Blogs

 RSS Feed

» Listings for July 2011

  1. Steve made a speech on Armed Forces Pensions earlier in 2011. Here's what was said...

    I have to say at the outset that I am not an expert on the subject, but there are plenty of people who are, both here in Westminster Hall and watching proceedings on television. I shall attempt to set out the case against the proposed changes to pensions and benefits on behalf of the bravest of the brave-this country's armed forces personnel.

    I shall put my personal interest into context. I am not one of those courageous parliamentarians who have served our country in the armed forces, but my brother was in the Army for 12 years or so, and I learned a lot from him about what it was like to be in the services. I also have friends in the regulars and the Territorials, and they are never slow to tell of their exploits. However, I have some first-hand experience.

    In early 1983, a few short months after the cessation of hostilities with Argentina, I worked in the Falkland Islands as bricklayer repairing the Port Stanley infrastructure that was damaged during the conflict. While there, I lived cheek by jowl with military personnel from all of our forces. During my seven-month stint there, I gained a certain understanding of the conditions that they had lived through day by day, and of the sacrifices that they had made on our behalf. I am therefore delighted to have secured this timely debate.

    The changes that the Government are set to push through will shortly take effect. However, there is still time for Ministers to rethink, and for fairness and common sense to prevail. As we speak, nearly 10,000 soldiers are risking life and limb in Afghanistan; and tens of thousands more are engaged in service and heavy combat training elsewhere. They have no direct voice, and they are too busy protecting our country's interests, so we must speak for them here.

    Let me make clear what today's debate is about. Under their cuts agenda, the Government intend to link public sector pensions and benefits to the consumer price index rather than the retail price index. Because CPI is an historically lower measure, it means that pensions will increase by less year on year. Crucially, the change is intended to be permanent. It will apply across the board, with no exceptions. Essentially, it amounts to a cynical plan to reduce pensions indefinitely. That is bad news for all public sector employees and the source of ongoing challenge and debate, but it is particularly bad news for our armed forces. I shall explain why that is so, suggest why society has a moral obligation to make a separate case for armed forces pensions and explain how the impact of the planned changes might be at least mitigated, if not avoided entirely.

    I start by pointing out that this is not a marginal matter, because it has major ramifications for many. The armed forces pensions community totals 1 million serving and formerly serving personnel-a huge number of lives-and I remind the Chamber that the quality of those lives is at stake. When discussing money matters, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that although we are talking about pounds and pence, we are also talking about real lives.

    I think particularly of my constituent Craig Lunberg, who in the course of serving his country admirably was blinded by insurgents in Afghanistan. Craig is an inspiration to others; he is not bitter about the injuries that he received, and is philosophical about his life. However, Craig and his family need and deserve all the financial support that they can get. It is not charity; it is their due. We owe it to Craig and all the others who serve and who have served to look after them, remembering that their sacrifices were for us.

    The number crunching has been done, and there is no disputing the impact that the planned changes will have on military personnel and their dependants, which will be immediate and profound. Widely published projections show that if the change goes ahead, recipients will feel the pinch from the get-go. In the coming financial year, military pensions will go up by 3.1%, rather than 4.6%. Severely injured discharged soldiers, who will not work again, will lose £120 of pension next year. Compensation for specified minor injuries will be £110 lower, and a widow with children will be £94 worse off.

    Such amounts may seem trifling to independently wealthy Ministers-mere short change-but those reductions will be felt by those struggling to survive on state handouts. Only when we extrapolate the reductions, compounded over longer periods, do we see the full gravity of the changes. The long-term forecasts put paid to any suggestion that we are talking buttons. Military personnel are set to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in benefits and pensions over their lifetimes. A double amputee corporal, disabled at the age of 28, will have lost £587,000 by the age of 70. A 40-year-old squadron leader will be £319,000 worse off by the age of 85. A 34-year-old widow of a staff sergeant will miss up to £750,000 during her lifetime.

    I ask the House to note the ages cited in those examples. They are significant. For reasons that I shall deal with later, military personnel become reliant on pensions and benefits far earlier than others. We cannot get away from the fact that they are set to be disproportionately and adversely hit.

    David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): This is an important debate; indeed, we debated the armed forces in the House last week. We understand that the country has economic problems, but we should remember that we have a covenant on pensions or whatever and that our troops are laying their lives on the line for their country. It is soul destroying, whenever we debate their finances, to hear that their morale is suffering. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to strike a balance? We understand that the economy is important, but our armed forces are laying their lives on the line and we need to balance the two.

    Steve Rotheram: The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall pick up some specific matters a little later, but the main thrust is that there is undoubtedly a moral case to answer. The maths is one thing, but a principle is at stake.

    The main problem is that the Government obstinately refuse to distinguish between military and civilian employees-indeed, they make a virtue of it. In November, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said:

    "It is not possible to treat the armed forces differently from other public servants".

    That glib explanation was both pompous and dismissive. It is very convenient for the Government to fall back on their default position of, "We're all in this together" to imply that they are being firm but fair in treating all public sector workers equally. I remind colleagues that the coalition Government have been quick to criticise one-size-fits-all measures, when it suits. Their rationale on military pensions is as fallacious as it is dangerous, because military service is unique.

    In the recent debate, to which the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) has referred, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) listed some of the ways in which a career in the armed forces is different from any other. They are worth repeating, because they demonstrate the utter absurdity of suggesting that soldiers, airmen and marines should be regarded and treated the same as other public servants:

    "Service personnel, as many of us know, can be required to work unlimited hours in excessively dangerous conditions with no prospect of overtime or a bonus; they can be imprisoned for failing to show up; living conditions can, understandably, be very tough;"-

    I have experienced that myself-

    "they are often separated from family and loved ones for many months at a time; they can be compelled to return even after they have retired; they forgo several political freedoms and contractual rights that others rightly enjoy; and...they are at risk of being killed or horribly maimed as a direct result and an unavoidable consequence of their service. Often their pension is the only serious, tangible financial compensation available to them".-[Official Report, 10 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 61.]

    Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): It is ironic that in the very next room, the Chief of the Defence Staff is briefing MPs on this very subject. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that his concerns will manifest themselves in a reduction in the ability of the armed forces to recruit in what could be some pretty testing times coming up?

    Steve Rotheram: I will answer that question personally rather than as a representative of my party. As I have said, I am not an expert on this issue. However, having spoken to some senior officers in my local Army garrison only last month, I believe that it will have a detrimental impact on recruitment and retention in the armed forces. It is also about the morale of our troops, and I will touch on that subject a little later.

    Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate and I declare my interest as a service pensioner. He underscores the importance of pensions and is right to do so. Will he note that pensions were perhaps the first manifestation of the military covenant since the Romans granted a pension to people settled in Britain after about 20 years' service, so they have a very long history?

    Steve Rotheram: I will touch on the Government's position on the military covenant and what was said in the House a few weeks ago a little later in my contribution.

    Military employees accept that many of their personal life choices will be determined, and often restricted, by duty to the military. Premature death and injury are occupational hazards and have lifelong and life-changing consequences that impact on entire families. Typically, armed forces employees have shorter careers; they retire at an average age of 40, which is much earlier than their civilian counterparts. For obvious reasons, many military widows and widowers are younger than the non-military average and thus more likely to be left to raise children alone. Injured or disabled retirees are frequently unable to work on Civvy street following their discharge. For veterans, the quality of post-service support-medical, remedial and professional-remains patchy to say the least. Show me any other civilian public servant subject to this particular package of terms and conditions, and I will buy into the Government's logic.

    There is another way in which armed forces pensions and benefits differ from other public sector pensions. Yes, they are occupational pensions, but, as the Forces Pension Society has pointed out, they are also essentially a form of compensation for the unavoidable early cessation of a career. It is important, therefore, to consider why people join the armed forces. Individual motivations vary, but they include a yearning for travel and adventure, a desire for a structured career, an eagerness to acquire skills in a particular field and a desire simply to serve our country. None the less, let us not forget that a disproportionate number of young military personnel-men in particular-come from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we know, significant numbers are drawn from the care system. Let us not pretend that they are in it for the money. High-ranking staff may eventually find themselves comfortably off, but the vast majority of military personnel merely eke out a bog-standard living. For that, they sacrifice a great deal, particularly in the way of family life. For that, they risk permanent injury or death in the course of their duties. The theory is that as a nation, we acknowledge and value that, and that we guarantee that forces' employees and their families will be looked after in return. In that respect, joining the armed forces is an act of faith. To change the terms and conditions of service-to move the goal posts-is to undermine that faith.

    All the evidence suggests that serving troops already feel betrayed, disillusioned and frustrated. In a Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago, a British soldier serving in Afghanistan said:

    "The British Army has no voice at grass-roots level. We have no union. There will be no strikes. No riots. Certainly no fire extinguishers thrown off buildings. We are just an easy target".

    There is the rub. In recent months, we have seen students protest, public sector workers strike and various interest groups demonstrate and engage in direct action. I suspect, and I say this with no relish, that we will see more and more people take to the streets as the Government's excessive austerity measures kick in. Military personnel cannot do that. In the absence of civilian workers' rights, they are particularly vulnerable and impotent in the face of damaging policy changes and cuts. Small wonder that they feel so beleaguered.

    In January, Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore said:

    "I have never seen a government erode the morale of the Armed Forces so quickly".

    What a terrible and shameful indictment. The Tory-led coalition's attitude towards the military is shaping up to be, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, perverse. 

    Some would argue that blue-blooded conservatism has traditionally been a friend of the military. Sure enough, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to

    "ensure that our armed forces, their families and veterans are properly taken care of."

    The commitment appears to have started and stopped with the rhetoric. The Prime Minister is never slow to spot a good PR opportunity and he is slick when it comes to lavishing praise on our troops. For all his new-found hawkish instincts, he and his slash-happy Government stooges seem hellbent on making military service as unattractive and insecure as possible. It is under-resourced, under-equipped and undervalued with little regard to meeting current and future military needs.

    The defence budget has been slashed and major projects have been cancelled or abruptly abandoned, frequently at ridiculous cost to the taxpayer. Around 17,000 armed forces posts are to go over the next few years, 11,000 of which will go through redundancy. A range of other issues, including the unequal treatment of military widows, disadvantageous changes to income tax relief on pension contributions and the proposed cuts to educational allowances for armed forces families only compound matters by adding to the cumulative effect. Those changes all seem incredibly short-sighted and it is difficult to see how any of them will do anything other than damage recruitment and recruitment levels, which I have been told are already at crisis point.

    It is equally difficult not to suspect that the pensions indexation switch is something more opportunistic and ideologically driven than a mere fiscal measure. There has been no suggestion on the part of the Government that they consider the current pension and benefit arrangements to be overly generous, so that leaves the deficit reduction agenda as the only possible explanation for the cuts. Let us examine that explanation, because the problem with it is that it does not explain or justify the decision to change the index link permanently. That decision will have long-term impacts that will be felt long after the economy has recovered.

    By way of an aside, it was mentioned earlier that my colleagues and I are currently urging the Government to enshrine the military covenant in law, but we must not let that campaign blur our vision or distract from the specific issues that we are discussing today. Let us consider the dry and self-explanatory observation of the Forces Pension Society to the Armed Forces Bill Committee:

    "We note the commonly aired reference to the Covenant but we do not see a coherent and comprehensive set of actions which would make the Covenant come alive; it avoids any mention of pensions."

    When all is said and done, the most powerful argument in favour of abandoning this callous indexation plan for the armed forces' pensions and benefits is basic-it is a moral one. It is about doing the right thing by those who have done the right thing by us. In return for the immense courage, patriotism and self-sacrifice shown by UK armed service personnel and their dependants, we have an obligation to provide them with the highest levels of support and reward, both during and after service. If that involves discriminating in their favour, so be it.

    As I hope I have illustrated, to renege on the deal made when service personnel signed on the dotted line would be to betray an implicit trust. Those currently serving will feel let-down and bitter, and who can blame them? And potential recruits will think twice before giving so much for so little in return.

    I purposely paint a bleak picture, but as yet none of these changes is a fait accompli. There is still time for the Government to see sense. My own party has a number of ideas about how the deficit reduction dilemma might be resolved without so brutally hurting armed forces' employees. In our view, the ideal solution is to entirely decouple armed forces pension and benefit schemes from other such schemes in the public sector. However, we recognise that that is not a practicable or realistic option at the current time. The best way forward would be to make the indexation switch a temporary one that could be reversed in 2014-15, or at least once the Budget deficit has been pared down.

    Others favour an alternative time limit measure, something along the lines of maintaining the current RPI link for the armed forces personnel or their widowed spouses until they turn 55, when the link would come into line with the rest of the public sector. Such measures, and variations on them, are all quite feasible but none of them is perfect, and they will not please all the people all the time. However, they represent carefully considered compromises, which the grown-up coalition Government profess to be big on, and they would go some way to alleviating the short to medium-term pain.

    In addressing the Minister, I urge the Government to consider those measures carefully. I also remind the Government that this is a cross-cutting issue, which requires joined-up thinking. Defence, Treasury and Work and Pensions Ministers must all think again.

    I have a final salutary point to make. Thomas Southerne was an Irish dramatist in the 17th century. In 1685, he served in the army of James II, which fought against the Monmouth rebellion. Southerne knew what it was to be a soldier. In later life, he reportedly said:

    "Dost thou know the fate of soldiers? They are but ambition's tools, to cut a way to her unlawful ends. And when they are worn, hacked, hewn with constant service, thrown aside, to rust in peace and rot in hospitals."

    I am sure that everyone will agree that the part about "unlawful ends" is open to debate, but some modern military adventures spring to mind on hearing that quote. Southerne's bitter closing observations make uncomfortable reading. Do we want to entertain the notion that, 300 years on and at the dawn of the 21st century, we hold our armed forces in no better esteem?