James GRAY   Conservative MP for North Wiltshire

General Election - 8 June 2017

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North Wiltshire MP James Gray spoke in a House of Commons debate on the Armed Forces Covenant yesterday. 

Mr Gray said:

“I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who drilled down into the report with tremendous care. She does an enormous amount of work on behalf of our armed services through her all-party group on the armed forces covenant. She has entered into the armed forces parliamentary scheme with an incredible level of enthusiasm and dedication. She also comes to every all-party group dinner and event—her commitment and enthusiasm for the armed services is not just because she fancies Royal Marines.​

On the subject of the armed forces covenant, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). I am glad to see him in the Chamber and I hope we might hear from him later. Some years ago, he wrote the seminal work on the armed forces covenant, “Tommy This an’ Tommy That”. I have the Library’s copy, and I recommend it to colleagues across the House. At least partly as a result of his work, the armed forces covenant was written into law in the Armed Forces Act 2011, so we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Incidentally, the same applies to his work on mental healthcare for veterans, on which he wrote a seminal report. Most of his recommendations have been carried out by subsequent Governments, and we should recognise his huge service to veterans.

All of us in the Chamber agree on the need for the armed forces covenant. There is no question about that. Some of us had doubts about whether it should be written into law, but none the less, it was. I welcome the fact that an annual report is now published; it is important to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. However, it would be useful if we had an annual debate on the matter alongside other defence debates. The Government could bring the report to the House and invite a debate, rather than relying on the good offices of the Backbench Business Committee. Surely the Government should say, “This is our report. Please ask us questions about it.” I hope that the Minister might consider doing so in future.

We all support the principles behind the armed forces covenant. There is no question about that. It is a contract between the people and the armed forces. In my constituency, the 200-odd occasions when the good people of Royal Wootton Bassett have turned out to welcome home and pay their respects to the 450 coffins returning from Afghanistan perhaps epitomises all the good things that the people of Britain think about the armed forces covenant. We realise that the armed forces do things we would not do, so we must look after, respect and honour them for that, and I am very glad that we do.

The things that we do for the armed forces are important. We must make sure that their physical and mental health are looked after, both when they are serving and afterwards—incidentally, the covenant is not just about veterans and families, but about serving soldiers, sailors and airmen. We must look after their health for the rest of their lives—if they are injured, for example—and we must look after their housing and their children’s education. That is absolutely right, and we must do that.

However, I disagree slightly with the hon. Member for Gedling. In a constituency such as mine, which is largely military—some of the schools, for example, are virtually entirely military—if we allowed the military disproportionately to have access to schools and put them to the top of the housing list, for example, that would, by definition, disadvantage civilians. I am not certain that I could go to my constituents and say, “I’m awfully sorry, your children can’t get into that school because we have given those spaces to military children” or, “You can’t have a council house, because we have given it to the military.” I am not sure that is right. The point behind the covenant should be that the military are not disadvantaged because of their service. However, they should not necessarily be given excessive advantage over the rest of the community either, otherwise support for the military covenant would quickly disappear.​

Wiltshire has been outstanding in its support for the covenant over many years. We set up the civil military partnership in 2006. We have 15,000 serving personnel, 15,000 dependants and 54,000 veterans—and growing. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) claimed that he represented the home of the British Army, but I rather suspect that Wiltshire is, in fact, now the home of the British Army. We have enormous numbers of serving and veteran personnel in the area. As a result, the council has done a huge amount, encouraging local organisations and working with the housing association and the schools, to implement the military covenant in Wiltshire. I pay particular tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Scott of Bybrook, who has taken the lead in this matter over so many years as leader of Wiltshire Council.

None the less, in addition to the community covenant and the local government covenant, we must not forget all the other people who make such great contributions to the welfare of our soldiers and veterans. I am glad that the Minister and I are both wearing the SSAFA tie this afternoon. It is terribly important that we should not forget the charitable side of things, and there are a huge number of charities doing useful things. I was very proud recently to be made the patron of Operation Christmas Box, which sends 25,000 Christmas boxes to all our armed services on deployment around the world every Christmas and is hugely appreciated by the soldiers, sailors and airmen. These things are important. They are not a formal part of the military covenant, but they achieve many of the things that the covenant does, so let us not forget the charitable sector, the local government sector and the business sector, alongside all that the Government do for our armed services.

So far this has been a largely consensual and agreeable sort of debate. I do not mean to detract from that in any shape or form, but I have two or three questions to ask about the way in which the covenant is operating, which the Minister might like to reply to or perhaps take into consideration in the year ahead, as he applies the covenant.

First, I am concerned about a decline in interest. Ten or 15 years ago, when we had high kinetic warfare around the world, the people were very concerned about our armed forces. Today, that interest is rapidly declining, as evidenced by the level of donations to charities. Donations to Help for Heroes, for example, were up to £40 million at one time, but are now sharply down, and it is the same for the Royal British Legion and others. If, as we all hope, we do not see a return to kinetic warfare for many years to come, my concern would be that the military covenant could become a dusty document, that people would forget about it and that the whole thing would become ancient history, as the military disappeared from headlines and public awareness. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks he could do to avoid that occurring. Annual debates might be one way of doing it.

Secondly, those of us who represent military constituencies are concerned—we are very aware of these things—that the footprint of the military across Britain is now increasingly small. The permanent basing structure that we now have, with the five super-bases for the Army, means that large parts of Britain have absolutely no military involvement at all. I cannot help feeling that the military covenant ought to be a way of spreading the word throughout the entire population of Great Britain that these are things ​that we must care about. Again, I wonder whether the Minister has any thoughts about ways in which that could be done.

Thirdly, we have written the military covenant into law, and that is good thing. It provides a good structure for all the things we are discussing today, but there are two problems with it. As the military covenant is written into law, we might be able to tell ourselves that we have done something about this, thereby assuaging our conscience and not doing the much greater things that we would do were it not in law. In other words, the law must not become the lowest common denominator or simply the level below which we must not fall. Rather, there are many more things we should be doing, even if they are not enshrined in the covenant.

I would also be interested to know from the Minister how many legal cases there have been in the last year or two in which the military covenant has been used as evidence against a military defence. In other words, are the armed forces and spouses using the military covenant as evidence to sue the Ministry of Defence for a variety of purposes? It would be interesting to know whether the covenant has become part of the law in that sense.

The final thing that makes me rather concerned is this fixation we have—it is an important fixation—with veterans, families, housing and all those things. Of course they are hugely important—my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed is quite right that if we do not get them right, then recruitment and retention will go down—but we should not forget that the covenant is actually between the people and the serving soldiers, sailors and airmen. We have to get right the way in which we employ these people, very often in appalling circumstances that we ourselves would not even contemplate entering into. It is not just about the disabled, the sick and ill, the wives or the children, although they are all hugely important; it is about the soldier.

That is where the book by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire comes in. The great “Tommy” poem—which, if I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to quote a couple of lines from—absolutely goes to the heart of the military covenant:

“O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;

But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play…

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?’

But it’s ‘Thin red line of ’eroes’ when the drums begin to roll…

While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, fall be’ind,’

But it’s ‘Please to walk in front, sir,’ when there’s trouble in the wind…

You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:

We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.

Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face

The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’

But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot”.