I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Armed Forces Day.
It is a real honour to open this debate to celebrate Armed Forces Day. It is an opportunity for us to say thank you to those in uniform who serve this country. It is an opportunity for us to express our gratitude to those who are in the regular service, the reserves, the cadets and those who served in uniform, our brave veterans. Also part of the armed forces community are the mums, dads, children, girlfriends, partners, wives and husbands; those who are in the immediate surrounds of those who wear or wore the uniform. On behalf of a grateful nation, I hope the House will join me in saying, “Thank you. Today and this week is all about you.”
This is the eleventh annual Armed Forces Day, and each year the event becomes bigger and bigger. I am pleased to say that the Defence Secretary will be going to Salisbury this weekend. That city is of course famous for its 123 metre spire, but it is also the home of 3rd Division. It is therefore quite apt for her and others to be celebrating our armed forces in Salisbury. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Stuart Andrew, the Procurement Minister, will be visiting Wales and the Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend Mark Lancaster will be visiting Scotland.
I had the real honour of visiting Lisburn at the weekend. As somebody who served there during the troubles, how inspiring it was to be able to stand there in the high street with the Mayor and various dignitaries to watch the parade of our soldiers, sailors, air personnel and cadets. They were able to walk through the town and receive the gratitude not just of those in elected office, but of the thousands of people who lined the streets. Armed Forces Day is not just about parades, but the open day that takes place afterwards. I am very grateful to the people of Lisburn and indeed to the people of the rest of Northern Ireland. The year before, I was in Coleraine.
I have made so many visits to Northern Ireland, but they do not blur into one and the hon. Gentleman is right. The point I am trying to make is that when I and others served there, there was simply no chance of being able to walk down any high street in uniform and there was absolutely no chance of the civilian population being able to express their gratitude. The change is absolutely fantastic and very welcome.
I would like to give my right hon. Friend a vote of confidence, because I know he played a very big part in the D-day commemoration events in Normandy. I had the great honour of going on to the Boudicca and meeting the veterans. I would also like to thank the Defence Secretary and the staff, who were absolutely magnificent in organising that event. It was simply extraordinary and a total success. I just wanted to say that to the Minister directly, because we owe him great thanks for all that.
I am grateful for those kind comments. I not only thank my hon. Friend for what he has done, but pay tribute to the sacrifice made by his father, who was part of the Normandy landings and who received the Victoria Cross—
The Military Cross, I beg your pardon. He was killed on Hill 112 at the very beginning of that advance. I will come to what happened there and to the fact that I was on board the Boudicca with 90-year-olds who stayed up later than I did, drank far more than I did and were up earlier than I was the next day.
I join the Minister in paying tribute not only to current armed forces personnel, but to ex-servicemen. Will he add to the list of those he is congratulating and thanking the merchant seafarers, particularly at the Normandy landing? Many civilians took to their boats at very short notice to help to liberate Europe.
The hon. Gentleman has jumped ahead of me, but I absolutely am happy to pay tribute to the work of the merchant seafarers. They supply our surface fleet and submariner fleet and logistically keep them at sea. They played such a critical role in the Normandy landings and do so today as well, and he is right to point that out.
Today is Reserves Day—I declare that I am a reservist—and we should pay tribute to them. Hon. Members might be aware that many are wearing their uniform today with pride, and I point out in particular that many reservists are part of the Whitehall family. Yesterday at the Foreign Office, we invited all those civil servants who not only work hard for the Government and our country in their day jobs but wear the uniform as reservists. They are in all three services, and it was wonderful to see the variety of support not just from the organisers who put this together to show that there are those who can do both jobs, but the other employers that allow and give time to our service personnel so that they can be reservists, as well as working for them.
I cast my eye towards the side Gallery during Prime Minister’s questions to see our hon. Friend James Cleverly wearing his uniform—the uniform of the Royal Artillery—and, as the Minister mentioned, I look forward to welcoming the Minister for the Armed Forces to our Stirling military show on Saturday. I think that it would be a really good thing if our serving personnel and our reservists have more opportunities to wear their uniforms in public. The more that the public see those who wear the uniform and have the opportunity to thank them in person, the more the bond will be strengthened between the public and those who serve them so selflessly in the Queen’s uniform.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. If any of us travel to the United States for business or otherwise, we will see—in any airport or high street—that if there is somebody in uniform, others will go up and simply thank them for their service. Those people are completely unknown to them but simply do that out of a sense of duty and pride. Perhaps we are a bit reserved in this country, but we should do that more, particularly with veterans. I am really pleased that one thing I have managed to do is enlarge the veterans’ badge. It was so small that someone had to invade that person’s body space to realise that it said “Veteran”. It is now twice the size, so it really jumps out at people. I hope that that will be the green light so that if anybody sees that badge, they go up to that person and say, “Thank you for what you have done for our country.”
Will the Minister also thank the many veterans charities around the UK who help and support veterans to adjust to civilian life? I am thinking particularly of the Coming Home Centre in Govan, which I regularly support with letters to ensure that they get adequate funding. Will he say something about that and encourage MPs to get involved in helping veterans charities to get the funding that they need and deserve so that they can help veterans?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to heap praise on our veterans charities. There are around 400 service-facing charities of different sizes. Some of the large ones that we know well, such as Combat Stress and Blesma, have been around for 100 years or so; others, which aim to keep the name of a loved one alive, are just starting up. They do incredible work, and it is so important that we honour and respect that, but we must also make sure that their work is co-ordinated, because resources are limited, and it is important that charities work together in synergy to ensure that we provide the best possible service for those who require it.
The Minister makes an important point about the need for proper integration and co-ordination of the charities supporting our veterans. I join in his remarks about Reserves Day. Having served in the reserves for 12 years, I think it is important to acknowledge the sacrifices made by reservists. Thousands of them have served on operations overseas. We should recognise the impact that may have had on their personal life, and they should not be forgotten when it comes to supporting veterans.
Sometimes reservists step forward to fill the gap when there is a shortfall in the regular components of a unit or formation. I know from when I served—I am looking around at others who have served—that after a number of days, no one can tell the difference between reservists and regulars; that is how good these people are. Also, with the character of conflict and conventional warfare changing, we need the skillsets and specialisms found on civilian street. That is another reason why reservists make an important and growing contribution to our frontline capabilities, so I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
There are three objectives for Armed Forces Day. The first is to do with showcasing what the armed forces do. We need to recognise that the profile of our armed forces has changed. Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer in the headlines all the time. However, that does not take away from the fact that we are involved in more than 20 operations and exercises around the world. At any moment, about 4,000 members of our Royal Navy are at sea or working overseas; 7,000 members of our RAF are working overseas; and 10,000 members of our Army are deployed on operations or exercises. That is a major commitment. It is us looking beyond our shores, helping other countries and making our mark across the world. Those operations cover the full spectrum of capability, whether they involve the interdiction of drugs in the Caribbean, countering piracy, dealing with a resurgent Russia in the skies of eastern Europe, still mopping up extremism in Iraq or Afghanistan, or helping upstream with the stabilisation challenges in African countries, together with our Commonwealth friends.
Let us not forget what happens closer to home. When we are required to support civilians here in dealing with flooding, or in Operation Temperer, when the police require extra support to deal with terrorist attacks, it is our armed forces who stand in harm’s way. It is because of our armed forces that we can sleep at night, knowing that our country and its interests are absolutely defended. What we try to do, through Armed Forces Day, is explain that. That is important because the footprint—the outreach—of our armed forces is shrinking. All those in our age group probably know of somebody who served—perhaps our parents, and definitely our grandparents. Our bond with them is a reminder of what they did for our country. We are aware of the duty they performed, and perhaps of their sacrifice. I am horrified to say it, but we could get our entire armed forces into Wembley stadium. That is how small our armed forces have shrunk, so civilians’ direct exposure to our armed forces is ever smaller. It is critical that on Armed Forces Day, we celebrate, show and educate the public on exactly what our armed forces do.
Like many colleagues across the House, I went out to speak to constituents who had come to talk to us about the “Time is Now” lobby. Will my right hon. Friend also explain what the armed forces are doing about the climate change challenge?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I shall deal with the threats that we face in a minute, but she is right to point out that a campaign to do with climate change is taking place outside the building at this moment. I believe that, in the long term, climate change is the biggest threat that we all face but need to face up to. If we are to be the custodians of values and standards, that must include looking after our planet, in which regard Britain can take a leading role.
The second point that I wish to stress is that Armed Forces Day is all about civilian society saying thank you to our armed forces. It gives civilians an opportunity to say, “We are really grateful for what you are doing.” That does not just mean us, perhaps through speeches in the Chamber; it does not just mean the town mayor taking the salute as the parades walk by; it does not mean just the crowds showing their appreciation by clapping and saying, “Thank you very much indeed.” It also means our being able to say, “Thank you for keeping us safe,” and ensuring that we do so regularly.
This is a one-day event when we say thank you, but a thank you should be said on every single day of the year, and the importance of that should be reflected in the armed forces covenant. We highlight the event and it has a profile, but we have that duty every day—not just the Ministry of Defence, but every Whitehall Department. That is why it is so critical that the Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board, which brings together the responsibilities of other Departments, can point the finger and say, “The NHS: is it providing the necessary services? Local government: is it providing the necessary housing, or are we disadvantaging the people whom we promised we would look after?”
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, I am delighted that we are having this debate. The Minister has touched on the impact of other Departments and Veterans Gateway, and how they should be working together. Does he agree that there is a significant problem with the Home Office in respect of serving personnel and their families, especially Commonwealth soldiers who need visas?
Not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Lady. We have had Westminster Hall debates on this issue, and we have made the case for the Home Office to reconsider. There has been a communications problem, in that those who are making the trip have not been made aware of the consequences of bringing family members. We are correcting that, but no one should be hindered from doing what is best, given the contribution that our Commonwealth friends make to our armed forces. We shall have to see where things move in the next couple of months and what the appetite will be, but I am absolutely behind the hon. Lady in wanting this matter to be addressed.
My right hon. Friend was explaining what Armed Forces Day does to acknowledge the efforts of our current armed forces. Does he agree that it is also a time to remember those who lost their lives while pursuing their military careers? Just this week, there has been a fantastic community effort. A memorial at Califer Hill in Moray had become overgrown, as a result of issues that I do not want to go into. So disappointed were currently serving and previous members of the military that the memorial to three Tornado operatives—Samuel Bailey, Hywel Poole and Adam Sanders—had become overgrown that members of the community got together to tidy it up. That is a great thing that they do, not just on Armed Forces Day but all year round.
I am really pleased to learn that the memorial is being given the reverence and support that it needs, and is being cleaned up so that people can actually see it. I try to distinguish between this day and Remembrance Day, because Remembrance Day is about thanking and reflecting on the fallen. I want Armed Forces Day to be a celebration and also an outreach, educating people about the positive aspects of our armed forces.
The armed forces covenant falls, almost, into three parts. It asks organisations to support our regular personnel, and there have been nearly 4,000 signatories. We have seen companies give deals and special discounts to those in the regular forces. The covenant also covers the reserves; it asks companies to make sure that if someone signs up to be a reservist, they get time off to go and do their annual camp and training and so forth, and they are not impeded or have to use their holiday time. I stress that anybody who allows their employees to go away for a number of days finds that those employees will come back all the richer from their learning and what they have experienced, to the benefit of the employer.
Does the Minister agree that we as employers in this House—every single Member of Parliament—should become covenant employers in our own right and that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should work with us to deliver that? We should not have to go through the MOD to deliver that; we should all be encouraging everybody to promote the covenant both in this place and in our constituencies.
Let us go further than that: shall I write to IPSA and invite it to become a signatory to the covenant? Perhaps that is what should happen.
I suspect that following this debate IPSA will be more aware that there is an invitation heading its way.
Another organisation that I hope is well aware that there is an invitation on the way, because I have written to it, is the BBC. I make the following point directly—although the BBC will probably cut this because our debate is being broadcast by BBC Parliament. Our veterans—2.5 million of them—are changing in profile. Sadly, in the next 10 years that number will diminish and go down to 1.5 million, because we will lose the second world war generation. The television is so important to many of these elderly people, who are on their own and use it for company and so forth; we have heard all the debate about this. I simply ask the BBC to look carefully at this issue. Its contribution to the covenant could be to allow our veterans to continue having that free TV licence. I have written to the BBC but have yet to have a reply; I look forward to receiving something in the post very soon indeed.
There has been consensus thus far in this debate, but I must point out that one way of achieving that would be to bring it in-house; let the Government of the day decide. The provision was in our manifesto and we are willing to introduce it, and it was in the right hon. Gentleman’s party manifesto as well. Let us keep those TV licences free for the over-75s.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point and it is now on the record—unless the BBC has cut that bit as well.
I need to stress the issue of perception, because another aspect of Armed Forces Day is to correct the perception that somehow if someone joins our armed forces they might be damaged by their service. Nothing could be further from the truth: those who serve are less likely to go to prison, less likely to want to take their own life and less likely to be affected by mental health issues. If anyone is affected by any of those issues, then absolutely the help should be there, and we spoke about the importance of veterans support and indeed what comes from the Government too. The idea that those who serve are damaged is perpetuated in society; the Lord Ashcroft report underlined that, and we need to change it. We need to change it for two reasons. First, it does nothing to help recruitment and the next generation wanting to sign up for our armed forces. Secondly, it does nothing for those who have left the armed forces and are seeking a job, as they might therefore not get that job. They might not gain employment because their employer has a false idea that somehow they are damaged. We need to change that.
Although I agree with much of what the Minister is saying about employers, we must also recognise that neither a reservist nor a full member of the armed forces is an employee. The Minister has implied on the Floor of the House that he does not agree that members of the armed forces should be treated as employees. Does he think that it would help with recruitment if he said that they should be?
I think the hon. Gentleman is being pedantic; I think he knows exactly the spirit in which I support the armed forces. If he wants to discuss this after the debate I will be more than happy to do so, and I will listen carefully to his speech if he wants to elaborate on that. My commitment to all those who serve and their ability to get into employment is second to none, as I hope is reflected in the comments I have made.
I absolutely echo the support of everyone in this Chamber for the current members of our armed forces and for our veterans. Most of the veterans I see in my surgery are suffering for one reason: their mental health is suffering as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. We live in a rural area, and they need quite specialist treatment. Even with the best will in the world, and with the covenant, they are not able to access that support. Will the Minister make a commitment today that any member of the armed forces who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder will be able to access Defence mental health services at whatever time after they have left service, because PTSD often crops up more than six months after they have left?
The hon. Lady highlights the challenge that we face. While someone is serving in uniform, their mental health and physical health are the responsibility of the MOD, but once they depart from the armed forces—or, indeed, if they are part of the family in the armed forces but not wearing a uniform—that is the responsibility of the NHS. The NHS has good facilities in some areas, but they are less good in others. They are getting far better: the TIL service—the trauma intervention and liaison service—is the first port of call for anybody with the challenges that the hon. Lady mentions. We also have complex treatment centres up and down the country, but they are still in their infancy and we need to get better from them. I absolutely hear what she says, and this is exactly why we have the Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board to point the finger and say, “Please look, this is the support that we require.” The NHS has just received £21 billion extra. Let us see some of that money go into creating parity between mental and physical health.
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about looking after our veterans and their mental and physical health and all that, but he must not allow himself to be diverted from the important point he was making, which is that we have 200,000 extremely fit and active members of our armed services, very few of whom are suffering in those ways. The point of Armed Forces Day is to celebrate the fantastic service that they make to our nation. Of course we must look after those who are disabled in one way or another, but we must none the less celebrate those who are fit, healthy and active, and serving the Queen.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in supporting the armed forces’ profile in Parliament. It is absolutely paramount in educating others. He is absolutely right to say that we need to keep this in perspective and celebrate the positive side of being in the armed forces, while not forgetting our responsibility and duty to look after those who are less fortunate or require support.
I apologise to the Minister for coming in late. The covenant has now been going for about 10 years. What percentage of its objectives have been realised in areas such as mental health, housing and employment? It has been going for a very long time and I would like to know how far we have come. Has he had any discussions with the British Legion about this?
That is mapped out in our annual report, and, if I may, I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of it. He is absolutely right to suggest that we should not be complacent about the importance of setting the bar ever higher. This is one of the toughest things that I have found in getting parity across the country, not least because responsibility for this is devolved to the other nations.
I can finally get to my third point on what the armed forces are actually about: the bond of the communities themselves. I am looking round the Chamber, and I can see representatives of the places where people have served. There is a symbiotic relationship between the garrison, the base or the port and the surrounding conurbation. Let us take Portsmouth, Aldershot and Plymouth as examples. Those places have a long history of relationships between those in the garrison and those who are working outside. Spouses and partners will seek work in those places, and children will need to be educated there. It is absolutely paramount to get all those things right, and we must ensure that we celebrate that as well. Armed Forces Day can highlight and illuminate the bond between organisations, and it is important for us to focus on that.
That brings me to the issue of veterans, which my hon. Friend Sir William Cash—who has now departed—raised earlier. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you want me to conclude soon, but it is worth focusing on this issue for a minute or so, if I may. We owe a duty of care to our veterans. I was on board the Boudicca for that incredible journey, taking people who did so much 75 years ago at the turning point in the war. It was humbling to be with those soldiers, who landed in the biggest maritime invasion that has ever taken place, with 150,000 people on those five beaches: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno. I discovered that Juno was originally going to be named after jellyfish. Ours were all named after fish—goldfish, swordfish and so forth—but Churchill was not going to have a beach landing, at which people would die, called “Jelly”, so it was changed.
I spoke to some of those veterans. I asked one in particular, “What’s it like coming here?” He said, “It reminds me of when Britain was great.” That sent a bit of a shock through me about where we are today and the role that we have taken. Perhaps we have become a little risk averse in what we do, and in our willingness to step forward as a force for good. We should reflect on that.
The veterans strategy, which I touched on earlier, is critical to bringing together and co-ordinating charities and the work that we do, to ensure that support is there. Part of that is ensuring that there is a transition process, and that when people leave the armed forces they transition back into civilian society with ease. Of those who participate in the official transition process, which can last up to two years, 95% are either in work or employment within six months, which is very good to see.
I represent Darlington, which is the nearest major town to Catterick garrison. I see what the Minister is talking about day in and day out. Does he think that we do enough to celebrate, and to highlight to people who might be considering a career in the armed forces, the support that is available to people leaving, and the breadth of successful careers that veterans enter into, from teaching to running their own businesses? All kinds of things are possible, and sometimes we do not explain and highlight enough the support that is available to people as they leave.
The hon. Lady is right to point out the challenges for somebody who has perhaps done three tours of Afghanistan on the general-purpose machine gun. How do they put that in their CV and then sell it to, say, a civilian organisation? There is not a lot of call for that, unless they are some soldier of fortune who is looking for mercenary work, which I hope would not be the case.
We need to ensure that this can be turned around, and the skillsets can be recognised. That must happen in two phases. First, we must explain to companies what the skillsets are, and our Defence Relationship Management organisation does exactly that. Secondly, we must ensure that the individual who is in uniform and who is departing can learn the necessary skills and gain civilian qualifications on their way out, so that they can land in civilian street best armed to face the future.
Will the Minister pay tribute to some very good companies? FDM springs to mind, which has so far placed 500 personnel in the IT industry, and does great work. To pick up on one detail, when people leave the armed forces they tick a form that gives them the option of a variety of interests and industries in which they might like to be retrained. For some reason, there is no box for the land-based industries: farming, game keeping and so forth. Will he change the form to allow soldiers to opt for land-based careers, for which, after all, they are well qualified?
I was not aware of that. I would be delighted to have a meeting with my hon. Friend. Perhaps we can take the matter forward and see what we can do. Absolutely, we should not miss any such opportunity.
While we celebrate the armed forces we must look to the future and ask why we have our armed forces. They do not just defend our shores and promote prosperity; perhaps for Britain more than any other country, they project global influence. It is in our DNA to participate and be active on the international stage, to move forward, and to have an understanding of the world around us and to help to shape it. We will lose that ability if our hard power cannot keep up with the changing character of conflict.
As I see it, we are facing greater danger than at any time since the cold war. However, in the cold war, we had three divisions in Germany alone. We had 1 (British) Corps; now we are down to one warfighting division just in the UK. We are pleased to have an aircraft carrier, with a second on the way, but the fact that the Navy’s budget did not change has affected the rest of the surface fleet. We are pleased to have the F-35 and the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which are excellent, but in the Gulf war we had 36 fast jet squadrons—today we are down to six. Our main battle tank has not been updated for 20 years, and our Warrior has not been updated for 25 years.
The money needs to come. We need to invest more in our defence if we are to keep that profile, but the threats are changing and becoming more diverse. There is not just a single threat—not just a resurgent Russia or a rising China—and extremism has not disappeared, but cyberspace will take over as the area of most conflict. Data, not terrain, will be the prize, and we will become all the more vulnerable as 5G and the internet of things take over.
We are becoming ever-reliant on an automated world, but how vulnerable we become, and how our world closes down, if that world is interfered with in any way. Two thirds of our universities are hacked or attacked in any year, so we need to build resilience. A hundred years ago we developed the RAF, which moved away from the other armed forces—we created a new service. I pose the question of whether we now need a fourth service, one to do with cyber and our capability to lead the world’s understanding of not just resilience, offensive and defensive, but of the rules of engagement, too.
Somebody could attack this House of Commons, and we would not know who it was. We would not understand where the threat came from, but it would affect us, Even if we found out who it was, to whom do we go to complain? Who sets the rules of what is a responsible response? How do we retaliate?
These are questions that we should be asking ourselves, and we should work with our allies to defend western values.
I will conclude, if I may.
We constantly talk about the erosion of the rules-based order, but we do not say what we will do about it. China was not included in the Bretton Woods organisations that were created after the second world war. Somebody, some nation, who understands how the world is changing needs to step forward and articulate where we need to go. Otherwise, we will see a new cold war between the United States and China, and we will see these threats become greater and greater.
As we say thank you to those who have served and are serving, what are we doing about it? What role do we see ourselves playing? We have become distracted by Brexit in this vortex of discussing something that has taken our mind off what is happening around the world. The world is changing fast. I believe it is in our DNA to step forward, as we did 75 years ago, and help craft the world into a better place. That requires greater investment in our armed forces.
I conclude as I began, by saying thank you to all those who have served, all those who do serve and all those who want to serve, and the families around them. We owe you a debt of gratitude, and we are very grateful for your service.
It is a delight to speak in this debate. This Saturday people will come together in communities across the country to say thank you to the men and women who make up our armed forces community. Ever since the first national event in 2009, Armed Forces Day has become an important date in our towns, cities and villages. There are well over 300 events taking place this year in every corner of the UK, including parades, concerts, air displays and more.
In my own community in Llanelli, the local branch of the Royal British Legion and the Llanelli Veterans Association have organised a parade and a day of activities for adults and children, and I look forward to spending the day there. It is heartening to see the numbers of people attending events growing year after year and to see the whole community represented, from young children fascinated by the military equipment on display to the second world war veterans proudly wearing their medals.
There is a simple reason why so many people turn out at events across the country. It is because the public want to show their deep gratitude and admiration for our serving personnel, our veterans and their families—the men and women who stand ready at a moment’s notice to do whatever is necessary to defend our country, and the personnel who represent the very best of Britain in freeing civilians from the tyranny of Daesh, assisting in the aftermath of humanitarian catastrophes, deterring Russian aggression in the Baltics and Poland, and contributing to peacekeeping operations across the world.
Our reservists play a vital role in each and every one of those operations, bringing their unique skills and experience to work with colleagues in the regulars. Today, on Reserves Day, we pay tribute to all those who give up their time to train for and serve in the reserve forces, many of whom will be wearing their uniform to work today to highlight the important role that they play.
Armed Forces Day is also a moment to say thank you to our veterans for their service and for guaranteeing so many of the freedoms that we take for granted today.
Armed Forces Day is a great opportunity for our communities to support our armed forces, and I will be very proud to attend the celebration in Tredegar this Sunday. I have been working with local employers in Blaenau Gwent to encourage firms to sign up as forces-friendly businesses and we have had a good response. However, my experience is that not enough businesses have heard of the armed forces covenant, so does my hon. Friend agree that we need an even bigger awareness campaign to help organisations to get involved and to support our veterans?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right. Considerable progress has been made on awareness, but we still need to make sure people understand what the qualifications mean and how the qualities and skills of our armed forces personnel can be translated into today’s workplace. I understand from the Minister that he is very committed to work in that field.
In recent weeks, we have been reflecting on the particular sacrifice made by those who served in the second world war and, in particular, the D-day landings. It was a great privilege to attend the commemorations in Normandy earlier this month and to meet some of the men who took part in that operation 75 years ago. It is clear from talking to them that they do not regard themselves as heroes—they were just doing what they were trained to do and they got on with the job in the way that that war-time generation so often did. At Bayeux war cemetery we saw the immaculate flowerbeds by each headstone, carefully looked after by the staff and interns of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does such important work in ensuring that the graves of those who made the ultimate sacrifice are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.
There will be significant agreement across the House today because we are all committed to our Armed Forces Day and to honouring the men and women of our armed forces community. Members of Parliament also have an important responsibility to talk up our armed forces and to highlight the many benefits of service, particularly to young people who may want to sign up.
I want to take this opportunity to ask the Government about several issues that matter to personnel, many of which were highlighted in the armed forces continuous attitude survey published last month. The first is pay. We know that subjecting armed forces personnel to the public sector pay cap has meant that they have received a real-terms pay cut for seven years running, which goes some way to explaining why satisfaction with pay is at just 35%. It is also the case that the pay award has again been delayed this year. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has submitted its report to the Government, so I ask the Minister to update the House on the current pay round when he winds up the debate. I do not expect him to announce the pay award today, but can he tell personnel when they can expect to hear what the Government propose?
Giving personnel below-inflation rises also has a knock-on effect on retention. The number of personnel choosing to leave the forces is at historically high levels and pay remains one of the top reasons why personnel decide to leave.
I have to ask the shadow Minister the same question I asked the Minister: if this is such an important issue, does she not agree that in terms of pay and conditions members of the armed forces should be allowed to be treated as employees and have a representative body to represent them with the Government?
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point and there is a very good case for having a consultation on what sort of voice would be practical for our armed forces—[Interruption.] If I may, I will make some progress.
The pay body’s 2018 report highlights the extent to which personnel shortages put additional pressure on those who remain in the services. The latest personnel statistics show yet another drop in the trained size of the armed forces, with each of the services now smaller than at this point last year. Although we have seen a slight rise in intake in the 12 months to March—by 120 personnel—that alone is clearly not enough to enable the Government to meet the target set out in the 2015 SDSR. Will the Minister set out what specific action he will take to ensure that we do not continue to see further falls—[Interruption.] I do hope that the Minister heard that and will be able to tell us in his winding-up speech what specific action he or his colleagues will take to ensure that we do not continue to see further falls in the number of armed forces personnel.
The Minister will know the Labour party’s view of Capita’s recruitment contract, which is shared by many on the Government Back Benches. Given that the Government are not willing to terminate the contract, as we would like, what steps will he take to compel the company to meet its targets? Will he consider financial penalties if it does not comply?
Let me turn to housing for our personnel and their families. There have been persistent complaints about housing maintenance in service accommodation. Will the Minister tell the House what recent conversations he has had with Amey about this issue? Will he also update us on the future accommodation model? We all want to see good-quality service accommodation that meets the needs of our personnel and their families. We accept that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for everybody. Some families will be in a position to buy, and the forces Help to Buy scheme may be able to assist them, while others are happy to live in service accommodation. Living on site with other military families can provide a crucial support network for our forces and their families.
CarillionAmey has had more than 36,000 complaints in three years about the conditions of service family accommodation—that is 1,000 complaints every month. There is outrage among service families about the contract with CarillionAmey. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time the Government stepped up and intervened so that we have decent maintenance for our armed forces personnel?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. None of us wants to see any of our serving forces and their families living in substandard accommodation. There are certainly issues to be addressed in respect of Amey and forces housing.
In respect of the future accommodation model, we do not want personnel to be pushed into the private rented sector without any choice. Indeed, a recent Army Families Federation survey demonstrated that, if the availability of the accommodation currently on offer was reduced and a rental allowance offered instead, only 22% of respondents would definitely remain in the Army. The insecurity, variable quality and limited availability of the private rented sector is a concern, and it is not clear how the additional costs of private sector rents would be met.
The armed forces community encompasses not only current and former personnel but their families, who provide a crucial support network to service members and who experience the demands of forces life at first hand. The nature of service life means that many forces families have to move house repeatedly, including to postings abroad. One difficulty that some service families face is finding new schools for their children, especially if they resettle outside the admissions cycle.
A recent Children’s Commissioner for England report highlights how service children are sometimes not placed in the most appropriate school with siblings or other forces children from the same unit, causing further and unnecessary distress. It can help if local authorities have better awareness of the needs of service children. For example, Rhondda Cynon Taf Council has a dedicated education officer who works closely with the families of serving personnel, and with schools, to ensure that the children of service members are supported in their education. The fragmentation of education in England, with admissions in the hands of academies or academy trusts, makes such work more difficult.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one issue that is really difficult for many schools to understand is the impact of Remembrance Day on children whose parents are serving? There might be only one or two children of service personnel in each school, and when children are taught about what may be happening in various areas of conflict, it means something slightly different to those whose parents could be out there. That is why education is so important, as is making sure that the covenant applies.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to make sure that children are properly supported and that a structure is in place within the local authority to ensure that schools are properly educated to understand that.
Obviously, we are very concerned about this fragmentation of education in England, with the academies and academy trusts being a bit of a law unto themselves. What consideration have the Government given to this issue, and what conversations has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Department for Education to try to assist with the admissions process in particular?
The families of Commonwealth personnel, who make an important contribution to our armed forces, experience particular challenges owing to the Government’s minimum income requirements for bringing in spouses or children to this country. We on the Labour Benches believe in scrapping these income requirements so that all personnel are treated equally. I urge the Minister to prevail on colleagues in the Home Office to make that important change.
The nature of the work that our armed forces undertake—keeping us safe and representing us abroad—means that some people will not be in regular contact with service personnel if they do not have friends or relatives who serve. That is why Armed Forces Day is so important. It is an opportunity to say thank you, to show gratitude and appreciation and to commit to supporting our armed forces community the whole year round.
We as a country have a proud history of stepping up on the world stage and it is our armed forces that ensure that we play a major role. This year, as we celebrated 75 years since the D-day landings, I have been learning about the incredible contribution that my constituency, Chichester, made. There are wonderfully vivid accounts of tanks rolling over the South Downs and of our still quaint villages being disturbed by our American allies playing baseball on the village cricket grounds. All along the south coast, there were practice landings before the assault was launched. There are tales of Eisenhower, Montgomery and Churchill watching a final rehearsal of the landings from the Bracklesham Bay Hotel as their men ran drills.
RAF Tangmere, near Chichester, played a huge part, taking operation control of 56 squadrons from 18 airfields and pilots from all around the world—from allied and occupied nations such as Canada, New Zealand and Poland. Our local history is full of incredible stories, although today there is little left of our wartime past. That is why I have been supporting the Save Tangmere Tower campaign, which is working to restore the former RAF control tower and to preserve a part of our military heritage, remembering not only the RAF pilots during the battle of Britain, but our brave Special Operations Executive agents, often women flying into occupied Europe.
Our wartime history has been woven into the fabric of our society. Even our generation have lived with the memories all around us. My grandmother served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and my grandfathers were in the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy. My husband is named after his uncle who served and died with the Royal Artillery in Italy in 1944. We all grew up with a living history, and today very few who served are here to tell us the stories of our past. We often take the fact that we live in peace for granted. It is more important than ever to preserve the monuments that remain so that younger generations can understand how the sacrifice of others has enabled their freedom.
Today, Chichester still plays an important role in the defence of the realm, as Thorney Island is within my constituency. Thorney is home to the 12th Regiment Royal Artillery, which provides close support air defence to the UK’s manoeuvre forces, protecting critical assets from a range of airborne threats. I have met some of the men and women serving at the base a couple of times and once totally by chance when we went to sell poppies at Westminster tube station and they were already there rattling their buckets.
My background is in business, so I must admit that I have a lot to learn about the armed services, but being in this place I have already begun on that journey and I am looking forward to continuing it, having signed up to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. With Portsmouth just down the road—and to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps—I have enrolled in the naval course, where I will have the opportunity to get a real insight into what it means to be in the Navy by being in their shoes for a short while. This is becoming a theme in my office as one of my staff, Elena, is already a reservist and another, Tom, hopes to go off to Sandhurst soon to begin his officer training.
Our armed forces really are the pride of our nation. They place themselves in harm’s way so that we may enjoy the liberties and freedoms that we all cherish and value, and today we are all here just to say thank you. In return, we must fully fund our defence capability and veterans’ services, which is why I welcome the Chancellor’s commitment earlier this year of £1 billion extra funding. I hope that we can continue to keep the memory of past service alive through sharing the stories of our ancestors and preserving the relics that remain here. The British armed forces are the envy of the world, and we and our allies rely on their professionalism and skill, both now and in the future, especially in such uncertain times as the ones in which we live.
I will start by declaring an interest: as many Members here know, my husband served for 17 years in the Royal Navy, finally retiring as lieutenant commander in the Submarine Service. It is therefore appropriate that he joins us today in the Under-Gallery.
Armed Forces Day is an opportunity to thank members of our armed forces, both serving and retired, but of course this year there is added significance in that we are also celebrating 75 years since the D-day landings. Armed Forces Day is also an opportunity for us to do more than just speak and give more than just gratitude, and actually to take action to ensure that things are as good as we can make them for members of our armed forces, who are willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice. The contribution that serving and former personnel make to society goes beyond their service, and we should ensure that their futures—inside and outside the military—are worth investing in. We need to allow them to develop as professionals, both for their life in the armed forces and for their life beyond, to ensure that they can contribute to and develop links with local communities, and to make sure that their family life and personal wellbeing are assured.
It is important that we do not spend this afternoon being complacent. There is good work going on but, as a school report card would say, we could do better. There are issues that mean that serving is not always as fulfilling as it should be. The January 2019 statistics show that the number of armed forces personnel has continued to drop at an unsustainable rate and there are skills shortages in over 100 critical trades. We need to have breadth and depth of skills in order to tackle emerging challenges and threats, and that can be achieved only with a clear recruitment process and a good offering to new recruits. This means clear information on salaries and pensions, and an openness towards the talents of individuals. We must be flexible enough to ensure that those who may wish to take time out to progress in their civilian careers are able to do so. Career breaks have been introduced in many militaries outside the UK, and we should be looking at those examples where it is appropriate to do so.
May I make a suggestion? As and when somebody from a given school in Scotland goes into the armed forces and makes a success of it, would it not be a good idea if they were encouraged in every way possible to go back to their old school and tell the fourth, fifth or sixth-year pupils how they did it—“I was in this very same classroom. You can do the same. It’s a great career”?
Of course, and people in many professions go back to their old schools and tell the students about their careers. We have seen the mess that has been made of recruitment—the amount of money that has been spent and the poor results—so maybe we should go back to using members of the armed forces as primary recruiters.
At all stages of the recruitment process, recruits should have confidence in its inclusivity of all identities of gender, sexual orientation, race and religion. When considering recruitment, it is important that we are also looking at the labour markets. Who are the military trying to recruit, where are their challenges, and who are they up against when trying to get the very best? If we need to consider the increased use of reservists to ensure that people have skills developed outside the military that can be used inside the military, then that should be done.
Armed forces pay scales reflect an outdated approach. Recruits will start with significantly lower salaries and more distorted pay scales than those in the police or fire services. In July 2018, the MOD announced that that personnel will receive a 2% salary increase with an additional one-off payment of 0.9%. However, as the current inflation rate is about 2.2%, the armed forces’ annual rise of just 2% is still below that.
It is incredible that we treat those personnel as separate when they are actually fundamental to the operations that we engage in.
Giving pay rises that are below the rate of inflation has a negative effect on the forces’ reputation as an employer that nurtures and respects its employees. The Scottish Government have taken a progressive approach towards public sector pay, delivering a guaranteed 3% increase to all those earning below £36,500. We believe that, as a minimum, a similar offer should be made to all armed forces personnel.
Much has been made of the tax bands in Scotland with regard to military personnel. Will the Minister say what are the plans for mitigation for personnel in England who are earning less than £33,000 and are currently being taxed at a higher rate than their counterparts in Scotland? My hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes mentioned an independent representative body similar to a trade union that would help to ensure that the interests of personnel were addressed properly. It would be able to negotiate on pay and conditions, and to look at other structural issues, but unlike normal trade unions it would have no right to organise a strike. Clearly that would undermine the integrity of our armed forces, and we could not allow that to happen. In many cases, a representative body works extremely well—for example, the Danish Reserve Forces Association, which describes itself as a negotiating organisation. It looks at contracts and pay but also provides legal assistance to personnel who need support in cases related to their service in the armed forces. This is something that we need to consider seriously.
Quality accommodation is fundamental to the welfare of personnel and their families. There are major issues with the MOD estate in terms of work space, living accommodation and training facilities, and a lot of it is in old, unsuitable buildings. The current management of the housing estate has provided extremely poor value for money for taxpayers. The performance of CarillionAmey in managing service accommodation has been shockingly poor. We do our personnel a gross disservice in continuing in this manner.
The education of forces children has been mentioned. There are big issues with continuity of education. It is right that we start considering military personnel children as having adverse childhood experiences, because their experiences potentially have an impact on their educational success. In Glasgow, when people fill in their annual update of contact details and other information, there is a tick-box that says, “Are the parents military personnel or veterans?” If the box is ticked, that is highlighted in the young person’s records and allows intervention if required. That is a very simple thing that could be done.
Veterans who have incurred physical injuries during their service should be assured that they will receive a commitment to lifelong specialist medical care. At the moment, these services are primarily led by charities, and we know of many such charities operating in our constituencies and throughout the UK. Stanford Hall was recently opened as a new facility for personnel who have suffered extensive injuries, such as limb loss. It takes over from Headley Court, which was the previous centre, but there is an issue with Stanford Hall: it is mainly for serving personnel, not veterans. It seems ludicrous that we cut people off at that point.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I spoke of the division between the two. I visited Stanford Hall. The NHS is building its own facility there, so it can share what is going on. The focus of Stanford Hall is on not only extreme injuries but all rehabilitation, no matter how small or large, and it is paid for by the MOD. The NHS is responsible for dealing with civilians, including our veterans, and it is important that we do not lose sight of that.
I would like to make two points. First, a lot of the equipment in Stanford Hall has been funded by the charitable sector, and people gave money thinking that they were giving to charities for veterans.
I hope it will. Secondly, it is important that veterans get rehabilitation along with other veterans and are not in separate or disparate places. It is important that they are all in one place—in a centre of excellence.
We have to consider the mental wellbeing of our armed forces. The UK Government have established a new 24/7 mental health helpline for service personnel and their families. A framework for combined working has been developed between Combat Stress, which fulfils this programme, the MOD and the NHS regarding an out-of-hours mental health helpline, and we very much welcome that. While it is imperative to focus on primary care and support for physical and mental health, further effort must be put into the awareness and understanding of such conditions, so that both serving and former military personnel feel confident enough to reach out and ask for help when it is required.
There are 2.5 million veterans in the UK, and around 240,000 of them are living in Scotland, the majority of whom have re-established themselves in society.
On that point, Scotland’s Bravest Manufacturing Company was officially opened last week by the First Minister. It is based at the Erskine Hospital site, which I am sure you are familiar with, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I have visited it a number of times. It is a Royal British Legion Industries social enterprise that gives veterans employment and development opportunities they might not otherwise have. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming what it does for ex-service personnel and congratulating Michelle and the team on the excellent progress they have already made?
For those who do not know about the excellent work that the Erskine Hospital does, it is known throughout the west of Scotland—in fact, probably throughout Scotland—as a real centre of excellence for veterans. I am a supporter of Erskine, as are many of my hon. Friends.
We know that a minority of veterans are affected by health issues related to their service. These are often early service leavers, who have only completed their training or had only a short period of service, and it is not right that, just because of that, we leave them to it. The support we offer them must be extended to ensure that they properly reintegrate into society.
War widows and widowers must also be incorporated into the veterans community, and must have services that are specific to their needs. We need to address concerns about the fact that a war widow’s pension is incorrectly perceived as a benefit, rather than compensation, because this has a negative impact when a widow is assessed for an income-based benefit.
I conclude by saying, on behalf of the SNP, that I extend the thanks of Members on these Benches to all those who are currently serving or have served, and to those who are supporting serving personnel. Often the families and the support networks are forgotten in our comments, so it is important that we remember them too on Armed Forces Day.
It is a pleasure to follow Carol Monaghan, and I pay tribute to her husband. He did so many years of fitting service for our country, so I thank him also.
We have a fantastic legacy of military service in Ochil and South Perthshire. In fact, the predecessor constituency covering a large part of mine—Kinross and Western Perthshire—was the constituency of Alec Douglas-Home, who used to say it was a constituency of blackface sheep and Black Watch colonels, and I can say that the military legacy remains with us. Today, Ochil and South Perthshire combines Perth and Kinross with Clackmannanshire, and we have some very active veterans and some very active regulars in the armed forces, as well as a number of cadet forces.
The fantastic legacy still continues in south Perthshire with the Black Watch, while Clackmannanshire has the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the air cadets—Squadrons 1743 in Creiff, 1145 in Kinross and 383 in Alloa—all of which do a fantastic job in training younger people and giving them new opportunities both to serve in our armed forces and to have confidence and skills that they can take on to civilian life. We are also very fortunate to have an Armed Forces Day that is commemorated annually in Clackmannanshire. Unfortunately, owing to inclement weather this year, it was rained off, so I look forward to joining the provost and all our local councillors to celebrate next year.
There are real benefits to our modern armed forces. The Royal Navy motto says:
“If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”
I could not agree more with that sentiment. I think many people in this House would agree that it is a sentiment that also stands true in politics. We must prepare for the worst situation, but in doing so we must make sure that we are strengthening ourselves and our allies to succeed and achieve the great goals that this country has always stood for—whether in democracy, justice or humanitarian aid. That is what our modern armed forces are here to deliver.
As well as that, the armed forces provide a number of opportunities for our citizens here at home. We see that in the cadet forces that take place in schools in my constituency—at Morrison’s Academy and other schools right across my constituency—and we can see how valuable the cadet forces are in giving younger people confidence and skills and in complementing some of the academic studies that are taking place every day. We are also very lucky—we can see these opportunities, and we know about them from speaking to teachers—in how the cadet forces can link with the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme. I hope that one day the National Citizen Service will be extended to Scotland because that has been an important part of citizenship right through the ages, and we should keep it going to show people the value of being a British citizen.
I did not, but after 12 years in government, the SNP could have done a lot better than just one email. I am sure the Minister will come to the Dispatch Box and make a fresh offer to the Scottish Government to join the National Citizen Service. I have actually gone into this, and the hon. Gentleman can check my parliamentary record, and there is money available if we were to join. At the moment, it is only Scottish—sorry, I should say SNP—stubbornness, not the UK Government’s, that is stopping Scotland benefiting.
As I was saying, our armed forces can be a fantastic humanitarian force, and as a member of the Public Accounts Committee before I became a Parliamentary Private Secretary, I was fortunate enough to see the potential for that humanitarian force when visiting HMS Prince of Wales in Rosyth. There, I was able to see state-of-the-art technology and engineering—made and forged right across the United Kingdom, but brought together and based in Rosyth. That will provide this country with opportunities not to wage war, I hope, but to defend our allies and the international trade ways around the world and to provide humanitarian aid, as we saw recently when hurricanes hit the Caribbean and other areas.
Our armed forces are now less for war; they are for defence, but also for humanitarian aid. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Minister said in introducing the debate, in that our armed forces need to be the most advanced in the world. They do not necessarily need to be the biggest. I lived in China for a number of years, and I saw that we are probably not going to match China on scale, but when it comes to the use of technology, tactics and skills and our deployment around the world, we can match virtually anyone. Working with allies across the world, large and small, we can deliver humanitarian aid, help to deliver defence and, where needs be, help to deliver justice, as this country did in some of the missions of the late 1990s, which were delivered so well.
I have seen the value of our armed forces, and I would like to come on to some of the responsibilities that I feel we in the House have. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to have the first round of Territorial Army training. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete it because my company shipped me abroad, but during that training I was able to see some of the conditions that our regulars have to live in.
A key area that I saw was housing, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members, and one issue, which still exists today, is housing around our defence estate. We have taken steps through our veterans strategy, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to build on that and take further steps to improve housing on the defence estate and ensure that the men and women who are serving our country have the accommodation they deserve.
There is also the issue of mental health, both for serving and former members of the armed forces. The charities are fantastic, but we leave too much to them. In my constituency, one of our local councillors in Clackmannanshire, Councillor Bill Mason, works incredibly hard with SSAFA, providing welfare and support to a lot of veterans in Clackmannanshire and elsewhere in Scotland, but we should not be reliant on the charities. We should work in partnership, but make sure that they are getting the right support from our Government, too.
As has been mentioned by other Members from across the Floor, helping former armed forces personnel to reintegrate in civilian life is a real challenge and one that, even though we have an ambitious veterans strategy, we have not been able to address.
In my previous life, I worked as finance director for Tough Mudder. Tough Mudder worked with the Wounded Warrior project and Help for Heroes, so I had some first-hand experience. I remember that I had a captain who had served in Iraq put forward his CV to become a finance manager in my team. To be honest, once I had read through his CV and seen the work he had done and the leadership skills he had, I thought the interview should be taking place the other way round, but it was difficult to align him to a job that had certain analytical and academic requirements.
Although by no means insurmountable, those requirements proved to be barriers that meant that that individual did not get that role. The Government need to look at those barriers and find the bridges so that we can help people who have been in the armed forces to hone their skills and use them to get the right qualifications. We also need to help them with their CVs and with interviewing in the correct manner so that they can show that they have the skills and experience and can apply them successfully in returning to civilian life and, we hope, in reaping the rewards of their experiences in our armed forces.
I touched briefly on the veterans strategy. If anyone has a chance to read it, they will see that it is a fantastic document, which has the co-operation of all the devolved Administrations, as well as local and central Government. I highlight to my right hon. Friend the Minister the fact that the strategy involves a mix of devolved and reserved services. In his introduction to the debate, he talked about the services provided by the NHS, which are devolved to different parts of the United Kingdom. I ask him to commit to policies being driven by central Government, considering that the armed forces and citizenship are reserved functions, to ensuring that this is driven from the centre and to working in partnership with all levels of government to make sure that support reaches and is felt in the individual communities around the UK, so whether someone is in Clackmannanshire or Bristol, they will get the same support, the same standard of care and the same valuable welcome back into civilian life.
I hope the Minister will recognise and use the new data that will be available from the latest census. The census Bill will be coming before Parliament. I know colleagues share my excitement with the Minister for the constitution that the new Bill will include a question on veterans in the census for the first time. I congratulate the British Legion on its “Count them in” campaign, which has been so successful. The inclusion of the question will give us data about veterans right across the United Kingdom and enable us to target services. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to commit to use that data to further hone—we already spend £7 billion—the money we already spend on veterans services in the UK.
Days of recognition are important and valued, but our armed forces need us to fight for them every single day. The military has the motto, “Train hard, fight easy”. That is a motto we should adopt on their behalf here in this House.
It is an honour and privilege to speak in this debate, and a pleasure to follow Luke Graham. I find myself in the unenviable position of being the first member of the Defence Committee to speak today, but I see two colleagues who are in their place: Martin Docherty-Hughes and Mr Francois.
I have the greatest privilege to be the chair of the all-party group on the armed forces covenant and a vice-chair of the all-party group for the armed forces, with responsibility for the “senior service”, the Royal Navy, as I enjoy reminding the First Sea Lord on a regular basis. It is a privilege to be able to talk about how wonderful our armed forces are: those who currently serve and their families who support them day in, day out; and the veteran community and the people we call on to look after them. This is an opportunity that all of us should enjoy.
On Sunday, in my great city, in the constituency of Jack Brereton, there will be our Armed Forces Day parade. It is a wonderful event and I hope they stay in sunshine—not least because Saturday is my birthday. It will be a wonderful event, as it is every year, with hundreds and hundreds of children who will visit—
I am being heckled by my hon. Friend. It is indeed my own birthday party.
What is so wonderful about our Armed Forces Day parade is the intergenerational conversations that happen, with our service personnel, our veterans community and our cadets—sea, air and Army—talking to each other and telling stories. This is what is so important. They are a community and a family, and we need to respect them at every opportunity.
Locally, we are privileged to have our own veterans community, the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre, which is based in Newcastle-under-Lyme but serves all of North Staffordshire. It is run by Geoff Harriman, who does a huge amount of work for our veterans. It has been established for only three years, but five D-day veterans visit every week for a cup of coffee or tea and a biscuit, and tell their stories. Given recent anniversaries, I feel it is incredibly important that I name them so that they are on the record: Bert Turner, Harry Gould, Jim Wildes, Daniel Harrison and Norman Lewis.
I would like to tell the House about the story of Bert Turner. Bert was in Bomber Command and was shot down twice during world war two. He is a D-day veteran. He delivered Paras—I note that my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis is in his place—on to the field during D-day. His stories are extraordinary and they are all true. Day in, day out he flew sorties to ensure that we were safe. He gave up his time, even when he was shot down and could probably have taken slightly longer to recover. He got back in a plane to keep fighting with his comrades. He is an inspiration to all of us. He was also one of the people who went to Normandy for the D-day commemorations, and we thank the Royal British Legion and everybody who arranged his transport. His story and others have to inspire the next generation. That is why twice a year with the local cadets in Stoke-on-Trent—I am proud to be their honorary president—we arrange “Vets and Cadets”; we have pie and peas for our veterans and cadets, so that the war stories continue.
I am grateful to my fellow Defence Committee member for giving way. On behalf of the whole House, I wish the hon. Lady a happy 29th birthday, seasonally adjusted. I absolutely commend the initiative that she mentioned. I want to mention another D-day veteran—Reginald Francois, my father—and I am immensely proud of that. She is right that we owe all these men a debt. My father taught me never to take living in a free country for granted. That is why I think “Vets and Cadets” is wonderful, because those who served can teach those who follow them the importance of freedom, and the fact that freedom is not free.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention and more importantly, I thank his father for his service.
Not only have we had the opportunity to celebrate our D-day veterans, but next year, we as a country will be able to enjoy VE-day. This gives the whole country the opportunity to thank everybody who served then, who serves and who will serve, as well as their families and everybody involved. It annoys many of us that we focus on our veterans’ community only on Remembrance weekend and that we are able to ignore them for the rest of the year. We should not. They need our support day in, day out, because let us be honest: they earned it. Many of us in this Chamber believe that we act in public service every day, but the hours that we are away from our families and that we commit to our constituents are nothing compared with what we ask our armed services to do for us in every corner of the planet, without hesitation. If they dare to say, “No,” they are no longer in the armed forces. We thank them and their families, which is why I am adamant that this House should become a covenant employer, as should every Department. They should not just be covered by the Government saying, “But the Government signed up to the covenant.” Every employer in this country should turn that into a reality.
One of the challenges we have with the covenant and Government Departments is to see in a practical way the well meant and written covenant pledges. An issue being raised with me relates to the Treasury, and the MOD has had to help those serving in Scottish parts with changes to taxation through the Scottish legal system to make sure that they are not disadvantaged by location. Another issue that has appeared is stamp duty tax. For a short time, serving personnel have the ownership of two homes and the Treasury models are not working to support them. Again, that challenge is for the family as much as for the serving personnel. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Treasury perhaps needs to focus a little more closely on its covenant commitment?
I could not agree with the hon. Lady more, as I do on most, if not all, issues. One thing that we miss with those who are currently serving is the burden that is placed on their families, who have to deal with not only the tax burden and costs associated with moving up and down the country, but whether they have the right qualifications—if a teacher is suddenly deployed to Lossiemouth, for example, they might not be able to teach. If a member of our serving personnel gets a traffic ticket, their family has to sort it out if they have been deployed. The responsibility for all the small, day-to-day things of living fall on the families who are left behind, male or female, which is why we need to make the covenant real.
My concern about the covenant is that so many people say that they support it but do not know what it means. My wonderful city became a signatory to the covenant five years ago, but none of the people who signed it still holds the post that they held then. Unfortunately, my city has decided that its version of supporting the covenant is resending an RBL email once a quarter. That is not delivering the covenant—yet there are many places that do even worse. We have to make the covenant real. We need an ombudsman—I know that Anne-Marie Trevelyan supports that—and we need to ensure that the covenant means something to everybody.
Among those who do not understand what the covenant is are those who would be its beneficiaries. They do not know how or when to access help, and do not come to us and ask for it. One of the issues in this House is that too many of our teams do not know how much support is out there for serving personnel. That is why the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and I organised an event in this place two weeks ago, so that our staff could meet people from veterans charities to learn how to get support for our constituents who are veterans when they need it. There are two questions that all of us should ask our constituents when they come to us for help: “Have you ever served in the armed forces?” and “Are you a member of a trade union or trade body?”. We can help them in a way that no one else can if we know those two pieces of information. We have to make sure that they can get the right support, from places as diverse as the charity SSAFA, Veterans UK and even the right part of the NHS. Obviously, in all our constituencies, there are many small veterans charities that can also assist.
I appreciate that many other people wish to speak, but I want to point out that this week is the centenary of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, a wonderful charity that has supported hundreds of thousands of people across the country over the last century. It has chosen to launch a wonderful campaign this week to mark its centenary. It is asking the wider community to identify RAF veterans, because it believes that more than 100,000 RAF veterans are not getting the support that they need, warrant or could do with. It is asking all of us to put those veterans back on the radar, which is appropriate for the RAF. I have today tabled an early-day motion on the subject; I hope that everybody in the Chamber will sign it.
There is nothing more important than ensuring that the people who serve, and served, our country get support from everyone in this place. I thank everybody for their support today.
I am delighted to follow my neighbour, Ruth Smeeth, and to speak in this debate. My constituency is the proud home of a significant Army reserve centre on Anchor Road in Longton, which I have been pleased to visit on a couple of occasions. The city of Stoke-on-Trent has a proud history of recruitment and sacrifice across the British armed forces, as our local war memorials bear witness.
I have been a proud supporter of the Royal British Legion poppy appeal, having helped it with collections in my constituency, both out and about at British Legion stalls, and by hosting a collection tin and sales of poppies in my constituency office. The remembrance parades that I have attended in previous years in Fenton and Longton have always been very well attended. In fact, the number of people from the community who attend them is increasing each year. That is a moving reminder of how much our present-day liberties rest on the sacrifices of those who came before us.
This year’s Armed Forces Day will once again be marked at Queen’s Park in Longton. The event is being organised by the North Staffordshire armed forces and veterans celebration committee, the Queen’s Park Partnership, and Stoke-on-Trent City Council. I want to take this opportunity to thank them all, and the volunteers, without whom the event would not be possible. I especially thank the serving officers and veterans who will be taking part. There will be armed forces displays and vehicles, stalls and entertainment, and a parade for members of the forces, veterans associations, cadets and schools. As in every year, thousands of attendees are expected, and they will all, of course, be very welcome.
Queen’s Park was opened in 1888, and was laid out under the instructions of the then mayor of Longton, John Aynsley—a member of the great Aynsley ceramics dynasty—on land that was donated by the Duke of Sutherland. I mention that because it illustrates the way in which Queen’s Park is integral to Longton’s history, civic obligation, generosity, and community spirit. It is eminently suited to hosting the Armed Forces Day celebration for our city and for all those in our community who have selflessly given service in the past, and to paying tribute to those who continue to serve in our armed forces today.
We are one nation, and the Armed Forces Day celebration is for people of all ages and all backgrounds. Places such as Queen’s Park underline the fact that it is about bringing us all together, grounding us in our local communities with the common thread of our national armed services. It is, of course, a cross-party, or non-party political, occasion when we can all happily come together in thanks for what our forces do to keep us all safe.
I pay tribute to David Cameron’s role in the establishment of the armed forces covenant as a statement of the moral obligation that exists for us all, as a nation, as a Government and as a legislature, to the armed forces and the communities from which they hail and to which they return. Support for people leaving the armed forces must reflect the obligation that we owe to those who serve our country. I fully support the efforts to help service leavers into employment, not least the expansion of the career transition partnership to all members of the armed forces who have completed basic training. Lord Ashcroft’s work in that regard, ensuring that the transition for today’s service leavers back to civilian life is smoother and supported, is to be praised—as, of course, is his extensive support for veterans charities and memorials.
Towards the end of last year, in November, I was pleased to host an event with Landau, a charitable organisation that has a base in Newstead in my constituency and is dedicated to helping people who face barriers to employment. It has been doing excellent work to support veterans living locally, who often experience many barriers and challenges when readjusting to civilian life. The event, which we organised with local employers and which included partners from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Royal British Legion, focused on ensuring that more local employers signed up to be disability-confident and seek to help more veterans into employment.
The Minister mentioned how small the badges were that people wear to support our veterans. I think that, in the past, we have not always done quite enough to support our veterans. Last year, when I was part of a delegation to the United States to visit Congress, I was amazed to see, outside the office of nearly member of Congress, posters and flags dedicated to supporting veterans and those who had unfortunately fallen in war. I think that we need to do more in this country to support our veterans.
I am conscious that there are many calls tor us to go further in taking time as a country to reflect on and celebrate the role of our armed forces, giving greater recognition to the incredible sacrifices that have been made for us all. Those calls, like the calls for us to increase funding for our armed forces in the forthcoming spending review, need careful and open-minded attention. My constituent Gloria Buckle, to whom I have spoken about that on a number of occasions, is one of the strong voices advocating an annual bank holiday dedicated to our veterans. I was pleased to hear that the early May bank holiday in 2020 is to be moved from Monday
Our armed forces, perhaps more than any other institution under Her Majesty, unite our kingdom. As a country, we owe it to our service personnel and veterans to celebrate their work and dedication, and to remember their sacrifices. After all, we are free to enjoy a day such as this only because of their continuing vigilance in keeping us safe and free all year round.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is good to see you in the Chair for this debate.
I congratulate Provost William Hendrie of West Dunbartonshire Council on holding last weekend’s Armed Forces Day in West Dunbartonshire in the recently refurbished borough hall in Dumbarton. I also mention the 7th Scots D Company reservists based in my constituency, in the ancient royal borough of Dumbarton, and thank them for their continued service; and Owen Sayers, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant, who I have known for many years and who does many charitable works on behalf of veterans across the whole of the west of Scotland.
The armed forces in Scotland have a very long history. Indeed, Scotland is a martial nation that since its earliest days has sought to reflect the nation within it. As far back as 1138, our late King David I led a diverse army of Normans, Germans, English, Northumbrians and—would you believe it—Cumbrians, although the less we say about the battle of the standard, the better. Reflecting on that martial history, we must note the appointment of a Bruce as Governor of Edinburgh castle. I am sure that all Members will wish to congratulate Major General Alastair Bruce, especially as I know that, with the 700th anniversary this week of Bannockburn, he is especially delighted with his appointment.
Scotland’s history is also a history in which the immemorial custom of service has been—I will be honest—abused. In the late 1700s, the promise of small plots to up to 75,000 highlanders further impoverished those in service and indeed sent many of their families into exile. The clearances were an unmitigated economic disaster and a human catastrophe, yet the years that lay ahead would see Scots from every walk of life fulfil their immemorial duty.
The horrors of world war one, in which my great uncle James Timlin fell the month before the armistice was signed, serves as a warning to politicians and tyrants alike that they must exhaust all diplomatic efforts before blowing the whistle to go over the top. World war two saw death and destruction fall on so many, including those living in my community of West Dunbartonshire through the horror of the Clydebank blitz. Those who served not only changed the face of the European continent, but returned home and battled to be treated as equals by a political elite. Without doubt the vast swathes of those serving in the armed forces at the time in Europe and the far east resolutely, through the ballot box, played their part in demanding the peace dividend. Their efforts to overcome national socialism also ensured that the post-1945 Governments would be held to account, with a legacy in health, housing, social security and ways that would not have been possible before.
Later conflicts would see my brother serve in Iraq and in Afghanistan twice. As other Members have testified, and probably will again in this debate, having family on the frontline brings the comprehension of war to the forefront of your mind. It is a comprehension I would not wish on anyone. My nephew last year passed out from the Royal Engineers, and I and his family fully appreciate the opportunities offered to him, bar one: he is not an employee. Armed Forces Day and the extending events around Armed Forces Week are laudable and are much-needed attempts to address the growing gap between those who serve and the society they protect, but I have often wondered—and reflected following what I have heard today—if they could in fact make that gap grow wider. In all the talk of heroes and gallantry, we forget that those who serve are people doing an extraordinary job. Armed Forces Day will not be a success if it only seeks to place those who serve on a pedestal and does not have a ruthless and unremitting focus on improving their terms and conditions. I know the Government are doing their best, and the Minister has often appeared in front of the Defence Committee to grapple with the myriad issues that are thrown up with regard to armed forces and veterans’ welfare. They have, in the right hon. Members for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), two Ministers who speak with great authority and have great empathy for the job they do, but could it be that the complexity of the system often leads to the most simple and robust solutions not being implemented?
Last year, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to bring an armed forces representative body into being on a statutory footing. Sadly, it was a plan that did not survive contact with the workings of this place, but I do not intend that to be the last we hear of it. An armed forces representative body is an idea whose time has come in this political state, as it has already in so many others. It would allow the 135,000 serving members of our armed forces to speak with one strong voice and, for the first time, give all of them access to the type of independent advice, on all aspects of their professional and personal lives, that members of trade unions elsewhere in the workforce have taken for granted for so long. Of course they would not have the power to strike, just as the police do not, but as any Home Secretary who has addressed the Police Federation conference knows, that does not make it any easier to ignore their bargaining power. I assume that that is the reason behind some of the more hysterical reactions to any suggestion of a so-called armed forces union. Giving serving members that voice and ability must surely be the most straightforward way to begin addressing all the issues we have heard about today.
The charities that many Members have spoken about today do a fantastic job in the circumstances, and many of them have historical pedigrees of which they can justifiably be proud, but we cannot and must not kid ourselves that they are able to reach every member of the armed forces in the way that they would like to. The varied nature of our defence establishments and their geographical spread make that all but impossible. Indeed, a system that is based principally on charity can often mean that some are less able to access services and advice, because they are not adept at navigating the vagaries of a social context that has not been constructed by them. A trade union is the time-honoured, tested fashion in which working people everywhere have been able to overcome social and economic barriers to advancement in the workplace, and it is time to extend that to the armed forces. This is quite simply normal practice among most of our close neighbours, and it has been rather counterintuitive to have to explain the UK’s byzantine system to those for whom this is normal.
Let me bring my remarks to a close by reiterating that the people serving in the armed forces are doing an extraordinary job, and I therefore hope that we can begin to use Armed Forces Day as a way of focusing less on heroic language and more on ensuring that those people are paid, equipped and housed in the same way as every other worker doing their job expects to be.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate ahead of Armed Forces Day on Saturday and on Reservists Day today. With that in mind, I shall start by paying tribute to the work of the reserve units based at Raglan barracks in Newport and thanking them for all they do for us. Armed Forces Day is an important way of ensuring we continue to recognise the service and sacrifice of our armed forces. A number of events are taking place in my constituency over the coming days to mark the occasion, including the civic flag-raising ceremony in Newport, the St Andrews armed forces cadet day in Lliswerry and the armed forces VE Day barbecue at Alway Primary School. I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the two Royal British Legion branches in my constituency, in Caldicot and Newport. They undertake great work all year round to support the forces community.
I also pay tribute to all those past and present who have served from my constituency. At this point, I was going to mention the neighbour of the 86-year-old veteran who rang my office to complain about the veteran not being eligible for a free TV licence and how disgusted he felt about that, but the Minister dealt with that earlier. Lastly, I pay tribute to the Afghan interpreters who have come to make their home in Newport and who, I feel, need greater help and clarity from the Government about how they can be reunited with their families.
Military history, like national history, is so often written about the officer class—those who make the major decisions—but it is important that we understand, too, what happens in defence and war to the ordinary soldier. History is also, importantly, about everyone who serves, their day-to-day experience and their life afterwards, including the trauma that they face as a result of the service that they gave to their country. I will therefore take the opportunity of today’s debate to highlight the experiences and service of my constituent Anthony Lock, who was Corporal Anthony Lock, from Newport.
I appreciate the Minister’s earlier remarks about keeping perspective, and the many positive stories and experiences that we have shared today, but I wish to put Anthony’s story on the record. I recently read his brave and heartfelt book, “Broken by War”, which is a hugely powerful account of his time in combat, what he witnessed, how it affected him, his injuries, his recovery and, crucially, the lack of support offered to him throughout. He wrote the book to help others in his situation and to bring about change. I hope that Ministers will commit to read it, and will reflect again on what more needs to be done to support veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Anthony joined the armed forces after leaving school in Newport aged 17. He went on to serve with the Royal Welsh Regiment in Kosovo and Iraq. However, his life was to change forever after his service in Afghanistan, when he was hit by two improvised explosive devices in six weeks. The first explosion broke his neck, but he was misdiagnosed, so, unknowingly, he continued to serve on the frontline, surviving on pain killers.
The second IED explosion during his service in Helmand province very nearly ended Anthony’s life. Thrown 30 feet in the air from the blast, he believes that he survived only because a rescue helicopter was nearby. His heart actually stopped beating for a time during the emergency flight to Camp Bastion, and he became the first British soldier serving in Afghanistan to be surgically operated on while in the air. He was the most injured soldier of his regiment in Afghanistan.
The life-changing injuries that Anthony experienced in Helmand were accompanied by the long-term legacy of post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. It is fair to say that he feels let down by his regiment. As he told me, in nine years there were nine close deaths around him and numerous traumatic events; yet not enough was done to help him through it. I think the Defence Committee acknowledged in its report the particular incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since leaving military service, Anthony has applied for many jobs, but to date has been unsuccessful. He has had help from military charities to write a CV, but otherwise the support has been limited, despite, as has been said a few times in the debate, the obvious many skills and experience that he has to offer. I would like the Minister to look again at what is happening in JobCentre Plus with the armed forces champions that are supposed to be in place.
Anthony is grateful for the help that he has received from charities, particularly Poppy Practice, which is only a small charity but found Anthony as a result of reading his book. He has talked to me about the waiting times for appointments for veterans suffering from PTSD, which are far too long in the UK. He has also talked to me about the spike in PTSD-related veteran suicides in 2018—a tragic reminder of the need for Government at all levels to have a more effective response to mental health issues among current and former service personnel. Just today he told me that he believes that there have been 32 suicides this year that we know of.
Anthony still suffers every day from invisible injuries, and has said that he might not be here today were it not for the support of his partner Rhiannon and his daughter Katie. In a recent interview, he said:
“It’s been hard for them too. I am angry in my head but not outside it. I am just nervous around people. I’m angry about what happened. I got blown up twice and life is difficult now…I did English, maths and management qualifications in the army but no one can find them now and employers can’t see the person through a CV when you apply for jobs.
I don’t sleep at night. I have nightmares about what happened to me”.
He also said:
“If I had lost a limb my injuries would be more visible. If I walk down the street no one can see what I’ve been through but if someone has lost a leg people can see that.”
Anthony deserves huge credit for his continued commitment to fighting for the dignity of veterans, and I recommend his excellent book, “Broken by War,” which powerfully recounts his experiences of war and encourages other veterans to reach out for support.
Ahead of today’s debate, I asked Anthony what his main ask would be for improving the support available to veterans in our society. He told me that we need much quicker signposting of mental health support services within the forces community, a better system for handling the slow process of compensation and pension claims for those unable to work—the Defence Committee has also referenced that—help into work and recognition of the skills and experience of veterans, and, above all, a commitment from government at all levels to end the stigma around mental health in the armed forces.
In his own words, Anthony says
“the forces community are too proud, too shy and too scared to reach out for help.”
He says that many veterans still feel the Government send young soldiers to war only to
“leave us to fight on our own when we return.”
Anthony has served in some of the major conflicts since the second world war, but he is not a celebrity. So many veterans like Anthony are unknown individuals in society who could have become unknown soldiers lost on the battlefield, but their history and service are just as vital to the UK as that of any general, air marshal or captain. We have to listen to people like Anthony and we have to be told their stories.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Jessica Morden. Anthony’s story is very poignant, and we all understand what he, his family and his community have gone through. I appreciate that.
It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate and to have the Minister responding. As a native of my constituency, born and raised on the Isle of Anglesey, he will know that my constituency has a proud tradition of service in the armed forces, whether it be the Army—a huge number of recruits go into the Welsh regiments—the merchant navy, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. RAF Valley trains our fast jet pilots to this day.
This year, we celebrated Armed Forces Day for the whole of north Wales on
The event on
The Holyhead maritime museum is known throughout the country for its artefacts from Royal Navy and merchant navy seafarers, as well as from the important volunteers who go to sea in our lifeboats to keep our coastlines safe.
Our Armed Forces Day event on
I am an ex-merchant seafarer, and I want to concentrate part of my speech on the work and sacrifice of merchant seafarers for our country. During the second world war, for example, they kept the trade links open and the food coming to our island nation. I remember, as a 16-year-old on my first vessel, talking to older seafarers who had actually served in the convoys. One in particular, a ship’s cook, joined the merchant navy at 17 and had been torpedoed and survived twice. He was left in the cold waters of the Atlantic while ships were being torpedoed, and bombed by fighter aircraft, around him. It is important to remember the conditions in which our merchant seafarers served during the world wars. We saw the D-day commemorations recently, and many merchant seafarers were involved in D-day. Many sea captains, using their seafaring skills, took the troops across to liberate mainland Europe. I am sure the Minister will join me in paying special tribute to the merchant navy.
More positively, last year we had commemorations in the House and in the country of the centenary of the great war. What was special about those commemorations was the fact that we were talking about real communities and real people. It was a great people’s history, and we were able to celebrate the contribution made by local people to their community and their country. I am a great one for going around village memorial halls, and several small communities on Anglesey have memorial halls, as the Minister will know, that were built more than 100 years ago so that we should remember the great sacrifices made in the first world war. Many of them are rightly dedicated to those who lost their lives. They have now been revamped and are part of our living history. I would like to see small museums and galleries in those memorial halls so that we remember the dedication, service and sacrifice of the communities we all represent for ever and ever.
Before I came to the House 18 years ago, I ran a welfare unit for veterans and dealt with many ex-service personnel. It was difficult to diagnose many of the conditions that they had and to help them with benefits. We have improved considerably in the last 20 years, and I pay tribute to the last Labour Government, the coalition Government and the present Government for the work that they have done to help veterans. We have a dedicated Veterans Minister and much support from charities, as well as the MOD. The Minister who opened the debate is no longer in his place, but I have had correspondence with him as recently as last month—I will be coming back to him—and I know that he looks at these issues meticulously so that we are able to help veterans.
Our casework is getting more complicated and more and more veterans are coming to see us. We really need to target the issue of mental health. Great progress has been made in the House, with many Members talking about their own experiences, but as the Prime Minister has rightly said, mental health treatment should have parity with physical health services. We must help our veterans. Many relatively young veterans have been in theatre and in many conflicts in recent years, and we must help and support them.
Today, Armed Forces Day, is an opportunity to celebrate not only the work that our armed forces do for our country, but people from communities throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the dedication and service that they have given us. I pay tribute to active service personnel, and to ex-service personnel too.
It is always a pleasure to speak in any debate that refers to the armed forces—it is always a pleasure to speak in the House, but this is a particular pleasure. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Ellwood, who unfortunately is no longer in his place, for his commitment as a soldier, as a reservist and as a Minister.
I thank all those who wear or have worn the uniform, serving this great country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—as others have said, we are better together—through thick and thin. It is little wonder that our armed forces are the envy and measuring standard of the entire world. Our armed forces have supported us in times of peril—through two world wars, the troubles, Afghanistan and Iraq to name only a few. Today, they are stationed around the globe, carrying out work that we do not hear about, yet the world would be a worse place without their efforts and contributions. The blood that they shed and the burden they take upon themselves is all for you—I say that to everybody in the House—and for me as well. To think that they are not fully rewarded for their sacrifices and supported through their own times of peril is disappointing, to say the least.
Just last Saturday, the gallant Minister was in Lisburn for Northern Ireland Armed Forces Day. It was a smashing day, as he rightly said. I have a request for him, or, in his absence, for the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Stuart Andrew, who will respond to the debate. Northern Ireland will be 100 years old in 2021; will Ministers consider a national Armed Forces Day in Northern Ireland to tie in with that centenary?
The armed forces are 9,900 trained personnel short of their Government-set target: the Royal Navy and Royal Marines are some 1,230 short of their 30,450 personnel target; the Royal Air Force is 1,740 short of its 31,750 personnel target; and the British Army is 6,930 short of its 82,000 personnel target.
We are fortunate in my constituency to have a strong tradition of service in all three of the services—the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the Army. Conscription was never needed because the recruitment was always there. We also have strong TA battalions and batteries in the town, with a new Royal Irish Regiment section in the Crawfordsburn Road centre in Newtownards. We have that service ethic, so it is important to give people those opportunities. We also have active cadets in all three services.
The House might wonder why I brought up those figures, but the link is clear: why would someone put their physical and mental health on the line for the minimum wage? Why would they leave their family and all those they love for months on end when their Government—my Government—cannot give them pay that reflects their sacrifice? It is little wonder that so many of our trained and elite leave the service and serve privately—the pay is quadruple that which the uniform pays. The shadow Secretary of State referred to pay, and she was absolutely right to—we need to think about that.
Why would someone take the minimum wage when, added to that, they now know that they could well be abandoned in later life should another armed regime such as the republicans seek to rewrite history? Would it not be fair to say that the treatment they can expect once they retire is the reason why they are not joining? Just like soldier F, they have to contemplate the prospect of facing prosecution for doing their job. The Government have to do more to protect their soldiers. That issue has come forward on numerous occasions. Soldiers should be allowed to retire in peace; that is the least we can do for them. The Democratic Unionist party, of which I am proud to be a member and to speak on behalf of today, supports our armed forces. We will not watch silently as our armed forces are dragged on their knees to appear in court at the age of 75. The witch hunt must stop now.
Our soldiers cannot simply disobey orders. That is called insubordination, and they would be punished for it. They cannot win in that scenario. They face two choices: be punished by their superiors for disobeying orders and for not following the appropriate procedure, or be punished by the media agenda of the day and even by the judicial system. Why should they willingly have to sign up to that? They should not have to do so, but they do. I doubt soldier F knew that that was what he was signing up to. Our soldiers deserve better. The very least that they deserve for protecting us is the right to protection in the courts. The sacrifice that they make for all of us to sleep safely at night is immeasurable, yet that is how they are treated. On behalf of all those soldiers who face the prospect of an investigation, let us make it clear that we stand by them and support them in these legacy battles. I believe that there is a consensus of opinion in the House to support that view.
We should remember that the soldiers who did wrong were prosecuted during the troubles in the appropriate way through the Army. They did face justice. What they face now is not justice; it is unacceptable. It is a sop to a republican agenda, and the antithesis of justice. For all the sacrifices that they have made, it is appalling that they do not receive the support they need when they retire. Royal Irish veteran Robert McCartney of the charity Beyond the Battlefield has estimated that some 400 veterans attempt to take their own lives each year in Northern Ireland, 30 of whom succeed. Those statistics are accurate, and they reflect the concern that we have for our veterans in Northern Ireland. I commend Robert McCartney and many other charities such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, Help for Heroes, St Dunstan’s, and the Royal British Legion—they are almost too numerous to mention. They all help greatly, but we should be doing more to help our armed forces.
I do not think that there is one Member today who has not mentioned mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental issues that have come about because of things that have happened in the past.
Will the hon. Gentleman add to that list of charities the Mission to Seafarers, which does excellent work for UK shipping veterans both here in the capital city and across the UK and the globe?
It is always good to be reminded of these things by the hon. Gentleman. As I said, aside from the ones that we know directly, there are many, many other charities that do fantastic work. The Royal Air Force Association looks after its veterans well; it does really fantastic work.
In Northern Ireland, it is estimated that some 17,000 veterans have some form of mental health problem—diagnosed or not. That is a massive number of people who need help and assistance right now. These appalling figures are not matched with enough support. I know that charities fill in the gap, and, as I have said before, I am very pleased with the steps that the Government have taken, particularly the Minister’s Department. None the less, when we see magnitude of the number of veterans who have mental health issues, we should be thinking about setting extra money aside for them. The support that those veterans need should be made readily available to them, and I believe that we are failing in that regard.
I have been associated with SSAFA for a long, long time—since long before I became a Member of Parliament. My mother and father were also involved in that charity. We hold a coffee morning in September/October every year. The good people of Newtownards have contributed some £30,000 to the charity, selling tea, coffee and sticky buns. The Ulster man and the Ulster woman are very fond of their sweet stuff—as a diabetic I know that I should not be so fond of it. None the less, we do our best to help the veterans. We should also give credit to those Members in this House who have served so gallantly in uniform.
When the IRA were committing the countless atrocities during the troubles in Northern Ireland, it was the brave soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland who were there to help clean up the blood left behind and who tried their very best to limit the loss of life. These memories rage on in their minds to this day—a great burden that takes its toll.
The big gap in the rates of pay for our armed forces shocks me, especially when compared with our US counterparts. In our armed forces, the salary starts at £15,008, compared with that of the US army, which starts at £19,099. In 2018, the 2% pay rise for our armed forces was still below inflation, which was sitting at 2.4% at the time—for all that sacrifice. What kind of message does that send to our soldiers?
I hope those points show that action needs to be taken now. In a time of celebration for our armed forces, they should be able to join us. No longer should they have to face tough economic turmoil after retirement, no longer should they have to face the battle with their mental health following retirement, and no longer should we stand by and watch. Our servicemen deserve better. It is our duty to ensure that they are given better and are no longer persecuted for actions that they were commanded to undertake some 50 years ago. They helped us when we needed them. It is about time we helped them when they need us. We should do the right thing and give them the right pay and the right overtime—enough to keep their families at home, living while they fight to survive. We in this place must determine to do the right thing by them. I look to the Minister to outline in his response how these issues will be addressed, particularly the matter of pay. Then we will be beginning to do the right thing.
I am pleased to respond to this debate on behalf of the Opposition, and I can honestly say that it has been an excellent debate. It has been consensual and genuinely cross-party in character, and we have heard from all parts of the House. I think it is true to say that there has been one resounding message, and that has been a message of appreciation for all that our armed forces do for our country and our people.
The official Armed Forces Day is on Saturday, with national celebrations in Salisbury in Wiltshire. Today is Reserves Day, and I was very warmed by and impressed to see the flags above Portcullis House and various Government Departments as I walked across Westminster bridge this morning. They were an important symbol. For me, that set the tone for the day and for this debate.
The tone of the debate was set very well by the Minister, who gave a significant statement. I very much hope that his remarks will not simply be confined to this Chamber, and that they will be studied carefully by the people who aspire to the leadership of the Conservative party and this country. The tone was also well set by my hon. Friend Nia Griffith, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence who is from Wales. She indicated a number of points on which we are all united, and mentioned the tremendous work and commitment that our armed forces provide to this country as well as some of the issues they are concerned about. It is only right and proper that we give attention to improving the situation for our armed forces and do not simply rest on our laurels. We recognise that things have to get better because we are talking about the defence of this country—and, frankly, nothing is more important.
The Minister and the shadow Secretary of State both emphasised the tremendous debt of gratitude that we owe to our armed forces. Both also referred to D-day—the significant landings that took place on those five beaches, and the paratroopers who went behind enemy lines and helped to liberate our continent. I attended an event on HMS Belfast organised by Blind Veterans UK. It was a very moving experience to hear at first hand from veterans about what they went through and the sacrifices they made. As a number of Members have said, what motivated them and all their compatriots who fought and died was not that they wanted to be brave, but that they believed it was their duty to do what they did.
A number of Members have referred to events being organised in their constituencies to commemorate and celebrate Armed Forces Day. We have heard eloquent remarks from a number of Members; I apologise if I do not mention them all. For me, it is worth noting the eloquent remarks by Carol Monaghan and by my hon. Friend Ruth Smeeth. I am delighted that it is my hon. Friend’s birthday on Saturday. I am sure that at her local celebrations the armed forces will join everyone in singing happy birthday to her.
We heard similarly eloquent remarks by Jack Brereton, who quite correctly said that the armed forces unite our country: how true that is. My hon. Friend Albert Owen also made some eloquent remarks. I learned a great deal about the history of the second world war, but I, for one, did not realise that there was a significant naval presence from the Dutch in Anglesey. I am sure that plenty will be written in the history of the island about the contribution that they made to the defence of our country.
My hon. Friend Jessica Morden made a very moving speech in which she referred to her constituent Anthony and the difficulties that he has experienced since he has done his best to get back into the world of work. I very much hope that the book he has written will indeed be read by many people and the lessons from it learned.
I wish briefly to thank a number of local organisations in my constituency for what they have done. Reading Borough Council has prioritised veterans in its housing register, in an area of high housing need. That is an important step. The town council in Woodley has put together a wonderful commemoration of the sacrifice in world war one, highlighting many local men who failed to return from Flanders. Many local voluntary and veterans’ organisations have made contributions. I would like to thank them for their support for and recognition of the wonderful service that has taken place.
I think that if we are serious about this, we recognise that it is not enough to be appreciative of the commitment made, past and present; it is also necessary to ensure that the defence of our country is based on the firm footing of the personnel in the armed forces. What is absolutely central for them in order to give of their best is the maintenance of a good state of morale. However, surveys have been conducted showing very clearly that the state of morale among the armed forces should be a cause for concern among us all. The impact of service life on family and personal life remains the top factor influencing the intention of many of our personnel to leave the armed forces. It saddens me to say that satisfaction with service life remains below the peak of 61% that was reported in 2009 and today stands at only 46%.
I am going to ask the hon. Gentleman the same question that I have been asking Ministers and other shadow Ministers. If there is such a problem, why are we not agreeing that an armed forces representative body, without the right to strike, would be a good thing to allow people in the armed forces to inform policy?
That suggestion is worthy of serious consideration. It should not be dismissed, because there is a strong case for a collective voice for personnel in the armed forces so that Government can be helped by knowing exactly what they want and can respond accordingly. That is something to be carefully considered in future.
It is very important to send a clear message that, while there has been a great deal of progress and there is a great deal of pride among all of us, we want to see an improvement. We are concerned about the relatively low morale in large sections of the armed forces. Careful attention needs to be given to pay, to ensure that pay rises at least keep pace with inflation and we do not see an erosion of the living standards of our armed forces personnel. Careful consideration should also be given to pensions, compensation and housing.
The Opposition are concerned about the apparent fixation of certain Conservative Members that outsourcing is good, no matter the circumstances and irrespective of the costs or implications. We have to be entirely objective and look at what works and delivers satisfactorily for our personnel. Unfortunately, it is our conclusion that much of the outsourcing is ideologically motivated and does not improve things for our personnel. We need to look carefully at whether it would be better to do much more in-house and ensure that we have the services and standards that our armed forces deserve.
I think in particular of housing. I know that the Ministry of Defence is piloting the future accommodation model. I agree with Martin Docherty-Hughes; it would be useful if we had a mechanism that enabled us to hear directly from the armed forces and their representatives what they think about the situation, rather than Ministers believing they know best and simply creaming off the views of one or two individuals. The Government must engage fully and openly with the armed forces to ensure that they are acting in the interests of all personnel and are seen to be doing so.
We have to do two things: we have to commemorate and celebrate, and we also have to stand back and look coolly at how things can be improved. The atmosphere of the debate has certainly allowed us to do that. I would like to finish by echoing the remark made by Gillian Keegan: we need to give one united and very big thank you.
I would like to echo the comments that Wayne David just made. The tone of the debate has clearly reflected the feeling of all Members across the House, and I think it accurately reflects the respect, admiration and support of the population out there for our armed forces. That set a really good tone for the debate; if only all debates in this Chamber were so constructive.
Members have clearly demonstrated a very good understanding of not only what is so important to our armed forces, but the challenges faced by both the regular and reserve forces. Our military personnel are incredibly brave, protecting not only our shores but, frankly, our way of life. They do that day in, day out in a world that continues to become increasingly dangerous. The fact that they do that in not only the UK but across the globe is something we should always be thankful for. They take on dangerous and demanding tasks without complaint—they just get on with it. They see it as their job and their duty, and they do it with great service. There is a duty on all of us, in return, to say thank you and show them that everything they do is not taken for granted. It is right for us to ensure that they are not disadvantaged, whether in the workplace or the provision of services, by the fact that they took part in military service.
We have heard a lot this afternoon about the armed forces covenant, which the Government and Members across the House are steadfastly supportive of. It is a promise from the nation to serving personnel and veterans and their families, to ensure that they are treated fairly and not disadvantaged as a result of the service they have given to our nation. It is great to see that across the UK—whether it be the UK Government, the devolved Administrations, local authorities, charities big and small or businesses—there is a real desire to sign up to the covenant and to ensure that we give that special recognition and that thank you, covering all the important areas, including education, health and housing, and recognising the skills of many of our veterans, which could provide valuable inputs to businesses across the UK. It is great that, since the launch of the covenant eight years ago, we are now close to the 4,000th organisation signing up, with Facebook being among the latest to do so this week.
We are preparing for Armed Forces Day on Saturday. I am looking forward to going to an event in my own constituency that Lyn Rigby, the mother of Fusilier Lee Rigby, will be attending. I am going to Swansea later, so I will be going back to my roots in Wales. That shows the breadth of events that are being held all over the country and the wonderful support for the armed forces.
It is important to remind ourselves that today is Reserves Day. That reminds me of the last Defence questions, when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, said that three Members on the Government Front Bench were reservists and kindly pointed out that I am the one who is not. [Interruption.] Indeed, there is still time. I saw that one political sketch writer wrote the next day that I looked rather crestfallen at my right hon. Friend’s comments and that he could not quite see me in a military tunic, but could well see me in a Butlin’s Redcoat. I have to say that was harsh, but it is probably fair.
Yesterday, I was with my right hon. Friend at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where we had a brilliant reception, and this morning we had a breakfast reception in Downing Street. It was great listening to reservists from all walks of life who work for Government and act as reservists, so they are serving the nation twice. They give so much to our nation and put themselves in incredible danger. Listening to one serving in Somalia really made me realise the enormous sacrifice they make in giving up their time to serve our nation in the reserves.
I want to come on to a few other points. I am conscious of the time, but I will try to get through as many of them as possible. The shadow Secretary of State, Nia Griffith, rightly raised a number of issues. Recruitment is an issue that I know has been brought up on many occasions, and rightly so. However, the contract we have with Capita remains subject to financial penalties and it has been penalised in the past. We are working very closely with Capita to ensure that the reset in the relationship we have brings about the results we expect to see. In 2018-19, we saw the highest number of applications for five years, with over 77,000 soldier applications alone, so there is good momentum. However, I assure her that we are not resting on our laurels. We are making sure that we are looking at that and continue to keep the pressure on, because keeping up the numbers is incredibly important.
The hon. Lady asked if I could provide an update on the 2019 pay award. I am afraid that I cannot give any specific information because there has been some delay, but I can give her the assurance that it will be backdated to ensure that nobody loses out. There was a comment about an independent body. Well, that does exist: the Armed Forces Pay Review Body provides independent advice both to the Prime Minister and to the Secretary of State for Defence.
Another important issue is access to schools. This is where the Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board is really useful because we do have cross-Government Departments there. We are raising that matter with the Department for Education. It is important that we provide as much stability as possible to the families but, as I say, we will continue to raise that.
My hon. Friend Gillian Keegan rightly referred to the importance of our armed forces and the sacrifice of many of them. She also reminded us of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is important. It is a good advert. If Members have not done it, enrol. Those involved would love to see them, so I encourage Members to do so.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I must apologise for missing most of the debate as I was chairing something elsewhere. One or two Ministers have taken part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and one of the good things that happened is that they got a uniform. We would certainly welcome my hon. Friend if he wanted to come and join.
Well, I walked into that one, didn’t I? I was going to say, let us see what happens in a couple of weeks’ time, but I might not be here.
Carol Monaghan introduced her husband to the Chamber, and I had the pleasure of meeting him in Glasgow a few weeks ago. I certainly thank him for his service. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we must not be complacent about the support that we offer to members of our armed forces—those who are serving, but also those who are veterans. Also, we ought to do a better sell of what it is like to join the armed forces. Sometimes, I think the public have a certain perception of what is on offer in terms of the trades people can learn and the skills they can acquire, and we are not as good at selling those aspects as we could be, so I will take that point back to the Department.
My hon. Friend Luke Graham rightly reminded us of his constituency’s proud armed forces history, and he was right to raise points about housing and mental health in particular. A number of Members raised the issue of mental health. As I think we all recognise, mental health was previously not discussed in this Chamber, certainly not when I was first elected in 2010.
I remember the first time a Member of Parliament stood up in this Chamber to talk about their own mental health. That was a turning point; the fact that we all now discuss the issue can only be a step in the right direction. We have to make sure that we provide that support to members of our armed forces and that they have the confidence to talk about the issue too.
We had contributions from Ruth Smeeth and my hon. Friend Jack Brereton. I wish the hon. Lady a happy birthday—the whole city will be out celebrating for her, I am sure. She rightly pointed out that next year we have the VE Day and VJ Day anniversaries. We must make sure that we celebrate in style. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South talked about the services we provide to people who leave the armed forces. Later this year, we will have the new transition policy, which we have been working on, and I hope that under it things will be looked at earlier. We want to cover all the issues that the armed forces face, and to include the family too, because families are critical.
I want to mention Jessica Morden. It was really quite moving listening to her talk about her constituent, Anthony Lock, and in particular the support he has received from Rhiannon and Katie. It just goes to show that, when we get somebody signed up to the armed forces, we often get not just that individual, but the whole family. We must never forget that, when we say thank you to the people who have served in our armed forces, we are also saying thank you to the wider family.
The hon. Lady made some points to which I want to respond. First, I will make sure I read the book. Secondly, I will speak to Baroness Buscombe about Jobcentre Plus; that is really important. I will come back to the hon. Lady on the other points she raised.
It is always good to hear from Albert Owen; I am from Anglesey myself. My dad was in the merchant navy, so I know all about the merchant navy and many of the memorial halls that the hon. Gentleman was talking about.
This has been an excellent debate and a timely reminder of the importance of thanking those who step forward to serve in our armed forces. On local authorities putting themselves forward to host Armed Forces Day, as a fellow Yorkshire Member of Parliament—there is another Yorkshire Member in the Chamber—will the Minister send our very best wishes to Scarborough as it prepares to host Armed Forces Day next year? I am sure that, collectively, we want to ensure that that day is a stunning success—not just for the country, but for Yorkshire.
Absolutely. I am doing a tour of the country now. It is great news that next year the event will be going to Scarborough. Earl Howe will be there this year to support that. It is going to be great news for Yorkshire and for the whole of the country.
There are a lot of offers. I expect that my diary will get extremely busy. Let me just say that I will take everything into consideration and I will get back to my hon. Friend.
I noticed that the Minister side-stepped completely the questions I raised in my speech. I did at least elicit some support from the Opposition Benches with regard to an armed forces representative body. I think I am correct in saying that in a Select Committee evidence session the Chief of the Defence Staff hinted, in response to my question, that an armed forces representative body was worthy of consideration. Why do the Government not think it is?
I do apologise. I did mean to address that point, which is on my sheet. I was not trying to side-step the issue. There are a number of avenues that members of the armed forces are able to use to register any concerns and complaints they may have with the armed forces, and they will be looked at very closely. The personnel we have are the greatest asset we have in the Ministry of Defence and we want to ensure that their issues are addressed—and they are, if I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
I need to finish now, but I will happily speak to hon. Members after the debate.
We have had a really good debate. The hon. Member for Caerphilly was right to say that the tone has been absolutely right. I am glad to have been able to respond to the debate. I thank all Members for their contributions. It is clear that all of us, as a society, are very supportive of our brave armed forces community, whether they serve at home or overseas, whether they are veterans, or whether they are families, who do so much to sustain them. This week’s Armed Forces Day gives the whole nation the opportunity to show their appreciation and gratitude to those who have given so much.
I endorse strongly the call to the whole House from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, to get involved in the rich programme of Armed Forces Day events that will happen this week. I know that many have already committed to doing so, which is fantastic. Whether they are happening in their constituencies, their regional areas or at a national level, this is a great opportunity for us as a country to say, very sincerely, thank you.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Armed Forces Day.