Thank you Sir Neil [Thorne, Founder of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme] for that kind introduction.
I’m delighted to see some familiar faces, not least Lord McColl and the former Defence Minister, Lord Bach and to see so many new ones.
I’m particularly delighted to see Colonel Bob Stewart, who’s brought his distinguished military background to bear on the House of Commons Defence Committee with such aplomb.
Because it’s vital that the relationship between our armed forces and the communities they’re drawn from is as strong as possible.
And it’s vital that Parliamentarians understand and appreciate the work our armed forces carry out on behalf of the nation so they can convey that message to the general public.
The Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, led by Sir Neil and Lady Neil and now in its 23rd year, can help with both.
Let me first take the relationship our armed forces have with the rest of society.
At one level, our armed forces are rooted in local communities.
For instance, the British infantry system of county regiments helped to forge deep ties between those who serve, often alongside neighbours and friends and the communities they left behind.
At another level, our armed forces are woven into the fabric of our nation’s history.
Nelson on the quarterdeck; the Pals on the Somme; the SAS on TV as they stormed the Iranian Embassy.
Courage, sacrifice, excellence.
That’s why the British public have a deep respect for, and pride in, our armed forces.
But respect and pride are not the same as understanding.
Our armed forces community may be an integral part of our society, but in recent decades that link has declined.
When World War 2 ended in 1945, there were around 5 million men and women in uniform.
Almost everyone in the country knew someone close who had served.
I grew up learning about my father’s service in that war, just as he grew up learning about his father’s service in World War I; my son hopes to follow in my footsteps.
The National Service generation added to this huge number of people with direct experience of military experience.
But our armed forces have been a professional, volunteer force for many years while the older generations have inexorably dwindled.
Public understanding of our armed forces has declined as a result.
And this matters hugely.
Our armed forces rely on the support they receive from the public.
They look to you, as Parliamentarians, as a weather vane.
And when they see the benches deserted during defence debates, they inevitably see indifference.
And when they see Parliament welcoming home units of the armed forces, as we did last week with 3 Commando, they are reassured that Parliament genuinely does care.
It helps them stand tall as they deal with the daily challenges they face.
This is where the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme really comes into its own.
And your participation will inevitably enhance the quality of debate, regardless of political hue.
It will mean a more informed Parliament making more informed decisions about defence.
And if this results in positive outcomes for our armed forces, such as the principles of the first ever armed forces covenant being recognised in law, then that’s a win-win situation.
It’s in everyone’s interest that our armed forces are understood and appreciated.
The men and women of our armed forces, their families, and veterans look to all of us in public leadership for strong advocacy of the sacrifice they’ve made on our behalf.
They need Parliamentarians to understand and appreciate the high operational tempo and the rapidly evolving threat environment in which they operate.
They require and deserve informed Parliamentary oversight.
So on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, I want to thank all of you for making the effort and sparing the time to take part in the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme.