Defence Policy

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 6:06 pm on 16th October 2007.

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Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Labour, Islwyn 6:06 pm, 16th October 2007

The public will judge the Conservatives' reaction on that day; I have no doubt that a harsh judgment will be made on that party.

The conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has meant that we are asking servicemen and women to do more than ever before, placing greater demands on them and their families. In return, therefore, we have to take on board an even greater duty to support them. I have always held the view that joining the armed forces is not like taking a job at Barclays bank or Tesco. Those who volunteer to serve their country are joining an organisation that may require them to put their life on the line, as has so tragically happened in Iraq and Afghanistan these past few years. In return for their commitment, it is our duty to ensure that they are well motivated, well trained, and equipped and protected to do the job that we ask of them. That is our true covenant with the armed forces.

In return for the service that our forces give, Britain owes them only the very best. I am talking not simply about the best training and equipment, but about the best accommodation and support for them and their families. It is important that families are given support.

When I served as a defence Minister, my mission statement was simple: we will value our servicemen, servicewomen and their families, our reserves, cadets their employers and their families, our veterans, their widows and their families, and we will do everything in our power to demonstrate that. That idea should run throughout our approach to our support for the armed forces.

I could not speak of the value agenda without mentioning the campaign by veterans who fought in Malaysia to be allowed to wear the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal. I have tabled early-day motion 356 on that and hon. Members on both sides of the House have generously supported it. However, we have to do more. We have a duty to honour the commitment of the 35,000 of our boys who fought in the jungles of Malaysia. They earned that medal and they have the right to wear it. A greater degree of honour falls on them than on the members of the honours and decorations committee who are resisting the legitimate request to wear that medal. I wonder how many of those who serve on that committee served in the jungle. Probably the only jungle they know is the jungle around Whitehall.

The value agenda should run right through the whole of our forces, from cadets to veterans, and even beyond, to our service families. Service families are very important. They really are the rock on which our people rely for support. If the families back home are happy, content and supported, the boys whom we deploy in many theatres of conflict are happy, too. Like everyone else, our servicemen and women cannot give their best in operations if they are worried about things at home. So it should be an absolute priority that servicemen and their families have the support and help they need and deserve.

The absolute cornerstone of that is service accommodation. Armed forces personnel and their families deserve decent accommodation. Those serving must be secure in the knowledge that their families are housed in accommodation on a par with the very best on offer in Britain. While I know that the MOD is committed to improving accommodation, and some £700 million has already been spent on housing and other living accommodation, much more needs to be done.

I occasionally smile to myself when I hear present—and yes, former—senior defence chiefs calling for more to be done to improve service family accommodation. I pressed for that, as a Minister in the MOD between 2005 and 2006, but I do not recall receiving any support from those individuals. Indeed, it was Ministers in the MOD who expressed the greatest concern about service family accommodation, not the senior officers.

I believe that the MOD plans to spend £5 billion in the next decade and that will help, but I have one piece of advice for my successor, who takes a very real interest in this matter. He should watch his back when it comes to determining priorities. He will have to fight his corner for funding for service family accommodation, and he will find his opponents pretty formidable.

There is no quick fix. The legacy of underfunding inherited from the previous Government means that we are tackling shortcomings that will take considerable time to resolve. It is a bit rich for the Conservatives to claim the moral high ground on the issue when it was their policy of slashing the defence budget that led to service family housing being in the poor state of repair that it is in now. Indeed, there is no more pathetic sight than the Tories trying to pitch their tent on the moral high ground. When it comes to our armed forces, they had no idea when in government and they have no credibility now. Their record speaks for itself.

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Caroline Taylor
Posted on 17 Oct 2007 1:19 pm (Report this annotation)

I totally agree with Don, as an army wife it makes a huge difference if families are looked after and happy and this reflects on their partners when they speak to them. There's nothing worse than a phone call full of complaints about what's wrong with the house and problems getting repairs done, and at the end of the day our soldiers rely on the support of their families to keep them going, without that i'm pretty sure moral would be low! Service families are not properly looked after not just with housing but the service community spirit has gone and there isn't the same closeness there used to be. I've grown up in service life as my Dad was in the RAF so i've seen both sides of it. The army are not looked after as well as the RAF and i think it's dispicable how poorly they are treated. We are supposed to be proud of our soldiers and what they stand for but this is not reflected in the support they are given. Nowadays it appears that the MOD would prefer our soldiers to be single and do not encourage the family life..... this idea however is flawed from the start, the majority still have parents, brothers and sisters, Grandma's and Grandpa's, things that can't be taken away. So discouraging marriage is naive to say the least. Is is not known that divorce within the service community is sky high..... does anyone question why that is? Does anyone ask the wives and children of service personnel what things they would like help with. Is there consideration for children's behaviour when parents go away? Not only are they missing out on a parent for half a year at a a time but the worry and stress of something happening to them. Where is the support then? They're expected to get on with it... these are children!

Gerald Law
Posted on 17 Oct 2007 5:12 pm (Report this annotation)

Mr Touhig's comments are honourable and to the point. The Malaysian Veterans only ask that in their twilight years (they are mostly in their 70 and 80's), they be allowed to formally wear their Pingat Jasa Malaysia. In a few weeks time those Veterans will be remembering their fallen comrades at ceremonies up and down the land. But an out of touch and outmoded decision-making body of non-elected Civil Servants are able to ban them from so doing. Meanwhile ,they have granted themselves unrestricted acceptance of the Antigua and Barbuda 25th Anniversary Medal. Not won in the hostile jungles of Malaysia but behind their desks in deepest Whitehall. What do the Veterans have to do to get justice done in a nation that prides itself on being democratic but in reality is ruled by an elite class of people. Let's not forget that they are called Servants for a reason - to serve. And that means to serve us and not themselves. Mr Touhig will always be able to hold his head high in the company of the Veterans. The same cannot be said of many of his colleagues or of those in Whitehall who delight in slighting the sacrifices made 50 years ago.
Gerald Law