Ministers must commit to bold action on the Armed Forces - not empty rhetoric
Our armed forces should have the equivalent of a trade union to address the issues causing poor morale, says Carol Monaghan
With forces personnel numbers at the lowest level in living memory, the 2018 Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) published last month should set alarm bells ringing for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). This grim read includes worrying responses such as only 32% of personnel feeling valued by the service, or 29% having confidence in the leadership of the service.
While politicians will fall over each other to espouse unwavering support for those serving, the sycophantic rhetoric around “our brave servicemen and women” does nothing to address the real issues facing personnel on a daily basis.
In our manifesto for the 2017 general election, the SNP pledged to press the UK government to introduce an armed forces representative body, a body that would be given the bite of a statutory footing and would provide a formal voice to those serving.
Detractors may mock, citing the impossibility of this working without undermining the chain of command, but this model works successfully in many countries. If personnel are to feel that their opinion truly matters, a body such as this must be given serious consideration.
Over the past year, the SNP defence team has been meeting with military experts from across Europe. Some of our closest allies have described how a representative body has enabled them to address issues causing poor morale such as pay, housing and leave entitlement.
In Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, professional bodies are an integral part of service life. Personnel can raise issues in the confidence that their concerns will be treated in a serious manner, and that there will be no resulting backlash. These bodies liaise directly with their MoD, without drawing in the individual.
There are no such avenues currently open to our personnel. Of course there is the AFCAS which allows frank response without fear of repercussion, but the 2018 survey was not unique in its depressing statistics. Year after year, this survey has turned out figures that should shame the government. And yet, year after year, nothing changes.
This is borne out by the responses given in this year’s survey, and crucially since 2015 there has been a decline in the proportion of personnel who agree that effective action has been taken as a result of the AFCAS.
This year that number stands at only 16%, and those who believe that leaders will take action on the findings of AFCAS sits at an embarrassing 20%. While we are in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, with operational pinch points being experienced in every service, these specific concerns highlight why we must at least consider other models.
When describing how an armed forces representative body may operate, it’s worth considering how such a body works elsewhere. In Denmark the professional board ensures the competence and readiness of those serving, but additionally is able to negotiate conditions with the Danish MoD. However, at no point does this allow personnel to strike or indeed to take actions that could undermine the chain of command.
In the Netherlands there are four distinct trade unions and, interestingly, older personnel have to be encouraged to retire in order to make way for the younger recruits queuing to join. This privileged situation is in sharp contrast to the UK’s armed forces whose numbers have steadily decreased, and where the deficit between strength and requirement is at its largest ever.
In the midst of all the challenges and uncertainties that Brexit poses to future defence models, the government should commit to bold action rather than empty rhetoric, translating into real progress on the morale-sapping issues facing servicemen and women daily. Instead of relying on the good will of the government of the day, our personnel could be empowered to bring about the change that would transform their conditions and, in turn, boost morale.
If we are to maintain the numbers and the quality of our armed forces, respect for their voice must be paramount.
Carol Monaghan is MP for Glasgow North West and SNP spokesperson for armed forces and veterans