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2.35 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I declare my interest as a medical officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. Our armed forces are second to none and we are all intensely proud of them. We should also salute the organisations that champion their cause.

I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on using half their Opposition day to discuss the broken military covenant. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) used much of his speech to discuss the proposals that his party apparently launched at the weekend. I say “apparently” because the event appears to have passed the media by, which was possibly because there was little new or distinctive in what was said. However, heaven loves a sinner who is brought to repentance, so we must welcome the Liberal Democrats’ new-found enthusiasm for defence and the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement of many of the ideas that we have been pursuing for some time. Clearly, he has read the policy report that we published in July—and, judging by his document, much of which is eerily familiar, a lot more besides.

Given that spirit of happy consensus, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying how much I enjoyed something that I imagine will become a standard caveat on all Liberal Democrat spending commitments— [ Laughter. ] The Minister is giggling, so I suspect that he, like me, has read the document that the Liberal Democrats published at the weekend. On the second page, in very small print—I can barely read it—it says:

I spent some time puzzling what that might mean. I think that it means “cuts elsewhere”, yet, try as I might, I could not find anything in the hon. Gentleman’s speech that shed any light on precisely what those cuts would be.

The document goes on to say:

In the hypothetical case that we have a Liberal Democrat Government following the next election—perhaps in May 2010—that could mean seven and a half years hence. I am not quite sure which soldiers, sailors and airmen the hon. Gentleman is talking to, but those to whom I talk say that the covenant needs fixing now, not in seven and a half years’ time.

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Nick Harvey: One has to admire the hon. Gentleman’s gall. When his party is put under pressure by the Minister, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) says at the Dispatch Box that the Conservatives have absolutely no answers to the funding questions, but that they will let the Minister know when the general election comes. It is thus quite extraordinary for his colleague, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), to level exactly the same charge at the Liberal Democrats.

The Minister pointed the finger at the Liberal Democrats and said that we would intend to pay for this out of savings to the procurement budget. He correctly identified where that would be. We have said that we do not see why we would need both the third tranche of Eurofighter and the joint strike fighter—it needs to be one or the other.

Dr. Murrison: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) gave earlier. I notice that the hon. Gentleman has not shed any light on where the cuts implied by the statement will fall.

I have been studying the Liberal Democrat election manifesto closely, as well as the contribution that the party has made to defence debates recently. Others might say that that is a pretty sad thing to do, but as many hon. Members would point out, time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted. The manifesto effectively contains just one paragraph on defence. The rest of any reference to defence-related issues has to do with the arms trade.

The poor attendance by Liberal Democrats at defence debates in Opposition and Government time is borne out by the official record, notably on 16 October, an occasion that was distinctly Liberal Democrat-lite.

The Liberal Democrats say that they want to set up what they call “a military covenant committee”. They go on to explain, in a breezy sort of way:

We learn that

That sounds to me like a job specification for Lords Guthrie, Boyce, Craig, Bramall and Inge. Ministers are, I hope, still smarting from the broadside that the noble and gallant Lords delivered in the other place on 22 November. I would not expect the Government to welcome such a plan, but for different reasons entirely, neither would I.

Generals are very fine people. Many of them are my constituents. But where would the views, experiences and insights of squaddies and their families be articulated in such a lordly committee of the top brass? Although I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s good intentions, he needs to go back to the drawing board.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Surely it might be better to give retired generals a committee so that they do not have to do the foreword for a “Way Forward” paper.

Dr. Murrison: I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to. If he has not already read the document that was published at the weekend, I suggest he does. There are more committees in the document than one can shake a hairy stick at.

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The military covenant appears to have taken form relatively recently, when it popped up in an Army book of reference, perhaps influenced by the more overt expression by our allies of their special debt to their armed forces, notably the US. I suspect that it was scripted by an Army staff officer, who thought it was a good idea at the time. There is nothing wrong with that. We should adopt it and work on it. I hope that we now understand that the military covenant is not simply the bailiwick of the Army, but that it extends in common usage right across our armed forces.

The Secretary of State’s prior appointment is a perfectly good reason for being absent today. I am grateful to him for explaining yesterday the circumstances that take him away from the House today.

We learned from General Lord Guthrie about the Prime Minister’s disinterest in defence as Chancellor, which he appears to have carried over into his new job, obliging photo calls in hot, sandy places notwithstanding. The Prime Minister must do the decent thing by our armed forces and ensure that the person whom he appoints as captain of the ship is able to devote his attention full-time to his vital defence duties. None of our troops in action, regulars or reserves, are part-timers. Why is their boss?

Mr. Ainsworth: I hope the hon. Gentleman will make it clear that the Secretary of State is not present because he is on important business meeting bereaved families.

Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to the Minister. I thought I had done that, in what I hope he will accept was an acknowledgment of the validity of the Secretary of State’s absence from the House today.

The leaked 2007 Chief of the General Staff’s briefing team report told us:

It is backed up by this summer’s continuous attitudes survey, which revealed that many of our crucial middle-ranking people were considering leaving over the next six months. The most recent set of Defence Analytical Services Agency figures published in November show that that was no idle threat, as 1,344 Army officers have indeed left in the past six months alone. That is twice the number for the year before, and three times that for 2004-05. The common factor appears to be the consequences of overstretch, with harmony guidelines being routinely breached.

The Under-Secretary of State and I on Monday, at an all-party group meeting on mental illness in servicemen, learned how important time between tours was for the mental health of our troops. Overstretch and the habitual breaching of harmony guidelines is undoubtedly making some of our people ill. I expect the Minister is as surprised as I am that none of our Liberal Democrat colleagues was at that meeting, particularly given their professed interest in the welfare of servicemen and the reference in their motion to mental health.

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Had the Liberal Democrats been there, they would have learned about community mental health pilots and perhaps shared my concern at the apparent desire of the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency further to reduce its exposure to the health care of veterans by shifting responsibility to our NHS, which with the best will in the world has struggled in identifying and prioritising the health care needs of members of a small and shrinking defence community.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Those rather cheap remarks about attendance or not at meetings that the hon. Gentleman happens to attend are inappropriate. I have met a number of mental health charities on a number of occasions, including with the Defence Committee. He should check his facts before he makes such comments in the Chamber.

Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record, but I did not see him at the meeting on Monday. He would have benefited greatly from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and I are familiar with Selly Oak and supportive of it. It is clearly right that our injured personnel are treated with the very best that our NHS can offer in an appropriate tertiary care centre. However, we continue to receive reports—I received one only a few minutes ago—of badly injured people still being nursed on mixed general wards. I seek the Minister’s assurance that he is doing everything he can to ensure that the military managed ward is of sufficient capacity to accommodate our injured service personnel.

The Chief of the General Staff’s leaked briefing tells us, on the subject of accommodation:

Those of us who have the honour and privilege of representing garrison towns will know that from our casework. Both as an MP and, before that, as a medical practitioner, I have been truly appalled by the service accommodation in my constituency. The commanding officer of 3 Para, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal DSO, cited the abysmal state of soldiers’ housing as one of the reasons for his resignation last month.

Ten years after it came to power, the Labour party still likes to blame long-term under-investment, but bed spaces that were acceptable a decade ago will have deteriorated massively in the interim, while expectations have risen in parallel with those of the general population. It is surely right that in the 21st century our young men and women should not have to endure a degree of squalor in many cases that would have a college hall of residence condemned. Yet in 2006-07 £13.5 million was sliced from the five regional prime contractors, putting basic maintenance on hold.

At the same time we have seen £2.3 billion spent on filling MOD main building with more marble, gilt and wood panelling than Saddam enjoyed in his Basra palace, as those of us who are familiar with that building will attest. We find more poor prioritising in the resurfacing of tennis courts and the construction of sports pitches, priorities that now seem questionable, in the view of the Public Accounts Committee and the MOD.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I agree, but when I raised in the House on 16 October the amount of money being
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spent on generals’ accommodation, I was roundly condemned by most of the Conservative Back Benchers.

Dr. Murrison: I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. As I understand it, the tennis courts in question were run for the benefit of the Royal Military Police.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way during an excellent speech. Does he share my concern that while budgets for soldiers’ accommodation are being cut, the Ministry of Defence was able to find several hundred thousand pounds for works of modern art? A spokesman at the time said, “Well, you can’t expect us to hang up pictures of dead admirals.” Presumably he was referring to war heroes of previous generations, whom the MOD now seems to think are not fit to adorn its walls.

Dr. Murrison: As ever, my hon. Friend has made a good point. The Government have at their disposal any amount of fine artwork, and it seems a pity that they have invested public funds in that way.

Nothing is more important to morale than pay and food, yet the joint personnel administration system has managed to churn out 55,000 cases of underpayment from January to September. We learn that this Christmas, soldiers have become dependent on the charity of regimental associations to tide them over. Where does the Minister think that fits in a military covenant that he maintains is not broken?

The Chief of the General Staff’s briefing team’s leaked report pops up again to criticise strongly the new way of charging people for food. Ministers know it as “pay as you dine”, but soldiers call it “save as you starve”. CGS staff believe that it is bringing a Pot Noodle and sandwich culture and say that they have even seen soldiers cooking ration packs over gas burners in their rooms. That is not a good situation to be in. Little wonder that soldiers are cynical; what was sold to them as a ritzy new line of restaurants and exciting eating opportunities has turned out to mean little more than the introduction of a till.

We have expressed our concern at the armed forces compensation scheme and I know that the Minister is reviewing its application. I await the outcome with great interest, but I am not convinced that the deal that our wounded soldiers get reflects the enormous debt that we owe them. Even with the guaranteed income payment, to which the Minister referred, it seems that many of our young men and women face a frugal existence that contrasts, I am afraid, with the financial outcomes for people with relatively minor occupational injuries.

Meanwhile, the PAX life insurance and compensation scheme, pushed by the MOD, intends to bump up premiums by at least 30 per cent. to mitigate the losses incurred through the current level of combat injury and death.

Mr. Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Dr. Murrison: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have made a bit of progress; I have already given way to him once.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Once too often.

Dr. Murrison: Once too often, as my hon. Friend says.

I have an interest in coroners’ inquests because the Wiltshire coroner is basing his work at the old Trowbridge town hall in my constituency. I have spoken to the coroner, Mr. David Masters, about these issues. I hope that the Minister will agree with the Prime Minister that having 122 inquests outstanding from Iraq and Afghanistan is unacceptable. I hope that he will be able to say what he will do to relieve what I regard as the avoidable stress being caused to bereaved families. Surely our military covenant should cover them.

Other Members have mentioned the issue of legal support for bereaved families. If the MOD feels it necessary to be represented at the inquests, it is surely right that families should be represented as well. I entirely endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and others, who have asserted that the circumstances are exceptional.

Those of us with children know what a preoccupation education becomes; we worry far more about our children’s education than we ever did about our own. The Liberal Democrat motion fails to mention families explicitly or education at all; those are serious omissions. However, this summer’s continuous attitude survey for Army members, whose children find themselves particularly exposed to turbulence, reveals that half the families feel that Army life is having a negative or very negative effect on their children’s schooling.

Research by Wiltshire local education authority, which is very much at the forefront of the issue, reveals that children from forces families perform worse in all subjects—particularly maths, interestingly—at all levels than their civilian-family neighbours. In Warminster in my constituency, 59 per cent. and 50 per cent. of pupils at the Avenue school and the nearby New Close primary school respectively come from service families. In Wiltshire overall, the figure can go up to 80 per cent. in some primary schools. That picture is repeated across the country in areas where there is a large military presence.

The problem is the turbulence that is caused and the other special factors that act as cost drivers in schools with a high proportion of service children. The children involved are great kids who deserve the very best, but they are handicapped by a funding formula that ignores their needs and the results of turbulence in particular. Such children are invisible in the pupil level annual school census; if they join and leave during the school year, it is as though they never existed for the purposes of the funding that their LEA gets. What effect does the Minister think that has on school finances? Is it any wonder that service children’s results are so relatively disappointing?

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