Speaking in a debate on armed forces pay, Sir Mike tells MPs that pay is not the main reason service personnel leave and calls for more effort to be made to retain service personnel by pausing the process and talking to leavers and by improving the overall package, such as career prospects and better accommodation.
Let me say from the outset, as a former young soldier who joined the Army in 1974, that pay is important—it is what sometimes makes the job worth while—but it was not the reason I joined, and it is not the reason why most people stay in the armed forces. They stay in for myriad reasons and we must be conscious of the fact that, even though pay is not the most important thing, we must not take them for granted. I think that across the House we would agree with that today. There would be no argument that pay is important, but I can honestly say that pay was not in the top 10 in the leavers surveys that used to sit on my desk when I was Minister for the Armed Forces.
If Her Majesty’s Opposition do not get copies, I ask the Minister to allow them to see those surveys. These people are leaving, so they have no reason to lie or to try to get some favour from their units. Lots of other things aside from pay were in these surveys—it was not right up there. Where they were going to go during their career was one such thing—people always had aspirations. Even young guardsmen like me, who knew they would not get past acting corporal, had aspirations. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, you start at the bottom and you want to work up. I became the Minister for the Armed Forces, the first one ever from the ranks—from a junior rank—and that to me was exactly what our armed forces should be aspiring to do.
Many of them face many other challenges, and that came out in the surveys I saw. On my first day in the Department, I had all the chiefs in and said, “Is pay the biggest issue? Why am I losing so many servicemen?” As well as recruitment, retention is massively important. It is almost more important, because those people who are in are by far our best recruiters. They go home on leave—they go home to their families and loved ones—and they talk about their experiences in the armed forces. We train them and we spend huge amounts of money on them. They have dedicated themselves to us, so we want to keep them in.
One thing that I tried to do was deal with the situation where someone is upset with the unit they are in and they start that process to leave. I wanted us to try to pause them for a fraction and get someone to talk to them, so that they might stay. Perhaps this would be someone in a different unit—in a different part of the armed forces. As the Minister will know, at the moment someone from their own unit usually talks to them to try to convince them to stay, but that person could well be the problem they have had in the first place. So trying to keep these people in the armed forces is massively important. No young soldier, no young matelot, no young Air Force man is ever going to turn around and say, “Don’t give me any more money.” Of course they are not going to do that.
I went around Catterick barracks recently and I went in to the Mons part of the barracks, and I would not have put my dog in to some of the accommodation the people there were having to live in. I came back and went absolutely berserk, and I understand that those repairs have now been done. But it should not be for the Minister to turn up and see that; these things should be done. Comments were made about CarillionAmey earlier, but I had the pleasure of sacking Atos when I was at the Department for Work and Pensions and, should I be the Minister responsible, it would be my great pleasure to do something similar to other companies when they let us down.
The motion is narrow. Her Majesty’s Opposition, in good faith, missed an opportunity for us to have an open debate about the package that our armed forces need—what we should be offering them.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we were to broaden this debate, the Opposition would find wide support for challenging on a lot of the pertinent issues in debate. Their narrow focus on this one issue makes it impossible for us to focus on the constructive argument around it.
My hon. and gallant Friend has hit the nail on the head for me. Nobody in this House does not have respect for our armed forces. Nobody would not want to pay them more. But where does the money come from? What part of—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham is chuntering from a sedentary position. When he was the Minister he should have been paid, because he did it for free and I respect him for that. [Interruption.] Well, he should have been paid a lot more for what he was doing. We have bandied this around for many years. The situation for me is: where would the money come from?
I am one of the Conservative Members who wrote to the Chancellor months ago saying that we need to phase the cap out. I passionately believe that if we are in the position now, we have to do it. I was the Policing Minister and I cannot be disingenuous and pretend that I did not push to have it removed for the police; I was also the Fire Minister. The nurses also need it removed. But where is that money going to come from? As the Opposition Front Bencher said, it should not come from expenditure on equipment—I could not agree more.
People cannot just make promises that they are not going to be able to deliver, because that is the worst thing for morale in the armed forces: making promises that we cannot fulfil. If I went through the Lobby on this today not knowing where that money was going to come from, I would be ashamed of myself. I cannot actually do that. Do I want the armed forces to get more pay in the long run? Of course I do. I also want this in the short term, but I want them to have the right equipment and to have the right accommodation. I want them to have the right package, and then we can say that we respect them properly.
Jon Wedger is about to embark on a walk from London to Manchester to raise funds and awareness.