The care and support we offer those who serve in our nation’s name is something we rightly celebrate every day, and in particular this weekend and today, Armed Forces Day.
Our Armed Forces stationed overseas are at the forefront of all our minds, in particular the 8,000 in Afghanistan. They operate in the dust and danger of faraway terrain to protect security in our streets at home. We must recognise the contribution of the whole service family, not just to national security but to our local communities, and in particular service personnel’s loved ones whose quiet courage is invaluable support for those on the frontline.
Only recently did we graphically witness both the danger our Forces face and the unity they can inspire. The 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.
The Armed Forces Covenant is a statement of collective purpose. Its primary principle – that no-one should suffer disadvantage as a result of military service – cuts across class, sectors, 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.
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. Labour has also launched a campaign to urge all councils to consider offering bereaved service families the chance to name streets after their loved ones.
While an Opposition party is out of Office it is not without power to deliver change. Labour has worked with business to develop and deliver the Veterans Interview Programme, encouraging employers to offer veterans a guaranteed interview or other forms of enhanced employment support. Our ‘Fighting Fitter’ campaign, in which health and leisure centres provide discounts for members of the Forces and their families, is now a national campaign with over 450 sites offering discounts.
1 in 20 service personnel have suffered abuse in the street. 18% of service personnel have been refused service in a public place. Labour is arguing that we must protect those who protect our nation through anti-discrimination legislation. 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 and that veterans’ rights to quality healthcare be strengthened by enshrining the covenant principles in the NHS constitution.
Labour will continue to campaign on these and similar issues to help ensure the Covenant is a reality for all.
After the pain of recent conflicts many understandably ask why it is in our interests to engage and confront unrest in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The answer is straightforward: we do not want it to visit our shores. But 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.
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. We see a new role for our Services based on earlier intervention to prevent the need for large-scale conflicts, but it is our duty to ensure that such capability is based on reform throughout the ranks.
Armed Forces Day, however, should not be defined by a political contest but where possible by consensus and celebration. 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. Today we should not just pledge to value and reward them but also show our gratitude. I hope that wherever you are you will take a moment to say ‘thank you’ to the service community.