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I beg to move,
That this House
notes the commitment, bravery and professionalism of the UK's armed forces in operations around the world;
further notes with concern the detrimental impact that sustained operations on two fronts are having on the armed forces and their capabilities, resulting in critical overstretch;
believes that the Government should conduct a new strategic defence review and reinforce it with regular reviews of defence after each general election;
urges the Government to do more to honour its duty of care, notably through accelerating the improvement and upgrading of service accommodation, providing greater provisions for mental health and medical care for service personnel, ring-fencing the defence budget for welfare and introducing a Coroners Bill to help address delays in inquests into military fatalities;
and calls on the Government to renew the Military Covenant and set up a cross-party Military Covenant Committee to monitor the state of the armed forces and their welfare.
I very much welcome the opportunity to have this debate on the military covenant, and it is apt that it should directly follow the Prime Minister's statement on action in Afghanistan. I start by paying tribute to all our service personnel. It was clear from the statement that Members on both sides of this House are united in recognising the professionalism, courage and bravery of the world-class fighting force that constitutes the British armed forces. We pay tribute to them and to the veterans who have served before them.
This has been an eventful week with the recapture of Musa Qala and the handover of Basra province to the Iraqi authorities, which took place, at last, a few days ago. We should acknowledge the success of the British troops, working alongside our allies, in both those theatres and we should recognise the honour and the duty that we owe them in the light of all that. The military covenant, and the commitment that it implies, extends not only to the troops but to their families. As Christmas approaches, we should remember that many families will be apart, and that people will be anxious and lonely on account of that. We should think of the families as well as the troops.
That is what the military covenant is all about—the implicit two-way trust and bond between the armed services and the nation. Members of the armed forces put their lives on the line and risk everything for the nation, and in return the nation has a duty to look after them, ensure that they are in a position to do the job that is asked of them and give them the assurance that when they are risking everything in operational theatre their families are being looked after adequately back at home. In that sense, it is clear that more remains to be done.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the interviews that were conducted by the Ministry of Defence at the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders' barracks in Canterbury during the summer? The feedback contained a litany of criticism, including complaints about partners being deployed for too long and people's pay being regularly messed up, and about a cut in the financial assistance for people travelling back to Scotland from their barracks in Kent. Are those not the kind of shortcomings that need to be sorted out?
I am sure that such shortcomings do need to be sorted out. The first of those—the too frequent deployment of the armed forces—is certainly worthy of our attention. It is well documented that our armed forces are very stretched. We have not, as yet, prised the word "overstretch" from the lips of any Minister, but senior officers and some of the defence chiefs are less reticent about acknowledging that we are asking an awful lot of the troops, and that that constitutes overstretch. For several years the defence planning assumptions have been exceeded and the harmony guidelines, which determine or indicate how frequently the armed forces should be out on active duty—six months in every three years—have been habitually broken. The hon. Gentleman refers to exactly that point when he tells us about the feedback from families. This is a serious issue and the situation cannot go on as it is. If it does, in the words of General Sir Richard Dannatt, there is a distinct danger that we could "break" the Army.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that things are not as bad as some people would have us believe? A recent independent survey carried out for the Ministry of Defence said that 92 per cent. of Army officers and 79 per cent. of other ranks felt proud to be in the Army.
The hon. Gentleman has heard the reaction of the House. Someone's pride in being a member of the armed forces and their satisfaction with their lot across a wide front are two very different things. I am picking up on the latter point, which is the subject of this debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what most damages our forces, especially when they are on deployment, is the thought that their pay and allowances are not being put into their family's accounts to meet their requirements —as happened to a constituent of mine—and the failure of the joint personnel administration scheme?
There has been a series of difficulties with the transfer to the joint personnel administration. Possibly my hon. Friend goes too far by badging the whole thing as a failure, but teething problems have arisen as it has been rolled out across the armed forces. Mess-ups in the pay arrangements are hard to bear on top of everything else, but I pay tribute to those who have done their utmost to put those right as quickly as they can. As time goes on, the purpose of the JPA will be fulfilled, and it will result in an improvement across the piece in the long run.
Part of the problem is that engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be longer and more hostile than originally anticipated. The Prime Minister reiterated today that we are in Afghanistan for the long haul. There is a consensus across this House that that is the right approach and that, for the reasons articulated today, this is something that we must do. It will remain a serious burden on, and challenge for, our armed forces for many years to come. We must try to ensure that that long-term commitment does not mean that deployments abroad are longer and more frequent than they should be. That is one of the key senses in which the military covenant is being broken, and there is quite a lot of agreement in this House about that. Even the Government have acknowledged that there is some way to go and that more will need to be done. This autumn, the Royal British Legion launched its campaign to honour the covenant, and that has played a useful part in raising public awareness of these problems and concentrating the minds of the political community.
On that campaign, does my hon. Friend agree that probably every Member of this House regularly receives representations from constituents who have served in the armed forces and suffered as a consequence? In some cases, people have suffered loss of hearing from long exposure to blasts. Yet such people are often denied pensions or compensation—indeed, the MOD spends considerable sums denying any kind of connected responsibility. Does he agree that that matter ought to be part of the covenant and that it should be recognised that if one has a disability as a result of serving in the armed forces, one should get proper compensation?
In principle, that is supposed to happen. The whole point of the military pension is that, in principle, it recognises and acknowledges exactly those points and makes some ongoing remuneration to cover them. I come across those who are dissatisfied with the military pension award that they have received, as I am sure other hon. Members do. There sometimes seems to be a difference in attitude between how the British face up to things such as Gulf war syndrome and the approach taken by the Americans and other of our allies. They tend to be far more ready to acknowledge things and to step in to offer remedy.
Was it not the Labour Government who brought in the armed forces compensation scheme in the last Parliament, which for the first time introduced lump sum payments for those injured in battle? That was not opposed by the Liberal Democrats or by the British Legion, or even commented on at the time.
I am sure that nobody opposed that, as it was a worthwhile scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman and others will be aware of considerable dissatisfaction with the way it has worked in practice, in that those with compound injuries were compensated only for the most serious of them. The Government have announced some modifications to the scheme recently, and it remains to be seen how it will work in the future. It is a worthwhile scheme, but as yet it is not functioning satisfactorily.
My hon. Friend is right, and further improvement is clearly needed. The Government have said that they will introduce a new Command Paper to address the welfare of the armed forces. That is welcome, although I do not know when it will be published. We look forward to seeing their proposals and we welcome the fact that it must be implicit in their intention to introduce such a paper that they are acknowledging that a wide range of problems needs to be put right. I hope that there will not be too much delay before we can see that Command Paper and start debating it.
I welcome the debate launched by the Royal British Legion on this issue. I do not believe that the covenant has been broken, but we do have to do much more to improve it and to remain focused on it. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned several issues, including families and so on. I had the privilege of serving as the veterans Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could better address some of the issues if we had a separate veterans' department within the Ministry of Defence to work with organisations such as the Royal British Legion to focus the whole time on issues affecting veterans and ex-servicemen and women?
That would certainly be a welcome further development. We welcomed the creation of the Veterans Agency, but taking that distinction into the heart of Government would further improve the work of attending to the particular needs of veterans.
The Government are doing what they can to try to improve the lot of those on the front line. For example, they recently improved the parcels regime, so that more parcels get through to the troops on the front line. I recently heard from some serving troops in Iraq, who said that they were very grateful for the extra parcels from home, but there were some slight complaints that the Prime Minister's visit over the weekend meant that they were not able to use phones or the internet on Sunday night. That brings me to the thorny subject of the use of the internet and telephones.
The troops were promised free wi-fi by the end of this year, but that now seems to have been pushed back to April or May next year— [ Interruption. ] Well, that is what I have heard in the past day or two. At the moment, the troops have to pay £2.50 an hour in two-hour chunks for internet access. They get 30 minutes' free phone time a week, for which they are no doubt very grateful, but beyond that they have to pay £10 per 90 minutes. There is a concern that some front-line troops may end up in debt by having to pay for things that might well be regarded as basic welfare provision.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is precisely my point. I welcome the advances that have been made, but it would be in the spirit of the obligation for those things to be entirely free.
As we look forward to the next few years, to the financial commitments that we are promised and to the procurement budget, which appears to be in a state of flux, it is clear that we need another strategic defence review. I have made that point before, and received support for it from others. The last SDR was the best part of a decade ago, and the world today is very different in terms of the stresses and strains and the demands placed on our armed forces. Another SDR is long overdue, and if we are to better fulfil the military covenant and consider where our future priorities lie, it is an absolute necessity. We should get on with a new SDR now and we should also make a commitment to doing so regularly. The Americans have one every four years, and we should do so at least once a Parliament. I hope that the Government will give some thought to that.
In the past 12 months—and especially in the last few days—we have seen a great deal of coverage of service housing. In December last year, the former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, described forces accommodation as "frankly shaming", and there has certainly been an unfortunate catalogue of errors. Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers, the Adjutant-General, recently conceded that the Army has to fight for receipts from asset sales to be reinvested in the housing programme, but our armed forces should not have to lobby the Government for quality accommodation for themselves and their families. The Government should be on the front foot and provide it anyway.
Does my hon. Friend accept that before 1996, when the Ministry of Defence sold off any surplus housing or land, all the proceeds went into upgrading housing stock, but that following the privatisation by the Conservative Government, Annington Homes now reaps the benefit of those sales?
It certainly reaps most of the benefit, but the Annington deal was in 1996 and the present Government came to power in 1997. It is easy to blame the whole problem on the Annington deal, and it certainly was a rotten deal for the taxpayer, but since 1997 the Treasury has had huge capital receipts from the disposal of military assets and estates. If even a modest proportion of those receipts had been reinvested in the housing stock, it would not be in the sorry state it is today.
Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that one of the problems with the Annington Homes deal was that it tied the Ministry of Defence into a very bad deal that was entered into by the previous Conservative Government? If he is really concerned about it, has he thought about taking the matter up with his friend in the other place, Lord Owen, who is a consultant to Terra Firma, a company that has an interest in Annington Homes?
I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman's description of Lord Owen as a friend, because I do not think that he is any friend of ours. However, I look forward to hearing what he has to say on this matter.
The accommodation is in a bad way. Almost half the single living accommodation remains of the lowest standard—graded fourth out of 4—and only 18 per cent. is of the highest standard. The MOD itself estimates that even if current investment continues, 30 per cent. of the accommodation will remain at grades 3 or 4 after 2013. The Government do not have a sufficient sense of urgency. They are beginning to acknowledge the problem and are introducing programmes to try to address it, and I commend them for that. However, I do not think that adequate progress will be made or that the improvements that everybody wants and expects will be brought about on anything like a realistic or reasonable time scale.
May I point out that that is not the case across the UK? In Midlothian, £60 million has been invested in the past few years and we have satellite television and state-of-the-art houses for the Highland Regiment. The Government propose to amend the legislation to give service personnel equal footing on the housing list when they leave the forces. There could be cross-party agreement—I encourage those on the Front Benches to do more on this—on the idea that ex-servicemen returning from duties should be given not just an equal footing but priority by all local authorities.
I would imagine that we all agree that that is desirable. If it were not for the desperate housing shortage, I imagine that something more akin to that would happen.
Let me stick with the subject of housing. In its 2007 report, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body noted on the subject of the improvement programme for single living:
"The initial SLAM programme launched in 2001 was scheduled to deliver 26,000 bedspaces at a cost of £750 million. Latest estimates show allocated funding of just £463 million to deliver 12,000 bedspaces."
We have been falling behind on even the targets and programmes that the Ministry has established. Since 1997, the MOD has brought £2.2 billion into the Treasury through asset sales. In the year that the modernisation plan began, twice as much money went into the Treasury coffers from asset sales as went into improving soldiers' accommodation.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I agree with a lot of what he says about the inadequacy of single living accommodation and family accommodation. However, the MOD has put a lot of effort and finance into improving it. It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that when I was a Minister in the MOD responsible for those matters the former service chiefs and others whom we now pray in aid certainly never supported me when I said we should use the sale of assets to invest in accommodation for our servicemen. They may say that on television and radio now, but they never did a damn thing when they were in a position to do something about it.
I take the right hon. Gentleman's point. It is well made, and will be heard by some who serve in the armed forces. The Adjutant-General, Sir Freddie Viggers, has been willing to put his head above the parapet while he has been in post and say that too much accommodation is of a poor standard, too old or not modern enough in how it is fitted for families. We have a long way to go to bring about the improvement that we would want in the 41,000 units left in the estate.
It is worrying that an average of 20 per cent. of married quarters—this was covered on the radio this morning—are empty at any given time. It costs the Ministry money to pay the lease for properties that are not filled. I accept that when large numbers of people are moved around, as happens with the armed forces, a percentage of the properties will always be empty. That would probably be a higher percentage than would be experienced by a commercial landlord. Nevertheless, it seems an awful lot when we consider that the MOD is paying to rent family accommodation in the private sector at the same time.
The Ministry has told us that it would cost £750 million to bring all the family accommodation up to grade 1. It has also acknowledged that a minimum of £50 million will need to be spent each year to make the necessary improvements. The figures for 2006-07 show that the MOD did not spend anything like the £50 million that has been acknowledged to be necessary. The process, if it continues at the speed at which the work is being done and the money is being spent, rather than the speed that is being talked about, will take almost 50 years unless the MOD can improve radically on its performance in 2006-07. There is a long way to go.
The contract to deal with repairs and complaints was given to the contractor, MODern Housing Solutions—MHS. In the year from March 2006 to March 2007, MHS received almost 9,000 complaints. The call centre received some 200,000 repair call-out calls in that year and dropped almost 9 per cent. while people were hanging on at the other end. It is no wonder that the families of our armed forces are getting somewhat exasperated wondering when essential repairs will be conducted, particularly when they involve ageing boilers in need of repair in the depths of winter. The situation was summed up well by General Sir Michael Rose when he said recently that
"the system for the repair and maintenance of quarters has been repeatedly altered—something that has resulted in a much worse service for the soldiers... sub-contracting to commercial companies who have little understanding of the predicament of soldiers or their families has resulted in a bureaucratic nightmare which serves neither the soldiers nor the taxpayer."
It is perfectly clear that there is a long way to go.
My other major point concerns medical care. I recognise and acknowledge the vital role of the military ward at Selly Oak hospital and the extraordinary quality of the medical expertise available there. It is clear that that is now a world-class service and, combined with some good medical care in the operational theatres, it means that people are now surviving who previously would not have done so. That said, they are often seriously incapacitated following the initial acute interventions.
It is the quality of the care afterwards that is so often criticised and that many believe to be lacking. [ Interruption. ] It is criticised by families and, occasionally, by the victims themselves. I have spoken to some of them individually. They are very appreciative of the high quality of medical care available at Selly Oak. It is clear that their aftercare, when they can be pushed back into different parts of the UK, does not match the high standard that they have experienced at Selly Oak. I am surprised that Ministers are pulling a slight face at that, because many people have commented on it and would recognise it as being the case.
Some hon. Members are being critical of what my hon. Friend has to say, but they might be interested in the comments made by the former commander of the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan. In a letter to the MOD, he said that his resignation was in part due to the shoddy treatment that injured soldiers under his command had received when returning to the UK. In a letter to defence chiefs, he was reported to have criticised the level of pay, the lack of training and equipment, the appalling housing and, most of all, the treatment of injured soldiers. Labour Members ought to be cautious about what they say when they ask for proof, given that a lieutenant-colonel has resigned from the Army because of the treatment of his troops.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is clear that those criticisms have been made, and on a wide front.
"My hon. Friend is right in identifying the challenge that we would face if we had to bring in all those in the services receiving in-patient treatment, as they would barely fill two hospital wards on any typical day. In those circumstances, it is impossible to imagine how the re-establishment of a military hospital, for example, could provide the excellence of clinical care that those people would receive in NHS hospitals."—[ Hansard, 16 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 5-6.]
I take his point.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman twice already. We look forward to hearing what he has to say later.
We take the Secretary of State's point about medical care, but I want to draw a comparison with the US, where there are some 180 military hospitals. If we were to translate that pro rata to the size of our armed forces, the UK would have around 33 military hospitals. I am not aware that anyone in this House, from any part of the political spectrum, has suggested that we should bring back a widespread network of military hospitals. I am not sure that I have heard any recent argument that we should go as far as having even one, but the Government have stated that they intend to explore whether there should be a larger network of military-only wards around the country. However, I would not expect each such ward to achieve anything like the degree of specialist expertise available at Selly Oak.
In a moment.
The Government have stated that they will consider such a network, so they should tell us what progress has been made. The quality of aftercare, beyond the initial intervention, would be improved if there were military wards in more parts of the country, and especially where there are large numbers of military personnel in the geographical locality. The Government should either go ahead and introduce such a system, or put us out of our misery and acknowledge that they are not going to do so.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way? Has he visited the Stonehouse ward at the Ministry of Defence hospital unit at Derriford, the nearest military-managed ward to his constituency? Two thirds of the nurses there are from a military background, and the unit has a definite military ethos.
I am very familiar with that ward, and I greatly welcome what it does, but I want to know whether the Government intend to follow up on what they have hinted at in the past and establish a network of such wards. Indeed, I think that the Conservative amendment says as much.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman might be getting a little confused. I am certainly concerned that he seems to think we should have a military hospital for 13,000 servicemen. He should understand that, in America, a clinic with a few beds counts as a military hospital. We have many of those already in this country.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was deliberately misquoting me, but I was explaining that I did not think that anyone had asserted that we should have a network of military hospitals. I am making the case that we should have a network of military wards.
Before I leave the issue of health, I want to make a few remarks about mental health. Following the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is certainly one of the most significant long-term problems that the Government and society as a whole must address. The Government have begun various good initiatives to meet the challenge posed by mental health for both serving personnel and veterans, but I believe that we might face a significant influx of mental health patients in the years to come. Veterans are especially vulnerable, because they get less support from and have less involvement with the MOD when they leave the service and are at the mercy of civilian health care services.
We know that mental health is something of a poor relation in the NHS. Additional NHS plans to develop community mental health services for veterans would improve the situation, and practitioners with some specialism in post-traumatic stress disorders need to be on the look out for, and ready to help, those who have served in the armed forces. At present, they are not being picked up well or readily enough by primary care trusts and health centres.
We are of course aware of the good work being done for those still in service. The Government have their contract with the Priory, and Combat Stress is also doing a lot of work in the field. I welcome the recent improvement in that organisation's budget, but there is still a long way to go and there is a real risk that there will be a huge surge in demand for the services in the future.
In conclusion, I believe that the military covenant would benefit from being written down in detail. It should be codified so that it is widely understood.
That is true, in a manner of speaking, but I am talking about a properly fleshed out and detailed document against which progress can be monitored every year. An independent committee should conduct that monitoring and report back to the House so that the matter can be debated each year. There should be publicly accountable benchmarking of progress on key areas in the military covenant, because the bond between nation and military needs to be rebuilt and safeguarded. The confidence of the armed forces in the covenant needs to be re-established, and that means that there should be real entitlements and obligations.
Finally, we should show that the commitment of the political community to the covenant is genuine. In recognising the work of our armed forces, everyone in this House needs to demonstrate that we are absolutely committed to honouring the military covenant.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"recognises the commitment, bravery and professionalism of the armed forces in all their operations;
further recognises the enormous contribution made by service families to the effectiveness of the UK's armed forces and the debt owed by the nation to veterans;
welcomes the major programme of improvements made by the Government to support all of these groups since 1997, including in the areas of medical support and improvement and replacement of sub-standard service accommodation;
further welcomes the role played by ex-service organisations and other charities in contributing to the support of these groups and the Government's commitment to working closely with such bodies to improve support in the future;
and commends the Government's decision to produce a cross-cutting Command Paper setting out the progress already achieved in this area and what more will be done in the future."
There is considerable and quite proper interest in the House and among the public about how we meet our obligations to our armed forces and veterans, and to their families. In the run-up to Christmas, we have many people stationed abroad, many of them young and in dangerous circumstances. It is therefore appropriate that we express in full the feelings that we have for our troops and wish them the very best as they carry out the very arduous tasks that they undertake on our behalf.
As the Chief of the General Staff has said, we need to ensure that we get the military covenant into balance, but we must bring the debate about these matters into balance as well. I welcome this debate, as it is important that all the people of Britain become more aware of the efforts and sacrifices being made by our armed forces on their behalf. In addition, we all need to think about our security over the years ahead and therefore about what level of spending we should commit to defence. Within that spending, we need to decide what our priorities should be, both in terms of operational capability and on the human welfare side of the equation.
Wild exaggerations of some of the issues on either side of the argument contribute nothing of value, so let us look at the factual situation. On one side of the equation, we are asking a lot of our people: harmony guidelines are not being met in every circumstance, and one meets people who have been sent to operational theatres more often than is ideal. Yesterday, I went to the Millennium stadium to watch the medal parade and service of remembrance for 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh. That battalion has deployed to Iraq three times, but that is not true across the whole of our armed forces.
On the other side of the equation, we have already achieved a great deal. This year, the armed forces received a pay increase worth 9.2 per cent. for the most junior ranks and an average of 3.3 per cent. across all ranks. We have also introduced a tax-free operational allowance, now worth £2,320 for a six-month tour, and announced a council tax rebate.
Despite the ritual accusations about our soldiers being poorly equipped, we have delivered significant investment in equipment for the front line. Some £2.6 billion of urgent operational requirements have been approved to meet needs for current operations, with £100 million being approved for each month this year. We have already announced six new Merlin battlefield support helicopters, the first of which arrived in July, and a sixth C-17 transport plane to move troops and equipment into theatre quickly. Moreover, the Prime Minister announced to the House earlier today an investment of more than £150 million in 150 new protected vehicles. The vehicles will be called Ridgbacks, and they will support operations in Afghanistan. That investment, alongside previous orders for the Mastiff and the Vector, brings the total number of new protected vehicles that we are delivering to support operations to more than 600.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the new equipment was delivered not by the tooth fairy but by good, honest manufacturing workers? The vehicles and equipment were manufactured in this country and provided thousands of quality jobs.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. As Member for Coventry, North-East, as well as Minister for the Armed Forces, I am enormously proud that the up-armouring of Mastiff is being performed in my constituency. It is one of the vehicles in which those on operation have the most confidence, especially when they are deploying on dangerous routes where there is a mine threat.
As my hon. Friend points out, the equipment is not delivered by the tooth fairy. When Nick Harvey and Members of Her Majesty's Opposition say that we must do more across the piece in every area, we need to reflect on the context. In this case, the Liberal Democrats are clearer than the Conservatives, which does not often happen: there would be no more money for defence from the Liberal Democrats. That is what the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats said on television at the weekend, so in effect the hon. Member for North Devon is saying that all the initiatives he talks about and all the additional spending he asks for will have to come from cuts elsewhere in the defence budget.
The Liberal Democrats have questioned the joint strike fighter and Typhoon, and of course we could solve some of the RAF's problems by entirely denying it fast jets, as the Liberal Democrats seem prepared to contemplate. However, they cannot advocate additional spending here, there and everywhere without acknowledging that there will be costs, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out so well. If they are not prepared to spend any more money—as they have clearly said—the price will be cuts elsewhere in the defence budget. If more money is to be spent on welfare, it will probably have to come from capability.
The Conservatives' policies are not quite as clear, although as Dr. Murrison seems to want to intervene, he may be able to clarify their position, but they do not answer the question; the silence is deafening. The Conservatives are reluctant to say what their policy is. Are we or are we not spending enough on defence? What is the policy of Her Majesty's Opposition? If they believe we are not spending enough, they should say so. Let us have an honest debate, not the constant pretence that gains can be made with nothing to pay. The Conservatives need to be as honest as the Liberal Democrats, and say whether they believe the defence budget is adequate. If they do not, they should say how much more it ought to be. I shall sit down so that the hon. Member for Westbury can tell us whether they would spend more on defence.
For the umpteenth time, I shall tell the Government exactly what our position is. The defence budget is not large enough for the commitments we are undertaking, so a future Conservative Government will fully fund the commitments we undertake, which will mean either more money for defence or fewer commitments, or a position between the two. The right hon. Gentleman will know all about it when the time comes, in the run-up to the next general election, which cannot come too soon for us.
The House will have noticed that there was no answer either way on whether the Conservatives would spend more, just a wishful belief that the world will change, our commitments will reduce and we will live in a better place. We shall have to continue to ask whether there should be more or less for defence.
I did not see the television programme on which the acting Liberal Democrat leader said that there would be no more defence spending. Would the £5 billion we have set aside for improving accommodation be cut, should the Liberal Democrats ever gain power?
What was said in answer to a question was clear: no more spending on defence. If more spending is needed on the areas outlined by the hon. Member for North Devon, who says we are not spending enough on accommodation and medicine, it will come from cuts.
I turn to the capability we have delivered. Many Members attended a recent meeting to which Members of both Houses were invited by General Dannatt, when Colonel Westley, who has just returned from theatre, told us that the British infantryman is better equipped now than ever before and that there had been few complaints from his soldiers in the past few years.
There have been decades of underinvestment in housing for our personnel, so it is taking some time to put things right, but we are moving fast and much of our accommodation is now of a good standard; for example, 95 per cent. of service family accommodation is graded in the highest two categories of condition. The hon. Member for North Devon talked about substandard accommodation, but all our properties meet the decent homes standard. Only 145 service family homes are in the lowest standard, and by the end of this financial year the number will be reduced to about 81, so it is wrong to say that thousands of service homes are substandard—they are not. Our standards are higher than those in other areas, and we have no intention of lowering them to make the figures look better. Our service people deserve better, but it is unfair to suggest that there are thousands of substandard homes.
I am well aware that there is a major programme over the next five years to deal with accommodation, and that in my area about 10,000 houses are being built. Throughout the UK, an enormous amount of house building is taking place, so one of the practical problems might be insufficient workers for the repair programme. Would it be possible to set up a joint development programme so that local authorities and social housing associations combine with the Ministry of Defence? That would be very practical.
The rate of building work is a problem, as my hon. Friend points out. I would be happy to talk to him about the detail of his proposal to see whether it would have practical benefits.
We have spent £700 million on accommodation over the past year alone. In this financial year, we shall be making improvements to 5,000 service family homes, including substantial upgrades to more than 600 of the poorest quality properties. By 2013, the number of bed spaces built or improved since 2001 will rise to more than 50,000. We are changing the law so that people leaving the services will be allowed a local connection to ensure that they have fair treatment compared with those in civilian life.
On health care, the survival rates for battlefield casualties are unprecedented. We provide expert medical treatment and care to injured personnel on the front line. I have visited the field hospitals at Camp Bastion and Basra air station, where the care provided is world class, as it is at Selly Oak and at our rehabilitation centre at Headley Court. I welcome some of the things the hon. Member for North Devon said, but his comments about the standard of care provided were not fair and will not be welcomed by those who are doing their level best to ensure that our service personnel are properly treated throughout their health care pathway.
It would be good if people looked at the facts. Mr. Hancock intervened and talked about the comments of an individual who was leaving the armed forces. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Defence Committee, which visits facilities on fact-finding tours all the time. If he takes part in some of those visits, he will find that he has a more rounded view.
I did not take part in the Committee's visit to Selly Oak, but I visited Selly Oak myself because service personnel from my constituency were there. I also visited the Ministry of Defence hospital unit in my constituency—that is on the record of the Defence Committee—so I am well aware of the situation. I represent a sizeable chunk of our service personnel—unlike Mr. Jones, who has now left the Chamber, who gave the Minister that information and who, sadly, does not have the opportunity to hear daily of the problems of service personnel.
I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman is participating in the Defence Committee, which praised health provision in its recent report. I am glad that he acknowledges that.
Support for families of the injured is also important. We provide both family accommodation and funding to help with travel for families visiting injured personnel. We ensure the proper transfer of care when personnel are medically discharged, with properly managed resettlement and the monitoring of those who are seriously disabled for at least two years after their discharge.
On mental health, the risk of psychological injury as a result of operational service is a particular concern. All the research—our own research and independent research—indicates that the risk is small. However, we take it very seriously. These are serious and disabling conditions, but they can be treated. We have measures in place to increase awareness and to mitigate disorders. They include pre and post-deployment briefings, support, assessment and, if required, treatment.
I am pleased that the Minister referred to the importance of families. The Government have not provided proper legal representation for families at inquests. In the forthcoming inquests of Flight Lieutenant Stead, who was one of my constituents, and the other people who were killed in his Hercules—partly because it did not have the proper suppressant foam—the Ministry of Defence will be represented by a senior barrister, but the Government will not allow the same luxury and afford the same courtesy to the families involved. Will the Minister assure the House that proper legal representation at inquests will be offered to families such as the family of Flight Lieutenant Stead?
This matter has been raised repeatedly by different people, and that is perfectly and utterly understandable. I am not going to commit to legal representation and legal aid for families at a coroner's inquest. The coroner's inquest is an inquisitorial, fact-finding process. It is not always appropriate that legal representation be provided. So, we are not going to provide legal representation at coroner's inquests, as a matter of course, in all circumstances.
Let me tell the House what I am concerned about with regard to the system. We should make sure that we are as open as we can be with people and that we reduce the appalling length of time that people have to wait. Under the current system, we wind up with a military police investigation, which sometimes goes on for months or even years. In many instances, we do not even start a board of inquiry until after that investigation is finished. A coroner is not happy or prepared to start his inquest until after the board of inquiry has completed its work and has reported. Meanwhile, the families are waiting and waiting, not certain about what happened to their loved ones and unable to get closure. We need and want to do more on that, but I am not sure that providing legal aid in the coroner's environment is always the most appropriate thing.
I hear what the Minister says, but the fact remains that my colleagues and I, and Labour Members, have been making exactly this point for the best part of three years. If this were my battalion and something were not being delivered that could be solved, I would want to know why. I would put the resources into it, until such time as—this is exactly the Minister's point—the families get closure to the ghastly process of mourning.
A long-standing methodology is being used. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. We cannot continue to leave people waiting as long as we do. We must try to do all that we can, which means involving other Departments and coroners co-operating to try to shorten the process. It is not acceptable to keep people waiting years for such decisions. I will see what we can do to try to improve the situation.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about delays. I have a constituent who has been waiting three and a half years for an inquest into the death of his son. However, may I press my right hon. Friend a little more on financial support for families? If the families of those who die in prison cells and police stations find that the deaths of their loved ones are considered exceptional cases, will he look at the possibility of deaths in the armed forces being considered exceptional cases? In which circumstance, financial requirements for legal aid can be waived, so families do not have to spend their life savings in an attempt to be legally represented.
There are exceptional circumstances in which that may be appropriate. I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend outside the Chamber about how that works and in what circumstances it ought to be allowed. We have given additional resources to the Oxford coroner and the Wiltshire coroner. There are now additional facilities and we hope to see some reduction in the time that people are waiting. There is the system to be considered as well. The additional resources on their own are not going to buy the benefits that we need when it comes to the delay that we are imposing on people.
I would simply point out that these casualties result from operations. They should be regarded as an exceptional cost of operations, and, therefore, the care of the servicemen's families should come out of the Treasury reserve. We know the position that the Minister has been put in by the Treasury. He has been told that if he wants to fund coroners' inquests and representations, the money will have to come out of some other budget in his Department. That is not acceptable. I am quite prepared to stand here and say that we should spend more on defence in order to fulfil the military covenant.
The hon. Gentleman ought at least to recognise that there have been additional resources. However, resources on their own are not going to sort the problem out. We have to do something about the delays.
I think that the whole House shares that view and will support the Minister in anything that he can do to speed up the process. However, if the Government are not prepared to fund legal assistance for families, will they continue to fund legal assistance for MOD witnesses at coroners' inquests and will they themselves be represented by an expensive legal counsel?
There is not a blanket idea of never funding legal assistance for families, but, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the coroner investigates matters himself. If we want to put money into legal representation, in that fact-finding inquisitorial process, that is money that is coming from elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that there is other support for families, which they appreciate, and which we need to make sure is appropriately delivered. We do not necessarily want to hand that over where that is not necessarily the right and proper priority.
The coroner system is a benefit for all. There are occasions on which the MOD feels that it needs legal representation, and there are occasions on which we would consider, in exceptional circumstances, legal aid for families. However, introducing that across the piece would not be the appropriate route down which to travel.
Are not those who are calling for families to get legal assistance fundamentally misunderstanding the process in a coroner's court? Even if the families have legal representatives, they play no direct role. Would not the money be better spent on supporting the families who go along to coroners' courts, rather than putting it into the pockets of lawyers, who have no role whatsoever to play in the process?
My hon. Friend puts it better than I do. We must consider our priorities. The families must be our concern, but we have to ensure that we are looking after their genuine needs, rather than spending money on what should not be the top priority.
Let me turn to veterans' health. Mental illnesses sometimes do not emerge until after individuals have left the armed forces. We recently launched the first of six pilots for a new community-based veterans' mental health service. Subject to satisfactory evaluation, the model will be rolled out widely across the country. We have increased by 45 per cent. the fees paid by the MOD for mental health care for eligible war pensioners at homes run by the charity Combat Stress to enhance the care offered.
Let me talk about compensation for our armed personnel. The commitment that we make is for life. It starts with medical care and rehabilitation. If a person is unable to return to service, or to work, there is a pension for life, which is index linked and tax free. The one-off lump sum is not an alternative to that, but an addition to recognise the up-front costs that inevitably confront a person with injuries. As my hon. Friend Mr. Jones pointed out earlier, there was no up-front payment whatsoever when the Conservative party was in power.
We announced last month that over the next six months we would be pulling work together across the whole of the Government through the Command Paper on service personnel strategy. It will give us in Defence and every other Government Department the opportunity to assess what we are doing, to check our priorities, and to ensure that we are all doing all that we can to support our service personnel.
I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend intends to say anything about welfare support packages for the families of service personnel who are on deployment. The situation has been vastly improved through access to e-mail and the telephone. May I draw to his attention the circumstances of submariners' families? Given the way in which submarines are deployed, including the stealth aspect, families cannot keep in touch in the same manner. Will he consider the welfare of submariners' families and, especially, ensure that they can get together before deployment so that they can draw support from each other during the very long time for which submariners may be deployed and out of touch with their families?
The welfare of the families of people deployed is an important matter that will be examined by the Command Paper. We ought to look at whether we can do more for submariners as part of that process.
The hon. Member for North Devon talked about the new wi-fi facility. He should recognise that there is an allocation of free telephone calls and free internet connection in theatre. He should also recognise, as most hon. Members do—especially those who understand the armed forces—that Afghanistan is not the easiest place for connectivity. Logistically, it is about the most difficult place to run operations. We made a new commitment to wi-fi, but we never said that we could bring it in immediately or by the end of the year. We are looking to bring in this new additional commitment, and we will do so as soon as we are able.
I am not going to give way again—I have given way a lot.
Through the service personnel Command Paper, we will look to see what more we can do across the whole of the Government to check our priorities and to ensure that we are supporting our armed forces appropriately. We will thereby ensure that we honour the spirit of the military covenant.
I declare my interest as a medical officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. Our armed forces are second to none and we are all intensely proud of them. We should also salute the organisations that champion their cause.
I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on using half their Opposition day to discuss the broken military covenant. Nick Harvey used much of his speech to discuss the proposals that his party apparently launched at the weekend. I say "apparently" because the event appears to have passed the media by, which was possibly because there was little new or distinctive in what was said. However, heaven loves a sinner who is brought to repentance, so we must welcome the Liberal Democrats' new-found enthusiasm for defence and the hon. Gentleman's endorsement of many of the ideas that we have been pursuing for some time. Clearly, he has read the policy report that we published in July—and, judging by his document, much of which is eerily familiar, a lot more besides.
Given that spirit of happy consensus, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying how much I enjoyed something that I imagine will become a standard caveat on all Liberal Democrat spending commitments— [ Laughter. ] The Minister is giggling, so I suspect that he, like me, has read the document that the Liberal Democrats published at the weekend. On the second page, in very small print—I can barely read it—it says:
"Some policy proposals published by the Liberal Democrats may imply modifications to existing government public expenditure priorities."
I spent some time puzzling what that might mean. I think that it means "cuts elsewhere", yet, try as I might, I could not find anything in the hon. Gentleman's speech that shed any light on precisely what those cuts would be.
The document goes on to say:
"The Liberal Democrats recognise that it may not be possible to achieve all these proposals in the lifetime of one Parliament."
In the hypothetical case that we have a Liberal Democrat Government following the next election—perhaps in May 2010—that could mean seven and a half years hence. I am not quite sure which soldiers, sailors and airmen the hon. Gentleman is talking to, but those to whom I talk say that the covenant needs fixing now, not in seven and a half years' time.
One has to admire the hon. Gentleman's gall. When his party is put under pressure by the Minister, Dr. Lewis says at the Dispatch Box that the Conservatives have absolutely no answers to the funding questions, but that they will let the Minister know when the general election comes. It is thus quite extraordinary for his colleague, Dr. Murrison, to level exactly the same charge at the Liberal Democrats.
The Minister pointed the finger at the Liberal Democrats and said that we would intend to pay for this out of savings to the procurement budget. He correctly identified where that would be. We have said that we do not see why we would need both the third tranche of Eurofighter and the joint strike fighter—it needs to be one or the other.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis gave earlier. I notice that the hon. Gentleman has not shed any light on where the cuts implied by the statement will fall.
I have been studying the Liberal Democrat election manifesto closely, as well as the contribution that the party has made to defence debates recently. Others might say that that is a pretty sad thing to do, but as many hon. Members would point out, time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted. The manifesto effectively contains just one paragraph on defence. The rest of any reference to defence-related issues has to do with the arms trade.
The poor attendance by Liberal Democrats at defence debates in Opposition and Government time is borne out by the official record, notably on
The Liberal Democrats say that they want to set up what they call "a military covenant committee". They go on to explain, in a breezy sort of way:
"Such a committee could perhaps be established in the House of Lords."
We learn that
"As a cross-party body, it would be well-placed to provide credible recommendations drawing on the expertise and experience of its members."
That sounds to me like a job specification for Lords Guthrie, Boyce, Craig, Bramall and Inge. Ministers are, I hope, still smarting from the broadside that the noble and gallant Lords delivered in the other place on
Generals are very fine people. Many of them are my constituents. But where would the views, experiences and insights of squaddies and their families be articulated in such a lordly committee of the top brass? Although I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman's good intentions, he needs to go back to the drawing board.
Surely it might be better to give retired generals a committee so that they do not have to do the foreword for a "Way Forward" paper.
I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to. If he has not already read the document that was published at the weekend, I suggest he does. There are more committees in the document than one can shake a hairy stick at.
The military covenant appears to have taken form relatively recently, when it popped up in an Army book of reference, perhaps influenced by the more overt expression by our allies of their special debt to their armed forces, notably the US. I suspect that it was scripted by an Army staff officer, who thought it was a good idea at the time. There is nothing wrong with that. We should adopt it and work on it. I hope that we now understand that the military covenant is not simply the bailiwick of the Army, but that it extends in common usage right across our armed forces.
The Secretary of State's prior appointment is a perfectly good reason for being absent today. I am grateful to him for explaining yesterday the circumstances that take him away from the House today.
We learned from General Lord Guthrie about the Prime Minister's disinterest in defence as Chancellor, which he appears to have carried over into his new job, obliging photo calls in hot, sandy places notwithstanding. The Prime Minister must do the decent thing by our armed forces and ensure that the person whom he appoints as captain of the ship is able to devote his attention full-time to his vital defence duties. None of our troops in action, regulars or reserves, are part-timers. Why is their boss?
I hope the hon. Gentleman will make it clear that the Secretary of State is not present because he is on important business meeting bereaved families.
The leaked 2007 Chief of the General Staff's briefing team report told us:
"The tank of goodwill now runs on vapour; many experienced staff are talking of leaving."
It is backed up by this summer's continuous attitudes survey, which revealed that many of our crucial middle-ranking people were considering leaving over the next six months. The most recent set of Defence Analytical Services Agency figures published in November show that that was no idle threat, as 1,344 Army officers have indeed left in the past six months alone. That is twice the number for the year before, and three times that for 2004-05. The common factor appears to be the consequences of overstretch, with harmony guidelines being routinely breached.
The Under-Secretary of State and I on Monday, at an all-party group meeting on mental illness in servicemen, learned how important time between tours was for the mental health of our troops. Overstretch and the habitual breaching of harmony guidelines is undoubtedly making some of our people ill. I expect the Minister is as surprised as I am that none of our Liberal Democrat colleagues was at that meeting, particularly given their professed interest in the welfare of servicemen and the reference in their motion to mental health.
Had the Liberal Democrats been there, they would have learned about community mental health pilots and perhaps shared my concern at the apparent desire of the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency further to reduce its exposure to the health care of veterans by shifting responsibility to our NHS, which with the best will in the world has struggled in identifying and prioritising the health care needs of members of a small and shrinking defence community.
Those rather cheap remarks about attendance or not at meetings that the hon. Gentleman happens to attend are inappropriate. I have met a number of mental health charities on a number of occasions, including with the Defence Committee. He should check his facts before he makes such comments in the Chamber.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record, but I did not see him at the meeting on Monday. He would have benefited greatly from it.
My hon. Friend Dr. Fox and I are familiar with Selly Oak and supportive of it. It is clearly right that our injured personnel are treated with the very best that our NHS can offer in an appropriate tertiary care centre. However, we continue to receive reports—I received one only a few minutes ago—of badly injured people still being nursed on mixed general wards. I seek the Minister's assurance that he is doing everything he can to ensure that the military managed ward is of sufficient capacity to accommodate our injured service personnel.
The Chief of the General Staff's leaked briefing tells us, on the subject of accommodation:
"Estates are becoming less safe and more run down".
Those of us who have the honour and privilege of representing garrison towns will know that from our casework. Both as an MP and, before that, as a medical practitioner, I have been truly appalled by the service accommodation in my constituency. The commanding officer of 3 Para, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal DSO, cited the abysmal state of soldiers' housing as one of the reasons for his resignation last month.
Ten years after it came to power, the Labour party still likes to blame long-term under-investment, but bed spaces that were acceptable a decade ago will have deteriorated massively in the interim, while expectations have risen in parallel with those of the general population. It is surely right that in the 21st century our young men and women should not have to endure a degree of squalor in many cases that would have a college hall of residence condemned. Yet in 2006-07 £13.5 million was sliced from the five regional prime contractors, putting basic maintenance on hold.
At the same time we have seen £2.3 billion spent on filling MOD main building with more marble, gilt and wood panelling than Saddam enjoyed in his Basra palace, as those of us who are familiar with that building will attest. We find more poor prioritising in the resurfacing of tennis courts and the construction of sports pitches, priorities that now seem questionable, in the view of the Public Accounts Committee and the MOD.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way during an excellent speech. Does he share my concern that while budgets for soldiers' accommodation are being cut, the Ministry of Defence was able to find several hundred thousand pounds for works of modern art? A spokesman at the time said, "Well, you can't expect us to hang up pictures of dead admirals." Presumably he was referring to war heroes of previous generations, whom the MOD now seems to think are not fit to adorn its walls.
As ever, my hon. Friend has made a good point. The Government have at their disposal any amount of fine artwork, and it seems a pity that they have invested public funds in that way.
Nothing is more important to morale than pay and food, yet the joint personnel administration system has managed to churn out 55,000 cases of underpayment from January to September. We learn that this Christmas, soldiers have become dependent on the charity of regimental associations to tide them over. Where does the Minister think that fits in a military covenant that he maintains is not broken?
The Chief of the General Staff's briefing team's leaked report pops up again to criticise strongly the new way of charging people for food. Ministers know it as "pay as you dine", but soldiers call it "save as you starve". CGS staff believe that it is bringing a Pot Noodle and sandwich culture and say that they have even seen soldiers cooking ration packs over gas burners in their rooms. That is not a good situation to be in. Little wonder that soldiers are cynical; what was sold to them as a ritzy new line of restaurants and exciting eating opportunities has turned out to mean little more than the introduction of a till.
We have expressed our concern at the armed forces compensation scheme and I know that the Minister is reviewing its application. I await the outcome with great interest, but I am not convinced that the deal that our wounded soldiers get reflects the enormous debt that we owe them. Even with the guaranteed income payment, to which the Minister referred, it seems that many of our young men and women face a frugal existence that contrasts, I am afraid, with the financial outcomes for people with relatively minor occupational injuries.
Meanwhile, the PAX life insurance and compensation scheme, pushed by the MOD, intends to bump up premiums by at least 30 per cent. to mitigate the losses incurred through the current level of combat injury and death.
Once too often, as my hon. Friend says.
I have an interest in coroners' inquests because the Wiltshire coroner is basing his work at the old Trowbridge town hall in my constituency. I have spoken to the coroner, Mr. David Masters, about these issues. I hope that the Minister will agree with the Prime Minister that having 122 inquests outstanding from Iraq and Afghanistan is unacceptable. I hope that he will be able to say what he will do to relieve what I regard as the avoidable stress being caused to bereaved families. Surely our military covenant should cover them.
Other Members have mentioned the issue of legal support for bereaved families. If the MOD feels it necessary to be represented at the inquests, it is surely right that families should be represented as well. I entirely endorse the remarks of Mrs. Humble and others, who have asserted that the circumstances are exceptional.
Those of us with children know what a preoccupation education becomes; we worry far more about our children's education than we ever did about our own. The Liberal Democrat motion fails to mention families explicitly or education at all; those are serious omissions. However, this summer's continuous attitude survey for Army members, whose children find themselves particularly exposed to turbulence, reveals that half the families feel that Army life is having a negative or very negative effect on their children's schooling.
Research by Wiltshire local education authority, which is very much at the forefront of the issue, reveals that children from forces families perform worse in all subjects—particularly maths, interestingly—at all levels than their civilian-family neighbours. In Warminster in my constituency, 59 per cent. and 50 per cent. of pupils at the Avenue school and the nearby New Close primary school respectively come from service families. In Wiltshire overall, the figure can go up to 80 per cent. in some primary schools. That picture is repeated across the country in areas where there is a large military presence.
The problem is the turbulence that is caused and the other special factors that act as cost drivers in schools with a high proportion of service children. The children involved are great kids who deserve the very best, but they are handicapped by a funding formula that ignores their needs and the results of turbulence in particular. Such children are invisible in the pupil level annual school census; if they join and leave during the school year, it is as though they never existed for the purposes of the funding that their LEA gets. What effect does the Minister think that has on school finances? Is it any wonder that service children's results are so relatively disappointing?
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that improving housing standards is of key importance if our servicemen are to remain in the Army and not worry about their families? As we improve the house building programmes, education will also be improved, as families would rather stay in good accommodation. They would be more stable and that would assist family outcomes.
I am sure that there is an element of truth in what the hon. Gentleman has said.
October 2 was a day of significant speeches from sandy places. In a reversal of what presumably was intended, the Prime Minister's Iraq address was completely eclipsed by the barnstorming speech of my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron in Blackpool. Back in October, Christmas seemed such a long time away, but it did not seem so for service families. The Prime Minister said from his desert soapbox that 1,000 troops would be home for Christmas, but he failed to say that the pledge was backdated to June. In fact, since the beginning of September, the number of troops has fallen by just 120.
As most of us here contemplate Christmas at home with our family and friends, is it any wonder that our troops feel let down by a Government whose first instinct is to spin, even at the expense of our men and women engaged in two major conflicts? Those conflicts were unforeseen by the planning assumptions of a now laughably out-of-date strategic defence review and financed only in part by a heavily caveated urgent operational requirement.
I end on a slightly more conciliatory note. Four years after the publication of the well intentioned but largely ignored overarching personnel strategy, the Government's understandable focus on military hardware may well have unwittingly squeezed what used to be called the greatest single factor in Britain's armed forces—their people. The time may have come to reappraise the balance.
I shall be brief; I have asked a number of questions and spoke in the last debate on these issues. I feel very strongly about how we deal with the families of our armed forces, and I shall concentrate on that point.
As I said last time, when people from my area left school many years ago in 1965, they went to the pits or the mills or they joined the Army—we had Glencorse barracks, which were referred to earlier. What surprises me and is very important is that we must move forward at a time of high expectations. The expectations of people leaving school are now much higher than many years ago. The days of dormitories are over; if we want to attract the best people into the armed forces, we must provide proper accommodation to go with that for when they are back home.
We must ensure overall that families are well looked after. That is the biggest single issue that I find with members of the armed forces whom I meet—it is about the families. When our lads and lassies are at the front in Afghanistan or Iraq, all they are worried about is how their families are getting on back home. That is why—I say this to Dr. Murrison—I emphasise the point about education and homes. As we develop a programme to make things much more stable so that people can choose to stay in their homes instead of moving to Germany, that will mean much more stability not only in the home, but for the children who attend school. In my constituency, a substantial number of children from Glencorse barracks attend the local primary school.
While I was with the Defence Committee in Germany, I realised for the first time—one always learns from practical experience—that children need to be together. When children are moved into Army barracks, the education authority considers moving them to the nearest primary schools, so that they are spread out into different ones. My experience in Germany showed me that the best thing to do is to put all the children in the same school, because if any disaster befell a family it was amazing how that reflected itself all the way down through the families of the armed forces to affect the children, who depended on each other. I spoke to people at a local primary school a few months ago, and it was amazing how the young kids who were based in Germany and Cyprus before coming back to Britain had gelled. That was good to see. Because of the housing that is available to mothers and fathers, many of them have chosen and will choose to remain where they are in the long term instead of moving about as they have hitherto.
I congratulate the Government on the long-term house-building programme. It is brilliant to find that we now have single people's accommodation with a television and a single bed and no other person in the room. It is very good for them to have that facility in some of the new build that has taken place. However, there will be a practical problem throughout the UK in trying to get workers for some of the schemes that are under way. In many areas, those workers will not be found. It is difficult in my area, where prices have rocketed and are three times what they used to be; that is why we are having to bring people over from the eastern countries to do the work. In appropriate areas, joint ventures between social housing organisations, local authorities and the MOD might be the way forward. I am glad that the Minister has agreed to meet me to discuss that.
We must recognise the amount of money that is going into the developments that are taking place. The Government have undertaken to ensure that when people leave the Army they are on an equal footing when they go on to the housing list. I genuinely hope that they, and all Opposition parties, will take a different view. In Midlothian, armed forces personnel get priority so that when they leave the armed forces they go to No. 1 on the housing list. I have never once received a complaint from any member of the public about that position. If we are truly going to recognise the role of the armed forces, perhaps the leading lights from the three main parties can agree on one thing.
I recently raised that issue with my district council, because unfortunately armed forces do not get priority locally. I entirely agree that there would be no public concern whatsoever, and it would be a real fulfilment of the covenant to do that and to make it absolute policy throughout the country.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I agree, Madam Deputy Speaker—I mean Mr. Deputy Speaker; that was a good changeover—that that is very important. An understanding that local authorities recognise such matters would send an important message to our armed forces as they come out of the service and are trying to get back on to the housing list.
I notice that, once again, no Scottish National party Members are in the Chamber to discuss this issue. It is important to recognise that several issues that are faced by the Government in relation to education, health and so on do not apply in Scotland, which is a separate case. When kids from a Scottish regiment come back from abroad, they come back not to an English education, but to a Scottish education, and that must be recognised. When the Defence Committee took evidence in Scotland, I was truly ashamed by the ignorance of officials in the Scotland Office who did not understand the questions that we were asking. We stated that view in our report—it was an outrage. I ask the Minister, when he talks about how we develop programmes throughout the UK, to remember that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in many cases different. Although 87 per cent. of the UK's population is in England, a disproportionate number of those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in the armed forces, and let us ensure that we deal with everybody as part of the UK.
I am delighted to follow Mr. Hamilton, because his intervention on the Conservative spokesman was very relevant and the response that he got was less than generous. The hon. Gentleman's point was that the changes that the Army, in particular, has brought about were geared around the lifestyle of families to ensure that children and housing became a much more stable commodity for service families, and it is wrong for anyone not to give credit for those changes. I am sure that five years from now there will be a distinct difference for service families in how education, in particular, operates.
As the longest-serving member of the Defence Committee, our recent session— [ Interruption. ] I remind Labour colleagues that at recent meetings Opposition members were in the majority, because despite their huge numbers on the Committee, so many of them were absent. Over those 10 years, I have listened to lots of evidence sessions, but the best one by a long way and for a long time was that on Defence Medical Services, which was attended by the Under-Secretary and the two leading Army medics—the one in charge of medical services and the surgeon general—with the NHS represented by a Health Minister. That showed a positive and open-minded approach to the issues that servicemen and their families were facing. It was a real pleasure for once to hear two generals who were committed to the issue before them, were not afraid to say somewhat controversial things, and willing when they did not have the answer to admit as much. I am like the former defence Minister, Mr. Touhig, who said that he could not recollect former chiefs who reported to him raising these matters when they were in office. One wonders how much credibility there really is among those people in the other place who continually make these comments when they are out of service but did little or nothing at the time. Mike Jackson gave evidence to the Defence Committee many times about the morale of the Army, and I cannot remember one occasion when he said that one of the key issues is junior ranks' accommodation or, for that matter, service accommodation generally.
I would much rather listen to someone who, at the age of 42, having led 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan, resigned from the Army and clearly stated the reasons. I hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces will look carefully at the points that that colonel raised in his resignation letter. That is a man who has had the job of commanding a unit and has had to face what Patrick Mercer had to face in commanding soldiers in the Balkans—dealing with the daily issues that soldiers face and the pressure that they are under on the front line. It is not about their own safety and what is affecting them, but about what is going on at home. That is why so many Members, including Linda Gilroy, intervened about the family welfare packages that are available. It is essential that we get that right and that we have a duty of care not only to service personnel but to the service family in its entirety.
We need to look carefully at the issue of inquests. I enthusiastically support what was said in the statement about greater resources; every single Member here who has been close to such processes for any period welcomed that intervention and that new money. Coroners will be allowed to be more flexible about where the hearings take place.
I return to the point, however, of legal representation. With regard to families not having legal representation automatically, we should not forget that that would be a matter not just of the MOD paying, but of people having access to legal aid. It would not fall on the MOD if the legal aid regulations were worded to the effect that the circumstances of a death could be treated in a certain way if they were sufficiently extraordinary—in the same way as they would if someone died in police custody or in prison. I cannot understand why we cannot overcome this problem. The cost would not fall on the defence budget, and the matter has to be seriously considered. The Prime Minister, in one of the interventions that he took on his statement this afternoon, said that he would look at it. We need to look at a change to the legal aid regulations, which would allow further change to happen.
Dr. Murrison talked about a lack of mention of welfare, families or education in our motion. Remarkably, there is no mention of education in the Conservatives' amendment to it. I wonder whether, just as in respect of the previous intervention he took, when he suggested that he did not quite know what we were talking about, he had not read his own amendment.
Despite the fact that the hon. Member for Westbury signed the amendment, I am sure that he would not have been the first Front-Bench spokesman who had signed something without reading it. Our motion certainly talks about the overall package of welfare, and it would have to be a pretty mean-spirited person who did not recognise that that, in its entirety, meant the welfare package for service personnel: housing, education, health—the whole gamut.
On the question of housing, I represent an area where there is a high proportion of service housing, and I am a little mystified about where the 140 unfit houses are located. I cannot believe that they are all in Portsmouth. If there are only 140 unfit houses in the MOD estate, I cannot believe that they are all located in and around the Portsmouth area. That figures needs to be considered with a great deal of caution; I suggest that we look at it further. We must be renting more than 140 houses in the private sector because there is not suitable accommodation for service families in Portsmouth. I know for a fact that we are doing so. It is interesting that the current Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence continually tells us that it was his last task as a Minister at the MOD to sell off the housing estate. I am sorry that he is not with us this afternoon, because he would have another chance to justify that awful decision.
The only winner in that disposal was Annington Homes. It is clear that the disposal of surplus assets has made up nearly half, if not all, of the price it paid the MOD for the initial acquisition. I am at a loss to understand why the MOD is building houses at the same time as Annington is selling them. I have yet to understand how that equation works out to the benefit of the nation. We sell off our service homes and say that we will rent them back. We allow some of them to fall into disrepair. They are no longer used by service personnel because they are not fit to live in, and Annington then gets the privilege of selling them off. At the same time, the MOD is spending hundreds if not millions of pounds in the greater Portsmouth area alone to replace housing.
Let us get it right on housing. I admire what the Government have done about single person's accommodation for junior ranks in the Portsmouth area. That has greatly improved, but there is still a long way to go. Based on the estimate given to the Defence Committee five years ago, it will take 20 years to bring all single service accommodation up to standard. In Aldershot, we were renting four-bedroom houses so that six Paras could live in them because the accommodation available was inadequate and shameful. One of the reasons that they moved to Colchester—apart from the fact that Essex has some attractions and that they would have Bob Russell representing them—was the appalling state of the single-service accommodation in Aldershot, which was demolished as soon as they moved out. It certainly was not the football that attracted them.
I welcome the debate today, and I think that there is a general accord. I do not believe that the military covenant is being broken, but I agree with those who have said that it needs to be cherished and that it is in need of greater care. Resources have to be prioritised, and we have to be honest and fair. In a perfect world, everything would be in place, but we do not live in that world. We have to accept that major steps have been taken by this Government to bring about improvements—I think that this view is shared and supported by the whole House—but that is not to say that an awful lot still does not have to be done.
It is a privilege to speak in the debate this afternoon, and a privilege indeed to follow Mr. Hancock, who always speaks on these matters with authority and fairness.
I want to touch this afternoon on how the issues in question affect me as a constituency MP, and about the role that various organisations play in relation to them. It is instructive that the Government amendment talks about
"the role played by ex-service organisations and other charities in contributing to...support".
I should like to spend a little time talking about that role, and about the key role played by individuals. Over the years, along with other towns in Lancashire, Blackpool has contributed more than its fair share of servicemen to difficult spots. When I first came to this House, one of the things that first drew me into contact with veterans' organisations was the campaign for compensation for far east prisoners of war. That compensation was achieved under this Government after more than 40 years of failing to do so.
I strongly welcome what the Royal British Legion has done by introducing its campaign. It has focused minds throughout the House on the various issues, and the organisation has been commendably fair minded in the way it has pursued them. That is one of the reasons I sat down with my local Royal British Legion association to talk about some of the key issues that have been raised with it, and I want to touch on them a little later.
We have, quite rightly, heard a lot about the practical nuts and bolts of service conditions today. In speaking in the debate, I am acutely conscious that I am a civilian. Like the majority of people in this House, I have never served in the armed forces. I did have the privilege, however, of editing the magazine History Today for 12 years, and in that context I dealt with and met many historians and the actual veterans whose service we are considering. Honouring our servicemen is not just about honouring them through practical conditions, but honouring them through remembrance of their service and their achievements. The recognition of those achievements is extremely important; it has a practical consequence, and links into their needs today.
Both my parents served in the armed forces during the war, and I am sure that many people here had parents who served. They are literally the generation to whom we owe everything. It is important that their needs should be addressed now, while many of them are in their '70s and '80s. That is why I was pleased when, under this Government, the service of the Arctic convoy veterans was recognised—the Russian convoy club in Blackpool and many of my constituents had brought the matter to my attention. Under this Government, we have had recognition of the Suez canal veterans, the Bevin boys and the Land Army girls. Those are intangible things, but important nevertheless.
I will not give way because of the time constraints, and to allow other colleagues to get in. I am sorry.
We need to look at practical things today. When I sat down with my British Legion colleagues in Blackpool, they were particularly keen to talk to me about three main issues: mental health care, support for families at inquests, and general priority treatment for veterans; all of those are important issues. I might add in passing that the British Legion in Blackpool has played a tremendous role not just in supporting veterans, but in fundraising. Because of the nature of Blackpool as a leisure and tourism town, the British Legion organisation there has raised £100,000 over the past 18 years through its annual Poppython, which is a 10-hour entertainment extravaganza that raises money in the weeks before Remembrance day. I want to put on record my tribute to its president, Ian Coleman, and to the many members of the organisation who work very hard for it.
Many Lancashire servicemen were taken prisoner while fighting in campaigns in Singapore and elsewhere. Every year, the Burma Star Association holds its reunion in the Winter Gardens, and my hon. Friend Mrs. Humble and I have been privileged to attend those reunions over the past 10 years. Behind that organisation, one man, Jack Nield—who, sadly, died last month—had been a tireless worker for the welfare of the Burma Star veterans over the past 20 years. Those are some of the individual stories behind the organisational ones.
I want to discuss how we should honour all these people today, and how we can take these issues forward. We have talked about priority NHS treatment for veterans. Many veterans are not aware of that entitlement; indeed, many primary care trusts do not know about it either. That is why I have written to the chief executives of all my local trusts, including the Lancashire Care NHS Trust, to ask whether they have protocols for this, and whether veterans are receiving the priority treatment to which they are entitled. We must also remember that veterans suffer from a wide range of conditions, many of which might not emerge until 30 or 40 years after their active service.
The survival rate issue produces particular challenges in regard to treatment. One of the members of my local British Legion committee said that some of the people on active service in Afghanistan or Iraq would not have survived 20 or 30 years ago. That is absolutely true, and we have heard testament today to the work being done in that respect. We need to support the people involved as much as possible through the process, and I welcome the investment that is going into Selly Oak and to Headley Court, but may I make a plea to the Minister to consider what more can be done to provide support and accommodation for families who have to be there with their loved ones over a long period of time?
One of the most moving things that any Member has to do every year is to attend Remembrance day services and, in many cases, to lay wreaths in memory of the servicemen who have lost their lives. These issues have come so much more to the fore in recent years not only because of the media coverage of historical anniversaries but because we are acutely conscious of the sacrifices made in more recent conflicts, such as the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, I laid my wreath at the Blackpool war memorial, following the parents of Gunner Lee Thornton, who was killed while on active service in Iraq. His parents are still awaiting his inquest, and I have written to the Blackpool and Fylde coroner on their behalf to ask what we can do to speed up the process. I welcome the Government's proposals on centres of excellence, but may I again make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister to take whatever action he can on this issue now?
The Veterans Agency—which is based just outside my constituency, in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood—does an excellent job, but many claims are still disputed. The Government should not be afraid to put right old anomalies. In that regard, I want to make particular reference to the treatment of merchant marine servicemen, which has not always been on a par with that provided to the other services. In fact, just before his death, Jack Nield, to whom I referred earlier, sent me some casework on that issue, which I shall take up with Viscount Slim, the president of the Burma Star Association.
Every year, at the Blackpool cenotaph, Jack Nield used to deliver the famous Kohima epitaph:
"When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today"
Our servicemen are still giving their tomorrows in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their families are having to bear the pain and suffering. Let us ensure that everything that we do to support them and to honour the covenant matches that sacrifice.
I should like to look at a different aspect of the military covenant that I think parliamentary colleagues will regard as crucial, even if they disagree with some of my interpretations. It is the breakdown of the military covenant between Ministers and senior officers. I declare an interest in that I taught military history to service personnel for many years. I also did two and a half years as a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence. I have therefore seen these issues from both sides.
I think we all agree, although we might place our emphasis in different areas, that public disquiet is increasingly being expressed not only by regiments of retired officers—to whom some serving officers refer as "the dead Army"—but by serving officers themselves. I am thinking particularly of the comments made by General Sir Richard Dannatt and the perhaps more discreet comments from Air Marshall Stirrup, the present Chief of the Defence Staff, about a range of issues that have also been mentioned today.
There is nothing new about tensions between politicians and senior officers. It comes down to personalities, politics, budgets, resources and, of course, policies. Our history is littered with robust individuals in the military, including Nelson and Wellington, and Roberts and Wolsey in the late 19th century. Relations between politicians and the military during the first world war were often appalling—between Lloyd George and Haig, for example. There was also a robust relationship between Churchill and senior officers in the second world war. People such as Mountbatten and "Shan" Hackett also spring to mind. There have been faults on both sides.
I suggest, however, that it is unusual to have had such an outpouring of feeling not only from retired officers—to have all the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff speaking as one is quite unusual—but from serving officers. We should accept the fact that, although most military personnel have a deep interest in political issues and will argue strongly not only about military matters but about matters that concern them as ordinary voters, including the environment, the police and that kind of thing, they tend to have a pretty low opinion of politicians. I suspect that we come just above child molesters and journalists in their rating system.
When the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff spoke out, Mr. Mullin suggested that they were all part of a Tory plot. I do not think that that is the case at all. I suspect that many of them have never voted Conservative; some might not vote at all. The fact is that these serving and retired military men believe that the stresses and strains that the armed forces have been under for the past two or three years are unprecedented. The fact that Richard Dannatt, who is normally a most cautious and discreet man, spoke publicly strikes me as significant.
I believe that the military covenant is in danger of breaking down because the chain of command itself is under such enormous pressure. Many middle-ranking and senior officers believe that their men and women—and, more importantly, their families—do not believe that the chiefs of staff are accurately and forcefully representing their concerns to Ministers; hence they feel forced to speak out. Anyone familiar with the array of military blogs will know the reactions of servicemen and women to this matter.
One of the problems that the Government face is that their strategic defence review in 1998—which was warmly welcomed by the military establishment, which participated fully in it—was, sadly, never properly funded. Indeed, the man who drove it through, Admiral Essenheim, ended up retiring early from the Navy in disgust.
For decades, as we all know, the military appear to the Treasury to have cried wolf on resources. On so many occasions—be it the Falklands, the Gulf war, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq or Afghanistan—they have said before those conflicts, "We have insufficient resources." Invariably, they deliver. Why? At the end of the day, they do so because they cannibalise their resources; because, as former Prime Minister Blair knew, they have a can-do mentality; and, more recently, because we have been borrowers from the Americans. Without being able literally to borrow kit in Afghanistan, the armed forces would not be able to operate.
The military fear that eventually the armed forces will be irreparably damaged if this current tempo continues, and that there will be, in the words of General the Lord Guthrie, some degree of "operational failure". What is the attitude of Ministers to this? I do not accept the criticism of some colleagues that the problem is that none of the defence Ministers has any military experience. That is the norm and is likely to be the future norm, and it does not mean that they cannot perform their functions properly. After all, one does not have to be a train driver to be Secretary of State for Transport, or to be a teacher to be Education Secretary. What those in the professions that operate within those Ministries look for is Ministers who are competent and forceful and can explain the case and, where necessary, take responsibility for failures and inadequacies that they are ultimately responsible for. I am afraid to say that one of the Government's problems is that the Prime Minister has a reputation, unlike his predecessor, for not being particularly interested in defence. He has almost a Gladstonian attitude to defence, and it has not been helped by spinning.
Many comments have been made about the fact that the current Secretary of State is double-hatted. I do not cast any aspersions on his hard work—he is a very committed man and I suspect that privately, he is deeply embarrassed about being double-hatted. However, the message that that sends to the servicemen and their families is entirely negative. It does not matter if he is doing only one hour a week on that other job; what matters is the perception, as much as anything else. That has contributed in part to what I believe is the erosion of the military covenant.
The crucial element missing from any debate about the military covenant and relations between Ministers and the military is the role of the policy-making civil servants, who are absolutely crucial. In my day at the MOD, they were quite formidable. Sir Michael Quinlan, the permanent under-secretary, was a man who made the Chief of the Defence Staff automatically put an exercise book down the back of his trousers and my noble Friend Lord King start hiccupping nervously. He was a formidable man. I am not sure whether the policy-making civil servants of today are of the same calibre, but they are crucial in developing many policy areas and in maintaining the military covenant. We need to look more carefully at their role.
If the House at least accepts my contention that there are problems—even if they do not accept that there is a breakdown of the military covenant—how do we repair them? First, Ministers just have to try harder and not spin. They have the responsibility of repairing mutual confidence. Equally, the military should not leak. They should not go to the media because if they do, why should their ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen not do the same thing if they happen to disagree with the operational orders of a senior officer? This is going to depend on robust personal relationships. I see nothing wrong in the fact that there will be robust discussions between the military and Ministers.
Finally, we need to look at the whole question of our national security strategy and institutions. If we do not get this right, we will have future conflicts in which the relationship will break down completely, and we will revert to a position in which politicians and the military have mutual antipathy, as they did during the first world war, when the military were referred to as "brass hats" and civilians were referred to as "frocks" because of their frock-coats. We need to get this right.
I am aware of the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall be as brief as I can be. It is a privilege and a pleasure to follow Mr. Simpson, who made a characteristically excellent speech, although I disagreed with some of his points. I will not deconstruct his speech, but I agreed with much of what he said. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, Dr. Murrison, introduced himself as, effectively, a serving officer. I remember the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk sticking it to me in an Adjournment debate regarding what I did before I was a Member here, albeit in a slightly different context. Nevertheless, things have moved on and it seems to be much more the norm for officers—on the other side of the House, uniquely—to get operational experience and to come back here and make their recent expertise known in the House. That is no bad thing and it adds to the mix in a useful and important way.
It is not my intention to criticise; my point is that it is pretty much the norm for Members to go on some kind of operations, and to come back to the House and give it the benefit of their expertise. That change has occurred in the past five or 10 years, and it has certainly occurred in the relatively short time that I have been here. That is a good thing, but it flags up the complicated nature of the relationship between people who have served, those who are serving—be they members of the Territorial Army or of the reserve forces—and those who are on half pay. I might be wrong, but I think that some former Chiefs of the Defence Staff are on half pay, rather than being retired officers in the other House. I want later to address a few aspects of the behaviour of the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff.
Nick Harvey said at the beginning of his speech that the military covenant should be codified. We all know that, in a way, it is codified. [ Interruption. ] Well, it is and it is not. The reality is that one cannot codify a relationship between society and service personnel. The fundamental thing about the military covenant is that it is exactly that—a relationship involving society as whole. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces rightly pointed out how important it is that we have a meaningful and proper debate about the resources that we spend on defence and how we spend them.
The accommodation situation is still a disgrace. I have no idea how we as a nation, regardless of which party is in power, have allowed military accommodation to reach a point where, frankly, it is not good enough. The Government are doing what they can. They have put in £5 billion—we have all heard the figures, which have been mentioned many times—and they are doing many things that will benefit serving personnel. A future Conservative Government might well do something similar—I have no idea—but I notice that when the Conservatives tell us that we should spend more than the uplift we are already spending, they never add to that a spending commitment. That has to devalue to some degree what they say. When they come up with a spending commitment, they may have a stronger moral edge to their argument.
I mentioned the hon. Member for North Devon simply because it is wrong to say that the covenant is akin to a legal contract—that it is almost like terms and conditions of service, or a document that lays down the relationship between a Government and their service personnel. Much of what we should be doing with the military covenant is about people's attitudes. We have all heard the stories recently about troops being forced out of swimming pools and people putting in planning objections to buildings—at Headley Court and elsewhere—that will be used by people visiting their loved ones who have been injured in the forces. These things are commonplace and it is the job of all of us and others—including the media, I would like to think—to change people's attitudes.
Fundamentally, it is true that how much money we spend as a nation on defence is a big issue. We frame it in terms of a proportion of our gross domestic product or sometimes we talk about increasing expenditure in real terms. Whatever we do, there is an argument to be won with the public at large. For that reason, when we talk about the military covenant, we should think in those terms—of the public at large—rather than just in terms of the relationship between Ministers, the Government and service personnel.
I want to add a mild note of criticism. People generally tend not to criticise the Royal British Legion and, on the whole, I do not either. I do think, however, that a touch of some aspects of its campaign over the military covenant has jumped into that space for criticism. It may have been done for good campaigning reasons, but it has jumped into that space where people have tended to view the campaign as a criticism of the Government. I find it slightly peculiar that the Royal British Legion put on events at party conferences, yet did not allow Ministers to speak on the grounds that it would be political. Why come to party political conferences? It seemed rather peculiar. The Royal British Legion's campaign has largely been sound and appropriately delivered, but some aspects in the margins should be thought about again more critically before it launches into its next big campaign on whatever subject.
I would now like to say a few words about what I believe to have been disgraceful behaviour in the other place, which was co-ordinated and organised by the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. These are people who want to put themselves above politics, yet they will quite happily stand at the launch of a perfectly legitimate "Way Forward" Tory party document. I realise that Conservative Way Forward is more a Tory think-tank than an official party document, but it is preposterous in the extreme to think that former chiefs of staff can write a foreword to a political pamphlet and then try to pretend that they are above politics. That is a farce. Frankly, although I realise that they have a great deal to contribute—they are enormously talented and capable officers—if they want to put their political cards on the table, let them do it, but let us not shilly-shally about what their political sentiments are.
BlackBerrys are a miracle. I think I am right in saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am allowed to get some data on my BlackBerry as I am sitting here. I say that because this may not be a complete list. I do not think that General Guthrie mentioned the fact that he was a paid director of Colt Defence, Siboney Ltd, Sciens Capital, and Rothschild; or that Field Marshall Inge mentioned that he was a paid director of Aegis, which clearly has interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are excellent companies, by the way, and I know that they will be very excited and pleased to see themselves referred to in this place today. Lord Boyce is a paid director of WS Atkins and of Vosper Thornycroft. I may be wrong, as I have just had a quick perusal of the Hansard from the other place. I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what the rules are and I doubt whether they have broken any of them. However, I will say that former chiefs of staff are probably earning more from their directorships than paid Members of this House and that if they do not want to declare those directorships and if they want to get politicised and personalised—
Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. It is one thing to refer to the qualifications and interests of Members of the other House, but he must be careful not to imply anything else when he makes these remarks.
I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me just say that if they want to become personalised and politicised and to earn lots of money from interests that they do not declare before they make a speech, that will enormously devalue how they are perceived. That would be a great pity, as it would devalue their advice and their comments, which would be highly regrettable.
Let me make one final point. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—as ever, he makes very good points— referred to the important relationship between Ministers and chiefs of staff. That really is important. General Jackson has made many comments recently, and I sometimes think that he is being criticised for having been highly professional about how he conducted that relationship. Perhaps it is time for the former chiefs of staff in the other place to reflect on whether they think that their co-ordinated and politicised outburst of a couple of weeks ago helped or hindered the relationship between Ministers and the current chiefs of staff. If a Minister is chatting to a chief of staff about the important issues of the day, he might be thinking that in a couple of months' or a year's time, that chief of staff will be quoting personal conversations or behaviour and slagging him off personally. That is highly regrettable. The former chiefs of staff next door have done considerable damage. I know that they will not be embarrassed. From what I can see of them, they are not embarrassed at anything as they think that they are above politics. Well, they are not.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Joyce, many of whose comments will bear much closer interest and much further address by both Houses.
I want to talk about a subject that goes to the very heart of the military covenant. It is a subject that has been hinted at by the Ministers and Liberal Democrat Members who are present, but which is rarely mentioned for the evil that it is, red in tooth and claw, and for the damage that it does, particularly to the Army. Bearing in mind the former service of my colleagues on the Front Bench, my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), I will concentrate most of my comments on the Army, but some if not all of them will apply to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. I wish to talk about the evil of undermanning, principally inside the Army, and the vast damage that it is doing to the covenant as we understand it.
We are told that the Army is 3,000 men under strength. That is complete and utter nonsense. It is more like 10,000 men under strength, and it is rapidly approaching a position where battalions, brigades and regiments are incapable of operating in the field and where units are deploying on operations at a non-combat-effective strength, as I shall illustrate in a moment. Why do we not hear about that in more detail? The reason is that, with respect, it is only anoraks such as me who have been deeply involved in this stuff in the past who understand it—I do not mean to sound like an old sweat, but there we are. Also, we do not hear from the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, because they were responsible for a drama that occurred several years ago, which has now turned into a crisis that is likely to bring units to their knees, if it has not done so already.
Some 18 months ago, the 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment, now scrapped and turned into something call the Mercian Regiment—excuse the curl of my lip—deployed to Iraq one rifle company strong, with another company that was capable of driving and manning its Warrior armoured vehicles. That was all: the unit was not combat-effective when it deployed.
We recently heard of some regrettable deaths in action in a unit that rejoices in the name of the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, but which we will more properly call the 19th of Foot, the Green Howards or the North Riding. The unit is meant to be 600 strong—that is its peace establishment—but it is not. It is 100 men under strength already, in peace time. When the unit deployed to Helmand in Afghanistan, it left 100 men who were unfit for operations back in its barracks. The unit left behind another 200 men to man the barracks in England. From personal experience, I know that that will involve compassionate cases, people on career courses and, in fairness, people who are recruiting. A unit of 500 therefore went into the field 200 strong. The unit had 100 reinforcements from the Territorial Army—God bless them—and 200 reinforcements from the rest of the regular Army.
If I asked the Ministers present what the tour gap would be for the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, they would probably come up with a reasonable figure of, let us say, 12 to 15 months. What they will not know—this is no fault of theirs; I hold them both in the highest regard—is where those regular reinforcements will have come from or what the tour gap will be for those guys who are now out in Afghanistan, because it will not be recorded. I understand that. The point is that those young men who are out there as regular Army reinforcements with the 2nd Yorkshires will get almost no tour gap at all. I shall describe the effect of that later. What is also interesting—I ask the Ministers please to listen to this—is that there are no battle casualty replacements beyond the pool of 17-year-olds who will turn 18 while the battalion is in Afghanistan.
When the commanding officer of my former regiment, which used to be called the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters before it too was scrapped, started to suffer fatalities among—mercifully in a way, although that is quite the wrong word to use—private soldiers, lance-corporals and the like, he went to the system and asked for battle casualty replacements. The system said "You have some 17-year-olds who are about to turn 18. Physician, heal thyself." He was able to do that. Then senior officers began to be killed. He went to the system and said "Could I please have a new sergeant and a new captain?" I mentioned Captain Sean Dolan the other day at Prime Minister's questions.
The answer came back, "You have 17-year-olds who are about to turn into 18-year-olds." The commanding officer said "No, I do not want recruits out of the depot aged 18 who, God bless them, are only combat infantrymen. I want hardened, trained sergeants, captains and the like." The system said to him "Phone a friend. Get hold of your mates. See whether they can provide another captain or another sergeant for you." He ended up robbing Peter to pay Paul—going to units in theatre asking BCRs to come forward. If my grandfather had experienced that at Passchendaele or my father at Anzio, they would have laughed at a system that had reached such a parlous state.
What are the implications? As I have said, on paper the Army is 3,000 under strength. As for the reality—which I illustrated with the figures for the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment—I reckon that about 10,000 men are under strength or combat-ineffective. On top of that, the Government in their wisdom have decided to disband three battalions. I say to Ministers "Please, let us get this sorted out." If there are more battalions than there is manpower to man them, let us get rid of the very expensive senior non-commissioned officers and the like. Let us try to rationalise the manpower that we have. Let us turn that into effective units. But we cannot have cadre-strength units deploying on operations when they are not ready to fight.
We should roundly condemn the efforts of the Ministry of Defence, and in particular the recruiting agencies in the Army. Recruiting is clearly but an adjunct of the manpower equation, which consists first of recruiting, secondly of retention of recruits during training, and thirdly of retention of serving soldiers. The MOD must get a grip. It is perfectly possible to recruit. Believe me, I have done it, in a recruiting famine—admittedly a few years ago, but when the economy was in considerably better shape than it is now. Along with others, I produced a battalion that was 100 men over strength. It can be done. I will not listen to the excuses of—with respect—the Scots in particular, who say that it is impossible to recruit in Scotland. If it can be done in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire to the level that we achieved, it can be done anywhere. At present, with the armed forces' reputations never higher and with the economy, sadly, rapidly deteriorating and all the implications that that carries, it is a disgrace that we see no recruiting parties in the constituency of Newark. There are kids there who are gagging to get into uniform.
How does this impinge on the military covenant? I think it is very simple. If you do not have enough blokes, the nasty bits come around too often, and when the nasty bits come around too often, the blokes leave. They do not leave because they want to; 'er indoors makes them go because she is fed up with living in Tidworth, which has rotten schools and rotten housing and is a million miles from Nottingham where mam is with the kids, back in St Ann's or somewhere similar. She cannot see her family, and her husband is not just away, but away and in serious danger. Then he comes back and cannot go on his career course because there is no time. That means that he cannot be promoted and cannot pick up the extra money that would come with promotion, and she exercises not unreasonable but wholly irresistible pressure on that young man to leave the Army. As a result, we lose the services of the most important, best-trained and most gallant men whom we have.
Undermanning, which is a function of poor recruiting, poor retention in training and appalling retention in the units, is crippling the Army. I urge Ministers to consider the position carefully, and to put their personal energy and determination into rattling the cages of incompetents in the MOD and trying to sort this out before it becomes a real crisis.
I welcome the debate. I recognise the hard work done by the Royal British Legion, but I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Joyce that some of its campaigning has been a bit misguided. I think that it has been hijacked by certain people for particular reasons. Dr. Murrison, who referred not to honouring the covenant but to the broken covenant, is a good example. However, the most disgraceful example that I have seen in the past few weeks is the pamphlet produced by Mr. Jenkin, published by Conservative Way Forward, which uses the poppy symbol as a way of blaming the Government for people's deaths in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
I wish to say a few words about the campaign and military issues to do with medical services. I am proud to be a member of the Defence Committee, and I can say that in the inquiry that we are currently undertaking we are coming across only good news stories on the military services. On armed forces compensation, the criticisms coming from the Conservative Front Bench would have more credibility if they had also been made when the relevant Bill was passing through the House, but they were not. I served on the Committee that dealt with that Bill, and I can say that it was this Government who brought in lump sum payments for the first time for wounded servicemen and women. All Mr. Howarth did in terms of the report to the Defence Committee was oppose my suggestion that unmarried partners should benefit from pension entitlements, arguing that it would be immoral for them to receive such payments.
I know time is short, but I wish finally to comment on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk about the former defence chiefs. I agree with everything he said, and let me add that I think some of them have selective memory loss. On the "Today" programme on
"I was encouraged that the Chancellor in his statement recognised the work that had been done by the Armed Forces who" have had a
"particularly busy few years and by matching the good increase that happened in spending around 2002 with a similar sort of increase this time. So that is certainly to be welcomed".
That is in stark contrast to what Lord Boyce is saying now. Former defence chiefs sometimes need to be reminded of their earlier comments when they make statements in the other place.
I am sorry that Mr. Jones, who is a colleague of mine on the Defence Committee, did not have more time in which to speak; I am sure he will make up for that at future meetings of the Committee. I also want to apologise for not being present for the start of the debate. I missed what I am sure was an excellent speech by my hon. Friend Nick Harvey. I noticed, however, that the Chamber calmed down once he had left; things were much more stable when he went for his cup of tea.
I did not hear an apology from the Conservative Front Bench for the Annington Homes fiasco during their contribution, which was churlish and full of animosity. I presume there was slight embarrassment that the Conservatives did not call this debate, as they perhaps did not regard it as being of sufficient priority to the Conservative party. I am pleased that we have called it, however, because it is an important debate.
Where was the hon. Gentleman on the last occasion we had an opportunity in Government time to debate defence, which was on
I can provide a full copy of my diary if the hon. Gentleman wishes, as I am sure he would follow it in great detail. I attend the vast majority of defence debates in this House. I take a great interest in defence matters, as I do on the Defence Committee itself, so I will take no lessons from the Conservative party on these issues.
There have been some great contributions. Mr. Hamilton talked about his experience with the Glencorse barracks and the families and education and housing. My hon. Friend Mr. Hancock talked about his experience on the Defence Committee and passionately discussed housing, which has been a common theme of many contributions. Mr. Marsden talked about priority treatment for veterans and the Veterans Agency. Mr. Simpson made a good speech in which he talked about the breakdown in the relationship between Ministers and the senior military. Mr. Joyce talked about his expertise in the military and the contribution that people such as he can make to the House. He also criticised the former defence chiefs. Patrick Mercer talked about the Army being under strength by about 10,000 and said that we needed to recruit more people to the armed forces. Mr. Jones talked about the British Legion campaign in slightly less glowing terms than others have done.
I want to pay tribute to the armed forces, which are among the best in the world—indeed, they may be the best. Two of my constituents, Captain John McDermid and Private Scott Kennedy, have passed away within the past year, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to their families and friends.
There is no doubt that the armed forces are overstretched. The National Audit Office says that they are 7,000 below strength. We have heard another figure of 10,000 in relation to the Army alone. For at least the past five years the forces have been operating above predicted deployment levels. One in six soldiers is on missions more frequently than the harmony guidelines rule. Health professionals are the worst hit, and reservists fill far too many of the posts. The situation is so desperate that the forces are scraping around for volunteers. Military bandsmen have been put on standby to replace infantry battalions, and storemen from Faslane are being asked to do front-line duties in Iraq. Even Members of the Scottish Parliament are now in the frame for action. I am sure that Mr. Salmond will soon be asked to serve next. I am sure that he sees himself as the He-Man on the front line in Helmand, but, as happens in this House, he will probably not even bother to turn up.
One positive thing that is going through the Scottish Parliament in relation to today's debate is the Member's Bill to allow the fatal accident inquiries for Scottish soldiers who have died abroad to be followed through in Scotland. If the Bill were passed, it would reduce the wait involved, both for Scottish families and families south of the border. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a sensible way forward?
My hon. Friend raises a good point, and I was going to address that subject later. I would like to hear an update from the Minister about the negotiations that have taken place with the Scottish Administration about the possibility of managing to get the Bill through so that we can relieve some of the pressure down south.
The planning assumptions set up in the strategic defence review in 1998 did not allow for two major deployments, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the same time. With overstretch and under-resourcing we are in danger of abusing the good will of the armed forces and turning the can-do ethos into a make-do muddle. I am sure that many people agree that the Iraq campaign was a huge mistake in its own right. It had not only a massive impact on our reputation on the world stage, but an equally damaging effect on our armed forces because of overstretch. The number of attacks reduced in Basra as a result of our withdrawal from Basra palace, and the logical conclusion is to withdraw from Iraq altogether. We also have serious doubts about 2,500 personnel being the minimum force protection that is required from next spring. The Minister for the Armed Forces referred earlier in the year to a figure of 5,000. I have two questions for that Minister. Are we relying on the Iraqi forces to protect our forces in Iraq? Will the Minister respond to claims that a deal has been done with General Mohan to free Mahdi army prisoners in return for relief from the attacks on our forces?
Numerous hon. Members have talked about housing. Despite protestations from the Government, single living accommodation is in a terrible state—almost half that accommodation is of the lowest standard—and many officers and soldiers say that it is a significant reason for leaving the armed forces. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has highlighted the reduction of about 14,000 bed spaces in respect of modernisation between 2001 and 2007. During that time, the MOD delivered £2.2 billion in asset sales to the Treasury. The Government say that they have a 10-year plan, but the former Deputy Prime Minister had a 10-year plan for transportation, and look what happened to that.
Health has come up as an issue on numerous occasions. The Defence Committee has conducted an inquiry into that very subject. The difficulties are not at the acute end, but at the mental health and primary care ends. The issue is about the relationship between primary care and secondary care, but the one between primary care and the military is also the difficulty. We should perhaps look more into creating those links so that people do not fall between the stools.
We have covered the issue of inquests, and I would like to see some progress in Scottish authorities being allowed to take part in dealing with casualties from theatre.
What are the consequences of difficulties with housing, health and overstretch? The result is that personnel are disillusioned. In a recent survey, three in 10 said that they did not feel valued, and one in four said that morale was very low or low. There are retention difficulties, with 5,000 leaving the forces in the last year, one in five wanting to quit and more than half thinking about it. Crucially, a third blamed overstretch.
The Government have made grand pronouncements about the care of our armed forces. They feign disgust when the generals speak out and they say that the armed forces, unlike Oliver, never ask for more. But there is a mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality—on shoddy housing, overstretched personnel, bereaved families waiting for months and years for answers, over-used and faulty equipment, and paltry compensation. The Government are failing our armed forces who, for their gallantry, bravery and selflessness in service of their country, deserve so much more. I urge the Government to concede that those dangerous radicals, the Royal British Legion, may have a point and honour the covenant.
It has been an interesting debate. I pay tribute to our armed forces and their families. Our armed forces are the most outstanding in the world, and I have had the privilege of meeting them in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as around the UK and elsewhere. They never cease to amaze and impress me with what they do. Their families give them so much support and deal with so many issues.
I also thank those who support our armed forces. The debate today relates to the Royal British Legion covenant, but I include ex-service organisations and charities, such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—SSAFA—which has done an outstanding job in terms of housing at Headley Court and helping to refurbish the accommodation at Selly Oak. The Royal British Legion has done an excellent job in working with the homeless, with the Compass project and with ex-service personnel in prison. Other wonderful organisations include BLESMA, the British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association, which does an amazing job with amputees. There are also the regimental organisations and benevolent funds, as well as the families federations, which provide tremendous support for service families.
We are now doing more than ever to support our armed forces and their families, and I shall set out some of the reasons why I believe that to be the case. I welcome the Royal British Legion campaign, because it gives us the chance to have this debate and set out what more we are doing, and can do, and to listen to what other people are saying. I spoke with the Royal British Legion before it announced the campaign, and it recognised that the Government have done a lot to improve the support for and treatment of our armed forces and their families. It recognises that, but of course it wants us to do more. We have announced a Command Paper, which will consider what we have done and what we need to do across the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the whole Government to support our armed forces and their families. I welcome that, because it will do a lot of good work. It will report in the spring and provide an important benchmark for what we have done and what we will do in the future.
I agree with much of what the Minister has said, but does he not think that it is an absolute shambles that the recent Public Accounts Committee report highlighted the fact that almost half of all forces accommodation is substandard and that there are significant gaps in the Ministry's understanding of its estate and where priority funding is needed? What will the Minister do about that?
I welcome the report, but I do not accept the facts. More than 90 per cent. of the accommodation is in category 1 or 2. We recognise the legacy of underfunding over decades, and I hope that Opposition Members accept their responsibility for that, not least in terms of the Annington Homes deal and how it has affected accommodation. We continue to give priority to the worst accommodation. We are doing a great deal to improve provision, with 12,000 family homes improved over the past six years and £5 billion to be spent over the next 10 years. We have made significant inroads into the problems that we inherited and for which we, of course, now have responsibility.
I turn now to the speeches made in the debate. My hon. Friend Mr. Hamilton made some interesting comments about education, as did Dr. Murrison. I can assure the House that we continue to work hard with our colleagues in the education Departments on the problems in the system.
My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian also made an important point about the challenge that we face in distributing the resources, and he set out the difficulties that the shortage of skills causes to our efforts to improve housing. He also noted the role of local connections in prioritising service personnel. He mentioned Scottish issues, and I have had discussions with those members of the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly who have responsibility for armed services matters.
I realise that time is very short, but will my hon. Friend also have discussions with the Royal British Legion Scotland, which is separate from the UK Royal British Legion and is, of course, older?
I have good relationships with Poppyscotland and am happy to have discussions with that organisation at any time.
Mr. Hancock made some interesting points about the Select Committee hearing on the subject of health, at which a good debate took place. He also mentioned the Annington Homes deal, which has caused so many problems for housing. However, he agreed that the military covenant was not broken and that the Government were doing a significant amount to improve things.
Mr. Simpson is a distinguished historian with great experience of the staff college. I always listen to his views, although I am not sure that I agree with his picture of the relationship between chiefs and Ministers. I see the chiefs all the time and, although they are robust and put forward their views, we have a good relationship. If he goes back to Alanbrooke's diaries and their account of his relationship with Churchill or of the relationship that the Adjutant-General had with Churchill, he will know that history offers us some interesting guidelines. I always listen to what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but I do not accept his analysis on this occasion.
My hon. Friend Mr. Joyce raised some important issues about spending on the armed forces and the public debate that we should have. My hon. Friend Mr. Marsden made an important point about our service and support for veterans. It is important that we support them, whether with mental health care or priority treatment—the Secretary of State for Health and I have recently announced some initiatives on both points. Veterans are important, so I hope that all hon. Members will support Veterans' day on
Patrick Mercer, of course, has great experience. I always listen carefully to his comments and he made some important points. However, he will know that significant work is also going on in recruitment and retention. I recently met the chief personnel officers for each service to talk about that and we continue to do lots of things to deal with the problem.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jones made a point about compensation. The 2005 scheme introduced a lump sum and a guaranteed income payment scheme. It is important that we recognise that, to the most seriously injured, that can amount to significant amounts of money—hundreds of thousands of pounds during a person's lifetime.
The Liberal Democrats have produced a document called "Our Nation's Duty" that fails to recognise the progress made by the Government or the measures that we have taken. I do not think that they understand the many things that we are doing.
Nick Harvey spoke specifically about health. I visit injured service personnel in Selly Oak, Headley Court and elsewhere, and I also speak to their families. Overwhelmingly, they believe that the Government are providing excellent support and medical care. As for aftercare, Headley Court provides excellent rehabilitation, and good progress has been made elsewhere with welfare for families. To improve matters further, we introduced in October a pathway of care that allows us to follow injured personnel from the time they are evacuated back home right through to their eventual discharge. The pathway of care will be rigorously monitored, by Ministers and by those involved at the centre. I believe that that important step forward will ensure even better standards of service and care for our armed forces personnel.
The hon. Member for North Devon talked about establishing military wards in the medical defence units around the country. Those units have military medical people who work with NHS staff, but we do not believe that they should have solely military wards, as usually there are not more than two wards full of military patients at any one time. However, it is true that we are developing a military-managed ward at Selly Oak. Lots of military people are involved in that, including a military ward master, and we are also in discussions about how the new hospital building there can be used to improve the care that we offer.
In the minute that remains, I want to remind the House about all the things that the Government have done for the armed forces. For example, their pay rise this year was the best in the public sector, amounting to more than 9 per cent. for the most junior ranks. Military personnel also get an operational bonus worth £2,320, as well as council tax relief. The welfare package for our armed forces is the best that we have ever had, and the facilities at Headley Court and Selly Oak offer greatly improved support and welfare provision for casualties and their families. I believe that our armed forces now get the best medical care that has ever been provided.
As I said earlier, significant amounts of money have been spent on housing for our armed forces, and much progress has been made in that regard. Other improvements include the modernisation of terms and conditions for the Gurkhas, which has been welcomed by many people. In addition, we have taken many initiatives to improve recruitment and retention in the services.
I welcome this debate. The Government are doing a great deal to improve the support extended to our armed forces and their families. I believe that it has never been better, but we continue to look at what more we can do, and I am sure that the Command Paper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced will lead to further improvements in the future.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House recognises the commitment, bravery and professionalism of the armed forces in all their operations; further recognises the enormous contribution made by service families to the effectiveness of the UK's armed forces and the debt owed by the nation to veterans; welcomes the major programme of improvements made by the Government to support all of these groups since 1997, including in the areas of medical support and improvement and replacement of sub-standard service accommodation; further welcomes the role played by ex-service organisations and other charities in contributing to the support of these groups and the Government's commitment to working closely with such bodies to improve support in the future; and commends the Government's decision to produce a cross-cutting Command Paper setting out the progress already achieved in this area and what more will be done in the future.