I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on a topic that affects every Member of this House. Those who are serving or who have served in our armed forces are owed a great debt of gratitude by us all, and they deserve to be supported and looked after, both in service and after they have left.
The core principles of the armed forces covenant set out to ensure that these individuals suffer no disadvantage compared with other citizens when it comes to accessing services and that, where appropriate, they are given special consideration. However, according to some of the personal accounts I have heard, that is not always their experience. We have heard a long list of other examples from people across the country for whom this is not their experience either. We know that that must change, and I welcome the Minister’s recognition that change was inevitable and that continuous improvement in the support for veterans was required.
The Ministry of Defence is currently struggling to recruit and retain the personnel we need. This year, the British Army was 4,000 troops short of the 82,000 it was set to have; only 7,500 were recruited. It is 2,000 shy of the 10,000 required to maintain troop numbers. The total number of trained personnel based in Scotland dropped by almost 2% in 2016, to 9,970; with a drop of almost 19% in the officer ranks. Across the rest of the UK, the picture is no better, with an astonishing 10% drop in the number of new recruits. The Public Accounts Committee report published in September reported skills shortages in more than 100 critical trades. All of this leads us to see a jigsaw that will undoubtedly have an impact on existing personnel, through increased workloads and pressure, not to mention an alarming lack of capability to respond to the changing threats facing the UK.
On remuneration, the Government say that they are moving away from the 1% pay cap for public sector workers, which is to be welcomed. However, the Defence Committee noted that
“no additional funding will be made available to the MoD for increases above this level for Service personnel”.
Those who serve in our armed forces are exceptionally skilled and committed people, and they absolutely deserve better than what they are getting at the moment. Furthermore, if we are to have any hope of attracting the talent and skills we need to the services, the MOD has to do better than the decidedly unattractive package currently on offer.
Other Members have talked about housing. For years, service personnel and their families have had to put up with poor maintenance standards that would simply not be tolerated in the local government sector. In June, the Defence Committee stated:
This disrespect of armed forces personnel and their families is one of the reasons that people are increasingly leaving the services. Ministers must urgently grip the dysfunctional organisation and lay out an action plan for radical improvement.