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Labour calls for renewed ‘moral contract’ with armed forces

Britain’s “moral contract” with its armed forces has been “corroded” and must be renewed, Labour’s shadow defence secretary has said.

John Healey used a speech at the London Defence Conference to argue that 13 years of Conservative government have contributed to poor accommodation, falling morale and increasing numbers leaving the armed forces.

He said: “We have to do more on the moral component. It is not acceptable, but it’s also not viable, if your satisfaction ratings are less than 50% of those who are serving.

“It is completely unacceptable that 40% of our forces accommodation is in the lowest possible category and 4,000 of our forces personnel are living in accommodation that is so poor that even the MoD won’t charge them any rent on it.

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“That’s, if you like, a symptom of how we’ve allowed this contract with those who serve to be corroded over recent years and we’ve got to renew that.”

An MoD survey conducted in 2022 found just 45% of personnel were satisfied with service life and 39% reporting low morale in their unit.

In March, Labour launched a campaign for improved accommodation for service personnel, blaming “damp and mouldy housing” for falling morale and criticising the Government for “failing in their duty to our forces”.

Mr Healey also took aim at comments from Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, who told the Commons in January that the UK’s armed forces had been “hollowed out and underfunded”, and repeated calls for the Government to halt planned cuts to the number of full-time soldiers.

In the past decade, the Army has shrunk from 97,000 full-time, trained soldiers to 76,000, and the Future Soldier programme will see it reduced further to 73,000 regulars while increasing the size of the Army Reserve.

He said: “When Nato is increasing, to take the lesson from Ukraine, its high readiness force to 300,000, it is perverse that Britain at the same time is looking to and planning to cut the strength of our full-time forces further.

“It seems to me that this is driven by costs, not threats, and it seems to me that this is, sad to say, a result of the Defence Secretary’s failure to win new money from the MoD for those needed to deal with the threats that we face.”

As well as an end to Army cuts, Labour has called for a stockpiles strategy to replace equipment that has been sent to Ukraine. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has previously warned that returning the UK’s stockpiles to pre-Ukraine war levels could take “several years”.

March’s Budget saw the Government commit another £5 billion to defence spending over the next two years, with most of the money going towards major projects and investment rather than day-to-day costs.

Labour Party Conference 2021
John Healey criticised Defence Secretary Ben Wallace (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Rishi Sunak also announced an aim of increasing defence spending from 2% of GDP to 2.5%, but gave no timeframe for achieving this target.

On Tuesday, Mr Healey said Labour would “always spend what’s required on defence” and would carry out a review in the first year of a new government to determine what capabilities the armed forces needed.

He added: “When we left government 13 years ago in 2010, we were spending in this country 2.5% of GDP on defence and that’s a level that’s never been close to getting matched in any of the 13 years since.”

He also reiterated his party’s backing for Ukraine, saying Labour’s “over-riding priority” would be military, not humanitarian, as that was “first and foremost the priority for the Ukrainians”.

Mr Healey expressed concern about the “ad hoc” nature of Government announcements of support for Ukraine and called for a clearer plan in order to reassure Ukrainians and demonstrate long-term commitment.

He said: “It will signal to Putin that things will get worse and not better in the long run.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “We will take no lectures on defence from a party which wanted to abolish our armed forces, withdraw from Nato and scrap our nuclear deterrent.

“While the last Labour government left a £38 billion black hole in our defence budget – we will continue to keep the UK and our allies safe as we deliver on the people’s priorities. Halve inflation. Grow the economy. Reduce debt. Cut waiting lists. Stop the boats.”