[Relevant documents: e-petition 332503, entitled Enshrine the Military Covenant in UK Law; Eleventh Report of the Defence Committee, Session 2017-19, Armed Forces Covenant Annual Report 2018, HC 1899, and the Government Response, First Special Report of the Committee, HC 162; and Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered remembrance, UK armed forces and society.
It is a real honour for me to open the debate not only as the Minister for the Armed Forces in the Ministry of Defence but as someone who has served on four operational tours to Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. I hope that, at the end of my remarks, the House will indulge me in giving some personal reflections on the meaning of remembrance.
Before that, I want to draw your attention, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the call list for the debate, which would make for a formidable half-company, should the nation ever call for us. The number of colleagues in the House who have served underlines the affinity between this place and our nation’s armed forces. A Defence Minister can often reflect on how the partisan hullabaloo of other areas of policy rarely encroaches on how we debate defence in this place. I know, as someone who served in at least two operational theatres that caused some political disagreement, that it really matters that this place not only robustly debates how and where we use our armed forces but does so always in a tone that makes those doing this place’s bidding in dangerous and dusty places realise that everybody in this House has the interests of our armed forces at heart, even when we disagree on how best to use them. I therefore look forward to another characteristically respectful and constructive debate.
It is an honour to take part in this debate on Armistice Day. This is a particularly significant year for remembrance. We are commemorating a century on from the installation of the Cenotaph, and we are marking 100 years since the interring of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. That soldier represents the multitudes who gave their lives in the great war: a soldier buried
“among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward His house”.
Of course, this year we are also celebrating 75 years since the end of world war two.
Inevitably, due to covid, we have had to mark remembrance differently. On Sunday, instead of tens of thousands marching past the Cenotaph, just 26 veterans took part. Instead of people congregating on Whitehall in their thousands, the streets were quiet and still. The remembrance ceremony that I attended in my constituency this year was in Burnham-on-Sea. We attended in small numbers, I with the chairman of the Royal British Legion; at 9 am we laid our wreath, followed shortly afterwards by a group of councillors.
I actually thought it was quite poignant that things should be remembered in that way, but it also meant, for the first time in a long time for many of us, that we were at home at 11 o’clock and able to watch on television the coverage of the ceremony at the Cenotaph. It was the first time I had seen it for a number of years, and I congratulate all those who put together such a poignant and reflective ceremony worthy of the magnitude of that occasion, while respecting the constraints that we are under because of covid. For all that we bash the BBC, particularly from the Government side of the House, I thought that it got both its coverage and its commentary spot-on on Sunday.
It was also important, I thought, that we had a moment of remembrance this morning in the House. I know that the nation will have looked to us, as well as to the Cenotaph on Whitehall and to Westminster Abbey, for leadership at this important moment in the year. It was great to see that marked here in the Chamber.
There are three points that I want to make today: our appreciation of the support our armed forces receive from the public at large, from the service charities, and from the Royal British Legion in particular; our admiration for the service of those who continue to put their lives on the line in the defence of our great nation; and our reverence for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we may enjoy our freedom.
When I was in Afghanistan and Iraq, every time that we received a delivery of mail, there would be all the mail from our family and friends but there would also be hundreds of letters and parcels from people with no connection to the armed forces beyond their admiration for what young men and women were willing to go away to do. I can tell the House that when we were in remote operating bases such as I was in Sangin, the fact that somebody had taken the time to write a letter to a soldier they did not know, or to send some biscuits or sweets, meant an enormous amount. It reminds our armed forces always just how close they are to our nation’s hearts.
We have seen that ourselves in our constituencies over the last few months, where soldiers, sailors, airmen, airwomen and marines have been delivering testing centres, delivering personal protective equipment to the local hospital or, earlier in the year, stuffing sandbags. I can tell the House how much it means to our men and women when members of the community just go up and say, “Thank you. Well done. You’re doing a great job.” People do that, unprompted, because they admire those who wear the uniform of our armed forces in the service of our nation.
The Minister refers to what happened in Afghanistan—the letters and things that went there. Seven years ago, I had the opportunity to represent my party in Afghanistan in meeting the Royal Irish Regiment. I knew their love of Tayto potato crisps, so I took lots of them with me and gave them out to the soldiers, both male and female, who were there. That brought them close to home, and that is really important whenever they are in Afghanistan serving their Queen and country.
The hon. Member is a keen supporter of our armed forces, and I can tell him that the great pleasure of serving in his beautiful corner of the world, as I have done, is not the stunning landscape or the Bushmills, but the Tayto chips in our packed lunches on the ranges.
Beyond the support of the community are our amazing service charities. So many of them do great work for our armed forces all year round, but at this time of year it is particularly important to reflect on the contribution of the Royal British Legion and the importance of its poppy appeal. It is an amazing commitment from poppy collectors all over the country that normally they go out in all weathers, from dawn till dusk, to sell poppies wherever they can. This year, of course, they have been more limited in what they have been able to do, but again and again I have seen in my constituency, and I know colleagues will have seen likewise, that they have done everything they can—within the law—to get out and raise as much money as they can for this important cause. We are all hugely grateful to them for doing so. I know that we would all want anybody watching today’s proceedings or reflecting on the fact that today is Armistice Day and they are yet to get their poppy to know that there is still time and that their money makes a real difference, in looking after both the families of those who have given their lives in conflict and those who have been forever scarred by their service.
That leads me to the service of our armed forces and the unlimited liability that they accept in the service of our nation—to do anything, anywhere, at any time, if this House and Her Majesty’s Government will it. That is an extraordinary thing to sign up and do. Some of us have done it for a few years. Some of us have done it for entire careers. Some of us have not done it at all, but to those who continue to serve, what matters is not whether a person has served but that they pause and reflect that as they go on with their life, and as their family are leading their lives, those who serve have accepted a responsibility on behalf of the nation to drop everything and leave at any moment to go and do whatever the nation requires anywhere in the world. That is an amazing act of selflessness that we should all be grateful for.
The Minister talks about years of service. I wonder whether he would commend and congratulate my constituent, Mrs Barbara McGregor, who is due to retire in January next year after 44 years of service in the Royal Navy to Queen and country. Mrs McGregor is taking part in Armistice services this week, and she was meant to be leading the parade march in the Bridgend county borough this weekend but was not able to. Would the Minister commend her and congratulate her on her service, and on the fact that she has put everything—Queen and country—as a sole focus of her entire service in the Navy?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s constituent on the longevity of her service and remark on what an amazing lifetime of commitment that is, with all the moments for her family, within her community and for her friends that she missed because she put her service of our country first. It is a quite extraordinary commitment, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising it in the House this afternoon.
Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to see fast jet pilots serving in different corners of the European theatre, going out on missions where split-second decisions can be the difference between mission success and catastrophe. I visited helicopter crews in Mali operating in austere conditions, where it is dusty and dangerous and it is pretty hard to keep the Chinooks flying. I have seen air transport squadrons flying day after day and night after night to maintain the extraordinary efforts of our nation’s armed forces around the globe. I have seen troops operating in Estonia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and others on Salisbury plain preparing for a new deployment to Mali next month. I have seen training teams, big and small, working with our partners around the world.
The Royal Navy has had ships recently in the Barents sea, the Black sea, the eastern Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, the Gulf and the Indian ocean. Our sailors and Royal Marines right now are responding to the humanitarian disaster that has followed in the wake of recent hurricanes in the Caribbean. We are rebuilding our sovereign carrier strike capability, and yesterday, I had the enormous honour of seeing the awe-inspiring work of Her Majesty’s Submarine Service, who keep our continuous at-sea deterrent hidden from view—silent but utterly deadly, and non-stop for 51 years.
That would just be business as usual for Defence, but this year, there has been an extraordinary contribution in supporting the Government’s response to covid as well. As we emerge from the covid crisis, there is an expectation that instability will follow in its wake, so our armed forces can look forward to even more activity in even more uncertain parts of the world, reassuring our allies, deterring our adversaries, demonstrating our resolve to uphold a rules-based international system and destroying those who mean us harm when they have to.
There are also a vast number of people who have served in our nation’s armed forces and who we must now look after as veterans. I pay tribute to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, for all the work that he does in that regard. Our veterans community matters enormously. They are an important part of the moral component of fighting power. If you are serving in the armed forces now, your confidence to act decisively on behalf of the nation is motivated by how you see the nation supporting its veterans back at home at that time. You want to know that if you get hurt, or take a decision, the Government and the nation will stand behind you for the rest of your life, and that is a commitment that this Government are proud to make.
Finally, sacrifice. Last week I was in Egypt visiting HMS Albion, which was in Alexandria after a successful deployment to the eastern Mediterranean. While I was up on the north coast of Egypt, I went to the cemetery at El Alamein. Like all Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, it was immaculately maintained. It was vast, and all over it were grouped graves, which I understand is symptomatic of an armoured battle where entire tank crews or armoured personnel carrier crews died in one go. Very often their remains were almost impossible to separate, so they were buried with four or five headstones immediately adjacent to one another. That makes one pause and reflect on the horror of a battle of that intensity.
Then, as in so many other Commonwealth war graves cemeteries around the world, there were the unmarked graves of those who we will never know exactly who they were and who lie now underneath foreign soil to be remembered anonymously for all time. Then there were the Commonwealth graves, thousands of them, reminding us that this was an effort not just from all corners of the United Kingdom but from all corners of the Commonwealth. It was pleasing, therefore, to see that in Commonwealth war graves cemeteries around the world and in our embassies and high commissions on Sunday, there were moments of remembrance to reflect on the sacrifice of so many from other countries in the defence of our great nation.
This year, marking 75 years since the end of the second world war, has been a great opportunity for us to reflect not only on victory in Europe but on victory in Japan. That Pacific campaign is so often the one that is spoken about less, yet the acts of heroism and derring-do were no less important. Indeed, in many of the stories I have heard, the deprivation was far greater because of the environment in which the forces were operating. Since then, brave servicemen and women from the United Kingdom have given their lives in Korea, the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is on those last two conflicts that I have my own personal reflections.
When you join up, you know there is a risk that the moment might come when you have to put yourself in a position where you might lose your life. When you stand there at Sandhurst, Dartmouth, Cranwell, Catterick or HMS Raleigh and the flag is there and the Queen is on the wall and the Bible is put in your hand, you are filled with confidence that you are on a career path that is worthy and great, but when you are behind a wall and the rounds are hitting the other side or an improvised explosive device has just gone off and you know that you have to stand up close with the enemy and do your duty, that is a moment when you realise a lot about yourself. It is also a moment, sadly, from which people do not always return, and their loss is something that I feel keenly every time I pause and reflect on my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I know that for the entire veterans community there will be a face that is in their minds when the Last Post is blown and the two minutes’ silence is followed. In communities across the country, there will be people who are remembered because they were there one month and then, six months later when their friends and comrades returned, there were no longer there. They were just a name on a war memorial. Those names are lives cut down in their prime and as we pause, over Remembrance Weekend and on Armistice Day today, let us never forget that they turned up at a recruiting office and embarked on their military careers, believing that what they were going to do would make a difference for our country and protect our freedom. They knew in the back of their mind that perhaps they might be called upon to give their life, but they hoped and even expected that it would never be them. Hundreds of thousands have answered our nation’s call and given their lives in doing so. We will remember them.
Before I call the spokesman for the Opposition, I thank the Minister for his brevity in his opening speech. It will be obvious that there are over 50 colleagues trying to catch my eye, and that we have only three hours for this debate. I therefore have to start with a time limit on Back Bench speeches of six minutes. That will be reduced later in the debate, and people who are further down the list must recognise the reality that they are unlikely to be called, but I am happy to call John Healey.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have to say that it is an honour to follow the Minister and his moving speech this afternoon, and I pay tribute to him for his four tours of duty and his decade of service in the Rifles, just as I pay tribute to the service that other hon. Members in all parts of this House have given to our armed forces. Parliament is all the better for Members who have committed service in the forces, and this House is also all the better for the service of Members who are committed to the forces. I look forward to the contributions to this afternoon’s debate of many of those hon. Members who are on the long call list.
As we did this morning in this Chamber, this is indeed the moment we commemorate the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when hostilities ceased in 1918. It is the focus of our national remembrance each year: the moment the nation comes together to honour those who have served, those who have fought to keep us safe, and above all, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice with their lives so that the rest of us may continue to enjoy the freedoms we do today. The Minister put it far more eloquently than many of the rest of us can, but the men and women who wear a British military uniform make a unique commitment to, if needed, put themselves in harm’s way to protect the rest of us. I want this day’s debate to recall not just the lives of those lost in the two world wars, but those of the 7,190 UK service personnel who have died in operations since 1945.
I was reminded of this on Sunday, when I, like the Minister, was proud to lay a wreath alongside the president of our local British Legion branch in Rotherham. His name is Ron Moffett; he served for more than 20 years in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and he talked to me of comrades he had lost in Northern Ireland, in the Falklands, in Afghanistan, and in Germany in training. I want my relatively brief remarks in this debate to concentrate on the ordinary servicemen and women: on their extraordinary sense of duty, and on our duty, in turn, to them.
The Minister was right to say that remembrance has a particular poignancy this year. During 2020, we have marked 75 years since the end of the second world war—VE Day and VJ Day—and 80 years since the battle of Britain, and we have all been forced to find new ways to remember: ways that are perhaps more private, but no less important and no less personal. This year, we have also seen the hallmark values that have been there in generations of our forces personnel come to the fore again, as our troops have stood alongside frontline workers in the fight against the covid virus. I have said to the Defence Secretary that during this new national lockdown in England and the national vaccination challenge ahead, if the Government are willing to make further use of our forces in this fight, they will have our full support and strong backing from the public. The system that we have of military assistance to civil authorities is sound. It has been used 341 times for covid help since mid-March and 41 agreements are still in place, but people want to know now what the plan is. They have a right to know, and they also have a right to regular ministerial reporting on such decisions. I say to the Minister that I hope he and his colleagues will do this, because it will also help better understanding and better support for our military.
The Chief of the Defence Staff was right when he said recently that this should worry us all. He said that the level of understanding about our armed forces is at “an unprecedented low.” That is borne out by research that the British Forces Broadcasting Service published in June, which confirmed that 68% of the population do not know what the military actually do when they are not in combat. One third had no idea that our military play a part in thwarting terrorism or dealing with the aftermath of floods, and 53% believe that they use battle tanks to get around on a daily basis.
The hon. Gentleman is harking back to the days when perhaps he did use battle tanks on a daily basis, but I think we are a little short of tanks to go round these days.
On a serious point, the number of veterans in society is set to fall by a third during this decade. It is clear to me that we must do more at all levels to reinforce our country’s understanding of and commitment to our armed forces.
On cadets, community cadet numbers have been falling and we cannot just rely on private schools. We can do more to reinvest in more community cadet forces. We now rely more on the professional expertise and skills of reservists, but the numbers are still below target, and we can do more to make recruitment better and employer support stronger.
On resilience, the covid pandemic has demonstrated that national resilience is an important part of national defence, and we can do more to strengthen Britain’s total deterrence, with large-scale joint civil, corporate and military exercises. On veterans, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs was a welcome step last year, but we can do more to make the UK the best place to be a veteran by enshrining the armed forces covenant in law. I say constructively and respectfully to the Minister that if the Government are willing to take those steps, they will have our full support to do so.
In this debate, we rightly celebrate the national pride we have in our military personnel, full-time and reservist. They are respected around the world for their professionalism and their all-round excellence, but I say again constructively and respectfully that if Ministers talk up our armed forces, they must also account for the declines there have been in the past decade or two. Since 2010, our full-time forces numbers are down by 40,000. Our military has never been smaller since we fought Napoleon 200 years ago. Forces pay is down, forces recruitment is down and forces morale is down. One in four military personnel now say they plan to quit before the end of their contract.
In 2015, the strategic defence review, in 89 pages, devoted just one and a half pages to personnel. Just like the 2010 defence review, it was largely a cover for cuts, which is why our armed forces are nearly 12,000 short of the strength promised in that 2015 review. It is why essential equipment, from new tanks to the radar system to protect our new aircraft carriers, is long overdue, and it is why our defence budget has a £13 billion black hole.
The Defence Secretary has rightly said that previous reviews
“failed because they were never in step with the spending plans”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 678, c. 647.]
Both sides of the House recognise that the Chancellor cut the ground from under the Defence Secretary when he postponed this year’s comprehensive spending review, but we also know that our adversaries will not pause. They confront us with continuous and constantly developing threats that no longer conform to any distinction between peace and war and are no longer confined to the land, sea and air domains of conventional warfare. So the Government’s integrated review is needed now more than ever.
As we move, as the Defence Secretary has put it, from “industrial age” to “information age” warfare, we must never neglect one fact: at the heart of our defence and security remain our forces personnel. Autonomous weapons, artificial intelligence and robotics will all become more and more widespread in the years ahead, but the essential utility of the men and women of our armed forces will remain central. Whether it is the frontline forces personnel doing city-wide covid testing in Liverpool or the special forces who took back control of the Nave Andromeda in the English channel last month, these are only the most recent reminders that although high-tech systems are essential, our highly trained British troops are indispensable. When the Chief of the Defence Staff launched our important new military doctrine, the military integrated operating concept, in September, he stressed that it
“emphasises the importance of our people—who have always been, and always will be, our adaptive edge.”
We honour them and we remember them.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. Defence is a subject that we do not discuss enough, so I suspect that, just as John Healey said, we will wander away from giving gratitude to those in the past and look at some future challenges. I am pleased to see my fellow Rifleman, the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend James Heappey, in his place. The whole House joins him in saying thank you to our gallant, brave warriors, who have defended our shores, skies and interests over the years. It is important that despite the pandemic, we are able to continue to say thank you.
We pay tribute to those in the past, whom we all appreciate. I recall sitting on my grandfather’s knee when he explained the first world war medals that he had been awarded. That created a bond with me that has never gone away. It perhaps influenced me in stepping forward, wanting to serve. That link between myself and those in the armed forces is different from that between society and our armed forces today, as our armed forces have shrunk. We have seen vivid illustrations of some perceptions of what they now do, so part of what we are doing today is about educating the next generation on the importance and value that we in Britain bestow on our armed forces, which is perhaps uniquely different from what happens in other countries around the world.
On the work that our armed forces do today—other Members have mentioned their immense contribution during the covid crisis—will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the British Army units based in Wiltshire, on Salisbury plain, in my constituency, which is of course the home of the British Army, despite what my hon. Friend Leo Docherty might like to say? Would my right hon. Friend also welcome, as I would, a welcome home parade, which might be organised by the Houses of Parliament, for soldiers once the covid crisis is behind us, to honour troops who have contributed to tackling it, just as we honour the contributions of troops who have been deployed overseas?
I am grateful for that intervention and I was pleased to see the Minister nodding as my hon. Friend was speaking. That is exactly what we did with troops returning from Afghanistan and it is another way to engage with the public. I do not dare go down this avenue too much, but in reporting the great work being done in Liverpool the BBC had to give a health warning to say, “You are about to see images of armed forces on the streets in Liverpool. Please do not be worried.” That is a testament to how much work we need to do to change the culture that is building up in this country.
On the pandemic, I am afraid that I do concur with the view, as I said yesterday, that, while the military is doing fantastic work across the country with regard to logistics, transport and so forth, it is an under-utilised asset when it comes to emergency planning, crisis management and strategic thinking. Some of the decisions that have been made by this Government have, I am afraid, been clunky. The best decision makers and strategists that we have are in the Ministry of Defence, yet there is not a military person to be seen in the quad, the top decision-making body dealing with this pandemic.
On the issue of veterans, which came up in Prime Minister’s questions, I simply underline the pressure that our service charities are currently facing. One fifth of them may go out of business by Christmas. They are not able to raise the funds that they need. We will be breaching the armed forces covenant unless we are able to provide that support. I hope the Prime Minister is listening. It is something that I raised at the Liaison Committee. It is so important to recognise that, from their own surveys, mental health issues have increased by 75% and loneliness by 70%. These are issues that we need to embrace and recognise.
We can all see that, internationally, we are in a very interesting place. We have a United States that is now waking up to recognise that it needs to improve its global leadership. We need to be in the room as that happens, because, over the past 10 years, there has been a demise in what the west stands for, what we believe in and what we are willing to defend and our wily adversaries, not least China, have taken advantage of that. We have not even had our integrated review yet. We do not even know what we stand for, what we believe in, and where we want to go. Please, Minister, and I know you believe this yourself, get that integrated review done. We cannot even work out how many tanks or aeroplanes we will have, let alone our going over to the United States to say that our thought leadership is the best in the world, our soft power is the best in the world. It will not take us seriously unless we complete that review and it is fully funded. I make the case—Madam Deputy Speaker, I can see that you are already looking at me in that way—that this is a day when we say thank you to our armed forces for the past and a day, I hope, when all of us will be resolute in defending, supporting and urging the Ministers on to say, “Let’s invest in the future of our armed forces”, so that we can be as proud of them in the future as we have been in the past.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Ellwood, the Chair of the Defence Committee. It is also an honour to speak in today’s debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. I want to start by placing on the record our grateful thanks to all service personnel for their commitment to defending these islands.
Like many other hon. Members, I marked Remembrance Sunday in my own constituency at the weekend. In Parkhead, the Eastern Necropolis includes the graves of 76 soldiers who died in the first world war and of 32 soldiers who died in the second world war. These 108 graves of soldiers serve as a reminder to me of the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to fight for us to live in a peaceful and tolerant society. Although these soldiers were laid to rest in Glasgow, many soldiers did not, of course, return home. A total of 134,712 Scottish men and women died in world war one. According to the most recent assessment, 26% of all Scots who went abroad in the war effort did not return to Scotland. We are unified in remembrance of the selflessness, heroism and the personal sacrifices endured by millions during and since world war one.
In remembering the horrors of the first and second world wars, we should reaffirm their commitment to peace, fairness and the rule of law. My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss is currently stuck in Committee at the moment so cannot be here, but she wanted to place on record her thanks to the Bridgeton Cross VC memorial group to remember Private Henry May who rescued two comrades under machine gun fire as well as others lost from the local community.
While remembering the past, we must also consider what support we currently provide for our service personnel and veterans across the UK, many of whom face an array of challenges from mental health to homelessness. I am privileged to have a top-class Scottish veterans’ residence complex in my constituency in Cranhill, and it is an honour for me to be wearing their tie for today’s debate. However, as politicians, it is our responsibility to ensure that when veterans return to civilian life in our communities, they are supported through this transition. We know that service personnel are more likely to suffer from problems surrounding mental health, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. Indeed, 6% of all ex-military personnel suffer from PTSD. Mental health support must be made readily available for all, without any judgment or stigma attached—I hear that message time and again at my bespoke veterans’ surgery in Cranhill. Last year, the No Homeless Veterans campaign identified 3,500 veterans who were experiencing homelessness, either sofa-surfing, living in temporary accommodation or even sleeping rough. As the SNP spokesperson for housing in this place, I believe it is important to highlight this ever-present issue and to ensure that no veteran experiences homelessness.
I commend what the hon. Gentleman is saying and thank the many local authorities that are putting veterans at the top of their list of people prioritised for council housing. Reading Borough Council has done so and I encourage other local authorities to do the same. It is important that we respect veterans in that way and provide them with the homes that they need once they have finished their service.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and commend the support that has been provided by Reading Borough Council. At this juncture, I also pay tribute to Phil Greene, formerly of Glasgow City Council in my own patch, who has done a sterling job on that issue as well.
Combat Stress, the UK’s leading mental health charity for former servicemen and women, found that service personnel were waiting until their 60s to receive help for alcohol and substance abuse. With understandable pride deterring former service personnel, many delay seeking the help that they need.
I am proud of all the work that the SNP-led Scottish Government are doing to support ex-service personnel across Scotland, including the appointment of the Scottish Veterans Commissioner—the first person to hold such a position in the UK. The Scottish Veterans Fund has been established to support projects that provide a wide range of advice and practical support to veterans across Scotland, and to support the creation of an armed forces union to be a voice for the wide range of interests, concerns and identities within the forces community. On that note, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes, who led the way with his ten-minute rule Bill on that subject.
On a personal note, I am proud to be a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, alongside the Royal Air Force. The scheme is led by Wing Commander Greg Smith and the programme has given me a unique window on the lives of service personnel and the challenges that they face as part of their service. When I went to RAF Leeming, it really struck me to see people operating drones from inside what was almost a metal tin. When I considered the intensity of the work that they were doing in there and the fact that they still go home to a normal civilian household, it really reaffirmed some of the challenges that our serving personnel face in the light of a changing landscape. It is important to understand the hardships faced by many veterans, both in service and in the return to civilian life. We should always look to ensure that every possible support is available to them.
As others have said, Remembrance Sunday has been very different this year. With covid-19 restrictions in place, we were not able to gather all together as a community to reflect and to remember all those who died in military service. However, we found ways to commemorate the fallen with private services, and landmarks across Scotland have been lit up red to raise awareness of the poppy appeal. It is right that Members put on the record their concerns about some of the funding for such organisations—indeed, Gordon Michie, head of fundraising at Poppyscotland said recently:
“This has been one of the most challenging years in the history of Poppy Scotland, but the breadth of landmarks and businesses involved in this campaign shows that Scotland still stands shoulder to shoulder with our country’s service personnel.”
During this Covid-19 public health crisis, it is important to recognise that the wars we fought decades ago did not eliminate conflict and suffering. Today, millions still suffer because of wars and atrocities, and societies are arguably more divided than ever, but we must all reflect on the lessons of the first and second world wars. In particular, Governments must remember that peace and tolerance must prevail over hatred and conflict. Everyone in this House must consider how we can use our influence to better prevent conflict from arising and better promote the compromise and dialogue that can lead to enduring peace, safety and fairness around the world.
While I laid my wreath at the Eastern Necropolis on Sunday, I thought of the thousands of other men and women who never returned home from war. The Scottish poet Neil Munro wrote:
“Sweet be their sleep now wherever they’re lying,
Far though they be from the hills of their home.”
We will remember them.
Because we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of world war two, I shall concentrate entirely on that conflict. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you are quietly but rightly proud of your father’s brave record of fighting in the second world war, but as the years and decades go by, fewer and fewer people have that sort of direct personal knowledge. In the limited time available, I would like to take one brief example from each year of the second world war, to try to humanise the picture a little bit for those who do not have the sort of personal connection that I just described.
Let us take, for example, November 1939. A converted passenger liner, HMS Rawalpindi, found herself trapped by two of the largest and most deadly ships in the German navy: the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. The captain of HMS Rawalpindi was Captain Edward Kennedy, who was 60 years old. He had come out of retirement after his service in the first world war and between the wars to re-enlist. Rather than surrender, he took on those two deadly ships, and the Rawalpindi, as was entirely predictable, went down with all flags flying and with few survivors. I am going to develop that theme, which is that many of these events are not necessarily successful, but that does not mean that they are not ultimately setting standards for inspiring their fellow service personnel, their comrades and future generations. They certainly inspired me.
We move forward from Captain Kennedy—who, incidentally, was father of the late Sir Ludovic Kennedy—to November 1940. In 1940, another converted passenger liner, HMS Jervis Bay, was escorting a convoy of nearly 40 ships. The Jervis Bay found herself standing between that convoy and the German pocket battleship the Admiral Scheer. The convoy was instructed to scatter, and Captain Fogarty Fegen, who was the commander of the Jervis Bay, steamed towards certain death and destruction and saved three quarters of the ships in that convoy. There was a time when the names “Rawalpindi” and “Jervis Bay” were known throughout the land, and it is important that we periodically remind ourselves of these inspirational examples where people sacrificed themselves doing the right thing, even though they knew they had little or no chance of survival.
On a happier note, we turn to May 1941, when HMS Bulldog is a member of a flotilla of anti-submarine escorts that bring to the surface the U-110. My late friend, the then 20-year-old Sub-Lieutenant David Balme, heads up a rowing boat of half a dozen sailors. They get on board the U-110 submarine, which has been forced to the surface. They go down, not knowing whether the submarine will blow up from scuttling charges or whether there are people waiting armed at the foot of the conning tower ladder as they climb down, unable to defend themselves. They recover the Enigma machine and the code books and thus make a vital contribution to the winning of the battle of the Atlantic.
Then we come back to the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. It is February 1942, and half a dozen clapped-out, obsolete Swordfish biplanes take on the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau as they sail up the English channel with enormous air cover. Of those six biplanes, all six were shot down. Five of the aircrew survived the operation and four survived the war, and one of them later became my friend: Pat Kingsmill DSO. He is typical of these people who did courageous acts that were on everyone’s lips at the time, but then went on to live quiet lives—in the case of Pat Kingsmill, as an administrator in the NHS for many years.
That is extraordinarily generous, but quite typical of the right hon. Gentleman.
We come to September 1943, and three midget submarines attack the German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord. Godfrey Place, the captain of the X7, escapes from his sinking submarine, and later becomes admiral in charge of reserves. Although he was a very important figure in the Royal Navy, he still had time to meet somebody like me—a schoolboy in Swansea, when he was there on a visit—and to autograph a book about submarine escape. These little gestures from truly great men inspire young people.
We come to the last two. The airborne assault at Arnhem in September 1944 was another disaster. But Tony Hibbert MC, who later became a friend of mine through my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, went on to work throughout many years, trying to argue for civil defence and protection for this country.
Finally, Operation Meridian—the raids on the oil refineries at Palembang in Sumatra—happened in January 1945. Norman Richardson—again, a friend of mine, who sadly passed away—was commemorated on the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the special edition of obituaries in The Daily Telegraph. He was a telegraphist air gunner. These were people who flew on a raid in January, when people in Sumatra were not expecting it, but they did not knock out all the oil refineries so they went back a few days later, when everyone was expecting them, and they did it again. They were shot down, but three quarters of Japan’s oil refining capability was lost to the Japanese war effort.
We remember them all.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and a particular pleasure to follow Dr Lewis.
I represent a seat in the city of Hull, which has a strong, proud and long association with our armed forces. We were also among the hardest hit during the blitz. But today I want to speak as a commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I am very pleased indeed that the Minister, in his opening remarks, talked about the commission, which commemorates 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women from the United Kingdom and all over the Commonwealth who died during the two world wars.
As hon. Members will know, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was founded as the Imperial War Graves Commission by royal charter on
The commission cares for the graves and memorials at 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories—on every continent except Antarctica. The commission also commemorates more than 68,000 civilians who died during the second world war, by maintaining and restoring sites such as the Tower Hill memorial. Funded by six partner Governments—the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India—the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is the largest gardening organisation in the world, with a total workforce of 1,300. The vast majority—more than 850—are gardeners, who between them look after the equivalent of almost 1,000 football pitches.
Our war dead deserve the highest standards, and hon. Members will know the quality of the Portland stone graves and the monuments that the commission oversees, as well as the beautifully tended cemeteries, such as the largest commission cemetery in the world at Tyne Cot in Belgium, with almost 12,000 graves, 8,300 of which are classed as “unknown”. I encourage all hon. Members, in their own constituencies and when travelling around the country or the world, to take the opportunity to visit commission sites. Encouraging the public to visit these graves also supplements the efforts of the excellent commission staff and the trained volunteers from the commission’s Eyes On, Hands On project, helping to report on and countering the effects of weather, wear and tear and, sadly, sometimes vandalism.
One restoration project I want to mention is at Runnymede. It is the Air Forces memorial, where the commission’s new charitable arm, the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation, marked International Women’s Day by launching a new interactive way to explore the story of the remarkable Noor Inayat Khan, a British woman spy whose code name was “Madeleine”. She was the first female wireless operator to be sent to occupied France in the second world war to aid the French resistance.
The commission also maintains an extensive and accessible archive of all the Commonwealth war dead on its website, and in recent years the commission has opened a new award-winning visitor centre as its French HQ near Arras. However, for this
I want to salute the work of many other organisations, including the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, in remembering our war dead and supporting veterans from many conflicts. Can I take a moment to express eternal gratitude to the veterans of all our allies across the Commonwealth and beyond, who ensured that we did not stand alone for long, particularly in 1940? They sacrificed so much, as together we liberated Europe and the world from what Prime Minister Churchill described as sinking
“into the abyss of a new dark age”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 362, c. 60.]
The United States, too, was shoulder to shoulder with us on those Normandy beaches and through the decades since—the years of the cold war and the more recent challenges of terrorism, especially since 9/11—and leading by the “power of our example”, as President-elect Biden said just this week.
To conclude, remembrance is both deeply embedded in our national consciousness and personal to all of us who had parents or grandparents in the greatest generation. We remember those who did not come back. We also remember those who did come back and helped to win the peace. I remember my dad, Eric Johnson, who joined the Navy, and my mum, Ruth, who worked in a munitions factory during world war two. In my experience, they rarely talked about what they did and what they went through as young men and women, and in enjoying peace, freedom and progress, we will always owe them everything.
“There are many kinds of sorrow
In this world of love and hate
But there is no keener sorrow
Than a soldier’s for his mate.”
That is very apposite for me today because I remember all the men who were killed under my command. In particular today, may I mention those killed at Ballykelly on
I was the incident commander. As I went into the wrecked building that was the Droppin Well, almost the first person I saw was a girl lying on the ground. I was horrified. Both her legs had gone, and an arm. I knelt down—horrified, again—and spoke to her: “Are you all right, darling?” She said, “I think so.” I said, “Are you hurting?” She said, “No.” I said to her, “How are you feeling?” She said, “I don’t know. What’s happened?” I said, “There’s been a bomb.” “Oh”, she said, “am I hurt?” I said, “You’re hurt.” She said, “Am I hurt very badly?” I said, “You’re hurt very badly.” She said, “Am I going to die?” Forgive me—I said, “Yes.” I could see no other way; there was blood everywhere. She said, “Am I going to die now?”, and I said, “I think you are.” She said, “Will you hold me?” I held her and she died within two minutes. I wept. She died in a state of grace. She was one of 17 killed that day.
It took me four hours to identify my six soldiers in the morgue of Altnagelvin Hospital. I went to their funerals in Cheshire—six funerals in five days, two on the Friday. At the second funeral, as I came out of St George’s church in Stockport, there was an old lady crying on the far side of the road. I crossed over. I was in uniform. I put my arm round her and I said to her, “Don’t worry—he’s out of his pain.” She said, “You don’t understand, young man.” I said, “I do understand”, because I felt inside my brain that I did understand— I was there when he died. But she read my brain—what I was thinking. She said, “No, you don’t understand. You see, I stood here when I was a little girl and watched 6th Cheshires”—I think it was 6th Cheshires; they were Cheshires—“march into that church, 900 of them. After the battle of the Somme they filled three pews. I am crying for them.” Then I understood.
One thousand, four hundred and forty-one soldiers, sailors and airmen—service personnel—died in Northern Ireland. That is more than in all the other conflicts together since, by 50%. You have to remember that.
I remember, too, my escort driver, Wayne Edwards, killed on
When I came here in 2010, I went into the Tea Room and a guy comes up to me and he says, “Nice to see you, Colonel—we haven’t met since Turbe.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I was in the Bosnian Croat army. I was a sniper.” I said, “The snipers shot Staff Sergeant Steve Bristow in the head. You were a sniper.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, that’s a turn-up for the books—you’re working in the House of Commons and I arrive here and you’re actually a sniper that’s shot one of my soldiers.” He said, “Yes.” But here is the point: he was a young man doing his duty, as he saw it. He was not a criminal; he was just doing what he thought was right.
When I think of Remembrance Day, I am not just thinking of the soldiers, sailors and airmen; I am thinking of the civilians. In my own constituency, 320 civilians were killed in the second world war—more than the servicemen from my own constituency. So I am thinking of them. I am particularly thinking of the civilians too. I am thinking of that girl—one of five killed on
At this time of national reflection, we remember all those who stood, who bravely volunteered, who served with valour, who fought bravely and heroically, and who died as heroes. They did that for all for us: for this land we call home and for the freedoms this nation has and I trust will always hold dear.
On the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we think particularly of the horrors of the first world war. My mind turns to the battlefields of France. As a daughter of Ulster, I pause to consider the sacrifice of those who left the factories and farmlands of my homeland, of Ulster soil, and who laid down their lives on the battlefields of the Somme. On
“I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the
Today, row after row of white headstones mark the sacrifice of these fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and friends. Many more headstones also stand in the Somme region and beyond Flanders fields. It is a solemn privilege to visit these bloodstained lands and to visit the iconic Ulster tower, which I might add is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year.
In today’s Northern Ireland, that sacrifice is still remembered. I have the privilege of working with a group called the Ancre Somme Association, a group of more dedicated people you will not find. Their aim locally is to ensure that our children and future generations are taught about the importance of remembrance. I think we can all take a lesson from that today.
I also want to commend the incredible work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We heard much of it from Dame Diana Johnson and we thank her for that. Its work in the building and upkeep of 23,000 cemeteries across the world ensures that 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the first and second world wars will not be forgotten. It is, quite simply, remarkable. When we visit the cemeteries, they are immaculate. That is a testament to the Commission, its staff and its amazing army of gardeners. They do amazing work.
At this time of remembrance, we do, of course, remember those who have laid down their lives in all conflicts. While my focus has been the great war, the sacrifice of those in world war two, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falklands and other conflicts is no less. Of course, as a representative of Northern Ireland, I also want to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Operation Banner.
Touching on Operation Banner, and recognising that it was the longest continuous deployment for the British Army, it is important to recognise that this debate arose from a petition. Of the top 10 constituencies across the country who supported this debate today, five were from Northern Ireland, including my own constituency, demonstrating the strength of feeling, regard, appreciation and admiration that people from Northern Ireland have for the service given to us.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for a point well made.
According to the Ministry of Defence, 1,441 serving members of the British armed forces died in Operation Banner, 722 of whom were killed in paramilitary attacks. One hundred and ninety-seven Ulster Defence Regiment officers and soldiers were killed between
While many of those who were left behind to mourn the loss of loved ones in world wars are now gone too, the tears still flow in many homes of those taken too soon during service in Northern Ireland. My thoughts are with them today, and our gratitude is forever with those who stood as a human shield against the terrorists who, by bomb and bullet, sought to destroy my country and my community. I reiterate my call to the Government today to protect those Northern Ireland veterans from vexatious prosecutions.
Having served for many years in Her Majesty’s armed forces, it is an honour to have been selected to participate in this significant debate and to hear that powerful recollection from my hon. Friend Bob Stewart. This year more than ever, as we reflect on those who sacrificed their lives in service to our nation, we come to recognise a familiarity whereby the very best in our community has come to the fore, demonstrating that service to others underpins our society.
Service in our constituency of Broxtowe is no new thing. We are proud to offer a home to Chetwynd barracks, a site that has played its part over the last century. In world war one, it was the site of the national shell-filling factory, operated by civilians, providing munitions in support of the western front. In July 1918, the site was levelled by a devastating explosion in which 139 people lost their lives and 250 were injured. It was the biggest loss of life in a single explosion in world war one.
I also want to take this opportunity to welcome Colonel Gavin Hatcher OBE to his position as Commander 170 Engineer Group and the Station Commander at Chetwynd. The barracks is home to the Royal Engineers of 170 Engineer Group, the Mission Training and Mobilisation Centre, Nottingham Troop, 721 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron Royal Logistic Corps, the Army and maritime reserves, 350 Squadron of 33 Engineer Regiment and HMS Sherwood.
170 Engineer Group provides technical infrastructure specialist support to defence both at home and abroad, including most recently on Op Rescript, with support to the construction of the Nightingale hospitals and the wider testing capacity. I wish those currently deployed success in their endeavours and a safe return home to their families and Chetwynd. The Mission Training and Mobilisation Centre has been responsible in the last 10 years for training those individual augmentees who have gone to Iraq or Afghanistan in a regular reserve and civilian capacity, some of whom have not returned. In this time of crisis, we have perhaps been granted a new perspective of the 75th anniversary of the second world war. To my eye, we have been awarded the opportunity to see precisely that the liberties for which they fought are more valuable than we may ordinarily appreciate and that the debt we owe them is even greater than we may have previously assumed.
These uncertain times are incredibly testing for us all and we have had to adapt quickly to ensure that we are able to continue our lives with some normality while keeping as safe as possible. It is services such as the armed forces that have been integral to allowing that to happen. So in this time of need we must show the armed forces community that we have their back, just as they have ours. I can sum it up no better than to say, “We will remember them.”
It is a privilege to have time in this debate and to follow so many powerful speeches. It is a very important time to pay tribute to the men and women who served our country past and present and to their very enormous sacrifices made in defence of the freedoms we all enjoy today. It is always humbling to attend Remembrance events; I did so this weekend in Newport and across my constituency. I thank all those involved in ensuring that events could go ahead this year safely in the unique and challenging circumstances of the pandemic. While services were different on this occasion, they were no less poignant, especially with this year marking the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk and the battle of Britain and the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war. So I pay tribute to all those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We remember them today. I also thank the charities, Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes and, in Newport, Newport Veterans, for all that they do locally to support veterans.
I also pay tribute to and record our appreciation for another group that played a hugely important role in both world wars and subsequent conflicts: the merchant navy. The history of the city of Newport as a key south Wales port is intricately linked with seafaring, and the close ties with the merchant navy are part of that. Nationally, the Merchant Navy Association, led with enthusiasm and passion by its chair, John Sail, who is stepping back this year after years of service, and its president, Vivien Foster, has done tremendous work to raise awareness of the dedication of seafarers over the past century, and supports those who are still with us. Its annual commemoration, Merchant Navy Day on
The sacrifices were significant. At the outbreak of the first world war, 43% of the world’s merchant ships—some 20 million tonnes gross—was owned and operated by Britain. Those ships brought food and raw materials, and exported industries’ output to the world, including gold and steel from south Wales. Germany regarded the cutting-off of Britain’s trade routes as a vital means to victory, with the submarine becoming its principal weapon. The policy of unrestricted warfare meant that merchant navy ships were at constant risk of attack. The threat was not fully countered until the introduction of the convoy system in May 1917. None the less, German U-boats sank 6,924 allied ships—almost 13 million tonnes gross, with the loss of more than 14,600 merchant seafarers by the end of the war in 1918.
As we know, the role of the merchant navy was no less hazardous in the second world war, with convoys in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and elsewhere. Four thousand seven hundred British flagships were sunk, and more than 29,000 merchant seamen died, with a higher proportion of fatalities than all other services. Of those who perished, 442 were from Gwent and among them was 14-year-old Raymond Steed from Newport, who was killed onboard the SS Empire Morn when the ship was hit by a U-boat mine off the coast of Morocco. He was the youngest services recruit from Wales to die in the second world war, and the second youngest in Britain. There is no doubt that the efforts of the merchant navy in the second world war helped to keep the country going and enabled other services to operate. We should remember their bravery and importance. The hazards and risks that today’s merchant seamen and women face have changed, but they still exist.
It is important to emphasise that during times of past conflict, merchant sailors lived particularly harsh lives. They faced the terror of submarines every day, many lost close friends to torpedo attacks, and many were killed or wounded. The psychological trauma faced by merchant navy veterans cannot be understated. We have never had a full picture of the undiagnosed incidence of PTSD among merchant navy seafarers, and I hope that we can do more to look at this. I want to finish by saying how proud I am to represent a city with a rich seafaring tradition, and highlight the gratitude that we owe to them, alongside all those in our armed forces. It is a service that will remain a central part of our act of remembrance and debate.
Today, we remember all those who died in war. As we peer into the gaslit world of the great war or seek to look behind the blackout curtains of 1940s Britain, we realise that we follow two generations of giants. Many families have fathers and mothers, uncles and aunts, grandfathers and great grandfathers who died in battle that we might live in peace. They died in great fear of tyranny and their immediate circumstances that we might be free. They died for our country, so we can be proud of what they did. Some may seek to use powerful new search- lights of history to change the picture they want to see or to play this down, but nothing can change who they were, what they did, nor the principles they carried to victory.
Today is a day for patriotism: that quiet, confident patriotism that characterises our country at its best; the patriotism that comes from being at peace with what those generations did and with the causes they fought. Our country does not go in for brash, aggressive nationalism, asserting ourselves by doing down others.
The unknown soldier was rightly honoured by king and country all those years ago in recognition that the world war was an immense strain on all, at home or at the front. It required the most enormous super-human efforts of everyone. The whole country was at war, not just the armed forces and the politicians. The best way we can be true to their memory is to enjoy the freedoms they left us. We can best pursue the path of peace with vivid memories of how, after war ends, the talking begins to reconcile the differences. We must learn from the failure of the great war to end the European conflict. We can best uphold the sacred candle of free speech, turning conflicts into exchanges of passionate words, not bombs and bullets. We can best uphold the right of everyone to a vote and a voice in a democratic society and uphold the right of small as well as large states to self-determination.
So let us vow today that, in this precious debating Chamber we enjoy, we will work to ensure that we will seek to talk and vote our way through our differences. Let us pray our country is not called again to perform the heroic and brave tasks we remember today. Now that states have so much greater power to kill and harm people than they did even a century ago, let us trust in democracy and freedom.
We have had to fight far too many wars. Today, we need a strong defence to keep us safe and to increase the chances of peace. The great war did not turn out to be the war to end all wars, though that was the promise. That was the hope of many in our nation, so let us today vow to find a way to bring us nearer to that most crucial of ambitions.
On this particularly solemn day, it is also important that we have in our thoughts and prayers the people affected by the terrible and cowardly bomb attack at a Remembrance Day service in Saudi Arabia this morning, including British diplomats there. It is a terrible and despicable act at a time of remembrance.
I attended the quieter than usual, but no less significant, remembrance service in Penarth at the weekend, when I thought not only of my constituents and my constituency’s connections to all branches of our armed forces—and indeed the merchant navy, which my hon. Friend Jessica Morden spoke about—but about my own family, as many of us do at the time of remembrance.
I thought of my grandfather James, who served in the 1st Airborne Division. He was shot and wounded at Arnhem and taken prisoner of war. I thought of my great grandfather Peter, who was in the Somme with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and Ernest, who was in the Royal Field Artillery. I thought of my grandfather Harold, who served with the US army at the Bulge. It is particularly important that this week we recognise the connections between our countries at that time of war, how we fought tyranny in Europe and would do so again. I also thought of my father, who during the cold war served for 16 years with the Royal Signals in Germany, with so many others. They are a generation who perhaps we have not recognised in the way we should for their service and ultimately their willingness to put themselves on the line in what could have been a nuclear apocalypse. That is certainly what many who were serving on the frontlines in Germany during the cold war expected.
Over the past few years, I have visited the Somme, Normandy and many other locations, including some with my hon. Friend on the other side, Bob Stewart. It was so powerful to hear his words. He and I have spoken many times about his experiences. I have travelled to Bosnia and to battlefields with him, and they have been some of the most moving and affecting times that I have spent while a Member of this House.
I remember the work of those fantastic veterans’ charities in my constituency. I think of the work of the Royal British Legion. I have spent time with organisations such as Woody’s Lodge, which was set up in honour of Paul Woodland, a former member of the Royal Marines and the Special Boat Service who sadly lost his life on a training exercise in 2012 before he was due to be redeployed to Afghanistan. Woody’s was originally located in my constituency, but is now located in the constituency of Alun Cairns. It does remarkable work in our communities, as does the Welsh Veterans Partnership. David Price, a former Welsh Guard who served in the Falklands, leads the work there with other veterans to ensure pathways to housing and support in our communities. He rightly advocates powerfully on behalf of veterans, for example, on issues related to the transition from military to civilian life—he would argue that the MOD needs to look more at working with smaller veterans’ charities in that—but also the rules around housing benefit, universal credit and how our benefits and support systems often do not work for veterans. He also works on the need for more specialist attention for those who have been medically discharged and need support from the Department for Work and Pensions and others.
I think about the contribution of the armed forces overall to Wales. A number of us spoke in a debate specifically on that in February this year. I think of our Army connections through the Royal Welsh, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the Welsh Cavalry and the Welsh Guards and their locations locally. I think of the proud traditions they all have. It has been a privilege for me to spend time with them at commemorative and training occasions over the past few years.
I think of our Navy connections and our Royal Marines connections. HMS Cambria, our fantastic new facility located in Cardiff Bay, was previously in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan. I think of our strong connections with the Royal Air Force, particularly St Athan, just down the road, and Guy Gibson, formerly of the Dambusters, 617 Squadron, who spent time in Penarth in my constituency.
I think also of our merchant navy traditions, and someone like Harold Boudier, who served on their Arctic convoys. He is now 94, and he proudly told me how he remembers VE Day in Scapa Flow. He still has the pint glass that he drank from in celebration on that day. He takes it to the pub every Remembrance Sunday to remember those whom he served with in incredibly difficult circumstances.
Most importantly, I remember today our active armed forces personnel serving around the world, particularly those serving in the locations we often do not hear about, such as in Africa, including our service personnel in Mali, those who played a role in peacekeeping in South Sudan, those on training missions, those in Somalia and elsewhere, and those who responded to the Ebola outbreak so bravely and incredibly in Sierra Leone.
I think of those who, as has been spoken about, serve on the domestic front in our covid response. I had the honour of seeing our forces training as part of Operation Temperer a number of years ago for scenarios just like this. As was said earlier by the Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Ellwood—he is no longer in his place—they are some of the best planners, the best experts and some of the most dedicated people. They are exactly who we should have leading this response, particularly now as we roll out a vaccine. I pay tribute to all that they do.
We will remember. We will remember all those aspects of our armed forces, past and present.
It is a privilege to pay tribute to all those who served and are serving in the armed forces, whether in conflicts or peacekeeping duties around the world. It is appropriate that I follow my neighbour, Stephen Doughty, as we have many common interests because of the interconnectivity of our constituencies. All the individuals we have referred to are heroes to us all and deserve our respect and greatest support. I had the privilege of visiting the Welsh Guards in Afghanistan two years ago. It was humbling to see them in action and to see the risks they were exposed to on a daily basis and the conditions in which they lived to act in our interests.
Before I come to the main theme about the footprint of the armed forces across our Union, I want to recognise the charities that support service personnel and veterans in my constituency, whether the cadets and the leaders of those cadets associations who provide leadership and training to young people, or the mentoring charity Woody’s Lodge, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It was started following the tragic death of Special Boat Serviceman Paul Woodland by his widow, Sian, and a team of supporters led by David Trotman.
Last Sunday, there were services throughout the many villages, towns and cities across the country, and my constituency was no different. More services will have taken place today. I pay tribute to those who organise events, raise money, fly standards and support veterans in so many ways throughout the year. They are all heroes—from the Royal British Legion, with Teresa Goodwin and Jimmy Green, who helped organise the service in Barry last Saturday, to Terry and Margaret McKeown and Howard Provis, who travel the country throughout the year to fly the Barry RAFA standard, and the late, great Bryan Foley, who was the cornerstone of such activities in the past, linking the Royal British Legion right through to scouting organisations. We salute them all for their service and for the work they always do and always have done.
My main theme relates to the footprint of the armed forces, their significance in defending, representing and sustaining the Union of the UK, and the link that they provide to our communities. When we think of symbols that reflect our Union, the armed forces are central. Through history, they have defended our liberty and maintained our freedom across all four nations, making the greatest of sacrifices in our interests. They play their full part in the fight against terrorism, wherever that may be, from cathedral cities such as Salisbury through to attacks and threats in all four nations of the UK, to combating the international terror threat, just as I saw in Afghanistan.
It is also relevant that, in the same way that they represent all four nations, the armed forces are made up from all communities and that their footprint reflects that. I am hugely proud that Wales, with 5% of the UK’s population, makes up 7% of the Army. Similarly, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland contribute with their garrisons, nuclear bases, RAF runways, training grounds and specialist centres. Communities play their part, too, often welcoming the disruption that it sometimes brings for them. Farmers in Wales make their land available for training, the Brecon Beacons are well known, and the mountains of Snowdonia are used for flying exercises.
I say gently to the Minister that those factors need to be remembered when reviewing basing is under consideration. Operational need must always come first, but decisions about basing cannot be made outside the context of the armed forces’ Union make-up and the communities that they support and recruit from. I am not asking for a quota; I simply ask that recognition of the armed forces’ geographical make-up is part of any base review. That would help them maintain a UK relevance with communities and would play a part in recruitment and retention, with people considering their sacrifices to be closer to the family.
St Athan in my constituency was designated as the primary Army site in Wales. The re-establishment of that Army site has not been as logical as I would have liked. There is a need for the Welsh Government and the MOD to come together to resolve the situation, reflecting the history but also looking forward to the challenges that we will have in the future.
Our annual remembrance services and traditions, from the laying of wreaths to the wearing of poppies, must be permanent in the life of our nation, even as those who lived through those wretched times leave us, for we must continue to remember—remember what prices were paid and remember what sacrifices we still demand of the men and women of our armed forces.
Like other Members, I see these moments through the stories of those from my constituency who died, including the 623 men of Kingston borough who died in the great war, the 6,000 officers and men of our former local regiment, the East Surrey Regiment, who were killed, and Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, a Canadian-British pilot who grew up in New Malden in my constituency. His Lancaster bomber was severely damaged by anti-aircraft flak prior to arrival at his target on
There have been many wars in our country’s history, across many centuries, but the first and second world wars stand out for the dreadful death tolls and for what was at stake. They also stand out for another reason. Those wars touched the lives of every non-combatant: not only the families who were bereaved but the whole country, whose lives were on hold for the duration of the conflict. Whether or not they were directly involved in the war effort, they had to live with the restrictions, the rationing, the lights out and the wide-scale suspension of liberty as people collectively fought to preserve their freedoms.
It would be crass and wrong to draw direct parallels between the deprivations we are now suffering during this pandemic and the sacrifices and hardships that those millions suffered for years during those bloody wars, but we can learn lessons and perhaps draw some comfort, even inspiration, from them, not least because this pandemic is also affecting everyone. It has forced millions of people across our country and across our world to take a stand and do their bit, and while this pandemic is different in so many ways, we need that collective courage and discipline to beat the virus.
Today, we rely especially on people serving on the modern frontline: those working in our hospitals and the careworkers in our care homes. They are today’s civilian heroes. We also rely on some very clever people, such as our amazing scientists, to find a solution. They are part of the amazing international effort to find a vaccine to shorten the life of the pandemic, like some modern-day Alan Turing and the amazing people who served at Bletchley Park who shortened the second world war. Today’s enemy may be invisible, but it is deadly and it is impacting the everyday lives of millions.
Over the years when I have paid my respects at war memorials, my own personal thoughts have been influenced by my nana’s wartime stories. It was my granddad who went to fight in the Army, driving lorries in north Africa and Italy, but my nana, left at home to look after my mother, was also profoundly impacted by the war. It is her stories of looking after evacuees from London’s east end that have, for some reason, always stuck with me. She told stories of how she had to give up her own rations to feed and care for not only her own children—my mother—but the children of strangers, of how she took up smoking to calm her nerves and of her 10-mile cycle ride to the factory making radios for the submarines her younger brother, my Uncle Sam, was serving on. When my grandmother died, aged 90, I was so proud that in the congregation of 12 were two of her evacuees, who had come to say thank you. We are inspired by all their service.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and especially to follow the brilliant, eloquent speeches that we have had so far this afternoon. Over the years, I have been privileged to observe Armistice Day and the two-minute silence in some unique and special places. Twelve years ago, as part of the team that organised the 90th anniversary of the great war, I was at the Cenotaph with Harry Patch, Henry Allingham and Bill Stone, the three remaining veterans of that awful conflict. I defy anyone who was there that day or remembers watching it on TV not to have been moved by the sight of Henry Allingham, who was determined to lay his own wreath at the foot of the Cenotaph to pay tribute to his fallen comrades but was sadly unable to do so.
In 2015, I was with colleagues who worked with me at the European Parliament in Loos in northern France on a cold, grey northern French morning as the gloom lifted upon row upon row of British gravestones in the cemetery, many of which were marked “Known unto God”. We witnessed the residents of that town paying tribute to the British soldiers, 7,766 of whom gave their lives at that battle. Many of them were from the north-east of Scotland and Tayside. They fell in defence of that town for their country and for the freedom of France and its allies.
Of course, I think of my great-uncle Samuel Coyle who, at 19 years old, a young lad who had never left Greenock in his life, fell at Gallipoli and lies buried alongside 600 other British and Commonwealth soldiers at the Pink Farm cemetery in Turkey. We often focus very much on the sacrifices made by the generation of world war one and world war two, but this weekend I was struck that we should, of course, also be thinking of the guys and girls who served in our armed forces much more recently. It struck me that, barely six years after British troops withdrew from Helmand province in Afghanistan and the end of that operation, the sacrifices made by the men, women and service families much more recently are, if not being forgotten, already fading from public consciousness.
I will not forget, nearly every morning in those awful days of 2007-08, being at Dartmouth or Portsmouth, on deployment overseas or, indeed, here in London, opening a newspaper or turning on the news to read yet another name or hear about another cortège passing through Royal Wootton Bassett. I remember while based at RAF Uxbridge remarking to an oppo of mine as we watched the festival of Remembrance how sad it was that the war widows’ procession, which when I was much younger had been predominantly made up of widows from the world war two generation, was much more the families of young men and women of my age.
Although life in the rest of the country went on pretty much as normal, as we fretted about the financial crisis, the coalition Government or preparations for the Olympics, our young boys and girls were under fire and were prepared to give their lives for our country and for us in a foreign field. We should never forget them or those men and women who should still be here with us today, who might otherwise be standing in the House today or walking among us in the streets.
This debate is titled “Remembrance, UK Armed Forces and Society,” and one of my earliest and clearest memories is as a seven-year-old going out with all my primary school to watch the Gordon Highlanders parade through Inverurie, a town Madam Deputy Speaker knows well, to mark their disbandment and amalgamation with the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders to form 1st Battalion, the Highlanders, which subsequently became the Highlanders, 4th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland—4 Scots. In this identity, they have seen tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I remember so many people being sad about that 200-year-old local link ending—the link to the north-east of Scotland, the unique, beautiful and fiercely independent part of Scotland where the regiment was proud to come from. The finest regiment in the world, as Winston Churchill called it, had come to an end.
The north-east is not unique in feeling that. Every area feels an attachment to its local regiment, and every area feels a deep sense of loss when the British Army, as it has throughout its history, goes through a reorganisation and modernisation process and merges, disbands, renames or moves regiments. However, there is a danger in removing that local link and taking the Army, or the Navy or Air Force for that matter, out of a local community, shrinking the size and therefore the visibility of the defence footprint across the country for whatever economic, strategic or political reason, that we run the risk of removing our armed forces, the men and women, from public consciousness and their becoming out of sight and out of mind.
I represent one of the biggest constituencies in the country. It covers Aberdeenshire, the fourth largest county in Scotland. Between Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, we have a population of 490,000 people and cover an area of 6,498 square miles. We have not one regular Army, Navy or Air Force presence. It is incumbent on all of us, as we mark Remembrance Day today and go about our lives from now on, to remember the men and women of the armed forces serving today. Although they are not physically present in all the communities where they used to be, we should make sure they are ever present in our thoughts as we move forward throughout the rest of the year.
I begin by declaring an interest as a trustee of the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation and a former Commonwealth war graves commissioner. I also join other hon. and right hon. Members in their recognition of the sacrifice made by those who died in the service of their country, and I pay tribute to the members of our armed forces who serve us today.
I particularly thank Bob Stewart for his contribution to the debate. Although he sits on the Government Benches, I consider him a good friend. He did the House a service with his recollection, which must have been very difficult for him, so I thank him for that.
The annual act of remembrance is a relatively modern concept. It is only 100 years today that the first Armistice Day, with the interment of the Unknown Warrior and the two-minute silence, began. Next year will see 100 years of the poppy appeal. Prior to that, the involvement of this country in war was mainly recognised by the battles that we fought, and their names litter towns and villages across our nation. It was the first world war that galvanised the country in its remembrance, partly because it was the first war fought as a conscription nation. The public came together to start that act of annual remembrance, which I hope will go on for many centuries to come.
History is often written in terms of great events and the great men of history, but I think it should be about the individual, because—as the hon. Member for Beckenham eloquently said—these events are about individuals. It is important to remember those individuals, whether it is Will Lawson—the brother of one of my predecessors, Jack Lawson—who died at Ypres in 1915; or Sergeant Steven Campbell from Pelton in my constituency who was killed in Afghanistan in March 2010; or Nathan Cuthbertson, a 19-year-old who died in 2008 and whose parents I had the privilege of meeting when I was a Defence Minister. It is important to remember each and every one of them.
Remembrance is not about the glorification of war; it is about recognising the sacrifice and remembering, as John Redwood said, the reasons we need peace. There is a challenge for us all—as Mr Ellwood mentioned—because, as our armed forces have contracted and the second world war generation slowly pass away, our connections with the armed forces become more remote. That is why it is more important that we keep that link, and I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion and the service charities that not only make sure we remember but support those who have been affected by war.
Along with my hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson, I thank the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I was a commissioner for eight years and it was a great privilege to work with those men and women who work tirelessly throughout the world to ensure that people who gave their lives in the service of this country are remembered. The foundation of which I have the privilege of being a trustee is trying to ensure that those memories continue for future generations. As I say, it is not about glorification but about making sure that we remember. As time goes by, we need to ensure that remembrance continues, not just from the first and second world wars but, as has been openly said in this debate, of all those who have lost their lives through conflict.
I agree that it is very important to remember more recent conflicts, for example the Falklands. Will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising a very positive moment today? It is nearly 40 years since the Falklands conflict, and while we remember those who lost their lives in that conflict, we recognise the work of those who have been de-mining. Today, the Falkland Islands celebrates the fact that mines have been completely removed. The conflict lives on not only in those who suffered and died, but in its physical impact, and it is great that that has now been removed from the Falkland Islands.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I have had the privilege of visiting the Falkland Islands on several occasions. We could ask anyone who goes to, for example, San Carlos and sits in the cemetery there. There is no more spiritual place in the world that I have been in terms of the honour and dedication given to those individuals for whom it is their last resting place.
Today is about reflection and keeping the memory of those individuals’ lives; it is about making sure we do not forget them. It is also important to remember what our servicemen and women are doing today on our behalf to preserve the way of life which we wake up every morning and take for granted, but we know is incredibly fragile in the very uncertain world of today.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Jones,who speaks tirelessly in support of our military. I am compelled to mention the moving speech by my hon. Friend Bob Stewart. As he knows, I have an enduring connection with the 22nd Cheshire Regiment, and I particularly recall its peacekeeping role in the Balkans.
Remembrance Sunday in Wrexham was very different this year to any other, but we continued with a covid-safe service. I salute and commend the Royal British Legion, Wrexham County Borough Council and Wrexham.com for their can-do attitude in ensuring that this poignant event, held at the Royal Welch Fusiliers memorial, went ahead and was made accessible to as many people as possible through a live link. From this Wrexham veteran, I say thank you to them and to all the service charities that support Wrexham, including the veterans breakfast club, the Royal Artillery Association, Homes for Veterans Cymru and the Gresford British Legion, which provides a meeting place where veterans can have a pint, a chat, a game of dominoes and gain valuable peer support.
I was a solider back in the ’80s and ’90s when women joined a specific corps within the three services. I was in the Women’s Royal Army Corps and I am pleased to say that the military has moved on at pace. Today, around 13% of our reserve and regular armed forces are women—that is nearly 21,500 women in military uniform. Back in 1990, only 40% of jobs open to men were open to women, but now women can undertake any role in the armed forces, including that of fast jet pilots, submariners and special forces and frontline combat roles. Nothing is barred and we now have parity of the sexes. A great milestone has been reached. It is a success that we see parity and equality of opportunity for women in the military, and our veterans have been helped by the introduction of a covenant, the railcard and the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to stop vexatious claims.
Despite the positive advancements for women in the military and for female veterans, there are still issues to address, ranging from obstacles to career progression to a lack of economic activity when back in civvy street. This is causing problems not only for the operational effectiveness of our military, but for female recruitment and retention.
It is an honour to sit on the Defence Committee with colleagues from across the House and we realise the great improvements that have been made for and by women in the armed forces. However, the fact remains that women continue to be over-represented in the service complaints system. While there are now great opportunities, the journey to success is often paved with discrimination, harassment and bullying. While the door to equality has been opened across the House, we must make sure that those doors are not shut by the ingrained laddish culture of the military. The words “laddish culture” are not mine; they were the words used by the Chief of the Defence Staff to acknowledge that there is a problem.
As a response, the Defence Committee has proposed to run a Sub-Committee, which I hope to chair, looking at the experiences of women in the military—those serving and veterans. This will provide a platform for women to talk about their experiences, including the positives, so that we can champion what a great career the military is, and the negatives, so we can rectify and ensure that future generations of women in uniform have total equality in practice, as well as in theory.
The problems faced by serving women and veterans have not happened on one Government’s watch. They have evolved over decades, from Aden to Afghanistan, and it is all our duty to acknowledge and support a cultural change as we go forward. Britain has a global reputation to uphold—a reputation for equality, fairness, honouring our troops and looking after our veterans. We can and should do something about the problems faced by women in the military and the culture that they are subjected to. I, and I know many of my colleagues, will do all we can to ensure that the voices of military women and veterans are heard.
It is a pleasure to follow Sarah Atherton, who clearly has so much knowledge about life in the services. Today is an important day to pay tribute to our armed forces for their service and ultimately their sacrifice, for the conflicts they have fought and for the work they have done throughout the world to preserve peace and to combat Ebola in Sierra Leone and other countries, and for the important civil work that they have done, not least on our islands with covid-19.
Sunday was not a normal Remembrance Sunday. It was important that we paid our respects, as always, to show our gratitude. Normally, it would be an opportunity to meet veterans such as Len, Stuart or Paul, as I would have done last year to talk about some of their experiences, or even Rusty, who is now getting very old but is one of our great, gallant airmen of yesteryear. In Warwick, we would normally see hundreds of people around the war memorial, honouring the 358 men and one woman from Warwick who died in the great war, and the subsequent 112 who lost their lives in world war two. We would see the march past the war memorial and hear the sound of the local bagpiper, Andy Wheeler, and the last post played by a bugler from Warwick School. In Leamington, there are 550 names on the war memorial from the first war, and many hundreds following from the second war and subsequent conflicts—all courageous, all gallant. Among those names, there are recipients of the Victoria Cross: Lance-Corporal William Amey, Captain Arthur Kilby, Lieutenant John Cridlan Barrett, and perhaps most significantly Private Henry Tandey, the most decorated British private soldier of the first war, who in the space of six weeks in the autumn of 1918 was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal, a Military Cross and the Victoria Cross.
However, I want to recognise his near neighbours, just down Kenilworth Street from where he grew up: the Tims brothers, Fred, William and Jack, all lost in the same conflict. I want to remember in particular their mother Esther and so many families who lost so many. The strength of feeling was best illustrated by Warwick Poppies in 2018—62,500 hand-knitted poppies decorated our church at St Mary’s in Warwick. The scale of loss is perhaps best illustrated by a map produced by the Leamington history group that showed every household across the town that had suffered a loss in the great war. It was virtually every house in those terraces in the centre of Leamington, and some of those houses had multiple stickers. That map showed how communities were literally decimated: so many towns, villages and cities, if they had maps, would show the same.
My right hon. Friend Mr Jones was right to say that we should think about the individual. All of us will have lost family in those wars and in subsequent conflicts, perhaps relations in this country or from other Commonwealth nations. This is perhaps illustrated, if I may, by my own great-uncle Clarke Duff, who in 1915 left the farm in Ontario, Canada to fight in Flanders fields, but would sadly never till a field again.
We have much to be thankful for, and so many to thank, including those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice in subsequent conflicts. I thank the Royal British Legion for its work, and particularly Tony Glover and Pat Edgington for the extraordinary work they do in raising so much money locally. I also thank other charities for their work: Help for Heroes, and people like Michael Vallance and Charlie Sabin, and the Royal Air Forces Association, and people like Patrick Fitzgerald and Dave Brown.
Finally, can we remember and think of all those who were left behind and lost so much of their lives? I am thinking of the families and loved ones: people such as Esther Tims, who I mentioned, for whom life can barely have been worth living, and those friends of my parents—all women, who we referred to as aunts—whose boyfriends never returned and who would never marry, but would live with the loss all their life. These are the people I wish to remember and pay tribute to.
When the guns stopped in 1918, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the curtain effectively fell on the most devastating world war we have ever seen. I have never understood why we call it the “great war”, because there is nothing great about warfare whatsoever, but it may just be that the greatness refers to those who fought in such appalling conditions and gave so much. Exactly 100 years ago today, the unknown warrior was interred at Westminster Abbey, and the poppy is still worn with pride by so many people today as a memory of the appalling circumstances of Flanders fields and elsewhere.
Today, many wars later, Armistice Day is commemorated by so many people, but for different reasons. For world leaders, politicians and dignitaries, it is about marking democracy—marking the freedoms we have, and the sacrifices that were made. For veterans groups, it is about coming back together in solidarity to mark their service and their comrades. For veterans like me, it is about thinking back on former colleagues, friends and soldiers, many of whom are no longer here with us today. For families, it is about handing medals down and wearing them with pride. For the rest of us, it is simply about saying thank you.
One of the most poignant experiences of my life took place last summer, in June, at the D-day 75 commemoration in Portsmouth. It was a spectacular, magnificent event that had everything: royalty, Presidents, Chancellors and Prime Ministers; fantastic fly-pasts; ships in the Solent; and brilliant stage shows. But for me it was all about those wonderful veterans, resplendent in their immaculate uniforms, polished boots, polished medals and shiny brass. The twinkle in their eye was matched only by the brilliance of the sunshine.
Talking to these heroes, these living legends in their 90s and 100s, two things really struck me. The first was a sense of fuss, as they wondered, “Why all the fuss? Why are the Government and all these nations going to so much trouble for us?” They had a sense of bewilderment, as they thought, “We were just doing our job.” Funny thing that, they did their job and fantastically so. Bizarrely, they also had a sense of shame. When I scratched the surface with many of these fantastic people, I found it was a sense of shame that they had lived long and fulfilling lives whereas so many of their friends and comrades never came home. That is exactly why we remember these important events on Armistice Day. We do so to pay homage to those who have gone before and to those whom we owe so much.
Before I finish, I wish to make some quick points that I believe are relevant to today. First, I was proud earlier this year to introduce the Desecration of War Memorials Bill to this House with my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis, a good friend of mine. It is absolutely right that we bring that legislation into law. Secondly, the Government, in their 2019 manifesto, were clear that they wanted to bring the armed forces covenant into statute. I absolutely endorse and support it, and look forward to the Bill coming to this House in January or February next year. I will be supporting it, as will the all-party groups, I am sure.
Lastly, I am clear in my mind that when someone serves as a soldier in this country—when they wear the uniform, bear arms, serve the Crown and go on operations—they are British, wherever they come from. I want to make the point right now: this nonsense about visa fees for Commonwealth soldiers must stop. I also hope that we can be magnanimous in giving an amnesty to our Fijian friends who still suffer today. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here, after many years of service, and I thank all of those who have gone before.
It is an honour to follow James Sunderland, and I join him in hoping that we can achieve an amnesty for the Fijian soldiers, who have suffered from bureaucracy and have lost out greatly as a result. It is also an honour to follow Bob Stewart, whose contribution was moving indeed.
I joined the service in Roehampton on Sunday. It was small but moving service at the memorial on Putney heath, where we remembered the names of all those who had died during the wars. I also remembered the loss in my own family. There is a sadness at the heart of my family, which stems back to a moment in 1915, when a military wife, my great-grandmother, stepped off a boat. She was six months pregnant, she had a two-year-old and she was going home to Ireland to give birth to her child. As she stepped off that boat, she was given a telegram that told her that her husband had died. He had died in battle in Ahwaz, in modern-day Iran, in the Mesopotamian campaign. He was Major Reginald Bond, my great grandfather. So my grandmother never knew her father and my mother never knew her grandfather. She remains extremely sad and feels the loss of that to this day, because the effect of war carries on through generations.
It was my honour to be an aid worker in Bosnia during the war there and for many years afterwards. I saw the devastating impact of war both at the time and afterwards. I saw the importance of building peace and, in order to do that, of remembrance every day, every year. That is why it is so important that we have these moments of commemoration and remembrance across our country, and that is why it is so important that we are having this debate.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on remembrance and to celebrate and remember our armed forces in a year when we mark 75 years since victory was achieved. I would like to pay tribute to our armed forces, to the forces families and to veterans. We expect the highest standards and values of our armed forces, and in turn, they continuously display those values of courage, integrity, loyalty, discipline and selfless commitment to our country. That has been vividly highlighted recently by the covid-19 response. From the very beginning, the military stepped up and provided assistance to our frontline NHS services, and I thank them for that.
In my constituency of Putney, we are honoured to have an excellent Royal Marine Reserve unit based in Southfields. The Royal Marine Reserve is an integral part of the Royal Marines, with members of the reserve having served in recent operations in the middle east and been deployed on exercises that take them from the jungles of central America to the Arctic circle. I pay tribute to the bravery and dedication that those volunteers show for our country.
I also pay tribute to all those non-combatant civilians who have died in conflict. Warfare devastates all members of communities, including in my constituency during the second world war, when 81 people were killed and 248 people were injured when a bomb fell on a dance hall on Putney High Street. I am sure it was aimed at Putney bridge, but it killed so many people by mistake.
One hundred and two years ago, the armistice that ended the first world war and brought the devastation of that conflict to a close was signed. On this Armistice Day, we must remember the sacrifice of those who fought, and we must continue to strive for and redouble our efforts to work for a world that is free of conflict, free of violence and does not devastate families for generations to come.
It is a pleasure to follow Fleur Anderson, to take part in the debate and to listen to so many poignant and touching speeches with so many memories.
On Sunday, I attended the Remembrance Sunday parade at Nothe Fort in Weymouth in my constituency. During the two-minute silence, I found myself reflecting, as I do every year, on various military missions, jobs and roles. This year, it was the special forces that took my mind. I am sure that Members will recall the storming of the Iranian embassy back in 1980, when I was serving as a young soldier. Then, we held in awe the dash, daring and courage of the handful of our special forces who put all their training into practice, to devastating effect. As if we needed reminding, the remarkable Royal Marines from the Special Boat Service pulled off a similar coup off the Isle of Wight recently, roping down on to a tanker at night to rescue a crew threatened by violent stowaways.
What is so extraordinary is that we hardly, if ever, get to know the names of these brave men of our special forces, even if they fall in the course of their duty. They just do their job quietly and professionally, seeking no reward other than the unique bond that exists between those who serve. These men are drawn from the best who serve on land and sea and in the air in our country, all of whom are prepared to lay down their lives for our freedom, just like their predecessors in two world wars and countless other conflicts, including Northern Ireland and the Falklands.
On this Armistice Day, many fine words have been expressed in support of our armed forces, and rightly so, but it falls to us, the politicians, to ensure that words are supported by actions, for it is we who put our courageous men and women in harm’s way. “Judge a man by his actions,” my father used to say. In this instance, the action to which I refer is the action we must take to invest in our armed forces to ensure that they can fulfil their role and face future threats with confidence and the right equipment.
This is, rightly, a solemn occasion, but I would not be doing my duty if I did not impress on those on the Front Bench that spending 2%—or thereabouts—of GDP on defence is woefully inadequate. I hope that the hundreds of billions that we are spending on this pandemic will not affect the future funding of our armed forces. We live in a fast-changing and unstable world; who knows when we will have to react to another call to arms to meet our responsibilities?
On this special day, I pay tribute to all those who have served and made the final sacrifice. We are indebted to them and, as I have said, to those who serve today. We must never forget; neither must we in this House let them down.
It is a pleasure to follow Richard Drax. May I say how much I have enjoyed the contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members today? It has been one of those debates: I honestly believe—I know this will be your opinion as well, Madam Deputy Speaker —that this House shines when we speak about the things that bring us all together. It is always good to have an opportunity to do that.
I declare an interest as a former Ulster Defence Regiment soldier who served in the Province under Operation Banner when I was 18—I had a full head of hair then as well. I have fond memories of that, but that is another story for another day. It was my honour to put on the uniform and serve Queen and country in that way.
What a different Remembrance Sunday we had this year. I have never in my life encouraged people to stay home during the service, yet time and again in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday the girls in the office were saying, “I am sorry, but the British Legion is very clear this year: we can have only 15 people laying wreaths at the memorial and we cannot have big crowds.” It is hard to do that, because usually when we speak to people we tell them to get up, wrap up and stand up, and they always do in great numbers. But this year it was very different.
I was privileged, as the MP for Strangford, to be able to attend staggered services throughout the constituency. At each, the council and the Royal British Legion had ensured that no more than 15 invited guests were in attendance. We were well distanced, as elderly veterans stood in the vicinity with their backs as straight as age would allow and tears in their eyes as they cast their minds back to those they had loved and lost. It moves us greatly—we have all spoken of it and others will speak of it as well—when we look back on those veterans who gave their all and remember them.
Northern Ireland is a place of service, with so many having served in the armed forces—as many gallant and hon. Members have mentioned; in particular I mark out Bob Stewart as a dear, gallant friend and someone in the House whom I hold in high regard for his courage—the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Prison Service. There is no governmental estimate of the veteran population, but the Royal British Legion has estimated that it is roughly 115,000 people in Northern Ireland, in a population of 1.8 million—and we should take into account the fact that a fifth of the population is under 16. That means that 12.5% of our population has served our nation. I, my party—the Democratic Unionist party—and many Members from both sides of the Chamber wish to make sure that the veterans of Northern Ireland get equal recognition and help from the Government. We look forward to that happening.
I am very pleased to have had the opportunity, over the past few years since I became an MP, to run a coffee morning for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. We do it every year, but this year we could not do it because—let us be honest—we could not bring the people together. They are a vulnerable group of people, including the mothers of those who have served and some of those who served in the past. Ever mindful that we could not butter a scone, pour a cup of coffee or tea, or give out the Irish stew that we always give out as well, we wrote to all the groups and companies across the Strangford constituency, and this year we raised some £5,000—without even buttering a scone. It is tremendous. The people of Strangford have been continuously generous; I thank them and I thank in particular the organiser of SSAFA, Georgie Carlisle, and all those who have the good old-fashioned British values of service and duty. Their passion and dedication are truly an inspiration to me.
I am pleased to see that support that has been given to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill for here on the mainland. I thank the Minister for his work and say that I supported the Bill when it came forward. I make a plea to him tonight. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I understand that there is a willingness to ensure that Northern Ireland follows suit, and that would be good news for me and good news for all of our veterans.
We cannot have a speech such as this and leave out the 36th Ulster Division and the Battle of the Somme. Their devotion to duty won admirers from across the whole world. We also fought alongside two Irish divisions at that time, which shows that, before partition, we were altogether. Were it that we were altogether now.
In conclusion, we will remember them. That is our promise to them. We will, as the nation of Northern Ireland, continue to serve our Queen and country with distinguished honour, and all the veterans deserve honour in response. I know the path that must be trod, but I am asking this Government to tread it with us and with those deserving veterans. The veterans of Northern Ireland deserve the same as the veterans here on the mainland. Let us make that happen and let us honour them.
It is a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon and to hear the many contributions from right hon. and hon. Members from across this House. In particular, may I say how good it was to hear from my hon. Friend Bob Stewart?
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted much of normal life, not least Remembrance, but while we cannot be together in the way that we would normally like to be together to reflect on those who have given so much for our country—our veterans and those serving in the military—we have done so in our own quiet way. This pandemic has highlighted to us the crucial role that our armed forces play not just in protecting our country on the frontline, but in many of our country’s biggest logistical challenges, too. Just last week, we saw the Army help roll out mass testing in Liverpool. Earlier this year, they played their part in establishing the new NHS Nightingale hospitals, including Harrogate serving my constituency. Before the pandemic, when we were threatened by flooding in Ilkley, the Yorkshire Black Cats Regiment helped establish temporary flood barriers.
The armed forces community is a crucial part of my constituency of Keighley and Ilkley. Keighley is, of course, the original home of Captain Sir Tom Moore. We are all so proud of Captain Tom’s service to our country and, of course, of his recent galvanising impact in bringing the country’s heart together in helping to fundraise for our beloved NHS.
Last year, I was delighted to meet the Keighley armed forces and veterans breakfast club, which is one of the growing network of clubs where veterans and those serving in the military can come together and share stories, and I have heard many of them from them. Earlier this year on Armed Forces Day, I met my constituent Luke Davison from the Third Battalion Yorkshire Regiment. Luke joined the armed forces at the age of 16. Having completed two tours of Afghanistan, he is now aged 31 and a veteran. Luke told me about the struggles that he faced after leaving the forces, settling into civilian life and finding a new purpose. I know that Luke has gone on to be heavily involved in bringing the people of Keighley together to celebrate Armed Forces Day. I am sure that all Members of the House will congratulate him on doing that.
Attitudes towards our veterans are changing. Veterans have a wealth of transferable skills and employers want to hire them, but it is incumbent on us all to do everything we can to defend, protect and support our armed forces veterans. I am proud to see the steps that the Government are taking. Those who served in our armed forces put their lives on the line to save and protect us, and we must do whatever we can to show them our gratitude. Let us take a moment today to remember those whom we have lost and thank our armed forces and veterans for their service.
A couple of years ago, I was honoured to visit Tyne Cot cemetery on the outskirts of Passchendaele in Belgium, where those from across the Commonwealth who fought together to protect our freedoms now lay in rest together. It was an incredibly moving experience. Let me quote the words that I saw on the grave of a young private who died in 1918 aged just 19, and was also from the West Yorkshire regiment: “Sunshine and shadows past, but loving memories ever last. We will remember them.”
It is a pleasure to follow the moving and powerful speech of my hon. Friend Robbie Moore.
I live in the town of Coldstream on the banks of the River Tweed. It was there in 1650 that General Monck formed a regiment to march south and restore Charles II to the thrones of Scotland and England. When Monck died in 1670, his regiment took as its name the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards. Today it is the oldest continuously serving regiment in the British Army.
Members will be accustomed to seeing the Coldstream Guards in their red coats and bearskins at trooping the colour, but that image is misleading. They are a true fighting force. They captured New York city during the American war of independence, fought Napoleon in Egypt and Portugal and were in the Crimea. They fought on the western front in the first world war. In the second world war, they fought in France, the middle east and north Africa. They were sent to Malaya, Aden, Northern Ireland, the Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Their history is the history of British warfare.
People in the Scottish Borders are proud of our link to the Coldstream Guards. It is when we discover a link to past that the pages of history come alive. We all have war memorials in our constituencies. The cenotaph at Jedburgh Abbey, the statue of victory in Wilton Lodge Park in Hawick and the stone cross towering above Ettrick Terrace in Selkirk are just three of the scores to be found across the Scottish Borders. They are landmarks that we have known since childhood. But it is when we go up to them and read the names inscribed on them that the real significance hits us—when we see two or even three men with the same surname, and imagine what the impact of that loss must have been on that family.
The people who erected these memorials were not commemorating historical events; they were honouring their sons and grandsons, brothers and fathers, friends and neighbours. They were making the memory of their sacrifices permanent landmarks. In today’s debate, and in services and events held around the country, we are playing our part in keeping the memory of those sacrifices alive.
The pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted our acts of remembrance. It is harder to come together as we usually do, but in time we will be able to come together again and to enjoy our lives as before. We will be able to see our friends and families, and enjoy going to the pub, to a restaurant, on holiday or to the cinema. We have all taken these freedoms for granted all our lives. They are freedoms that were won for us in battles against tyranny by young men whose names are inscribed on war memorials, and they are freedoms and pleasures that those young men were never able to know again, after they left their homes and families behind to go to war. When we are once again able to go out, live our lives and enjoy our freedoms, it will be as appropriate a time as any to pause for a moment and to say with feeling, “We will remember them.”
I join colleagues in thanking all those who currently serve and who have served previously, and, of course, those who served and gave their lives for our freedoms. Freedom is not free. There have been huge sacrifices by our armed forces in pretty much every decade for the last 150 years. Today, of course, we think of the two great wars, but there have been other conflicts in which people from my constituency have served, including Korea, operations in Sierra Leone and ongoing operations in the Sahel right now. Of course, there has also been the distinguished service of many hon. and gallant Members in Northern Ireland, not least my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart and others.
If I may, I would like to go on a brief tour—not an operational tour, but a tour of thanks—of my constituency and talk about the huge contribution that Shropshire folk make to defence. First, MOD Donnington, which is a huge base, is the home of the 11th Signal Brigade, West Midlands, of the 15th Royal Logistic Corps and of other operations perhaps not so well known. There has been a huge investment in the Defence Fulfilment Centre in the last few years. Both uniformed and civilian personnel have made a huge contribution to the covid effort in making sure that kit and equipment was distributed around the country. I would like to pay tribute to all those who have played a part in that effort and continue to do so. I would also like to recognise the work of the Royal Military Police, and in particular 174 Provost Company, Royal Military Police. The company is not particularly well known in the county of Shropshire, but it does a huge amount of work across the county and beyond.
I hope those who are part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme RAF will take time at some point, post covid, to visit RAF Cosford. As many will know, it is the second largest operational RAF base in the world, with several thousand personnel and a range of activities contributing to UK defence and security, of which I will mention just a few now. We have the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering, the Defence School of Photography, and we have an RAF band, which is good news. Of course, we—I say we, but I mean the UK—provide international personnel, not just UK personnel, with defence training, particularly in engineering. There is also the RAF School of Physical Training, perhaps somewhere I should visit more often, but I am none the less very proud to have it in my constituency. We have 605 Squadron, which many will know provides logistics and police personnel mobilisation in support of RAF commitments around the world. There is also No. 1 Radio School—without signals, where would we be? I would like to pay tribute to them.
While the Minister for Defence People and Veterans is on the Front Bench, I would like to pay tribute to him and to his personal service in the armed forces. I say to him that I am pretty sure the Government will be smart enough not to move him out of the Government, but I hope, very selfishly, they will not promote him—although perhaps he could be promoted to Minister of State within the Department—but let him keep his veterans hat on, because he is doing a fantastic job in that role. I pay tribute to him.
I would like to put on record my thanks to all those related to the men—and it was mostly men at the time of the first world war—of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. Over 5,000 fell in that awful war, and it then amalgamated into the Light Infantry and is now the Mercian Regiment. I pay tribute to the Mercian Regiment in Shropshire as well. In my final few seconds, I would like to pay tribute to all the women who serve in the armed forces. I am glad that we have had a particular highlight from my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton about her service and what she is going to do to ensure that we continue to expand the role of women in the armed forces. Freedom is not free, as I said when I started. We pay tribute to all of those who have fallen and we pay tribute to those who continue to serve.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard as he pays tribute to all those who we must remember today in this debate, which is an important opportunity to reflect and to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It is also an opportunity to highlight ongoing need and pay tribute to those who provide support. I echo the calls for funding for veterans’ charities, as raised by my right hon. and gallant Friend Mr Ellwood.
As a nation, when we came together in the shock and distress following the first world war and looked at the scale of loss, not a single family was left untouched by conflict. My own great-grandfather and his son, my great-uncle, served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders infantry. I cannot imagine what they went through, but I remember and feel for those they left behind whose lives were so impacted by their loss. The truth is that when men—men then, but men and women today—step up and make that commitment to serve, they take their families with them, wherever they go, in their hearts, but they also bind, in part, their families to their fate.
I was made incredibly aware of that when, in a past life before I came to this place, I worked as a teacher in a boarding school and was in loco parentis for teenage girls, the daughters of military families. I think everybody here will remember where they were when they heard the shock news on 9/11. I remember where I was. I was with them, and they felt it, in a way not experienced by other students. Calls home were made and anxious days followed. They were on alert as they connected with their homes and with their families across the world, wherever they might have been serving. I echo the petition made today by my hon. Friend Andrew Selous in his endorsement of the “Living in our Shoes” report regarding the important contribution that our military families make. It is so important that we support them.
Back in the day, there was little expectation of support and little understanding. In the late years of his life, a very well loved and remembered Eastbourne resident, Henry Allingham, who was the last surviving veteran of the great war and, for a short time, the world’s oldest man, shared his experiences. Without testimonies such as his, we could not begin to understand and comprehend the experience of that generation, but just talking—a simple thing, really—makes a world of difference.
I wear my poppy with pride. It is the symbol of our remembrance, but it is also a very important way in which we can help to provide for our veterans through the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal. Eastbourne and Willingdon, my home constituency, is traditionally very generous. I hope that through that demonstration, our veterans see the great value that we place on their service and our serving personnel see the great value that we place on their contribution. I hope, too, that it inspires those who would apply for a military life. I say that with some feeling as a patron of the Military Preparation College in Eastbourne. It is mission critical for me to know that in inspiring a new generation to serve our country, and potentially to put their lives on the line, we stand behind them, and the poppy says that to me.
One organisation in Eastbourne that stands behind our veterans is Blue Van, a charity that provides support—physical, mental and financial—for veterans in my constituency. It has been able to support over 50 local veterans, some of whom have gone so far as to say that without that organisation they would not be here today. I am, unusually, here today—
This Armistice Day, as we have done for 100 years, we remember those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives for their country, and this year we remember 100 years since the interment of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey, and 100 years since Sir Edwin Lutyens’ monumental Cenotaph was unveiled. Between 2014 and 2018 we marked the centenary of the first world war in so many extraordinary ways. I had the privilege to chair the first world war centenary committee, which put in place a programme of commemoration marking the start of the conflict at St Symphorien and then an extraordinary series of cultural events such as “Lights Out” and the iconic poppy sculptures. We often struggle as a country to commemorate war, conflict and death, and I would like to pay tribute to 14-18 NOW, the organisation that persuaded politicians that art could help a nation understand and connect emotionally and intellectually with an event that happened 100 years ago, and help, I think for the first time, engage the nation with how the first world war shaped a generation and generations to follow. Perhaps we should do that more often.
The format of remembrance this year may have changed, but the vast debt of gratitude we owe to those who serve and the families who support them does not, and I join those who have paid tribute to the Falkland Islanders and those who fought for their freedom, too. Members of organisations in my constituency, including the Royal British Legion, Basingstoke and Deane Veterans Club and many others, usually come together in an act of solemn worship in remembrance at our town memorial; this year we had to do things differently, but we still had acts of remembrance that were undiminished.
In today’s debate we are not just marking Armistice Day as part of that but are also considering the petition calling for a further strengthening of the armed forces covenant, signed by more than 150 of my constituents. The armed forces covenant was introduced in 2011 and was a real statement of the moral obligation that exists between the nation, the Government and the armed forces. That commitment was further reinforced in the commitments this Government made in last year’s election, including to acknowledge and commemorate the invaluable contribution of diaspora communities in the past and to recognise the contribution in the present day of so many from beyond our shores, such as the Gurkhas.
Indeed, we should remember the contribution of the Commonwealth members of the armed forces today. More than 4,000 personnel from Commonwealth countries serve in our armed forces, and in my constituency I am proud to have one of the largest veteran Gurkha communities in the country. Many Nepali veterans, and, indeed, other Commonwealth veterans, want, after they have served, to continue to live here, but too often the cost of that can be daunting and at odds with the commitment and loyalty they have shown to our country. I hope the Minister will look carefully at the Royal British Legion campaign on behalf of those people, so that as a nation we can respect those who have chosen to serve our country in this way.
Caring for the health of our armed forces and veterans is a matter this Government take very seriously, and the armed forces covenant annual report sets out the real progress made, particularly supporting veterans with mental health problems, with more than 17,000 veterans receiving specialist support and complex treatment. I know that the Minister is aware that serving personnel can use the facility in my constituency at Parklands hospital in Basingstoke, home to an MOD unit providing mental health services for serving personnel. I met medical staff there and people who were receiving treatment from across the south-east of England. I also had the privilege to be invited to the opening of a new therapeutic garden there, which I hope I can invite the Minister to visit when conditions allow, because facilities like that can make a real difference to people’s lives— hearing from medical professionals, such as Dr Karl Marlowe, and patients, the value of that facility is absolutely clear.
As well as remembering those who have fallen, we must remember those whom we continue to support. It is clear that this Government’s commitment to the armed forces covenant is undiminished, but it is also clear that there is much more to do.
To resume his seat no later than 4.33 pm, and with apologies to the almost 30 Members who did not get in to make their contributions, I call Elliot Colburn.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and speak in such an important debate. I begin by thanking the armed services community in Carshalton and Wallington. We often speak in this place about the importance of and the debt of gratitude we owe to our armed forces as we honour the bravery and sacrifice of those men and women who fought for the peace and freedoms we enjoy today. I want to look at one of the areas where we can begin to repay that debt of gratitude: mental health support.
In doing so, I want to remember a very special man, my grandfather, Derek Haighton, who sadly is no longer with us and did not live to see me elected to this place. My grandad Derek was devoted to Queen and country and keen to sign up as a member of the armed forces. I will never forget the story used to tell my brothers and I when we were younger of the day he signed up to the Army. On arrival at the recruitment centre, he was asked a number of personal questions and, all of a sudden, told to take a walk, have a think about what he had said and come back. He did so. He thought about the question he had been answering when he was interrupted and asked to leave—it was about his age, and he was too young. Like so many others during that time, he went back and made himself a bit older so that he could join and serve the country that he loved. Indeed, he did so during the Korean War.
On leaving the Army, soon after the Korean war, my grandad Derek served out the rest of his working life in the Metropolitan police, but he never lost his passion for the armed forces. To his dying day, he spent his free time researching and taking part in anything to do with his favourite regiment, the historic Rifle Brigade. He always had stories to tell about the armed forces, but it was not until I was older that I realised that he rarely, if ever, spoke about his own time in the Army. Later, my mum explained why. My grandfather, like so many others—those of us who have never served can scarcely imagine this—experienced true horrors and saw such horrific scenes that he lived with the mental scars for the rest of his life. Of course, in those days there was little, if any, mental health support for our veterans.
That is why I am so proud that the Government stand firm by the armed forces covenant, because it states that priority treatment should be given to veterans. I am proud, as someone who used to work in the national health service, that in 2015 the NHS updated its constitution to ensure that it reflected that responsibility. Indeed, NHS expenditure on veterans’ mental health has nearly doubled in the last four years alone. In December 2018, NHS England announced an extra £10 million for a dedicated crisis service for veterans. That extra funding was also to enable the roll-out of the first ever veteran-friendly GP surgeries and hospitals. I welcome that, in the 2020 spring Budget, the Government announced a further £10 million for the armed forces covenant fund trust to support projects that support veterans’ mental health. We can never really express in words the debt of gratitude that we owe our veterans and people like my grandad Derek, but we can make up for it in the actions that we take and in making sure that we are there for them.
Today has seen the House at its very best. Indeed, as Jim Shannon said, the House has almost shone. Those who have served and continue to serve can rest assured that they have a powerful voice in this place. That voice was heard in the Minister’s poignant opening speech and in the moving speech by my friend, Bob Stewart, when he bravely talked about his personal experiences of the horrors of war. It was in the contribution of my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson, who reminded us of the innocent victims of war. It was there in the speech by my right hon. Friend Mr Jones, who has made it his mission since he came to this place to speak up for our troops.
There was also hope in many of the contributions. My hon. Friend Stephen Doughty reminded us about clearing mines on the beaches of the Falkland Islands so that families can now play where once there were bullets and mines. Let us therefore, as my hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson asked, all come together tonight at 7 pm, look to the stars and remember our fallen.
On this day 100 years ago, the second anniversary of the armistice that ended world war one, the body of the unknown warrior was drawn in a procession to the Cenotaph. A new war memorial on Whitehall was then unveiled by King George V. At 11 o’clock, there was a two-minute silence, and the body was then taken to Westminster Abbey, where it was buried at the west end of the nave. The text inscribed on the tomb reads:
“They buried him among the kings because he had done good toward God and toward his house”.
Since that day, wreaths of poppies, the symbol of remembrance and hope for a peaceful future, have been laid at the foot of the Cenotaph. Even though we have lost the first world war generation and those who fought in the second world war are fewer in number with each passing year, still they come to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. The scene is repeated in countless ceremonies in villages, towns and cities, where people of all ages put their differences aside for two minutes to remember our war dead. Without them, we would not be the free and fair democracy we are. Indeed, we may not even be debating in this Chamber this afternoon. For that alone, they deserve our eternal gratitude.
Remembrance Day, along with the anniversaries of VE Day and VJ Day that we have seen this year, is a time when people are more aware of the presence of the armed forces in this country. However, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence said, fewer and fewer people have any idea what it is like to serve in the armed forces, because fewer people know someone who is serving or has had military experience. That makes people less aware of our forces—their needs, their challenges—but every family, in its past, will have a connection with the forces in some way, as my hon. Friend Matt Western set out.
I remember the picture of the Royal Scots on my grandparents’ wall as I grew up. It was the regiment that my grandfather, a Welshman, served in during world war two. I was also pleased that my hon. Friend Jessica Morden mentioned the merchant navy and its contribution. My father-in-law, Roy Ockenden, left a note for his mother at the age of 15 to say he was going to sea to join the merchant navy. I know he is missed every day.
Remembrance is also an opportunity for people to show their appreciation for the work of our forces. However, to truly pay tribute to our forces men and women and the sacrifices they have made and continue to make, we must demonstrate, in our words and our deeds, that we value them and their families. That includes our reserves, our cadets, their families and employers, as well as our veterans, their widows and their families. We must make a commitment today to do everything in our power to demonstrate that.
I would like to mention briefly the petition to enshrine the military covenant in law, which has gathered more than 67,000 signatures. The petition asks for a statutory requirement for the provision of services such as housing and mental health support for veterans. That shows an engagement with our armed forces and is a testament to how much our society values our service personnel. In 2010, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised to enshrine the covenant in law. Unfortunately, that decision was reversed in 2011. I believe that was a real missed opportunity to protect the rights of our service personnel, and I hope it will be revisited, as I know the Minister cares deeply about our veterans.
Remembrance, like so many other things, has been different this year. As many Members have said, large remembrance services and the usual gatherings at war memorials up and down the country have either been cancelled or been subject to social distancing. Covid has not only affected the events that normally take place across the nation; there have been other visible and physical differences. The common sight of the Royal British Legion’s volunteers collecting donations for poppies at supermarkets and train stations and on high streets has been far less visible this year.
The poppy appeal is the largest fundraising campaign of the year for the Royal British Legion. Although it has adapted and raised more than a quarter of a million pounds through contactless donations, it has been difficult to fundraise during covid. This year, the Royal British Legion expects to see a fall in revenue. It will not be alone. It is estimated that one in 10 armed forces charities will be forced to close in the next 12 months. That comes at a time of increasing reliance on charitable aid. It is vital that we ensure that the forces charities are supported and that their loss of income is not felt by those who need their help.
We are remembering the past, but the armed forces can also be relied on to assist with modern issues. There is no better example than the covid test pilot in Liverpool. Some 2,000 troops have been sent to Liverpool to aid our civilian authorities there. Given the size of our armed forces, I echo calls for a promise from the Government that the covid deployment of our forces will not impact training, standing commitments or the forces’ capabilities to respond to threats. If our forces are strained more support must be given. I should be grateful if the Minister touched on what the Government are doing in his response. Covid has required the mobilisation of many of our reservists, as many hon. and right hon. Members have said. People have stepped in, in many different areas, proving how vital they are. They have helped, as we have heard, to transport PPE and to set up Nightingale hospitals. They have helped local authorities to set up and run Test and Trace centres. Three thousand reservists were called up in March, and the work that they do is vital. It is important that we remember them. We have many reasons to be proud of our reserve forces. I hope that the Minister can update the House on how many reservists have provided help during the pandemic and what is being done to help them move seamlessly from civilian life to service at such short notice.
Finally, I hope the Minister can touch on charity funding in his response. He recently called on the Treasury to find funding for visas for Commonwealth veterans, which we welcome. Would he put in a word with Treasury Ministers to increase funding for veterans and military charities? As we have heard today, there are concerns across the House about the drops in fundraising for these vital charities. We would all appreciate some information about how we will fill these gaps so that all those to whom we have paid tribute today can access the support that they need.
In debates of this nature there can be a tendency to focus on the problems that some veterans face, and it is right that we do so. However, we should never forget that, for most people, the forces experience is only positive. There are many veterans who make a huge contribution to their community in business and industry, and for that they should be celebrated by the entire House. This year, let us remember not only the armed forces personnel of the past but those of the present. Let us strive to support them so that they can continue to protect peace, our wellbeing and our society. Let us be there for them, as they have always been there for us.
I thank Chris Evans, in what I believe is his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, for a heartfelt summing-up of an interesting debate. For someone who came to the House to try to reset the relationship between this country, her military and her veterans, it has been an incredibly encouraging couple of hours. It is a privilege to close this debate on remembrance, to mark Armistice Day. Listening to some of the remarkable stories of service from colleagues reminds me, however, that war, however great, huge in scale, distant and complex, is fundamentally personal.
We are very good in this country at remembering. There are few places on earth more moving than a war memorial on Remembrance Sunday, but this year has been very different. Many veterans who would normally attend were self-isolating. I pay tribute to their efforts. I pay particular tribute to the Royal British Legion. A narrative has developed among some in my cohort of veterans against the larger charities in recent years. I must say that we would be in an incredibly dark place without the supreme commitment of charities such as the Royal British Legion over many, many years to those who have served this country. I pay tribute to their efforts, particularly at this time of year.
I want to respond to a couple of points made by the hon. Member for Islwyn and by hon. Members who made speeches today. I will write to the hon. Gentleman about the specific numbers of reservists, as I do not have that number to hand. Reserves are far more integrated into regular forces than ever before, but it is something that we can always do better. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will write to him about that. Charity funding is something that we have discussed a number of times. Charities clearly face a challenging time—there are no two ways about that—and the increase for services in charities is almost at the same rate. I am very clear that this nation has a duty to its service personnel and veterans. It is not a problem that should be farmed out to charities. This nation is doing more than it ever has done before on a statutory footing for those who serve, but I think the answer in the end is a blend between statutory and charity provision. That is more for another day.
If I may briefly talk about legislation that was raised by the hon. Member for Islwyn and a number of colleagues. I can confirm—there was a manifesto promise and I have campaigned for this for some years now—that unless the armed forces covenant means something to the people who need it and unless it is a tool in the hands of those who need it in this country, it is not really worth what we would like it to be. The truth is that some great work has been done, but it is clear that we need to legislate in the manner in which the hon. Gentleman speaks to. I can confirm that the Government will be bringing forward an armed forces Bill next year to legislate and further enshrine into law the armed forces covenant.
I want to get through a few of the contributions today that I thought were particularly telling. My hon. Friend Elliot Colburn made really valid points about mental health support. He is right about mental health support and how much more money has gone into it now, but until every single serviceman and servicewomen leaves the military and knows where they can turn for mental support, knows that care pathway and that point of access, we still have some work to do and we will not stop until we get there.
My hon. Friend Caroline Ansell talked about the huge part played by military families. My hon. Friend James Sunderland talked again about covenant legislation and the issue around foreign and Commonwealth visa fees. My views on that are well known, however unpopular they may be within Government. I have had a personal view for some time, which has not changed since I became a Minister. I am confident that the Government will do their duty towards our foreign and Commonwealth brothers and sisters who served with us abroad over many years.
Matt Western talked about how life is never the same. It really is
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning” every day for our veterans’ families. That is why remembrance is so important.
I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend Sarah Atherton for her contribution on the female experience of the military. I reiterate that it is not where I want it to be, either in the military or in veteran circles. We have more work to do on that. I say to her that things are changing, but she has a very powerful and relevant voice and I urge her to keep going in her campaigning on that issue.
I pay tribute to Carla Lockhart for her comments on Northern Ireland. I have repeatedly made it clear that my views and my commitment to this issue are completely unchanged from before I was a Minister. We heard today, and I will come on to my hon. Friend Bob Stewart in a moment, about how that conflict was painted very viscerally for individuals. There will be no resiling from the commitments that have been made. I have made that clear on a number of occasions. I am acutely aware that there comes a moment where that has to granulate into a reality for those who serve. We are fast approaching that moment. The Bill I brought forward last week had important commitments to that generation for the first time from a Government from this Dispatch Box, but there is more to do. The Prime Minister is crystal clear in his commitment on this issue and I am confident he will follow through.
Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham and I have been friends for far too long. [Interruption.] He has finally woken up. As conflict has changed, with cameras and so on, it is easy for people to come home and think, “My generation did x, y and z in Afghanistan” or wherever it may be, but I would just say to him that all we ever did was try to stand on the shoulders of our predecessors who fought in incredibly difficult environments and incredibly difficult and complex situations.
There was the story about the little girl. There is something about little girls and conflicts. I was out with a friend last weekend and we talked about what remembrance means. I said, “Does anything stick with you from those days?” and he remembered a little girl who similarly lost both arms and both legs and was dying. Her father would not give the little girl to us because he wanted her to be a martyr and would not let us save her life. There is something about little girls in conflict that gets very difficult.
What is remembrance to me? I will be honest: some parts of remembrance I do find pretty difficult. When I first came back from some of the roughest tours in Afghanistan, I simply could not watch, because the discrepancy between what people said in this place and how it actually felt to serve, or to be a veteran or family of a veteran in this country was too great. However, we are getting better.
The creation of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is a significant moment, but I say very gently to colleagues both inside and outside Government: do not underestimate what this means to people who are watching this debate. Do not underestimate the commitments we have made not only to the generation I was talking about from Northern Ireland, but to all those who have served. There is a community out there who are the best of us. They care so much about this country that they actually signed up to serve. Some of their experiences have been wholly unacceptable. We are changing that, but we must redouble our efforts because, if we get it wrong now, having given them hope, that feeling that I used to have will only become worse.
Ultimately, all these things are political. Enshrining the armed forces covenant into law is a political choice. Reconciliation in Northern Ireland is a political choice. So you can remember properly, not through Remembrance Day itself and photographs and all the rest of it, but by supporting those efforts, by parking selfish ambition or any personal agenda with one special interest and by taking difficult decisions for the greater good. That greater good was what those patriots fought for and died to protect. That is how you remember and truly honour their sacrifice—for it is actions, not words, that matter. We will remember them.
We will remember them and we will continue to remember them and be grateful for their service and sacrifice. This has been an absolutely superb debate. Without their service and sacrifice, this debate and our democracy could easily have been extinguished.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered remembrance, UK armed forces and society.