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Baroness Cox: My Lords, I rise to endorse this amendment with reluctance. It gives me no pleasure to withhold support from the Government on this very important issue. However, I cannot in all conscience refrain from commending my noble friend Lady Park and other noble Lords who have put this issue before the House. Nor can I desist from strongly supporting the case that they have made. I particularly highlight the effects of the Government's proposals on the morale of servicemen's families. I regret not having spoken at previous stages of the Bill. I have been absent for unavoidable reasons.
The Government claim to be one that affirms family values and promotes policies which support family life. The proposals under discussion have caused profound anxiety and dismay to the families of many servicemen. The life of these families is never easy. They are prepared to make many sacrifices out of loyalty and a commitment to the demands of service life. However, the spectre now looming before them brings new fears as well as anger at the lack of consultation. Servicemen and women have votes but not a voice. Equally, their families are deprived of a voice to express their needs and concerns. However, some wives have voiced their concerns, inevitably anonymously. I should like to quote two of them briefly because they speak with the authority of first-hand knowledge and the authenticity of personal experience.
It may be that such fears are unwarranted and groundless, as the noble and gallant Lord has indicated. It may be that the Government's proposals will work for the benefit of servicemen, women and their families. But perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Minister, why such fears have been allowed to become so widespread? What consultation has there been with all those concerned? What information has been made available concerning the details of the impact of these proposals on wives and families? Why do so many feel like this wife, who claims:
Wives have been treated with contempt. I understand that members of the MoD housing panel were not given details of the proposals concerning the sale of homes because they were "commercially confidential" matters. Subsequently they were accused of incomprehensible obduracy. Will my noble friend the Minister give an undertaking that all the facts will be made available and that full consultation will be ensured on the basis of those facts?
Finally, before I sit down, perhaps I may point out that such concerns may have wider repercussions. For example, if families fear that the proposed developments will lead to even more moves, or to moving families away from husbands and fathers so that family life becomes even more disrupted, morale will be damaged. Such fears may also encourage families to take out mortgages to buy their own homes in order to provide at least some stability. But that will be at the cost of even more separation from the husband and father of the family, and may lead to more stressful and broken marriages. Also, morale may be so damaged that retention of servicemen may be adversely affected and that in turn will affect recruitment and the defence of the realm.
It cannot be said too often that this country has Armed Forces of which we should be proud and to which we should be grateful. I am deeply saddened to learn of these developments which have caused such hurt and anxiety to servicemen and women and their families. They deserve better treatment than this, especially from a Government who purport to place defence and family life high among their priorities. I hope very much that my noble friend the Minister will be able to promise the thorough and wide-ranging consultation needed to gain the confidence of all those who will be affected by proposals which have already caused such widespread anxiety, hurt and dismay.
Unless my noble friend the Minister can convince my noble friend Lady Park on this matter, I hope that your Lordships will support the amendment standing in her name. If he can give those undertakings he will be doing a service to the Armed Forces and their families, to whom we and the country owe so much and who deserve all the support which we can give them.
Baroness Strange: My Lords, I wish briefly to support my noble friend's amendment and apologise that I was not present to hear her speak. I was in Westminster Abbey for the Royal British Legion's service for its 75th anniversary. I only just tore off my hat as I came dashing in. As others of your Lordships who were there will be aware, it was a very moving service. The former Dean of Windsor, the very Reverend Dr. Michael Mann, said that we were surrounded by clouds of witnesses of servicemen who had served their country and were not now with us. So we are here.
I deeply honour and respect my noble friend the Minister and I am Conservative through and through--to my backbone and beyond. But I cannot help feeling that the whole of this proposition is paved with good intentions like the way to Hell!
My parents once had a milk round. When they were hit by financial necessity, as everyone is from time to time, they sold it to someone else. Of course, there were bits of the milk round which were very profitable (such as delivering in the villages) but there were also bits which were not (such as delivering milk to the outlying farms and cottages in the hills). When my parents sold the milk round they extracted guarantees from the buyers that they would still supply milk to those from whom they made a loss. As soon as the sale was completed the guarantees were dropped and the service was stopped. Guarantees have a strange way of vanishing.
Twenty-five years may seem a long time. It is a short time in the life of a tree. It is a short time in the life of a nation. Some of us may not be here in 25 years' time. We owe much to our Armed Forces. We are all supported by their service and their sacrifice. Let us now support them and not throw away the substance for the shadow.
Viscount Mountgarret: My Lords, I am sure that the proposals announced on 28th November have a great deal of merit. I am also sure that those who believe otherwise have a strong argument, too, not least the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. He is in the fortunate position of being able to speak from personal and present circumstances with freedom, unlike some of his colleagues who, as the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, rightly pointed out, have difficulty in reconciling their positions as politicians and servicemen.
I am concerned not so much with the merits of the case because I frankly admit that I am not qualified to comment upon them. I do not have the necessary experience. However, I am concerned about the constitutional position. I expect that I shall be corrected, but I do not remember during the 30 years in which I have had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships' House more than one occasion on which extra strong government requests for assistance have been made in respect of a matter which has never been considered by the elected Chamber.
Only a week ago we debated firmly and interestingly the constitutional position of your Lordships' House. Quite rightly, more than one speaker defended the position of the hereditary peerage and the contribution that it can make to your Lordships' House and to the country as a whole. However, there were those--and if Hansard is read your Lordships will see that I was one--who regretted the position whereby it is possible for a Conservative Government to call on the unqualified support of many Members of this House who for very good reasons, I am sure, are often absent from our debates. Therefore, one questions whether or not a privilege is being abused. That is a matter which gives me great concern and I should like to see it reformed.
That is the constitutional matter and perhaps I may now return to the matter before us. I believe that it is wrong for the Government to ask your Lordships' House to take a decision which would deny another place from considering this most important and, I can understand, contentious matter. I ask your Lordships to consider
This is the wrong position for your Lordships' House to be in. I believe that the correct course is to give another place the opportunity of considering, by way of consideration of Lords' amendments, the proposal of my noble friend. If there is agreement in another place with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State's proposals, then, when the matter again comes before your Lordships' House and there seems to be a considerable amount of public concern--opinions in the tabloid press, and so on--it will be right and proper for the Government at that time to encourage maximum support. In that way we ensure that government business goes ahead; we are not frustrating it unreasonably.
I am very concerned about the constitutional position. I shall listen with the greatest interest to my noble friend's reply but unless I can be satisfied I shall have the greatest difficulty in supporting the Government.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I have heard the case for the amendment and I agree with it. I do not intend to repeat it. I rise only to welcome the interesting point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret.
This House has been warmly praised from the Conservative Benches in the last few months for its ability to check the Executive. I am not sure that we should be flattered. It makes me feel a little like the cat that is praised by the mice. It is all very well to check the Executive when the Executive does not mind. What is really important is to check the Executive when the Executive does mind. When we fail to do that, it is quoted against us--not by me, I hasten to say--as a reason for arguing that we do not earn our keep. I do not want this amendment to be such an occasion, and I am grateful to the noble Viscount for saying what he said.
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