Below is the text of the statement made by Tobias Ellwood, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 26 June 2019.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Armed Forces Day.
It is a real honour to open this debate to celebrate Armed Forces Day. It is an opportunity for us to say thank you to those in uniform who serve this country. It is an opportunity for us to express our gratitude to those who are in the regular service, the reserves, the cadets and those who served in uniform, our brave veterans. Also part of the armed forces community are the mums, dads, children, girlfriends, partners, wives and husbands; those who are in the immediate surrounds of those who wear or wore the uniform. On behalf of a grateful nation, I hope the House will join me in saying, “Thank you. Today and this week is all about you.”
This is the eleventh annual Armed Forces Day, and each year the event becomes bigger and bigger. I am pleased to say that the Defence Secretary will be going to Salisbury this weekend. That city is of course famous for its 123 metre spire, but it is also the home of 3rd Division. It is therefore quite apt for her and others to be celebrating our armed forces in Salisbury. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), the Procurement Minister, will be visiting Wales and the Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) will be visiting Scotland.
I had the real honour of visiting Lisburn at the weekend. As somebody who served there during the troubles, how inspiring it was to be able to stand there in the high street with the Mayor and various dignitaries to watch the parade of our soldiers, sailors, air personnel and cadets. They were able to walk through the town and receive the gratitude not just of those in elected office, but of the thousands of people who lined the streets. Armed Forces Day is not just about parades, but the open day that takes place afterwards. I am very grateful to the people of Lisburn and indeed to the people of the rest of Northern Ireland. The year before, I was in Coleraine.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
The Minister was also in Bangor in North Down. I was alongside him—that is how I know.
I have made so many visits to Northern Ireland, but they do not blur into one and the hon. Gentleman is right. The point I am trying to make is that when I and others served there, there was simply no chance of being able to walk down any high street in uniform and there was absolutely no chance of the civilian population being able to express their gratitude. The change is absolutely fantastic and very welcome.
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
I would like to give my right hon. Friend a vote of confidence, because I know he played a very big part in the D-day commemoration events in Normandy. I had the great honour of going on to the Boudicca and meeting the veterans. I would also like to thank the Defence Secretary and the staff, who were absolutely magnificent in organising that event. It was simply extraordinary and a total success. I just wanted to say that to the Minister directly, because we owe him great thanks for all that.
I am grateful for those kind comments. I not only thank my hon. Friend for what he has done, but pay tribute to the sacrifice made by his father, who was part of the Normandy landings and who received the Victoria Cross—
Sir William Cash
The Military Cross.
The Military Cross, I beg your pardon. He was killed on Hill 112 at the very beginning of that advance. I will come to what happened there and to the fact that I was on board the Boudicca with 90-year-olds who stayed up later than I did, drank far more than I did and were up earlier than I was the next day.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
I join the Minister in paying tribute not only to current armed forces personnel, but to ex-servicemen. Will he add to the list of those he is congratulating and thanking the merchant seafarers, particularly at the Normandy landing? Many civilians took to their boats at very short notice to help to liberate Europe.
The hon. Gentleman has jumped ahead of me, but I absolutely am happy to pay tribute to the work of the merchant seafarers. They supply our surface fleet and submariner fleet and logistically keep them at sea. They played such a critical role in the Normandy landings and do so today as well, and he is right to point that out.
Today is Reserves Day—I declare that I am a reservist—and we should pay tribute to them. Hon. Members might be aware that many are wearing their uniform today with pride, and I point out in particular that many reservists are part of the Whitehall family. Yesterday at the Foreign Office, we invited all those civil servants who not only work hard for the Government and our country in their day jobs but wear the uniform as reservists. They are in all three services, and it was wonderful to see the variety of support not just from the organisers who put this together to show that there are those who can do both jobs, but the other employers that allow and give time to our service personnel so that they can be reservists, as well as working for them.
Stephen Kerr (Stirling) (Con)
I cast my eye towards the side Gallery during Prime Minister’s questions to see our hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) wearing his uniform—the uniform of the Royal Artillery—and, as the Minister mentioned, I look forward to welcoming the Minister for the Armed Forces to our Stirling military show on Saturday. I think that it would be a really good thing if our serving personnel and our reservists have more opportunities to wear their uniforms in public. The more that the public see those who wear the uniform and have the opportunity to thank them in person, the more the bond will be strengthened between the public and those who serve them so selflessly in the Queen’s uniform.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. If any of us travel to the United States for business or otherwise, we will see—in any airport or high street—that if there is somebody in uniform, others will go up and simply thank them for their service. Those people are completely unknown to them but simply do that out of a sense of duty and pride. Perhaps we are a bit reserved in this country, but we should do that more, particularly with veterans. I am really pleased that one thing I have managed to do is enlarge the veterans’ badge. It was so small that someone had to invade that person’s body space to realise that it said “Veteran”. It is now twice the size, so it really jumps out at people. I hope that that will be the green light so that if anybody sees that badge, they go up to that person and say, “Thank you for what you have done for our country.”
Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
Will the Minister also thank the many veterans charities around the UK who help and support veterans to adjust to civilian life? I am thinking particularly of the Coming Home Centre in Govan, which I regularly support with letters to ensure that they get adequate funding. Will he say something about that and encourage MPs to get involved in helping veterans charities to get the funding that they need and deserve so that they can help veterans?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to heap praise on our veterans charities. There are around 400 service-facing charities of different sizes. Some of the large ones that we know well, such as Combat Stress and Blesma, have been around for 100 years or so; others, which aim to keep the name of a loved one alive, are just starting up. They do incredible work, and it is so important that we honour and respect that, but we must also make sure that their work is co-ordinated, because resources are limited, and it is important that charities work together in synergy to ensure that we provide the best possible service for those who require it.
Mr Paul Sweeney (Glasgow North East) (Lab/Co-op)
The Minister makes an important point about the need for proper integration and co-ordination of the charities supporting our veterans. I join in his remarks about Reserves Day. Having served in the reserves for 12 years, I think it is important to acknowledge the sacrifices made by reservists. Thousands of them have served on operations overseas. We should recognise the impact that may have had on their personal life, and they should not be forgotten when it comes to supporting veterans.
Sometimes reservists step forward to fill the gap when there is a shortfall in the regular components of a unit or formation. I know from when I served—I am looking around at others who have served—that after a number of days, no one can tell the difference between reservists and regulars; that is how good these people are. Also, with the character of conflict and conventional warfare changing, we need the skillsets and specialisms found on civilian street. That is another reason why reservists make an important and growing contribution to our frontline capabilities, so I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
There are three objectives for Armed Forces Day. The first is to do with showcasing what the armed forces do. We need to recognise that the profile of our armed forces has changed. Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer in the headlines all the time. However, that does not take away from the fact that we are involved in more than 20 operations and exercises around the world. At any moment, about 4,000 members of our Royal Navy are at sea or working overseas; 7,000 members of our RAF are working overseas; and 10,000 members of our Army are deployed on operations or exercises. That is a major commitment. It is us looking beyond our shores, helping other countries and making our mark across the world. Those operations cover the full spectrum of capability, whether they involve the interdiction of drugs in the Caribbean, countering piracy, dealing with a resurgent Russia in the skies of eastern Europe, still mopping up extremism in Iraq or Afghanistan, or helping upstream with the stabilisation challenges in African countries, together with our Commonwealth friends.
Let us not forget what happens closer to home. When we are required to support civilians here in dealing with flooding, or in Operation Temperer, when the police require extra support to deal with terrorist attacks, it is our armed forces who stand in harm’s way. It is because of our armed forces that we can sleep at night, knowing that our country and its interests are absolutely defended. What we try to do, through Armed Forces Day, is explain that. That is important because the footprint—the outreach—of our armed forces is shrinking. All those in our age group probably know of somebody who served—perhaps our parents, and definitely our grandparents. Our bond with them is a reminder of what they did for our country. We are aware of the duty they performed, and perhaps of their sacrifice. I am horrified to say it, but we could get our entire armed forces into Wembley stadium. That is how small our armed forces have shrunk, so civilians’ direct exposure to our armed forces is ever smaller. It is critical that on Armed Forces Day, we celebrate, show and educate the public on exactly what our armed forces do.
Trudy Harrison (Copeland) (Con)
Like many colleagues across the House, I went out to speak to constituents who had come to talk to us about the “Time is Now” lobby. Will my right hon. Friend also explain what the armed forces are doing about the climate change challenge?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. I shall deal with the threats that we face in a minute, but she is right to point out that a campaign to do with climate change is taking place outside the building at this moment. I believe that, in the long term, climate change is the biggest threat that we all face but need to face up to. If we are to be the custodians of values and standards, that must include looking after our planet, in which regard Britain can take a leading role.
The second point that I wish to stress is that Armed Forces Day is all about civilian society saying thank you to our armed forces. It gives civilians an opportunity to say, “We are really grateful for what you are doing.” That does not just mean us, perhaps through speeches in the Chamber; it does not just mean the town mayor taking the salute as the parades walk by; it does not mean just the crowds showing their appreciation by clapping and saying, “Thank you very much indeed.” It also means our being able to say, “Thank you for keeping us safe,” and ensuring that we do so regularly.
This is a one-day event when we say thank you, but a thank you should be said on every single day of the year, and the importance of that should be reflected in the armed forces covenant. We highlight the event and it has a profile, but we have that duty every day—not just the Ministry of Defence, but every Whitehall Department. That is why it is so critical that the Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board, which brings together the responsibilities of other Departments, can point the finger and say, “The NHS: is it providing the necessary services? Local government: is it providing the necessary housing, or are we disadvantaging the people whom we promised we would look after?”
Ruth Smeeth (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab)
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, I am delighted that we are having this debate. The Minister has touched on the impact of other Departments and Veterans Gateway, and how they should be working together. Does he agree that there is a significant problem with the Home Office in respect of serving personnel and their families, especially Commonwealth soldiers who need visas?
Not for the first time, I find myself in agreement with the hon. Lady. We have had Westminster Hall debates on this issue, and we have made the case for the Home Office to reconsider. There has been a communications problem, in that those who are making the trip have not been made aware of the consequences of bringing family members. We are correcting that, but no one should be hindered from doing what is best, given the contribution that our Commonwealth friends make to our armed forces. We shall have to see where things move in the next couple of months and what the appetite will be, but I am absolutely behind the hon. Lady in wanting this matter to be addressed.
Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con)
My right hon. Friend was explaining what Armed Forces Day does to acknowledge the efforts of our current armed forces. Does he agree that it is also a time to remember those who lost their lives while pursuing their military careers? Just this week, there has been a fantastic community effort. A memorial at Califer Hill in Moray had become overgrown, as a result of issues that I do not want to go into. So disappointed were currently serving and previous members of the military that the memorial to three Tornado operatives—Samuel Bailey, Hywel Poole and Adam Sanders—had become overgrown that members of the community got together to tidy it up. That is a great thing that they do, not just on Armed Forces Day but all year round.
I am really pleased to learn that the memorial is being given the reverence and support that it needs, and is being cleaned up so that people can actually see it. I try to distinguish between this day and Remembrance Day, because Remembrance Day is about thanking and reflecting on the fallen. I want Armed Forces Day to be a celebration and also an outreach, educating people about the positive aspects of our armed forces.
The armed forces covenant falls, almost, into three parts. It asks organisations to support our regular personnel, and there have been nearly 4,000 signatories. We have seen companies give deals and special discounts to those in the regular forces. The covenant also covers the reserves; it asks companies to make sure that if someone signs up to be a reservist, they get time off to go and do their annual camp and training and so forth, and they are not impeded or have to use their holiday time. I stress that anybody who allows their employees to go away for a number of days finds that those employees will come back all the richer from their learning and what they have experienced, to the benefit of the employer.
Does the Minister agree that we as employers in this House—every single Member of Parliament—should become covenant employers in our own right and that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should work with us to deliver that? We should not have to go through the MOD to deliver that; we should all be encouraging everybody to promote the covenant both in this place and in our constituencies.
Let us go further than that: shall I write to IPSA and invite it to become a signatory to the covenant? Perhaps that is what should happen.
That would be a wonderful intervention by the Minister, but I have tried to make that suggestion in private to IPSA and have not been very successful, so any help the Minister can give me to ensure that IPSA allows us all to become covenant employers would be very welcome.
I suspect that following this debate IPSA will be more aware that there is an invitation heading its way.
Another organisation that I hope is well aware that there is an invitation on the way, because I have written to it, is the BBC. I make the following point directly—although the BBC will probably cut this because our debate is being broadcast by BBC Parliament. Our veterans—2.5 million of them—are changing in profile. Sadly, in the next 10 years that number will diminish and go down to 1.5 million, because we will lose the second world war generation. The television is so important to many of these elderly people, who are on their own and use it for company and so forth; we have heard all the debate about this. I simply ask the BBC to look carefully at this issue. Its contribution to the covenant could be to allow our veterans to continue having that free TV licence. I have written to the BBC but have yet to have a reply; I look forward to receiving something in the post very soon indeed.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
There has been consensus thus far in this debate, but I must point out that one way of achieving that would be to bring it in-house; let the Government of the day decide. The provision was in our manifesto and we are willing to introduce it, and it was in the right hon. Gentleman’s party manifesto as well. Let us keep those TV licences free for the over-75s.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point and it is now on the record—unless the BBC has cut that bit as well.
I need to stress the issue of perception, because another aspect of Armed Forces Day is to correct the perception that somehow if someone joins our armed forces they might be damaged by their service. Nothing could be further from the truth: those who serve are less likely to go to prison, less likely to want to take their own life and less likely to be affected by mental health issues. If anyone is affected by any of those issues, then absolutely the help should be there, and we spoke about the importance of veterans support and indeed what comes from the Government too. The idea that those who serve are damaged is perpetuated in society; the Lord Ashcroft report underlined that, and we need to change it. We need to change it for two reasons. First, it does nothing to help recruitment and the next generation wanting to sign up for our armed forces. Secondly, it does nothing for those who have left the armed forces and are seeking a job, as they might therefore not get that job. They might not gain employment because their employer has a false idea that somehow they are damaged. We need to change that.
Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
Although I agree with much of what the Minister is saying about employers, we must also recognise that neither a reservist nor a full member of the armed forces is an employee. The Minister has implied on the Floor of the House that he does not agree that members of the armed forces should be treated as employees. Does he think that it would help with recruitment if he said that they should be?
I think the hon. Gentleman is being pedantic; I think he knows exactly the spirit in which I support the armed forces. If he wants to discuss this after the debate I will be more than happy to do so, and I will listen carefully to his speech if he wants to elaborate on that. My commitment to all those who serve and their ability to get into employment is second to none, as I hope is reflected in the comments I have made.
Ruth George (High Peak) (Lab)
I absolutely echo the support of everyone in this Chamber for the current members of our armed forces and for our veterans. Most of the veterans I see in my surgery are suffering for one reason: their mental health is suffering as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. We live in a rural area, and they need quite specialist treatment. Even with the best will in the world, and with the covenant, they are not able to access that support. Will the Minister make a commitment today that any member of the armed forces who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder will be able to access Defence mental health services at whatever time after they have left service, because PTSD often crops up more than six months after they have left?
The hon. Lady highlights the challenge that we face. While someone is serving in uniform, their mental health and physical health are the responsibility of the MOD, but once they depart from the armed forces—or, indeed, if they are part of the family in the armed forces but not wearing a uniform—that is the responsibility of the NHS. The NHS has good facilities in some areas, but they are less good in others. They are getting far better: the TIL service—the trauma intervention and liaison service—is the first port of call for anybody with the challenges that the hon. Lady mentions. We also have complex treatment centres up and down the country, but they are still in their infancy and we need to get better from them. I absolutely hear what she says, and this is exactly why we have the Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board to point the finger and say, “Please look, this is the support that we require.” The NHS has just received £21 billion extra. Let us see some of that money go into creating parity between mental and physical health.
James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about looking after our veterans and their mental and physical health and all that, but he must not allow himself to be diverted from the important point he was making, which is that we have 200,000 extremely fit and active members of our armed services, very few of whom are suffering in those ways. The point of Armed Forces Day is to celebrate the fantastic service that they make to our nation. Of course we must look after those who are disabled in one way or another, but we must none the less celebrate those who are fit, healthy and active, and serving the Queen.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does in supporting the armed forces’ profile in Parliament. It is absolutely paramount in educating others. He is absolutely right to say that we need to keep this in perspective and celebrate the positive side of being in the armed forces, while not forgetting our responsibility and duty to look after those who are less fortunate or require support.
Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab)
I apologise to the Minister for coming in late. The covenant has now been going for about 10 years. What percentage of its objectives have been realised in areas such as mental health, housing and employment? It has been going for a very long time and I would like to know how far we have come. Has he had any discussions with the British Legion about this?
That is mapped out in our annual report, and, if I may, I will send the hon. Gentleman a copy of it. He is absolutely right to suggest that we should not be complacent about the importance of setting the bar ever higher. This is one of the toughest things that I have found in getting parity across the country, not least because responsibility for this is devolved to the other nations.
I can finally get to my third point on what the armed forces are actually about: the bond of the communities themselves. I am looking round the Chamber, and I can see representatives of the places where people have served. There is a symbiotic relationship between the garrison, the base or the port and the surrounding conurbation. Let us take Portsmouth, Aldershot and Plymouth as examples. Those places have a long history of relationships between those in the garrison and those who are working outside. Spouses and partners will seek work in those places, and children will need to be educated there. It is absolutely paramount to get all those things right, and we must ensure that we celebrate that as well. Armed Forces Day can highlight and illuminate the bond between organisations, and it is important for us to focus on that.
That brings me to the issue of veterans, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—who has now departed—raised earlier. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you want me to conclude soon, but it is worth focusing on this issue for a minute or so, if I may. We owe a duty of care to our veterans. I was on board the Boudicca for that incredible journey, taking people who did so much 75 years ago at the turning point in the war. It was humbling to be with those soldiers, who landed in the biggest maritime invasion that has ever taken place, with 150,000 people on those five beaches: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno. I discovered that Juno was originally going to be named after jellyfish. Ours were all named after fish—goldfish, swordfish and so forth—but Churchill was not going to have a beach landing, at which people would die, called “Jelly”, so it was changed.
I spoke to some of those veterans. I asked one in particular, “What’s it like coming here?” He said, “It reminds me of when Britain was great.” That sent a bit of a shock through me about where we are today and the role that we have taken. Perhaps we have become a little risk averse in what we do, and in our willingness to step forward as a force for good. We should reflect on that.
The veterans strategy, which I touched on earlier, is critical to bringing together and co-ordinating charities and the work that we do, to ensure that support is there. Part of that is ensuring that there is a transition process, and that when people leave the armed forces they transition back into civilian society with ease. Of those who participate in the official transition process, which can last up to two years, 95% are either in work or employment within six months, which is very good to see.
Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab)
I represent Darlington, which is the nearest major town to Catterick garrison. I see what the Minister is talking about day in and day out. Does he think that we do enough to celebrate, and to highlight to people who might be considering a career in the armed forces, the support that is available to people leaving, and the breadth of successful careers that veterans enter into, from teaching to running their own businesses? All kinds of things are possible, and sometimes we do not explain and highlight enough the support that is available to people as they leave.
The hon. Lady is right to point out the challenges for somebody who has perhaps done three tours of Afghanistan on the general-purpose machine gun. How do they put that in their CV and then sell it to, say, a civilian organisation? There is not a lot of call for that, unless they are some soldier of fortune who is looking for mercenary work, which I hope would not be the case.
We need to ensure that this can be turned around, and the skillsets can be recognised. That must happen in two phases. First, we must explain to companies what the skillsets are, and our Defence Relationship Management organisation does exactly that. Secondly, we must ensure that the individual who is in uniform and who is departing can learn the necessary skills and gain civilian qualifications on their way out, so that they can land in civilian street best armed to face the future.
Will the Minister pay tribute to some very good companies? FDM springs to mind, which has so far placed 500 personnel in the IT industry, and does great work. To pick up on one detail, when people leave the armed forces they tick a form that gives them the option of a variety of interests and industries in which they might like to be retrained. For some reason, there is no box for the land-based industries: farming, game keeping and so forth. Will he change the form to allow soldiers to opt for land-based careers, for which, after all, they are well qualified?
I was not aware of that. I would be delighted to have a meeting with my hon. Friend. Perhaps we can take the matter forward and see what we can do. Absolutely, we should not miss any such opportunity.
While we celebrate the armed forces we must look to the future and ask why we have our armed forces. They do not just defend our shores and promote prosperity; perhaps for Britain more than any other country, they project global influence. It is in our DNA to participate and be active on the international stage, to move forward, and to have an understanding of the world around us and to help to shape it. We will lose that ability if our hard power cannot keep up with the changing character of conflict.
As I see it, we are facing greater danger than at any time since the cold war. However, in the cold war, we had three divisions in Germany alone. We had 1 (British) Corps; now we are down to one warfighting division just in the UK. We are pleased to have an aircraft carrier, with a second on the way, but the fact that the Navy’s budget did not change has affected the rest of the surface fleet. We are pleased to have the F-35 and the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which are excellent, but in the Gulf war we had 36 fast jet squadrons—today we are down to six. Our main battle tank has not been updated for 20 years, and our Warrior has not been updated for 25 years.
The money needs to come. We need to invest more in our defence if we are to keep that profile, but the threats are changing and becoming more diverse. There is not just a single threat—not just a resurgent Russia or a rising China—and extremism has not disappeared, but cyberspace will take over as the area of most conflict. Data, not terrain, will be the prize, and we will become all the more vulnerable as 5G and the internet of things take over.
We are becoming ever-reliant on an automated world, but how vulnerable we become, and how our world closes down, if that world is interfered with in any way. Two thirds of our universities are hacked or attacked in any year, so we need to build resilience. A hundred years ago we developed the RAF, which moved away from the other armed forces—we created a new service. I pose the question of whether we now need a fourth service, one to do with cyber and our capability to lead the world’s understanding of not just resilience, offensive and defensive, but of the rules of engagement, too.
Somebody could attack this House of Commons, and we would not know who it was. We would not understand where the threat came from, but it would affect us, Even if we found out who it was, to whom do we go to complain? Who sets the rules of what is a responsible response? How do we retaliate?
These are questions that we should be asking ourselves, and we should work with our allies to defend western values.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will conclude, if I may.
We constantly talk about the erosion of the rules-based order, but we do not say what we will do about it. China was not included in the Bretton Woods organisations that were created after the second world war. Somebody, some nation, who understands how the world is changing needs to step forward and articulate where we need to go. Otherwise, we will see a new cold war between the United States and China, and we will see these threats become greater and greater.
As we say thank you to those who have served and are serving, what are we doing about it? What role do we see ourselves playing? We have become distracted by Brexit in this vortex of discussing something that has taken our mind off what is happening around the world. The world is changing fast. I believe it is in our DNA to step forward, as we did 75 years ago, and help craft the world into a better place. That requires greater investment in our armed forces.
I conclude as I began, by saying thank you to all those who have served, all those who do serve and all those who want to serve, and the families around them. We owe you a debt of gratitude, and we are very grateful for your service.