DEFENCE PERSONNEL – 6 December 2012
Dr Julian Lewis: I think that I speak for everyone present when I say that long after everything else that is said in this debate has been forgotten, everyone here today will remember the speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is easy to see from the bravery with which he recounted his experiences in Northern Ireland those qualities of character and courage that led to him being decorated as he was in other combat theatres.
Today we are talking primarily about defence personnel issues, but I know that you will allow a degree of latitude, Mr Deputy Speaker. Therefore, before referring to the two main areas on which I wish to concentrate, I will make a couple of slightly wider points of gentle disagreement. I have a gentle disagreement with the Government on the idea that it is adequate for a country with United Kingdom’s interests to spend 2% or 2.1% of GDP on defence. It is simply not enough as a proportion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) said, if we can spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid, we should be spending more than 2% or 2.1% on defence.
I have a very gentle disagreement with my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Defence Committee (James Arbuthnot), who said that he now feels that it was right to name a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, because he can see the beneficial effects that it has had on the Afghan Government and Afghan forces in getting their act together. It is true that there has been a beneficial effect; there was always going to be. The effect we have to worry about is that which it will have on the enemy. They now know when we are going and that all they have to do is sit on their hands for long enough or, even worse, redouble their efforts to damage us in the run-up to our scheduled departure, in order to be able to claim that they drove us out of the country. Although I accept that there are some advantages in naming a departure date, I do not accept that it was the right thing to do.
I will now turn to what I should have started with, defence personnel, which is the subject of the debate. I wish to concentrate on two areas, one general and one specific. The general area relates to veterans and the conditions they face on leaving the Armed Forces. In order to do that, I will draw heavily on comments made to me by Dr Hugh Milroy, the charismatic Chief Executive Officer of one of the oldest and most respected welfare organisations, Veterans Aid, which is based in Victoria. It is so long in the tooth that if one looks at its website, one will find that its parent organisation, which was set up following the First World War, has a film clip featuring the late Ralph Richardson showing in fictional form the sorts of employment problems faced by someone coming back from that terrible conflict and the way in which voluntary organisations were necessary to give them a chance of resuming normal life. Indeed, the number of injured veterans was so large following that terrible war that there was inevitably a feeling of disillusionment about the way they were treated by a grateful country after 1918.
We have published the Military Covenant, and it has quite a bit to say about housing. I will read a couple of brief extracts. The Covenant says that serving personnel
“should have priority status in applying for Government-sponsored affordable housing schemes, and Service leaders should retain this status for a period after discharge.”
It also says:
“Members of the Armed Forces Community should have the same access to social housing and other housing schemes as any other citizen, and not be disadvantaged in that respect by the requirement for mobility whilst in Service.”
The problem that arises is what a local authority does if it has no housing available and all it has is a waiting list.
Sir Bob Russell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that situation is exacerbated many times over if the local authority happens to have a major garrison within its borders?
Dr Lewis: I not only agree with the hon. Gentleman but pay tribute to him. I have listened year in, year out, while he has raised this subject consistently in debate after debate. He is a champion of Service personnel in relation to housing matters.
I know something about this problem because I was recently approached in connection with the situation in the New Forest, a large part of which is protected, with very little available in the way of new housing. What happens if there is only a waiting list to offer to people? Should returning Service personnel jump to the head of that waiting list over other people who have been on it for a considerable period? Dr Milroy says that his charity has seen many cases where individuals have taken a copy of the charter to the local authority “and the LA has laughed.” He says that the real problem is that
“if there are no available houses it is a pointless exercise. Until the Govt put resource behind this I can’t see things changing.”
Above all, he draws attention to the fact that we are heading for a “huge redundancy programme” that will result in a large increase in the numbers of eServicemen returning to civilian lives. Phrases such as “the emperor’s new clothes” feature in his remarks about the Covenant, because, as he says, it is a fine idea but it will not change the situation unless backed by resources.
Penny Mordaunt: Given the challenges with Service accommodation and some of the estates that we have, does my hon. Friend agree that there might be opportunities to introduce a right-to-buy scheme for Armed Forces families?
Dr Lewis: Yes, absolutely. I believe that the Government are working on schemes that will make it possible for eService personnel to get their foot on the housing ladder. I look forward to what I hope will be positive recommendations by the Minister on this subject.
Mr Kevan Jones: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that I started that scheme in the last four months of my time as veterans Minister, and the take-up showed that it was very popular.
Dr Lewis: I am delighted that there appears to be consensus across the House. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman had been in post a little earlier than he was, he would have started the scheme a little earlier in Labour’s long period in office.
On a more positive note, Dr Milroy and his organisation recently had a considerable success when the Government acknowledged and accepted their campaign saying that minor military disciplinary offences should no longer be allowed to count against Commonwealth soldiers who, after their period of service to this country, often in dangerous theatres, were applying for British residency and British citizenship. It was a massive injustice that issues that would normally be regarded in civilian life as minor infractions and not criminal in any way were being used by, I believe, the UK Border Agency, against the applications of individual Commonwealth Servicemen or ex-Servicemen to become British citizens. I am glad that Hugh Milroy and Veterans Aid mounted a successful, high-profile campaign and that the Government listened to them.
Finally, I hope that the Government will be in similar listening mode with regard to a very high-profile case – I think I was the first MP to raise it on the Floor of the House – namely that of Special Air Service Sergeant Danny Nightingale. I am aware that the case is going to Appeal on the question of conviction, so I will not stray into the issue of whether that Appeal should succeed. I note with great pleasure that the Appeal against sentence was successful and I was privileged to be present in the court. I thought it was absolutely grotesque to see a man of Sergeant Nightingale’s character and record in the barred dock of the court, but it was a great result that his sentence was reduced and suspended. He should never have been in custody in the first place.
The only point I wish to make is that Ministers should bear in mind that if the Appeal is successful – I say if – the question will arise of whether there should be a retrial. I hope that, if the Appeal against conviction is successful, Ministers will have the good sense to say that enough is enough and to make that opinion clear.
My mind goes back to one of the first Service personnel campaigns that I was involved in when I came to this House in the late 1990s, namely the case of the two RAF Chinook pilots who were killed when their helicopter crashed into the Mull of Kintyre. That case dragged on and on, and for no good purpose. Lord Chalfont and others in the House of Lords, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) in this House, and, I would like to think, many of us – in my case on the Back Benches and later on the then Opposition Front Bench, where I held a role similar to that held today by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) – pressed the case continuously. Our argument was that, given that the rules were changed after the crash so that no future pilots who were killed in a crash could ever be blamed in the way that they had been blamed, it was nonsensical and unfair that those whose case had led to the change in the rules should not benefit from it.
The same situation could well arise with Sergeant Nightingale. The Secretary of State for Defence has made it clear that he is considering – I hope that he will continue to consider it and, indeed, go ahead with it – an amnesty for other Service personnel who have brought back and are holding on to, as trophies, weapons that should not still be in their possession. It would be absurd for the person whose trial had led to the amnesty – we should also remember that an amnesty has already been held locally, which led to other members of the SAS handing in a lot of unauthorised weapons – not to be given the benefit of the fact that an amnesty was now available for everyone else.
I will close as I began by saying that anything that any of us has to say pales into minor significance compared with what we heard from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham. It was a privilege to be here during his speech.