By Angus Robertson MP
Service personnel and their families are a unique and special part of society. With very real risks to their personal safety they work on our behalf at home and abroad. As never before the public is supporting service and veterans charities to ensure maximum support for those prepared to put their lives on the line.
The Scottish Government has prioritised veterans issues and is delivering the gold standard in veterans provision in the UK. All of Scotland’s local authorities have signed up to the armed forces covenant.
Despite this, there are many outstanding employment and welfare challenges facing servicemen and women, their families and the communities they live in. As we know from the Annual Armed Forces Attitudes Survey conducted for the UK Ministry of Defence morale in the Army has declined. Thirty per cent of army personnel described their morale as low – up from 26% last year. The proportion of those rating their morale as high dropped for the third year running.
With massive military job cuts and broken promises it is understandable that morale is being hit. The experience in Scotland has been particularly bad.
Even the UK Government has acknowledged the disproportionate job cuts: more than 28% in Scotland compared to 11% for the UK as a whole. Personnel numbers are now down to 11,000 in Scotland which is a record low, two of three airbases have been axed, we are a maritime nation without maritime patrol aircraft and there is not a single serious ocean going conventional naval vessel based in Scotland.
The prospect of being able to make defence and security decisions in Scotland after the independence referendum is a huge opportunity to rethink poor Westminster priorities and have government which takes the welfare and interests of the service community more seriously.
Delegates at the annual conference of the Scottish National Party (SNP) which starts this week in Perth will have the opportunity to debate and approve a range of proposals aimed at emulating this best practice which can be seen in other countries. I am proposing the motion together with Scottish Government Veteran’s Minister Keith Brown, who has real practical experience in this area having previously served with the Royal Marines.
We believe that if Scotland has the power to make defence decisions after a ‘Yes’ vote in the 2014 independence referendum an SNP government should prioritise improved conditions for military personnel.
Personnel should be properly represented within the military and with defence policy decision-makers. This is the norm in most other countries and recognised representation are part of the significant improvements the SNP is considering for Armed Forces personnel and their families.
During a recent visit to Copenhagen I met with the Central Association of Permanent Defence Personnel (CS) which is the largest representational organisation of Danish servicemen and women. Working in exactly the same way as the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) as a recognised professional association which cannot strike, it successfully represents members interests with government and within the army, air force and navy.
Jesper Hansen who heads CS explained how successful the cooperative working arrangements function without impinging on operational or military command in any way. One of the first acts of the recently appointed Defence Minister was to meet him and other association colleagues. This approach is is viewed as essential by all Danish political parties.
The practical experience in Denmark and throughout Europe shows that this social partnership approach delivers real benefits for the armed forces, for the personnel, their families and defence communities.
Terms and conditions in Scotland need to be reviewed and this should include a safeguard on military contracts so people are not kicked out of the forces as is presently the case. It is an outrage that troops have come straight back from Afghanistan to be sacked from the Armed Forces when they were signed up for a contracted period of longer service.
Personnel should also be able serve a full career in Scotland. At present too many talented people join the armed forces and literally never serve in Scotland which is a ridiculous state of affairs, undermining family life and links to home communities.
With independence personnel will be able to work their way up through the ranks to the highest command posts in Scotland. Not only will there be exciting career opportunities, first rate training and postings providing a fulfilling career, but family life will be better supported with the prospect of stability in Scotland.
All of these proposals will improve the employment experience of members of the Scottish Defence Forces (SDF) and their families, but it will be a boost to recruitment and retention. This will be a welcome contrast to the current situation where too many committed servicemen and women are trained at great cost, and then see their careers cut short and leave the armed forces.
Scottish defence decision-making will bring real improvements for personnel in Scotland, for communities that have feared the closure of military facilities by the UK government and for the convention capabilities we require for our security.
Angus Robertson MP is the Westminster SNP Leader and Defence Spokesperson.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Times