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We are getting the Prince's Trust into jobcentres so that we can help build volunteering partnerships. That is why, for young people in particular, we are developing a far more flexible back-to-work model that gives Jobcentre Plus managers the freedom to work with them and help them get the support that in the past has been lacking. We are also launching a new work experience programme to get young people into the habits of work, with two to
eight-week placements targeting hard-to-help groups. We are putting 18 to 24-year-olds who have not succeeded in finding a job after nine months into the Work programme, with early entry for the most disadvantaged.
We have heard a host of contributions today and I would like to pick up on one or two of the themes that have been mentioned. The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) made an important contribution when he said that jobs play a pivotal role in our lives, and I wholeheartedly agree. He will therefore be as angry as we on this side of the House are that youth unemployment grew by 270,000 under Labour's stewardship. I hope he can support the programmes that the Government have put forward to address the issues.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?
Maria Miller: I will not, if the hon. Lady will forgive me, because we are very short of time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) talked about the importance of employability, which did not always come through in Opposition Members' contributions. She outlined the importance of recognising the need to localise support for young people and, in particular, to involve local employers in imaginative thinking to try to unlock the potential of our youth. That theme was echoed by my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), both of whom bring important experience to the debate as employers. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North talked about the importance of permanent and sustainable jobs and about Labour's failure to deliver a long-term, sustainable strategy for youth unemployment. By focusing on that broader element of the debate, he brought in the perspective of the employer.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire talked about the productivity gap that we see all too often in the market, a skills gap that the previous Government simply did not address, and the importance of education in ensuring that young people are skilled up for the future job market. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) made an important point in the debate, as did Opposition Members later, about the importance of ensuring that the most vulnerable get the support they need to get into employment. I can assure her that, through my work as the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, and by pressing forward with Work Choice, we will ensure that the Work programme is supplemented by particularly specialist support in that area.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), who is no longer in her place, made some important points on apprenticeships. Indeed, I think she said that she would have liked her party to have gone further on apprenticeships. I can assure her that where Labour did not go, we will go. I hope that she will support us in that.
Albert Owen: Will the Minister give way?
Maria Miller: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way, because we have a lot to get through.
It is important to use apprenticeships in the public sector to transfer skills into the private sector. At the heart of the debate-this is the point that Labour
Members were trying to bring out-is the role of the future jobs fund. We heard an impassioned speech from the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), who made sure that the House listened to his contribution, but I must set one or two of his facts straight. He asserted many points in his contribution, some of which have already been refuted by colleagues. Just to make sure that he is clear, the coalition Government did not abolish the future jobs fund; 75,000 people have started on a future jobs fund job, and that figure will rise to more than 100,000 in the coming weeks. We have honoured all future jobs fund commitments. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman: we will make sure that young people in his constituency continue to receive the support to which he referred.
The hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) and for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) raised a number of issues, particularly on the importance of inter-generational worklessness-something that Government Members feel was not tackled properly under 13 years of Labour. On the importance of re-establishing the culture of work, I am sure that their constituents would not support a scheme-the future jobs fund-that leaves half the young people whom it was designed to support on benefits seven months after they started on it. That is not the sort of success that anybody would like to see for young people today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) could not have put it better: it feels today as if Labour has been trying to create a smokescreen to hide its true record of failure. Today, we have heard again about Labour's legacy of failure: a failure to tackle the root causes of youth unemployment, with the number of people in youth unemployment when they left office 270,000 higher than when they entered, and a legacy that they tried to fix with a catalogue of short-termist schemes that seemed to owe more to managing unemployment figures and creating headlines than to trying to provide for the long-term futures of the young people whom we represent.
Let us be clear: the future jobs fund has not delivered, and it does not deliver the long-term opportunities that we, as constituency Members, want. The undeniable fact is that about half of those who went into the future jobs fund were back in the unemployment queues seven months later. The right hon. Member for East Ham called for action, and that is exactly what the coalition Government are delivering. In contrast to Labour, we are focusing on long-term skills.
Sheila Gilmore: Is it not the case that youth unemployment fell below 700,000 only at the very end of the period 1992 to 1997? It did not rise above 700,000 again until 2007, when the recession came. So, if we are comparing records, will the hon. Lady please get the record straight?
Maria Miller: I will absolutely get the record straight for the hon. Lady. It is very simple. She may give the House a lot of stats, but I will give one stat back to her: 270,000 more young people on unemployment benefits at the end of Labour's 13 years in government than at the start. That is the fact that matters.
Chris Ruane: Will the Minister give way?
Maria Miller: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, because I have two minutes in which to finish.
In contrast, we are focusing on long-term skills and sustainable jobs for young people-a real future for the people whom we represent. There will be 50,000 extra apprenticeships this year, at about half the cost of future jobs fund placements, and we will deliver skills that will last a lifetime. The Work programme will provide personalised support that has never been seen before in this country-caring for the individual and caring for individual needs.
There will be work experience opportunities for young people and voluntary opportunities that make the difference, with people getting that first step on the employment ladder and that first job. There will also be a new universal credit that supports young people into work and does not trap them in a lifetime of welfare dependency and underachievement.
Labour spent £4 billion on its new deal projects, much of which was aimed at young people, but we saw unemployment among young people going up. That is a national disgrace. The real change is happening right now. We are not wasting any time. We are giving the young people of Britain the support that they need to reach their potential and to get the experience and training that they need for long-term job opportunities. We are going to set people up for life with the skills that they need.
This is not the time to turn back to Labour's failed policies of the past 13 years. I urge hon. Members across the House to reject the Opposition motion and to support a more positive future for Britain.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I now have to announce the results of Divisions deferred from a previous day. On the Question relating to immigration, the Ayes were 474 and the Noes were 23, so the Ayes have it.
On the Question relating to the terrorist finance tracking programme, the Ayes were 484 and the Noes were 5, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division lists are published at the end of today's debates.]
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Before I call the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) to move the motion, I should emphasise that a large number of Members wish to speak in this debate, which is why a six-minute limit has been put on Back-Bench speeches. May I also ask for restraint from Front Benchers, so as to enable as many Back Benchers to speak as possible?
Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab): I beg to move,
That this House supports establishing in law the definition of the Military Covenant, in so doing fulfilling the Prime Minister's pledge of 25 June 2010 to have 'a new Military Covenant that's written into the law of the land'; believes that this commitment should not be diluted or sidestepped; and further supports service charities' and families' calls for a legally-binding Military Covenant which defines the principles that should guide Government action on all aspects of defence policy.
I start by adding my condolences to those properly offered by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition earlier today to the families of Private Lewis Hendry from 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, Private Conrad Lewis from 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment and Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. They will be loved for ever by their families, and I hope that they will be permanently honoured by our nation.
The motion before us has a straightforward purpose. It aims to fulfil the Conservative party's pledge to introduce a new military covenant that is written into the law of the land. It will properly fulfil the Conservatives' manifesto pledge to establish a tri-service military covenant. It aims to address the concerns articulated by the Royal British Legion and other service charities, and to set out in law the definition of the covenant so that there can be a legal basis for the principles that the Government must uphold in order to provide the forces community with the highest level of care and support. Inexplicably, the Government have already voted against an amendment in the Armed Forces Bill Committee that would have fulfilled the aims of today's motion.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the points that he is about to raise were debated in detail in that Committee, and that clause 2 of the Bill bears the words "armed forces covenant"?
Mr Murphy: The clause contains the words "armed forces covenant report". The hon. Gentleman discussed these points in Committee, and I will expand on them a little later.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving give way, because I am keen to interrupt him at the beginning of his interesting speech. We are grateful for his support for our proposal to bring the military covenant into law. If he casts his mind back over the past 13 years, can he remember any occasion on which Labour either put a proposal to do that in its manifesto or committed itself in any way, shape or form to putting any kind of military covenant into law?
Mr Murphy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his keen sense of anticipation for my interesting speech. I have already said that, on reflection, we should have gone further towards taking the covenant out of the cut and thrust of party politics-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I hope that all those on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches who are now chiding us for not having done that will have the courage of their convictions and take this opportunity to vote for their manifesto commitment later this evening.
Many Members, of all parties, and most people in the country will be hoping that the Secretary of State will use today's debate as an opportunity to reconsider the Government's policy. This debate is important because the covenant is the unspoken contract between the nation and our services that guides us to serve with the utmost respect those who serve our country with incomparable courage. As our country continues to change, those values should remain constant. There is a tangible feeling up and down the country that that moral bond between the nation and the forces should be strengthened.
I want to make it clear from the outset that any criticism that I offer today is not mine alone. The Army Families Federation received 2,000 complaints about the Government's cuts from its members by e-mail in five days, many of which expressed real concern. The director general of the Royal British Legion, Chris Simpkins, has said of the Government's defence of their Armed Forces Bill:
"The Legion is concerned that this looks like the beginnings of a Government U-turn."
In truth, if the Government fail to back today's motion, that U-turn will be complete. Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore, the chairman of the Forces Pension Society, has described the Government's plan for the covenant as "incredibly wet and feeble", stating:
"It is flute music and arm waving. There is nothing of any substance, with just a couple of no-cost ideas".
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Murphy: Bearing your stricture in mind again, Mr Deputy Speaker, of course I will.
Andrew Bridgen: Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that for almost three years the last Labour Government were in complete denial about the adequacy of Snatch Land Rovers to protect our troops in Helmand? Does that not constitute a breach of the military covenant?
Mr Murphy: We massively increased the number of armoured vehicles going to Afghanistan, and that was the right thing to do.
The former commander of the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan, Colonel Stuart Tootal, said at the weekend:
"There is a real fragility of morale in the Armed Forces at the moment."
It is regrettable that a Government so young should find themselves in a position so undesirable. That is of concern to Members in all parts of the House. These are real issues, which demand a more serious response than Ministers have given in the past few days and weeks.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): Would that be the same Colonel Stuart Tootal who resigned his position as commanding officer of the Paras in disgust at the way in which his soldiers had been treated under the Labour Government?
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman knows that not to be the case. Stuart Tootal made his position very clear at the weekend.
I do not doubt the sincerity of Ministers' words. I have made that plain at each and every turn when I have spoken from the Dispatch Box. However, there is real confusion and concern about their actions. The reason for the growing anger is that they know that the Government's actions are sometimes enormously unfair, and, in the case of defining the covenant in law, utterly confused.
Let me explain why I think that the Government's position is flawed. In the Armed Forces Bill, the Government have provided for an annual report on the covenant, explicitly using the term "covenant". However, Ministers are choosing to overlook the fact that there is no legally binding definition of the term to accompany its use, which means that Ministers can themselves determine how it is interpreted.
Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): In his evidence to the Public Accounts Committee last month, the most senior official in the Treasury, Sir Nick Macpherson, said that
"there was a point in the middle of the last decade where the MOD lost control of public spending."
Can the Minister explain what impact that has had on the military covenant?
Mr Murphy: At the same time the hon. Gentleman's party was demanding more spending on the Army, more spending on the Navy, more spending on the Royal Air Force, more aeroplanes and more ships. When there was real concern about funding, his party was demanding ever more spending. He cannot be in denial about that.
I would rather rely on the evidence of one of the hon. Gentleman's own Ministers in the debate on the Armed Forces Bill. He was very clear, and the Secretary of State must be clear as well in terms of meaningful commitment. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), the veterans Minister, said that the Government had no intention of placing in law a legal definition of a covenant.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the sense of responsibility enshrined in a military covenant must also reflect care for service communities that are threatened with base closures? Does he agree that lessons could be learned from the United States, where there is a "transparent" commission which considers base realignment and closure, and an Office of Economic Adjustment, which gives substantial funds and support to closure-hit communities?
The hon. Gentleman knows, as I think everyone in Scotland knows, that we do not agree on everything when it comes to the armed forces, but he makes an important point about the impact on wider
societies and communities of any base closures. During the last two years or so of the Labour Government, we considered the future of the firing range in the Western Isles, and it was not until we had received a full impact assessment of the impact on the community and the fragile economy of the islands that it was decided to halt the closure.
In Committee, the veterans Minister said:
"The covenant is a conceptual thing that will not be laid down in law." --[ Official Report, Armed Forces Public Bill Committee, 10 February 2011; c. 21.]
The whole country will be simultaneously grateful to the Minister and disappointed that he has made the Government's position clear. It seems that the Government's main line of defence is to attack a non-existent threat. No one is arguing for a set of justiciable rights. No one really wants to campaign for such a thing.
The forces charities themselves said that they wanted the principles defined in law-they did not want new statutory rights-and that is what our motion sets out to achieve. In answer to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) in the Select Committee that considered the Bill, the Royal British Legion's director general said:
"I understand the point about rigidity, specific definition and a detailed Covenant being included in law. I am not making that point at all. What I am saying is that the principles of which a Covenant should take account should be clearly stated and understood."
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): The Prime Minister's pledge was not made before the election in the heat of a campaign, but after it. In June last year, he said that the Government would have
"a new Military Covenant that's written into the law of the land".
Given the clarity of that pledge, will my right hon. Friend care to speculate as to why the Government would not fulfil that commitment?
Mr Murphy: That is probably going to be the hardest question I am asked all day. Just why have the Government U-turned on this issue, given that it was not a pre-election promise, but a post-election commitment? It is for the Secretary of State and his Ministers to articulate the reasons for their Government's action.
I come back to the point about principle rather than statutory obligations.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con) rose-
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con) rose-
Mr Murphy: I have a choice. I have already given way to the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), so I shall give way to the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke).
Alec Shelbrooke: The right hon. Gentleman is talking about what happened in the past. Will he take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of the previous Government for sending our troops to war without the correct equipment in 2003 because he did not want to alarm his own Back Benchers that his Government may have already decided to go to war in Iraq?
Mr Murphy: The fact is that I am remarkably proud of much of what my Government did in office in support of the armed forces: we produced the service personnel Command Paper and the first ever cross-government strategy; we made improvements for dependants waiting on NHS waiting lists; we provided support for and investment in the NHS; we ensured better treatment in the allocation of public housing; and basic pay went up in line with recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body in full for 11 years in a row. That is a remarkable set of investments, of which I am rightly proud.
Mr Murphy: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I do hope that he will at least seek to make the argument against our motion.
Charlie Elphicke: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's desire to take a Maoist year zero approach to all this. Leaving aside the obvious exercise in shamelessness, he nevertheless left a £38 billion black hole in the MOD, which has made it much harder to look after our troops in the future.
Mr Murphy: I know that for the hon. Gentleman's party it is always someone else's fault. The sacking of soldiers by e-mail was the Army's fault, then it was the civil servants' fault and by the end of the day it was the Labour Government's fault.
Mr Murphy: I give way again, but I hope that at least one Conservative Member will say whether they are going to vote to detail the principles involved in a definition of the military covenant.
Stephen Barclay: The right hon. Gentleman suggested that Conservative Members were pointing the finger elsewhere. Does he not agree with his parliamentary colleague, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who, as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, agreed with the following finding:
"The Department has failed to develop a financial strategy identifying core spending priorities"?
The report in question also said:
"The Department's poor financial management has led to a...shortfall of...£36 billion".
Does he agree with his parliamentary colleague? Why was the military covenant not part of his Government's core spending priorities?
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is confused. The fact is that his party was demanding ever more spending on the armed forces in the midst of the recession and the financial crisis.
Alec Shelbrooke: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Murphy: No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman so I shall make some progress.
On the military covenant, the amendment to the Armed Forces Bill that the Secretary of State and his friends were intent on rejecting said:
"The Secretary of State must by Order through Statutory Instrument establish a written Military Covenant (henceforth referred to as "the Covenant") which sets out the definition of the word "covenant", used in Clause 2, line 6 of the Armed Forces Bill. The definition would set out the principles against which the annual armed forces covenant report would be judged."
That is the amendment that the Government have found so dangerous and refused to accept in Committee. That is the amendment that they claim would create a whole set of new justiciable rights when it would do no such thing.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recall that the deficit that the Government now blame us for was accumulated over nearly 30 years, so they are as responsible for it as anyone? Does he agree that they should not have signed up to a covenant that they never intended to carry out?
Mr Murphy: The fact is that prior to the financial collapse across the world and the banking crisis, we had pared down the debt. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] There is no point in that crowd on the Government Front Bench moaning about this: throughout that period they demanded ever more spending on our armed forces. They cannot deny that.
Returning to the military covenant-
Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Murphy: In a second. So far, we have not had a single intervention from a Conservative Member who has said whether they are willing to back their own manifesto commitment. I do not mean that as a negative comment on the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) because I know he takes a keen interest in all these matters. I will happily give way to him.
Mr Brazier: I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. He knows that I have raised with Governments of different complexions issues from the treatment of the wounded to the state of married quarters. In my 24 years here, representing a garrison city, I have never once had a serviceman or service family come to me and say, "This is all about producing a legal definition of the military covenant." What they want is to be treated decently and that is what the Government are trying to do.
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman knows that I respect him and we try to find common causes, but it is the manifesto on which he stood and in which his Prime Minister made a commitment.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that various issues of concern to military families will be included in the report on the military covenant and that the content of that report should be determined by the external reference group and not by the Secretary of State?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The military covenant should not be whatever the Government of the day determine it to be. It should not be at the
whim of Ministers to decide in a report what is and is not in the covenant. My hon. Friend makes a very important point.
The Government say that it is not necessary to detail the military covenant, in principle, in law, because they are already taking action. They mention the covenant in the report and it was mentioned in the Armed Forces Bill Committee. All those involved in the debate today-except, perhaps, for you, Mr Deputy Speaker, because you are free from involvement in these debates-will have received an e-mail from the Royal British Legion, which stated:
"As the nation's guardian of the Military Covenant, we would be very grateful if you could urge the Government to honour the Prime Minister's welcome commitment last June to enshrine the Military Covenant in law. We do not understand why the Government is now claiming that the commitment to produce an 'Armed Forces Covenant Report' is somehow the same thing as enshrining the Military Covenant in law. It is not the same thing at all."
I urge hon. Members from both Government parties to listen to the legion's voice and vote for the motion today.
The military covenant cannot be whatever Government Ministers of the day deign it to be. It should be defined in law so that it is removed from the cut and thrust of party politics. If the Secretary of State is true to his word, which I believe him to be, he should meaningfully define the covenant in law. What is needed is specific legislation to put the definition of the covenant on a legal footing. In the words of Chris Simpkins, the director general of the Royal British Legion:
"To suggest an annual covenant report would be as effective as a piece of legislation is nonsense and would be evidence of the Government doing a U-turn on their explicit promises."
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has been talking for 20 minutes about putting his definition of the military covenant into law. Is he going to give us any form of definition before he winds up his remarks?
Mr Murphy: I know the hon. Gentleman understands that it is not for me to give a legal definition of the military covenant at the Dispatch Box. It is for the Government to define the principles of it in a legal sense, along with the armed forces and their families in public consultation. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State's Parliamentary Private Secretary is screaming at the top of his voice that there is no definition. If the Conservatives were in any way interested in the matter, we could arrive at a definition of the armed forces covenant on a cross-party basis, involving armed forces families across the entire nation. In truth, they have turned their back on their own manifesto, will not listen to the British Legion and refuse to act on the issue at all.
Bob Russell: The shadow Secretary of State opened his comments with a tribute to three soldiers from the Colchester garrison. Some 3,000 of my constituents are in Helmand province, and if any of them get to watch or read about this debate, I do not think they will be impressed with the contributions that are being made. I urge Members on both sides of the House to show respect. Playing party politics with our armed forces is not what they want.
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I have responded to each point raised in turn, and I will continue to do so.
We are asking the Conservative party to maintain its manifesto commitment, and to vote for it. We will vote for its manifesto commitment today, and the country will expect Conservative Members to do the same.
Today's debate also provides an opportunity for the Government to reflect again on their decision on the chief coroner's office. It would give families who have lost those closest to them, often in tragic, painful and extremely difficult circumstances-the type of people whom the hon. Member for Colchester was talking about-the right to the best possible investigations and military inquests into those deaths. On this day of all days, when the constitutional relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords is being considered, it is important that we listen to the House of Lords on that important issue.
I turn to the wider of issue of Afghanistan and its impact on the covenant. We have made it clear that we will support the Government on Afghanistan whenever possible, as we did on Monday. I welcome their continued commitment to update the House on progress there, particularly in the diplomatic effort, which seems far less advanced than the military campaign.
Those injured in Afghanistan face enormous burdens and a life of dramatic change. That places a huge responsibility on the Government and politicians of all parties to support them, so that the country fulfils its responsibility to them. Public services, public servants, charities, the private sector and Government must continually consider how best to support all our forces, particularly those who are injured. We should try to generate consensus on that at every possible opportunity.
Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): Why does the shadow Secretary of State think that the wording in the Armed Forces Bill, which reflects the will of the country to honour the covenant, is not what the people want? How does he think it fails to cover all the issues that he is talking about? A lot of armed forces personnel and their supporters undoubtedly believe that it does cover them.
Mr Murphy: As I said earlier, the British Legion has been pretty critical and straightforward about that. The problem is the word "covenant" being used but not given a legal definition, which allows Ministers and Governments of all parties to interpret and reinterpret it in an annual report. That is why the principle of legal definition is important.
Mr Hancock: We had the same problem when the last Government refused to accept their duty of care responsibilities. They did that because nobody could clearly define, in rigid legal terms, what a duty of care was.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): We did.
No, you didn't. The hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister and before that was on the Defence Committee, will remember from his experiences on the
Committee that the Labour Government's big failure on the duty of care was that they were unable to define clearly what it meant.
Mr Murphy: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, but I listened very carefully to the British Legion's campaign for the legal principle, and to its observations of the clear, glaring weaknesses in the current arrangements.
Mr Murphy: I shall make some progress before giving way.
As I said, it is important that where we can, we should build consensus, such as on support for the operation in Afghanistan and on the treatment of those who return, but there is one matter on which it is difficult to support the Government: the switch from retail prices index to consumer prices index for forces pensions and benefits. That is a highly charged and emotional issue-rightly-but I shall make my case carefully, and I look forward to the Secretary of State being equally careful and detailed in his reply.
The impact of that switch will be felt by generations of our bravest, from those who jumped from landing craft on to the beaches of Normandy in 1944 to those facing the Taliban today in the Afghan desert sand. A corporal who has lost both legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan will miss out on £500,000 in pension and benefit-related payments, and the 34-year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan will be almost £750,000 worse off over her life.
There are only two possible justifications for that policy. The first is that Ministers think that the support that forces personnel and their dependants currently receive is overly generous, but I have not heard any of them say that. The second possible justification is, of course, deficit reduction, which Ministers do pray in aid. However, that argument does not add up. The impact of those measures will be felt long after the deficit has been paid down and the economy has returned to growth. The deficit is temporary, but those cuts will be felt for the rest of our forces' lives.
Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con) rose -
Mr Murphy: I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has great experience on these matters. Does he support the Government's policy on the RPI-CPI switch?
Mr Wallace: The right hon. Gentleman said that we should reflect on the British Legion election manifesto and its 15 or 16 demands. The manifesto never mentions the covenant, but it does mention lots of solutions to help the welfare of our veterans and current serving personnel. What part of the Government's progress is he unhappy with in relation to the British Legion's manifesto, and what parts of the manifesto would he adopt sooner rather than later?
The hon. Gentleman has vast experience in such matters and I do not doubt his commitment, but there is limited validity in him brandishing last year's British Legion document when he does not accept what
it says in its e-mail today-it makes it very clear that it is unhappy with the Government's position and that it would like a legal definition of the military covenant. Of course we should work on a cross-party basis on this, and I would be happy to do so-
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab) rose-
Mr Murphy: I shall briefly give way to my hon. Friend.
Jim Sheridan: I concur with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that this should be a non-partisan debate, but my right hon. Friend is right to remind the House that during the Labour years, the then Opposition constantly criticised the Government on the lack of spending on protective equipment, as did the generals. We understand why the politicians criticised the Government, but why did the generals criticise them, and why have they suddenly gone quiet in the short period since the election?
Mr Murphy: I do not wish to reopen that debate, but my hon. Friend is free to make that point whenever he wishes to do so.
It is clear that to date, the Government's policy on the covenant and their policy on the RPI-CPI switch are policies without a patron. No Government Minister has defended them, yet Ministers expect Back-Benchers to suspend their consciences and their sense of right and wrong to vote through a policy that they have not backed.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): If the change from RPI to CPI in relation to the armed forces is so iniquitous, will the right hon. Gentleman give an unequivocal guarantee that Labour will reverse it?
Mr Murphy: I remember being in the Government and playing that game of saying to the Opposition, "Name your next manifesto," but it is a desperate tactic. It took me 10 years to use that tactic, but it has taken the Defence Secretary only a few months. Today, he is at the Dispatch Box but will not even stand up for his own policy. Let me give him another opportunity to do so. Does he think it fair that when the deficit is temporary, this cut should be permanent? I am giving him a chance to articulate his own policy.
Dr Fox: This merely proves the economic illiteracy of the Labour party. Even when the deficit is going down, the total debt is going up and the debt repayment is going up. It will take a very long time, even when we are into positive growth, to see the debt coming down. The Labour party knows no more about economics in opposition than it knew in government.
Mr Murphy: This comes from the right hon. Gentleman who, when in opposition, demanded more spending on absolutely everything; even in the midst of financial crisis, he was demanding more and more spending. If this move is driven by deficit reduction, the Government should come forward with a temporary measure rather than a permanent change.
Finally, the military covenant goes to the heart of the relationship between the military, society and the Government. It should never be the exclusive property
of one political party, but these permanent cuts undermine the Government's claim to be honouring the military covenant. Sir Michael Moore, chairman of the Forces Pension Society has said:
"I have never seen a government erode the morale of the Armed Forces so quickly."
That is a worrying position-one that we all hope to see reversed.
The truth is that this Government have lost the courage of the conviction and conscience they had in their manifesto. One day in June last year summarises this Government's approach to the covenant. On 25 June 2010, the Prime Minister stood on the decks of the Ark Royal, surrounded by members of the Royal Navy, with Harrier jets as a backdrop, and promised a new military covenant that was written into the law of the land. Parliament did not get a vote on the decision to scrap the Ark Royal and Parliament did not get the chance to express its view on the grounding of the Harrier fleet. Today, however, Parliament has the chance to make its voice heard. We should say it loud and clear, fulfil the Conservative party manifesto pledge and define the military covenant in law.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): Let me too begin by expressing our condolences to the family and friends of Private Lewis Hendry, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment; Private Conrad Lewis, 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment; Lance Corporal Kyle Marshall, 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment; Private Dean Hutchinson, 9th Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps; and Private Robert Wood, 17th Port and Maritime Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps, all of whom have died in action in Afghanistan. Every death is a personal tragedy; they are not simply numbers, and their loss is felt by families and friends. We in this House remember them all in our thoughts and prayers.
There is no doubt about the general desire in this country to improve and develop the armed forces covenant. It encompasses those of all ages and social groups, those with different politics and those with none. It does not and cannot exist in the abstract, however. It cannot be a wish list separated from the economic reality in which we find ourselves. A covenant between the armed forces and the British people cannot ignore the financial predicament in which the British people and their Government find themselves.
The starting point of this debate has to take account of the economic situation inherited by the coalition Government and the state in which the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence find themselves at the end of 13 years of Labour Government. In short, the issue for the Opposition, as set out in their motion, is one of credibility, so we should examine the credibility of Labour Members on the issues that the shadow Defence Secretary described as important.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
There are three charges that still hang around the necks of Labour when it comes to defence, the armed forces and the military covenant. In 13 years of power,
their response to equipping our forces was often too little, too late; their spending priorities were wrong; and there was too much waste and inadequate budgetary control.
We have learned from the Chilcot inquiry-an independent inquiry-that it was purely for political reasons that the Labour Government failed to order enough equipment, including body armour, for troops in the lead-up to the Iraq war. They did not want to send the message that they were preparing for war, and the result was under-prepared, under-equipped forces sent into conflict.
In 2006, they failed to send enough troops and equipment into Helmand province and were painfully slow at providing more capable armoured vehicles to counter improved explosive devices. That led to a number of high-profile subsequent resignations from the Army, as has been pointed out. They went 12 years without a defence review, even though, according to numerous former Defence Ministers and service chiefs speaking at the Chilcot inquiry, the 1998 SDR was never properly funded. They overstretched our armed forces by fighting two wars on a peacetime budget.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) rose-
Dr Fox: I will give way in a moment.
The Labour Government overspent and overheated an equipment programme that contributed to a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. In Labour's final year in power, the MOD saw a record overspend of £3.3 billion in the equipment programme. In fact, we inherited an equipment programme that has its top 15 projects £8.8 billion over budget and a cumulative delay of 32 years. When we were fighting two wars, their idea of commitment to defence and our armed forces was to appoint four different Defence Secretaries in four years, including one who served simultaneously as Defence Secretary and Secretary of State for Scotland.
Labour left a situation in which 42% of service single living accommodation in the UK, and 52% of overseas single living accommodation, was in the worst grade on a four-point scale-although in a speech that lasted half an hour, the shadow Defence Secretary did not once mention the quality of accommodation for our armed forces.
With all that going on, Labour Defence Secretaries spent almost £250,000 on modern art for the Ministry of Defence. As former Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mike Jackson said in his autobiography, they
"preferred to spend on abstract art money which might otherwise have directly benefited soldiers and their families. It may seem a small point, but to me it was so indicative of the cultural divide in the MoD".
The list goes on. In this country, we judge politicians not by their words but by their actions. The Labour Government had 13 years to put matters right; we have had nine months so far, and I will set out what we have done already.
I am glad to give the Secretary of State a moment to calm down from his election speech. On 11 January last year, he wrote to Mr Yeomans in
Clevedon that the Conservative Government would review the rules on awarding medals, particularly the proposed national defence medal, which has been supported by nearly 200 right hon. and hon. Members in an early-day motion. Earlier this week, however, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Astor of Hever, stated in the other place that the Ministry of Defence would not review the role or membership of the committee that would award the national defence medal if it is granted. That is a remarkable U-turn in one year. Will the Secretary of State address that point and discuss it with his ministerial colleague?
Dr Fox: I can give the right hon. Gentleman the news that we have completed the review on military medals, and today I signed off the report, which will be published, and no doubt discussed in the House, before Easter. He will get a clear answer to his questions.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I would like to judge the Secretary of State by his actions rather than his words. What progress is he making towards the establishment of a Government-funded post-traumatic stress treatment programme as promised in the armed forces manifesto?
Dr Fox: In a moment I shall set out how we have made progress on all the manifesto commitments. The hon. Gentleman will be pleasantly surprised.
Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): Did the Secretary of State know about the evidence given by officials who served the Labour Government that it was the ministerial decision to delay the SDR that made the black hole that was left so big and the difficulty of getting matters in order so much greater?
Dr Fox: We could spend a great deal of time detailing the failures of the previous Government. Labour Members constantly talk about making changes as though we were in a vacuum or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, at year zero. We are in a very difficult economic predicament largely of their making, yet they talk about not only the military covenant but almost everything else as if there were no financial cost and as if we should not take what is happening in the economy into account when it comes to pensions and programmes in the Ministry of Defence.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the short term, while the economic situation is so bad, top priority should be given to the education of the children of those who have fallen in action or who have been so grievously wounded that their future earning power will never be restored?
Dr Fox: As I might have expected, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. In the programme for government, we listed a number of measures that will start the process of rebuilding the covenant, and I am pleased to be able to set out to him those that we have already accomplished.
As I have said on a number of occasions in the House, no decisions taken in the strategic defence and security review will have a negative impact on our mission in Afghanistan. In fact, we have already made great strides in improving the conditions for those serving
on the front line. In our nine months in office, we have doubled the operational allowance that was paid under the previous Government to over £5,000. Labour could have done so, but did not. We have changed the rules on rest and recuperation, so any lost days of leave-due to delays in the air bridge or any other operational requirements-will be added to post-tour leave. The previous Government could have done that, but they chose not to. We have also pledged to provide university and further education scholarships to the children of members of the armed forces who have been killed since 1990. The previous Government could have chosen to do so, but in 13 years they did not. The current Government have now included 36,000 service children as part of the pupil premium, recognising the uniqueness of service life and its effect on service children and service communities. Labour could have done so, but did not in 13 years.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab) rose -
Dr Fox: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us why not.
John McDonnell: I want to concentrate on a more serious issue, which I would like the Secretary of State to- [Interruption.] May I complete what I am saying? The Secretary of State has focused on the past Government's record, of which I have also been critical, but last week the current Government introduced an immigration fees order which I objected to, and which I see has been carried on a deferred Division today. The explanatory notes explain that it introduces for the first time the power for the Government to charge fees for the registration as British citizens of the children born to British armed forces personnel serving abroad. It cannot be right that we are penalising the children and families of service personnel serving abroad on our orders. I ask the Secretary of State to liaise with the Home Secretary to ensure that she exercises her discretion to waive these fees.
Dr Fox: I am also aware of some of the implications of that, and my officials have already had discussions about the issue with my Cabinet colleagues. I will write to the hon. Gentleman when I have some progress to report.
Chris Bryant: Will the Secretary of State give way?
I have set out a number of areas where the Government have already acted in just nine months. Some £61.6 million has been allocated in the current financial year for the upgrade of, and improvement programmes for, service accommodation. That will include upgrading some 800 service family homes to the top standard, with a further 4,000 properties benefiting from other improvements such as new kitchens and bathrooms.
Of course, in the current tight financial situation priorities must be established. My welfare priority will be mental health. We have accepted in full the mental health plan for service personnel and veterans set out in the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). That will provide a range of improvements in mental health care, including increasing the number of mental health professionals from mental health trusts looking out for veterans and introducing structured mental health surveillance inquiries into routine service medical examinations and all discharge medicals.
The Government are committed to improving health care for our service personnel and have committed an additional £20 million in the SDSR for this purpose, part of which will be used to deliver further enhanced military mental health care services. I believe this must be our priority because it is all too easy to see the physical wounds of war, but the unseen mental wounds of war have too often gone undiagnosed and untreated, and all our society demands that we do not allow a mental health time bomb to be created.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab) rose -
Dr Fox: I give way to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan).
Jim Sheridan: The right hon. Gentleman is explaining the promises or pledges in his party manifesto. Do they include his pledge to compensate Christmas Island veterans, many of whom will be watching this debate and wanting an answer?
Dr Fox: That was not a commitment in the Conservative manifesto, but Ministers will constantly review the issue, as happened under previous Governments.
Chris Bryant: Will the Secretary of State give way?
Dr Fox: We have waited a long time, so I hope it's a cracker.
Chris Bryant: I want to ask the Secretary of State about 160 Brigade. As he knows it is the Welsh brigade based in Brecon. Secret discussions have been going on over the last few weeks about collapsing the brigade and joining it with the West Midlands, which would mean there was no longer a Welsh brigade. Can he give an absolute assurance that that will not happen?
Dr Fox: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are ongoing discussions in the armed forces, but as he has heard me say on a number of occasions, I am very keen that we have United Kingdom armed forces and that we maintain the footprint as widely as possible across the UK. If he wants to talk to me directly about that, I shall be happy to meet him.
Labour's legacy means that there is not enough to do all that we would like to do, but we can make a start. None of it alone will instantly rebuild the covenant, but it is a step in the right direction. In the difficult economic circumstances the coalition Government have inherited, where all parts of society are making sacrifices, repairing the covenant will not be straightforward. The armed forces are subject to the difficult decisions we have had to make on pay, pensions and allowances across Government.
Neither the Prime Minister nor I came into politics to see cuts in the armed forces, but we have to deal with the reality of the legacy. Every Department has to make a contribution to deficit reduction and the Ministry of Defence can be no exception. We have to put the economy on the right track for the sake of our national security.
The coalition agreement recognises that we have to do more to ensure that our armed forces and their families have the support they need, and are treated with the dignity they deserve. Some of what we need to do will cost money, and with budgets squeezed, we may not be able to go as quickly as we want, but we will make progress where we can. The recent report on the covenant commissioned by the Prime Minister from the military historian Professor Hew Strachan suggests a number of ways to move forward. We are implementing some of them now and will announce in the near future the other recommendations we support.
As Members know, the military covenant was conceived as an expression of the mutual obligations that exist between the nation, the Army and each individual soldier. In consultation with service charities and others, the Government are rewriting the covenant as a new tri-service document-the armed forces covenant-which expresses the enduring, general principles that should govern the relationship between the nation, the Government and the armed forces community as a whole. It will include all three services, veterans, family members and local communities, thereby broadening the scope of the covenant. We shall publish it in the spring.
The reserve forces form an intrinsic part of the UK's defence capability and thus the armed forces community. The Ministry of Defence is responsible for ensuring that reservists are treated fairly and with respect, and that they are valued. In the drafting of the armed forces covenant, reserves have been considered equally alongside regulars. That will set the tone for Government policy aimed at improving the support available for serving and former members of the armed forces, and the families who carry so much of the burden, especially, as we remember today, in the event of injury or death.
Charlie Elphicke: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is an extraordinary situation for the Opposition to call a debate on the military covenant, which by their own admission they cannot define, yet we have heard from my right hon. Friend a clear definition of the covenant, which is being written into the law of the land?
Dr Fox: It is surprising that the Opposition should be so desperate for a definition of the military covenant in law, yet fail to produce one themselves. It is just as absurd as their claim that they are trying to implement the Conservative manifesto on the subject. I happen to have the Conservative manifesto of 2010 in my hand and I see no commitment whatever to writing the military covenant into law. Indeed, we have gone further than our manifesto commitment in the coalition agreement by trying to take that forward. It is one of the elements that shows that the coalition Government were able to work together to go further than either party had done in the manifestos that we issued at the general election.
We need to ensure that progress is made, year on year. That is why we have brought forward legislation in the Armed Forces Bill requiring the Defence Secretary to present an armed forces covenant report to Parliament every year. I hope to deliver the first of those reports in the autumn.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Is the Secretary of State saying that his party never made a commitment to enshrining the principles in law? If he is not saying that, will he set out why his position has changed on this difficult subject?
Dr Fox: We are for the first time recognising the covenant in law. We are setting it out in law in the Armed Forces Bill that the Secretary of State for Defence will be required to come to the House of Commons, and when we have published the tri-forces covenant, the House of Commons will be able to decide whether the Government have lived up to their part of the bargain. I find it extraordinary that nine months into the new Government, when we are writing that into the law, we get complaints from the Opposition, who did not once try to do so in 13 years in power.
The covenant will set out how we are supporting our armed forces, their families and veterans in key areas such as health care, housing and education. It will be the first time the existence of the armed forces covenant has been recognised in statute. For that, I think all fair-minded people would believe that the coalition Government deserve some credit.
Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Although I applaud what the Secretary of State is saying about his support for veterans and former members of the armed forces, may I draw to his attention the case of my constituent, Ann Dexter, whose son Richard Coombes is suffering from dire mental health problems as a consequence of his injury on active service? The Ministry of Defence was ordered by a judge to pay him £130,000 compensation but still, three years later, not all of that compensation has been paid. Will my right hon. Friend look into that case urgently and get back to the family to explain why the Ministry of Defence has not paid the compensation that it was ordered to pay?
Dr Fox: I am very surprised that three years after it was ordered by a judge to be paid, that compensation has not been paid. I will certainly look into the case that my hon. and learned Friend mentions.
The Government alone cannot provide all the support required so we are determined to strengthen the links with the charitable sector, which does so much good work, often unsung. In many ways those organisations are also heroes in our countries when it comes to the armed forces. Involving the charitable sector is the only way we can make a reality of the armed forces covenant, because the duty of care is on all of us, not simply the Government.
From now on, however, the Government are obliged to report progress on the covenant to Parliament annually. That will ensure that this Government, and indeed all future Governments, are held to account by Parliament. I made it clear last month on Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill that the external reference group, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), will also continue to monitor Government progress. But it is about progress on the covenant on all sides, not just the Government's. The covenant is not just between the Government and the armed forces. It is a covenant with the whole of society. That is why I find the external reference group to be of such value. It will bring independence and clear-mindedness.
Sandra Osborne: When the Secretary of State refers to communities, does that include local communities where there are currently armed forces bases? What about the contribution that they have made over the years, and what about the economic impact on those communities of the closure of bases?
Dr Fox: As the hon. Lady knows, we are spending a great deal of time and effort getting the balance of the bases correct, primarily for our national security needs, but we will also take into account the social and other impacts that the changes will have. The hon. Gentleman from the Scottish National party who is normally in his seat usually intervenes at this point. We are aware of the changes-
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) rose -
The point is well made by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. We understand the problems that we face, but it was inevitable when we had to make reductions under the SDSR that there would be changes to the basing. We are sympathetic to the local needs that she mentions.
Bob Russell: The Secretary of State will join me in mentioning a body that, as far as I recall, has not yet been referred to-the reserves and Territorials, without whom our actions in Afghanistan would be all the poorer.
Dr Fox: I realise that I might have a soporific effect on Members, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman missed my reference to the importance of the reserves. The Government are acutely aware of their importance and the part they play in the wider security of our country.
Jim Shannon: Will the Secretary of State give way?
Dr Fox: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I rather ignored him a moment ago.
Jim Shannon: I speak not as an Irish or Scottish nationalist, but as a Northern Ireland Unionist. I know that the Secretary of State has already responded on the need to look after those with health and mental health conditions, but I have recently met people who had lost limbs, whether legs or arms, so will he indicate what help will be available for those people, because they have had the trauma of the physical disablement and of the resulting mental disablement? I am keen to hear what he will do to help those people.
Dr Fox: Those who suffer traumatic amputations, and often multiple traumatic amputations, increasingly get very high-quality care in this country, both from what the military and the NHS are doing. [ Interruption. ] Members on the Opposition Front Bench say that that is thanks to the previous Government, and I acknowledge their work on that front. With regard to the interface between the NHS and other services, we are again working increasingly to ensure that we get constructive action between them. Any Member who has visited the medical service or Headley Court will realise just what a high-quality service our armed forced get in this country. It is something of which the whole country, irrespective of politics, should be proud.
Looking after people who are currently serving is only part of the covenant; the duty of care does not end when active service ends. The community of veterans in Britain is estimated to be around 5 million strong. The vast majority of men and women who serve make the transition to civilian life successfully. Many of the skills they learn in the armed forces are highly sought after, as are their character traits: self-discipline, self-reliance and leadership. However, for a small number the transition is not so easy. Some find it difficult to get work or struggle to fit in. Others may suffer more serious problems, both physical and mental, as a result of their service, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has pointed out. Those are the people who most need our help.
First, we need to give people the help they need when they leave. It takes time to turn a civilian into a soldier, so we should take time to turn a soldier into a civilian. Our resettlement programme helps service leavers to navigate civilian life; everything from finding a job, to benefits, education and retraining. We are making sure that it is focused on those who need it most.
For example, ex-service personnel now get more support to study at university. The Department for Education is drawing up plans to create a new programme called "Troops to Teachers" to get experienced, high-quality ex-service personnel into the teaching profession. In a country where it is often claimed that there are not enough role models, believe me there are plenty in the armed forces.
Secondly, when a veteran falls on hard times, there should be somewhere to turn. The problems can result from debt, homelessness, addiction or mental illness resulting from their service. Such difficulties can occur years after leaving the services, so we need a proper partnership between all arms of government, national and local, and with the NHS. That means ensuring that veterans get fair access to local housing schemes, providing more money and more nurses for mental health and working with the charitable sector to get the right support to the right people at the right time.
Having worked as a doctor for some years with service personnel and their families, I have seen at first hand some of the difficulties and stress surrounding service life. Many of the pressures are the same faced by ordinary families up and down the country, but others are unique. Those have to be dealt with sensitively and appropriately.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): The Secretary of State is being very gracious, and I do appreciate him letting me in.
Will the right hon. Gentleman be a little clearer with me about the definition of "military covenant"? In the Bill Committee last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) said that he thought the military covenant was a "conceptual" thing, a "philosophical statement", and that it would have
"the same legal position as the service Command Paper". --[ Official Report, Armed Forces Public Bill Committee, 10 February 2011; c. 22.]
Is that the case? Can the Secretary of State give me his definition of the military covenant, so that he might explain to his Minister what it is?
Dr Fox: I have already set out that what my right hon. Friend says is true. There is a concept of what the covenant means in terms of the relationship between the armed forces and the people of this country, and the responsibility that the people of this country have not only to those serving in the armed forces, but to their families and to veterans. As I said very clearly, however, we are setting out and will publish in the spring a tri-service covenant for the first time. It has to go beyond the traditional covenant, which related to the Army; we are discussing the issue with the charitable sector and the armed forces; and we will publish that new tri-service covenant in the spring.
I am aware of the time constraints, Mr Speaker, so let me just remind the House of the point with which I began. This year, the £43 billion that the UK will spend on debt interest payments-the debt that the previous Government left behind-amounts to more than the Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and international aid budgets combined. If we did not have it hanging around our necks, how much more could we do on service housing, health care or allowances? Instead, we will get absolutely nothing back for that money. We cannot sustain that level of deficit and debt without losing our influence in the world or being forced to limit our foreign policy and defence options. If we learned anything as a country from the cold war, it was that the stronger our economy, the better our national security and the more we can do for our service personnel.
Labour's economic policies created a national security liability that goes behind the hard end of national security and impacts on how we treat our armed forces, their families and the veterans through the covenant. Labour wants to, but cannot, wash away its legacy by ignoring its actions while in government-a Government of whom Opposition Members were a part.
There is no point in the people who left us broke complaining that we are not doing enough. There is no point in the people who had 13 years to deliver, but failed to, telling us that we have not done enough in nine months. The shadow Defence Secretary is a very decent man, but he represents a party that failed in its duty to the armed forces. It has no creditability on the issues that should have been dealt with when the money was available in earlier years.
Because of the nation's dreadful finances, we as a Government are being forced to take some tough decisions-including on allowances and on pensions. We do not do so because we want to; we do so because we have to. We do so because, as the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury actually said in his note, "Sorry, there is no money left". Perhaps it was a joking matter for Labour, but it is deadly serious for the armed forces.
The coalition Government are taking the difficult decisions required to deal with Labour's legacy, and we will continue to rebuild the armed forces covenant. I wish we could go faster, but we will go as fast as we can. Opposition Members got us into this mess; this Government will get us out of it.
Mr David Crausby (Bolton North East) (Lab):
My dad landed in France and ran up the beach on D-day. If he was alive today, he would tell us that it was the fastest
that he ran in his entire life. He would freely admit that, as he crouched in the landing craft heading for shore, with bullets pinging off the infrastructure, he was petrified of the doors opening. When they finally opened, his stomach turned over, and he went up that beach in full kit faster than Linford Christie. He made it unscathed to the top, but the next day he had most of his stomach blown out by a German shell in a field just beyond the beach. He suffered for it every day of his life for the next 48 years. In return, he received a small pension from the Government and spent the rest of his life worrying about losing it. He was grateful for the money. He spent most of it on beer, if the truth were known, but he enjoyed every pint. Was he worth it? Damn right he was, every penny, because without him and his mates, there would be a foreign flag flying over this Parliament- assuming, that is, that this building existed at all. We owe him, along with thousands of his comrades, a debt of honour. We must never forget that.
The very same applies to our present-day forces. They may be small in number, but when they put their lives on the line we have a duty to look after them, and their families.
Andrew Bridgen: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the military power of our great country has been, is and always will be a projection of our economic power, which has been devastated by the mismanagement of the last Government?
Mr Crausby: I will get to that point.
We do not expect our forces to join a trade union or allow them to go on strike, so they are entitled to be treated differently. My dad lay in that French field for two days before he was found, but he was eventually flown back to the UK and put back together. When he recovered, he voted Labour, and he never missed the opportunity to vote Labour in every election until the day he died. I make that point simply because this is not a party political issue. Many of his comrades returned to vote Conservative, and Liberal, and other weird things, as was their entitlement, and some did not bother to vote at all. So it is shameful to turn the matter of the covenant into a point-scoring party political issue, as the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) did.
We all know that we are in difficult circumstances, but I do not know what my dad would say about cutting soldiers' allowances at the same time as Barclays pay their investment bankers 20% more-not to mention making Afghan veterans redundant by e-mail, which is even worse than when John Major made Bosnian front-line veterans redundant by post. I suppose that the MOD has at least come up to date.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Crausby: For the last time.
Bob Stewart: John Major did not do that. I told Bosnian soldiers that they were made redundant personally by waking them up in the morning and telling them as they woke up, and then I gave them the paper. That was rotten.
Mr Crausby: In any event, it was shameful. Whatever my dad would have said about it, I assure people that it would not have been pretty.
The truth is that our defence expenditure is already too low, and has been for years when measured against our foreign policy aspirations. The most important pound that we earn is the one that we defend our families and our country with whenever we are in danger. When we are at war, it should be the last pound that we cut, and we must certainly never cut it from the people who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for us.
Over the next few years, we will be spending countless billions on aircraft carriers, on fighter planes, on unmanned aerial vehicles, on nuclear submarines and on nuclear missiles; it will no doubt end up being very much more than the MOD's current estimates. So what are we playing at in cutting a relatively small sum from our armed forces' children's education? Last year in June, our Prime Minister stood on Ark Royal and talked about making formal commitments on matters such as education for military children and care for those injured on the battlefield. He said:
"I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that's written into the law of the land."
He did not say, "I want an annual report."
Let me give the Prime Minister a tip, and perhaps the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence will take note: if he expects to retain any political or personal integrity in life, he must not make promises that he cannot keep. We can understand Liberals making promises that they do not expect to keep, but the Tories should know better.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby), who has been an excellent member of the Defence Committee for several years. The moving story of his father reminded me of a T-shirt that we had printed when I commanded a bomb disposal squadron. On the front it said, "I'm a bomb disposal officer," and on the back it said, "If you see me running, try to keep up."
I start, of course, by declaring my interest as a serving member of the armed forces. It was an honour to serve in Bosnia and Kosovo, and I am grateful to the previous Government for allowing me to serve in Afghanistan in 2006. I wish to make it clear that any limited experience that I have pales into insignificance compared with that of those who are serving in Afghanistan today.
Much of the debate has been about whether the Government should enshrine the military covenant in law, or whether there should be a report on the military covenant by law. I am not a lawyer and, to be honest, I do not know about that. As a member of the armed forces and like fellow members of the armed forces, I do not really care. What is important to me is not whether we enshrine it in law. That is a process point which demonstrates how out of touch the House of Commons is with our armed forces. What is important to me is that this and future Governments are judged by what is achieved-by the output of the military covenant. I
reserve the right in future years to come back and give my assessment on this Government and future Governments when we have reports on the military covenant in this place.
We have talked a lot about morale in the armed forces, and I will pinpoint one moment. I was excited in 2006 when the previous Government introduced the operational allowance, and I pay tribute to them for that. I received it, and for the record, I donated it to the Royal British Legion because I thought that was the right thing to do as a Member of Parliament. However, I also remember the horror when we discovered that, at the same time, the longer service separation allowance had been cut by almost exactly the same amount. There was a great fanfare by Tony Blair about the introduction of the operational allowance, and yet the cut to the longer service separation allowance was made quietly. Although I fully support this Government's doubling of the operational allowance, I give the caveat that members of our armed forces will be looking carefully at their payslips in future, such is the cynicism of many of them. We must be very careful on that point.
Another example is the introduction of the new payment system, the computerised joint personnel administration system. It had many gremlins, but such is the way with computer systems. One of the biggest problems with that system, which really upset members of the armed forces, related to the allowances. If somebody went from A to B, rather than being told what their allowances were, they had to go and find out. It was a pool system and people were not notified of what their allowances were. Like many of the benefits that were introduced, people were not automatically entitled to them. That needs to change.
The air bridge was mentioned in the opening remarks of the debate. I experienced the problems of the air bridge in 2006: being woken up five hours before the flight; getting stuck in Cyprus; not being able to ring home to tell the family that one would be late; finally getting back two days later; missing some leave; and having one's rifle sent to Aldershot, one's bag sent home and one's other kit sent elsewhere. I raised those concerns in the Chamber and there has been some improvement, but there are still major problems. I welcome the Government's move to ensure that any leave that one misses as a result of those problems is added to the end of one's post-tour leave. Some say that should happen in that two-week period, but that is impractical. It would be simply impossible for a commanding officer in Afghanistan to man his various companies without knowing when soldiers may return.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the reserves. As a reservist, I was delighted that the Secretary of State mentioned the reserves in his opening remarks. There was deep concern back in 2009 when, as reservists, we were told out of the blue that there would be no more training for six months because of mid-year savings. That decision was wrong, so I was delighted that the then Government saw the error of their ways and corrected it. However, that decision should never have been taken. If we are to promote a one-Army concept, we cannot treat the reserves as second-class citizens. I would like a reassurance that such silly measures, which target the Territorial Army and undermine the one-Army concept, will not be introduced again.
The Government's move to recognise the military covenant in a Bill for the first time is to be welcomed. We can argue about the semantics, but as I said at the start of my speech, I and many other members of the armed forces will judge this and successive Governments not on the detail, but on what is achieved.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I am incredibly pleased to follow the first two Back-Bench contributions to this debate. I hope that my contribution will be of the same incredibly high order, because it is that high level of debate that our armed forces want to hear from this Chamber, not the yah-boo politics that we heard from the Front Benches.
The military covenant is about the duty of care and the principles of that duty. It must set out the responsibilities of the Government and the country to those who serve and have risked their lives, just as the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) did and as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) has done. The military covenant is about people who do not have a choice over where they go or what they are called on to do-people who have no right to strike or raise objections; people who have no voice. The military covenant should give a voice to those voiceless, and it must be enshrined in law.
Why must the military covenant be enshrined in law? At the moment, our military is suffering from insecurity and instability. Morale is at an all-time low. Everyone in the Chamber has talked to military families. They will have had military families come to their surgeries who are concerned about how they will weather the strategic defence and security review, the cuts in allowances that have suddenly come upon them and the job losses, whether they are civil servants, many of whom are ex-military, or serving military personnel. There are pressures and tensions everywhere across our armed forces.
The sacking of personnel by e-mail has sent shock waves through the armed forces. The failure to follow through on the training commitment to those young people-many were hours away from completing four years of training to achieve a qualification that would have carried them through the rest of their lives-has devastated families and young people.
Why has the British Legion taken the unusual step of writing to Members of Parliament to ask that the military covenant be endorsed in law? This is a matter of trust, but I do not think that we demonstrate a tremendous amount of trust when we descend into making party political points about the military covenant. I am sorry to say that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have already become the parties of broken promises and broken commitments- [ Interruption. ] I have to say that promises have also been broken by my party.
All of us have a duty to make the highest level of commitment to our armed forces, and we should be judged by our actions. We can all make a list of the things we have done and the things we have failed to do, but what we really need to do is think of the consequences in our communities, because families can be devastated by the decisions that come out of this Chamber. Young
people's futures can be destroyed when their dreams of serving their country are thrown away, after they have read about the decision in a national newspaper.
The military covenant must not be simply a concept or a philosophy; it must be something that people can hold in their hands and feel secure about. It must be something that we, as a country, stand up to and stand by. Our armed forces and their families need to know that, whatever Government are in power, we will stand strongly by our commitments to them and that we will honour those commitments. As I have handed over veterans badges across my constituency over the past few years, I have seen the pride that people still felt about their years of service. They felt that those were the best years of their lives, and the times when they were most alive. We must honour those people, and make a commitment to them in law. If we are to have only a report, there must at the very least be a commitment to a free vote on the covenant for every Member of the House.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who more than lived up to her own billing. She spoke with great passion and great insight. I was also amused to hear the account from the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) of what his father had done on D-day. If anyone had asked my father what he had done in the war, he would have said, "Actually, I was a D-day dodger." My father was wounded three times in Italy, but the events there never got the coverage that the troops in France did. The hon. Gentleman's contribution was a fascinating one. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) gave us his insight into his own service, albeit as a reservist, and being called up to the front line. That was extremely interesting.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is preparing a document on the military covenant, and I have recently been asked what the covenant means to me. I was brought up to believe that the military covenant was the link between soldiers and officers, and between the nation and those soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines and their officers. Even more importantly, it is the link between the nation and the families, to whom the nation owes so much. I would like to pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Bridgend made, which is that the military covenant stands way above party politics. Yesterday's urgent question showed the House of Commons at its absolute best. It was about looking after the little people who do so much to defend this nation. I will expand on that in a moment.
In 1996, I led Nottinghamshire's own regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, through what was to be my constituency of Newark. We were essentially a peacetime army: we had come back from Northern Ireland and from Bosnia, but we were essentially a peacetime army. The burghers of Newark were polite, courteous and enthusiastic. The town was glad to see us.
Two years ago, the successor to that battalion, now sadly called 2 Mercian, paraded after its last tour in Afghanistan, where it had picked up a record number of conspicuous gallantry crosses-more than any other
battalion in the British Army. The town was mobbed. There was standing room only. Women and children were out on the streets. Union flags were being waved; regimental flags were being waved. The boys were overwhelmed by what they saw, and I was overwhelmed as well. I could not believe it. This was the military covenant put into practice.
What we must understand is that we are mere representatives of those people who were either marching or waving their flags. We must not make the mistake of believing that those kids off the streets of Newark, be they serving in Afghanistan or clapping from the pavements, understand or care about the semantics, the language and the legalities which we use so much and find so precious. What this is about is making sure that we honour our men, our women, our fighters and their families. Whether it be in law or whether it be simply talked about, as we are talking about it today, that is the important thing.
Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I do not think that anyone in the House disagrees with what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he agree that legislating for a military covenant would allow military families to trust the Government to provide everything that he mentions?
Patrick Mercer: I do not know and I do not care. What I do know is that when it works, it works superbly. I hope to say more about that shortly, but first let me explain how we have let our troops down and how the military covenant has been compromised.
Let me point out to all Members who were serving here at the time that this week in 2006, on 14 February, we had a debate which my friends and colleagues on the Opposition Benches will particularly remember. Troops were being committed to the Helmand valley in Afghanistan, an area where, in 1880, a British brigade lost 1,000 men in four hours, and where a Russian regimental unit lost 700 men over three days. We committed troops to that area without enough guns, without enough helicopters, without enough ammunition, and without enough bayonet power to do the job. That was the worst sort of compromise of the military covenant, and it was not done by Ministers wittingly. Most of it was done by career officers who did not understand that the military covenant involves the people who will do the fighting, not the talking and the theorising. That is what we must get right.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned the notice given to troops who were made redundant after Bosnia. I do not remember that, but I do know that in battalions such as the Cheshire Regiment, whose reputation stands high, the news of that measure was given by the commanding officer personally, because leadership was exercised. That is the point. The military covenant is about the exercise of leadership by officers and Ministers, and by the families whom both represent.
Yesterday, we heard about the most awful nonsense that had occurred some time earlier. A major had given news by e-mail of the sacking of a number of warrant officers who were serving all over the world. I appreciate that that was difficult to administer, but is notable that an urgent question was asked, that the Speaker allowed it to be dealt with in the Chamber, and that Members
on both sides of the House stood up for those warrant officers against the leviathan that the Army can be. That was the Chamber at its best, and the military covenant at its best, because we were looking after the people whom we have a sacred duty to look after. I do not care whether that is written into law; the point is that we must get it right. We must honour these men, we must honour these women, and we must honour their families. That is a military covenant.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): It is an incredible pleasure to follow all the Back Benchers who have spoken this evening, as their speeches have shown the House of Commons at its best in terms of expertise and the passion with which Members have been speaking.
I start by paying tribute to our forces and the sacrifices they make for our country, and by referring to the grief of the families of those who have been lost. When I recently went to Afghanistan with the Select Committee on Defence, we visited a forward operating base-I believe this was the first time the Committee had done so-and the dangers faced by our soldiers on a daily basis were obvious and very humbling. Through the work taking place there and at Camp Bastion, together with the training of the Afghan army and police, we are seeing real progress, but for me it was the professionalism of our forces that shone through. The best part of the visit came when we spoke face to face with members of the forces. I was left in no doubt that they are extremely worried about their terms and conditions, and their future pension arrangements, and that many did not feel that they were being treated fairly. I had similar conversations when the previous Government were in office and I acknowledge that members of the armed forces were not happy then either. We have to acknowledge that much more can be done. The shadow Secretary of State outlined what had been done, but we need to make more progress.
In the House, we are rightly always hearing warm words of appreciation for our forces, but they can ring hollow if they are not put into practice in the military covenant and if promises are made and then not kept. In the Armed Forces Bill Committee, the Minister responsible for veterans said that the covenant is a "moral obligation" and a "philosophical statement" and therefore does not need to be spelled out in detail or enshrined in law. That is, of course, the exact opposite of the promise that the Prime Minister made on the Ark Royal-the "Ark of the covenant" perhaps.
My constituency in the south-west of Scotland covers large parts of Ayrshire that are closely associated with the Covenanters, who stood for the preservation of Presbyterianism against all attempts to re-establish Catholic or Episcopalian Church government-that is perhaps not the happiest of illustrations for our Front-Bench team of Murphy and Doyle to take on board. My point is merely that covenants are scattered throughout history, nowhere more so than in biblical times. They often represented the most deeply held beliefs and were of life and death proportions. The adjectives most commonly associated with them were words such as "solemn" and "binding". It was seldom enough for them to be written in the hearts and minds; it was far better for them to be written on tablets of stone or in blood.
The military covenant is no less a thing; it is not a mere service level agreement and it is more than a bundle of moral obligations or philosophical statements. Moral obligations and philosophical statements do not pay the bills for our service personnel or veterans, nor do they give guarantees in legislation, which is the promise that was made and the promise that should be kept.
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a tremendously impressive speech on this issue. The people of Barnsley, in my constituency, have great regard for the armed forces and they expect the Members they elect to this House to reflect that fact in not only everything they say, but everything they do. Does she agree with that?
Sandra Osborne: Yes, very much so.
We are fortunate that both the Armed Forces Bill Committee and the Defence Committee contain Members who have served with distinction in the armed forces, for example, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who spoke with such authority. I have not served in the forces, so I am grateful that I have had the chance to take part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. As hon. Members will know, the scheme allows MPs to spend some 22 days a year with a particular service. Surprisingly enough, in my case it was with the Royal Marines and although it was in no way equivalent to the experience of actual service, it certainly opened my eyes to the reality of the job being done, as well as providing opportunities to speak frankly and off the record to the rank and file. I commend the scheme to hon. Members who might not be aware of it-it is very useful, especially given that relatively few Members of the House have served with the armed forces.
One issue that worries me about the Armed Forces Bill is the narrow way it is framed in terms of specifying the issues that should be included in the covenant. Education, health and housing are very important, but none of them comes under the remit of the MOD. That is not an adequate list of the many issues that exist and, as hon. Members have said, are by no means the only matters of concern. Pensions are of major concern and not just in relation to the retail prices index/consumer prices index debate: widows' allowances are also of concern. The agreement on pensions is being changed retrospectively and members of the armed forces feel aggrieved about that because they joined the forces in the belief that they would be guaranteed a decent pension. Now they feel let down. I mentioned the external reference group earlier because I think it is important that we have a level of independence. I do not make a party political point: I believe that Governments of any persuasion have a vested interest in highlighting the areas that suit them and ignoring those that do not. For example, why have pensions not been included even though they are obviously a hot issue?
Health care is extremely important and I was delighted to hear that the Secretary of State is prioritising mental health services. Combat Stress in my constituency does a tremendous job for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, including through cognitive behavioural therapy. I strongly welcome the prioritisation of mental
health services and I look forward to the development of further services, but I repeat that a promise made should be a promise kept.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank Back Benchers on both sides of the Chamber for having retrieved the debate, as Hansard will record. The debate will be read by many service personnel and former military personnel and, as I said in an earlier intervention, it does not go down well to play party politics with our armed forces.
Having served on the previous Armed Forces Bill-now the Armed Forces Act 2006-and on the Committee debating the current Armed Forces Bill, I pay tribute to the previous Government for the many advances that were made regarding the welfare and interests of our serving personnel and their families.
I have no recollection of the military covenant-now known as the armed forces covenant-being mentioned in our deliberations on the previous Bill. That concept has been brought about by the efforts of the Royal British Legion, to which I pay tribute. I also thank the Secretary of State for praising reservists and for reiterating that praise when I intervened on him, because that is part of the one-Army concept. Serving reservists and their families are sometimes left out of the debate.
The armed forces covenant will be enshrined in law when the Bill is enacted because those words will appear in legislation for the first time and because the Secretary of State will be required to come to the House each year and make a report. I am pretty confident that any Secretary of State who for whatever reason tried to airbrush out matters of concern would be quickly picked up, and quite rightly so, by any Member who thought such issues were being ignored.
Mr Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman says that the covenant will be enshrined in law, but he attended the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill the other day when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), said of the covenant:
"As I have explained already, it will be a conceptual, philosophical statement, and it will have about the same legal position as the service Command Paper".
To say that it will be enshrined in law is complete nonsense.
Bob Russell: I am not a lawyer; all I know is that the Bill, which I hope will become an Act, refers to the armed forces covenant. Should there be more than that, or should there be less? I do not know, but I do know that as the years unfold, that concept will be developed and built upon. Not only the Royal British Legion but other charities are involved. We have heard about the external reference group, but in fact a breakdown of that group has shown that the majority of its membership is within Government. It is more of an internal reference group, with a few very important external people added on.
Sandra Osborne: The hon. Gentleman will recall from the activities of the Bill Committee that the devolved Administrations are involved in the external reference group. So far, that is the only way in which they have been consulted on the Bill. Does he agree that such consultation is important?
Bob Russell: I have every confidence that the devolved Assemblies and elected representatives from the areas that they cover will not be silent on the Bill.
On Monday, members of the Committee visited the Colchester garrison, Merville barracks. They witnessed a virtually deserted barracks, because virtually ever soldier of 16 Air Assault Brigade is currently serving in Helmand province. I should like to place on record my admiration of, and thanks to, all soldiers in that brigade, including those from other nations who are attached to it. I understand that three people from the Danish army attached to it have lost their lives.
Members of the Select Committee also saw the modern housing there, which is single person's accommodation, for which the last Government can take credit. I do not agree with its being funded by a private finance initiative, because it will cost the public purse more in the long run, but it is the yardstick by which the provision of all accommodation for single military personnel will be judged in future. However, the Committee also saw the outside of some of the family accommodation. Although we did not go inside, it is accepted that some of it is not as good as it should be.
Across the road, former Army housing, now acquired by a housing association, is having millions of pounds spent on it from the public purse to provide additional rented accommodation for civilians. That accommodation is welcome, but when an Army family living in their substandard house see public money being spent across the road on modernising the most up-to-date housing available, they have to ask what the military covenant is doing. How can the Government find money to do up houses for civilians, which of course I welcome, yet tell us that there is no money to modernise the housing of people whose soldier husbands are serving in Afghanistan and putting their lives on the line? That has to be addressed. I am not making any party political point, because the families we met were not bothered about party politics as far as I could tell. They just wanted their Government to do something about the problem.
I shall end by talking about education, which is one of the three subjects covered by the covenant under the Bill, although others will flow from them. The pupil premium has been mentioned, and I welcome the concept, but it has not yet been spelled out to me what the criteria will be for that money stream to come forward for the children of military personnel. It will be one thing to identify military children on Army, Navy and Air Force bases, where the majority of the children at the local school will be from a military background. However, we know that increasing numbers of armed forces personnel do not live on military bases. How will the pupil premium find its way to young people from such families?
I welcome the Armed Forces Bill, and I believe that the armed forces covenant will be enshrined in the law of the land. I do not want to argue about the legal semantics, but the Bill is a huge step forward and we should thank the Royal British Legion for all its work.
Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab):
I am proud to represent my constituency, which has a long military history-the arsenal at Woolwich is on our doorstep, and the new town of Thamesmead was built
on arsenal land-but I am also proud to be a member of the Thamesmead Town and Abbey Wood Royal British Legion, and it is on behalf of my fellow members that I want to make just one point.
The Conservatives said in their armed forces manifesto that they would look into Lord Boyce's armed forces compensation scheme review to see whether the reforms were improving things for veterans. I suggest that they also look at how the policies of other Whitehall Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, will affect the conditions for current and future veterans. The scale of the reduction in benefits following the switch from RPI to CPI will wipe out the increases in lump-sum payments that the previous Government introduced following the Boyce review. Far from improving conditions for veterans, that change will be a backward step and a huge blow to members of the armed forces, war widows and their families, because they rely on pensions earlier than other public sector workers. In their lives, members of the armed forces face the risk of injury-both physical and mental-and so rely on getting their pensions earlier, as do the widows and widowers of servicemen and servicewomen who are killed early in their careers.
Those groups, and those on the war pension scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme, will experience a greater diminution of the relative value of their pension over a greater period. Because of the switch to CPI, a 40-year-old squadron leader will lose £300,000 by the age of 85, which is not right. We should not be telling those who have risked their lives for this country that they must suffer a financial loss on such a scale for the sake of reducing the deficit as quickly as possible. As we heard earlier, the deficit is temporary, but the changes to the pensions of members of our armed forces and of other public sector workers will be permanent-the year-on-year reduction in their pensions will continue long after the structural deficit has been reduced.
I oppose in principle the switch to CPI from RPI, and I am unconvinced by the Government's argument that the former is a better measure. The Government need to postpone that change and to rethink their policy for all public sector workers, but members of our armed forces are a special case. They have served their country, often making huge sacrifices. That also applies to the wider families of personnel. The military service of personnel means that it is likely that they have been away from their families for long periods. We talk about the right to family life in the House when we talk about ourselves, but serving personnel should also have that right. The families of personnel worry every day about the injury or death in service of their loved one, waiting for that phone call or that message, which must be the most awful way to live.
Cutting the pensions of members of the armed services is not the way to reduce the structural deficit. I believe that the deficit can be reduced by greater investment, and a solid strategy for growth over time in a society in which everyone who is able to work does so, and in which we support those who cannot. I urge the Government to review that aspect of their pension policy and to abandon their short-term thinking on the economy, so that members of the armed forces and their families do not pay the price for the banking crisis, in which they had no part.
As the general secretary of the Forces Pension Society, Major-General John Moore-Bick, says, the armed forces pension is "the bedrock of trust" on which members of our forces rely. They know that they or their families will be taken care of in the event of death or wounding, and they can trust that they will have a decent life after active service. We alter that bedrock of trust at our peril, and to our shame.
Mr Speaker: Order. There are now only 20 minutes left for remaining Back-Bench contributions, and several Members still seek to catch my eye. Members are perfectly capable of doing the arithmetic for themselves, but I appeal to them to help each other.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I will be as quick as I can. I love the idea of a military covenant. Of course our armed forces are a special case. They are a martial profession: people who join them do not do so to join a nursery school; they know they are going to take risks and they know they may lose their lives. As we know, they are in a unique profession, so we have to deal with them uniquely. That is why we must look after them. I repeat: we must look after them.
The military covenant is a work in progress. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who is no longer in his place, and others who say that it is the idea of the covenant that counts rather than law. We feel strongly that the tri-service military covenant being looked at now, as work in progress, could get better. I feel that the military covenant comprises three crucial aspects, which I will quickly run through.
Mr Kevan Jones: What the Defence Secretary said this afternoon, which was also said in recent proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill, is that a document called "the armed forces covenant" is being worked on now and will be produced later this spring. If that is the case, and the Prime Minister is clear that the covenant should be written into law, why is it not part of the Armed Forces Bill? When an amendment was proposed last week to enshrine the covenant in law, why did the hon. Gentleman's party vote against it?
Bob Stewart: The answer is I do not know, but I will continue and I will be quick.
What is crucial to whatever we call the military covenant is how we respect our soldiers when they are killed. As a boy, I remember watching my father's battalion come back. He was the only officer who had not been killed and I remember watching the bodies come off the back of an aircraft at RAF Khormaksar in Aden. We have come a long way since then, and we must respect people properly. Secondly, the families must be looked after properly. When someone dies in the service of our country, we have a duty as a Government to look after those families for the rest of their lives. And my third point is that we have a duty to look after those who are hurt badly for the rest of their lives, too.
I am happy that the military covenant is going to be part of the Armed Forces Bill. I like the idea of having a report every year. I commend the idea of the Queen's
regulations. When I was serving, they were my bible when it came to dealing with my soldiers and how I should behave. Perhaps the tri-service military covenant will in due course become part of the Queen's regulations.
Members on both sides of the House must try to do whatever we can in these parlous economic times to look after our soldiers so that we will remember them.
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): There have been some excellent and thoughtful contributions to the debate. I am pleased that the Royal Welsh Regiment has been given the freedom of the borough in Blaenau Gwent this weekend.
Last week, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the Government's proposed changes to armed forces pensions. I have also tabled early-day motion 1367, which is now supported by 118 MPs from all parties. I welcome today's opportunity to raise the issue of the military covenant.
For service personnel and veterans in my constituency, pensions are a key component of the military covenant. Unfortunately, they do not believe that a permanent move from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index in calculating pension increases is fair, and neither do I. This change will slash the lifetime income of disabled servicemen wounded on active service. They have been targets of the Taliban and others; they should not be targets in their retirement.
I am proud of Wales's contribution to Britain's defence; it has been long and distinguished. The Welsh Assembly has an admirable record in providing for our armed forces. That is why armed forces personnel now get special help through the Assembly's homebuy scheme. It is good that the Welsh Assembly goes that bit further for our armed forces. That, I believe, is in contrast to the Government's policy on pensions for the armed services.
As my right hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary pointed out, the Opposition accept the need for pay restraint in public sector pay and pensions in the current economic circumstances. However, a permanent move to uprating pensions every year in line with CPI rather than RPI does not recognise the unique condition of military service and retirement. It will, for example, mean that those invalided out, and widows who lose their partner at a relatively young age, will lose out-and big time.
The impact of the Government proposals on pensions uprating are stark and startling. For example, a disabled, double amputee, 28-year-old corporal would lose £587,000 by the age of 70. I do not believe that is fair, given the sacrifices made by our armed services and servicemen and servicewomen. Lyndon Moore, the secretary of the Nantyglo British Legion in Blaenau Gwent, supports me in standing up for servicemen, who, he feels, have been let down by the Government in their hour of need. I applaud the coverage of this matter in The Times and in the Pensions Fit for Heroes campaign of the Daily Mirror in recent weeks.
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