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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Armed Forces Covenant Report 2016.
It is a great privilege to lead this debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting us the opportunity to discuss this most important of national issues in the Chamber.
As the world in which we find ourselves is unsettled and tumultuous, more than ever we must be mindful that some 150,000 men and women stand ready to defend our nation and to take on military challenges with our allies around the world to help to maintain peace, safe seas and safe skies. Standing firmly behind them are their families: silent spouses, children, parents and siblings who give them the strength to take on whatever challenges we ask of them. Our armed forces personnel, their families and our veterans are all citizens who deserve a voice. RAF Boulmer and the Otterburn ranges, the site of the largest Army training area, are in my constituency. I am deeply mindful of the role of MPs in sending troops to war when required. When I was a new MP, it struck me that we needed to do more in the House to talk about the armed forces covenant so that we could better understand what it means in practical terms and how we can help to increase the nation’s commitment to it. I am therefore pleased that we are now able to discuss the 2016 report and the covenant’s impact on those it affects.
In putting myself forward as an advocate for the covenant and finding ways to spread the word, I had not expected that military families who were feeling disenfranchised and unable to raise issues of concern by virtue of their service would give me the honour of contacting me to talk about their problems. Those problems include schools admissions, housing maintenance, difficulties with car leasing contracts after deployment at short notice, spousal employment, lack of mental health support and the physical challenges left by past service. Such big and small problems cause great pressure to service personnel and veterans. They create disadvantages that would not arise if those people were civilians and make them question whether to stay or leave.
What shocked me—I had not identified this before—was the sense of disempowerment that many of our military families too often feel. Most importantly, they feel unable to talk to their MP about welfare issues in the way our civilian constituents do all the time. The first issue I would like to raise with the Minister—perhaps this could be the first item in next year’s report as a successful change to help our military families—is a change to the defence infrastructure notice, which sets out the rules and regulations on when serving personnel can or cannot talk to their MP.
In a Public Accounts Committee hearing last summer, Lieutenant General Nugee gave a clear verbal indication that it was fine for personnel and their families to talk to their MP about any non-military matters of concern. We have taken that great news to be an active commitment to the covenant vision of helping to reduce disadvantage for military families. However, the reality is not quite so clear because the notice still does not reflect this sentiment. I ask the Minister to look again at the DIN, which affects all Ministry of Defence employees—military and civilian.
I do not intend to respond to all questions at the time they are raised throughout the debate, but this is a matter of significant importance. I want to make it absolutely clear that any member of the service family who wishes to approach their Member of Parliament can do so in the way that any civilian would. I am not sure that the DIN does need to be changed—I am not sure that it is as ambiguous as my hon. Friend suggests, although I am happy to check—but if it does, I am happy to commit to doing that.
The hierarchical and command-based rules that are needed for military discipline in war should never create a barrier whereby military personnel and their families are not free to raise concerns about day-to-day issues that affect them. Those issues, to name but a few, might be: family housing matters, which are subject to the MOD’s oversight; school matters, which come under the purview of the Department for Education; or health matters, which are the responsibility of the Department of Health.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, although it is one that rather puzzles me. I have spent 20 years in one of the most military constituencies in Britain. I see service people in my surgeries day in, day out, and I deal with all kinds of issues on their behalf. I have never once heard of any kind of restriction on them speaking to me.
That is very encouraging, but my postbag over the past 18 months—I have received correspondence from not only local people, but service personnel throughout the country—suggests that people often have a real sense of anxiety about coming forward. Sometimes when wives have done so, there have been repercussions for their husbands, who have been challenged about stepping outside the chain of command into the civilian arena of their MP’s office. I hope that we can encourage other soldiers and their families to do what the constituents of my hon. Friend Mr Gray have done.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She is making a powerful contribution. This is about not only those who are currently serving but those who have served. A constituent called Linda McHugh came to me in difficult circumstances after she was denied a war widow’s pension because she had remarried. People who remarried after 2015 have now been protected, but does the hon. Lady agree that it is only right and proper that the Minister looks into restoring the pension rights of those who were married to servicemen in the past? For example, Linda was married to a serviceman who lost his life in 1973.
We will leave that very interesting point with the Minister. We must continually be mindful about war pensions, especially if people are experiencing real hardship and strain. The covenant exists to support not only young men and women coming back from recent wars, but those who have supported and served over many decades. The hon. Gentleman’s question can go on the Minister’s list.
I am grateful to Ian Blackford for making his point, which has been raised on a number of occasions. I am very pleased that, in principle, the Government recognised the issue when the correction was made back in 2015. Although, as I think hon. Members will accept, there are questions over retrospection that we must consider carefully because of the precedent that may be set, I reassure the House, as I have reassured individual Members before, that we are looking carefully into the matter.
I commend the Minister and his devoted team of civil servants in the MOD, who are working tirelessly to build on the original direction of the covenant that was set out in the Armed Forces Act 2011. That Act calls on the Secretary of State for Defence to publish an annual report setting out what has been done in the past year—not only by the MOD itself, but by other Government Departments, and wider business and community networks across our nation—to help to reduce disadvantage for our service families and veterans.
This year’s report highlights some of the great work done during 2016 in a number of areas, including: to build up the corporate covenant, and to encourage more private sector businesses to get involved in the practicalities of become corporate covenant signatories; to improve regional consistency in the levels of support received by the armed forces, especially through the community covenant; to improve on communicating what the covenant is, what it does and who it supports; and, most critically, to continue to prioritise issues that are known to be creating disadvantage for service families and veterans. I will take a few minutes to discuss each of those areas in the report, beginning with the corporate covenant.
The MOD team that is focused on building up the number of businesses and organisations that sign up to the corporate covenant has been working as hard as ever. More than 1,300 businesses have signed up to make their organisations more military-friendly and understanding, and able to benefit from the great skill sets that service leavers and reservists can bring to business. Last year, our all-party group on the armed forces covenant wrote to the then 850 organisations that had signed up to ask them what they were doing as part of their commitment. From the big boys such as BT, Google and Hewlett Packard, to small companies such as DJ Rees Services in Merthyr Tydfil, those that have signed up are changing the way they do business and seeking staff so that they support the covenant concept.
I mention DJ Rees because its reply was my favourite. This decorating, building and refurbishment business—an SME—decided that, having signed up to the corporate covenant, it would ask its whole supply chain to do so as well. It drafted a covenant on behalf of each supplier, encouraging them to sign up to the bronze employer recognition scheme—the first rung of the scheme’s ladder—and formally asking them to commit to provide one week’s work placement as part of the armed forces employability pathway scheme. In this way, DJ Rees was able to create, with its suppliers, many more work placements in its part of Wales. Just imagine the impact we could have if every large business that has signed up to the corporate covenant drove such a commitment through its supply chain.
Does the hon. Lady agree that small and medium-sized businesses in other parts of the United Kingdom, such as European Circuits in my constituency, which has signed up to the corporate covenant, can also play a major part?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am keen that MPs from both sides of the House become more involved in spreading the message about the benefits of businesses in their constituencies signing the corporate covenant.
As MPs, we are perhaps more connected than anyone to our local business community, so we have a great opportunity to evangelise about the importance of businesses committing to the covenant and the life-changing impact that that can have for military families. We have more than 5 million SMEs— businesses employing fewer than 250 people—which make up 99% of all businesses across the UK. We have a long way to go to make every business covenant-friendly. We have 1,300 signed up so far, and they are committed in their small or larger way to supporting our military families. We therefore look forward to working with the MOD and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to increase participation in the corporate covenant scheme exponentially in the year ahead.
A key way in which businesses can benefit themselves and help service families is employing military spouses, who have faced a long-standing challenge to find employment that matches their skills and qualifications because, too often, employers see a military address and decide that even though the potential employee might be the best candidate for the role, they will not be around for more than two years. However, a committed military spouse, who will certainly have a posting for two years, and often longer nowadays, should be as valued as any civilian candidate.
From my conversations with military wives, it seems that the key block to getting the right job is often that an employer sees that the applicant’s address is a military base. Will the Minister therefore consider working with me and his BEIS colleagues to remove the address requirement from job application forms, perhaps in favour of something such as a distance-from-work criterion, to ensure that there is no unconscious bias against military spouses?
Ongoing work at Stanford University shows clearly that gender-neutral applications alter employer choices by removing a marked bias towards male applicants. In the same way, it would be fantastic if, as part of our continuing real commitment to the covenant, BEIS led a trial on removing addresses from job applications to see whether that helps to increase successful employment opportunities for military spouses.
It is great news that every council in England and Scotland has now signed up to the community covenant and that colleagues in Northern Ireland continue to make progress on finding ways to build a framework through Stormont and local councils to improve the commitment to the covenant. The community covenant could have one of the greatest positive impacts for military families—serving and after service—because our local councils deal with housing allocation policy, brief GPs and health professionals about the needs of the armed forces community, set up webpages to help to join up local services, support local charities in the military space, and deal with school admissions policy.
Colleagues will no doubt share with the House more details of the excellent work in their areas, so I will raise just one key area with the Minister: school admissions policy. My ten-minute rule Bill, which is going through the House at the moment, calls on the Department for Education to change admissions policy so that military families moving at short notice can get the right school place at any time. I very much hope that the MOD will support the Bill.
This year’s report refers to the work done to identify educational disadvantage. My postbag led me to bring in my Bill because too many families moving at short notice could not access a school place without ending up in the appeals system, which creates even more stress for parents and children alike. Excellent work from the University of Winchester, which the MOD is supporting, shows a marked impact when it comes to higher education outputs for military children. We must at least reduce the stress of moving schools to help these kids to reach their potential.
Lastly—this is a key part of this year’s report—we must look at the prioritisation of key issues that create stress for serving families if we are to reduce the very real retention risk we are now experiencing. Having brought the numbers in our armed forces down for many years to create a leaner, peacetime force, this is an urgent challenge. We must always remember that, without the human capital, all the ships, submarines, jets, planes, helicopters and tanks in the world are no use to us.
Our people are the most important component of the triumvirate of equipment, estates and personnel that makes up our world-class military resource. We train them to the highest standards in the world, and we must ensure that we do all we can for them because, notwithstanding the moral component—I say this as an accountant—we want to make sure we get the best value for money for our investment. If we lose a pilot for lack of a decent house, or a nuclear engineer for lack of a school place, we have failed to assess the value-for-money implications to the taxpayer and the capability needs of our services, and we are failing to enact the spirit of the covenant in practice.
This year’s report highlights the excellent work done by the Department of Health, and internally by the MOD with Defence Medical Services, to build a more robust infrastructure framework. Substantial work has taken place to tackle hearing loss issues, and that will be an interesting area to follow in the year ahead, because the NHS hearing loss treatment guidelines have recently changed. For those whose hearing has been damaged as a result of service, it is to be hoped that they will get full treatment to restore their hearing.
The launch of the e-learning for healthcare programme to help GPs to gain greater understanding and awareness will be useful but, of course, ensuring that the transfer of all medical records works across the country will be key to helping GPs to know their patient’s history and to work with them when crises arise in the years after service.
The new veterans’ gateway is a great step forward in helping families and local service providers, as well as MPs. We have high hopes for it, although there are concerns that gaps in mental healthcare provision, in particular, will remain a stubborn block to providing real and needed support for military families who are, for instance, supporting post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers who are unable to access the long-term medical interventions that they need to help them recover and lead full lives once again. Perhaps the Minister could give us a little more detail about how suppliers at the other end of the gateway will be supported by relevant Government Departments so that there is capacity to meet this well-identified need.
The report also talks about developing an alternative approach to the provision of accommodation for service personnel and their families. I would be failing in my duty to all our military families if I did not mention the crisis in military housing, which is a real and present danger to the retention of large numbers of our highly trained personnel. I have tackled the problems with CarillionAmey’s maintenance contracts in a number of forums already, and the Minister has been enormously helpful in getting a trial MPs’ hotline set up to help us to sort out practical problems for families in service accommodation. However, the problems are extensive and cause enormous frustration to too many.
I have challenged the Minister on the combined accommodation assessment system rental changes, and not a single family I have spoken to minds that their rent is going up, but if the system is to reflect normal social housing rates under the decent homes plus standard, their homes really do need to be DH plus. Too many are not, and the challenge system has been weighted against families getting a fair and honest appraisal of their home’s categorisation. There is more to do to rebuild the loss of trust we really are facing.
However, the most challenging part of the housing debate is the future accommodation model, which the MOD is working on. According to the report, it is aimed at supporting families
“to live in the private rental market or enabling them to purchase their own home.”
I am grateful to the Minister for publishing the data sets from the survey this week, and we are looking at them closely. I ask him also to publish the additional notes that personnel wrote. He said he would do that, but they do not seem to be in the initial statistical data sets that are online.
I hear what the hon. Lady says about military accommodation and I think that we all genuinely share her concern. Does she agree that it is particularly worrying that the report indicates that satisfaction has actually decreased? Those satisfaction levels are very low indeed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We should be extremely mindful of the continuing low morale in all services, although the Royal Marines are the noble exception, perhaps because they are very busy on a great number of operations. We should be mindful of the critical point that he raises.
The key concerns in the FAM debate are that, given that the drive towards the universal housing allowance has been clearly set out in documents since 2009, the FAM survey of personnel is just a smokescreen to bring the policy in anyway. No one disputes the aim of providing a way to access good-quality and affordable housing as part of the offer, but we must get that right. Whatever the changes involved in locating the Army and the Air Force in fewer locations, such as by moving submarine activity to Faslane and so on, the reality is that, when deployed, in small numbers or large—we can never predict the future—our military families need to be looked after in decent, well-maintained housing, and to have a framework of real support around them and their children. If we fail in that, we will lose more and more of our personnel at a much earlier stage in their careers to the civilian world. That is not value for money, and it is not good for our capability, or for the morale and corporate memory needed to maintain the unique quality of our armed forces.
I do slightly take offence at my hon. Friend’s suggestion that the survey is just a smokescreen to bring in this policy. The purpose of the survey is to inform opinion. Some 27,000 of our service personnel responded to the survey, and it will form the evidence base for how we move this policy forward. If my hon. Friend is suggesting that we should not have surveyed our armed forces personnel, I entirely disagree with her. However, let me be clear that no firm decisions have yet been made about how this policy will proceed, and to suggest that we should not have surveyed service personnel is fundamentally wrong.
I thank the Minister for his comments. My suggestion about a smokescreen is based on the feeling among military families and personnel that four questions were asked, but that the existing SFA opportunity was not among them. There was an opportunity in a separate, non-mandatory question for military families who thought that SFA was a good thing to indicate why they thought so. The survey contained four questions about the four different choices that military families might want to make, which included living in privately rented accommodation and owning their own home. I simply reflect the voices that have shouted very loudly at me that there is a deep sense of anxiety, as all the families’ federations surveys have indicated.
Much as I respect my hon. Friend the Minister, when we read the questions in the screenshot we can see how they are designed to produce a particular answer. To take just one example, the most common reason why people are in favour of change—two thirds are nominally in favour—is that they want to live in a better house. Nowhere are they told that once they go into the private sector, they will be totally responsible for persuading landlords to do something about the maintenance of their homes—unlike in the very expensive Australian model, in which the Department of Defence has kept that responsibility.
My hon. Friend reflects the deep concerns about the way in which the survey was put together and the framing of the questions, which left a lot of personnel unable to give the answers that they wanted to give. I think the Minister is mindful of that, and I am glad to hear that no formal decisions have yet been made.
I do not want to get involved in a dispute between two of my hon. Friends, but does my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan agree that, of all the surveys published in recent times, the one that matters most is the monthly service personnel statistics of
Sadly, that is the reality. I talk continually about retention risk. That risk is very real, and we are suffering from it.
I want to take the Minister and the House a little further into the FAM survey. The survey talked about choices, but no one felt that SFA was a choice that the MOD wanted to keep on the table. The Minister and I will continue to discuss the matter, but that is what the personnel who completed the survey felt. Giving service personnel the choice to live where they want is fine, if the option to live with their family when not deployed during the week is real. However, housing costs in too many parts of the country where forces are based are too high, so the likely reality is that families will be spread across the country and unsupported. We cannot plan for a peaceful world when all our troops are at home.
We are undermanned, and as my hon. Friend Dr Murrison says, our recruitment numbers are a challenge. The offer needs to hold up if recruits are to remain in service once they have families, and a key component is getting the housing offer right. Choice is a great thing, but it simply will not work to drive a policy change that breaks up patch life or creates effective salary drops because of housing market stresses.
The annual report shows the continuous work of the Department’s team to help to reduce disadvantage. That is commendable, but there is so much more to do. Not a single person here would ever want to hear the words that I have heard far too often: “This is just too hard; we are going to leave the service.” The most recent continuous attitude survey shows that there is a stark gap between the 76% of respondents who are proud of their service and the 45% who would suggest that one should join up. That is a gap that we cannot fix.
I hope that in the year ahead, we can focus on actively encouraging service families to talk to their MPs when they have problems, so that a strong new constructive dialogue can begin. The covenant is one of the most powerful tools we have to drive through good decisions, to reduce the looming capability risk gap and to increase our servicemen and women’s belief in their value to us. I fervently hope that we can harness such a dialogue across the House in 2017.
I apologise to the House for my inaudibility. I shall attempt by hand signals to explain what I am trying to say.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs Trevelyan in this debate. I welcome the publication of the annual report on the military covenant, but Members will not be surprised if I raise, as I have done on previous occasions, concerns about the implementation of the covenant in Northern Ireland. May I commend the Minister at this stage? I know that he is totally committed to his work as Minister with responsibility for veterans, dealing with the military covenant. We appreciate the interest he has shown in Northern Ireland and look forward to further visits from him in the near future.
May I draw the attention of the House to a letter I received recently pursuant to a case that I had been dealing with on behalf of a constituent, who is a veteran of our armed forces? I had written to the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, who is now the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, having replaced the former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. In her response, she said:
“As you are aware the Armed Forces Covenant is not in place here and ex Military personnel therefore do not have the 13YJ code (the code which identifies someone with a history of military service) added to their clinical records for GP referrals.
The Armed Forces Covenant has been adopted by England, Scotland and Wales”— note, not Northern Ireland—
“to provide equal access to healthcare where it can be linked to military service, serving personnel, their families and those who leave the Military Forces. The Covenant has not been adopted here as health care arrangements are delivered on an equitable basis to all members of the community.”
That highlights the extent of the problem we are dealing with in Northern Ireland. I do not include the Minister in this, but I have to say that some associated with the Ministry of Defence are in denial about that problem. The reality is that after more than 30 years of Operation Banner, we have literally tens of thousands of veterans living in Northern Ireland. Indeed, I would argue that in our region we probably have a higher proportion of veterans than most other regions of the United Kingdom.
It is worth bearing it in mind that many of those veterans served with the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment Home Service in the communities in which they lived. That brought with it added pressure for them and their families, to the extent that recent reports have indicated that there is a very high incidence of post-conflict trauma among veterans in Northern Ireland.
The University of Ulster is undertaking a study to try to evaluate the level of mental illness among veterans in Northern Ireland, but it is known to be quite high. We are faced with a problem whereby veterans seeking help for their mental illness are being told by the Department of Health, “We are sorry, but if you are a veteran in Northern Ireland, the armed forces covenant does not apply here, so we cannot deal with you on the terms on which you might be dealt with by the health service in England, Scotland or Wales.”
The armed forces covenant does not give preferential treatment to veterans. It merely seeks to ensure that those veterans are not disadvantaged by virtue of their military service. And yet the Minister hides behind the notion that applying the military covenant in Northern Ireland would somehow undermine the basis of equality that is at the heart of the Belfast agreement and section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. We in this House, and the Department, need to do more to challenge this muddled thinking and this wrong approach.
The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs has investigated the matter. In evidence to the Committee, Ministers said that there is not a problem, and that section 75 applies but does not interfere with the implementation of the covenant. But here we have, in black and white, from the Minister of Health in Northern Ireland a clear demonstration of the prevailing attitude that the armed forces covenant does not apply in Northern Ireland, and that it has not been adopted there. Yet my understanding is very clear: the armed forces covenant applies across the United Kingdom and ought to be fully implemented across the UK. It is wrong that veterans in Northern Ireland are suffering from a lack of recognition of the covenant, and we need to do something to put that right.
In evidence to the Defence Committee, the Minister stated in response to my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson that it was the view of the Department that the military covenant in Northern Ireland was being implemented to the extent that some 83% or 84% of its provisions applied there. I cannot evaluate that assessment, but, given that access to healthcare is such an enormously important element of the covenant, the only thing I would say to the Minister and the Department is that, if the Department of Health in Northern Ireland says, “Sorry, the covenant does not apply”, I am not convinced that the 84% figure for the proportion of the covenant being implemented in Northern Ireland is an accurate reflection of where we really are.
Let me be absolutely clear. I will not try to evaluate the 83% or 84% figures, but I have been clear both in my evidence to the Select Committee and in the House that, while progress is being made in Northern Ireland—yes, absolutely, the covenant does apply in Northern Ireland—I fully accept that more work needs to be done to ensure an equitable status for veterans who reside in Northern Ireland and those who reside in the rest of the United Kingdom. I have made trying to achieve that one of my priorities during this year.
I very much appreciate the Minister’s intervention, and we will work with him towards that end. In the end, we are not interested in party politicking about this; we are interested, as he is, in ensuring the best outcome for veterans across the United Kingdom.
I am pleased that I am joined on these Benches by Danny Kinahan. He and I work very closely together on matters relating to the covenant and the welfare of veterans, which is an indication that this issue transcends party politics in Northern Ireland. I suppose he and I must redouble our efforts to ensure that other political parties recognise that this is about an humanitarian approach to the welfare of those who have served our country, and that we should not allow politics to get in the way of ensuring that men and women get the help they need.
On the positive side, I am pleased to report that we now have an appointment to the covenant reference group, which advises the Government on the covenant and looks at how to co-ordinate actions relating to the covenant across the United Kingdom. I am delighted that my colleague Mrs Brenda Hale—she was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, representing the same constituency as me, until it was dissolved—has been appointed to represent Northern Ireland on the covenant reference group. I want to thank the hon. Member for South Antrim and his colleagues for their support on that issue. Brenda’s husband, Captain Mark Hale, was tragically killed on active service in Afghanistan while serving with 2 Rifles, and Brenda knows personally the challenges that are faced by veterans in Northern Ireland. I believe that she will be a very able representative of those veterans on the covenant reference group.
I am also pleased to report that a number of the new councils in Northern Ireland have adopted the community covenant, to which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred in her opening remarks. In my constituency, both the councils covering the Lagan Valley area—Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council—have now signed up to the community covenant. I am pleased that they are taking forward initiatives linked to the community covenant, which is positive progress.
One area on which further progress could be made is that of better co-ordinating the very valuable work of all the agencies and veterans’ charities that operate in Northern Ireland. I would like to see the establishment of some type of hub for veterans in Northern Ireland, a one-stop shop that a veteran could contact to receive information about where they can get help, whether with welfare issues, accessing healthcare, pensions or other issues that have an impact on them. We want such a hub to be established in Northern Ireland to draw together and co-ordinate the work of the various organisations and charities.
The hon. Gentleman is a good friend of the veterans in Northern Ireland. I share his expectation and, indeed, his hope that that is exactly what will happen. I just want to ensure that Northern Ireland does not lose out, and that Ministers will co-operate with the Northern Ireland Executive and local organisations representing veterans to ensure that this does happen.
I want to raise a concern about a recent decision by Combat Stress to withdraw its regional welfare officers service from Northern Ireland. I have been contacted by a number of veterans from across Northern Ireland, many of them suffering from mental health problems, who have benefited from that very valuable service, which has offered them support at a time of great need. When I met the chief executive of Combat Stress, Sue Freeth, I was very impressed—and I am very impressed—by what it is doing in Northern Ireland. Sue indicated to me that it would cost in the region of £60,000 per annum to retain this welfare support service. I have written to the Secretary of State about this issue, and I really hope that that funding can be found. It is not a big amount, but it has a big impact.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a really important issue. It is an issue not just for Northern Ireland, but for the mainland of the UK. The Minister will perhaps address this when he responds, but I cannot for the life of me see why the extraordinarily important welfare contribution made by charities such as Combat Stress—I am a very strong supporter of it—should not be continued. It is very important to have such a link, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman agrees that this is not simply a matter of medical care.
I cannot add to what the hon. Gentleman has said. He is absolutely right, and I urge the Minister to look at this.
In drawing my remarks to a close, I just want to make two points. First, the aftercare service provided by the Royal Irish Regiment is absolutely crucial. In Northern Ireland, we have many thousands of former soldiers who served with the Royal Irish Regiment Home Service and the Ulster Defence Regiment, and the aftercare service is undertaking very valuable work in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will ensure that the aftercare service, which is much needed, will be retained.
My final point is an important one. In Westminster on Saturday, together with the hon. Members for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and for South Antrim, I attended a rally of veterans from across the United Kingdom of Operation Banner, the longest-running military operation in the history of the British Army. They are concerned about the recent arrests and prosecutions of former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, some of whom are in their 60s and 70s, and we share their concerns.
We share the concern that after years of service to our country, men and women who ought to be enjoying their retirement are now waiting for the knock on the door. We also share the concern about the circumstances, because it seems that the focus is on what the armed forces and the police did in Northern Ireland, and much less on what the terrorists did. It is worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of the 3,000 unsolved killings in Northern Ireland were carried out by terrorist organisations, yet the vast majority of the resources currently going into investigations are for those relating to alleged killings by the armed forces and the police, which is unacceptable.
I encourage the Minister and his colleagues, both in his Department and in other relevant Departments, to give serious consideration to the introduction of a statute of limitations that would protect the men and women who served our country and who deserve that protection. I recognise that no one is above the law, but when cases have been investigated—in some cases not just once, but twice—and the men and women who served our country have been exonerated only to find, years later, that those cases are being reopened, then I think there is something wrong. It is having a big impact on recruitment to our armed forces. Young men and women are looking at what is happening and asking themselves, “Why would I join the armed forces if I face the prospect, in the future, of being prosecuted?” I repeat that no one is above the law, but I really do think the Government need to act. They need to protect the men and women who protected us in our darkest hour.
Order. I hope we can manage this afternoon without a formal time limit, because this is a pleasant debate in which there will be a lot of agreement. For everyone to have a chance to speak it would be courteous if Members were to speak for under nine minutes. That would give everybody else a chance to contribute.
I am delighted to follow Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson with whom, alongside Danny Kinahan, I shared not exactly a platform but the plinth on the George V statue on the other side of the road from here last Saturday when 1,000 troops were there.
I endorse everything the right hon. Gentleman said. It is absolutely immoral that the men who fought in that filthy war, wearing the Queen’s uniform and doing their best for their country, facing an enemy who wore civilian clothes and lurked in the shadows among the civilian population, are now being dragged from their beds at 6 o’clock in the morning in dawn raids and dragged off to Northern Ireland. It is unacceptable. I am afraid I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister on the Government Front Bench that this not a matter simply for the Police Service of Northern Ireland or for the prosecuting authorities. It is, as I told the Prime Minister, a matter for Ministers. This is a matter of public policy and it must be addressed. I strongly endorse the case made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley for a statute of limitations. I know many of my hon. Friends would have been on that plinth with me had that been possible.
On a similar and related point, does my hon. Friend agree that firmly within the Government’s remit is the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which is, outrageously, criticising 4,500 of our soldiers? It looks like 60, or maybe a little fewer than that, will be prosecuted. Does my hon. Friend not agree that this is an absolute disgrace?
I entirely agree. I felt at the time that that man Phil Shiner was a disgrace. He was a dreadful man engaged in the cowardly and unacceptable activity of trying to find people to stand up and accuse their fellow countrymen who had gone to relieve the people of Iraq from their suffering. He tried to do down those people and I am very pleased to hear today that he has been struck off. Frankly, I do not think that that is enough; but then I always was a supporter of capital punishment.
I of course agree with my hon. Friend. Does he agree—I am trying to think of something nice to say about IHAT; I appreciate that that is very difficult— that IHAT has at least the benefit of being relatively contemporaneous, unlike Operation Banner? Under Operation Banner, people are being dragged out of their beds many decades after the event and trying to work out what they were doing three or four or five decades ago. That is very difficult indeed. At least IHAT is investigating within a relatively short space of time from the alleged incidents.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend who succeeded me as Minister with responsibility for international security strategy at the Ministry of Defence. I would like to say more on this subject, but you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have asked us to be brief.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan on introducing the debate and on her incredible work in highlighting this issue. The military covenant is not specific to any particular party. All of us, across the Floor, can embrace this issue. It is a covenant not between the Government and the armed forces, but between the armed forces and the people. We, as Members and Ministers, are acting on behalf of the people. I represent the home of the British Army, Aldershot, which has about 5,000 troops and their families, and we feel that acutely.
Project Allenby Connaught is the largest private finance initiative in the country. Nobody knows anything about it because it is hugely successful—a £19 billion PFI which, I have to say, was started under the Labour Government. I would like to put on record the fantastic job Aspire is doing in running the garrison under the PFI. Admittedly, it has released land to build 3,850 units of accommodation to sell. Nevertheless, the result has been a complete transformation of the military facilities in Aldershot. We have some of the finest single living accommodation and new headquarters—the recently opened Montgomery House—for the home command. The whole garrison in Aldershot has been transformed thanks to this PFI, so a small note of thanks to Geoff Hoon. He opened the fantastic sports facility, which is the home of the army sports board. There are world-class tennis courts. It really is a great garrison and I pay tribute to all those who have contributed to it. I rarely receive complaints about accommodation. The Minister, whom I actually met in my constituency when he was a sapper with the Royal School of Military Engineering—
The picture my hon. Friend paints is an excellent one, but I think he would confirm that the cost of housing, both to buy and rent, in his constituency is extremely high. Is it not so much better to have the arrangement he describes than to put people out on allowances in the private sector?
Absolutely right. I can tell my hon. Friend that the average cost of housing in Aldershot is £259,000. That illustrates the challenge for people in the military trying to find their own homes.
Rushmoor Borough Council, which signed up to the military covenant in 2012, is doing a really good job. There is a tremendous relationship between the garrison and the council. Recently, the council met Hampshire County Council and the garrison commander—another great man, Lieutenant Colonel Mac MacGregor, who is doing a great job. They will carry out a workshop together to discuss how better they can implement the covenant in Aldershot. That is good news.
CarillionAmey is doing excellent work on the married quarters. It has created a forum for quarterly meetings with the wives and I very much hope that that will prove to be very successful.
Mike Jackson House is doing a stunningly good job of providing supported housing to single veterans who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. If any Members know people in my area who could benefit from it, I mask them please to get in touch with me.
As an illustration of how the garrison and the town are working together, a lot of companies have signed up to the community matters partnership project. I am very pleased to say that the new chairman is none other than the garrison commander. There is more that can be done, but a lot of good work has come out of the covenant. It is important to recognise what it has delivered.
I am also bound to say that the Aldershot military wives choir is of course the finest military wives choir in the country. Since my hon. Friend Will Quince is nowhere to be seen, I can confidently say that without fear of challenge. When they come here to sing, I hope right hon. and hon. Members will accept my invitation to listen to them.
The covenant has done a tremendous job to engage with the public on the need to support our armed forces. Much more needs to be done, however, and most importantly on accommodation. I have people who have no connection with the Aldershot area, save that they have served there, come to see me having left the Army—sometimes their marriages have broken up because of PTSD or other such difficulties—and although the council does not put them at a disadvantage, it does not put them at the top of the list either. These men and women deserve to go to the top of the social housing list, as against some of the young ladies who come and see me and say they need social housing because they fell pregnant. It is not quite the same as having suffered PTSD. That is the big challenge. The other big challenge that the Minister should take away is that we will not rest until those who served in Operation Banner no longer face the risk of prosecution while the terrorists get away scot free. That is not acceptable.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir Gerald Howarth, although I did not agree with his last comment about women—but we will leave that to one side, as we are here to discuss the military.
I am never sure about these things, but I think I should start by declaring a non-pecuniary interest: my son-in-law is serving with the Army in Cyprus as an active reservist and my daughter has received some leaflets and so on from those supporting families with partners serving abroad. I say that just in case it matters somewhere along the line.
I congratulate Mrs Trevelyan on bringing this debate to the House and the other Members who supported her, the hon. Members for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). It is incumbent on us to debate these matters. We all agree that the armed forces—those who have served and those currently serving, as well as their families—deserve great credit and huge respect. When I taught in the 1980s—other Members might remember this—we did not, in some respects, celebrate or commemorate poppy day, and sometimes it was regarded as inappropriate for military personnel to come into schools. It represents a great step forward for our country that over the last few years the military have been welcome in our schools and we have celebrated poppy day properly. It teaches our children and young people the importance of service, how they live in a country that has been protected by people for generations and that the freedoms they deserve were hard won and need to be maintained.
It is important that we discuss these matters, and it is wonderful now to see so many young people at remembrance and other such events through the year. I am sure that everyone has noticed that. It is a huge step forward for us all, and it is happening across the country, including in Northern Ireland—I have been there and seen it for myself. Incidentally, I agreed with many of the remarks of Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson. I know how hard he has worked, along with his colleague Danny Kinahan, on these matters.
I wish to challenge the Government on a couple of points, but I want to put that in context, because today’s report is generally a very positive one about the progress being made. From a consensual point of view, I think we all believe that progress is being made, but we have heard about accommodation and other such matters, and we all want to try to accelerate that progress and say to the Minister, “These are the challenges that still remain”. I make my comments, therefore, having recognised that much progress has been made. To be fair to the Minister, he recognised that himself in his evidence on
In every aspect of the covenant, we have made huge progress, but there remain problems. Although every local authority has signed up—as I understand it—their record on implementation and action is variable. We have to find a way of holding local authorities to account. Where they have signed up to things, how do we hold them to account more effectively and help them deliver the outcomes they have committed themselves to? For example, a Local Government Association report has found that, regardless of our efforts, 40% of those who have served in the armed forces still feel that their service has left them at a disadvantage. That is not good enough.
We also need to understand that the covenant for communities is non-binding. The point has been made that we need to raise awareness of the responsibilities of people who have signed up to the covenant. I was disappointed to hear the Minister say in his evidence that the inter-ministerial group with overall responsibility for co-ordination is to meet only twice a year, and it was unclear who was to chair it—perhaps he will clarify that in his remarks. I know his answer will be, “Well, there are lots of other bodies below that responsible for delivery of the covenant”, but the inter-ministerial group is really important. I ask him gently whether meeting twice a year sufficient. I question whether it is sufficient.
The issue of housing has been raised. There can be no doubt that, frankly, some of the accommodation is appalling—every Member here could give examples—and that it has been so for a number of years. This is a real challenge for all of us, and we need to sort it out. It simply is not good enough that some of our service personnel are having to live in such appalling accommodation. A massive defence estate reorganisation is now taking place affecting some 27,000 families. There is an opportunity there, as well as a challenge, for the Government.
I agree very much with the comments of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed about schools admission policy. It raises an issue that the Minister might want to address in his remarks. What is the Government’s view of not disadvantaging service personnel as opposed to giving them preferential treatment? My own view is that the public accept, in certain circumstances, that we should advantage service personnel because of their service to the country, and I think that schools admissions is one such area in which they should be advantaged.
In Aldershot, I find that Hampshire County Council has been incredibly enlightened: they make allowances for all the schools in their budgets for what they call “turbulence”. I am not hearing many complaints at all, so I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a word with his local education authority.
I am making the more general point that the situation varies across the country. I am sure that it is really good in some local education authorities, but it is not so good elsewhere. Perhaps the situation in Aldershot, which is in Hampshire, is particularly good because there are a lot of service personnel, so they have experience. The Government need to consider what happens when service personnel disperse to areas across the country that do not have so many service personnel and how to give them the same quality of provision.
Finally, the issue of mental health will not go away. Significant numbers of veterans are still struggling to access the services that they need. We can debate why that is, but the reality is that things need to be improved and more needs to be done.
This is a hugely significant debate—it has almost been a discussion—and we all want the best for our veterans. We talk about their service to the country, and we need to make sure that the country does its best for them.
It is a pleasure to follow Vernon Coaker, who has maintained his interest in the armed forces and the military despite the fact that he is no longer formally responsible for them. I disagree with his last point about positive discrimination in favour of the armed services, but I will come back to that in a moment. Apart from that, I endorse all that he had to say.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan, who drilled down into the report with tremendous care. She does an enormous amount of work on behalf of our armed services through her all-party group on the armed forces covenant. She has entered into the armed forces parliamentary scheme with an incredible level of enthusiasm and dedication. She also comes to every all-party group dinner and event—her commitment and enthusiasm for the armed services is not just because she fancies Royal Marines.
On the subject of the armed forces covenant, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Dr Murrison. I am glad to see him in the Chamber and I hope we might hear from him later. Some years ago, he wrote the seminal work on the armed forces covenant, “Tommy This an’ Tommy That”. I have the Library’s copy, and I recommend it to colleagues across the House. At least partly as a result of his work, the armed forces covenant was written into law in the Armed Forces Act 2011, so we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Incidentally, the same applies to his work on mental healthcare for veterans, on which he wrote a seminal report. Most of his recommendations have been carried out by subsequent Governments, and we should recognise his huge service to veterans.
All of us in the Chamber agree on the need for the armed forces covenant. There is no question about that. Some of us had doubts about whether it should be written into law, but none the less, it was. I welcome the fact that an annual report is now published; it is important to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. However, it would be useful if we had an annual debate on the matter alongside other defence debates. The Government could bring the report to the House and invite a debate, rather than relying on the good offices of the Backbench Business Committee. Surely the Government should say, “This is our report. Please ask us questions about it.” I hope that the Minister might consider doing so in future.
We all support the principles behind the armed forces covenant. There is no question about that. It is a contract between the people and the armed forces. In my constituency, the 200-odd occasions when the good people of Royal Wootton Bassett have turned out to welcome home and pay their respects to the 450 coffins returning from Afghanistan perhaps epitomises all the good things that the people of Britain think about the armed forces covenant. We realise that the armed forces do things we would not do, so we must look after, respect and honour them for that, and I am very glad that we do.
The things that we do for the armed forces are important. We must make sure that their physical and mental health are looked after, both when they are serving and afterwards—incidentally, the covenant is not just about veterans and families, but about serving soldiers, sailors and airmen. We must look after their health for the rest of their lives—if they are injured, for example—and we must look after their housing and their children’s education. That is absolutely right, and we must do that.
However, I disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Gedling. In a constituency such as mine, which is largely military—some of the schools, for example, are virtually entirely military—if we allowed the military disproportionately to have access to schools and put them to the top of the housing list, for example, that would, by definition, disadvantage civilians. I am not certain that I could go to my constituents and say, “I’m awfully sorry, your children can’t get into that school because we have given those spaces to military children” or, “You can’t have a council house, because we have given it to the military.” I am not sure that is right. The point behind the covenant should be that the military are not disadvantaged because of their service. However, they should not necessarily be given excessive advantage over the rest of the community either, otherwise support for the military covenant would quickly disappear.
Wiltshire has been outstanding in its support for the covenant over many years. We set up the civil military partnership in 2006. We have 15,000 serving personnel, 15,000 dependants and 54,000 veterans—and growing. My hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth claimed that he represented the home of the British Army, but I rather suspect that Wiltshire is, in fact, now the home of the British Army. We have enormous numbers of serving and veteran personnel in the area. As a result, the council has done a huge amount, encouraging local organisations and working with the housing association and the schools, to implement the military covenant in Wiltshire. I pay particular tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Scott of Bybrook, who has taken the lead in this matter over so many years as leader of Wiltshire Council.
None the less, in addition to the community covenant and the local government covenant, we must not forget all the other people who make such great contributions to the welfare of our soldiers and veterans. I am glad that the Minister and I are both wearing the SSAFA tie this afternoon. It is terribly important that we should not forget the charitable side of things, and there are a huge number of charities doing useful things. I was very proud recently to be made the patron of Operation Christmas Box, which sends 25,000 Christmas boxes to all our armed services on deployment around the world every Christmas and is hugely appreciated by the soldiers, sailors and airmen. These things are important. They are not a formal part of the military covenant, but they achieve many of the things that the covenant does, so let us not forget the charitable sector, the local government sector and the business sector, alongside all that the Government do for our armed services.
So far this has been a largely consensual and agreeable sort of debate. I do not mean to detract from that in any shape or form, but I have two or three questions to ask about the way in which the covenant is operating, which the Minister might like to reply to or perhaps take into consideration in the year ahead, as he applies the covenant.
First, I am concerned about a decline in interest. Ten or 15 years ago, when we had high kinetic warfare around the world, the people were very concerned about our armed forces. Today, that interest is rapidly declining, as evidenced by the level of donations to charities. Donations to Help for Heroes, for example, were up to £40 million at one time, but are now sharply down, and it is the same for the Royal British Legion and others. If, as we all hope, we do not see a return to kinetic warfare for many years to come, my concern would be that the military covenant could become a dusty document, that people would forget about it and that the whole thing would become ancient history, as the military disappeared from headlines and public awareness. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks he could do to avoid that occurring. Annual debates might be one way of doing it.
Secondly, those of us who represent military constituencies are concerned—we are very aware of these things—that the footprint of the military across Britain is now increasingly small. The permanent basing structure that we now have, with the five super-bases for the Army, means that large parts of Britain have absolutely no military involvement at all. I cannot help feeling that the military covenant ought to be a way of spreading the word throughout the entire population of Great Britain that these are things that we must care about. Again, I wonder whether the Minister has any thoughts about ways in which that could be done.
Thirdly, we have written the military covenant into law, and that is good thing. It provides a good structure for all the things we are discussing today, but there are two problems with it. As the military covenant is written into law, we might be able to tell ourselves that we have done something about this, thereby assuaging our conscience and not doing the much greater things that we would do were it not in law. In other words, the law must not become the lowest common denominator or simply the level below which we must not fall. Rather, there are many more things we should be doing, even if they are not enshrined in the covenant.
I would also be interested to know from the Minister how many legal cases there have been in the last year or two in which the military covenant has been used as evidence against a military defence. In other words, are the armed forces and spouses using the military covenant as evidence to sue the Ministry of Defence for a variety of purposes? It would be interesting to know whether the covenant has become part of the law in that sense.
The final thing that makes me rather concerned is this fixation we have—it is an important fixation—with veterans, families, housing and all those things. Of course they are hugely important—my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is quite right that if we do not get them right, then recruitment and retention will go down—but we should not forget that the covenant is actually between the people and the serving soldiers, sailors and airmen. We have to get right the way in which we employ these people, very often in appalling circumstances that we ourselves would not even contemplate entering into. It is not just about the disabled, the sick and ill, the wives or the children, although they are all hugely important; it is about the soldier.
That is where the book by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire comes in. The great “Tommy” poem—which, if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to quote a couple of lines from—absolutely goes to the heart of the military covenant:
“O it’s Tommy this, an’
Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;
But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’
when the band begins to play…
Then it’s Tommy this, an’
Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?’
But it’s ‘Thin red line of ’eroes’
when the drums begin to roll…
While it’s Tommy this, an’
Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, fall be’ind,’
But it’s ‘Please to walk in front, sir,’
when there’s trouble in the wind…
You talk o’
better food for us, an’
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’
Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’
when the guns begin to shoot”.
I, too, congratulate Mrs Trevelyan, not just on securing the debate, but on what I thought was an outstanding introduction which revealed the depth of her knowledge and her work on this matter. I was not aware of the all-party parliamentary group before, but I certainly am now, and I pay tribute to her for its work. I hope to deal with some of the issues that she raised.
I welcome the report. With all respect to Mr Gray, who talked about the importance of the serviceman, I want to say something about support for veterans and their families, and, in particular, about service accommodation.
The covenant is, and must surely continue to be, a lifetime guarantee for all those who have served our country, and now is as good a time as any for me to express my gratitude to them for their service. A couple of months ago, it was my great pleasure to open the annual conference of the new Westminster Centre for Research and Innovation in Veterans Wellbeing at the University of Chester. I have to say that, unfortunately, the centre is not named after this place; it is named after the late Duke of Westminster, who was a great supporter of the armed forces. It is led by Colonel Alan Finnegan, formerly of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and it has links with the veterans community and the regional Army brigade headquarters.
When I was at the centre, I recounted the story of something that had happened in Chester early in my term as the city’s Member of Parliament. One of the apparently homeless people who were begging in the streets—one of the regulars in the city centre whom we recognise—had a sign saying that he was an ex-serviceman, ex-Army. That great 21st-century phenomenon, the social media storm, then blew up: people were extremely angry about what they considered to be a crime of impersonation, and even asked for the police to be involved. They were not suggesting that it was a crime of impersonation on the grounds that this gentleman was not really homeless; their anger was prompted by their belief that he was claiming to be an ex-serviceman when in fact he was not. I do not know whether he was or not, but the incident takes us back to what the hon. Member for North Wiltshire said about his constituent in Wootton Bassett, and, indeed, to what was said by my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker.
There is a real sense of pride in the members of our armed services, which is a welcome change from the atmosphere of past years that my hon. Friend described. I believe that, not only in Chester but more widely in the country, members of the armed forces should be able to wear their service as a badge of honour.
May I remind the House that in the 1970s and 1980s, armed forces personnel were specifically ordered not to wear uniform in public because of the Provisional IRA and other terrorist threats? That is one reason why we did not see people wandering around in uniform.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. There is, of course, a terrorist threat today, but I believe that the atmosphere has changed, and changed for the better.
For me, perhaps the most important aspect of that conference was the reminder that, for all our important work on mental and physical health, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, and about which I shall say more later, most of our service veterans are not needy and suffering, but have benefited greatly from the training, experience and comradeship that service gives them, and are continuing to contribute to our society. Discipline, teamwork, initiative, ingenuity and personal responsibility from a young age are all huge benefits to the community as well as the individual. The report refers to some of the successes of the covenant in business, but I fear that we do not always emphasise sufficiently the contribution of ex-service personnel to society. We must certainly not allow them ever again to be seen as burdens on society.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are also health needs to be met. We know that military veterans present with a number of emergent health issues, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and obesity. We also know that the number of veterans who enter the judicial system as a result of violence-related crime associated with significant alcohol abuse is larger than the average. It is clear that a considerable amount of money is allocated to schemes involving the armed forces covenant, but the measurable outcomes of such initiatives are less clear. Covenant grants should, when possible, include measurable outcomes in the applications, and, when appropriate—it could perhaps be said that this is a shameless plug for the university in my constituency —the Government might consider using academic partners to shape the way in which valid and reliable information is collected and subsequently reported. I understand that the MOD covenant is looking at this and has invited expressions of interest, and I welcome that.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed devoted a long section of her speech to service families, which are referred to in chapter 8 of the report, which I welcome. The role of the family can sometimes be overlooked—although clearly not today, thanks to her—when seeking to support our forces and veterans. Any stress on a serviceman or woman also has an impact on their family. As she said, one way of addressing this is to ensure that there is as much stability in family life as possible, with welcoming surroundings—and that stability might also be reflected in retention rates.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire talked about the consensual nature of the debate, but I will now, if I may, depart slightly from that. The Government have decided to sell off the Dale barracks in Chester, which is home to the Mercian Regiment, a successor of the Cheshire Regiment.
Yes, indeed. The decision is myopic and damaging. It will do nothing to maintain morale among the servicemen and families, and the popularity of the barracks is reflected in the number of service families who stay in the Chester area after leaving the Army.
The local schools are used to dealing with service children. This does not just mean, for example, making an extra effort to welcome and integrate new arrivals, to give as much stability as possible; primary schools in the Upton area of my constituency, where the barracks are based, are skilled at dealing with the pressures on children when their mums or dads are deployed away. I was not aware of the ten-minute rule Bill of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, but this issue is of great importance to three or four schools in that area, and I will now be looking at what support I can give her on that Bill.
Closing the Dale is unpopular and wrong, and I believe that it is being done solely because land values in Chester are high, which means that it can be sold off more easily.
Speaking as someone who has lived in the Dale barracks—my regiment was based there—I remind the House that the whole barracks was modernised only about 20 years ago, as the hon. Gentleman will know, and was considered then to be a future base for infantry.
I am most grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, whom I consider a friend. His service in the Cheshire Regiment we should never fail to recognise, and the experience he brings to the House should never be underestimated. The House may wish to know that he is still held in extremely high regard in my constituency.
I do not think the closure of the barracks will assist the Army in its effectiveness and I ask the Government to think again.
I wish to touch briefly on two other issues. The first was mentioned by Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson and concerns Northern Ireland. The criminal investigations into every death there involving the British Army during the troubles are wrong. If evidence of a crime can be presented, it should be investigated, but a blanket inquiry cannot be justified. Sir Gerald Howarth talked about a statute of limitations; I do not know about that.
As I have mentioned, many former members of the Cheshire Regiment, which served with distinction in Northern Ireland, are either originally from, or have since settled in, my constituency. Their service should be their honour, and I will defend them. Some of them may be implicated now in the new inquiry. In the specific terms of today’s debate on the armed forces covenant, if the Government have not already done so— if they have, I apologise—will they consider guaranteeing full legal support to any ex-serviceman or woman who is dragged into this unfair mess?
My final point is also about veterans and ex-servicemen. I wish to mention my constituent Ray Tindall, along with John Armstrong, Nick Dunn, Nicholas Simpson, Paul Towers and Billy Irving. They remain incarcerated in a prison in Chennai in India wrongly convicted of a crime they did not commit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this incredibly important point. Does he agree that, as service veterans, they are owed even more of a duty of care by this UK Government, who should be doing everything possible to get them home, where they belong?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady and shall draw my comments to a close on that very theme.
Those people are all are ex-servicemen. Ray was in the Indian ocean with the other men to raise a little bit of money, in his case to grow his business in Chester. I will raise the case of the Chennai Six at every opportunity, because, with the greatest respect to MOD Ministers, I do not believe that our Foreign Office is being vigorous enough in its calls on the Indian Government to release the men. Ray has seen active service in recent conflicts, and if the covenant means anything—to them and to me—it means that we must continue all our efforts to bring him and those other lads home.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan on securing this debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow Christian Matheson, whose praise for my hon. Friend and for the late Duke of Westminster I very much endorse.
It is an unavoidable fact that the body of men and women whom we ask to do the most difficult and dangerous tasks for us have, for obvious reasons, no public voice. We in this House therefore have a particular duty to take an interest in their concerns. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Mark Lancaster—a man who has done three operational tours—in his place today. The growth and flowering of the covenant is in no small part thanks to him, and it grieves me greatly that I shall spend almost all my speech talking about a subject on which we profoundly disagree.
Last year, the Ministry of Defence won a settlement that committed us to defence expenditure of 2% of GDP, which was a welcome move, and to a modest but positive growth path. However, that is still the lowest proportion of GDP since before the second world war. At the same time, we committed ourselves to an equipment programme that has resulted in the amount of money left to pay for our personnel being badly squeezed. This debate on the armed forces covenant gives us an opportunity to discuss that position. The armed forces have felt the same pressures as the rest of the public sector—and rightly so. They had to undergo the same pay squeeze and the same large-scale reductions in pension rights, but on top of that, they had already suffered in a number of ways. They have had large rises in rents, restrictions in the availability of various allowances, and even a noticeable decline in the quality of food for single personnel.
The effects of those changes can be seen in the numbers. In my view, the Army now has the best senior leadership for a generation or two, with a new breed of generals who came through middle-ranking command positions in combat now introducing all sorts of reforms, yet the Regular Army today is 3,600 short and still shrinking. The Royal Air Force is nearly 2,000 short, and we have the smallest number of pilots since the service was founded. Naval numbers have stabilised at a level quite close to their target. That is a remarkable achievement by the senior service, given that it has the greatest budgetary pressures of all and a colossal level of operational tasking, but for reasons that will become evident, the Royal Navy is not the main concern of my speech. I shall speak mainly about the other two services.
Regular surveys of those leaving the armed forces show each year that the largest single factor involved is the strain on family life. It is in that context that I want to focus exclusively on chapter 3 of the covenant and the new accommodation model. Many colleagues will be aware of the recent report from the National Audit Office that refers to the condition of the housing stock and the long backlog of repairs, but I am much more concerned about what it goes on to say about how short-term thinking over the past generation is setting us on a downward spiral. It states:
“To manage the estate within its budget, the Department has made decisions that subsequently offer poor value for money in the longer term, including the 1996 decision to sell and lease back the majority of Service Family Accommodation, which is now limiting the Department’s ability to manage this element of the estate cost-effectively.”
An additional problem in that regard will arise in four years’ time. It is a matter of record that I opposed that sell-off.
Against this unpromising background, I have much sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister as he tries to find a new way forward for housing. He will no doubt tell us that the survey that the MOD has just published suggests that 55% of the 20,000-odd people who responded were broadly in favour of the proposals—almost twice as many as were against them. Nevertheless, I hope to persuade the House over the next few minutes that there are four reasons why that is a profound mistake.
The first reason why the new accommodation model is profoundly wrong is geography. Unlike the Royal Navy in Portsmouth and Plymouth, the majority of our garrisons and RAF stations are not near a supply of affordable housing to buy or to rent. Catterick and Tidworth, which are our two largest bases, are in the middle of nowhere—my sister lives near Catterick. Our RAF bases in Oxfordshire are among some of the most expensive housing areas in the country. All three of our fast jet fighter bases are in remote locations. Even where housing is plentiful, as in the constituency of my hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth, it is unaffordable.
The second reason is the effect on officers. The statement in the covenant is clear, but let me digress for a second. America has a policy of having allowances rather than family accommodation in some cases where housing in the area is affordable, but it is strictly based on rank. In contrast, the Government state that
“the accommodation allowance of tomorrow will be provided based on…
need, regardless of…rank”.
I want to focus the House’s attention on the group who will lose out most. The critical group from which we are losing people is that of captains who are about to be majors in the Army. Company commanders and squadron commanders are the backbone of the regimental system. Those people and their counterparts in the RAF, which includes those coming up to the first breakpoint for fast-jet pilots after all those millions we have invested in them, will be told that unless they happen to have a large family, they will be given a small allowance instead of a substantial house in order to fund a much more generous arrangement for junior ranks with large families. Any civilian business that tried to follow such a principle would go bust within a year or two. Special arrangements for the regimental sergeant-major, the backbone of the regiment, are also being brushed aside.
The third reason is the continuing need for mobility. As long as I have been a Member of Parliament, every Government have committed themselves to greater stability, but there is some evidence that mobility has slightly increased. The Minister might well introduce a bit more stability, but all the staff training and all the best staff jobs for all three services are in southern England. However, the majority of Army units and almost all RAF units are not. Officers from those two services will continue to have to be posted up and down the country. It is the same for the submarine service, which is in a different position from the rest of the Navy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a complete nonsense that senior military personnel should have to go by second-class public transport? I had a general in Aldershot who had a national command. With a helicopter, he could brief his staff at 7.30 am in Aldershot and be up north by 10 o’clock. My hon. Friend is making an important point and the Minister had better listen to him.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his endorsement. He makes an important additional point.
This is not only about officers being posted around staff jobs. The centres of excellence where we train the next generation for the Army should get the cream of the senior NCOs from all over the Army. Brecon is shortly to have no Army units near it, but of course we have to post people in and out of there. The same goes for all the other phase 2 training schools. It is crucial that the best of the instructors go to RAF Valley, for example, but the nearby housing market is very thin.
The fourth reason is the question of cost and that takes me on to the survey, about which I am sure the Minister will enlighten us. Let me provide some examples of how the wording of the questions and the issue of cost weigh against each other. The first is about housing quality.
The Australians operate a successful system whereby they lease properties in the local housing market. Their bases, unlike ours, are nearly all in major centres of population. They work on the basis that all the risk and all the maintenance is taken on by Defence Housing Australia. Such an arrangement is very expensive, and DHA funds it.
The reason that the majority of people gave for preferring the new system, as it was put to them, was that they thought they would getter better houses. They were reminded in the survey—I have a copy if anyone wants to see it—that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with existing housing. The survey did not tell them that, in future, they will be responsible for all the risk and maintenance if they go away on exercises—as MPs, we all know how bad some private sector landlords are—unless they take on a huge extra cost.
Again, the survey says that we are going to reach out to unmarried families. I am in favour of that, and there is a serious case to be made for it, but how far do we go? If a soldier enters what might be a short-term relationship with a partner with three or four children from a previous relationship, are we really going to give them a gigantic allowance, perhaps twice as much as an RSM or a major with no children? There has to be a limit somewhere, but this is all dangled in the same survey.
My hon. Friend is making some fantastic points, and forgive me for interrupting him because he is being crystal clear. I merely encourage him to observe one further thing, which is that the nature of military service means that people are frequently dragged away from their home base. That means that a spouse, perhaps from abroad or from a very different part of the country, is then responsible for dealing with a landlord or landlady who might not have their best interest at heart, to put it politely. The spouse will not then have the protection of the command structure above or of the Department, and they will not have civil servants to assist them; they will, quite literally, be on their own.
My hon. and gallant Friend puts it in a nutshell, much better than I have.
I will finish in a moment, but I have one last point on the survey—you have been very tolerant, Madam Deputy Speaker. The survey refers to home ownership 11 times. People in the armed forces desperately want to own a home, and they worry about what will happen to them when they leave the service. Nowhere does the survey say that we are moving out of the many garrisons where home ownership is practical: Canterbury has closed; Chester is about to close; and Ripon is closing. We are focusing on areas where it is not practical to become a local owner-occupier.
What do I suggest? We need to come to terms with two basic points. First, within the defence budget to which we have committed ourselves, there has to be a degree of rebalancing. I—and, I suspect, most of the other people in this Chamber on a Thursday—believe that we should spend more money on defence, but if we cannot persuade our colleagues to spend more on defence, with all the threats out there in the world, the budget needs a degree of rebalancing. We either have to accept slightly smaller Regular forces or we have to buy less equipment. Rather that tearing up a model that works, we need to fund it properly.
Secondly, we have to find a vehicle for enabling a route to home ownership. The key to that for many people is buying to let, which means a special arrangement on last year’s Budget change that hugely disadvantaged service landlords, who are treated as if they are ordinary landlords, even though their property is the only one they have. They pay a higher rate of tax on the rent coming in than the relief they receive on their mortgage interest payments. There has been a bit of progress, but we also need to revisit the way in which the Forces Help to Buy scheme operates so that people do not have to apply to let the property, but can just let it when they get moved, with a guarantee that there will be no problems.
We need to find ways of reinforcing that model. We need to put a little more money into it, and we need to address the point made by my hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth that people in the armed forces at the bottom end of the financial scale should be prioritised on waiting lists. But—and this is a crucial but—it must be done in a way that is fair. This cannot just be where they are serving—my hon. Friend Mr Gray made a strong point about this—it must be in their place of origin, otherwise a few communities will carry the whole weight.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you and the House have been very tolerant with me this afternoon. I firmly believe that this Government are strongly committed to our armed forces and I have huge confidence in our Ministers, and I know that everybody who has stayed behind for this debate on a Thursday cares about our armed forces, but I believe that the new accommodation model is a serious threat to two of our armed forces.
First, I thank Mrs Trevelyan for securing this debate. I congratulate her on that, on her passionate support for serving personnel and veterans, and on her knowledge of the issues. I can safely say that we all welcome the publication of the fifth annual report on the armed forces covenant, but we should be very aware of the big challenges that remain, while welcoming the progress that has been made. The announcement last year of the £10 million per annum covenant fund was clearly a step forward, and the 300 projects that have resulted from it are a positive foundation that can be built on.
In recent years, society has become more aware and has more understanding of the effects of military service on the mental and physical health of those who chose to serve, and on their relationships with their families and their communities. However, quite apart from the rigours of their jobs, the challenges that face current and former military personnel in their own lives are many and varied, from post-traumatic stress or physical rehabilitation, to simply finding a house and job upon leaving the military.
Veterans are an asset to society and deserve our thanks, respect and support. There are some 13 million veterans in the UK today, amounting to one of the highest densities of veterans in a major country. In Scotland alone, approximately 1,800 men and women complete their military service and settle in our communities every year, many with their families. The transition from the armed forces to civilian is a hugely unsettling process. It involves leaving behind a job, a home, a community and a unique way of life—possibly the only life many servicemen and women have known in their adult lives. The importance of caring for veterans was underlined even further this week with the publication of a report entitled “Multiple deprivation in help-seeking UK veterans” by the charity Combat Stress. Among its key findings was the clear link between residence in areas with higher risks of deprivation and mental health difficulties. In addition, there was the startling finding that individual veterans take an average of 11 years before seeking help after leaving the military.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the stress that can be caused to servicemen and women, and their families and dependants, when they leave the service. Will she therefore join me in congratulating the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting our ex-service personnel through the Scottish veterans fund, which contributes some £600,000 over three years to a range of one-off but vital projects in our communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was coming on to that, and indeed will do so shortly.
For all the progress that has been made in recent times, there is clearly still much to be done to encourage veterans to seek the help they need and deserve. The fifth annual report does cover what has happened in Scotland but does not provide much detail, so I hope to provide that. In January 2014, Cabinet Secretary Keith Brown announced the creation of a Scottish Veterans Commissioner to act as an ambassador for ex-service personnel. On
As alluded to by my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara, the Scottish veterans fund was established by the Scottish Government in 2008 to assist groups and organisations that offer assistance to Scotland’s ex-service personnel and their families and dependants. It is administered by Veterans Scotland and has been designed to provide discrete amounts of funding to one-off projects. However, after last year’s announcement of £600,000 of funding over the next three years, the fund will now accept applications for two and three-year projects. It is worth noting that one of our big employers in Edinburgh, Standard Life, has contributed £240,000 to the fund.
In February last year, the Scottish Government set out their ambitious agenda for the future in the report “Renewing Our Commitments”, with the goal of making Scotland the destination of choice for service leavers. On healthcare alone, since last year’s report on the covenant, the Scottish Government have put in considerable work to improve services for current and former service personnel. For example, in partnership with NHS Scotland, the Scottish Government have provided £1.2 million for 2016-17 to fund specialist mental health services for veterans. They also continue to fund and roll out a network of Veterans First Point centres across Scotland, so that any veteran can get help with any difficulties they have—and that is not confined to any one area.
The Scottish Government give veterans priority access to low-cost housing through the low-cost initiative for first-time buyers, and provide schemes to help with deposits for private renters. In addition, they have awarded £1.3 million of grant funding to the Scottish Veterans’ Garden City Association—another mouthful—to build new homes, 25 of which are now complete across six local authority areas, to support impaired ex-service personnel. I am delighted to tell the Chamber that I pass 10 of those new homes every time I visit my constituency office in Motherwell and Wishaw.
The Scottish Government support applications to the education support fund and encourage veterans and personnel to grasp the opportunities that the fund could give them. As an ex-further education lecturer, I have had practical experience of teaching service personnel —mainly those who were still serving but were committed to leaving the forces and preparing for civilian life—and I have to say that I found them all to be both committed and diligent.
In Scotland, the most obvious and far-reaching differences found by personnel leaving the services concern the provision of public services, most of which have been devolved to the Scottish Government and are now delivered by local authorities and NHS Scotland. It is almost inevitable that everyone leaving the military in Scotland will need to engage with those organisations as part of their personal transition process, whether about their health, housing, education or employment.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. I recently visited one of my constituents, who is doing a lot for veterans. Indeed, quite soon he will be rowing solo from Portugal to French Guiana in aid of veterans. When he left the Royal Navy, he experienced quite severe mental challenges, and has recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Does my hon. Friend agree that the armed forces covenant and the work she has mentioned will mean—
Order. I am sorry, but I have just done some calculations and, given the number of Members who wish to speak, I am going to have to impose a six-minute limit on speeches after Marion Fellows takes her seat. That was a very long intervention, which would normally be fine on a Thursday, but we are going to be very pressed for time today. In the light of that, if the hon. Lady could bring her speech to a conclusion, we would be very grateful.
May I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, lengthy though it was, and say that I appreciate the work that his constituent is doing?
I should also add at this point that an unfortunate few ex-service personnel do come in contact with the Scottish criminal justice system, which is also different. What may not be immediately apparent to the service leavers is the different approach to government in Scotland—I am talking about identifying which agencies have responsibility for the delivery of public services and what to expect in the way of support. Beyond the devolved public services, it must be remembered that Scotland also has several other characteristics that provide a different context for service leavers. Of those, perhaps the most important is the distinct nature of the third sector that provides vital support to the ex-service community.
We are also lucky in Scotland to have, across all sectors, a growing network of veterans’ champions who are dedicated to reinforcing the values of the armed forces covenant, and a private sector that is just starting to see the benefits of recruiting service personnel and their partners.
I was especially struck by the reference in the Scottish Veterans Commissioner’s third report, “The Veterans Community: Employability, Skills and Training”, published in November last year, in which he described how he met two students at Glasgow Caledonian University who had previously served in the military. They were early service leavers, who can face additional stresses on returning to civilian life. Both were inspiring characters, but one in particular left a lasting impression as he described the challenges that he faced during a short and troubled spell in the Army and a difficult transition into civilian life. He subsequently received vital support from the statutory sector, charities and the academic community—
Order. I said that I hoped the hon. Lady was reaching a conclusion. Every minute that she takes is coming off subsequent Members. The speech limit is six minutes now, but it is rapidly coming down unless she really does conclude.
I apologise Madam Deputy Speaker. I got carried away in my enthusiasm.
In Scotland, we try very hard, through our devolved services, to support personnel and veterans. Scottish Veterans’ Employment and Training Service deserves a mention. It covers a wide variety of public, private and charitable institutions, and helps people who have left the military to gain employment. I have also experienced at first hand Motherwell and Wishaw citizens advice bureau, which provides, through the Armed Services Advice Project, programmed help for people in my area.
We all must play a part in improving the lives of serving personnel and veterans across the UK to recognise the valuable role that they play in the defence of our citizens. Scotland is well versed in partnership working, and this is a well-used route to help veterans in Scotland. I commend it to the Chamber.
It is a great pleasure to follow Marion Fellows. May I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan on securing this debate and on the manner in which she presented it? Her work does her very great credit, particularly that in relation to the Public Accounts Committee.
I also thank my hon. Friend Mr Gray for giving us a wonderful plug and for promoting my book, which is available from all good booksellers. In a similar spirit, may I thank him for all his hard work on the armed forces parliamentary scheme—he has done a great job rejuvenating it and giving it a new lease of life—and for his work as chair of the all-party group for armed forces?
It seems like the covenant has been around for a long time, because, semantically, it has biblical or mid-17th century connotations, but the truth is that it was really only invented in 2000 in a staff paper. In 2007, the then Leader of the Opposition decided that it would be a good idea to create a Military Covenant Commission and appointed Frederick Forsyth as its chairman. People such as Simon Weston served with great distinction on that commission. It informed the thinking of the then Opposition and subsequent Government, and resulted in the inclusion of the military covenant in the Armed Forces Act 2011. That pretty much brings us to where we are today.
This report contains some great news. I give credit to the Government for their hard work and commitment, and I particularly thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister, who approaches this work with dedication and enthusiasm. There are a lot of positive things in the report. I was particularly taken by the fact that 73,000 pupils benefit from the pupil premium, which I feel strongly about as many of my young constituents benefit from it. Some 9,000 personnel are accessing the forces Help to Buy scheme, so that is having a real impact on people. The innovation is entirely compatible with the modern way of living for young people and has much to commend it, notwithstanding the points raised, quite rightly, by my hon. Friend Sir Julian Brazier about the future accommodation model. I share many of those concerns. I could see that the Minister was listening attentively, and I am sure that he will go away and reflect on my hon. Friend’s insightful remarks.
Having been ever so nice about the Government, I would just like to reduce my diminishing prospects of preferment by pointing out that we have recently had some fairly bad news about the recruitment and retention figures for regulars and reserves. I am particularly worried about the Army. The figures are really very bad. Of all the surveys we do, this one matters most. People are not daft. They pick up on what is going on around them and vote with their feet. We are at a time of reasonably good, robust employment and people have other options, so we have to work twice as hard as ever to keep people and, much more importantly, to retain them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one thing we have to get right is the means by which people are recruited into both the reserves and the regulars? It is currently taking far too long.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People simply walk. They do not give a reason; they just get fed up and go. That will not be reflected in any statistics. Those people are a wasted asset. I think that a lot of men and women who consider joining the reserve forces simply go and do something else.
The figures would have been even worse had we not changed the way in which we count people. We have now included phase 2 trainees in our trained strength. The logic behind that is perfectly sound in that phase 2 trainees can be used in the UK to do all sorts of exciting things do to with resilience and all the rest of it. Nevertheless, one is left—being a cynical politician—with the sense that this is, in fact, improving the figures. We have to compare like with like, but if we do that, we end up in an even more unhappy place—[Interruption.] I have been reminded that, of course, we are talking about phase 1 trainees: people who have completed phase 1, but not yet embarked on or completed phase 2.
The new employment model, the new recommendations for the service families accommodation and the future accommodation model have been discussed at length. I cannot expand on that in the time available, but I entirely agree with some of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. What has been proposed is exciting and forward-looking. It kind of taps into the way society is today. We always have to do that when trying to work out how the covenant will work into the future. However, it seems that this will disadvantage people and remove something valuable in service life. We must be very careful about that.
I am concerned about mental health in the armed forces. I wrote a report a little while ago called “Fighting Fit: a mental health plan for servicemen and veterans”, which the Government, to their great credit, implemented pretty much in full, but what I missed was the level of alcohol abuse in the armed forces. Some would say that that is up to the individual and has nothing to do with combat. I would say that the culture in our armed forces—I have seen this over many years—is one of encouraging the abuse of alcohol. We have a duty under the covenant to ensure that we deal with this, but I fear that we are not doing so at the moment. Some 65% of our military are at higher risk for their excess drinking.
This has been an excellent debate with much consensus. I speak as someone who is proud to be the wife of an armed forces veteran from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Alcohol difficulties in the Army also reflect mental health issues. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that alcohol is often a suppressant for underlying mental health issues?
Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. If we accept that we have a culture in the armed forces that encourages the use of alcohol—possibly with some benefits, actually—we have a duty of care to people to ensure that we try to tackle it. We were told that we were going to have an alcohol working group and that it would report shortly. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister where we are with that group and when we can have its report and the action points arising from it.
I suspect that the advent of lawfare will be discussed at length by one of my hon. Friends in a moment. However, I would like to weigh in, because the issue has already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson, and I agree with his remarks. I am deeply concerned about this issue. I wrote to the Prime Minister in October and received a very satisfactory response, in which she made it clear that she takes this matter extremely seriously. I am pleased to note that we have an intention to derogate from the European convention on human rights in respect of future conflicts. Of course, had we done so several years ago, we would not be running into some of the difficulties that have been alluded to this afternoon.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team must conclude its work by the end of 2019. I am pleased that the Government have committed to making sure that that happens, in so far as they are able to do so. I am also pleased that they will be giving support to those veterans who find themselves having their collar felt; it is entirely appropriate that we should do that. Will that also apply to Northern Ireland veterans—Operation Banner veterans —who have been issued with letters from the Ministry of Defence inviting them to unburden themselves? Many of these gentlemen are in their 60s or 70s, and it is a troubling experience for them. My advice to them, quite frankly, would be, “If you receive one of these, you should seek the advice of a solicitor.” It would be nice to know that the MOD agrees with that advice and that it will undertake to fund it.
Finally, I would like to give my observations on accommodation in relation to CarillionAmey. My sense is that, in recent months, things have improved. As somebody who represents a garrison town, I of course get correspondence on this issue regularly from my military constituents, and it has tailed off recently. However, there is no denying the conclusion in the extremely good report from the Public Accounts Committee, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed contributed, that the
“performance of CarillionAmey has been totally unacceptable and it is right that the Department is considering terminating the contract.”
Those are strong words from a highly respected Committee of this House, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister is doing to rein in the worst excesses of a company that, frankly, has let the men and women of our armed forces and their families down.
I congratulate Mrs Trevelyan on bringing this debate to the Floor of the House. She is to be commended on that and on her commitment to the armed forces.
I am a great believer in the idea that the armed forces must be rooted in, and reflect, the society they serve and defend. I commend the hon.—and gallant—Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) for raising the issue of making sure that our armed forces reflect the society they serve by living in it and not just in bespoke military hubs.
In their domestic lives, service personnel have similar problems to the rest of society, but we must recognise that they also face unique challenges. The Minister will be aware that I have raised issues on the Floor of the House in relation to children, veterans and carers, as well as pre-deployment and the length of deployment.
However, that does not mean that challenges do not remain. In terms of the report and the general debate, I am astonished to see the difficulties that veterans still face in accessing medical care. While there have been obvious improvements, work remains to be done across the whole United Kingdom—for example, in ensuring a better transition into civilian life for veterans by ensuring that service GPs can share their expertise across the NHS, which we have discussed on the Floor of the House on many occasions. Critically, in Scotland and across the UK there are differing NHS structures. Local provision in Scotland is made through community planning partnerships, where a whole range of partners get around the table. The discussion of the impact of service life in community planning partnerships does not seem to be having any influence.
In housing, there are problems with CarillionAmey providing service accommodation that lives up to the understandably high standards of the Ministry of Defence. That fact has drawn the eye of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, which indicates that much work remains to be done in delivering an improvement in the living experiences of service families and providing value for public money, as most of that money goes to a private company.
I wonder whether the future accommodation model should learn from elements of the Scottish housing standard, on which the Ministry of Defence could at least reflect, in introducing a basic standard. The Ministry of Defence in Scotland is exempt from the national housing standard, which every social landlord had to meet by 2015. That brings me to Sir Gerald Howarth, who mentioned social housing. Rather than blaming pregnant women, perhaps the best way to give people access to social housing is not only to build more of it, but to stop selling it.
This week’s Combat Stress report highlights some of the fundamental problems faced by veterans and underlines the fact that much work remains to be done. The opportunities grasped by many who enlist in our armed forces are unfortunately not shared by nearly enough people. Those of us who take an interest in armed forces and veterans affairs will not be satisfied until that attainment gap is closed. I agree with the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed about the corporate covenant. I am seeing that in small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency. Last week, I attended a Burns celebration in which the chamber of commerce—it covers not only West Dunbartonshire, but the whole of the old county of Dunbartonshire—led the charge to get businesses involved in that corporate approach.
It is one of my great hopes that the idea of the covenant can become embedded in the culture of the armed forces. The service rendered by those who join must be returned many times by not only this Government, but Governments of the devolved Administrations—and by the society that those people have served. I welcomed the Scottish Government’s commitment, which some of my hon. Friends have mentioned. Last year, the Scottish Government set out their ambitious agenda for veterans with “Renewing our Commitments”, in order to make Scotland the go-to destination for those who leave the services .
In conclusion, I reiterate my welcome for the report and my satisfaction in the ongoing work of the armed forces covenant to ensure that those who have served are given the support and opportunities that they deserve. Like most people in this House and in the country, I know from my own family experience—members of my family have been on the front line—the unique challenges faced by those who serve in the armed forces, and by their families. I am happy to say that they deserve our respect, our thanks and our ongoing support. In doing so, I do not forget the work that we in this House and those in the Ministry of Defence must still do to ensure that veterans receive more support than we are giving them at the moment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan on securing this fantastic debate. I remember spending many great days and cold nights in her constituency on gunnery training exercises. Those are fond memories, mostly. I would also like to declare that my youngest son serves in the British Army, also as a gunner.
The armed forces covenant has had a positive impact in redefining the relationship between our civilian population, veterans and our armed forces. By enshrining it in law, we have provided our armed forces, both past and present, with a tangible agreement—almost a contract—between the people who serve, the politicians who make the decision, as we do often, to put them in harm’s way, and the rest of the population who benefit and are kept free by the service and sacrifice of our armed forces.
I was very proud during the last Parliament to serve on the Armed Forces Bill Committee, not only as a Member of Parliament who represents a constituency with a huge defence, MOD and military manufacturing capacity, but as a veteran and vice-president of the Stoke Gifford Royal British Legion branch. I put lots of pressure on local councils in Bristol and south Gloucestershire to sign the community covenant during the last Parliament, and I constantly keep up the pressure regarding its ongoing implementation.
As one Royal British Legion vice-president to another, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that I very much take the point he is making? He will be aware, although the House may not, that every branch of the Royal British Legion and most branches of the Royal Naval Association have a welfare officer, who is very often the conduit or link between recently discharged servicemen and women, and the local authority, social housing providers and general providers of social aid and assistance. Does he agree that the Government could do more in the pre-discharge period to let servicemen and women know about the advantages of the Royal British Legion, which can do so much for them? In many cases, sadly, that offer is not taken up.
Does the hon. Gentleman support the Royal British Legion’s “Count them in” campaign, which calls on the next census to capture data on the armed forces community? That would help to improve the allocation of resources and services to this community, and I think the Government should support it.
Of course I will support that. As I said, it is imperative on all of us to link up with local service charities and do whatever we can on all levels to help our veterans and their loved ones, families and dependants. I have done some work with a military charity called Alabaré, which does a lot on housing, and I helped to secure it considerable funding from the LIBOR fund to invest in veterans’ accommodation.
Overall, the covenant has definitely helped to improve the way in which our country treats those who have protected our way of life, or are still doing so, by serving in the armed forces. We must never forget the huge debt of gratitude we owe both those who are currently serving and veterans, as well as their families. Freedom is not free: we do not live in a free country by accident, as most people in this country fully appreciate and understand.
When members of the armed forces swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, they enter into a covenant relationship with society—they swear to protect and serve us all—but, regrettably, this covenant has recently been shown to be one-sided. In the foreword to the armed forces covenant annual report, the Secretary of State for Defence says:
“We have a duty across society to recognise this dedication and sacrifice, by ensuring that the policies we make, and the services that we provide, treat our Service personnel, Veterans, and their families fairly, and ensure they suffer no disadvantage by comparison to the rest of society as a result of their service.”
As other hon. Members have mentioned in some detail, my hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth in particular, there is at least one aspect in which former service personnel are being disadvantaged by their service. I am talking about the ongoing, politically motivated witch hunt that is now taking place against former soldiers and service people who served in Northern Ireland during the troubles. Only last weekend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wrote in an article in The Daily Telegraph that there is an “imbalance” that has led to a “disproportionate” focus on criminal inquiries involving former soldiers. That is a clear admission of failure in relation to the armed forces covenant and of people being disadvantaged by their service.
I was interested to read the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in December that, in line with the Government’s commitment to the armed forces covenant, they plan, in order to stop service personnel and their families having to pursue lengthy and stressful claims in the courts,
“to provide better compensation…for injuries or death in combat equal to that which a court would be likely to award if it found negligence. As part of this reform, we intend to clarify in primary legislation the long-standing common law principle that the Government are not liable for damages as a result of injuries or deaths sustained in combat.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 617, c. 53WS.]
The Secretary of State also said that that would address the so-called judicialisation of war. The Government are able to act, with primary legislation, to protect their own interests, but what is happening to our Northern Ireland veterans is also, in my opinion, a judicialisation of war.
Let me bring to the House’s attention one of the many ongoing cases in which the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland—incidentally, he is a former lawyer for Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams—is seeking to prosecute two surviving veterans who were part of an Army patrol that shot the known IRA terrorist John McCann. Sadly, one of the patrol has died in the intervening years. The soldiers were investigated fully at the time, and the fact that the length of time that has passed means there is a lack of forensic evidence and credible eye-witness testimony would in my view make the trial, in modern terms, untenable.
We need to bring in legislation quickly to provide a statute of limitations on all sides. That would help to draw a line under the terrible events of the troubles and bring the communities together. There would also be no further retrospective prosecutions of our service people. I want to make a point that I have previously made in the House: there is no moral equivalence whatsoever between terrorists and brave service people who were keeping the peace to protect all communities. Nine hundred and sixty one people were killed serving in the police, the police reserve, the Army, the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Irish Regiment—nearly a third of all people who lost their lives in the troubles. It is clear to me that on this issue the Government have broken the military covenant. Clearly, we are not protecting or supporting our veterans who volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. The Government are letting them down badly.
Nobody is suggesting that military justice and due process should not apply on operations. Our people operate under the highest possible standards and with very strict rules of engagement. They are a great force for good in the world, but where service personnel have been judged to have carried out their duties, often in extremely difficult circumstances and at great risk to themselves, their actions should not be second-guessed years later for the sake of political expediency, a form of appeasement and the weakness of some of our politicians.
This is not just about dealing with the past. This is about upholding the covenant and our country’s honour, so that the people serving today and those thinking of enlisting have the reassurance that, whatever awful situation we send them into, it will not result, 30 or 40 years down the line, in their lives being ruined by retrospective, politically motivated prosecutions.
It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in this debate and to follow Jack Lopresti. I very much agree with his sentiments, and the soft way with which he put it, that we really must start looking after our armed forces, particularly those who served in Operation Banner.
The military covenant is a fantastic document and a great idea. I congratulate all involved in trying to put it into place. I apologise today for speaking mainly on Northern Irish issues. Before I do, I would like to congratulate the Minister, who often gives me the opportunity to talk through these issues with him. He was going to visit Northern Ireland, but has had to delay because of our election. I want to congratulate in particular Mrs Trevelyan on the huge amount of work she does on this issue. She visited Northern Ireland, where she met victims suffering from appalling combat stress; she listened carefully to how things are in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that the covenant says that we will look at the regions and learn from each other. There is a great deal to learn from how Scotland and everyone does this. It is, however, right for me to concentrate on Northern Ireland, because so much there does not work.
I want to start with a story that was told to me many years ago, which always makes me think. Winston Churchill visited a Spitfire factory and the young, keen engineer told him, “We look at every aircraft when it comes back. We see where most of the holes are, and then we arm them and make them stronger.” Winston Churchill, quick as a flash, replied, “You are looking at the wrong aircraft. You are looking at the ones that come back.” What I am trying to get across is that we must all remember to think outside the box. We have the information in front of us about the 83% or 84%, but we have to make sure we consider the information we are currently not seeing. I believe there is a great deal we can learn from it.
We struggle in Northern Ireland because the structures are not properly in place. We heard from Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson about the difficulties in Northern Ireland. Working together, we now have someone on the reference group, but we need a non-political commissioner or champion who can work with all sides of the political spectrum in Northern Ireland and bring everyone together. As we know, one side in Northern Ireland sees all military and security forces as representing British imperialism. We have to show them the great work of our armed forces in the Mediterranean, picking up refugees fleeing Africa, and in dealing with Ebola. We need to show the mass of great work our armed services are doing.
In Northern Ireland, about 60,000 people served in the UDR and the security forces. I want to tell one more story. I was once valuing a painting near Dungannon. As I walked in, there was a photograph of the person I was meeting with all his colleagues in military uniforms. I said, “Gosh, you’re brave to have that photograph on display next to the door.” He took me out into the car park and pointed to about 20 houses nearby saying that in every single one of them the males had been shot by the IRA. That is the world they were living in. That is why people have mental difficulties. They never got a break. They did their duty, went back to work and lived with that threat.
That is why I have pushed so hard to make sure that we look after everyone. We need funding to help the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association to look after everyone, and we need to sort out who exactly is in charge of this in Northern Ireland. It is not the regular forces. The RFCA does most of it, but it needs resources. Councils do not have the support either. We have champions in every council, but they do not do housing or education; that is done up at Stormont, but it is not being delivered there because, as we have heard, the covenant is not seen as being in place in Northern Ireland. We had 197 shot in the UDR alone. We have to find a way of helping everyone. It needs someone to grit their teeth and look at how we make it work. If we look outside the box, I think we can get there.
I agree with everyone that we cannot have this witch hunt. I see myself as about as balanced as can be, but it is so biased.
The hon. Gentleman and I both serve on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. In the last Parliament, we inquired into the implementation of the military covenant in Northern Ireland. Is it time we thought about another inquiry as an update on that?
I very much agree. We should have an update. We also have to find a way of drawing a line, perhaps with a statute of limitations. We have to find some way of moving on in Northern Ireland, and part of that will mean looking after our armed services—not just the Army, Navy and Air Force, but the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the RUC, the prison officers and a whole mass of other people. As someone who lives in Northern Ireland, I want to end by thanking all those who have served there and secured peace. Let us make sure we keep it.
The main point of the armed forces covenant is to ensure good morale in our armed forces. Maintenance of morale is the second most important principle of war and has been described as
“a positive state of mind derived from inspired political and military leadership, a shared sense of purpose and values, well-being, perceptions of worth and group cohesion.”
It is thus at the heart of the armed forces covenant. Napoleon called morale the “sacred flame”. He went further, saying, “Morale is to the physical as three is to one”. When I was an instructor at Sandhurst, between 1979 and 1980, when some in the Chamber were not even born, I did not really understand that. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are waving at me. I taught it, but I did not understand it. It means that if an army has high morale, the enemy thinks it has more forces. I did not understand that until I went to Bosnia.
As someone who was around in 1979, I must say that, while I hate to disagree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman, I do not think that the prime purpose of the covenant is to raise the morale of the troops. It is to repay a debt of honour we owe to servicemen and women. It is a debt of honour being repaid by the civilian society. It is not just about morale, surely.
I absolutely—and graciously—accept that point.
When I went to Bosnia, I learned this lesson. The three main opponents always came to me and said, “How many men and women do you have under your command?”, and I would say, “Lots. How many do you think?” They would say, “Between 3,000 and 4,000.” I had 800. Those men and women were acting like that because of their morale. We have the best armed forces in the world thanks to high morale and training. We give them everything we can, but we have the best armed forces in the world, and the armed forces covenant is going to make them even better.
Does my hon. and gallant Friend agree that what underpins the strong morale in the fighting elements of our armed forces is the confidence that when they come back into civilian life, they will be protected, nurtured and their sacrifice honoured?
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that very good intervention. The armed forces covenant will require constant care and attention. It is a responsive document that must interact with what is happening at the time, and hopefully, it will become even more effective.
Finally, to speak sharply, I want to complain to the Minister, who is sitting there complacently. There is not one regular unit of the Air Force, the Navy or the Army in my constituency of Beckenham, and that is disgraceful —sort it out!
I am not quite sure how to follow the last point made by Bob Stewart, but I will try.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate on the covenant, not least because in October 2011, Blackpool was the first town in the north-west to show its commitment to the armed forces by signing the community covenant, which I have a copy of here. I pay tribute to the late Jim Houldsworth—a Conservative councillor, as it happens—who was instrumental in bringing the community covenant together in the town.
Blackpool has a strong relationship with the armed forces. Every year, to tie in with national Armed Forces Day—indeed, we had one of the first in the country—the town also holds an armed forces week, which this year will run from 19 to
We also have our own arboretum—the Fylde memorial arboretum and community woodland at Bispham—for which Councillor Ryan is setting up a friends group. I have been privileged over the last few years to have a couple of armed forces roundtable events with members of the local armed forces community. They have included people such as Sergeant Rick Clement—he is something of a legend in Blackpool, as a double amputee who served in Afghanistan and has raised tens of thousands of pounds for military charities—Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Lighten from the north-west veterans committee and Stephen Greenwood from Blackpool Submariners.
I pay tribute to the fantastic speech that Mrs Trevelyan made in bringing this matter to the House’s attention. However, I agree with other hon. Members that this debate should be an annual fixture in Government time.
My time is limited, so I will focus on just a couple of issues, the first of which is the return to civilian life. At my armed forces roundtable this year, that issue was the subject of a strong discussion, because many personnel are now leaving the armed forces at a younger age, in many cases having experienced very traumatic circumstances. However, they do not always find that the skills or qualifications that they have gained in the Army are readily recognised in civvy street. The in-service education metrics section of the 2016 report states that
“there continues to be low satisfaction with the training and education available in relation to gaining civilian accreditation and personal development” and cites various statistics.
I urge the Minister to look carefully at that issue and to liaise with his colleagues in the Department for Education. I speak not only as a local MP, but as the shadow Minister for schools and further education, and I am well aware of this lack of transferability. We are not doing justice to our troops and armed services if they leave with qualifications that cannot be easily understood in civvy street.
I will give an example from a roundtable this year. Lesley-Jane Holt from LifeWorks for the Royal British Legion spoke about how a lot of employers use automated software to scan through CVs, but pointed out that it does not always recognise the skills relating to the forces. I urge the Minister to address that. With the Government making changes in further education and skills, with apprenticeships coming through and with the new Institute for Apprenticeships and everything that goes with it, now is an apposite time to do so.
I conclude with a plea from another person who attended that session, Councillor Edward Nash from Fylde, which is next door to Blackpool. He sent me a note for today that says:
“Some thoughts on the Covenant: It is seen as increasingly …
London-based…All bids now go to London”.
We used to have a regional panel and we should resuscitate it. He continues:
“What does the Corporate Covenant with business actually achieve? Recruitment? Reservists?”
Who gets what out of it? I know that a great deal has been achieved, but as we have heard, a great deal more needs to continue to be achieved. It would be very useful if the Minister looked at these issues.
It is a pleasure to follow Gordon Marsden. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan not just for securing the debate, but for the tireless work that she does for the armed forces in this House and beyond.
From the long winter of the Crimean war to the bloody waters of Gallipoli, the history of my constituency’s Green Howards Regiment is a shining reminder that the story of British liberty is inseparable from that of our military. It is an enormous privilege to represent the almost 1,500 veterans, service personnel and their families based around Catterick Garrison and RAF Leeming, yet for many years, despite their heroism, my constituents have too often found themselves at the back of the queue for public services. There will always be more that we can do, but in housing, education and employment, I am proud to say that the armed forces covenant and the work of this Government have moved us closer than ever to ensuring that the world’s finest armed forces are never penalised for their service.
Let me begin briefly with housing. Before the covenant’s introduction, retiring service personnel in my constituency often found that they did not meet the residency requirement to be considered for council housing. As a direct consequence of this Government’s action, I am pleased to report that that is now largely a thing of the past. I pay enormous tribute to Richmondshire District Council for its tireless work in this regard. However, although military families are used to having their lives uprooted when orders of a new posting come in, they are too often also used to finding inadequate housing when they get there.
In the most recent armed forces attitude survey, only 29% of military families said that they were satisfied with the quality of maintenance in service family accommodation. CarillionAmey’s failures to live up to the standards set out by the MOD have been mentioned before, and they are a betrayal of both the taxpayer and our armed forces. I very much welcome the action that the Government have already taken in condemning that failure. With the future accommodation model on the horizon, I am mindful that it will be a great comfort for my military constituents to know that the lessons of CarillionAmey’s shortcomings have been learned so that they will not be repeated. I also echo the concerns raised by my hon. Friend Sir Julian Brazier about the FAM.
Let me turn next to education, a crucial area. With frequent school changes and parents left to manage alone during tours of duty, the sacrifices made by members of our armed forces are often felt hardest by their children. The Government have taken real action by introducing the service pupil premium—as we speak, that funding is helping schools across my constituency to meet the unique needs of military children. I also commend the Government for creating the education support trust, which funds North Yorkshire County Council’s excellent service pupils’ champions scheme. Thanks to the hard work of council leader Carl Les and Neil Irving, that has been an enormous success. I urge the Government to maintain the funding for that programme. My constituents welcome plans to expand Catterick to a super-garrison, but I urge the Minister to ensure that discussions with the local council begin as soon as possible so that we can ensure that adequate school places are made available when the additional soldiers and their families arrive.
My final point is about spousal employment. Fifty per cent of military personnel already cite the impact on their partner’s career as making them more likely to leave the services. The reason is that the husbands and wives of Britain’s servicemen and women represent a deep reservoir of talent that all too often goes untapped. That is a problem not only for families but for our economy, which is missing out on some of our nation’s most able and resourceful citizens. The work done by charities such as Recruit for Spouses, and the Government’s ongoing spouse employment support trial, is crucial to rectifying the situation. I hope very much that such work continues, and that it will remain at the heart of our thinking about the armed forces covenant.
The soldiers, sailors and airmen of north Yorkshire do not expect the path that they have chosen to be an easy one. All they want to know is that when they take on that burden, their Government will do what they can to make it just a little lighter. The annual covenant report makes it clear that we still have work to do, but with six years of success behind us, it is equally clear to me that it is this Government who can make that a reality.
I welcome the report, and I particularly welcome the work of my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan, who has done so much for the armed forces in just a year and a half. It is extraordinary to think how much she has already achieved in such a brief period.
We have heard much about the burden of service, and I think it might be helpful for us to remind ourselves of the joy of it. The reason why I joined the armed forces—it is the reason many of us joined—was that it is the most extraordinary opportunity to serve one’s country in the most dynamic and demanding environments.
I cannot express to the House the joy that I experienced when conducting fighting patrols in Afghanistan and Iraq. It might sound absurd, but actually to spend days with men—in my case it was only men—who were like-minded, focused, determined in pursuit of a goal that they knew to be right in the service of a country that they knew to be honourable, and serving alongside men we knew to have integrity: what a rare experience that was. What an experience it was not to be clouded by mortgage fears or annoyed by the words of Whips, but simply to be free to do exactly what was right.
However, the experience was also hugely demanding. We were operating in very difficult circumstances, in heat and dust, sleeping little, often in danger—at risk of either improvised explosive devices or direct action—and also working alongside people from other nations. I speak not only of the Americans with whom, obviously, we worked very closely, the Australians with whom I had the great joy of serving, or the Estonians, Danes and Czechs, all of whom were impressive and quirky in their own ways, but of Afghans and Iraqis—men of huge courage and great integrity who literally put their lives on the line for us and many of whom, sadly, did not live to tell the tale.
That experience was almost like a drug it was so powerful. It is so electric to be challenged in everything you do—physically, mentally, morally—for such a period. It is so demanding. It is exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. That is why the covenant matters. The challenge of coming back is much greater than the challenge of simply going from an institution to a free civilian life. It is almost like kicking a habit. Living in such an environment that is so all-consuming and so demanding, but also so rewarding, gives you a purpose that very few things can match—even some of the things that we are doing now, Madam Deputy Speaker.
In the light of my hon. Friend’s military service and the operational tours that he has done, may I ask whether he is comfortable with the way in which we have treated our interpreters and other locally employed civilians?
I have only a few minutes to speak, so if my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not talk much about locally employed civilians, except to say that I am hugely pleased that this country has given refuge to a wonderful man who served as my interpreter for a brief period when I was working for the governor of Helmand. That man went through several explosions with me—literally alongside me. We managed to escape with our lives from several relatively closer calls than I think my parents would have liked to know about.
I mention my parents for a specific reason. While I was experiencing the exhilaration of combat and the joy of camaraderie, my family and my then girlfriend—my wife should not hear about that too much!—were left behind. Of course, for many of the folk I was serving with, their families were waiting anxiously, hoping that they would not get a knock on the door. That, again, is where the covenant comes in, because when my hon. Friend Sir Julian Brazier is talking about accommodation models, he is talking about not only the place where people live, but a community that supports them. We must not destroy the communities that support our armed forces who serve in battle—those around Aldershot, for example—where the families live together and understand the pressures everyone is under. Accommodation is not simply about a need for a house—a set of bricks—but about a need for a family of a different sort that reinforces those families who also serve as they sit and wait.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for giving way. On the question of support networks, does he agree that the Government and broader society need to be particularly aware of the pressures on people like him who were members of the reserve forces and do not have that automatic wraparound structure as a result of the diverse and dispersed nature of their particular circumstances?
My hon. and gallant Friend speaks absolutely correctly. Of course, he will know this very well, having served himself and also being a reservist.
I want to skip quickly on to a second aspect of the covenant, which I am sorry to say was not mentioned in the report: the law. We have heard mention of the Northern Ireland cases and we have touched on the Iraq historical allegations cases. My hon. and gallant Friend Johnny Mercer has done enormous amounts of very impressive work on this. Sadly, for family reasons, he cannot be here today, but I am afraid that his work has demonstrated that our Government are not doing enough. We need to do more to protect those who have done the most for us, because what the covenant should be about is ensuring that those who have served—who have risked all and given all—can come back safe in the knowledge that they are safe, and that they are not going to be pursued by charlatans and liars like Phil Shiner, who has been struck off today by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority for his deceit, dishonesty and absolute treason to this country in the way he has pursued fine, fine people. I am delighted that that has come to pass. If any man would wish to claim the faith that he does, he would do well to read his commandments: the eighth is:
“Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
I urge the Government to look very hard at the changes they are making with regard not only to future derogations from the European convention on human rights for operations, but also a statute of limitations, because it is not enough simply to support those who are vulnerable at home or to make sure their kids have schools to go to—important though these things are—if for the years after their service they are constantly looking over their shoulder, fearful of a knock on the door, because somebody who had tried and failed to kill them in combat previously is now using our own courts against them. That would not only leave them weaker, but leave them exposed. It would also leave the country exposed, and that is unacceptable.
I shall begin with a number of expressions of gratitude: gratitude to the Chair for allowing me to contribute at all when, because of another Defence Committee commitment, I could not attend as much of the debate as I should have; gratitude to my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan for her splendid work in this respect on the armed forces covenant—she is relatively new to the House of Commons, but has taken to this place like a duck takes to water; gratitude to the Minister, who carries out his responsibilities with a great deal of conscientiousness, informed not least by his own frontline military service, for which the country has reason to be grateful; and gratitude to all hon. Members and hon. Friends who have seen active service and have spoken so movingly today.
In particular, I single out my hon. and gallant Friend Tom Tugendhat, who has just spoken. He held the House in a vice-like grip and added an important piece of information that will affect my own remarks. I had not known that Mr Shiner, who I believe glories in the title of professor, had been struck off today. I was not going to say anything about him because I knew that he was facing ongoing proceedings, but I now feel it incumbent on me to say that if people like that had been around in the aftermath of the second world war, and if our troops in that war had known that they would have to face the duplicity, the manoeuvrings and the outrages perpetrated on subsequent generations of soldiers by such people, they could not possibly have fought with the valour that they showed in defeating Nazism and fascism.
This country will be failed by its Government if we do not find a method of preventing what is a much more lethal version of the practice that used to be known in industrial relations terms as the “work to rule” from being applied every time a soldier has to pull a trigger in a deadly conflict. That practice would make the carrying out of the profession of arms absolutely impractical and impossible. The words that we have heard today, time and again, are “statute of limitations”. The idea that anyone could come up with new and relevant evidence 40 or more years after crimes—if they were crimes—have been committed is frankly preposterous in the context of a military conflict. It is not going to happen. All that such a process will do is put people through a mental and emotional wringer for no purpose other than to demoralise the ability of the state to send troops into harm’s way, or indeed to recruit troops in the knowledge that they will be sent into harm’s way at the behest of the state. Not only will those troops have to face the violence of the enemy; they will also have to face the lies, distortions and blatant manipulations of a blind justice system after they have survived the dangers of combat. That is totally untenable and it has to stop.
A statute of limitations does not imply pardoning or guilt. It does not imply anything other than the realisation that if the settlement in Northern Ireland is to hold, it has to have fairness on all sides. We cannot have a situation in which one group of people are, if not amnestied, at least given a ceiling of a couple of years to any possible prison sentence, and are even enabled to hold positions of high authority in the political system, while the soldiers who were doing their job with integrity on behalf of the democratic Government are placed in harm’s way and pursued to the ends of time.
I would say that we have to find a system to ensure that what happened in Iraq is never allowed to happen again. At some stage, that might mean standing up to the provisions of international law, and if we were to do that, we would have to use the strongest possible case. What case could be stronger than the existence of a settlement in Northern Ireland in which one group of people were protected while the soldiers who represented the majority of the people were unprotected and left exposed indefinitely?
As I have only a few seconds left, I urge people to look at the website of the Defence Committee to see details of the hearing that we held on
I thank Mrs Trevelyan and the Backbench Business Committee for arranging this debate. In these interesting political times, it is important that issues such as this are not allowed to fall by the wayside. Today’s debate has been interesting and useful, with many considered and thoughtful contributions. I was pleased that my hon. Friend Ian Blackford raised an important point about the pensions injustice for some war widows. I also pay tribute to the excellent contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows).
The SNP welcomes the publication of the report, and it is vital that we record our gratitude for the people who step forward and signal their willingness to put themselves in peril for the rest of us by joining the armed forces. That being the case, the least we can do is ensure that we drive this matter forward and establish which particular areas need concerted focus. I agree with other hon. Members that society is perhaps becoming more aware of the effects of military service on the mental and physical health of service personnel and veterans and also their families, an important issue that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw.
Like others, I am pleased that Scotland has a veterans commissioner, whose contribution is highly regarded, and it is a shame that that is not reflected more in the report. However, the report does highlight the work to engage with the Muslim community, with Nottingham’s Karimia mosque signing the armed forces covenant in December 2016. At a time when we are sending so many wrong signals to the Muslim community, that is to be absolutely welcomed. It would be helpful if future reports provided a more detailed analysis of progress in extending that kind of engagement with the covenant.
Approximately 1,800 men and women complete their military service and settle in Scotland every year. They are very welcome, but the transition can be challenging. The majority of veterans do manage to transition successfully, but we must acknowledge the hurdles that come with that magnitude of change. This week’s Combat Stress report provided a timely reminder of that and of the work that still needs to be done. Among the report’s key findings was the clear link between residence in areas with higher risks of deprivation and mental health difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw made several valuable points on that topic, and I share her concern about the problems experienced by early service leavers in particular, 63% of whom live in the most deprived areas. In stark contrast, just 32% those who served for 15 years or more live in the most deprived areas.
Nearly one in five veterans seeking support for mental health difficulties from Combat Stress was an early service leaver. They are shown to be most at risk of mental illness, with a suicide rate three times higher than their non-veteran counterparts. Members will have heard today about the Scottish Government’s commitment to make Scotland the destination of choice for service leavers and that is important to us. The Scottish Veterans Commissioner’s employability report has a useful focus on transferrable skills and attributes and on removing barriers to employment. On early service leavers, he notes that almost half of Army recruits leave school with levels of literacy and numeracy equivalent to those of an 11 year-old. Unsurprisingly, he reflects that they may become the early service leavers of the future. He highlights the story of Derek Boyd, who left school and quickly joined the Royal Engineers
“to keep himself out of jail.”
Although he left after just four years, he managed to get a carpentry qualification and used that to get in to college, eventually graduating with a degree in building surveying.
The Scottish Government have put considerable work into healthcare, and I am pleased that colleagues highlighted the excellent work on Veterans First Point centres and mental health. Many hon. Members also pointed out the importance of priority opportunities for housing, such as the new veterans homes supported by the Scottish Government in local authority areas across Scotland.
When asked about the possibility of a post in the Ministry of Defence similar to the Scottish Veterans Commissioner, the Minister said that, while well-intentioned, it would duplicate existing provision. However, in a survey conducted by SSAFA, 70% of clients expressing a view felt that the armed forces covenant was not being taken seriously, so I wonder whether that could be considered further.
Of those who left the armed forces in 2014-15 and used the career transition partnership, 11% were unemployed and 10% were economically inactive up to six months after leaving service. That represents an almost doubling of the level of unemployment among former service personnel. When broken down by service, gender and ethnicity, the figures are particularly worrying: 13% of former members of the Army, and all female service leavers in some categories, were unemployed six months after leaving. Some 81% of white service leavers were in employment after six months compared with 73% of black and minority ethnic service leavers. None of that is good enough.
Of those in employment six months after leaving service, 23% were employed in skilled trade occupations, compared with 11% of the UK population, which clearly emphasises the value of supporting members of the armed forces to improve their skills and qualifications while in service.
“The risks to the affordability of the…Equipment Plan are greater than at any point since reporting began in 2012.”
Some £1.5 billion of the required savings are to be provided from elsewhere in the defence budget, including through military and civilian pay restraint and savings from the running of the defence estate, which is already not a pretty picture in Scotland. That puts the pay of armed forces and civilian staff right in the frontline of meeting problems in the equipment budget, which is not acceptable.
The 2015 strategic defence and security review added £24.4 billion of new commitments to the MOD budget, including mechanised infantry vehicles, the Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and accelerating the purchases of the F-35 joint strike fighter. Those are welcome commitments, but they appear to have created the Government’s own version of the black hole that they frequently refer to having inherited from their predecessors.
After the Trident test malfunction, there is an obvious suggestion that the Government might refocus their defence spending on conventional defences, our military personnel and our veterans so that we can be sure they have the equipment they need, that appropriate support is provided for them and their families and that they receive a proper level of pay. Considering what we have heard from all the hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, surely that is what they deserve.
I conclude by echoing the sentiments of Christian Matheson and appealing to the Minister to work with the Foreign Office to bring the Chennai Six—my constituent Billy Irving and his colleagues, all military veterans—home from India and back to their families, where they belong.
I congratulate Mrs Trevelyan on securing today’s debate and on her important work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant.
The covenant sets out a series of commitments that we, as a nation, have made to our armed forces in recognition of their service, dedication and sacrifice. We make those commitments to the entire forces community —to forces families and veterans, as well as to those who are currently serving.
When we were in government, Labour did much to pave the way for the covenant, with the first military covenant being published in 2000. It was my right hon. Friend Alan Johnson who, as Health Secretary, ensured that for the first time veterans got priority treatment on the NHS. It is encouraging to see such enthusiastic recognition of the covenant by businesses and by community and religious groups.
The annual reports on the covenant are an important way of making sure that it is being honoured and applied properly, but we must never become complacent about the covenant, particularly at a time of swingeing cuts to council budgets and the health service. We must defend and extend the services available to the forces community as a result of the covenant. Moreover, we can always do more to ensure that the two vital principles that underlie the covenant—that our forces should have special consideration and suffer no disadvantage—are a reality for all in the forces community.
I particularly welcome the work that the Royal British Legion will lead to establish a veterans gateway—a single point of contact for the forces community consisting of a gateway contact centre with a direct phone number and website. In my conversations with forces charities and service users, it is clear that the gateway could be a real benefit to the forces community, particularly to veterans who may not know exactly where to turn when seeking support or advice. Indeed Cobseo, the Confederation of Service Charities, describes it as
“an extremely positive development which will be of great benefit to those in need.”
However, it is essential that the MOD does all it can to publicise the gateway, particularly to those who left the forces some time ago.
The report describes the many positive steps that have been taken by local authorities across England to deliver the covenant, such as Blackpool Council, where the armed forces champion, Labour councillor Chris Ryan, is responsible for consulting interested parties and for putting together and delivering an action plan. The purpose of an action plan is to address shortcomings and make improvements. Will the Minister tell us what monitoring and evaluation his Department does of action plans produced by local councils and health bodies? What discussions does he have with them about setting targets for improvement?
The report also lauds the impressive commitment of the devolved Governments of Scotland and Wales. The Labour Welsh Government have made particular strides to improve the support available to the forces community, including by investing £650,000 in specialist health services, to fund improvements in psychological therapies and develop a fast-track referral pathway to support injured service personnel in their return to fully deployable status.
So there is much in this report that I welcome, but it is clear from the observations of the external members of the Covenant Reference Group that there is still much more work to be done to ensure that the commitments made in the covenant are fully realised for all. The forces families federations express real concern about the current and future provision of housing for service members and their families. Indeed, the federations state that they have heard more complaints in the past 12 months than ever before about poorly maintained and substandard housing units. Such complaints were about, among other things: leaking roofs; no heating for months; and broken toilets left unrepaired The federations issue a stark warning, saying that this situation represents a threat to recruitment and retention, as well as the morale of our service personnel, and is one for which they urge swift action.
However, we know that there have been serious questions about the maintenance of service housing for some time. In July, the Public Accounts Committee issued a damning judgment of both the MOD and CarillionAmey, concluding that they were
“letting down service families by providing them with poor accommodation, and often leaving them for too long without basic living requirements.”
This issue goes right to the heart of the covenant and to the duties we owe to our armed forces. I therefore ask the Minister to spell out what action he will take over the next 12 months to ensure that this sorry situation does not continue.
There is also great uncertainty and worry about the proposed changes to forces housing that are being considered by the MOD: the so-called future accommodation model. The families federations report increasing nervousness among the forces, not least because they suspect that these plans have more to do with cost-cutting than improving provision for them. The Department must provide clear information to our armed forces about what could be very significant changes to forces accommodation, and the MOD must ensure that the views of our forces and their families are listened to and respected. If this is an opportunity to both modernise and improve housing provision, to provide flexibility, to facilitate home ownership and to recognise the realities of modern living, that is a good thing. But if, as I fear, this process is driven more by cost-cutting at the MOD, with fewer options for forces families and increasingly exposing them to exploitation by private landlords, that is something else entirely.
Another uncertainty apparent from this report concerns the Government’s decision to close 91 MOD sites across the UK, a decision that will see cities such as York and Chester losing their barracks and that will affect some 22,000 military personnel and nearly 5,000 civilian staff. Of course the requirements of the defence estate will change over time, and there is a need to modernise and restructure to reflect that, but the complete lack of detail provided by the MOD to those affected by these changes is unacceptable. In many cases, we have no idea of the timeframe for a base closure and, crucially, whether civilian staff will be able to commute to other sites in their vicinity or whether they will lose their jobs altogether. I am concerned that one of the sites that has been earmarked for closure is the Defence Business Services site in Blackpool, which houses Veterans UK. All we are told in the Government’s publication is that the site will be replaced by a “Government Hub” in the north-west. If that ends up being beyond a reasonable commuting distance—for example, if it is in Manchester —we risk losing experienced staff who have an expertise in supporting our veterans community. The forces families federations have said that the many questions relating to programmes such as “A Better Defence Estate” mean that service personnel and their families are living in a period of increasing uncertainty. I therefore ask the Minister to try as hard as he can to provide our armed forces with the answers that they deserve.
As well as ensuring that the commitments contained in the covenant are being delivered effectively, we must also ensure that the covenant applies across Britain and that its application is not patchy or subject to a postcode lottery. As Cobseo notes in the report:
“the delivery of the Covenant is very varied across the country with a clear need to ensure...that appropriate training is given to local authority staff to ensure that the policies are properly implemented.”
Research published last year by SSAFA found that just 16% of the veterans that it surveyed thought that the covenant was being implemented effectively. We also need the Government to look at monitoring and evaluation, and to develop strategies that ensure that service providers—health boards, local authorities and schools—are implementing the covenant effectively.
Central to this whole issue is the question of identifying our forces community to ensure that they can access the services they need. One starting point, highlighted in the best practice guide to the covenant, is the way that some local authorities include a question on veterans on some of their forms to help them to collate data. I urge the Government to consider developing that into a standard format—for example, in the form of a question on GP registration forms.
The challenge is always to find ways to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the covenant in ways that are effective, but not too burdensome or bureaucratic. We should not forget, either, that many of our public bodies are under considerable strain as they face cuts and increased demands. The “Count them in” campaign has already been mentioned; will the Government make a firm commitment to that so that we have a better understanding of the nation’s profile and the needs and locations of our serving personnel?
Last year, the Government announced the new £10 million covenant fund. What evaluation has the Minister made of the use of that money and the measurable outcomes? How will that information influence the future use of the fund?
The armed forces covenant and the services it guarantees are a moral obligation on us all, as a society, to ensure that our forces are supported and honoured for their service. It is also crucial to retention and recruitment. It is therefore incumbent on us all to ensure that our forces community truly get the very best, because they deserve nothing less.
In the six minutes I have to respond to the debate—if I am to allow my hon. Friend Mrs Trevelyan to wind up—I clearly will not be able to address many of the questions that have been raised. I shall therefore commit to write to Members after the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Her knowledge of this subject, as demonstrated in her speech, is second to none.
Before I outline some of the covenant’s key achievements, it might be useful to provide the House with some context. The notion of a special bond between the state and its armed forces is hardly new. Indeed, I was surprised that as early as 1593 the Elizabethans had introduced a statute ensuring disabled army veterans
“should at their return be relieved and rewarded to the end that they may reap the fruit of their good deservings”.
That is something we should be doing today.
The term military covenant was coined back in 2000, as my hon. Friend said. I remember first hearing the term around about the time I was serving in Kosovo. It was then little more than an informal understanding of the debt of service we owe to those who serve us. However, fears that the covenant was gradually being undermined led to its principles being enshrined in law in the Armed Forces Act 2011. Much of the progress over recent years has been highlighted in the debate, so I shall not dwell on that.
I shall focus in my speech on just three areas in which progress is most pronounced, but before I do so, I wish to say a couple of words on the Northern Ireland legacy investigations, which have been raised by so many Members this afternoon. Although the Government firmly believe in upholding the rule of law, we are concerned that investigations into Northern Ireland’s past focus almost entirely on former police offers and soldiers. This is wrong, and does not reflect the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who served did so with great bravery and distinction. That is why the Defence Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary are working together to ensure that veterans are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated compared with others, in an effort to create a Stormont House agreement Bill.
We are acutely mindful of the burden that historical investigations can place on veterans and their families. When veterans face allegations arising from actions that they undertook as part of their duties, taxpayer-funded legal advice and representation is available for as long as is necessary. In addition to legal advice, the MOD will provide pastoral support, either directly through regimental associations, through Veterans UK, or in partnership with the veterans charities, depending on the individual needs and circumstances.
As I said, I shall touch briefly on three areas, starting with veterans’ health. It is only right that those who have sustained life-changing injuries in the service of our nation should receive the best medical care, so we have worked with the NHS to ensure that recent veterans with complex amputation-related complications can now be referred, when necessary, to a dedicated clinic at the world-class Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Headley Court.
We are not just thinking of rehabilitation. The most seriously injured service personnel also need assistance in making the transition to civvy street, and through life, so we are working across the MOD and NHS to develop an integrated personal commissioning for veterans model. This fully joined-up system aims to bring the NHS, the MOD and the charitable sector together to provide services specifically tailored to an individual veteran’s needs. At the same time, NHS England’s new veterans trauma network, launched at the end of last year, offers a safety net for those with lifelong healthcare needs. Increasingly, we recognise that the scars of war are more than just skin deep, so the Government are also channelling £13 million from LIBOR to provide support for mental health in the armed forces community.
I, too, have recently met Sue Freeth, the chief executive of Combat Stress, to explore how we can work more closely with that organisation. I commend my hon. Friend Dr Murrison for all the work that he has done, and I am delighted that we have now completed and implemented most of the recommendations in his report. Equally, I wish to focus on the preventive action that we can take with our serving personnel, which is why I am pleased that the trauma risk management system is now fully effective.
Clearly, there was a bone of contention between my hon. Friend Sir Julian Brazier and I on the matter of housing. I absolutely understand what he is trying to tell me. I feel somewhat at a disadvantage, because it appears almost as if he is sure what format the future accommodation model should take. I simply seize this opportunity to tell him once again, and to reassure him, that the reason we had our survey was to give us the evidence base for how to proceed.
We have yet to make any firm decisions about what format the accommodation model will take. It will evolve. It will be a complex process, and one size will not fit all. I want to dispel one myth: we will not somehow scrap all service family accommodation. I invite anybody who challenges that to come to Ludgershall, where we are about to award a contract to build new service family accommodation in Wiltshire. Off the top of my head, I think that we are talking about some 444 new homes. Why would we be building new service family accommodation if we will not be using it at all in the future?
It is absolutely right that, when we look at the accommodation needs of our service personnel, options should be available. We should recognise that young people, as the survey says, do not necessarily want to live in single-living accommodation. Why is it that more than 9,000 service personnel have now used our service help-to-buy scheme so that they can buy their own home and get into the private sector? It is all about delivering options and ensuring that our service personnel have those options. It is a complex model, and it is a controversial matter. Much of the problem is that we have not had the opportunity to communicate what the options will be in the future, and I am determined to address that.
I recognise that, having focused on that particular issue, I will probably have to conclude. To Vernon Coaker I say that there is always a debate about where that line should be. I can tell Gordon Marsden that I am very proud that some 95% of our new entrants are enrolled in apprenticeships. As for Christian Matheson, I am more than happy to meet him to talk about Dale barracks.
I thank all colleagues who have spent their Thursday afternoon here in the Chamber rather than in Stoke-on-Trent or Copeland, and the Minister who has sat patiently listening to all of us as we share our praise and our criticism of the way in which the armed forces covenant is rolling out.
There must be something about Kent, because my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) are both passionate about housing. The fact that it is not just about the bricks is the critical point. I hope very much that the Minister and the Ministry of Defence will hear that message, because that is the families’ message to them. The model needs to be good and it needs to be 21st century, but it is not just about the bricks.
Many colleagues talked about the statute of limitations. I know that the Minister is working on that. If the outstanding work on the Iraq Historic Allegations Team of Johnny Mercer, who could not be with us today, can change the Ministry’s mind and drive forward some really good improvements, I hope very much that colleagues who have spoken today can push forward that statute of limitations and find a legal framework that can work.
The key to all matters to do with the covenant—the work that has been done over the past few years is extensive and very positive—is that unless our attempts at recruitment and retention succeed, we will not have the armed forces we need to take up the challenges that the world around us demands. Every decision that the Ministry makes cannot only be on cost-savings grounds. Value for money is about not cost saving, but about getting the right investment for our armed forces to ensure that we look after them and their families as they serve, and then for the rest of their lives.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Armed Forces Covenant Report 2016.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, you may recall that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union laid a copy of the White Paper before the House. I have my own copy with me. We have found that at least one chart in the document contains incorrect information. Chart 7.1 states that United Kingdom workers are entitled to 14 weeks of annual holiday, whereas the chart should state that they have 5.6 weeks paid holiday. The mistake has led to another error, as the chart claims that European Union minimum maternity leave entitlement is only 5.6 weeks, when it should be 14 weeks. The Scottish National party has corrected the chart for the United Kingdom Government. Perhaps the Minister would like a copy to save his blushes over what appears to have been only a desktop exercise today. Madam Deputy Speaker, would you please instruct me as to how this House can get the accurate, proper information to inform our already rushed debate on this rather important issue?
I think the hon. Gentleman has quite successfully just done so himself. I am sure that the Treasury Benches will have heard what he said and will take action.