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The Coalition must listen to the needs of our Armed Forces

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 12:18

By Bob Ainsworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

The parliamentary year we are entering will be a crucial one for the future of our Armed Forces. The Strategic Defence and Security Review, due to report in a few weeks time, will have a huge impact on them and their families. Yet, to date, there has been little coverage of the issue of Armed Forces welfare. The Coalition government must ensure this important area is not neglected and set out clearly how they intend to honour the bravery of our Service Personnel and the sacrifices of their families.

Not only must we support our Armed Forces because it is the right thing to do but it is also only by retaining the best people that we can maintain world class forces, capable of adapting to the future challenges we may face. No matter how many fast jets or tanks we have they are nothing without the people who operate them.

The only people who really understand the stresses and strains that life in the Armed Forces can entail are those who serve and their families. That is why the Conservative-Liberal government must ensure that there is adequate time within the SDSR for an in-depth discussion with them. Given that the coalition are allowing just six months for such an important review, I am concerned that their voices may not be heard.

In government we listened to what the members of our Navy, RAF and Army and their families wanted. Every single reform we introduced was designed to make sure that they did not lose out because of the job they do. From sustained investment in accommodation to doubling compensation for the most serious injuries, and providing greater ease of access to education, housing and healthcare, as a government we were determined to honour our duty to those fighting on the frontline and, as a party, we will support the government in building on these achievements.

The government has done some good things, such as the doubling of the operational allowance but the cuts they have announced will have an effect on our Armed Forces which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have shown little regard to. In fact, they have even admitted their public sector pay freeze will hit three quarters of our service personnel.

And, whilst I am glad the Coalition has adopted our election promise to enshrine the rights of our Armed Forces in law, we have heard little from them about what exactly this will entail. Our Armed Forces deserve more than just words, that’s why we will be pushing the Coalition Government to ensure the measures we introduced are included in this legislation and that it is presented to Parliament as quickly as possible.

The decisions that are taken on equipment within the review will also have an effect on our service personnel.  Clearly, the government must take a long-term approach to the future challenges we face, but, whilst our troops remain in Afghanistan, nothing must be done to undermine the equipment available to them. Yet, according to the Liberal Democrat Armed Forces Minister the 22 Chinook helicopters we announced last December for Afghanistan are “in the melting pot” of this review. From two parties who constantly criticised the number of helicopters in Afghanistan it would be the ultimate irony and, more importantly, a huge mistake if they cut this order.

The acts of bravery and compassion from our Armed Forces on the front line and the selfless sacrifices of their families back home can never be repaid in full but we must do all we can to honour them. That is why providing them with the support and equipment they need must be any Government’s first priority.

Ultimately it is the Armed Forces who must be the judge of this SDSR and what it means for them but they can count on our support to make sure the government delivers on its promises and honours the sacrifices of our servicemen and women.