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The survival rate issue produces particular challenges in regard to treatment. One of the members of my local British Legion committee said that some of the people on active service in Afghanistan or Iraq would not have survived 20 or 30 years ago. That is absolutely true, and we have heard testament today to the work being done in that respect. We need to support the people involved as much as possible through the process, and I welcome the investment that is going into Selly Oak and to Headley Court, but may I make a plea to the Minister to consider what more
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can be done to provide support and accommodation for families who have to be there with their loved ones over a long period of time?

One of the most moving things that any Member has to do every year is to attend Remembrance day services and, in many cases, to lay wreaths in memory of the servicemen who have lost their lives. These issues have come so much more to the fore in recent years not only because of the media coverage of historical anniversaries but because we are acutely conscious of the sacrifices made in more recent conflicts, such as the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq. Last year, I laid my wreath at the Blackpool war memorial, following the parents of Gunner Lee Thornton, who was killed while on active service in Iraq. His parents are still awaiting his inquest, and I have written to the Blackpool and Fylde coroner on their behalf to ask what we can do to speed up the process. I welcome the Government’s proposals on centres of excellence, but may I again make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister to take whatever action he can on this issue now?

The Veterans Agency—which is based just outside my constituency, in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood—does an excellent job, but many claims are still disputed. The Government should not be afraid to put right old anomalies. In that regard, I want to make particular reference to the treatment of merchant marine servicemen, which has not always been on a par with that provided to the other services. In fact, just before his death, Jack Nield, to whom I referred earlier, sent me some casework on that issue, which I shall take up with Viscount Slim, the president of the Burma Star Association.

Every year, at the Blackpool cenotaph, Jack Nield used to deliver the famous Kohima epitaph:

Our servicemen are still giving their tomorrows in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their families are having to bear the pain and suffering. Let us ensure that everything that we do to support them and to honour the covenant matches that sacrifice.

3.24 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and to echo his sentiments. He was a distinguished editor of History Today.

I should like to look at a different aspect of the military covenant that I think parliamentary colleagues will regard as crucial, even if they disagree with some of my interpretations. It is the breakdown of the military covenant between Ministers and senior officers. I declare an interest in that I taught military history to service personnel for many years. I also did two and a half years as a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence. I have therefore seen these issues from both sides.

I think we all agree, although we might place our emphasis in different areas, that public disquiet is increasingly being expressed not only by regiments of retired officers—to whom some serving officers refer as
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“the dead Army”—but by serving officers themselves. I am thinking particularly of the comments made by General Sir Richard Dannatt and the perhaps more discreet comments from Air Marshall Stirrup, the present Chief of the Defence Staff, about a range of issues that have also been mentioned today.

There is nothing new about tensions between politicians and senior officers. It comes down to personalities, politics, budgets, resources and, of course, policies. Our history is littered with robust individuals in the military, including Nelson and Wellington, and Roberts and Wolsey in the late 19th century. Relations between politicians and the military during the first world war were often appalling—between Lloyd George and Haig, for example. There was also a robust relationship between Churchill and senior officers in the second world war. People such as Mountbatten and “Shan” Hackett also spring to mind. There have been faults on both sides.

I suggest, however, that it is unusual to have had such an outpouring of feeling not only from retired officers—to have all the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff speaking as one is quite unusual—but from serving officers. We should accept the fact that, although most military personnel have a deep interest in political issues and will argue strongly not only about military matters but about matters that concern them as ordinary voters, including the environment, the police and that kind of thing, they tend to have a pretty low opinion of politicians. I suspect that we come just above child molesters and journalists in their rating system.

When the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff spoke out, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) suggested that they were all part of a Tory plot. I do not think that that is the case at all. I suspect that many of them have never voted Conservative; some might not vote at all. The fact is that these serving and retired military men believe that the stresses and strains that the armed forces have been under for the past two or three years are unprecedented. The fact that Richard Dannatt, who is normally a most cautious and discreet man, spoke publicly strikes me as significant.

I believe that the military covenant is in danger of breaking down because the chain of command itself is under such enormous pressure. Many middle-ranking and senior officers believe that their men and women—and, more importantly, their families—do not believe that the chiefs of staff are accurately and forcefully representing their concerns to Ministers; hence they feel forced to speak out. Anyone familiar with the array of military blogs will know the reactions of servicemen and women to this matter.

One of the problems that the Government face is that their strategic defence review in 1998—which was warmly welcomed by the military establishment, which participated fully in it—was, sadly, never properly funded. Indeed, the man who drove it through, Admiral Essenheim, ended up retiring early from the Navy in disgust.

For decades, as we all know, the military appear to the Treasury to have cried wolf on resources. On so many occasions—be it the Falklands, the Gulf war,
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Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq or Afghanistan—they have said before those conflicts, “We have insufficient resources.” Invariably, they deliver. Why? At the end of the day, they do so because they cannibalise their resources; because, as former Prime Minister Blair knew, they have a can-do mentality; and, more recently, because we have been borrowers from the Americans. Without being able literally to borrow kit in Afghanistan, the armed forces would not be able to operate.

The military fear that eventually the armed forces will be irreparably damaged if this current tempo continues, and that there will be, in the words of General the Lord Guthrie, some degree of “operational failure”. What is the attitude of Ministers to this? I do not accept the criticism of some colleagues that the problem is that none of the defence Ministers has any military experience. That is the norm and is likely to be the future norm, and it does not mean that they cannot perform their functions properly. After all, one does not have to be a train driver to be Secretary of State for Transport, or to be a teacher to be Education Secretary. What those in the professions that operate within those Ministries look for is Ministers who are competent and forceful and can explain the case and, where necessary, take responsibility for failures and inadequacies that they are ultimately responsible for. I am afraid to say that one of the Government’s problems is that the Prime Minister has a reputation, unlike his predecessor, for not being particularly interested in defence. He has almost a Gladstonian attitude to defence, and it has not been helped by spinning.

Many comments have been made about the fact that the current Secretary of State is double-hatted. I do not cast any aspersions on his hard work—he is a very committed man and I suspect that privately, he is deeply embarrassed about being double-hatted. However, the message that that sends to the servicemen and their families is entirely negative. It does not matter if he is doing only one hour a week on that other job; what matters is the perception, as much as anything else. That has contributed in part to what I believe is the erosion of the military covenant.

The crucial element missing from any debate about the military covenant and relations between Ministers and the military is the role of the policy-making civil servants, who are absolutely crucial. In my day at the MOD, they were quite formidable. Sir Michael Quinlan, the permanent under-secretary, was a man who made the Chief of the Defence Staff automatically put an exercise book down the back of his trousers and my noble Friend Lord King start hiccupping nervously. He was a formidable man. I am not sure whether the policy-making civil servants of today are of the same calibre, but they are crucial in developing many policy areas and in maintaining the military covenant. We need to look more carefully at their role.

If the House at least accepts my contention that there are problems—even if they do not accept that there is a breakdown of the military covenant—how do we repair them? First, Ministers just have to try harder and not spin. They have the responsibility of repairing mutual confidence. Equally, the military should not leak. They should not go to the media because if they do, why should their ordinary soldiers, sailors and
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airmen not do the same thing if they happen to disagree with the operational orders of a senior officer? This is going to depend on robust personal relationships. I see nothing wrong in the fact that there will be robust discussions between the military and Ministers.

Finally, we need to look at the whole question of our national security strategy and institutions. If we do not get this right, we will have future conflicts in which the relationship will break down completely, and we will revert to a position in which politicians and the military have mutual antipathy, as they did during the first world war, when the military were referred to as “brass hats” and civilians were referred to as “frocks” because of their frock-coats. We need to get this right.

3.34 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I am aware of the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall be as brief as I can be. It is a privilege and a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who made a characteristically excellent speech, although I disagreed with some of his points. I will not deconstruct his speech, but I agreed with much of what he said. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), introduced himself as, effectively, a serving officer. I remember the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk sticking it to me in an Adjournment debate regarding what I did before I was a Member here, albeit in a slightly different context. Nevertheless, things have moved on and it seems to be much more the norm for officers—on the other side of the House, uniquely—to get operational experience and to come back here and make their recent expertise known in the House. That is no bad thing and it adds to the mix in a useful and important way.

Dr. Murrison: I was simply bringing the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to criticise me had I not done so.

Mr. Joyce: It is not my intention to criticise; my point is that it is pretty much the norm for Members to go on some kind of operations, and to come back to the House and give it the benefit of their expertise. That change has occurred in the past five or 10 years, and it has certainly occurred in the relatively short time that I have been here. That is a good thing, but it flags up the complicated nature of the relationship between people who have served, those who are serving—be they members of the Territorial Army or of the reserve forces—and those who are on half pay. I might be wrong, but I think that some former Chiefs of the Defence Staff are on half pay, rather than being retired officers in the other House. I want later to address a few aspects of the behaviour of the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said at the beginning of his speech that the military covenant should be codified. We all know that, in a way, it is codified. [ Interruption. ] Well, it is and it is not. The reality is that one cannot codify a relationship between society and service personnel. The fundamental thing about the military covenant is that it is exactly that—a relationship involving society as whole. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces rightly pointed
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out how important it is that we have a meaningful and proper debate about the resources that we spend on defence and how we spend them.

The accommodation situation is still a disgrace. I have no idea how we as a nation, regardless of which party is in power, have allowed military accommodation to reach a point where, frankly, it is not good enough. The Government are doing what they can. They have put in £5 billion—we have all heard the figures, which have been mentioned many times—and they are doing many things that will benefit serving personnel. A future Conservative Government might well do something similar—I have no idea—but I notice that when the Conservatives tell us that we should spend more than the uplift we are already spending, they never add to that a spending commitment. That has to devalue to some degree what they say. When they come up with a spending commitment, they may have a stronger moral edge to their argument.

I mentioned the hon. Member for North Devon simply because it is wrong to say that the covenant is akin to a legal contract—that it is almost like terms and conditions of service, or a document that lays down the relationship between a Government and their service personnel. Much of what we should be doing with the military covenant is about people’s attitudes. We have all heard the stories recently about troops being forced out of swimming pools and people putting in planning objections to buildings—at Headley Court and elsewhere—that will be used by people visiting their loved ones who have been injured in the forces. These things are commonplace and it is the job of all of us and others—including the media, I would like to think—to change people’s attitudes.

Fundamentally, it is true that how much money we spend as a nation on defence is a big issue. We frame it in terms of a proportion of our gross domestic product or sometimes we talk about increasing expenditure in real terms. Whatever we do, there is an argument to be won with the public at large. For that reason, when we talk about the military covenant, we should think in those terms—of the public at large—rather than just in terms of the relationship between Ministers, the Government and service personnel.

I want to add a mild note of criticism. People generally tend not to criticise the Royal British Legion and, on the whole, I do not either. I do think, however, that a touch of some aspects of its campaign over the military covenant has jumped into that space for criticism. It may have been done for good campaigning reasons, but it has jumped into that space where people have tended to view the campaign as a criticism of the Government. I find it slightly peculiar that the Royal British Legion put on events at party conferences, yet did not allow Ministers to speak on the grounds that it would be political. Why come to party political conferences? It seemed rather peculiar. The Royal British Legion’s campaign has largely been sound and appropriately delivered, but some aspects in the margins should be thought about again more critically before it launches into its next big campaign on whatever subject.

I would now like to say a few words about what I believe to have been disgraceful behaviour in the other place, which was co-ordinated and organised by the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. These are people
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who want to put themselves above politics, yet they will quite happily stand at the launch of a perfectly legitimate “Way Forward” Tory party document. I realise that Conservative Way Forward is more a Tory think-tank than an official party document, but it is preposterous in the extreme to think that former chiefs of staff can write a foreword to a political pamphlet and then try to pretend that they are above politics. That is a farce. Frankly, although I realise that they have a great deal to contribute—they are enormously talented and capable officers—if they want to put their political cards on the table, let them do it, but let us not shilly-shally about what their political sentiments are.

BlackBerrys are a miracle. I think I am right in saying, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am allowed to get some data on my BlackBerry as I am sitting here. I say that because this may not be a complete list. I do not think that General Guthrie mentioned the fact that he was a paid director of Colt Defence, Siboney Ltd, Sciens Capital, and Rothschild; or that Field Marshall Inge mentioned that he was a paid director of Aegis, which clearly has interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They are excellent companies, by the way, and I know that they will be very excited and pleased to see themselves referred to in this place today. Lord Boyce is a paid director of WS Atkins and of Vosper Thornycroft. I may be wrong, as I have just had a quick perusal of the Hansard from the other place. I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what the rules are and I doubt whether they have broken any of them. However, I will say that former chiefs of staff are probably earning more from their directorships than paid Members of this House and that if they do not want to declare those directorships and if they want to get politicised and personalised—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. It is one thing to refer to the qualifications and interests of Members of the other House, but he must be careful not to imply anything else when he makes these remarks.

Mr. Joyce: I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me just say that if they want to become personalised and politicised and to earn lots of money from interests that they do not declare before they make a speech, that will enormously devalue how they are perceived. That would be a great pity, as it would devalue their advice and their comments, which would be highly regrettable.

Let me make one final point. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—as ever, he makes very good points— referred to the important relationship between Ministers and chiefs of staff. That really is important. General Jackson has made many comments recently, and I sometimes think that he is being criticised for having been highly professional about how he conducted that relationship. Perhaps it is time for the former chiefs of staff in the other place to reflect on whether they think that their co-ordinated and politicised outburst of a couple of weeks ago helped or hindered the relationship between Ministers and the current chiefs of staff. If a Minister is chatting to a chief of staff about the important issues of the day, he might be thinking that in a couple
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of months’ or a year’s time, that chief of staff will be quoting personal conversations or behaviour and slagging him off personally. That is highly regrettable. The former chiefs of staff next door have done considerable damage. I know that they will not be embarrassed. From what I can see of them, they are not embarrassed at anything as they think that they are above politics. Well, they are not.

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