Military Covenant

Part of Opposition Day — [11th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 6:07 pm on 16th February 2011.

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Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester 6:07 pm, 16th February 2011

I have every confidence that the devolved Assemblies and elected representatives from the areas that they cover will not be silent on the Bill.

On Monday, members of the Committee visited the Colchester garrison, Merville barracks. They witnessed a virtually deserted barracks, because virtually ever soldier of 16 Air Assault Brigade is currently serving in Helmand province. I should like to place on record my admiration of, and thanks to, all soldiers in that brigade, including those from other nations who are attached to it. I understand that three people from the Danish army attached to it have lost their lives.

Members of the Select Committee also saw the modern housing there, which is single person's accommodation, for which the last Government can take credit. I do not agree with its being funded by a private finance initiative, because it will cost the public purse more in the long run, but it is the yardstick by which the provision of all accommodation for single military personnel will be judged in future. However, the Committee also saw the outside of some of the family accommodation. Although we did not go inside, it is accepted that some of it is not as good as it should be.

Across the road, former Army housing, now acquired by a housing association, is having millions of pounds spent on it from the public purse to provide additional rented accommodation for civilians. That accommodation is welcome, but when an Army family living in their substandard house see public money being spent across the road on modernising the most up-to-date housing available, they have to ask what the military covenant is doing. How can the Government find money to do up houses for civilians, which of course I welcome, yet tell us that there is no money to modernise the housing of people whose soldier husbands are serving in Afghanistan and putting their lives on the line? That has to be addressed. I am not making any party political point, because the families we met were not bothered about party politics as far as I could tell. They just wanted their Government to do something about the problem.

I shall end by talking about education, which is one of the three subjects covered by the covenant under the Bill, although others will flow from them. The pupil premium has been mentioned, and I welcome the concept, but it has not yet been spelled out to me what the criteria will be for that money stream to come forward for the children of military personnel. It will be one thing to identify military children on Army, Navy and Air Force bases, where the majority of the children at the local school will be from a military background. However, we know that increasing numbers of armed forces personnel do not live on military bases. How will the pupil premium find its way to young people from such families?

I welcome the Armed Forces Bill, and I believe that the armed forces covenant will be enshrined in the law of the land. I do not want to argue about the legal semantics, but the Bill is a huge step forward and we should thank the Royal British Legion for all its work.