HC Deb 22 February 1995 vol 255 cc319-27 1.30 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for granting me the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for being here this afternoon to respond to it.

Some colleagues and others listening to the debate will have believed that I applied for the debate to highlight the circumstances surrounding the case of my constituent, Air Chief Marshall Sir Andrew—otherwise known as Sandy—Wilson, KCB. Sir Sandy had an excellent record of service in the Royal Air Force for more than 30 years. He began as a formidable fighter pilot and subsequently assumed the initial command of our forces during Operation Granby and was promoted to the post of Commander-in-Chief of RAF Germany from 1991 to 1993. He is now Commander-in-Chief of RAF personnel at RAF Innsworth, a four-star appointment, and he is the third most senior officer in the RAF.

Given that exemplary record of public service, many were surprised to read of Sir Sandy's early retirement. I should make it clear for the record that it was his decision to seek early retirement and, on balance, bearing in mind all the circumstances, I believe that he made the correct decision. I hope that it will now be possible for him to retire with all the dignity and honour that he deserves and that his retirement, terminal grant and redundancy terms will be generous and befitting of an officer of his stature, and as recommended in paragraphs 63, 64 and 65 of the latest report of the Senior Salaries Review Body.

Before I move on to the substantive part of my speech, I want to highlight the case of Private Clegg. It is vital that the Ministry of Defence considers the yellow card instructions so that our soldiers carrying out their duty can know that they have the full protection of the law.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I am not aware that a private is a senior officer in the armed forces.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I just say that there is a welter of public indignation at the way—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may chose to say all sorts of things in different debates, but this morning he must confine himself to senior officers only.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We should have no doubts at the outset of the origins of overstretch. The armed services will number 236,000 in April 1995—a reduction of 22 per cent. since April 1990—but in general terms there is every hope that the pressure placed upon service men post-"Options for Change" will ease. I fervently hope that the Northern Ireland peace process holds so that it will be possible to reduce the number of roulement units in Northern Ireland, perhaps reversing the increase from four to six which took place in 1992.

There are other reasons for confidence that the conditions of stretch in our armed forces will be reduced, such as the creation of a Territorial Army unit for the Falklands, which will reduce the pressure for roulement units to cover those islands. However, it is likely that commitments elsewhere, such as in Bosnia, will always remain.

I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted in full the recommendations of the independent Review Body on Armed Forces Pay. The average pay rise will be 2.6 per cent., taking a corporal to a possible maximum of £18,527.

Furthermore, it is right that we continue to reward the most senior officers for the significant and increasing managerial responsibilities that they are now asked to undertake. We must pay realistic rates if we are to retain those with the skills and the ability to carry out senior officers' responsibilities. At £57,766 for a brigadier and £97,430 for a general, I have no doubt that, in comparison with the private sector, the taxpayer is receiving value for money.

The report of the Senior Salaries Review Body, published this month, offers some interesting comparisons between top officials. It recommends that a permanent secretary should be paid between £90,000 and £150,000, with an average of £120,000, a top judge should be paid £121,000 and the Chief of he Defence Staff should be paid £121,130. Those figures are all comparable.

I shall say a few words about the review of pay and conditions of service men being undertaken by Michael Bett, which is due to report to Ministers shortly and will cover the period up to 2010. The signs are that the Bett review is moving in the right direction and the Ministry of Defence has said that its findings will be published and subject to consultation. I welcome that.

However, we should recognise that there are differences between civilian and service life. Disruption through frequent postings is the recognised norm in all three services. Stability for those with young families should be considered and, where practical, longer postings should be the norm. There is also scope for better targeting of travel and other allowances for those who need them most. The children of Army and RAF officers facing frequent overseas postings in mid-career deserve a stable education. Boarding school allowances have an important role to play in that. We must also recognise the pressures that come from overseas postings and transient lifestyles on service men's wives who are unable to establish permanent homes, second incomes, or stable networks of friends.

Fair redundancy terms for senior officers also need to be considered in the context of the Bett review. According to recent media stories, eight major-generals, 32 brigadiers and 48 colonels will be asked to retire early under the "Front Line First" study. The details of the settlement by which a major-general will receive a total first-year pay-off of £210,000 seem fair in the circumstances. That figure is made up of 18 months salary worth £90,000, a further severance payment of £90,000 and a first year's pension of £30,000.

Paragraph 64 of the report of the latest Senior Salaries Review Body states: We recommend that three-star officers and above who are retired early as a result of current and future restructuring should receive compensation on terms no worse proportionately than apply to junior officers in their service. Given the age and current earnings of senior officers, such sentiments are only fair.

It is vital that we continue to attract the high-calibre officers on whom the future of our services rest. Ministry of Defence figures from the statistical bulletin in June show that while recruitment was above target for the Navy and on par for the Air Force, in the Army there was a 20 per cent. shortfall between target and actual officer recruitment—784 compared with 967. In comparison, the shortfall for 1990 was only 4 per cent., based on a much higher level of recruitment. A single year does not make a trend, but those figures should be noted with concern.

The public perception of the status of senior officers, including their remuneration, promotion and retirement conditions, will affect the recruitment prospects of officers at junior level. We should in no way compromise the level of talent in officers and other ranks whom we are prepared to recruit.

Again, the 17th report of the Review Body on Senior Salaries states: The quality of the senior officer structure depends on the ability of the services to recruit and then retain sufficient young men and women of the highest calibre to rise to two-star rank and above. The most important part comes next. It states: In our last report we expressed concern that the reduction in career prospects could impair the recruitment and retention of junior officers. We remain highly concerned that the highly publicised reductions in armed forces strength may deter many high-quality individuals from pursuing a military career. In this short debate, it has not been possible to cover all aspects of employment conditions of senior service men but I hope that I have highlighted a few concerns so that people of the highest calibre will continue to be recruited and to make their complete career in our armed forces. The public have a right to be proud that our armed forces are the most professional in the world. The Gulf, the Falklands and the Northern Ireland campaign truly demonstrated that, and I hope that it will always be so.

1.39 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on securing this debate on such an important and timely topic. Some of the points that he raised went a little wider than the subject of the debate, but I would like to reassure him that a number of those points will be raised, and I shall deal with them at some length, during the Army debate tomorrow which, knowing his interest and support for the armed forces, I very much hope he will try to attend.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the great responsibilities placed on our service men and women at all levels, and the crucial importance of our continuing ability to recruit and retain people of the first quality. That is one of the most important challenges that face the armed services for the future. It is precisely with that objective in mind that my right hon. and learned Friend The Secretary of State commissioned the independent review of service career and manpower structures and terms and conditions of service that is being conducted for the Ministry of Defence by Mr. Michael Bett and his team. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that Mr. Bett and his team have gone to enormous lengths to produce what I am sure will be a worthwhile and interesting report.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State expects to receive Mr. Bett's report at the end of March. The review is very wide-ranging, as my hon. Friend knows. It covers pay and allowances structures, pensions, rank and career structures, housing and accommodation policy and terms and conditions of service, all of which, as my hon. Friend rightly knows, are extremely important to service men and women.

The review's purpose is to ensure that, as we approach the early years of the 21st century, arrangements are in place that are sufficiently robust and flexible and meet our needs in terms of our ability to attract and retain people of the highest quality to perform the very demanding tasks that we ask of people at all levels. In particular, the review was needed against the background of change in the deployment of the armed forces and the very profound changes—not all of them for the better—in our national life. Mr. Bett and his team will thus be taking the most careful account, among other things, of changes in the nature of the tasks which our service men and women are expected to perform, in the skills that they need and in the work force from which they are recruited.

At the same time, the review will certainly take the fullest account of the particular requirements and ethos of service life. That is an extremely important matter for the armed forces and one for which we shall have a very high regard and care. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of that point and I want to assure him that it is especially reflected in Mr. Bett's terms of reference. It is a matter that we shall consider very carefully indeed.

As for recent and current recruitment trends, lower targets resulting from the "Options for Change" rundown have meant that we have had few problems in attracting sufficient numbers of suitably qualified and well-motivated young people to a career in the services, even though applications for both officers and other ranks are down on previous years. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear, however, that premature voluntary release remains at very low levels, although there is some evidence of increased competition from the civilian job market as the economy improves.

As recruiting targets rise in the coming years, it may be more difficult to attract young people in the eligible age groups. That, as my hon. Friend will understand, would be a very serious matter for the forces. We are therefore spending great time and effort to see how we can better manage those issues. As my hon. Friend knows, studies about recruiting have been under way for some time and some have gone very well indeed.

My hon. Friend referred to allowances, on which we are expecting Mr. Bett to make recommendations. My hon. Friend has identified issues such as the degree of stability or otherwise in service life, which will obviously be a very important background to the review team's thinking because they influence the costs incurred by service men and women and their families as a result of the requirements of service life.

My hon. Friend might like to know that, last week, I met an outstanding brigadier who has served for 30 years in the Army, during which time he has had 28 jobs in 14 countries involving 17 home moves. He remains triumphantly happily married with two very beautiful daughters, but it is an appropriate moment to pay the warmest possible tribute to the wives of our service men who put up with a great deal and do not derive great confidence from the fatuous sniping by the Opposition.

Until we receive Mr. Bett's report, however, it would obviously be quite wrong for me to speculate about his likely recommendations or to comment on the speculation in the House or by the media.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The Minister should be assured that this will not be a fatuous snipe. Will the Minister tell us when the Bett report will be published? Will it be available to hon. Members and will the House have an opportunity to debate it, as it deals with important matters?

Mr. Soames

I have never heard anything fatuous from the hon. Gentleman in my life and I totally exclude him from my remarks.

The Bett report is not yet with my right hon. and learned Friend. We expect it quite shortly. We will wish to give it the most prudent and careful consideration. Whether it should be debated in the House is plainly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will go to great efforts to ensure that what is in the Bett report is disseminated widely throughout the services and to all those who are interested in it. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's attention to it; if he wishes to come and discuss it when it is published, I should be happy for him to do so.

As well as looking at the time scale of Mr. Bett's review, we are seized of the need for today's pay levels to meet recruiting and retention needs. On 9 February, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was glad to announce that the Government are meeting in full the recommendation on service pay of the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay and the Senior Salaries Review Body.

I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to the claims made in the past few days by the Opposition about the pay of senior members of the armed forces. The figures on which the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has been trying to drum up indignation compare movement in the earnings of the armed forces with rises in average earnings. It is not surprising that the pay of the most senior ranks has risen more and that of the junior ranks has risen less than the increase in average earnings. It is not the same as measuring increases in pay in real terms.

What matters is that the pay of all ranks, except the most junior entrant private, has risen in real terms since 1979. I accept that the most senior officers have seen the highest increases in real terms, but that mirrors the position in the economy at large and they bear great and onerous responsibilities for which they should be properly rewarded.

One of the more idiotic remarks that I have heard recently was from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who inquired whether senior officers received share options. That shows the level of understanding and debate in the Labour party.

I might add that, in its last two reports, the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay has said that its recommendations on pay levels for brigadier and colonel equivalent fall short of broad comparability. To suggest that other ranks are losing out to subsidise the salary of most senior officers is, frankly, ridiculous.

We have always accepted the recommendations of the armed forces review body and the Government are rightly and justifiably proud of their record on armed forces pay. We aim to he fair to the service men and to the taxpayer and to recognise that service pay must be sufficient to recruit and retain sufficient people of the very best calibre, including those at the most senior levels.

My hon. Friend has rightly pointed to the demanding range of skills that are increasingly required of our senior people. There is no doubt that restructuring and management reforms within the services have, in some cases, resulted in considerable increases in the responsibilities of many senior officers, but they have—almost without exception—risen magnificently to the tasks that they have had to undertake.

To fill posts at that senior level with people of exceptional calibre, we need in particular to retain our most able men and women. That clearly cannot be done without rewarding them appropriately and fairly. Today, the services are in regular competition with the rest of the marketplace at senior level and, indeed, at every level of expertise and training, not least because they are the best trained work force in the United Kingdom.

Inevitably and sadly, the process of restructuring in the armed forces has involved painful redundancies at all levels. In the longer run, the corporate identity of all three services will be enhanced by measures that have sought to ensure that the armed forces are able to concentrate their efforts and manpower on vital tasks, and on tasks that only they can perform.

As the House knows, that was the thrust of the "Front Line First" exercise: to maximise front-line capability by making prudent, achievable and wholly necessary economies in, for instance, headquarters, infrastructure, administration and stores. However, no one would wish to make light of the upheaval and pain that changes of that nature—and particularly the related redundancies—cause in the short term.

Let me place on record my profound admiration for the way in which both the services and their vital and essential civilian support are coping. I also pay tribute 10 the work of the resettlement organisation in the armed forces, whose record is outstanding. I propose to say more about its achievements tomorrow.

My hon. Friend mentioned compensation for senior officers who are made redundant—that subject prompted the recent question from the hon. Member for Carlisle about whether they were given share options. We have been reviewing the matter during the past 12 months—

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Soames

No, I will not.

Mr. Martlew

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that this is not a point of debate rather than a point of order. It is important to clarify that, as points of order have been abused on the Floor of the House recently. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of doing that, but it is an important point that he should bear in mind. Does he wish to proceed with his point of order? Is it a point of order for the Chair?

Mr. Martlew


Mr. Deputy Speaker

There seems to be some doubt. I invite the Minister to continue.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As I was saying, we have been reviewing compensation during the past 12 months. It is discussed in the recent report of the Senior Salaries Review Body. There are differences in career structures, and thus in retirement policies, among the three services, reflecting differing manpower structures and requirements. In the past, severance compensation for senior Royal Navy and Army officers has been paid only when an officer, having been promoted with the expectation of serving for a particular period, has been compulsorily retired before completing a specified tour. At present, however, we do not envisage paying compensation when the inability to offer an individual further appointments does not arise from structural causes—when the individual is not truly redundant.

Although my hon. Friend did not allude to it, a great deal has been written recently about the life styles of, and so-called perks for, senior officers. I must make it clear yet again that it is not for the individual's benefit that some official residences are provided for senior commanders; it is to enable them to fulfil their crucial command duties and their responsibilities for representational entertainment.

I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of the review that Sir Peter Cazalet is currently conducting for us; Sir Peter's terms of reference ask him to examine the requirement to entertain, and the means of discharging it. In particular, they ask him to consider whether it could be discharged more effectively than through the use of official service residences and other quarters and, in the light of that, whether any properties can be disposed of. Sir Peter will also make recommendations on how entertainment should be funded and on the levels of assistance that should be provided if the concept of entertaining in officers' own homes is retained. A statement of the Government's reactions will be made as soon as we have given detailed consideration to Sir Peter's report, which is expected later this month.

In the light of the report, we may well want to change some aspects of the current arrangements in the future. The fact remains, however, that our existing arrangements are intended solely to enable senior officers to fulfil their official responsibilities, which are of great importance to the interests of the country and the dignity of the service that they represent.

I agree with those who point out that, in many instances, the burdens placed on senior officers by the representational and social aspects of their duties are considerable, and often constitute a thoroughly unwelcome intrusion into their lives and the lives of their families. As my answer of 10 February made clear, we are determined—as are the services—that provision should be limited to what is absolutely necessary for the undertaking of those duties. We are taking appropriate steps to improve the control and visibility of expenditure on residences.

We are also anxious to ensure that the assistance given to occupants of official service residences and other married quarters is provided in a cost-effective and sensible way, and is no more than is required to enable officers to carry out their representational and command duties and conduct official hospitality to the standard rightly required by the high responsibilities of their post. My right hon. and learned Friend and I look forward to receiving Sir Peter Cazalet's findings.

My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the distinguished career of Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson, who ceases to be Air Member for Personnel at the end of April. I join my hon. Friend in acknowledging the valuable service that Sir Andrew has given his country and the Royal Air Force, and I agree with the sentiments that he expressed.

My hon. Friend also rightly remarked that we expect a great deal from our serving officers. He should be aware that the United Kingdom is unbelievably lucky to continue to have such truly remarkable people at the most senior level in all the services. By achieving high rank, they will have had to demonstrate the highest levels of reliability, self-discipline, self-reliance, loyalty, leadership, integrity, decisiveness and self-motivation, which mark them—and all other service men and women—and set them apart from any other organisation in the land. They are of a quality not to be found anywhere else, and they deserve our thanks and respect.