and training provided by MCTC.
I conclude by commending the Bill. The debate has been constructive on both sides of the House. There will be differences, but I am sure of the unity of purpose in the Chamber for our armed forces. I hope the Bill will go forward and eventually become an Act.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), as is his wont, added considerably to what has been a long and interesting debate so far this evening, predominantly on clause 2 and the military covenant. By reference to Colchester, the hon. Gentleman made a useful contribution to the debate.
Although the rest of the Bill is extremely important and our armed services would not exist without it, there are others much better qualified than I who will no doubt address the other parts of the Bill later in the debate and in Committee. Therefore I, too, will focus most of my attention on the military covenant.
It is a rather frightening and humbling experience in this place to follow speakers who know so much more about the subject than oneself. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), both of whom know more about the military covenant than most other Members in the Chamber today will ever find out. I pay tribute to their contributions.
I will not seek to equal that or compete with it. I shall focus on the concept of the covenant, why it is there, what it does, and in particular, what the Bill does to strengthen it. The covenant has, of course, existed for many years. I speak from two personal areas of experience. The first is as chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces. Several of my co-chairmen and vice-chairmen are present in the Chamber this evening. It is a humbling experience to see each of the brigades returning from Afghanistan marching through Carriage Gates, arriving at the east door of Westminster Hall and going down to the Terrace for a reception.
At the most recent event, when 4 Mechanised Brigade arrived, I was particularly struck by one soldier wearing his combat kit cut off where his boxer shorts would be. It was only afterwards that I discovered the reason. He was marching in the column. He was not a casualty. The reason why he had that rather unusual form of military dress was that the third degree burns to his legs were so severe that he was unable to take even the light cotton of desert combats against the skin. None the less, he was determined to march in with the rest of them. I pay tribute to such people. Very few of those in the Chamber tonight could compete with that level of true heroism.
I say the same thing about many of the people whom I meet week by week and day by day in the high street of Wootton Bassett. Large numbers of the regiments and the fallen soldiers' families come to our events in Wootton Bassett, which are held twice a week. The heroism that they show and the bravery and pride that the families show about their close relative who has been killed in Afghanistan is a humbling experience.
With that as background, we have to think about what we as a nation and as a Parliament are doing with regard to our armed services. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire asked whether the military covenant was about improving the lot of soldiers by comparison with other citizens, or whether it was about removing the disadvantage suffered by soldiers. If somebody has to serve under the most appalling privations, as they do in Afghanistan and elsewhere; if somebody has to close the Queen's enemy, risk being killed by them or, even worse, have to kill them, not something that any of us would want to do; if somebody has to risk the most appalling injuries, to which some of those whom we have seen visit Parliament over the years stand tribute; and if somebody has to suffer as our soldiers suffer, we as a nation owe them more than we owe other public servants.
Of course, public servants such as firemen and all sort of people do useful things, but, when we require a person by his job to do the things that we require our soldiers to do, we owe them more than we owe any other public servant. So, with the military covenant, we ought to seek not just to resolve the disadvantages that our soldiers face, but to add to the covenant the idea of improved citizenship, as I think my hon. Friend called it.
A number of us in the Chamber have been out to Afghanistan, and I was there not so long ago with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). When one says to soldiers and, come to that, sailors and airmen, "What sort of things are you worried about? What are your problems here on the very front line? Are you worried about the kit?", the answer by and large is, "No, we are not. The kit that we are issued with now is second to none in the world." When one asks, "Are you worried about the Taliban, being shot at, being deployed, being hungry, being cold or the desert conditions?", one finds that they are not concerned about that at all. Those of us who come to this place and say that somehow or other our soldiers are worried about that sort of thing are wrong. When one meets someone on the very front line and asks, "What is it you are most worried about in your service career?", they say, "I am worried about the family back at home, the housing, my pay and conditions and what I am going to do after I have left the Army." They are not worried about the ordinary, run-of-the-mill occupation of being a soldier,
because they signed up. They recognise the dangers of being shot at, killed, serving in awful conditions and all those things. What they do not recognise are the appalling consequences for their marriages, families and lives after they have left the services.
Earlier in the debate, there was a rather sterile, academic and statistical discussion of whether a disproportionate number of soldiers find themselves imprisoned or suffer from drug or drink abuse after they have left the services. Those people do suffer after they come back, however, and it is thanks to us sending them there-our decision in this place. We decide to send them to Afghanistan. They face all those privations, they come back and many experience prison or mental, drug or alcohol problems thereafter, and we have to bear responsibility for that and put it right.
The military covenant aspect of the Bill is in some ways the most important part, although all the legislation has much to recommend it. With that as a background, it is important that we first thank and congratulate the Government on their commitment to recognise the military covenant and to put it into law. Secondly, we should very much recognise that they have taken some steps to do so, and that in the Bill we have clause 2. because in the military covenant's long history it has never once been recognised in law.
Without being difficult, however, I have a couple of questions for the Government on which Ministers might choose to brood before they come to reply. First, I have some difficulties with the constitutional aspect of taking something that should be a ministerial or political duty and trying to put it into law. Law is something for which there is a sanction if it is not adhered to, so I wonder what would happen if some subsequent Government-I am sure not this one-20 years from now failed to fulfil the covenant. What would be the sanction against the Secretary of State? Would he come before the House and get ticked off? Would he go to prison, pay a fine or lose his job? What would be the sanction inherent in the Secretary of State failing to perform under clause 2? The same applies to a number of Bills that we passed before the general election on climate change and child poverty. They are not capable of sanction, and I slightly wonder whether there is a constitutional difficulty with putting the covenant in the Bill as it has been. In other words, should it not be a matter about which Ministers are overwhelmingly concerned, whether or not it is written into law? If they were not, they would lose power at a subsequent general election, so there is quite an interesting constitutional conundrum in the Bill.
Dan Byles: Does my hon. Friend also agree that there is a danger regarding who decides whether the law has been broken? Will the matter go before the courts? Will we see judicial intervention on the matter of whether the Secretary of State for Defence has broken the military covenant?
That leads to me to the second part of my question. My party's manifesto went to great lengths to say how important the covenant was and how we as a party in
government would put it into law. We talked about a broad spectrum of things in the run-up to the general election, but before us we have a relatively modest clause, simply saying that the Secretary of State will bring forward a report once a year. He will draft it and say what is in it, although it will be about education, housing and health care and in such other fields as the Secretary of State may determine. So, he will sit down, write a little essay about all the things that he has done to achieve the military covenant and bring it before the House.
We do not know from the Bill whether there will be an oral statement, thereby allowing hon. Members to question him, a written statement or a statement to the Defence Committee, thereby enabling us to scrutinise it carefully. What form will the statement take, and what powers will the House have to hold the Secretary of State's feet to the fire? Is it possible to imagine a situation in which he comes to the House and in his report says, "I am extremely sorry. This year we have broken the military covenant in a great many ways and done terribly the wrong thing by our armed forces"? Of course not. The Secretary of State will come along every year with his statement and say, "Look what marvellous things we have done with regard to the covenant," and hope not to be too carefully cross-examined over it.
Given how strongly I feel about the importance of the military covenant, and given that I feel we owe it to our soldiers, sailors and airmen, whom we ask to do such awful things that we ourselves would never consider doing, I slightly question-I do not mean to be disloyal-whether the clause achieves what the coalition Government set out to achieve. Is it actually a rather sad little clause? Could it be strengthened? When the Minister responds to the debate, I would like to know in particular how the Government see it operating. Will it be a mechanism by which this House holds the Government to account? Will it enable us to hold the Minister's feet to the fire and say, "Secretary of State, you're not living up to the military covenant. You've broken it"? Or is it just going to be a little PR exercise, enabling successive Secretaries of State to say, "Haven't we done well by way of the military covenant?" If it is, it will be not worth the paper it is written on.
Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I declare an interest as a serving member of the reserve forces. Unlike my smart friends who were in the Chamber earlier, my hon. Friends the Members for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), I am a private soldier, not an officer. I had the honour and privilege of taking part in Operation Herrick 9 in Afghanistan with 3 Commando Brigade as a gunner in the ranks and enjoyed it very much, so I suppose that gives me a different perspective. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, who said he was not going to be partisan, I am, so I hope that anybody reading Hansard tomorrow will see that my speech was not delivered by an officer and understand where I sit on the political spectrum.
Today's debate on the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill is most welcome. Since the first few weeks of the coalition, the Government have put the welfare of our nation's servicemen and women at the top of the
political agenda and moved swiftly to ensure that any lapses in the commitment between the Government and our armed forces are rectified.
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): I am concerned that the result of the strategic defence review and the basing decisions now being taken might have caused some uncertainty-I am thinking of RAF Marham in my constituency. What is my hon. Friend's view on how to maintain the military covenant in these difficult times?
Jack Lopresti: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. We Members have a responsibility to ensure that, when there are issues in our own constituencies, we bring them to the House, question Ministers and raise them in debates, so that it is on the public record that we are doing our utmost the protect the interests of service people in our constituencies.
I shall focus my contribution, as others Members have, on clause 2, which I very much welcome. It ensures that provision is made to place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the effects of service in our armed forces and on the welfare of serving and former members of the armed forces and that of their families. That provision will ensure that the military covenant, which the Government are rebuilding, will be advanced year on year.
We ask our armed forces personnel on operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere to face paying the ultimate price for the protection of our country, its citizens and our freedoms and way of life. We should do that only if they are properly equipped for the task, if they are trained to the highest possible level and if they and their families are provided for when they retire, or are wounded or killed, in recognition and admiration of the sacrifices that they have made.
The unwritten contract between the state and the men and women whom we ask to defend it is rightly a long-standing tradition. In the dangerous, unstable world that we face today, and in the ongoing war on terror, its continuation and development is more important than ever before. Disappointingly, the previous Administration reneged on the covenant. They did not adequately equip our troops for the most hostile of conflicts, they neglected the welfare of our service families, our injured personnel and our veterans, and they left a £38 billion hole in the Ministry of Defence budget at a time of war.
Government Members are so keen to talk about the £38 billion hole. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that that comes from a single line of a National Audit Office report that actually said that if future Governments did not adequately fund commitments through this decade there would then be a £38 billion hole? It was not referring to the previous decades of funding, but to the forthcoming decade. It is therefore possibly not quite accurate.
Jack Lopresti: The hon. Gentleman cannot run away from the fact. There is a £38 billion hole in the budget. He can try to dazzle me with statistics and perhaps more detailed knowledge, but the fact is that there is a £38 billion deficit in the defence budget.
Charlie Elphicke: There is not only a £38 billion hole in the defence budget, but a £40 billion hole in respect of cuts that were not allocated and a structural deficit of £109 billion. Every single household in this country is effectively borrowing £4,000 this year as a result. Is that not an outrageous state of affairs?
If Labour Members have any uncertainty about the extent of the neglect that they caused, the evidence in the results of the May 2010 armed forces continuous attitudes survey may offer some clarification. It showed that just 32% of serving personnel said that they felt valued. Let today's debate be one of the first crucial steps that we take to restore the moral commitment that was broken-the crucial step that will ensure that our armed forces have the support that they need and that their families and former service personnel are treated with the dignity that they deserve.
It was a great encouragement that on 11 June last year, not even a month into the new Parliament, the Prime Minister announced that the operational allowance for the armed forces would be doubled and backdated from 6 May. From the very start, the Government have ensured that the welfare of our service personnel is at the very top of their agenda.
In the programme for government, the coalition set out its policies for rebuilding the military covenant, all of which are aimed at improving the welfare of service personnel, veterans and their families. That is more than just words on a page; the Government have acted swiftly to ensure that the military covenant will be enshrined in law so that never again will our promise to the servicemen and women of our country be broken. The informal understanding of the state's duty of care to its armed forces will cease to be regarded as an obligation; it will be a firm rule that all future Governments will have to adhere to. As the Prime Minister said, the time has come for our commitment to be
"refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that's written into the law of the land."
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous. He is absolutely right to say what should happen, but does he not accept that the one group of people who are not legally responsible will be the Government? They are putting legal responsibilities on local government and the health service, but not on the MOD. That is a shabby situation.
In early December, Professor Hew Strachan published the report, commissioned by the Government, that his independent task force developed. As a demonstration of their commitment, the Government immediately began work on implementing two of the report's recommendations: the armed forces community covenant, which encourages communities across the UK to volunteer support for their local armed forces; and a Chief of the Defence Staff commendation scheme, which will allow the head of the UK's armed forces to thank individuals or bodies who give exceptional support to the armed forces. Those are great initiatives along the way to
restoring the covenant, and I look forward to the full response of the defence personnel, welfare and veterans Minister to the report in the spring.
This debate on the Armed Forces Bill is an historic one. That is not so much because of the provisions, some of which may appear a little pedestrian, but because it is one of the great parliamentary symbols, such as the Outlawries Bill or the Septennial Act-one of the great reminders of the struggles that we have had through the centuries to build liberty over tyranny in our country. Some Members have already mentioned that we now ask our servicemen and women more often to go abroad and fight for liberty, to protect our liberty here at home.
Each Armed Forces Bill seems to contain some innovation; as a new boy, I am learning that. The last such Bill-now an Act-enshrined a single set of military law. The great innovation of this Bill is to provide the Secretary of State with an obligation to prepare and present to Parliament an armed services report-a military covenant report, if you will-that will detail a range of issues in the Bill. I am thinking of how the Government and the nation will build their responsibilities in respect of our armed forces.
Bob Russell: As the Royal British Legion has driven the updating of the military covenant, perhaps its representatives should be involved in the Secretary of State's annual report to make sure that they are satisfied.
Christopher Pincher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that the Minister will take account of his suggestion that the Royal British Legion should be able to give advice about the content of the report.
Many Members have focused on clause 2, and that demonstrates its importance and the interest that we all have in it. Last year, the Prime Minister said that we all-the Government, the private sector and voluntary organisations-have a responsibility to go that extra mile for our armed forces. There is no doubt that over the past several years, our armed forces family and those beyond it have taken the view that we have not gone the extra mile for them.
Colleagues have already mentioned that on the very day of the general election last year, the armed forces continuous attitudes survey showed that just 32%-less than a third-of our armed forces feel that they are valued. Such a report on such a day sent a clear message to the outgoing Government that soldiers, sailors and airmen and women felt that that Government had failed them. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I should say that it sent a clear message to the incoming Government that our military expects a lot more of them.
The writing has been on the wall for a few years. General Guthrie said as far back as 2007 that the Government were failing to keep their side of the bargain
in the military covenant. A friend serving in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who has been to Afghanistan said the same thing in rather more colourful language that it is not parliamentary to repeat here this side of the watershed. If personnel from the Chief of the Defence staff all the way down to a solider driving a recovery vehicle around Helmand are saying the same, we have a real challenge to rebuild faith between our national leaders and our armed forces. That is a challenge the Government must meet. In introducing the Bill and clause 2-the provision for the military covenant report-we are beginning to meet that challenge. We are sending a signal to our armed forces that the things that they and their friends and families are concerned about are the things that the Government are also concerned about and will act upon. I commend clause 2.
I hope that when the Secretary of State and his colleagues consider what should be included in the report-my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) made this point-they will take great heed of and look closely at the work of Professor Strachan and his taskforce and their recommendations to bring to life the military covenant. Two things need to be included in the report to give it teeth: first, forces' accommodation, which has already been mentioned and is in the Bill and the Strachan report; secondly, personnel kit and training, which is neither in the Bill nor the Strachan report, unless I have missed it.
It is a very old joke to say that soldiers like to grumble, but it is no joke when 36% of servicemen and their families who live in services accommodation say that the accommodation is below standard. That is one of the biggest complaints I hear from my friends and constituents who are in the military. If we are prepared to send young men and women overseas to risk their lives, we can at least ensure that we give them and their families a decent roof over their heads here at home. I therefore hope that the Government will look closely at the Strachan recommendations to enhance accommodation allowances. I know that we are in difficult economic straits, but I hope that the Government will consider that recommendation.
I also hope that the Government will consider expanding the shared equity scheme pilot introduced by the previous Government, and that the Secretary of State will ask the Chancellor to sit down with the banks and persuade them to offer forces-friendly mortgages, so that we can get more service people into their own accommodation. It seems to be a sensible long-term aspiration to offer servicemen and women and their families the opportunity of a stable home with a fixed address and a foot on the property ladder. Incidentally, that would also offer an opportunity to the Ministry of Defence to reduce some of the forces' accommodation costs, which are currently running at about £285 million a year. The state of some services accommodation, which needs to be improved, means that those costs will only increase. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the recommendations of the Strachan report, and I hope particularly that the Treasury will be invited to look at them.
I would also like to discuss servicemen and women's kit and training. Those issues have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)-neither of whom is in his seat-which demonstrates there is some bipartisanship
on the issue. One of my oldest friends is an officer serving with the Royal Welsh who has two tours of Afghanistan under his belt. An issue that he raises continually with me is that although, as Members from all parties have said, it is right that the kit provided to servicemen and women deployed to operations has improved considerably, the time available to train in the kit has not. All too many of them say that all too often kit such as the ACOG rifle sight and Osprey body armour are provided only just before they deploy on operational service, so they are not as prepared as they might be because they have not had enough time to train with it before they deploy. We are also told that Vallon metal detectors, which are essential in identifying mines, are not widely available for training purposes, as that sort of kit should be. I hope that when my right hon. and hon. Friends think about the content of the covenant report, they will consider including such issues so that our service men and women feel that we are as serious about their safety abroad as we are about their welfare here at home.
In a short space of time, and despite the difficult economic circumstances that we face, the Government have made some great strides forward in rebuilding the military covenant by doubling the operational hours, maximising R and R, introducing the covenant report, investing £189 million in new kit, and spending another £67 million on countering IEDs. That shows that they have an unbending resolve to support the welfare of our armed forces, and I hope that we get that message across.
"In putting the needs of the Nation, The Army and others before their own, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. So, at the very least, British soldiers should always the expect the Nation and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals, and to sustain and reward them and their families."
I am a Member of Parliament for one of Britain's principal naval ports and the issues raised in this Bill will resonate in one of the homes of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. In the course of the past 10 years, I have promised that I would say to Ministers that Plymouth is not Portsmouth-we are not 20 minutes away from Bristol, and we need to ensure that we are not ignored. One of the things that the Government could do, if they were so minded, is to consider making Plymouth the centre for the veterans weekend in 2012. I know very well that my right hon. Friends have heard that before, but it is worth repeating on a regular basis.
Going to war is not just about bombs and bullets; rather, it is about those people who put their lives at risk to defend British interests, and about protecting our freedoms and our way of life. If we expect our servicemen and women to fight for this cause, we have to make sure that they feel valued-that is incredibly important. This Bill, together with the military covenant, goes some way towards delivering that, and I hope that it will play very well down in Plymouth.
In just a few weeks' time, 3 Commando Brigade, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) served a little while ago, and which is based in my constituency, will be deployed back in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 14. War, of course, is not a means in itself-it is the final episode following our failure, as politicians, to get a diplomatic solution to the problems that face regions of the world. I have always been, and am, very supportive of the interventions that we have made in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but I am well aware that we failed to think through the exit strategy that would leave those countries with a stronger political leadership and able to deliver peace and a strengthened economy. The public were initially behind both conflicts, but as time moved on, the number of casualties rose and they looked increasingly like becoming stalemates, so public support waned.
The quid pro quo for those who fight for their country is that they should be valued. I hope that the Bill goes some way towards delivering on that contract. As an aside, I believe that we must spend more time and effort in looking at ways to avoid conflict. The old adage that prevention is better than cure rings true. For too long, we have seen defence just in terms of scenes from films such as "Saving Private Ryan". Our priority should be to do more to prevent conflicts and to ensure that servicemen and women are valued when they make their sacrifices. Placing a warship in a port can make a real statement. When President Obama put a US aircraft carrier off Korea recently, it helped to calm down the potential for conflict in the far east.
Inevitably, war has produced dreadful legacies not only in the countries where conflicts have taken place, but for the lives of servicemen and women and their families. That is why I will certainly support the Bill in the Lobbies tonight, should there be a Division. It will make it a statutory requirement for the Secretary of State for Defence to make an annual report to Parliament on the military covenant. I take on board the points of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). One thing that we can do is to ensure that we have a regular debate of this sort for a full day, just as we are doing today, so that such issues can be aired.
The Bill will enshrine the military covenant in law. If we are asking our service personnel to put their lives on the line, Parliament must not only give them the kit, pay and the health and social conditions to do the job; the military covenant says that the state should also maintain a long-term duty of care for them and their families.
Bob Stewart: When the names of the casualties are read out in this House, we always say, "We will remember them." That places on us a requirement to remember them by looking after their wives, children and husbands for the rest of their lives. That is included in the military covenant, although it may not be written down. We have a responsibility to care deeply for people who have given their lives in the service of our country. We must not just say, "We will remember them," because we do not remember them individually, but we should remember them by caring for the people whom they have left behind.
My hon. Friend makes a fair and timely point. Shortly before Christmas, I attended a Christmas party for the families of serving personnel with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck).
Those families were apprehensive about the departure of their partners and family members to Afghanistan and prayed that they would come back without physical or mental injury.
That brings me to the crux of what I wanted to say: mental health among veterans is a growing problem. This weekend, I was told by Combat Stress that the King's Centre for Military Health Research published a report recently that warned that almost a quarter of Iraq veterans admitted to suffering from mental ill health. Many have depression and turn to alcohol and drugs. In my city of Plymouth, we have to come to terms with that issue.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman, from my neighbouring seat in Plymouth, join me in commending Hasler Company at HMS Drake, which I was fortunate enough to visit again last Friday, for the excellent work that it does for people with complex problems, particularly mental health problems? Will he join me in encouraging it to keep doing what it is doing? Sadly it needs some additional funding. It is getting some from the Royal British Legion, I believe, and certainly from Help for Heroes, and I hope that the Government will consider supporting it as well.
The King's Centre found that nearly 5% of Iraq veterans display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It believes, having projected its statistics on to the 180,000 servicemen and women who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, that as many as 48,000 veterans could suffer from some form of mental health problem, and that 9,000 could potentially develop PTSD.
Last October, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the Government would implement the recommendations of the excellent "Fighting Fit" report written by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who sadly is not in his place at the moment. I pay tribute to him for the hard work that he undertook. The report contains 13 action points, including funding for an additional 30 mental health nurses and a dedicated 24-hour helpline for veterans.
The 2011 to 2015 Ministry of Defence business plan outlines a number of deadlines, including for drawing up a detailed plan to implement the recommendations of my hon. Friend's report. I understand that that plan was completed in December. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could confirm when and if it will be published and put into the public domain. I would be grateful also if he could explain why the MOD's structural reform plan monthly implementation update is still not complete, despite the deadline having been in November. I am happy for him to write to me about that, so I am not asking for a result this evening. Perhaps he could tell me when the production of the update might be achieved.
I know that there is a March deadline in the MOD's business plan for the introduction of 30 mental health nurses, and it would be helpful if we could be told whether
that is still on track and what measures the Government are undertaking to deliver greater co-ordination between the charitable sector, Plymouth city council and other organisations.
Mr Gray: Does my hon. Friend agree that we must know not only when the Government are going to implement the recommendations in the excellent report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) but whether that implementation will be fully funded? There is precious little purpose in having the report in the first place if its 13 recommendations are not fully funded. I hope that the Minister will let us know whether those recommendations will be funded to the letter.
Plymouth is proud of its Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Army heritage. It has a large number of veterans-I suspect, although I have no proof, that it has one of the largest numbers in the south-west. It is a wonderful place to which to retire, where people can play golf and sail, and there seem to be an awful lot of people there who have been in the services. I understand that Combat Stress now has a regional welfare officer working in Sir Francis Drake's home city, and I look forward to meeting the welfare officer in the near future.
All of us in Plymouth want to play a significant part in delivering the reforms that the Bill heralds. I would welcome a chance to meet Ministers to discuss how we might work with our friends in the Department of Health, the city council, the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress and other charitable organisations to help the Government implement the "Fighting Fit" agenda in our historic part of the south-west. Failure to get the matter right in that city, which I am proud to represent, could have a severe impact on our local services, so I firmly believe that it needs to be action stations today.
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I represent Dover and Deal, which today still feels like they are at the front line of the nation in its dealings with the continent, not all of which have been happy in the past. Not so long ago, in the second world war, we were the front line and responsible for helping ensure the success of Dunkirk. Before that, in the 18th century, the channel fleet was stationed off the coast of Deal and we retain a strong link with the Royal Marines. I was privileged to be at the installation of the captain general of the Royal Marines as the captain of Deal castle. We also have the lord warden of the cinque ports in Walmer castle, Admiral Boyce, and a brigadier in Dover castle.
The constituency feels strongly about the military covenant. It has a strong cadet movement. It is a privilege for me to be the honorary president of the Deal Air Training Corps, 2235 squadron. It is a considerable privilege for us to have so many Gurkhas living in Dover and Deal, who go on active service and do great things for our nation. I am therefore proud of what our constituency has achieved in the service of this nation and of our military links. The constituency takes a strong and passionate view of the military covenant.
As someone who deeply respects all those who put their bodies and minds in danger on our behalf, I want to stress how pleased I am that we are finally putting the
military covenant on to a statutory footing in clause 2. It is absolutely right that the Bill will give the military covenant the increased recognition that it should have had long ago. By enacting the measure, we will give legislative force to the "Army Doctrine Publication", particularly chapter 1.
However, it is not a no-cost option to back the military covenant in statute. With it comes responsibility, which, in recent years, has been lacking. We must ensure that service personnel and their families are properly cared for, not only in health but when they are hurt, particularly when that hurt happens on active service. What has been going on is not good enough. However, each small measure brings us closer to what we mean by the term "military covenant".
"Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices-including the ultimate sacrifice-in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the nation and the Army before their own, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service... This mutual obligation forms the Military Covenant".
"The system's loyalty to the individual-its obligation in the Military Covenant-is manifested in justice, fair rewards, and life-long support to all who have soldiered".
The reason for the national debate on the military covenant is the sense that that lifelong support had wavered, that the nation was not completely on the side of the military, as it should have been, and that the military did not have the backing and support that it should have had.
"There is now a feeling-probably stronger than I can ever recall-that the Government are not keeping their side of the bargain and honouring the Military Covenant".
"My firm aim is to restore the balance of the Military Covenant-it is clearly out of kilter at the moment".
The Royal British Legion raised its concerns in its general election manifesto, "It's time to do your bit". It called for Government action to ensure three key matters: that families of service personnel were properly looked after; that bereaved families were given the support that they need, and that veterans were properly looked after, with health care and poverty fighting prioritised. These points were hammered home to me by my own excellent and active British Legion in Deal, which time and again has raised this issue and pressed for action. Wider concerns have also been raised about mental health, forces accommodation-we often hear about that-armed forces equipment and personal kit, compensation, and even voter registration. As a result of these concerns, morale in our armed forces is not as high as it should be.
The latest armed forces survey found that only 35% of personnel were satisfied with equipment and only 32% felt valued at a basic level, while 37% said morale was too low and 36% said accommodation was not good enough. Such statistics should concern all Members,
and they highlight why it is right that in bringing forward clause 2 we hammer home that we are on the side of our armed forces, so that they know that when we put them in harm's way and they are under fire, our hearts and minds are with them and they have our full support and backing.
The clause's requirement that the Secretary of State must make a report every year is welcome because it will focus minds that bit more. It is right that health, education and housing should be specifically listed, and I hope that the Secretary of State will also consider including priority health care. I look forward to seeing the new tri-service covenant. Priority health care matters a lot because survey after survey has shown that most GPs have not got a clue about that principle and most hospitals do not know much about it either. We must hammer home the message that our armed forces and veterans should have that priority.
Bob Russell: The House of Commons Library has produced an excellent research paper briefing, and I suggest that Ministers should take into account what it says. It observes that the Bill does not explicitly state what welfare provisions must be provided for under the military covenant, such as priority health care, or any minimum standards of care. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the sort of detail that we will want in the Bill when we get it into Committee?
Charlie Elphicke: I am not certain that just chucking that in the Bill is the most important thing, but I hope very much that the Secretary of State will pick up on my hon. Friend's comments, and also on the other issues mentioned, and that he will make sure that they are given a proper hearing and are properly understood. I hope he will make sure he puts them in his report.
We should enable the Secretary of State to have that kind of flexibility because other issues that our armed forces are very concerned about, and that will need to be addressed, will arise. The three issues I have mentioned are included in the Bill, but I hope that priority health care will be as well. It is important that when people who serve in our nation's cause return home, they are properly looked after, because they are much more likely to have serious health issues, mental as well as physical. It is right that we as a country honour that covenant and ensure that they get priority treatment because of their service.
It is right that we should have had Professor Strachan's report. I do not agree with the Opposition that it is just a damp squib that is a bit wishy-washy and not very interesting. It is important that there is the armed forces community covenant. It is important that the accommodation scheme, which is there to thank people who give their support through the armed forces, is in place, because it will engender a sense of direction and the message that it is right to be on the side of our boys and girls out in the field and that we should support our armed forces.
It is also right that the Government give further, and more detailed, consideration to the other measures that were in the report. That is why the Opposition are wrong to write off this report. It encourages greater help in respect of military housing and greater home ownership. It also proposes that there should be a champion for veterans and better training.
We have also discussed the issue of medals this evening. Some want to hand them out like confetti at a wedding, while others want to be more parsimonious. Whatever happens in that respect, it is important that the MOD makes the following change: the citations for medals should be public from the beginning. I have a constituency case involving a Mr Pile who has written to me saying that he wants to tell his children about his father's heroic activities. What could be better than for someone to balance their kids on their knee and say, "Do you know what your grandfather did? He served heroically, he got a medal and here is the citation"? But he cannot get his own father's citation, because he fell out with his stepmother and his father is dead, so the MOD has said, "Sorry, data protection! You can't know the citation." So he cannot tell his own children.
Bob Stewart: Actually, he can get his citation, if it is a gallantry award, because it will be in the London Gazette, unless there are special circumstances. If my hon. Friend is saying that there should be citations for campaign medals, that is extremely difficult, because everyone who serves for 28 days-or whatever the qualifying period is-gets the medal. The only way someone could get a citation for that is to understand what the campaign was about. Citations for gallantry medals are obtainable via the London Gazette.
Charlie Elphicke: I thank my hon. and gallant Friend. This issue was raised with me, and the MOD wrote to me saying, "Data protection means that we cannot tell you." The position is ludicrous. All medal citations should be automatically public and transparent.
Finally, the doubling of the operational allowance and the Government's efforts to increase the rest and recuperation for military personal have been positive steps. However, there needs to be an improvement on kit and operational duties. That is vital. We have started to see that, which I welcome, and I also welcome the Bill and the military covenant finally being enshrined in law.
We have made it clear that Labour will support the Bill, not least because it is a continuation of key reforms introduced by the previous Government. The Armed Forces Act 2006 resulted in the biggest overhaul of the system of military law for 50 years. It consolidated and modernised all the previous service discipline Acts and replaced them with a single system of service law applicable to all service personnel wherever they are based in the world. The Act introduced a fair, modern system of criminal justice to the armed forces while recognising the special circumstances, risks, dangers and demands that we place on service personnel.
The Bill will build on the 2006 Act and introduce other important reforms, including measures to increase the powers of the service police and provisions to strengthen their structural independence. The Bill will ensure that the service police disciplinary systems are consistent with the European convention on human rights; introduce the service sexual offences prevention orders to protect members of the service community outside the UK;
strengthen the independence and impartiality of service complaints and procedures; and update regulations protecting prisoners of war detained by UK forces. We on the Labour Benches welcome those changes.
The reforms that we introduced in the 2006 Act, which will be continued and updated through this Bill, were part of a wider body of work by the previous Government not just to improve the system of law governing the armed forces, but to show our wider commitment to the brave servicemen and women in recognition of the unique contribution they make on our behalf. We have heard many excellent speeches in which numerous Members have praised our armed forces. They are right to do so, and I will add my own tribute, particularly to those serving in Afghanistan right now. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to our soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women who do extremely dangerous and difficult work in conflict zones all over the globe. They are a generation who have seen active service in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, working hard to protect us and make our world a safer place.
We must not forget those who have gone before, those who have been injured and those who have lost their lives-veterans of conflicts going right back to world war two-who fought to secure the freedom that we enjoy today; and we must not forget the families of our armed forces and veterans. It places great strain on loved ones when husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and sons and daughters spend many months at a time away from home. Service families make huge sacrifices to support those on the front line, and we owe them just as big a debt of gratitude as we do those in combat. We owe it to them to help them address the unique challenges they face as the families of servicemen and women. We also heard today about the important role of reservists and cadets from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and other hon. Members, some of whom are reservists themselves.
The previous Labour Government were the first to deliver a cross-government approach to forces welfare. The service personnel Command Paper, published in summer 2008, set out improved access to housing schemes and health care, free access to further and higher education for service leavers with six years' service, and extended travel concessions for veterans and those seriously injured. We guaranteed fair pay for all our forces-that included the first ever tax-free bonus for those on operations abroad-while strengthening our support for their welfare. We invested hundreds of millions of pounds to reverse a legacy of decades of neglect in forces accommodation. The level of homelessness among service leavers was sharply reduced and the law was changed to give them better access to social housing. We also introduced Armed Forces day and veterans badges to make sure that the achievements and contributions of all our armed forces heroes are properly recognised.
Labour's 2010 manifesto proposed enshrining in law the rights of forces, their families and veterans in an armed forces charter, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) mentioned. I am delighted that this Government have agreed on the need to improve the military covenant by guaranteeing rights in law, although we still await specific plans to make that a reality.
We heard much about rebuilding the military covenant, including in considered contributions from the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), for Tamworth
(Christopher Pincher), for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). As the Opposition, we have made it clear that we will support the Government on measures to show further our commitment and duty of care to our armed forces. However, as the shadow Secretary of State set out, we have some important questions for the Government on their position on the military covenant.
The Bill contains a specific proposal that the Secretary of State will publish an annual report on the Government's progress on the military covenant. We have heard discussion of the external reference group, which the previous Government established to chart the progress made by Departments in delivering the commitments made to our armed forces in the service personnel Command Paper. The ERG includes representatives from service charities and service families federations, and provides an unbiased and independent progress report. I am aware that informal assurances have been given that the group will be consulted, but that is quite different from the ERG producing its own report. Unfortunately, MOD Ministers were accused in newspaper reports yesterday of politicising the military covenant. That may not be the intention of the Government, but we are very concerned that the important independent scrutiny in the form of a progress report by the ERG is being removed. That concern was raised by the shadow Secretary of State, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and by some on the Government Back Benches, including the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). The Royal British Legion has called for an assurance to be given that the ERG will be retained and will continue to produce its own annual report. As such, I urge the Government to re-examine the matter to ensure that both Parliament and the public have an objective view on the Government's progress or otherwise. If that does not happen, the independent expert scrutiny provided by the group may well, unfortunately, be lost.
Mr Gray: Excellent as the external reference group is, does the hon. Lady agree that it has one major defect, which is that it is not answerable to this House? The Bill's proposal strengthens that area considerably by saying that Ministers must come here to explain to us what they have done on the military covenant. That does not happen with the existing report.
Gemma Doyle: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As we have said, we welcome the fact that such a debate will take place in this House. However, as I have also said, we are in danger of losing the independent scrutiny that the ERG provides and we do not want that to happen.
Alison Seabeck: I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend's comments about the ERG, because I am sure that we will want to tease out and press these issues a little further in Committee. If she intended to cover this next issue later, I hope she will forgive me for asking about it now. I visited my local naval base on Friday, when I was made aware that the MOD police are very concerned about cuts in their numbers as a result of cutbacks. How will that affect their ability to carry out the additional investigative work that is set out in the Bill, which of course we welcome?
Gemma Doyle: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the gap between Government rhetoric and action. The cuts mean that we will not necessarily see action living up to what is being promised. The hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) said that we need some indication of what the outcome of the covenant report will be. It would be appreciated if the Minister said whether there will be any tangible measure of whether the Government have made progress on armed forces welfare.
As I have said, we are awaiting specific proposals from the Government on what the new covenant will include and when it will be written into law as promised. We do not yet know what welfare provisions will be included, or what minimum standards of care there should be under the military covenant. Some existing problems were raised by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). The Government commissioned a taskforce to make recommendations, and it has now reported. They have accepted two of the taskforce's recommendations, but we are still waiting for the full response.
"Meeting obligations to the military community should not impose significant costs on local government".
I would be grateful for a guarantee that any measures that are implemented as part of the military covenant will be fully costed and funded, and that the costs will not merely be passed on to local authorities or the NHS.
I raise with the Minister, as I did at Defence questions last month, the issue of the veterans card, which the taskforce specifically recommended. The previous Government proposed introducing a veterans card, which would help service providers to identify former members of the armed forces to enable them to get better treatment and better access to treatment. At that time, the plans were welcomed by the Royal British Legion, but since coming into power the Government have scrapped those plans and the veterans Minister, in letters to hon. Members, ruled out an ID card for veterans. Given that the taskforce has recommended that, will the Minister now give a specific commitment, which he did not do last month, to reconsider that matter and the Government's position on the veterans card?
The taskforce report appears to encourage home ownership to reduce the cost of upgrading existing service accommodation. Measures that assist service personnel to gain better access to the housing market are welcome, but can the Minister give a guarantee that the policy of merely encouraging greater home ownership among the armed forces will not be adopted instead of upgrading service accommodation? The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife rightly acknowledged that we have some way to go on that.
The taskforce report suggests that service personnel should be shown special treatment where individuals have been seriously injured, and we obviously support that view, but the taskforce report also states that it
"has assumed that it is not the role of the government to provide special privileges for Service personnel across the board."
The idea behind the military covenant is surely that the unique nature of military service should be recognised in the provision that the Government make for their
servicemen and women. Can the Minister say whether the taskforce was correct to make that assumption, and does he agree that the Government should not provide special privileges for service personnel across the board? That would somewhat change the expected nature of the covenant and the legislative entitlements that have been promised.
Much of the report focuses on suggested measures to be taken at local level. Indeed, one of the two accepted recommendations, which has already been implemented, is on the armed forces community covenant. That is a welcome step. The Government must, however, be careful about being over-reliant on local measures to reinforce the military covenant. Indeed, the report highlights problems with the application of a 50% council tax discount for those serving overseas. That highlights the postcode lottery that can result when decisions are taken locally. A heavy reliance on local and voluntary measures would contradict the Government's stated intention to enshrine the military covenant in law.
Parties on both sides of the House have pledged to support the memorial to the 55,573 airmen of Bomber Command who died in world war two. The Bomber Command Association raised the £5 million necessary to pay for the memorial in Green park, but the Government scheme that exempts memorials from VAT expired on 4 January. The association is now faced with raising another £250,000. What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor and has he requested that the Treasury waives the VAT to allow the memorial to go ahead?
I have covered some of the specific questions about the content of the taskforce's report, but let me return to some of the more general issues. I want to know what more we can expect from the Government. In opposition, they said that the covenant was shattered, but in government they have failed to match their bold promises to rebuild the covenant with sufficiently tough action. The Conservative manifesto states:
"Our brave men and women, their families, and our veterans deserve the best for putting their lives on the line to protect our liberties. We will ensure they get the best."
No one would disagree with that, but it does not fit with the Government's actions now that they are in office. The Prime Minister established a taskforce and asked it to come up with low-cost, innovative policy options. Can the Minister look our brave armed forces in the eye and say that they will get the best when his Prime Minister has asked for policy options, but only on the cheap?
Since taking office, the Government have appointed a taskforce to suggest some low-cost measures. There is no doubt that many of the measures included in the report, such as the veterans card scheme, could make a difference, but the overall content of the report was labelled "incredibly wet and feeble" by the chairman of the Forces Pension Society, as was mentioned earlier. Essentially, the Government will need to do a lot better and improve drastically on their record so far. They have failed to bring forward a comprehensive package of proposals to back up the rhetoric that they will rebuild the covenant. The action they have taken has completely undermined those discussions.
Let us take as an example the Government's plans to link public sector pension rises to CPI rather than RPI inflation, which my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State mentioned, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East. They explained that that will impact disproportionately on members of the armed forces, who draw down their pension much earlier than other public sector workers. Servicemen and women, some of whom have suffered horrendous injuries in battle, could see the value of their pensions reduced by hundreds of thousands of pounds. War widows will be affected likewise. The change is fundamentally unfair to the very people who give their service to defend our way of life, and that is why we have suggested an alternative and potentially fairer approach.
The Government have also been accused of a betrayal by forces families following their decision to scrap major reforms to the system of inquests into military deaths. The changes that the previous Government legislated to introduce and that were due to be implemented imminently were supported by service charities and families. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 would have delivered a better inquest service and ensured that the coroner undertaking military inquests had the training necessary to conduct an effective investigation. It would also have created a system of appeals against coroner's decisions.
Anyone who has lost a loved one has the right to know and understand the full circumstances surrounding their relative's death. Families need to have confidence in the inquest system and these changes would have made a huge difference. By scrapping the chief coroner and abandoning the reforms that families want, the coalition has made a real error. In Committee on the Public Bodies Bill in the other place, their lordships voted to save the office of the chief coroner by a substantial majority. I hope that the Government will reconsider their view on this matter.
Mr Gray: The coroner has been mentioned several times this evening. Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to say that the coroner in Oxfordshire in days gone by and, more particularly, David Masters, the excellent coroner in Wiltshire, have done a superb job of running inquests over the past few years? Leaving aside the debate on the chief coroner that she has described, the system at the moment works rather well.
Gemma Doyle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I would certainly agree that we want that excellence to be available throughout the United Kingdom, which is why we support these reforms.
"I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly."
The debate has given us an opportunity to discuss the finer points of this important Bill, which builds on the work done by the previous Government in overhauling many procedures in the armed forces, particularly in relation to military justice and discipline. The Bill will ensure that the armed forces can perform more effectively, and it will make the lives of our service personnel safer. The debate has also given us the opportunity to contrast the Government's rhetoric on the military covenant with their record of action. They have been found wanting, and they must reconsider their approach to the covenant.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): I am grateful to the many hon. Members who have participated in the debate. After hearing the rather fierce winding-up speech by the shadow Minister, I point out that two Labour Back Benchers participated in the debate and that substantially more Conservative Back Benchers took part, which shows how much interest there has been in the House.
Leaving that to one side and returning to the Bill, the Government are required to introduce an Armed Forces Bill every five years, because those Bills provide the legal basis for the armed forces and for their discipline. Five years ago, the Armed Forces Act 2006 established a single system of service law, which applies to all members of the armed forces wherever they are serving in the world. It was a significant piece of legislation. The Bill that we are considering today is much smaller, and a lot of it was implemented under the previous Government. We are, in fact, pursuing the policies that the previous Government introduced, so I was particularly saddened by the shadow Secretary of State's extraordinary speech. [ Interruption. ] The term that applies to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is "chuntering".
The covenant has engendered a great deal of discussion in the debate, and we are fulfilling the Prime Minister's pledge to put the matter on a statutory basis in this Bill. Every year, there will be a report on the covenant, which the House may wish to discuss. Returning to the hon. Members who have spoken, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who is an extremely sensible friend, made some interesting points. He asked about the air bridge, which we are working on. Because, like me, he has travelled on it and been delayed on it, he knows that part of the problem is the age of the aircraft. He asked whether we will add days lost on rest and recuperation to post-tour leave, which is now our policy and is happening already.
My hon. Friend gave his view, which comes from serving in the Territorial Army, on medals. He also mentioned reservists. I agree with him entirely that support for such servicemen who return from operational tours is difficult. I pay tribute to those whose day job is not serving in the armed forces but who go out on operational tours and do excellent work helping our regular armed forces, and I pay tribute to their families, too.
The armed forces are under-represented in the prison population. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd did not mean to do this, but it is important that we do not patronise our soldiers, sailors and airmen, who are more law-abiding than most. Of course some of them go to prison, but we are talking about responsible adults, some of whom commit crimes. Interestingly, the chances of being in prison if one has been in the armed forces are considerably less than if one has not. Our armed forces members want to be treated as responsible adults and not as victims.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison)-he is a doctor and he is very gallant-for his extremely important report "Fighting Fit". He asked whether we should call the armed forces covenant the military covenant in the Bill and I shall look into that. There is a legal issue involved, but I can certainly say that the covenant report will not be a tick-box exercise.
The very Welsh hon. Member for Rhondda was particularly keen on armed forces members from Wales being able to serve in Wales, but my experience of young people-both those going into the armed forces and those going to university-is that they often want to get away from their home environment. I have not heard many complaints about this before and I think they might not wish to be close to home. In my period in the armed forces, a very long time ago, I spent a disproportionate amount of my time training in Wales-in the Brecon Beacons at Sennybridge, in Snowdonia and in other places. The hon. Gentleman was very disparaging about Sennybridge, but I rather liked it.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) referred to the system of having a Bill every five years as technical, but I disagree entirely. I notice that he read history, but I do not know whether he got his history degree.
This is not a technical Bill: it is incredibly important. Those of us who know the history of the Bill of Rights 1689 know that it is incredibly important to have parliamentary authority for the armed forces. That remains as true today as it was more than 300 years ago; that is why we have a democracy. The hon. Gentleman then blamed the Government for the poor housing, which I thought slightly strange. He said that "the money was put in place for sorting out the housing," but I think that might have been part of the £38 billion that we could not find when we came into office.
Thomas Docherty: May I clarify that I have no prejudice against people choosing to spend their own money on private health care or private education? I just object, when there are severe budget cuts for the MOD, to £110 million of taxpayers' money being spent subsidising other people's private education.
Mr Robathan: As I explained, the reason for the continuity of education allowance is so that children do not have to change schools often. I have heard of changes more than four times in five years and I do not think that is very fair on those children or their families. With that sort of system, people would tend not to stay in the armed forces. Be they private soldiers or generals, they would say, "I am not staying in the armed forces; I am going to do something else." That is the reason for the allowance. [Hon. Members: "Private soldiers?"] Yes, private soldiers do send their children to independent schools. [ Interruption. ] I cannot speak on this in detail, but I assure Opposition Members-who presided over the system, which we are tightening up dramatically-that nearly 50% of those who use the continuity of education allowance are not commissioned officers.
I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made his speech. [ Interruption. ] That is what it says here. He particularly seeks the maximum involvement of armed forces charities in the work of the covenant and that is absolutely what we want.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) talked about the heroism in the armed forces, recognised in Wootton Bassett in his constituency, and I think that we all agree on that. He welcomed our commitment to the armed forces covenant and the fact that our manifesto commitment will be kept, but he should watch how the issue develops, because I think that he will be more satisfied than I understand he appeared to be in his speech. The provision is not a "sad little clause"; it is an important step forward in fulfilling our obligations to the armed forces.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) for his service in Afghanistan. I was glad to hear that he welcomed clause 2 and was critical of the previous Government's record on the covenant. It seems rather strange that we get criticised for all these things after seven or eight months, whereas I seem to remember that the previous Government were there for 13 years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) asked us to go the extra mile for the armed forces. He is absolutely right. They are in a unique position, and we should and will go that extra mile; we are committed to doing so. He talked about service family accommodation. We are working on improving quality. I recently cut the turf on a new estate, the Canadian estate in Bulford. It was put on hold under the last Government, but we have started again. There is, of course, a big issue about cost. We are also working towards greater home ownership. My hon. Friend may know of the new employment model, which will mean that the Army will tend to be based more in the same place, rather than moving around the country.
I heard the plea that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) made for Armed Forces day in Plymouth, and we will certainly consider that. I absolutely agree with his central point, which is that we must make the armed forces feel valued. I know that I am a bit older than some people on the Opposition Front Bench-
Mr Robathan -all of the people on the Opposition Front Bench; I can remember the Labour Government of 1974 to 1979. The pay of the armed forces was reduced so much, and was so poor, that people left in their droves, and we ended up with something called the black hole of officers. So many officers of captain and major rank left that there was a huge black hole, which was quite good for promotion, but not much good for the armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who is extremely proud of Dover and military life there-I got that message-mentioned electoral registration. We are working on ensuring that it is easier for service personnel to register only once, because the system has become extremely complicated under quite well-meaning measures of the previous Government.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle), gave her first speech from the Front Bench. I congratulate her and welcome her to the Front Bench. I also welcome the service personnel Command Paper; I think that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is not here, was partly responsible for it. It is basically a good piece of work that we support, and we are going forward with many of the improvements that were suggested and started by the previous Government; I think that we can say that.
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire then, I am sorry to say, went on about the external reference group, which we value. We have no plans to get rid of it, or to not publish its reports. It will produce a report, which will be seen and will be transparent. I assume that it will become evidence to the report on the covenant that the Secretary of State will have to make to Parliament. As I explained to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, that is about the accountability of the Government to Parliament, on which I hope we all agree. This is a non-story, a non-issue; the process will be transparent and accountable. We will listen to the external reference group, and if it does not like what we have done, I would expect it to say so. Hew Strachan and I have regular meetings. I always counsel people not to believe everything that they read in the newspapers.
We will look at the idea of a veterans identity card, which the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire was lauding, but one of the issues that should be addressed is: who actually wants it? It is quite important that a little bit of market research is done on that, to start with. She asked whether I was having meetings with people on the Bomber Command memorial. I had a meeting just before the recess with the new chairman of the Bomber Command memorial. We had a very constructive meeting, and I am helping him on one particular issue that I do not want to get into now; difficulties had arisen over planning permission in the royal parks.
The hon. Lady attacked us regarding the covenant. We are introducing the covenant. The Labour Government did not do so. It is rather strange to hear us attacked in such a way for what we are doing on the covenant. It is work in progress, like the degree of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.
Finally, I turn to the speech from the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), the shadow Secretary of State. Disappointing is the best word to describe it. He said that our attitude was heartless. He was a member of the previous Government under the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). I point out to him that one cannot spend money that one has not got. The previous Government spent it like water. They destroyed our economy.
The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire grins back at me. He highlighted the decision of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government to change the indexation of service pensions from RPI to CPI, so perhaps now he will stand up and pledge that should, God forbid, the Labour party be returned to government at the next election, it will return the indexation of armed forces pensions and perhaps all public service pensions from CPI to RPI.
Mr Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to rise, and I encourage the Secretary of State to rise to defend his policy. The question is whether it is right to take away from war widows and those who were severely injured on the battlefield in Afghanistan pension entitlement that they had reasonably expected. Perhaps the Minister should focus less on what will be in our manifesto in two, three or four years, and more on his policy this very evening. He should try at least to do what the Secretary of State failed to do and defend his own policy.
Mr Robathan: After that extremely long intervention, I notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not answer the question. He says that we are taking money away from people. We are doing nothing of the kind. That is scare-mongering. We are changing the indexation going forward, as he is well aware. We must address the huge debt left behind by the previous Government. [Interruption.]. Opposition Members are obviously in denial. That is what we have to do.
The Bill is important, as I have explained, because it is part of parliamentary control of the armed forces. It provides the legal basis for the armed forces to exist. Without it, there would be some rather interesting and difficult situations.
There is an annual continuation order, which must be approved by both Houses every year. The Bill is the primary legislation, which we must have every five years, as most Members of the House know. I have a real interest in the safe passage of the Bill. Perhaps I should have declared that I am a recipient of an armed forces pension changing from RPI to CPI indexation. It will be a privilege to take the Bill through the House.
Finally, I pay tribute to all members of the armed forces who are even now serving on duty in Afghanistan in real danger on our behalf. I also pay tribute to the families and the communities who support them.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Armed Forces Bill:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Select Committee.
2. The Select Committee shall report the Bill to the House on or before 10 March 2011.
Committee of the whole House, consideration and Third Reading
3. On report from the Select Committee the Bill shall be re-committed to a Committee of the whole House.
4. Proceedings in Committee of the whole House on re-committal, any proceedings on consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be completed at one day's sitting.
5. Proceedings in Committee of the whole House and any proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
6. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after the commencement of those proceedings or at the moment of interruption on that day, whichever is the earlier.
7. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings in Committee of the whole House and on consideration and Third Reading.
8. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed .-( Angela Watkinson.)
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Armed Forces Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided. -(Angela Watkinson.)
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