It’s great to be here with you today.
Let me first pass on apologies from my colleague Andrew Murrison for his absence.
As I have found out over the last few days with my wonderful civil service team, as ministers we are no longer wholly in charge of our own destiny.
Since agreeing to speak here, Andrew has been made Minister for International Security Strategy at the MOD and has been sent abroad on departmental business.
So I’m sorry that he can’t be here as originally scheduled, and he has asked me to pass on his compliments and his apologies to you.
Andrew and I were elected to parliament together in 2001.
We both have a track record of campaigning in Parliament on service welfare issues.
I’m sure you will agree with me that Andrew’s reports on mental health and amputees are testament to his knowledge, experience and passion.
Now, as MOD ministers, we will be working closely together to deliver.
Andrew served as a medical officer in the Royal Navy for many years.
My father, Reginald Francois, also served in the Royal Navy in World War 2.
He was at D-Day.
My own service was in the 1980s, as an infantry officer in the Territorial Army.
That was a very different army than the one of today.
We were trained for a very different war; a war that thankfully never came to pass.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were never put to the test.
I never saw active service, I was never shot at (other than in training), and I have no medals.
But… the Queen’s Commission hangs on my wall at home. I understand and appreciate the military ethos. I have worn the uniform.
I hope that counts for something with all of you, because it certainly counts for something with me.
Given all of that, I am looking forward to getting stuck into the challenges that together we face, and today’s conference is an ideal opportunity to do that.
So I want to start by saying thank you.
Two small words, but I genuinely mean that.
Thank you, for all the hard work you do to help improve the lives of the men and women of our armed forces, and the families who support them, and the veterans to whom the country owes a great debt.
These are difficult economic times.
But the British public continue to show how much they value our armed forces, in the respect they show, in the time they give, and in money they donate.
That generosity is evident in this room today.
It makes much of your work possible.
As patron of my local branch of the Royal British Legion, I have seen first hand the difference that can be made by charitable organisations.
You all changes lives, and that you can be proud of.
So again, thank you, most sincerely, for what you do.
The public and the armed forces
However, outside of garrison towns, it is rare these days for civilians to have direct contact with our contemporary armed forces.
But this summer has seen a powerful exercise in defence engagement.
Certainly one of the most powerful domestic exercises since national service.
Thanks to the Olympics, many people have now had first hand experience of the men and women of our armed forces providing the venue security and resilience that the Games needed to run safely.
And not only that, serving and former members of our armed forces took part and won medals as part of both the Olympic and Paralympic teams.
They really are the best of British and we salute everything they have achieved.
And what else have we seen?
Not just the professionalism which we have all come to expect.
But we have seen the person behind the camouflage, a fellow citizen, doing a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, with commitment and calm competence.
Through this process, the armed forces covenant has become a bit more real, a bit more solid.
So I want to talk today about the progress made meeting the key principles of the armed forces covenant and tackling some of the welfare issues that we all know exist.
And I want to look ahead to the challenges over the next few years.
While here at home most eyes have been on the Olympics, the eyes of tens of thousands of people, in the MOD, in the armed forces, have been focussed on Afghanistan.
Afghanistan remains the number one priority for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces.
We are beginning the withdrawal of UK troops consistent with our intention to move out of a combat role by the end of 2014.
But our troops remain in the firing line.
Those of you working with our wounded, those of you working with bereaved families, know very well the price that continues to be paid.
The withdrawal of troops between now and the end of 2014 will be done sensibly, in consultation with our partners, in accordance with the conditions on the ground, and meeting the requirements of force protection.
But coming home they are, not just our troops in Afghanistan, but our troops in Germany too.
Over the next few years our armed forces will become more predominantly UK-based.
They will become structured to deal with the unexpected and unplanned, rather than the more predictable deployments of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns of the last decade.
This will provide a new set of challenges:
where will our forces be based?
how will they be supported?
what career structure will be needed to make sure life in the armed forces is an attractive option for the brightest and the best?
With the basing plan due this Autumn, the MOD is embarking on the design phase of a new employment model to answer the last 2 questions.
This will be a very complex process, looking at everything from career paths to terms and conditions, allowances to accommodation.
A daunting task at any time.
But it is made more difficult by the fiscal conditions we face.
With the restrictions on the public purse, we can’t just throw money at problems.
The new employment model must reflect the best use of taxpayer’s money, as well as meet the needs of defence, and of individual soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families.
I know that the strategic defence and security review has been difficult.
I know that behind every service number, there is a person, a livelihood, and often a family.
But in the economic climate of the foreseeable future, the only way we are going to meet the needs of national security, is to make sure that our armed forces are sustainable as well as powerful.
Going forward there is limited room for manoeuvre.
We will have to continue to prioritise strictly and only make promises we know we can fulfill.
However, where the government can act, we will.
And it is worth reflecting briefly on what we have achieved.
The improvement in the operational welfare package, doubling the operational allowance, better R&R arrangements, more council tax relief.
Better support back home with the enhanced capacity of the recovery capability delivered with Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion.
The focus on mental health working with Combat Stress and others to provide better care, and crucially better awareness, spotting those who need help, inside and outside the services, and getting help to them.
Doubling the families welfare grant, bursaries for the higher education of bereaved service children, IVF for the seriously wounded.
Action on many of the little but cumulative things that make service life sometimes difficult for families.
As part of the armed forces bill team last year, I am proud to say that I helped enshrine the key principles of the armed forces covenant in law.
I am now looking forward to helping put them into practice.
In July, the cabinet committee that oversees cross-government action on the covenant (and on which I now sit) met jointly with the Covenant Reference Group to discuss an early draft of the annual report that we are committed to producing and presenting to Parliament by law.
So we will be held to account quite rightly for what is done to make the covenant a reality.
Building strength from diversity
One manifestation of the covenant in operation has been the growing strength of armed forces charities.
This is fantastic news.
The diversity in the charitable sector is part of its vitality and strength, responding to needs in a passionate, dynamic and often innovative way.
Overcoming institutional inertia. Challenging the establishment way of doing things.
But that very diversity can sometimes be confusing for those looking for help.
Not knowing where best to go or who to go to.
Sometimes signing up to a project only to find it doesn’t meet all their needs.
Not always receiving continuity of support as they need different types of help at different times.
So, one of the challenges that we have to work on today is to maintain the strength of diversity whilst achieving better co-ordination and through-life care.
Our shared aim must be greater effectiveness of support, and greater access for those who need it.
Of course government is constrained in ways that the third sector is not.
I can understand the frustrations that are felt when you just want to get on with something.
The MOD can sometimes be a challenging partner.
But with the right shape of partnership we can provide both agility and permanence in the services we deliver to support the armed forces community.
There is strength in the diversity of welfare and charitable provision that is represented right here in this room.
The passion, the commitment, the innovation, the agility.
But we must marry it with the permanence and continuity that government provides.
Because, when money is tight, and it certainly is, we must make sure that every penny spent goes on reaching the people who are in need, and provides them with the practical help they require.
In conclusion ladies and gentlemen let me say this:
It is par for the course for a new minister to say how ‘delighted’ they are by their appointment.
But when I say I am delighted, I really mean it.
I asked to come to the MOD.
I am looking forward to doing everything I practically can to improve the lot of our service personnel, to help support their families, to assist our veterans, and to make sure we never forget the debt we owe to the whole armed forces community.
There is no pot of gold. You all know this.
However, the military teaches the principle of combined arms, all elements in a battle group working together co-operatively to achieve the maximum possible effect.
My message to you today is that, with your help… and looking at the list of attendees today, I mean, quite literally, with your help… that is exactly what I propose to do.
It is up to us, working together, to try and do even better for those who keep this country safe and free.
Good luck and enjoy the conference.