Portsmouth has a proud military history. It is one of the most famous ports in the world and our naval base is home to almost two thirds of the Royal Navy’s surface ships. The Navy is an intrinsic part of my home city, its DNA and my own family’s history, and the naval dockyard is hugely significant to the local economy. A tenth of Portsmouth’s workforce is employed there, either in the armed forces or as part of the civilian workforce who support the Navy’s work there.
Our armed forces have been subject to years of pay restraint in the face of rising costs and increasing pressure on their incomes. We have all seen the displeasure of public sector workers about the 1% pay cap as well as the hard work of their various unions in speaking out for them, which, hopefully, is now starting to effect real change. However, our armed forces do not have that voice. We have to be their voice and speak out about their pay, pensions and working conditions if they are to see any improvements.
First, there is pay restraint. Like other public sector workers, members of our armed forces have been subject to pay restraint for several years. The starting salary of an Army private is now down 5.3% in real terms since 2010 – a cut of more than £1,000 a year. It is clear from the Armed Forces Pay Review Body’s 2017 report that they are making recommendations with the constraint of the government’s cap in mind.
The report states that both the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Defence Secretary reinforced that approach in Government policy. The report even highlights the review body’s concern with the cap, saying: “We commented last year that we were concerned about the sustainability of the current ongoing pay restraint policy, and that continues to be our view”. If the Government decide to lift the public sector pay cap for our armed forces, will the review body be given a chance to produce an interim report so that new pay levels for our armed forces can come in as quickly as possible?
It is not just the case that pay is being restrained; it also comes at a time of rising costs for families across the UK, with some specific rising costs for forces’ families. There is a new combined accommodation assessment model that uses new grading criteria, and it will see charges increase for about three quarters of service families accommodation occupants. Armed forces personnel have also seen their national insurance contributions rise. The pay review body’s 2017 report made the situation very clear: “A common theme from our visits was that the one per cent basic pay award…was not perceived as an increase as it coincided with increases in National Insurance, changes in tax credits and…increases that left a number of Service personnel seeing a reduction in take home pay.”
Pay restraint is not only hurting our armed forces personnel in the pocket but it is clear that it is having an impact on the ability to recruit and retain personnel. When it comes to that, our armed forces are in crisis. All of our services are running at a liability of 5.1%. The latest figures show that, for the first time and even by the Government’s new and questionable definition of “trained”, the Army has fallen below 82,000 in number. Its full-time “trained” strength is 81,920 and the numbers are trending downward.
That is another broken manifesto commitment by the Conservatives. They promised us that they would keep Army numbers above 82,000. The Government now urgently need to take action, and although I recognise that dealing with pay will not solve all the existing problems, it is a good place to start. This year’s armed forces continuous attitude survey showed how unimpressed our services personnel are with their pay. Only 33% of respondents were satisfied with their basic rate of pay. By comparison, in 2010 satisfaction with pay was at 52%.
The Army Pay Review Body reported that “our visit programme made clear that Service personnel are becoming increasingly frustrated with public sector pay policy. They feel their pay is being unfairly constrained in a period when costs are rising, private sector earnings are starting to recover, and the high tempo demands on the Armed Forces have not diminished.”
The evidence is there: voluntary outflow is hugely high and recruitment is stagnant. If the Government do not get to grips with this problem soon, operational capability will start to diminish. Our armed forces are enormously professional and are respected around the world. They can do a lot with a little, but we have to be realistic: if we do not meet recruitment targets, they are not going to be able to do everything that we want them to.
Stephen Morgan is Labour MP for Ports- mouth South. The above is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.