It is a pleasure to see you preside over proceedings this afternoon, Chair. I congratulate Stephen Morgan on securing this debate and doing so just 24 hours after he gave his maiden speech, also on the issue of public sector pay restraint. It is obvious, given his first two outings in Parliament, that he will be a thorn in the side as far as public sector pay is concerned. He is absolutely right, so I wish him well.
Earlier this week I saw a tweet from Luke Pollard. It said that he and his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South often get mixed up because people think they represent the same cities. If they carry on in this vein, following each other, that will likely continue for the life of the Parliament. If you will allow me, Mr Chairman, I also wish to put on record my thanks—I hope other Members will join me, particularly the Minister—to a former Member of this House who sadly did not hold on to her seat at the general election: Kirsten Oswald, the former SNP armed forces spokesperson, who did a tremendous amount of work on the issue we are debating this afternoon.
I am surprised to see that there is not a single Conservative Back Bencher here to defend the Government’s position. Given their defence of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill on Monday, the power grab on Tuesday and the pay cap on Wednesday, I thought they would at least make it along to defend their own Government, but clearly armed forces pay restraint was just a step too far. It seems there are indeed brass necks on the Tory Benches. Is it any wonder? The Conservatives have continuously painted themselves as the sole party in this Parliament that defends and stands up for the armed forces, while continuously painting my party and lambasting the Labour party as being what they see as weak on defence. But we have heard the figures this afternoon: targets for the size of the Army have been missed; morale is low; recruitment is in crisis; and pay has been cut and cut, by over £1,000 a year, with pay restraint for the past seven years.
There are other issues surrounding the pay and conditions of members of the armed forces. One of those was highlighted by a colleague of mine in the Scottish Parliament, Gordon MacDonald, the MSP for Edinburgh Pentlands. It concerned Ministry of Defence housing where the rents go up all across the country. In Scotland the new charging system introduced by the MOD has seen 81% of service families having to pay more rent than under the old regime. Complaints about MOD housing in Scotland, outsourced to Carillion, have gone up by a massive 43%.
I do not wish to speak for long because I am keen to hear from the Minister, who is very diligent. Although we crossed swords a couple of times in the previous Parliament, and no doubt will do so again in this Parliament, I and many in my party have a great deal of respect for him. I look forward to hearing what he has to say, but I will end with this. As was adumbrated in the House yesterday by members of my party, the Scottish Government have now committed to lifting the pay cap for all public sector workers in devolved Government agencies. It is about time this Government followed suit. The utterly bizarre stunt that was pulled yesterday, when they did not even have the gumption to march through the Lobby and vote for what we all know they believe, says it all. It made this place look like a banana Parliament. I have spent my political life arguing that it is a banana Parliament, but yesterday was perhaps the best—or should I say the worst—example of that.
I commend the Scottish Government for what they do to support service personnel, service families and veterans in Scotland as far as they can. The “Renewing our Commitments” document that they published last year came with £5 million of funding to try to support service families, who are having to deal with the burdens of the pay cuts imposed on them by Whitehall.
Defending the country is of course the first duty of Government. It is increasingly difficult to know how that is to be done with hollowed-out armed forces, a recruitment crisis and forces whose morale is at an all-time low. It is not just a matter of our commitments to them—and those commitments are supreme. We must ask what effect there will be on national security, and whether the current situation allows us properly to live up to the commitments that we make to our allies, to be a strong and ready fighting force to protect the people of this country.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South on securing the debate. I look forward to seeing him take on the Government, on this issue and many others, as the Parliament progresses.