I would like to add my thanks to all of you who have come and all the organisations represented here today.
In difficult times it is especially important than we come together to discuss policy, to swap ideas, to share concerns, to suggest solutions.
Why? Because this is a testing time for the country, and for defence.
A time of austerity, as the government seeks to put the public finances back on a sustainable path, and seeks to do the same for a defence budget that has been in disarray for some time.
And a time of change, as we seek to transform our armed forces for the rigours of modern warfare, and for the rigours of modern life.
At times like this the men and women of our armed forces need people like you, not only to support them, but to speak up for them too.
So I know that this conference is not going to be all sweetness and light.
There are serious issues to address.
And for the next few years the context in which we will operate will be tough.
The government has had to make some difficult, very painful but necessary decisions to get the defence budget broadly back towards balance and further tough decisions lie ahead of us.
This has meant that we have had to prioritise ruthlessly in order to ensure that any extra money we can spend, we do so wisely and on those things that are most urgent.
Operations have to come first, making sure that those in the firing line have the tools and protection they need to do the job.
But this has not been just about strategy and equipment, but about making sure they and their families are looked after too.
As Montgomery set out in his principles of warfare, ‘the morale of the soldier is the most important single factor in war’.
That is why on the welfare side we doubled the ‘operational allowance’ and extended it to Libya, and improved ‘rest and recuperation’ leave and increased compensation for those who suffer both physical and mental injuries.
This year we have doubled Council Tax relief from 25% to 50%, for all personnel on operations, including in Libya.
This focus of operations has meant that in other areas we haven’t been able to go as far and as fast as we want, for instance on the speed with which we improve housing.
Although 96% of service family accommodation (SFA) properties are now in the top two standards for condition, and we will continue to target efforts on the most pressing accommodation issues, there will be a 3 year pause in the programme to upgrade lower quality SFA homes.
But I hope you will agree with me that we have been as consultative as possible and where we have been able to act we have done so in the right areas.
For instance, we have endorsed all of Andrew Murrison’s proposals for improving mental health care. In particular:
- a structured mental health component within existing medical examinations performed whilst serving
- an uplift in the number of mental health professionals conducting veterans’ outreach work from Mental Health Trusts
- trial of an online early intervention service for serving personnel and veterans
- the means to allow the newly formed Veterans’ Information Service (VIS) to contact service leavers after they have left the armed forces
And, for those who need it at the time of discharge, a specialist opinion and any follow on treatment by the MOD’s Mental Health Service for a period of six months’.
We have laid the foundations for a new understanding between armed forces personnel and society.
Building on the ‘Service personnel command paper’, we have published the first ever tri-service armed forces covenant in which the key principles will be recognised, for the first time, in the law of the land.
And in the ‘‘Today and Tomorrow’’ paper we have set out what we’re doing to give the covenant practical effect, for example in the areas of healthcare, education and housing.
Of course, this isn’t just about action from the centre or from the top.
You’ll be hearing from the Armed Forces Networks later today.
These have proved particularly useful in ironing out local level issues between the MOD and the local NHS.
And in June four counties, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, North Yorkshire, and Vale of Glamorgan, became the first in Britain to demonstrate community led support for the armed forces through the Community Covenant Scheme.
In Oxfordshire alone, more than £100,000 of Council money will be spent in the next 12 months to help people leaving the forces to resettle in the county, topped up with grants from government.
Local authorities, devolved administrations, charities, businesses, communities, and individuals have come together by offering their services to help the defence community.
But there is still a place for central support, for instance, extra government money for schools which educate pupils from forces’ families.
This whole of society approach has been central to what, together, we have been able to achieve.
For instance, the army recovery capability, a joint venture between the MOD, Help for Heroes, and the Royal British Legion, is taking the way we support our wounded, injured, and sick personnel to a new level.
To improve the transition from service to civilian life, the MOD has developed a transition protocol with the Department of Health, devolved administrations, and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services to ensure a seamless transition for the most seriously ill and injured service personnel.
And the new, round-the-clock, veterans’ mental health helpline is funded by the NHS and run by Rethink Mental Health on behalf of Combat Stress.
There are challenges ahead.
Looking to the future, we are determined to be bold and ambitious, and to build formidable, well-managed Armed Forces structured for the rigours of future conflict, supported by an affordable defence programme, and sensitive to the needs of the people who serve.
Those who serve today, and their families, have very different expectations and needs from those of even a generation ago.
The armed forces need to offer a comprehensive package of pay, benefits, education, training, medical support, career progression, and job satisfaction, among other things, to recruit and retain personnel.
But they also need to ensure that life in the forces meets the needs of modern families too.
This is what lies behind our thinking on the New Employment Model.
It is clear that a large number of service personnel and there families would benefit from a more stable lifestyle, everything from schooling the children to buying a home to providing better stability for spouse’s careers.
It is also clear that the defence budget would benefit.
It would enable us to reduce housing stock and relocation costs.
It would also allow us to minimise spending on expensive allowances.
But while stability and predictability will please families, they are hardly the best slogans to put on adverts designed to attract the people we need in tomorrow’s armed forces. Many people will still be required to move on a regular basis and support for this must remain in place.
The balance may be difficult to achieve, and reaching it will present different challenges for each of the 3 Services.
There is no panacea, and more work remains to be done, and this is an area in which we need input from you.
It’s important that we offer flexibility and choice so that a life in the armed forces appeals to a broad range of the society from which our people are drawn.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have much to discuss and much work to do.
We all know that times are tough and we need to be realistic.
We may not always agree on what we prioritise, but I know that we all share a passion: to do our very best to support the men and women of our armed forces.