Addressing the Conservative Party Conference today, Shadow Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, said
A few months ago I met a young man in a hospital who had just returned from Afghanistan with horrific injuries. As a doctor I marvelled at his physical bravery. But there was more than that. He will never be the fit, active sportsman he once was. He will face a life of physical disability and will never get back what he has lost. But what I really marvelled at was his optimism, his determination and his lack of anger. I was only doing my job, he said.
Likewise, when I meet service families living in miserable accommodation or veterans in homeless shelters because social or mental health services have failed them they don’t whinge. They have a can-do approach and get on with things. They are not among those constantly demanding something from the State or expecting others to carry out their responsibilities for them.
Their sense of service, of duty, of decency reminds us of what our country could be.
They are not angry about their lot but we should be angry for them. For the way we treat our Armed Forces, their families and our veterans is a reflection on the values and the decency of our society.
And the way our government treats the Armed Forces is a reflection on their decency and values.
Gordon Brown says that he understands the Armed Forces. But if he truly understood them he would know that behind every soldier, sailor, airmen and marine there is a family—a wife, a husband—children and parents who all have needs, anxieties and fears. One sure way to create a retention crisis is to have unhappy personnel. One sure way to have unhappy personnel is to have unhappy families.
So what are we to make of how Labour treats them?
What are we to make of a compensation scheme where the backlog just keeps growing?
What on earth are we to make of a system where the secretary who gets a wrist injury typing the orders receives more compensation than the soldier who loses his legs following the orders?
How can we tolerate the situation where the number of inquests keeps on rising, with excessive delays, leaving families in anguish and torment because the government can’t be bothered to sort it out?
And what are we to make of last week’s con on council tax rebate where those serving six-month tours in Iraq or Afghanistan will get a rebate of £140 while those serving six month prison sentences pay none at all. How can it be that you are better off doing time with those who harm the country than serving time with those who defend the country.
So what has Gordon Brown’s personal contribution been?
He has given us a part-time Defence Secretary whose attentions are focussed on fighting the SNP and the Taliban. A jobshare Defence Secretary when our troops are at war in two places. What an insult to our fighting men and women.
And, you Prime Minister, in your self-indulgent plagiarised, 67 minute speech how much did you dedicate to Iraq, Afghanistan and our Armed Forces? 126 words. 126 words. One word for every two service men or women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope you remember that when you are having your photo opportunities in Iraq today.
The duty of the government is to maximise the chance of success of any mission and to minimise the risks to our troops. So let me just remind our Prime Minister what the Oxfordshire assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker said at the inquest into the death of Sgt Steven Roberts. He said “ to send soldiers into a combat zone without the appropriate basic equipment is, in my view, unforgivable and inexcusable, and represents a breach of trust that the soldiers have in those who govern them. Enhanced combat body armour was a basic piece of protective equipment. I have heard justification and excuse, and put these to one side as I remind myself that Sgt Roberts lost his life because he did not have that basic piece of equipment".
Now we hear that Defence Chiefs have been instructed by the Government to make further cuts- as many as 6,000 to be cut from our already overstretched army and who knows how many ships from our shrinking navy. We all want to see our troops come home from Iraq; but only because the job has been done, not because the army is too small to fulfil its commitments.
In the real world the only logical conclusion you can come to is that the army is already too small. Let me tell you that the Conservative Party will ensure that whenever the election comes the need for a bigger army, returning to proper, planned, establishment levels will be a key battleground.
But if we are to deal with overstretch and the breaking of the harmony guidelines we will have to go further. We want to see the restoration of the three infantry battalions cut by labour as soon as possible once we have seen the MoD’s books and identified the savings to pay for them. A bigger Army for a safer Britain.
But there are other, smaller things I would also like to see.
I’d like to see more service men and women in uniform in our towns and cities. With fewer people having direct involvement with the Armed Forces and as long as there is no security risk it is time they were more visible as they once were.
I would like to see them properly welcomed home when they return from active service. In the United States they return as heroes and we should be ashamed they do not get the same treatment here.
I am therefore delighted that my own Conservative local authority, North Somerset, will be the first to make local amenities such as sports centres and swimming pools available free to serving members of the Armed Forces and their families. It’s a small gesture. I hope that others will follow this lead.
And on the subject of medical care, it is essential that we develop proper psychiatric services. As a GP I had no training in the signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and yet it is something we will see more of in the years ahead. We must find ways of creating a through life service which fulfils our part of the Military Covenant. Those who suffer for our sake must not be abandoned by us. It is especially important for the TA who don’t receive the same support and facilities as the Regular Army
But I tell you what we absolutely must have. We must have exclusively military wards for those injured in combat. Those recovering from their injuries should be able to do so in safety and security, surrounded by those who understand what they have been through. Anything less is simply too little.
All these challenges we face will be long term because the problems we face are long term.
Al Qaeda and their kind hate us because of who we are and not because of what we do. They hate our freedoms, our values, our very way of life. They will never let up and neither must we.
Iran is attempting to become a nuclear weapon state, threatening the stability of the region and beyond and risking a new expensive, pointless and dangerous arms race.
Russia has begun a $189 billion dollar rearmament programme and is increasingly willing to use its oil and gas as instruments of its foreign policy.
We cannot avoid these threats. If we don’t take on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq and Afghanistan then we will face them in London, New York or wherever they choose to strike next. Not confronting them cannot be an option.
Sometimes I think our media are obsessed with Big Brother, reality shows and what footballers’ wives are wearing and are oblivious to the fact that we live in a dangerous and unpredictable world. It is our duty to tell people what they need to hear not just what they want to hear.
We must remind people that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. We face many and varied threats to our security:
-the spread of nuclear weapons;
-the danger of terrorist fundamentalist;
-the threat to our energy security.
We need Armed Forces big enough to face these challenges. Under David Cameron’s leadership NATO will remain the cornerstone of our defence. What we cannot accept is a Euro Army that would undermine the integrity of the Trans-Atlantic alliance.
We may have only a few weeks to wait to bring about the change this country needs.
A change to a Government that honours our Armed Forces.
A change to a Government that puts our security first.
A change to a Government that believes in Britain.
It is time for that change.