Philip Dunne speaks against a Private Member's Bill to introduce a trade union or staff association for members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are already many bodies that advocate on behalf of service personnel and their families.
I am grateful to you for allowing me to rise to oppose this Bill, Mr Speaker. Although I share many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) in introducing his Bill, I have to say that I do not recognise the complaint that he seeks to address. I have spent time in the Ministry of Defence—admittedly not in the personnel role, but having met countless serving personnel across all services and at all levels—and not once in the nearly four years that I spent there did anybody ever suggest to me that a remedy for some of the natural complaints that serving personnel have from time to time would be the creation of a trade union or staff association. One of the reasons why nobody raised this as an issue—that I was aware of—is that there already are, as the hon. Gentleman touched on, a plethora of existing families federations across each of the services that do a very good job and exist to advocate on behalf of forces personnel and their families some of the issues that he is trying to address through the Bill.
Welfare of serving personnel is the top issue that they seek to contend with, and accommodation is another issue that is always high on their list. It is well acknowledged by service chiefs, the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, which has responsibility for military quarters, that a considerable amount of work needs to be done. There is persistent investment in the military estate to try to bring up to contemporary standards some of the historical garrison accommodation, some of which is not only decades old, but goes back over 100 years. That is something that the Secretary of State is committed to trying to resolve and is working through the families federations to do so.
In addition to the families federations, there are the plethora of charities that support serving personnel, and in particular, veterans. The hon. Gentleman may or may not be aware that there are over 400 service-facing charities up and down this country helping veterans when they leave the service. I pay tribute to the work of COBSEO, which is the organisation that acts as an umbrella for these charity groups. It provides a signposting service for serving personnel as they seek to find their new career and come out of the armed forces, once they have served their tour of duty, to identify the areas where they might need help and support—much of the kind of work that I envisage the hon. Gentleman’s putative staff association might be able to do. It would be nothing short of confusing to add another tier of advice and support through the body that he proposes, because one of the biggest challenges for a service leaver who decides that they need support for a particular direction, whether that is to find employment, housing or medical care, is where they turn to. That is why the existing structure of COBSEO does such a great job. In addition, there is the Veterans’ Gateway, an online resource, funded, I believe, by the MOD, which enables individuals to find the right organisation to support them.
I must ask the hon. Gentleman, because it was not clear from his remarks, what wrong he is trying to right. If he is looking for a voice for serving personnel, as he indicated he was, I must point out that this exists through the families federations. If he is looking for access to the chain of command to represent personnel, I must point out that that is what the chain of command is for. The charities that support personnel in each of the services have continuous access to the chain of command and civil servants in the MOD and directly to Ministers through regular dialogue with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is sitting on the Front Bench today.
The hon. Gentleman speaks frequently on military matters on behalf of his party, and there is broad agreement across the House, from all parties, that we wish to provide for our serving personnel the highest possible standards of welfare and pay so as to recruit and retain the armed forces we need to keep this country safe. Nobody would doubt the commitment of the Conservative party, and I do not doubt his commitment, to meeting that objective, but I say to him gently that if he really wants to do the right thing for the personnel who serve in Scotland, he should ask his colleagues in the Scottish Government to think very carefully about whether making people pay more income tax simply for the pleasure of serving in Scotland will help us to recruit and retain experienced military personnel. That is a more significant and material measure that could damage the armed forces in Scotland, and he would do well to think about that, instead of pressing this Bill. I will not press my opposition to a Division, but I hope the House has heard the strength of concern that I have and which is shared by others on the Conservative Benches.