By Tim Montgomerie
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Today, sandwiched between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, we have two very different insights into the Coalition's policy towards Britain's armed forces. The front page of the Daily Mail records the good news that the Government is going to instruct local authorities to put servicemen at the front of the queue for social housing. The Telegraph, in contrast, says that defence cuts may produce a bigger reduction in the number of military personnel than was first suggested.
The Telegraph has a leaked document which suggests that twice as many military personnel – 16,500 – will lose their jobs as originally thought over the course of this parliament and that 2,500 of these will be wounded personnel. This story led this morning's Today programme. Thomas Harding, The Telegraph's Defence Editor, claims that the Government has not been honest with soldiers serving in warzones:
"When the Army cuts were first announced the Government made it clear that no one serving in Afghanistan would lose their jobs. But that was really not quite the case. The Daily Telegraph disclosed evidence that soldiers serving in Helmand would receive “at risk” letters that would allow them to take voluntary redundancy. Soldiers have gone into to battle to do the politicians' bidding in the knowledge that those same politicians were more than likely to remove their jobs once the fighting was done. But what today’s revelations in the Telegraph show is that the redundancy business has got a lot worse. Despite the Army’s back-tracking it cannot get away from the point that soldiers in the front line have been told that if they get wounded they stand a greater chance of losing their job."
The good news (and it's of limited consolation) comes in the Mail. Service personnel often fall down housing waiting lists when they serve overseas. This injustice is to be addressed by Housing Minister Grant Shapps. He, says the Mail, "will issue new guidance to local authorities to put retiring servicemen automatically into the highest priority category for a council house after the homeless." Shapps comments:
"House-hunting heroes on the look-out for their first home will be at the very front of the queue for new Government-funded schemes like FirstBuy. Equally, years of loyal military service should not be rewarded with years of languishing on local waiting lists. Just as our brave troops answered their call of duty, councils will need to do the same, to ensure that heroes who want a home in their area will be at the top of local waiting lists."
Conservative councils like Barnet and Wandsworth are already prioritising servicemen and their families in the allocation of social housing.
Tory members will wonder if the Coalition has the right priorities. ConservativeHome polling has consistently found strong support for the defence budget being at the front of the queue. Unfortunately defence cuts have been deep. Although we have the largest state since Queen Elizabeth II became our head of state we will have the smallest army since Queen Victoria's time.