Armed Forces Pay — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:08 pm on 14th September 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport 3:08 pm, 14th September 2017

It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend Stephen Morgan, who made such an eloquent maiden speech in the main Chamber yesterday. To throw himself in at the deep end with a maiden speech and then a 90-minute Westminster Hall debate less than 24 hours later shows the grit and determination that Portsmouth seems to instil in its MPs. I commend him on securing this debate.

I share my hon. Friend’s interest in the armed forces. As the son of a submariner, I know that armed forces pay is not only about supporting and rewarding those people who serve our country but about putting food on the table for families right across the country. Nowhere is that closer to my heart than in Devonport, which is the country’s largest naval base—indeed, it is the largest base in western Europe—and home to many of the frontline fighting forces that our country so relies on. It is also home to half our nation’s frigates and to our amphibious assault craft, including HMS Ocean, which at the moment is doing such a good job in supporting the relief effort for our overseas territories and our friends in the Caribbean.

Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is also the spiritual home of the Royal Marines, at Stonehouse Barracks. Sadly, that base is due to close under Conservative Government cuts. We are also home to the Army and the Artillery at the Royal Citadel: again, a base that is closing. The Army numbers and the Royal Marines and Navy personnel in Plymouth are an integral part of our city. The cap has had an effect not only on the ability of those forces’ families to afford to pay their bills, but on the contribution that they can make to our local economy.

Figures from the Library show that the number of armed forces personnel in the Navy and Royal Marines in Plymouth have fallen from 7,240 in 2010 to 5,000 now. Each job lost and each job transferred away from Devonport means less money spent in our communities and in our shops. There is a further cut in terms of officers in the Army and even in the RAF, which is not something that Plymouth is widely known for, although we have a few of them.

It is important to look in detail at what the pay means for each of the different ranks in the armed forces. There is a real manpower and personnel crisis in our armed forces, not only in terms of recruitment, but in retention as well. In particular, I want to talk about what it means for the engineering grades in the Royal Navy. Within the engineering sector there is a real concern about how many engineers we are producing and where we are recruiting them. If it were not for the assistance of our friends in the US Coast Guard and in fellow NATO countries, we would not currently be able to put the ships to sea that we are able to because we have so few homegrown engineers. One of the big reasons why engineers are leaving the senior service is pay: not only the pay cap, but the draw of larger rewards in the private sector.

In the far south-west, if someone holds an engineering qualification, particularly a nuclear engineering qualification, they are in heavy demand. The ability of the nuclear industry to continue to grow with the new nuclear builds and the potential decommissioning work adds to the draw of the private sector for a lot of our Royal Navy engineering grades. That needs to be looked at because the pay cap is an arbitrary tool that has been applied for ideological reasons; it does not look at what the consequences are. Can the Minister tell us what is the additional cost of recruitment and the additional cost of the uplift that we need to bring in freelance and other types of engineers to support our Royal Navy and whether a relaxation of the pay cap for those grades would be a more efficient use of public money?

Figures from the Library show that, throughout the entire military, if there had been a 3% increase over the course of the pay cap since 2010, a private would now be earning over £3,000 more. A corporal and equivalent ranks would be earning nearly £5,000 more. Lieutenants—many people mispronounce that; I think they watch too much “Star Trek” and Americanise our grades—could be earning £4,000 more, and majors and equivalent ranks whose actual pay was £59,783 could have been earning £66,886. All of those are a draw against staying in our military.

The British armed forces are the finest fighting forces in the world. The arbitrary, ideologically driven pay cap affects not only our ability to retain the first-class talent that we have within our armed forces, especially at engineering grades in our naval dockyards and bases that both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South represent—it also affects how we recruit people to those grades. Will the Minister address what we are doing about engineering grades in the Royal Navy?

I imagine that Members here today share a common desire for the Royal Navy to succeed. An integral part of the Royal Navy’s success is looking not only at the capability of hulls and what we put on them—the new frigates, the new carriers, the new offshore patrol vehicles, the Type 45s and other ships—but at the personnel on board. I am really concerned that if the arbitrary pay cap continues in our armed forces, we will hollow out the expertise, especially around the specialist grades that we need to put our ships to sea. In a more uncertain world, we need to retain and recruit the very best for our engineering grades and for our frontline fighting forces.

The Government could take a big step forward and consider whether an arbitrary pay cap for our armed forces is the right way forward. Relaxing that pay cap or removing it altogether to ensure that people are paid the same in real terms this year as they should have been last year would be a way of recognising not only the fantastic work they do, but would recognise that in their pay cheque as well. I have had—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South has as well—people come to me since the election to say they are growing sick and tired of politicians saying warm words when people in our armed forces have stepped up to serve the country, but not rewarding them when it comes to the budget settlement about how much those people take home.

As we are all here because we respect and value the work of our armed forces, I ask the Minister to think seriously about how the pay cap is having a serious effect on retention and recruitment of specialist personnel in our armed forces and how that could be addressed in the coming years. We know a lot of skilled engineers are facing retirement, so we will be hollowing out our engineering grades. Will the Minister address those points when he responds?