(Maiden Speech) My Lords, it is a great honour to be with your Lordships today and to be making my maiden speech. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, for his debate. The welcome I have received from your Lordships but, more importantly, from the staff of the House, the doorkeepers, the clerks, the security and the staff of the dining rooms has been exemplary. Their guidance and support has been invaluable in my first few weeks. I also thank my supporters for their help and assistance; my noble friends Lord King of Bridgwater and Lord Dobbs have been great friends and a great support to me, and I cannot forget my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who has guided me through the first few weeks in the House.
In my life before the House I have had two careers. The first I doubt will be of very much interest to your Lordships—certainly milking cows and lambing ewes are fairly irrelevant to most of the debate at hand. However, my second career is in local government as a district and a county councillor, and I have been the leader of Wiltshire Council, a large, rural unitary authority, since 2009 and its inception.
I should like to speak today about how local government plays a strong role in one particular issue for Wiltshire. Wiltshire is home to the beating heart of the British Army, as many commentators like to inform me. It is currently home to around 14,000 soldiers and their families, primarily based in and around the Salisbury Plain training area or at the technical training college at Lyneham. When I started at the council, we would not know on a weekly basis how many forces families were in the county. We would have new children showing up and leaving local schools unannounced. The provision of effective support for forces personnel has therefore been a long-term driver of my career. I assure noble Lords that things are much improved, due in no small part to the excellent partnership working between local agencies and the military.
Under the Army basing programme, we are expecting an additional number of troops—approximately 4,000—with more than 3,000 dependants to arrive, and be based permanently, in Wiltshire between now and 2020. These unique local circumstances require a unique local solution, and providing services for forces personnel and their families is therefore of the utmost importance to us in Wiltshire.
The unlimited commitment of our forces is vital to our national security. It is our absolute duty to ensure that they have our full support and that their families are looked after, particularly in their absence. We cannot continue to allow a situation where forces children do not match the educational attainment of children outside the forces.
Having taken great steps in enshrining the Armed Forces covenant in law, I am delighted at the further commitment to create a comprehensive family strategy for the Armed Forces, and particularly the commitments to do more on spousal employment, healthcare and children’s education. In Wiltshire we can play a part in these areas but we need a national strategy with a full understanding of what forces families require and the assurance of the necessary resources.
Noble Lords may wonder about the relevance of what I have said to local governance but it is very simple. Our military/civilian integration works only because we have strong democratic leadership locally which can work to provide a solution to this very unique local matter.