Armed Forces Personnel

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 6th July 2006.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence) 2:09 pm, 6th July 2006

I congratulate Mr. Touhig not only on what he said today but on his time as a Minister. I thank him for his support for the armed forces and for his responses to issues that I raised with him.

It is a special honour and privilege to be a Member of Parliament for a garrison town. Although my tributes today are given generally to all sectors of Her Majesty's armed forces both at home and overseas, I hope I shall be forgiven if I make special mention of those from the Colchester garrison. Many of them are currently serving in Afghanistan, and although we still await details of the soldier who was killed yesterday we know that he was a member of 3rd Para battle group and the sixth person to have lost his life over the past three or four weeks. I fear that he is a member of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment.

Last month, the Prime Minister paid tribute to an officer from 3rd Para who had been killed in Afghanistan and the whole House joined in those tributes, as indeed we have for others who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The week before that officer was killed, I attended a memorial service at the garrison church in Colchester for two members of 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment who had been killed in Iraq. Troops from Colchester have served in both those conflicts and lives have been lost. I pay tribute to them and to the wider Army family.

As the Secretary of State said in his speech, members of Her Majesty's armed forces are operating in 15 countries, of which two—Afghanistan and Iraq—are in the headlines. I will try not to move too far into operational matters because the debate is about armed forces personnel, so I shall try to concentrate my remarks on retention and recruitment and getting a fair, or fairer, deal for the armed forces.

I draw the attention of the House to the answer to a parliamentary question I tabled last month. Between 9 and 10 per cent. of the British Army are not British citizens. Citizens of 57 countries currently serve in the British Army. Alphabetically, they range from 75 Australians to 565 Zimbabweans. There are 1,995 soldiers from Fiji, 660 from Ghana, 975 from Jamaica, 720 from South Africa, 225 from St. Lucia and 280 from St. Vincent.

I want to mention especially the island of St. Helena, population 4,000, which has 20 soldiers in the British Army. It provides our Army with more people per head of population than any other part of the world. I draw attention to early-day motion 2403, because next year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war. Citizens of St Helena have been denied the award of the south Atlantic medal, even though the island is in the south Atlantic and its citizens volunteered to support the British Government in the recovery of the Falklands islands. They served on RMS St. Helena, but because the vessel was not inside the exclusion zone long enough, they did not qualify for the medal for operational reasons. I hope that the Government, perhaps through the medals committee, can find a way to rectify that slight. Those people volunteered when this country called on them to serve Queen and country; the least we can do is award them the medal to which most fair-minded people would think they were entitled.

The defence White Paper proposed key changes to cope with this country's commitments at home and overseas, which then predated Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the White Paper, there have been reductions in manpower requirements, recruitment and retention difficulties and increased demands on our armed forces. Those are challenges, to put it kindly. Some of us refer to overstretch and some to additional commitments, but the MOD should look again at the White Paper in the light of what has happened since it was published.

The size of the Army was deliberately reduced, but full recruitment has still not been achieved, despite that reduction. There have also been reductions in the personnel of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. In the light of current commitments and developments, we need to consider whether the size of Her Majesty's armed forces is sufficient for today's demands.

Recruitment from civilian life to UK regular forces has dropped substantially. As I indicated, between 9 and 10 per cent. of the British Army is not British. Constituents serving in the Army have told me that they would like to be British. I am thinking particularly of a Fijian solider who is proud to serve in the British Army—but, as he says, he would be even prouder if he could be British in the British Army. However, he cannot apply to become a British citizen without first leaving the Army. I appreciate that the issue is not for the MOD to resolve, but I hope that in a spirit of joined-up government other arms of the Government will find a way to enable people who are prepared to risk their lives for this country to become British citizens.

We need to look at retention and recruitment in equal measure. With that in mind, I was interested to hear about the housing issues raised by Opposition Front Benchers. Many of us recall that part of the root cause of the housing problem for married personnel was the sale by the last Government of family housing to Annington Homes at a ridiculously low price. Last year, for example, Annington sold 40 family houses, which previously belonged to the MOD, at a gross profit per dwelling of £100,000—a gross profit of £4 million. The company owns hundreds of similar homes and has demolished former MOD houses to create building sites on which it has built new houses. It is making a financial killing.

There is a case for the National Audit Office, or for the Select Committee on Defence or somebody in the Government or Government agencies, to look again at that privatisation and its consequences, because while Annington Homes was selling off allegedly surplus properties, the MOD—as was confirmed in a written answer last week—is renting between 50 and 60 family houses from the private sector in a town where there is a housing crisis. It is extraordinary that empty Army houses are being sold by their private owner, Annington Homes, which is making a financial killing, while the MOD is having to rent houses from the private sector because it does not have enough accommodation in a town with a housing crisis. That shows a lack of joined-up thinking.

The Minister has confirmed that there is much to be done to improve the quality of the housing stock for married families. I am delighted, however, by the assurance that the new Colchester garrison will have sufficient single persons' accommodation. I hope that that turns out to be true, and I look forward to the release of the other private rented houses to the public sector, so that the 50 families in the private sector will be housed.

Council tax is another issue that, if dealt with, would help to create a climate in which we respect soldiers and encourage them to remain in the Army. While they reside in this country, we would expect them to pay council tax, but it is absurd that, when they are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they are still required to pay council tax. A private citizen who is sent to prison is exempt from council tax, yet we expect soldiers sent to Afghanistan and Iraq to pay council tax.

Many children of military personnel attend schools that are predominantly occupied by the children of service families. I am advised that the figure can be as high as 100 per cent. in some parts of the country. Although the percentages for the five schools in the Colchester garrison area are anything up to 80 or 85 per cent, they do not quite hit 100 per cent. Detailed surveys have been carried out into the associated turbulence factor.

I am delighted that the Defence Committee is reviewing defence schools. Although those schools are the responsibility of the local education authority, they are predominantly filled by the children of military personnel. Again, to return to the concept of joined-up government, although the Ministry of Defence has very good education support people—I pay tribute to them—I feel that it and the Department for Education and Skills need to take due note that factors exist in schools attended by large numbers of children from service families that do not exist in other state schools.

I am reminded that the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Clarke, visited Colchester a couple of years ago and assured the chairmen and head teachers of the Army schools there that additional funding would be provided. They are still waiting for the cheque. It has not materialised. That is of considerable concern.

Like all three right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far, I pay tribute to the welfare and support services provided to military families and individual soldiers. Whether those services come from the Ministry of Defence itself or the voluntary sector, I am always impressed by the fantastic support that our military personnel receive from the family support groups and everyone else. It is quite remarkable, particularly at times of conflict when the whole community seems to rally round and provide support.

I also pay tribute to the civilian work force. However, the Government's enthusiasm for privatising and outsourcing does not give much encouragement that the MOD understands the importance of loyalty to the work force. I urge the Minister to reflect on whether the MOD's policy of continuing to go down the privatisation and outsourcing route is necessarily the right one.

Shortages in covering certain trades—the Royal Engineers, the Royal Signals, the Intelligence Corps and the Army medical services—have been alluded to. In the case of the Army medical services, I am sure that the Minister will observe that there is a continued inheritance from decisions made upwards of 10 years ago. Nevertheless, the shortages have yet to be addressed. I should like to put it on record that we recognise that men and women who are deployed, particularly overseas, deserve the highest quality of medical care that our country can provide. That care is provided by the doctors and others in Defence Medical Services and reserve services, and it is right that we mention the reserve forces, because we rely as much on the volunteers and TA support as we do on full-time military medical people.

Unfortunately, to date, the announcement of this year's pay award for armed forces doctors is still awaited. I understand that, over the past year, the British Medical Association's armed forces committee has worked closely with the Defence Medical Services directorate to provide matching evidence to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. That evidence was based on hard data comparing what can be earned by consultants in the NHS and by their military counterparts.

I understand that a 6.6 per cent. uplift in pay for armed forces doctors is required in addition to the Doctors and Dentists Review Body pay award of 2.2 per cent. to help to close the significant gap between the NHS and earnings in Defence Medical Services. There are fears that, unless the pay scales are brought closer together, many of those doctors, who are the military's deployable medical experts, will resign from the armed forces to go into significantly better paid NHS posts, where they will not suffer from the added turbulence of repeated deployments. Military reservists who are ordinary consultants and general practitioners give up a substantial amount of time and, in some cases, earnings to serve their country, and their contribution to operations is crucial. I hope that that aspect will be dealt with.

I am aware that many other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, and I shall conclude by saying that, although we all value our armed forces, the Government need to look again at whether the reduction in numbers in the Army, Air Force and Navy is correct in the light of new commitments and new risks around the world. The Government should consider whether those numbers should be increased, alongside the need to keep on the pressure in respect of some of the aspects that I have mentioned, so that married personnel feel more comfortable in remaining with Her Majesty's armed forces, rather than leaving them, and we all have a part to play in recruitment.

I certainly take on board the point that, because of contractions, the footprint of the armed forces in the United Kingdom is getting smaller and smaller. Although garrison towns such as Colchester are seeing a growth in the Territorial Army, there are many parts of the country where the TA no longer exists. Perhaps for wider public consumption we need to have more military outposts in the United Kingdom so that people can more readily identify with the armed forces.

Annotations

Anthony Bell
Posted on 24 Jul 2006 6:26 pm (Report this annotation)

With respect to the award of the South Atlantic medal to those qualifying on St Helena.

The Defence Council Instruction (DCI) also omitted those Royal Navy personnel serving in the SOUTHAMPTON Group of warships (including HMS BIRMINGHAM). Despite HMS BIRMINGHAM having been called, on a number of occasions, to Action Stations in response to the threat at the time, the personnel serving in HMS BIRMINGHAM were not included in the DCI for the award of the South Atlantic medal. I believe that at the time the Captains of those warships in the SOUTHAMPTON Group made representations to the Admiralty about the omission but no action was taken to rectify the omission since the DCI had been isssued and it would be an admission of having made a mistake.

Mr AT Bell

Anthony Bell
Posted on 24 Jul 2006 6:29 pm (Report this annotation)

As an addendum to my comment posted on 24 Jul 06, should the Ministry of Defence decide to retrospectively award the South Atlantic medal to those serving in St Helena, they should strongly consider those service personnel serving in the SOUTHAMPTON Group of HM warships, including HMS BIRMINGHAM.

Mr AT Bell