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5.19 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence had to say about the personnel Command Paper, and it put in my mind the importance of advocacy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) referred to his attempt to gain some recognition for the British Armed Forces Federation, an interesting subject that provided food for thought. There is often debate around whether a union is or is not applicable, and most hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that a union in its conventional format would not apply to the armed services. Interestingly, however, the legal position with the armed services as I understand it would be that, although service personnel could join a trade union, they simply could not be represented in the conventional way, and there is no move by the trade unions to take on that role.

Nevertheless, that raises the important issue of who advocates and how that advocacy is done. The personnel Command Paper and other such matters give us the opportunity in the House to comment and organisations outside to make their presence known. I have read much that the British Armed Forces Federation has sent out and I have looked at its website. It seems to have many sensible things to say, and perhaps that is the way in which it can contribute.
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There has been some advocacy recently, apparently on the part of service personnel, but I do not particularly agree with the style of what has been said. It has been done from the other House by former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. I have looked through the last 50 interventions and speeches made by Lords Inge, Guthrie and Boyce, but I have not seen a single reference to their own commercial interests—directorships in various companies. They are companies of particular note, for which I have considerable respect. I do not see the need to mention them again here, although I have mentioned the matter to the companies concerned.

If those senior and experienced former officers want to make their interventions, the least that they can do is have the same standards that are required by this House. Sadly, we are not at liberty to make a complaint to the other place. We can write to the Lords Speaker, but we cannot instigate any kind of inquiry; it must be done there, so they are beyond reproach in that sense. However, it behoves us to put qualifying parameters around what these former senior officers say. They may technically be serving officers; I think that Lord Inge may still be a serving officer on half pay as a retired five-star officer.

It is important when we hear advocacy deployed by people in this House or next door in the other place to understand what other interests they may have—particularly if they have considerable pecuniary interests, as Lord Inge and Lord Boyce especially have in the defence industry, but choose not to declare them. We have heard from the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) how those Members of the other House choose not to court publicity, but I cannot imagine anything further from the truth. More recently, they have been making intervention after intervention in public debate, courting publicity where they can. That does not serve debate or advocacy on the part of armed services personnel particularly well.

Others wish to speak, so I simply conclude by saying that there is plenty of room for advocacy. The Government have made it clear that the personnel Command Paper that is coming up is a perfect opportunity. I shall certainly be making a contribution and I urge hon. Members to help others outside this place who want to make contributions, while being wary of possible unstated vested interests.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Just two hon. Members wish to speak. The winding-up speeches will start at 5.35 pm and I leave it to them to see how it can be arranged.

5.23 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I pay tribute to members of Her Majesty’s armed forces. In particular, I mention 16 Air Assault Brigade from the Colchester garrison, who in the course of this year will be deployed to Afghanistan. We wish them Godspeed and a safe return.

I shall confine my remarks to two narrow areas of personnel. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) who, through parliamentary questions, has elicited the fact that half of the country’s single service personnel accommodation is substandard. I will balance
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that by saying that the new Merville barracks in Colchester provide the best possible accommodation, and that is the yardstick for which we should strive for all single military accommodation in a much shorter time frame than is currently envisaged, with only 38,000 rooms, apparently, achieving a top rating. I was not so happy to learn that almost 9,000 families remain stuck in grade 4 homes and another 387 are in accommodation so poor that it does not even reach the lowest official grading.

I am bound to observe that the sale by the last Conservative Government of the Ministry of Defence housing stock to Annington Homes must have been the biggest privatisation rip-off of the lot. When he sums up, perhaps the Minister will confirm that since that privatisation the Ministry of Defence has paid Annington Homes more in rent than the Government received when the 55,000 dwellings were sold in 1996. What makes the situation even worse is that if those sales of surplus accommodation—there have been many sales of such accommodation and Army land—had been invested in Ministry of Defence housing, all our Army, Navy and Royal Air Force families would now be living in family accommodation that was second to none.

I shall cite examples from my constituency of Colchester, and I cannot believe that they are isolated. Annington Homes managed to convince everybody that certain houses were so deplorable that they would have to be pulled down. The site has subsequently been sold off; land prices in Colchester are exceptionally high. Annington Homes made a financial killing, and only a tiny percentage came back to the Government—not even to the Ministry of Defence.

I shall give one other example, because the maths involved are easy for me. Some 40 former Ministry of Defence surplus dwellings on a single road had been purchased at an average price of £15,000 at privatisation. They were subsequently sold for £115,000, giving a gross profit of £4 million on just 40 dwellings. That story can be repeated right across the country, wherever Annington Homes has been selling off properties.

I turn to education matters, in particular the “Educating Service Children” report, which has 33 recommendations. It would be interesting to know how many of them have been adopted by the Ministry of Defence. I shall concentrate on recommendation 5:

Clearly, that recommendation has not been followed through in Colchester with the Ministry of Defence and Essex education authority; there is a proposal to close the secondary school to which the children go from age 11. That was the subject of my Adjournment debate of 22 October last year. Alderman Blaxill school is the smallest secondary school in Colchester; between a fifth and a quarter of its pupils come from Army families and its closure has clearly not been discussed with the MOD. I ask the Minister to look at that issue. Will he and his officials also look at my Adjournment debate of 25 October 1999 on the education of Army children? Clearly, issues raised then have not been addressed.

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Finally in my short contribution I want to mention three primary schools whose pupils come predominantly from services families, in the context of the closure by Essex county council of the hot school meals service in the county. Some 90 per cent. of children at Montgomery infant school are Army children, as are 70 per cent. of Montgomery junior school pupils. No hot meals are provided for them. I suggest that if the Army can provide meals for our service personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, there should be a system for providing hot school meals to children back in Colchester. About 60 per cent. of children at another school, St. Michael’s primary, are also from Army families. I urge the Ministry of Defence to consider seriously the whole question of education provision. It should look at what the Defence Committee said and act accordingly.

5.29 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): I have obviously drawn the short straw, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am grateful at least to have been able to draw one, however short.

One of the gratifying things about this debate is that it will be apparent to anybody who listens in from outside that there is absolute unanimity among everybody who has spoken, and in all parties in this House, about the importance of the military covenant and the commitment of any Government who send our troops abroad to ensure that they are properly supported, trained and equipped, and that they have fair and decent terms and conditions.

On that latter point, in my 20 years in the House there have never been a Government who have made so much progress in such a short time. Clearly, one never meets all one’s desiderata in life; equally clearly, there will always be public expenditure constraints. However, in the short space of time—18 months—that the Secretary of State has been in his present role, we have had the introduction of the operational allowance, which is tax-free and amounts to about £2,400 at the end of a six-month deployment; that is very significant. We have had an improved deployment welfare package, including 20 additional days’ leave at the end of a six-month deployment. We have had new rules and better ceilings for the compensation scheme. We have had the tax-free council tax rebate. We have had the new military wing at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham.

We have had, very importantly and for the first time ever, a cross-Government strategy for military personnel involving the MOD and the other Departments that are so crucial: the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which is important for reasons that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned; the Department of Health, which is important in terms of access to dental care and general practitioners as well as the military wings such as those at Selly Oak hospital; the Ministry of Justice which is important because of the sad matter of coroners’ inquests; and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which deals with access to council housing—I think that everyone in the House greatly welcomes the announcement of the legislation on that subject.

Last but not least, there is the pay deal, which has been very good, with the lowest ranks achieving 9.2 per cent. I personally express the great hope that this year
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the Government are again generous, because the military deserve to be treated as a very special case in relation to everybody else. That includes even the police, who may once or twice in their careers face a life-threatening situation, whereas the military live for six months at a time, on one deployment, with the prospect of being killed at any time. That is a very different psychological situation and a very different career pattern to adopt.

Apart from the covenant that the Government of the day have with the military— although, as I said, this Government have a wonderful record, taking into account all the obvious realities and constraints—there is a wider public covenant with the military. After all, the people who are in Helmand province and in Basra are risking their lives for our sakes. There is no doubt that if the terrorists who attacked last year in London and Glasgow had had the benefit of a six-month training course in Afghanistan in bomb-making and detonation techniques, the results of their endeavours would have been very different. There is no question but that the young men and women who are defending us in Afghanistan are risking their lives for our sakes. The covenant is not confined to the Government; it is an obligation that we all have.

There is overwhelming support in the country for the armed services in principle, with perhaps a few unfortunate exceptions, to which I shall refer in a moment. People often do not have the opportunities that they would like to express their sense of solidarity with the armed forces. The point has already been well made that there is probably less personal contact with and understanding of the military than there was in previous generations. In the world war two generation, or indeed the national service generation, almost every family had someone in uniform. The situation is very different now, and there are greater opportunities for misunderstandings or simple ignorance. The degree of public support for and understanding of the military is very important, because that is the context in which our armed services operate and recruit. It is also vital for morale, because nothing could be more demoralising than feeling that one is risking one’s life for people who are profoundly indifferent to, ignorant about or ill-informed as to what one is doing. Any sense of misunderstanding or misperception is very unfortunate and one would want to remove it.

Recently, there have been one or two very unfortunate incidents; they were exceptional and egregious, but extremely unattractive incidents. In one case, according to the popular press—I have not yet investigated this directly—a soldier in uniform was refused service on the forecourt of a BP service station. That was widely reported. In another incident, which I have investigated, having written to Mr. al-Fayed about it, a soldier was refused admission to Harrods because he was in uniform. That sort of thing is utterly disgraceful. Not very long ago, a woman was apparently insultingly rude about some wounded or crippled soldiers who were using a swimming bath. These unfortunate incidents are, of course, blown up by the popular press, but the fact that they exist must be a matter of deep concern to us.

That is the context in which the Prime Minister has asked me to undertake a study of national recognition and public understanding of the armed services in order to see what possible measures might be taken and
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what initiatives might be envisaged to enhance public understanding and respect for the armed services. In that, I am well supported by Air Commodore Martin Sharp, and Bill Clark OBE, who is a senior MOD civil servant. I hope that we can make a modest contribution to improvement in that field, as the Government have so laudably done by fulfilling their obligations under their military compact with the armed services.

5.36 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I begin by drawing the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I would also like to add my expression of admiration for our men and women in uniform, their long-suffering families, veterans and the organisations that look after them and their interests, often unsung. Veterans Aid, an organisation that I visited on Tuesday with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), is a drop-in centre near Victoria station, and many such organisations are doing similar work unsung, day in and day out, and we must pay tribute to them.

We have had an interesting and varied debate. A total of 11 Back-Bench speakers have all added, in their individual way, to the debate on this important subject. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) said that he was concerned about cadets and how people’s exposure to the military may have been reduced in modern times. He might have mentioned the abolition of the Government’s school visits teams, which were doing a great deal to increase the profile of the military in our schools but have been replaced by a compact disc.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) talked about mental health problems. I sincerely recommend that he visit the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’ hospital, which I did on Tuesday. I say in all sincerity that if he did so, he might gain a slightly more profound understanding of some of the extremely complex—and in many ways highly technical—issues that relate to mental health, and of the occupational implications of service in the armed forces.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) was greatly exercised about training, quite obviously, because MOD St. Athan lies within his constituency. He did not mention the voids and cancellation rates that apply to much of our training effort at the moment as a result of operational pressures and undermanning.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) rightly took exception to the Rowntree report. However, when we recruit people to our armed forces, it is appropriate that we highlight the positive aspects that represent a truthful reflection of what they are likely to be exposed to. Certainly, things such as sport and adventurous training, which have deteriorated in recent years because of operational commitments and pressures, are not quite as obvious an attraction to our young men and women as they were 20 or 25 years ago when I joined up. It is right that we paint an accurate picture of what the future holds in store for our recruits. My right hon. Friend also echoed Lord Guthrie’s remarks about the now Prime Minister’s apparent disinterest in military matters when he was Chancellor.

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The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) talked about the importance of logistics. Again, that is understandable, given his constituency interest. He was right to mention the importance of in-theatre tracking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) spoke authoritatively about his battalion and its return to Hounslow barracks. The Secretary of State said that he was interested in Hounslow barracks—I am, too, and I would like to visit. Perhaps we can all visit together and the Secretary of State might like to give us a lift.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) talked about health care, which is close to my heart, and the importance of taking a balanced view of the military covenant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) rightly paid tribute to the Royal British Legion, which has done so much to highlight the military covenant in the past few months. He spoke knowledgeably about suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is related to overstretch and harmony guidelines.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) railed against retired top brass. I have one or two things to say about the top brass, but in a slightly different vein.

I thought that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) would refer to early-day motion 2030, which he tabled in the previous Session. It related to a windfall tax on our defence suppliers and the impact it may have on our defence community.

It is important to place what we now call the military covenant in a proper historical context. Rudyard Kipling talked about the trials of Tommy Atkins in 1892. He was observed to be the saviour of his country in wartime but at other times was denigrated by an ungrateful and unappreciative public, who misunderstood him.

A hundred years on, it seems as though Tommy is still being slighted in some quarters. We have heard about people being told to remove the Queen’s uniform in British hospitals, airports, even sports facilities and being refused service in retail outlets. The difference between then and now is that our society is less deferential, less civil and arguably less polite. People’s ire today is freely and frankly expressed. Disapproval of the military has been heightened by unpopular conflicts and the Government’s failure to win the British people’s support for them.

The military covenant is a deal that is struck in recognition of our troops’ willingness to sacrifice everything. It is a tripartite deal, which involves, in equal measure, our armed forces, the people and the Government. According to ex-service chiefs and charities, two of those parties have reneged on the deal. Understanding the public’s attitude to the military does not necessarily help us fix it. Tommy Atkins may simply have to put up with the cold shoulder of public opinion, but there is no excuse for the third party to the covenant, the Government, to mirror society in disregarding the Army and its veterans.

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