Strategic Defence and Security Review — Motion to Take Note
Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde (Labour)
My Lords, perhaps I should start by declaring an interest as a former chairman of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and a current vice-president of the War Widows Association. I shall concentrate my remarks on personnel issues in the Armed Forces. I regretted very much that the review, although referring to personnel, did not refer in as much detail as did the 1998 review to the issue of personnel, their careers and training and family matters.
This is the first major debate on defence that I can recall when we are missing Baroness Park of Monmouth, who was a substantial and ongoing supporter of personnel in the Armed Forces. Although we were on different sides of the political divide, we had no differences at all in the commitment and understanding, which she had, of the Armed Forces. I welcome very much the important contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Brompton.
We reflect today on the report of the loss of another one of our service personnel in Scott Hughes. That family this weekend must be trying to come to terms with the heartbreak of the loss of one of their family as a result of service to the nation. But we should bear in mind that it is not what we say about personnel that matters, but what we do and what the record shows that we have done as politicians, as government and ex-government, in support of personnel. I was considering that when I read the report in June of the Prime Minister's commitment to have a military covenant made a legal document. I welcome that, but I would not welcome it too much until I see what is going to be in it, as it is not what you say but what you do.
The previous Government have taken quite a lot of criticism. It has become almost a mantra to blame them for all our ills today, and only history will put that record straight. As for the military covenant, as we are now calling it, the previous Government did a lot on school admissions and introduced for spouses credits and national insurance so they did not lose out when they went abroad with serving personnel. We also had major changes on pensions. For the first time, we treated widows as members in their own right of the Armed Forces pension scheme. Those kinds of improvements and changes make it clear that you mean what you say.
I welcome the Government's decision to double the operational allowance for service personnel in Afghanistan, but there is much that I do not welcome. The strategic defence review of 1998 substantially covered personnel and carried through. I recall it being introduced at that time by a new Government who were looking at defence strategy and the previous Government having the record for the previous three years of giving Armed Forces personnel a split reward. That did not meet the recommendation of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, but cut it in two, which had an impact on their pay that year and an ongoing impact on their pensions from the state when they retired. That is not meeting the military covenant.
In this review, paragraph 2.B.3 states:
"We cannot shield the armed forces from the consequences of the economic circumstances".
Why not? They are in a very special position. They are prepared to give up their lives-the ultimate price that any individual or a family can pay. Why does a group of people who are by no measure regarded as highly paid have to face those consequences? For me, the question is: do the Government intend or have it in mind, first, to change the remit of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body-a very independent body-and, secondly, possibly to stage the pay award which may be agreed and recommended by that body in a few months' time?
Paragraph 2.B.7 says that there will be,
"a different approach to ... accommodation".
I welcome the Hew Strachan review and hope that we will be able to have a debate on it, but we know that accommodation and its quality-or lack of it, in many areas-was a thorn in the side of the previous Government, as it certainly is in the side of this Government. What does that imply regarding a change in accommodation? Certainly, that is, again, a poor area for service families. Servicemen and women go off to war, on operations or training, and their families are left living in some pretty awful conditions, much of which has been improved but with much still to be done. The previous Government invested an awful lot of money in improving accommodation.
I shall mention two other areas. Last year, we spent a lot of time in this House discussing the Coroners and Justice Bill. Within that, a number of us across the House-including the Minister on the Front Bench today-supported the changes that we sought regarding the inquests for Armed Forces personnel. The Bill was amended to provide for a chief coroner. It addressed the inquest issues that we had, about inquests taking as long as two years in some cases, and made them much friendlier to users and their families. The Government have now announced that they are abolishing the chief coroner's role under the Public Bodies Bill which they have now brought forward. The British Legion said-I will leave it at this-that it thought that was a betrayal of what was agreed across parties by the previous Government. I want to thank the noble Lords on the Conservative Benches opposite who helped us to get those changes through, so I do not understand why the Government have now gone back on that.
My final point is in regard to the war widows. On the cusp at the end of the previous Government, it was agreed-but we never had time to implement it-that the pre-1975 war widows would not lose their meagre pension when they remarried. In fact, if their second husband died they had to go through a means test to get that pension back. It was agreed that that would finish and that they would not lose their pension. The cost was speculative, but we would be dealing with a very old age group. We were possibly dealing with £80 million over three or four decades-as low as £1 million a year, possibly, or as high as £4 million. Now the Government have said that they are not going to do that. I link that with the point which my noble friend Lord Hutton made in his admirable maiden speech about the change in pensions.
The military covenant has to be one which is enduring, which goes through the good times and the bad without impacting unfairly on our Armed Forces personnel. I close by asking the Minister whether, when we have the Hew Strachan review during the latter part of this month, we can have a debate on that. Can we also have a debate specifically on personnel in the Armed Forces, rather than the situation which we have today? I understand and welcome it, but this is about the whole review and with the concentration on the hardware and on a lot of issues which, while touching on the Armed Forces personnel, is not about their overall well-being or how we treat them. I would very much welcome indeed the opportunity to have an in-depth debate on those issues.