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10 Jan 2008 : Column 590

Armed forces personnel do not live in a vacuum, and the current high levels of deployment have a great impact on service families. If we were to say that a group of people in our society move home more often than the norm, have lower levels of home ownership, higher levels of substandard housing, rising divorce rates and higher levels of family separation, we would not be describing the disadvantaged in the inner cities. We would be talking about our service families, who offer so much to this country.

We have spoken many times recently in the House about housing, health care and education for service families, and about the need for proper mental health services operating on a through-life basis. Dealing with all those problems is a matter of urgency, but there are places where some people are already making a difference.

In Cyprus, for example, the organisation Relate is carrying out splendid work to help to hold service families together, with excellent results. The same work could be undertaken more widely here at home if there were greater Government support. I ask the Secretary of State to look at the work that Relate is doing and at the high success rates that it is achieving, because it has brought something very positive to bear on the welfare of service families. I hope that he will find an opportunity to meet Relate staff and discover what help that organisation can give to service families in the UK.

The Government talk about how they value our armed forces, but their inaction and the subsequent breaking of the military covenant have merely added to the strain already placed on our armed forces. That will have a long-term impact on Britain’s military readiness to meet the unexpected challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead.

The next Government will inherit a military that is both overstretched and undermanned, and in possession of equipment that is worn out as a result of the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is not an assumption; it is a fact. Equipment is wearing out faster than expected—faster than in the original plans—and there seems to be no visible attempt by the Government to do much about it.

We are still not properly prepared or equipped for our current undertaking in Afghanistan. When I visited that country a few weeks ago, I found that we had too few serviceable Apache or Chinook helicopters. Spare parts had not been given sufficient consideration in advance, and the current tempo of operations means that there is no option on the ground but to cannibalise other aircraft. The Government’s catastrophic decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion is now biting hard. Even some of the excellent new Mastiff armoured vehicles—I give the Government full credit in that respect—are sitting idle because of a lack of spare parts.

In personnel and manning, the numbers are only getting worse, despite the gloss the Secretary of State tried to put on them. In April last year, the Government’s own agency reported that the British armed forces were 5,790 trained personnel short; in December last year, we learned that, in the span of six months, that figure had increased by 1,240 to more than 7,000. The position is deteriorating—it is reaching crisis point. That is a scandal.

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Troops are leaving in droves, to the delight of their disenchanted families. The July 2007 Public Accounts Committee report on recruitment and retention stated that

That is a direct result of overstretch. Service members are now deployed more, with less time in between deployments, which places a tremendous burden on service families who are left behind in the UK.

After six years of intense fighting and overstretch, our military is nowhere close to being capable of meeting this Government’s defence planning assumptions. The 1998 strategic defence review, which is 10 years old this year, is, for all intents and purposes, out of date. We need another strategic defence review.

Since 1997, the percentage of total Government spending allocated to defence has fallen from 6.7 to 5.9 per cent. That is a drastic reduction, given that that period covers major operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, but it reflects where defence comes in this Government’s priorities. The first duty of Government is the defence and security of the British people. In using our armed forces personnel for that purpose, the Government have a responsibility and moral obligation to ensure that they are fully trained and fully equipped and that their families are adequately cared for. To date, this Government have failed—not only part-time, but second rate.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has put a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches. That applies from now on.

3.47 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I join other right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the professionalism and dedication of our armed forces, and in expressing support and admiration for those now serving on operations.

In recent years, the demands that we have made of our armed forces have been great, but consistently, in spite of the most difficult circumstances and in the most dangerous operational theatres, those demands have been met. Our armed forces truly are the best in the world and they deserve only the best from us. It is our duty to show them that they are valued by the people of the country that they serve, by their Government and by their Parliament.

At the same time, to ensure that our armed forces remain the best, we must not only recruit the best but retain the best. I know that that is easier said than done; recruitment and retention are major challenges in the private sector, as well as in the armed forces. In a strong economy such as ours, the competition for well trained, highly skilled people is fierce in every sector, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. However, the nature of the work and the dangers that come with being a member of the British armed forces make that problem especially acute.

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Each year, we need about 20,000 new recruits to retain our operational capability, and I am encouraged by the figures that my right hon. Friend gave. In 2006-07, there were 19,790 new recruits, which is an improvement on previous years. That is a positive sign, but we need to do more to keep that level of recruitment, and to maintain the strength of our armed forces. Our success in recruiting personnel and retaining those in service is bound to be affected by how they are treated, and how they seem to be treated. My mission statement when I was a Defence Minister was simply this: we will value our servicemen and women and their families. We will value our reserves, our cadets and their families and employers, and our veterans and their widows and families, and we will do everything in our power to demonstrate that. We can begin to demonstrate that we value them by ensuring that they have the most attractive pay and benefits package in the jobs market.

We must address the problem of the cultural drift that I sense between society and the armed forces. Fewer and fewer people have any idea of what it is like to serve in the armed forces, because fewer people know someone who is serving in the armed forces, or who has had military experience. That is why we must make sure that young people can have a taste of military life while they are at school. I welcome the pilot scheme to extend combined cadet forces to state schools.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman gave great service as a Defence Minister; he was much respected for what he did. There is an unnecessary disconnect. Does he agree that the public response to the “help for heroes” appeal in national newspapers before Christmas was outstanding, but that the fact that the appeal was necessary shows why many people feel that the covenant has been broken? For want of a tiny amount of money, the Ministry of Defence gives itself a very bad public relations image. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that, although many people support our armed forces, they often get the impression—perhaps for the wrong reason—that the Government are not doing so in the way that they could.

Mr. Touhig: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The instinctive reaction of the British people is to support our armed forces. The point that I was trying to make is that there is a growing disconnect, because ever more people do not have knowledge or experience of people who serve in the armed forces, and that is not healthy.

To return to the issue of combined cadet forces, the pilot scheme that has been rolled out moves us in the right direction. I hope that the scheme will be rolled out across Britain. That would allow us to enhance the education and training of young people in skills and trades that are often in short supply, while giving a head start to those who want to make a career in the armed forces. I should like more to be done; I would like a trust fund to be created specifically to support the development of the cadets services, to which private firms would be asked to contribute. The cadets do a wonderful job, creating all sorts of interesting and exciting developments in young people’s lives.

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It is no bad thing to raise funds by helping to fill shopping bags in supermarkets at Christmas, but that is not a certain funding stream, and we should not encourage it to be viewed as such. We need to do more, and as the private sector has a strong interest in developing a skilled work force for the future, I expect that quite a number of companies would be willing to support such a trust fund. There is more that we can do to engage private companies in co-operation that would benefit both them and service personnel. We could set up partnerships with firms to ensure that when someone is coming to the end of their forces career they can contact a company that will guarantee them an interview, provided that they meet the basic requirements. After all, those with military experience bring a wide range of skills and abilities to civilian life that no one else can contribute to a business or organisation. Civil society and the armed forces have many shared interests that are often overlooked, and the Government must do more to strengthen co-operation in respect of those interests, for the benefit of all.

A major factor in the recruitment and retention of our service personnel is housing. Measures such as the £700 million invested in forces accommodation last year, and the commitment to spend at least £5 billion on housing in the next decade, are certainly encouraging developments. However, our servicemen and women are no different from anyone else in society when it comes to wanting to get a foot on the housing ladder. Given the sacrifices that we expect from them, and the demands that we make of them, we should do all that we can to support servicemen and women in that ambition. We should look at ways of working with financial institutions, with a view to offering discounted mortgages, perhaps at a rate that is fixed at the time when the mortgage is taken out, and which applies for the duration of servicemen and women’s time in the forces.

Alternatively, as I have suggested in the past, we could offer service families a lump sum of, say, about £30,000 as a contribution towards a deposit on a mortgage. We could look at ways of developing a savings scheme in which someone could earn above commercial interest rates throughout their time in the forces, and the amount saved could be matched by a lump sum from the MOD when they leave. The money could then be used as a deposit on a house. We could engage financial institutions in exploring that.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I applaud the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. Does he agree that the huge merit of that proposal is that it does not put service people early in their careers in a position where, having bought early because they so badly wanted to get on the housing ladder, they become more likely, according to the huge study that was done in the 1990s, to leave the forces prematurely?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valid point. There is evidence that that has happened. I am trying to suggest ways in which we can stem that drift from the forces. Such measures would demonstrate loud and clear to servicemen and women that we value them, and would certainly have a significant impact on recruitment and retention. However, the most basic measure that would surely make the biggest difference to recruitment and retention is pay.

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I welcome the best public sector pay deal which our armed forces had last year. I welcome the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he says that the armed forces’ salary growth has exceeded the whole economy in all but one of the past five years, but competition with private sector pay is a fight that we must stay in, or we will not retain our people in the armed forces. We could also look at introducing an increased tax allowance for members of the armed forces, or an income tax rebate for servicemen on active duty. That would be welcomed by those serving.

We must do much to underpin our support for our veterans. They have made a tremendous contribution, and the way in which we treat them has an impact on recruitment and retention. If we can demonstrate our gratitude for their efforts in securing our freedom and protecting our interests, we are much more likely to encourage others to join the armed forces. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that it will surely impact very positively on recruitment and retention if we show people who have served in the armed forces that, as far as the Government are concerned, they remain part of the forces family for the rest of their lives.

Again, I renew my call for the creation of a separate veterans department—a department that would provide a stronger voice for veterans within the Government. It would act as a focal point for veterans issues, and send out a powerful message that help and support will always be available for ex-servicemen and their families as long as they need it. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to these points and others that I know will be raised in the debate today.

It is my hope that, by our words and deeds, we can go some way towards matching the commitment of the brave men and women of the British armed forces, who demonstrate their service to us day in, day out, and their service to their country. That would be the true covenant between the British people and our armed forces.

3.57 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): It is an honour to contribute to the debate today. I am in the place of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who has to leave early for a long-standing constituency engagement. He apologises to the House, although I am sure that he is able to speak for himself.

Today’s debate follows a debate on the military covenant last month led by the Liberal Democrats. There were some excellent contributions to that debate. Then, like today, no Members from the Scottish National party were present. They claim to be a party of government who want to govern Scotland, but they seem to have little interest in the defence of the nation, as I am sure Members across the House would agree.

I shall be vacating my position on the Defence Committee. Members of the Committee have entertained my serving as a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats and as a member of the Committee at the same time, and I am grateful to them for that. [Interruption.] I particularly enjoy the contributions from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who seems unable to keep quiet today. I thank the Chairman for his leadership
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of the Committee during that time. It has been an enjoyable experience. We have done some good work, as I hope the Secretary of State for Defence would agree. I shall be sad to leave the Committee.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Without turning this into a mutual appreciation society, may I say that the Defence Committee will certainly miss the hon. Gentleman? His contribution has been outstanding.

Several hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Willie Rennie: I will leave the matter there for today.

My main proposition is that we are asking too much from our armed forces. The strategic defence review in 1998 envisaged one major operation, such as Gulf 1, or a lesser deployment, such as Bosnia, or a small brigade-sized operation elsewhere. But since 2003 we have been operating on two major fronts, and, as we have heard today, that is leading to overstretch. We are breaching the harmony guidelines and have done so for the last seven years.

The Army harmony guidelines clearly state that over a 30-month period people should not be away from their base for more than 415 days, but 10 per cent. of the Army are breaching those guidelines—that is 10,000 personnel. What we do not know from the figures is whether there are repeat offenders—whether people breach the harmony guidelines over a number of years. Therefore, we do not know how many people have been affected in the longer term rather than just in the previous year. The medical services are suffering the worst. Among general surgeons, 21 per cent. are breaching the harmony guidelines.

We have also seen huge shortages as a result of the breaching of the harmony guidelines. It is a vicious circle. When we ask too much of our armed forces they leave early, which results in shortages, which in turn leads to more overstretch and breaching of the harmony guidelines. We need to get a grip of that, because it results in the disillusionment of huge numbers of armed forces personnel. Ministry of Defence surveys showed that only three in 10 felt valued, and in one in four personnel morale was low or very low. As a result, more are leaving the forces, which results in retention difficulties. During the past year, 5,000 people have left the forces, and among officers the situation is particularly bad. In the last six months of 2007, 1,350 officers left the forces, which is double the figure for the previous 12 months. Since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, 6,000 officers have left the forces. As a result, we are 7,000 below strength in the armed forces as a whole.

Over the Christmas period, I met a long-standing friend who has been in the forces for 10 years. He is a skilled tradesman and over the past few years he has been asked to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Having just returned from Iraq, he has been asked to go back to Afghanistan, but he has decided that he has had enough, and many of his friends feel exactly the same because we are asking far too much of our forces. Hon. Members have heard me say before that we are now trawling around looking for volunteers, such as storemen from Faslane, bandsmen who are going out to Cyprus, and even politicians, including Members of the Scottish Parliament.

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