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DEFENCE: ARMED FORCES READINESS REPORT

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Categories: News

Martin spoke as SNP Defence Spokesperson in a debate on the Defence Select Committee report on Armed Forces Readiness and Defence Equipment. Here is an extract of Martin’s speech in the Commons transcribed via Hansard:

Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): Well, this was a debate that certainly went in directions I never thought it would go.

It is always a privilege to follow the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), who may be in a different party but is a very good friend on the Defence Committee. I commend the report from the Committee, of which I am once again a member. There are a few things we do not agree on, but on the vast majority of issues we do agree. That brings me back to the old Scottish nation’s motto, which is “In Defens”. I am very much akin to that. I also share some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Rochdale (George Galloway) on how we do not push ourselves into conflicts that are unnecessary. I may come back to that in a few moments.

I want to come back to the points made by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) on background and family. I have said umpteen times in the Chamber that my brother served in Iraq and had two terms in Afghanistan as a reservist. I will come back to the specific point on people in the armed forces later. The right hon. Gentleman talked about his dad. My dad is 90. I am lucky my dad is still here. He survived the worst aerial bombardment these islands have ever seen. It was only after about 75 years that the Government recognised that it was the worst aerial bombardment the UK had seen during the second world war. Last Wednesday, I was able to attend, as I try to every year, the 83rd commemoration of the Clydebank Blitz, which took place on 13 and 14 March 1941. I also stood at one of the mass graves in Clydebank on Saturday to lay a wreath on behalf of my constituents. I do so with privilege and in honour of our family of survivors.

I want to pick up on three points relating to readiness in terms of people, partnership and position, and how they link critically to the word resilience, which I think I heard some Members mention. The right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Warley (John Spellar) are probably sick to death of me talking over several years about resilience, but it is inextricably linked to what readiness should be all about. Let me talk about people first and how resilient are the armed forces.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) cannot be here today—I did tell her that I would mention her today—because she chaired a sub-committee on women in the armed forces, which exposed some of the most profoundly difficult questions and scrutiny in Parliament about recruitment and retention that the armed forces have ever had to face. I hate the term “ordinary ranks”. What does “ordinary” mean—people on the frontline who have to go over the ditch? There is nothing ordinary about that. As I said earlier, my brother did it as a reservist, but the report exposed dreadful questions about women and members of black and ethnic minority communities. Why are we not retaining or even recruiting them? Why, moreover, are young men not wanting to join up? This returns me to the issue of terms and conditions, which I have often talked about.

I remember arguing with a former Chair of the Defence Committee—he is not here, but I see that the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) has turned up—who was also a former Minister. He had said that members of the armed forces were not employees or workers. That may be the case in law, but they still deliver a service. If we want to retain people, it is critically important that we copy what so many of our NATO allies do in recognising the value and worth of members of the forces—whether in the Royal Navy, the Army or even the Royal Air Force—and recognising their rights, one of which is the right to representation. My party and I have always said that we believe the armed forces require a representative body like the Police Federation.

The kingdom of Denmark, for instance, which paid the blood price in Iraq and Afghanistan, has a very robust armed forces representative body. The problem there is not about recruitment, but about how in God’s name you persuade people to leave the armed forces in Denmark, because it is such a good—wait for it—employer. They are still willing to go over the ditch and take up the cudgels on behalf of their country. That brings us to the question of how we should deal with people here in the UK who may be over-reliant on charitable organisations, which, of course, are very well-meaning and committed.

Mr Kevan Jones (Labour, North Durham): I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I think that there must be a real, radical revolution in the way in which the armed forces not only recruit but employ people. The number of 18-year-olds is falling. We are going to need more flexible employment models enabling people to leave, come back in, have career breaks and so forth. Unless we do that, we will not be able to persuade them to join our armed forces.

Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I am glad that his party has joined mine—I think; I am not sure whether this is still a Labour manifesto commitment—in recommending the introduction of an armed forces representative body. However, a critical issue is how the skills that already exist can be utilised. I cannot believe that I am going to use the word “emulate” when speaking of the United States, but that flexibility is emulated by the United States and also by many of our other NATO allies.

When it comes to readiness and having people on the frontline in the physical armed forces, I am not going to play the numbers game, because this is a political and philosophical issue. It is about how we retain and recruit. I think that fundamental rights for members of the armed forces should be enshrined in law. They should not need to go to those very well-meaning charitable organisations to receive assistance with housing, with their mental health, and even with their physical health. Members of the Danish armed forces who have suffered an injury do not go to a special unit; they go to a Danish national hospital like every other Danish citizen, because there they will benefit from the delivery of a robust public service.

That, in turn, brings me to the way in which the armed forces and, critically, the Army in particular have been challenged during the pandemic. Some former members of the Defence Committee who are not present today kept going on about the need for the Army to step up to the plate in dealing with resilience. The right hon. Member for North Durham has heard me talk about resilience in Committee. It is not, in my view, the role of the Army to pick up civilian action. During the pandemic, the Army in England and Wales had to do that in respect of the Nightingale hospitals, not just in terms of logistics and design but in terms of the actual physical infrastructure. Why was that? It was because most parts of the NHS procurement processes to build the Nightingale hospitals had been privatised years ago. We had taken a very physical state ownership of that civil structure of resilience and readiness out of the hands of the Government and the NHS and given it to private contractors, who have made billions on the back of it.

Let me give a Scottish example, the Louisa Jordan Hospital. The Army stepped up to the plate in helping with the logistics, but they were not required to build the internal structure of the Louisa Jordan. Most of it was in the Scottish conference centre. That internal structure was built through NHS Scotland procurement, because it was fit for purpose and ready to play its part. When we are talking about people, we should bear in mind that readiness is not just about members of the armed forces; it is also about the larger civilian infrastructure.

The right hon. Member for Warley is not present now, but he and I—along with, I think, the right hon. Member for New Forest East—travelled to Washington some years ago with the Defence Committee. Part of our purpose was to understand where our infrastructure was. How, for example, do we transfer, through partnerships between states—critically, within the continent of Europe—a division, or tanks, across bridges and roads which, since the end of the cold war, are no longer equal in terms of weight or infrastructure? How difficult is it to move a tank from a port to, say, technically, the eastern front if that is required? Partnerships of that kind have been allowed to disappear in the post-cold war era.

However, there are other important partnerships, such as the United Nations with its peacekeeping role. It was disappointing that not only the United Kingdom but other countries have had to pull out of Mali, at the instigation of the Malian Government, in the last couple of years. That peacekeeping role is a crucial part of the infrastructure of maintaining international order grounded in the rule-based system. I was also disappointed by the Government’s decision to postpone, or put into abeyance, their investment and funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Palestine on the basis of a very small amount of information, or accusation, from the Government of the state of Israel in respect of the conflict in Gaza. I hope that the Government recognise the value and worth of that partnership in trying to quell some of the many big problems that are faced in that part of the world.

I think I have had my 10 minutes, but let me end by saying a little about the European Union in relation to partnership and position. I was glad to hear that the official Opposition may now be considering an improved relationship with the EU. We in the Scottish National party believe it is important to have a mutual defence agreement with the EU. As for the question of position, I am a Euro-Atlanticist, and I think it important for us to reposition ourselves, away from the issues of the Indo-Pacific.

I agree with the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) about the nuclear proposition. I think that the hon. Member for Rochdale and I are the only Members present who oppose nuclear weapons, but I think there is general agreement on the need to take the deterrent into another budget heading so that we have a full understanding of what that two-point-whatever percentage of GDP is. I hope that the Government will be able to respond to that in the debate today.

Watch the speech in full here.

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