Military Covenant

Part of Opposition Day — [4th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 3:34 pm on 12th December 2007.

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Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce PPS (Rt Hon John Hutton, Secretary of State), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform 3:34 pm, 12th December 2007

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—

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