It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and to respond to this debate. I declare an interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am ex-Army and a lieutenant colonel in the reserves. I pay tribute to the other coastal towns that have been represented in the debate by the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). I represent Bournemouth. I think the only Members present who do not represent coastal towns are the spokesmen for the SNP and the Labour party, the hon. Members for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David). Nevertheless, the debate has been helpful in understanding and sharing concerns about public sector pay specific to the armed forces.
A number of Members have made perhaps a little bit of a political point, asking where the Conservative Members are in this important debate. I could say to the SNP spokesman that there are no SNP Back Benchers here either; he is his party’s sole representative. Many Members who would have been here today are participating in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. That is why they are absent.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Portsmouth South for calling this debate. Like the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, he represents a historical city that has a connection with all services, but specifically the senior service. We need to place the debate in context and against the backdrop of the nation’s finances, which ultimately are the question mark hanging over the size of the coffers that the Treasury has to provide financial support not only to the Ministry of Defence, but to all armed forces. I will not go into the politics of the situation, but when we came into government in 2010 there was a significant deficit. That deficit has been reduced by three quarters and the economy is now growing. The low taxes we are seeing are creating growth in our economy. We have record lows in unemployment, which is a good thing.
However, let us be honest: the election result and the debates during the campaign showed a nation concerned about our public sector and the length of time that the pay freeze has affected them. That concern was shared not only by those individuals affected, but by those who support our teachers, nurses, doctors, fire service, police, ambulance service and armed forces. Our armed forces do not have the voice of the unions, as has been mentioned a number of times. Members will be aware that the Government have been continuing the difficult task of balancing the books, but we must recognise that that ultimately means a period of pay restraint that has affected all public sector workers, including the armed forces.
We are aware, as we bring fiscal discipline back to the public finances, that that restraint has had an impact on the salaries of our people, but looking forward, the Government’s recent announcement of greater flexibility where required in public sector pay means that the independent pay review bodies can now make their own judgments on future pay awards, which will mitigate the impact. As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said on Tuesday, our public sector workers, including those in the armed forces, are among the most extraordinarily talented and hard-working people in our society. I would go further: our public services are one of the things that define Britain across the world, by which I mean not just our blue light services, but our armed forces in particular. I echo other contributors by saying that professionalism is what defines us and gives us our reputation across the globe. It is important that we look after the people using equipment in operations. They make their mark and step forward to make a contribution with allies as a force for good in this very difficult and challenging age. They, like everyone else, deserve to have fulfilling jobs that are fairly rewarded. We have to take a balanced approach to public spending, dealing with our debts to keep our economy strong while also ensuring that we invest in our public services.