Volunteer Forces (Pay and Compensation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:49 am on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North 12:49 am, 19th December 1990

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) delivered his speech with admirable brevity and succinctness. He having demonstrated that self-discipline, I would not dream of making a longer speech. I shall not, however, apologise for intervening in the debate because of the lateness of the hour. It may be 12.49 am here and we may be up late, but there are members of our forces in the Gulf who will be up all night tonight and all night tomorrow night. At 4 am, as it is in the Gulf, they would regard it as less than their due if we were to be apologetic for debating such an important issue at this hour.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury on raising the matter of the pay and compensation of our volunteer forces. His interest in and knowledge of such matters is well known. I heard testimony of that yet again this evening, when I had the privilege to host a dinner for the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The name which came up for mention was that of the hon. Gentleman. It was possible to bring together some old comrades in arms before the debate began.

I recall that the hon. Member for Canterbury participated in a debate on the Armed Forces Bill on 21 November, which was the first debate in which I spoke from the Opposition Dispatch Box. Like us all, the hon. Gentleman gets the occasional fact wrong, but that does not detract from his considerable expertise and knowledge.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was taking up a narrow or small point. That may be true, but only in the sense that the tip of an iceberg is a narrow or small point. It represents a much larger issue that lies beneath the surface, which is the view that we take of those who volunteer to serve in our armed forces. During a week when events have underlined once again the importance to Britain of its volunteer forces, it is fitting and proper that we should be concerned about the conditions in which they operate and the protection they are afforded by the state.

The issue which the hon. Gentleman has raised is a valid one: why, when people volunteer their services to their country, should they face the prospect of physical discomfort and financial disadvantage? The present position, perhaps by anomaly rather than design, is nothing more or less than a penalty on patriotism. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is possible for a volunteer to give up a highly paid position to serve in the forces. If he is subsequently injured or incapacitated, he can—this has happened to many such people—suffer prolonged financial loss and, in some instances, financial hardship. That is the result of an anomaly in the regulations. Surely that cannot be right. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman suggested that he believes that the Government have some sympathy for his argument. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

I urge the Government to give the matter urgent consideration. I hope that the Minister will, if possible, give specific answers to the three specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Canterbury. For the purpose of brevity, I shall speak only in general terms, but I shall advance three reasons to support my argument, unlike the two outlined by the hon. Gentleman.

First, his case stands on its merits. There is an injustice and, as I have said, a penalty on patriotism, when a man or woman is penalised financially in addition to any injury that he or she may sustain as a result of volunteering to serve in the forces of the Crown.

Secondly, the anomaly requires urgent consideration. At this moment, the Government are urging volunteers to enlist in view of the Gulf crisis. Earlier in the week, they attempted to ease the recruitment of specialist volunteers —many of those people, because of the specialist nature of their jobs, are in highly paid positions in civilian life—by guaranteeing job security. Even on the most cynical approach, the question of recruitment requires immediate attention. The existence of such an anomaly can hardly be conducive to volunteer recruitment during the Gulf crisis.

There is a deeper and more worthy consideration. It would surely be unthinkable that in the awful event of, God forbid, hostilities breaking out in the Gulf, some of those who volunteer and who may be injured might face financial penalties in addition to any personal injury.

I believe that a longer-term consideration is also involved. The outcome of "Options for Change" is still unknown, but one thing is certain—whatever happens, there will be a heavier and increasing dependence on reserve forces. Incidentally, that is something that the Labour party has advocated for a number of years. It is therefore essential that barriers to volunteer recruitment, such as that anomaly, are finally swept away.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury. He and I, and, I hope, the Minister, are tonight speaking of volunteers for our reserve forces, who rarely ask what their country can do for them. Indeed, sometimes they do not even ask what they can do for their country. They just know it instinctively, and they do it. It is fitting that, in the present circumstances, we should ask tonight what we can do for them.