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"There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States".
Mr Kevan Jones: I was looking at the Secretary of State's face when the hon. Lady was saying that she wants to spend a great deal more money. Can I ask her to get out of the la-la land of the campaign and look at what the last Labour Government did? We were the first Government ever to have a Veterans Minister and we were the first ever to have a Service Personnel and Veterans Agency-something that no Conservative Government ever provided.
Ms Bagshawe: If the hon. Gentleman had allowed me to develop my speech further, he would have heard me say that the cost implications are not the same for similar provisions in this country. Yes, of course there was a Veterans Minister and of course some progress has been made to care for our veterans, but I think that most hon. Members, and certainly most people in the country and in my constituency, think-as has been reflected in the speeches we have heard, including those from Labour Members-that the care provided is totally inadequate.
I am wearing today the Help for Heroes wristband. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) mentioned in his own maiden speech, the existence of Help for Heroes is a rebuke not only to the hon. Gentleman's Government, but to everyone in the House, as it is properly a function of Government to care for our veterans. Its popularity stems from the fact that it is seen to be filling the gaps in state care. The Ministry of Defence website includes anybody who has ever fought or worn this country's uniform, and it is estimated to reach about 10 million people in the UK, which is a hefty chunk of the population. There can be no comparison in terms of extra or additional spending for a British model of a Veterans Administration, because 87% of the American VA's spending costs are for medical care alone, so they are already covered in this country by the NHS.
Some half-hearted attempts have been made in this direction, such as the Veterans UK website, which is an information portal, but is, to be honest, very small beer compared to a dedicated Department focused on the military and their families. Many projects that are being brought forward, such as shared equity house purchasing and pilot schemes for extra mental health provision, which were of course announced in the Conservative manifesto, as was the application of the pupil premium to military families and their children, are in their infancy, but Rome was not built in a day. I recognise that the previous Government did not leave us the money to construct a Walter Reed on UK soil.
Our forces, who are, of course, the best in the world, have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq under-equipped and under-resourced. When they return home, they
should not have to hunt out and search for what help is available. A simple reorganisation of existing and, indeed, planned benefit changes is necessary. All these things can and should be easily accessible in one place, and, crucially, one Department should have responsibility.
Other measures such as legislation-for example, I would advocate making illegal the refusal of service at hotels or hostels on the ground that a soldier is wearing the Queen's uniform-or educational initiatives would help. For example, it is customary in the USA to thank military personnel for their service-something that we might usefully teach our own children. That would be effective in raising morale and would, of course, be totally free of cost.
We are embarking on a strategic defence review. Let us review, as part of it, the wholly inadequate present arrangements for supporting our troops and their families when they are off the field of battle. Let the new coalition Government signal their complete seriousness about restoring the military covenant and the pride they have in our troops. I urge the Government to go further than the piecemeal steps taken by the last Labour Government and to take steps to examine the feasibility of a UK Veterans Administration.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): We have had a very good debate, with 27 contributions and nine excellent maiden speeches. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) gave a fitting tribute to his predecessor; I agree that he was a very strong advocate for the defence industry and for BAE Systems and the Eurofighter. However, I feel that the hon. Member Fylde will find strange bedfellows in his new Liberal Democrat friends, when his two major employers are the nuclear industry and BAE Systems.
We heard a very good maiden speech from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). He paid tribute to Joan Humble, a very good friend of mine, who did a lot of work in the House on Deepcut and welfare issues. The hon. Gentleman explained the tortuous way in which he gets round his constituency by going through other Members' constituencies. I do not envy his task when he puts in his mileage claim to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and explains how he makes his journey.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) paid tribute to another good friend of mine, Linda Gilroy. He also paid tribute to the Royal Marines. When I was a Minister, I had the privilege to visit Plymouth on a number of occasions, and we should all be proud of and humbled by the work of Hasler Company on recovery capability, which, I have to say, was fully supported and financed by a Labour Government.
The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) spoke from his experience in the Territorial Army, and I thank him for his service to the nation. He paid tribute to the medical emergency response teams in Afghanistan. I have also met the individuals involved and they do a fantastic job. I hope that they will soon get recognition through the award of a campaign medal. He rightly spoke about the footprint of the defence industry in Bristol and the surrounding area. He also rightly lauded the doubling of the operational allowance,
although, on the basis of the written answer I received this week, it is an unfunded commitment, because the Government do not know where the money will come from.
The speech of the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) showed that she will be a strong advocate for the Navy, and I am sure that she will be popular with the Navy in that fine city. She said that she hoped she would not have to fight for the Navy against her Front-Bench colleagues. She might have to fight hard to support her constituency and the Royal Navy, because in opposition the Conservative party was very Army-focused-
The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) gave a beautiful description of what is a beautiful constituency, and she is a good salesperson for her local tourist board. She also paid tribute to Colin Breed, with whom I served on the Defence Committee and who had a keen interest in defence matters. She mentioned HMS Raleigh-if you want to see the best of British youth, Mr Deputy Speaker, you need to go to HMS Raleigh. As a Minister, I was honoured to attend a passing-out parade there last year, and it is humbling to see those who were once raw recruits passing out, with their families in tears, and going on to make a great contribution to our Royal Navy.
The hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) made, I think, a fitting tribute to her predecessor, as well as to a very good old friend of mine, Eric Forth, who once represented the area, which I had not realised previously. She also rightly pointed out her constituency's contribution to our armed forces, and I am sure that she will be a strong advocate for that constituency.
The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr Brine) represents a strong military area, which I was fortunate to visit on numerous occasions as a Minister. One of those visits was to launch the armed forces welfare pathway with Hampshire county council, with which I hope the new ministerial team will continue.
I have to say that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), in defeating Dr. Robert Spink, has done a favour to us and the rainforests of South America, because we will no longer have to put up with the nightly petitions he used to present. I thank her for that contribution to the environment. She also said rightly that she represents her constituency with pride, and I am sure that she will do a good job. She made the point that her constituency is a large contributor of men and women to our armed forces, and I wish her well in representing that constituency.
The debate had a large number of contributions. There is usually consensus across the House in such debates, although one would not think that if one saw some of the press comments, or the spin that came from Conservative Front Benchers, before the election. However, this is a serious subject, and we ought to ensure that Members in all parts of the House, as well as in the wider community, are involved in the review.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made a good point in saying that foreign policy clearly underpinned the review. He also made a good point about finance. One thing that I think the Government Front-Bench team will soon recognise is that the enemy is not in the Ministry of Defence or in its own parties, but across the road in the Treasury.
It was remiss of me not to welcome members of the Front-Bench team to their new positions. Let me also say that I am sad that the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who were collateral damage in the reshuffle, are no longer in that team. They worked very hard in opposition, and always dealt with me courteously when I was a Minister.
I think that we have taken a simplistic approach to finance in the context of the review. When we were in government, we fell into the habit of assuming that the civil service was bad and the military were good. I had the privilege and the great honour of being a Minister in the MOD, and I want to record my thanks to the civil servants and the military personnel with whom I worked. The MOD comes in for a great deal of criticism, but one thing that I would not question is the commitment and dedication of the individuals in that Department. It is true that we reduced expenditure on civil servants by cutting their number by 45,000, but savings will now have to be made across the board, and it would be wrong to make them in such a simplistic way.
An important question that has emerged today relates to the parameters of the debate that is to take place. We need to ask whether decisions have already been made, and whether some areas will be ring-fenced. In opposition, the Conservative Front-Bench team made it clear that they wanted to increase the size of the Army. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) said earlier that he would not quote things back at them. I am sorry, but I cannot help doing so.
"So are you saying that you want... a bigger army?"
"We want to see a bigger army."
"nothing had been ruled out-even cuts to the numbers of uniformed personnel."
Are we to believe that what the Conservatives said before the last election was just the rhetoric of opposition? Was it not, in fact, a cynical ploy to give the impression that they were the party that was standing up for the armed forces?
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): May I help the hon. Gentleman further, and ask him to confirm that the last Conservative Government reduced the size of the British Army, and that the Conservatives opposed the then Labour Government's cuts in the number of infantry units?
"Have we cut the surface fleets too much in order to buy high-end capability?"
That suggests that somehow the size of the Navy is ring-fenced. We are therefore slowly seeing whole chunks of the review being ring-fenced or put off-limits, so I question what type of review it is going to be.
"The Labour and Conservative policy of like-for-like replacement of Trident is absurd"
"Labour wants to press ahead with a £100 billion nuclear weapons system designed for the Cold War and won't even consider Trident in the upcoming defence review. That makes no sense."
I understand from the coalition agreement that Trident will be scrutinised to ensure value for money but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) ably pointed out, we are not quite clear what the value-for-money review actually means. Does it mean going back to the proposals of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife for a cruise-based alternative, or is it just about tinkering with the figures? The new Chief Secretary to the Treasury clearly did not have a clue when he addressed the House last week. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness, he said:
"The hon. Gentleman has no doubt studied carefully the coalition programme...The value-for-money review will do precisely what it says on the tin: we want to get the best value for money from the project and not waste taxpayers' money unnecessarily on the renewal."-[ Official Report, 17 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 1049.]
Mr Jones: Well, no, I do not, because I have to say that I agree with the Conservative Front-Bench team that we must make sure to replace Trident. I must also say that my hon. Friend threw me a little when he said in his speech that he was now supportive of myself and other former Ministers; I am glad he has turned over a new leaf in opposition.
Dr Fox: As the hon. Gentleman agrees with the Government's position on this, given his own experience will he enlighten colleagues as to why the previous Government came to the decision that Trident was the most effective and cheapest way of providing us with a continuous at-sea deterrent?
My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness raised an interesting point-the idea that we can play stop-go with the building of nuclear submarines is wrong; instead, we need to keep the skills base together. People must recognise that key point. That policy is what led to the problems we are currently facing with Astute. The options were looked at in detail and it was found that, in terms of the procurement of warheads and of the boats themselves, Trident is the most cost-effective way to proceed.
However, I must ask the Minister for the Armed Forces whether, in terms of the review, we are talking about basic principles or simple value for money? A yes or no answer will suffice. Alternatively, is this, as we all suspect, simply a bit of political posturing to keep the unilateralists in the Liberal Democrats on board while not scaring the cold war warriors in the Tory party such as the hon. Member for New Forest East?
Much was said in the debate about the covenant and the work on that-or lack of work, as the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe) said. She should look at what we actually achieved in government, and it would be nice if she could support and build upon that.
On value for money, the Treasury will of course look in detail at whatever review takes place, and it is clear that the Secretary of State is also looking at that requirement. In the article that I mentioned earlier, he said that there might not be so much "fat in the system" as was previously thought, but that although the overall defence budget would be protected, dramatic savings would still have to be made. Between 1997 and 2008, Labour added an average £1 billion a year to the defence budget and there was the longest-sustained growth in defence expenditure ever in this country. It is important to get some clarity tonight. If the defence review says there is a need for more defence expenditure, will the Secretary of State argue for that or will he simply take an inflation increase, which would effectively be a cut in the defence budget?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I was responsible for personnel issues within the Department. There has been much criticism in the past few weeks about bloated public sector pay and pensions. Armed forces personnel are public sector workers, although we do not see them as such, and it will be interesting to see whether he will exempt them from the pay restraint being suggested. Is he going to implement fully the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, as we did in the last Government? On pensions, will he exempt armed forces pensions from the review that is taking place? If he is looking for hopeful signs from the former Member for Barrow and Furness, Mr John Hutton, let me tell him that when I suggested that we should look into this, Mr Hutton was the one who scuppered it and then went against the permanent secretary who recommended that the issue should be looked at.
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