Speech by Mark Francois, Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans.
It’s great to be here with you today, and for us to have this early opportunity to get to know each other;
For me to understand better where you are coming from,
And for you to get a sense of where I am coming from.
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.
This is where I want to be, and I intend to do everything I practically can to improve the lot of our service personnel, to support you, their families, and to help our veterans.
So I want to start by telling you a bit about myself.
My father, Reginald Francois, served in the Royal Navy in World War 2.
He was at D-Day.
My own service was as a TA infantry officer with the Royal Anglian Regiment in the 1980s, during the Cold War.
The army I was a part of was trained for a very different type of war; a war that, thankfully, never came to pass.
I was a reserve not a regular, 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.
Much has changed in the army since I served and I can’t claim to have experienced all the pressures you face, but I hope that I do, at least, understand what some of them might be.
The pressures of army life
For instance, let me paint a picture:
A junior NCO in the army, married with small children, is posted to Afghanistan for yet another operational tour.
He’s away for over 6 months, tough for the family with all the stresses and strains at home to deal with alone.
He returns, but after just a few months receives the news that his unit is to be posted to a new base.
As well as all the emotional disruption of a family moving home, his wife will have to give up her job as a result.
They may face a battle to get their children into new schools.
They’ll need a new doctor, new dentist.
Their new accommodation is ok, but there are some things that still need doing.
Having got through all this, they are then told to prepare for another ‘unaccompanied’ 6-month tour.
I don’t need to tell you what this feels like to live through; you know far better than me.
But I want the support provided to you to get closer to matching the support you provide to our soldiers, ensuring that someone who loves his job and loves his family, doesn’t have to choose between them.
So how do we move forward?
Let me give a brief sit rep of where we are and what I have in my in-tray.
Over the last few months, here at home, most eyes have been on the Olympics.
I think it showed a side of our army that many people don’t see, not just competing and winning medals in both the Olympics and Paralympics, but the faces behind the camouflage: the fellow citizens doing difficult jobs with commitment, calmness and competence.
I know that the short notice of parts of this deployment was very disruptive for some of you.
So I want to say thank you to our servicemen and women for the outstanding support they gave to the greatest show on earth, and to thank all of you for your support to them while they were doing it.
But while this was happening, the efforts of tens-of-thousands of people, in the MOD, in the army, and the thoughts of many of you, have been focussed on our forces in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan remains the number one priority for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces.
Our troops remain in the firing line, as events over the last few weeks have shown all to well.
No one pretends that the strategy we’re following, training the Afghans to take on the fight themselves, is easy or without risk.
But it remains the right strategy.
The mission is one of national security, so we must complete it.
The drawdown of troops between now and the end of 2014 will be done sensibly, meeting the requirements of force protection as we proceed.
But coming home they are, not just our troops in Afghanistan, but our troops in Germany too.
So let me turn to my next topic: Army 2020.
Over the next few years, the army will become based much more predominantly in the UK.
The initial announcement about the basing review will be made by the end of the year.
This should help to reduce some of your uncertainty and lay out the future footprint for the army, and give it the structure to deal with the unexpected and unplanned, rather than the more predictable deployments of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns of the last decade.
This is what the strategic defence and security review and Army 2020 has been about.
Maintaining the army as the formidable fighting force we need to protect national security, but generating that force in a different way, on a different scale, and prepared to do different things.
I know that the decisions that have been taken have 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.
So, as difficult as they have been, I support the changes that have been made and I intend to ensure that the implementation of Army 2020 is done as sensibly as possible.
This transformation produces a new set of challenges for the army and across the armed forces.
New employment model
Let me talk briefly about one of these, the new employment model, the career structure that will be needed to make sure life in the army is an attractive option for the brightest and the best.
The MOD is now embarking on the early design phase of the new employment model (NEM).
At the heart of this will be the recognition that our armed forces should have a fair deal.
It aims to provide greater domestic stability for service personnel and their families, whilst continuing to support them when they are required to move.
This will be a measured process and we will take as long as necessary to get this right; looking at everything from career paths, to terms and conditions, to accommodation.
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 personnel and their families.
The families federations will have a vital role to play as we work to get this right and we will consult with you very carefully along the way.
The NEM will be an important part of making sure we meet the key principles of the armed forces covenant, which is what I want to turn to now.
Armed forces covenant
Over the last few years, there have been improvements in a number of areas:
The better operational welfare package, the greater capacity of the recovery capability, education bursaries, families welfare grants, action on many of the little but cumulative things that make service life sometimes difficult for families.
But there is still a long, long way to go, and there is no room to be complacent.
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.
My predecessor, Andrew Robathan, is particularly proud of the way the community covenant scheme has mushroomed, from a standing start a year ago to nearly 150 local authorities signed up today; and they are coming in all the time.
North Lincolnshire Council became the latest recruit, signing the community covenant only yesterday.
These community covenants are already starting to see improvements in the provision of local services for military families.
Simple things, like Oxfordshire County Council allowing base addresses to be used prior to postings for school applications.
As these pledges grow and dialogue deepens, I hope your local authorities will start to better understand your unique needs.
Then there are the community covenant grants.
Since the scheme began just over a year ago, £5 million has been allocated to innovative projects, driven by local people, and including 36 new grants worth over £1 million that have just been approved.
So I can announce today a whole host of new local projects that have got the go ahead.
Extensions to 2 schools in North Yorkshire, which educate a high proportion of service children.
New veterans’ services in Nottinghamshire and Glasgow.
A scheme in Cornwall to get younger members of the armed forces community together with locals to help them integrate.
These latest projects demonstrate the high regard the public has for the armed forces; people up and down the country showing their support and gratitude through each new idea and initiative.
Of course making progress on some things has been more difficult because of budgetary restrictions.
So let me briefly turn to the issue of housing, which I know is close to your heart, and is also close to mine.
Although there has been some positive progress, I know that it is not enough.
I started my political career, in the last century, as a councillor on Basildon District Council in Essex.
It was a robust council. It still is.
It was once described as the only council in the country where the councillors actively heckled the public gallery.
But I learned my trade there.
For 3 years, I was Vice Chairman of the Housing Committee.
So, while I am a little rusty, I do have some practical experience of housing issues which I plan to bring to bear in my role as a minister.
I campaigned on this issue when I was first elected to Parliament.
And now I’m in a position to do something about it.
So one of my main priorities in this job is to find ways to keep improving your accommodation.
I hope to be able to say more about this in the coming months.
So that’s the sit rep; big changes, tight resources.
Going forward, there is a huge agenda for us to get our collective teeth stuck into.
The Army Families Federation is one of the key organisations that can help get things done.
Your views are highly valued.
You pick up on the issues that matter, making sure that the MOD is aware of what is going on.
Your latest quarterly report is testament to that.
But you are also a great organ for communication, action and change.
The military teaches the principle of combined arms; all elements in a battle group working together co-operatively to achieve the maximum possible effect.
That is exactly what we need to do.
I haven’t got a magic wand and I certainly don’t have a pot of gold.
My job is to fix those things that I can and use whatever clout I have across government to get those things fixed that I don’t control.
All I can promise is to do the best job I can; and you have that promise.
I am where I want to be, doing a job I want to do, working to improve the lives of the best and most dedicated people the country has to offer.
I am proud to be given the opportunity to do that, and, with your help, working together, that is what I aim to do.