Mr Speaker, I’m pleased to start what I think is an important debate in advance of Armed Forces Day on issues that transcend party politics. The care and support we offer those prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of others in our Nation’s name across the globe is something we rightly celebrate every day and in particular this weekend.
The patriotism, courage and dedication of the men and women who serve are immeasurable. The first duty of any Government of protecting our citizens would not be possible without our Forces commitments, and they must at all times be properly valued and rewarded.
I want this House to know that the Government will always have the support of these benches as it seeks to support our service personnel. We will work, and conduct debates such as these, in the spirit of comradeship, for that is what is in the national interest.
This is more important as Armed Forces Day approaches. This is an opportunity for people across the UK to come together locally to celebrate the contribution our Forces and their families make – not just to our national security, but to our local communities too.
And so it is in that spirit that I hope this debate will be conducted.
Mr Speaker, our Armed Forces stationed overseas are at the forefront of all our minds, in particular the 9,000 in Afghanistan. They operate in the dust and danger of faraway terrain to protect security in our streets at home.
And of course, after the pain of the past few years many people understandably ask why it is in our interests to engage and confront causes and unrest in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The answer is straightforward: we do not want it to visit our shores.
We have recently seen UK personnel operate in Libya and Mali – alongside the ongoing operation in Afghanistan – in a sign of the unpredictability of today’s security landscape.
Today the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way do so in a rapidly evolving defence environment which will demand new skills, technologies and strategies, alongside their timeless courage and ingenuity.
Our purpose in the world is to defend our interests and promote our values, but the means by which we achieve such ends and the threats which challenge both our interests and ideas are increasingly diverse, complex and intense.
The global population is growing rapidly, putting a massive pressure on resources, space and forcing migration from rich to poor states.
Climate change will reduce available land, food and water, exacerbating the drivers of state failure.
Weak and unstable states outnumber strong and stable states by more than two to one.
A youth bulge is seeing rising aspiration and greater emotional urgency in the desire for change.
The advance of information technologies and biotechnologies threatens international security infrastructure, while nuclear proliferation and cyber attack pose potential for mass destruction.
Within this context it is our duty to ensure our Forces are designed to meet new threats, with a strategy defined by adaptability, prevention and partnering with our allies.
Labour has argued that our equipment plan must be advanced and affordable, defined by discipline in budgetary management as well as maximising modern technology and new multilateralism, and that our Armed Forces must be higher-skilled, focusing on stabilisation, cultural embedding and building other nations’ underdeveloped Forces so that they can share the burden of heavy lifting. We see a new role for our Services based on earlier intervention to prevent the need for the large-scale conflicts of our recent history – but it is our duty to ensure that such capability is based on reform throughout the ranks.
Mr Speaker, the duty we have to our Forces on the frontline is matched by the duty of care we have to them when they return.
The Armed Forces Covenant, enshrined in 2011 after a campaign by the Royal British Legion, has at its heart the principle that no-one should suffer disadvantage as a result of service. That should infuse all the work that we – that is to say all of us in the House – undertake on behalf of servicemen and women and their families.
* The covenant between our nation and Services is made in recognition that a career in the Armed Forces differs from all others. The Covenant recognises that Service personnel agree to sacrifice certain civil liberties and to follow orders, including placing themselves in danger, in defence of national security and that of millions around the world. In return, the United Kingdom shall help, support and reward those who serve.
Only recently did we graphically witness both the danger our Forces face and the unity they can inspire. The atrocious barbaric murder of Drummer Lee Rigby sickened us all – a feeling which was matched in intensity only by resolve to defeat the extremist sentiments which shaped the minds of his murderers. The result, however, was not division – apart from an exploitative minority – instead it was a simple act of Britain standing together to defy violence, hatred and intolerance.
I hope that Armed Forces Day, in recognition of all those who have fallen, will be a reflection of these emotions: commemoration of loved ones lost and celebration of all they have achieved and all their comrades can and will achieve. Not just of their deeds in the Armed Forces but the love that they gave, the friendships they built and the memories in which they are held.
Responsibility for covenant
Mr Speaker, Covenant is a statement of collective purpose. Its principles cut across class, sectors, and regions and Nations of the UK. Businesses, local communities, central government and local authorities all have a responsibility to deliver the highest possible levels of care and support to the service community.
We operate within financial constraints, of course, but a pooling of our commitment and imagination can lead to better policy and meaningful results.
That is why we have urged Local Authorities to have Veterans Champions – a dedicated person at each council to help service-leavers resettle in to civilian life. On return from the frontline or on departing the Forces many service-leavers struggle with the transition from military to civilian life.
Labour has also launched a campaign to urge all Local Authorities to consider offering bereaved service families the chance to name streets after their loved ones.
For some time I have reflected that while an Opposition party is out of Office it is not without power to deliver change. That is why we have also worked with business to develop and deliver the Veterans Interview Programme, encouraging employers to offer veterans a guaranteed interview or other form of enhanced employment support. It is a voluntary scheme which gives veterans a chance to show employers how their skills and experience could benefit their business, and the Department for Work and Pensions agreed to roll this out in November last year.
This morning, in another partnership with business, I updated our ‘Fighting Fitter’ campaign, in which health and leisure centres provide discounts for members of the Forces and their families. There are now five national health companies – Nuffield Health; Pure Gym; David Lloyd; Virgin Active; UK Active – which have over 450 sites between them which offer discounts and we hope others will do the same for this weekend. I was joined by an Olympic athlete. When I tweeted that fact earlier this morning some people got in touch to find out if it was Jessica Ennis or Sir Chris Hoy. And Mr Speaker if you’ll forgive the unparliamentary terminology on just this one occasion it was neither of them it was another Sir. Our very own Sir Ming Campbell, who competed as a sprinter at the 1964 games in Tokyo. We were joined by the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee the Rt Hon Member for North East Hampshire in the House of Commons gym in an all-Party show of support for ‘Fighting Fitter’.
The Opposition also believes it is vital to protect those who protect our nation through anti-discrimination legislation. Recent polling shows 1 in 20 service personnel have suffered abuse in the street. A forthcoming Private Members Bill (presented yesterday my hon Friend the member for Dunfermline and West Fife) will propose that abuse on the Forces would be treated as ‘aggravated’, ensuring specific punishment for those who attack our Forces. Polling has also shown that 18% of service personnel have been refused service in a public place, and so the Bill will also propose to outlaw discrimination against members of the Forces in the provision of goods and services – vital if we are to tackle disadvantage arising from military service. This is a Bill which, while I’m certain can always be technically improved, we hope will be subject to cross-party support.
* Mr Speaker, we have also demanded that train companies use a proportion of their profits to extend the concessionary travel that is available to members of the Forces to veterans. This is a sign of the value we place on military experience and is in recognition of the value the older generation place on mobility and independence.
We hope these are initiatives the whole House can support, and I look forward to hearing whether the Minister – who I didn’t invite to our photo-op in the gym this morning – will be able to reflect on each of these initiatives all of which were launched by the Opposition but done in a way free from partisan or party politics.
Turning to Veterans’ employment, Mr Deputy Speaker,
One of the essential elements of our duty of care is how we support those who have served get into work post-Service.
Being in the Forces often provides personnel with friendship if not near-familial support, and it can be disorientating and disconcerting when bonds with compatriots are suddenly broken and the norms of military life lost.
* Approximately 24,000 people leave the Armed Forces each year and the majority will need to seek a second career. In the 12 months to March this year the average exit ages for officers was 40 and over; over 60% of leavers from other ranks were between the ages of 20 and 34. Their challenge is amplified by a crowded jobs market and stagnant economic climate and many do not know how to promote their existing skills to employers, while some businesses are unaware of their applicability in the workplace.
The approach we favour would be twin-track: enhancing post-service support and introducing much more rigorous in-service training. This would not only ensure those who leave have the skills and structures to help them advance in new careers, but would also strengthen the operational effectiveness of our services by increasing the skill levels of our personnel whilst serving.
On post-service support we want to see a permanent umbrella body sit above the brilliant but sometimes fragmented third sector. A one-stop-shop for leavers to access services would vastly increase access to support.
Pre-service vulnerabilities such as low educational attainment can be exacerbated amongst early leavers when they enter the job market and so we want to see a change, with resettlement support linked to need as well as length of service.
* The talents of those leaving the military can be real assets to business. Service provides people with organisational, team-building, leadership and quick-thinking skills, yet polling shows just 1% of service personnel think employers were well informed about day-to-day life in the Forces. The Government should take a leading role in educating employers in the skills accrued during military experience and set up a ‘veterans’ support hub’ in which employers become a permanent part of the veterans’ employment support policy process.
Mr Speaker while it is right that members of the Armed Forces do not have a Union I want to mention for a moment the role of Trade Unions. I know there are some in the country who bemoan the role of Unions but I am delighted to inform the House that earlier this afternoon I attended an event with the General Secretary of Community Union Michael Leahy. I hope it is news the whole House will welcome that Community trade union have announced their intention to work with Parliamentarians and other stakeholders to position themselves as the UK’s Veterans Union. I know from the work I do with Community trade union that they will be able to offer specialist, bespoke provision and ensure veterans find gainful employment and continue to make a valuable difference.
Mr Speaker, changes in post service support should just be one side of the reform we need, which is why we are arguing for faster academic attainment within the services.
In recent evidence to the Defence Select Committee Ofsted have written, “The provision for meeting the literacy and numeracy needs of service personnel…would benefit from further improvement”. A system where many of those who defend our country are left without additional basic skills is bad for recruits, the Army and our country. We believe that through close collaboration between the MoD, DfE and the Devolved Administrations there can be the opportunity to reach Level 2 within two years for those without qualifications. This should apply across the UK because while education is devolved in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland our collective responsibility to our Forces is not. I want to make certain that members of the Forces could benefit from such changes no matter where in our Islands they live.
There should also be specialist training in literacy teaching; increased provision of Army apprenticeships within the infantry; and easier conversion of military to civilian qualifications. Enhanced in-service education would be a genuine means of progression for military men and women. Attaining basic skills will enable personnel to compete later on. Evidence from the British Cohort Studies concludes there is “strong evidence of the significance of literacy and numeracy skills not only in gaining employment on leaving school, but in retaining it and progressing in it.” Just as important, however, this goes to the heart of the nature of the Services – and in particular Army – we want to develop over the long-term. If our Forces are going to be leaner, they must be smarter, with advanced skill levels at all ranks to meet modern challenges.
Mr Speaker, the House will be aware that in light of the Government’s structural changes to the Army, realising defence planning assumptions rests largely on doubling the number of Reserves to 30,000. We on these benches support a larger role for the Army Reserve, as it will rightly be known, but we are concerned that plans are as yet insufficient detail to give Members, and the senior military figures who have raised public concerns, confidence in their success.
In advance of the forthcoming White Paper there are a number of policies we on these benches believe the Government should consider, not least to ensure compatibility between longer training and deployment time periods and the employment of a larger Reserve Force.
* These include establishing a permanent, Employer Engagement Committee, a formal body of engagement where lead national employers and trade bodies are represented and can routinely communicate with MoD officials, Ministers and Officers on these policy matters. This would also allow the Government to take a lead making the ‘business case’ for hiring Reserves, outlining the transferability of frontline skills to help businesses’ bottom line.
There should be as much advanced warning for businesses as possible to allow managers to plan around deployments and training timelines, enhancing predictability.
The MoD should also go further to outline which specialist streams of Reservists will be recruited and the sectors from which they will be drawn, for example in cyber security or CBRN.
There must also be real protection for reservists. There is currently legislation which says clearly that an employer has a duty to re-employ a returning reservist in the occupation in which they were employed before their service, on the same terms and conditions. There is not, however, legislation which would prevent an employer from discriminating against Reservists in their hiring procedures on the grounds of their military affiliation, and the Government should consult with employers specifically on new legislation to protect against the discrimination in hiring Reservists, something which would need to be coupled with an obligation of transparency from Reservists to declare their status.
Finally on Reservists, evidence shows that some Reserves can suffer worse post-service psychological issues than Regulars. This is, in part, due to the speed of the transition from military to civilian settings. We should consider how there can be increased access for Reserves to military medical services to tackle potential mental health problems.
The sum of these plans would contribute to a comprehensive package of support for those who volunteer to serve their country.
We in this House will disagree on many aspects of domestic and some aspects of defence policy. The decision to leave certain capability gaps following the defence review and the process by which redundancies have been made are examples of real controversy.
Armed Forces Day, however, should not be defined by a political contest but where possible by consensus and celebration.
The groups that make up our national defence are many: the high skilled industrial workforces who make world class equipment; the civilian government workforce who do so much for our Forces; the charities whose unrivalled support and commitment to Armed Forces personnel provide a lifeline when, often, another does not exist; and the families who are sometimes forgotten but who themselves make sacrifices to support the action on the frontline. Each of these groups will be participants on Saturday.
But uppermost in our thoughts will be the hundreds who have been lost in recent conflicts and the thousands who are in service overseas and not able to be at home for this weekend’s celebrations. Mr Speaker, we remember them, we thank them and this weekend we celebrate them.