With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the report on the strategic review of reserves, which I am publishing today and which has been placed in the Library of the House.
I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to Britain’s reserves. They make an important contribution to current operations, serving with dedication and commitment alongside our regular forces. As I speak, more than 2,000 reservists are on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq on tasks ranging from fighting on the front line to force protection and medical support. That is 8 per cent. of our forces deployed. Reservists have served with distinction in all the conflicts that our forces have faced in recent times, from the Balkans to Sierra Leone. Some 18,000 have been deployed to operational theatres since 2003. Since then, 15 have made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives on our behalf. When I visit operational theatres, I never fail to be impressed by the men and women of our reserve forces who give up their time to serve their country.
However, it is not only the armed forces that benefit from our reserves. Society does too. Individual reservists learn and develop leadership, problem-solving and confidence-building skills that make them more capable employees and citizens. They also make a crucial contribution in the United Kingdom, helping out in emergencies from foot and mouth to flooding to providing cover during the firefighters’ strike.
The demands faced by our reservists have changed considerably, and we are using them more than we have before in peacetime. We need them to do more than simply prepare to defend the UK in the event of major conflict. We require them to augment our regular forces on expeditionary operations, yet the structures, training and organisation of our reserve forces have not changed to match that requirement and now need to be overhauled.
We owe it to our reservists, their employers and their families to ensure that they are supported to face the challenges of today and the future, not of the past. People wrongly say that this is about tackling stretch by using the reserves to plug gaps in the regular forces. That is not the case. It is, in fact, about optimising the contribution of all elements of defence today and in the future. The reserves are an integral part of that, and are themselves overwhelmingly keen to play a relevant role in current operations.
That is why last year my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) commissioned a strategic review of reserves. As a result, for the first time in recent years, the reserves have been the subject of a review in their own right. The review was conducted by a small team led by Major-General Nicholas Cottam, which consulted openly throughout defence and beyond. It listened carefully to the views of the reserves community, including the reserve forces and cadets associations.
General Cottam’s comprehensive review addressed all strategic aspects of reserve service. I am today placing copies of it in the Library of the House and on the Ministry of Defence website. As one would expect from such a careful analysis conducted over several months, it is very detailed. We have therefore produced a summary of the review, which will also be placed in the Library today. General Cottam confirms that the summary report accurately reflects his review. It also indicates how we shall take forward this important work.
General Cottam’s work offered seven strategic recommendations. I am pleased to announce that we are accepting all of them. They flow into more than 80 detailed recommendations. General Cottam was not asked to produce an implementation plan, as his review was properly designed to be strategic. Consequently, some of his detailed recommendations will require considerable further scoping work, taking into account resources and priorities across defence. That will make for difficult choices, but the review provides the solid foundation on which they can be made. I am, however, pleased to announce that around half the recommendations will be implemented immediately.
The review has redefined the “purpose” of the UK’s reserves, and notes that they provide defence with a cost-effective way of retaining certain specialised skills. Precisely those niche capabilities and that depth of personnel prove so invaluable in our current operations. The review also acknowledges that reservists may remain vital for supporting national resilience and it recognises the very important role that they play in connecting the armed forces with the nation.
A key tenet of the review is bringing greater clarity to reservists about what we expect of them and what they can expect in return. That has been captured in the “Proposition”, which sets out for the first time what reserve service offers. Specifically, it states that we must ensure that
“we continue to offer the challenge and reward which attracts people to volunteer, while giving a firm undertaking to provide them with effective training and the best possible support throughout their service, including when mobilised and recuperating.”
Part of that challenge is the opportunity to lead and command, which is why General Cottam’s detailed recommendations include proposals for officer recruitment and education. If we deliver the “Proposition”—I am determined that we will—the outcome should be a better trained, better organised reserve, better able to deliver its tasks.
I should like to give the House a few examples of what we are doing now to help achieve that outcome. We shall develop better and more flexible terms and conditions of service, which will allow a range of different forms of reserve service as well as easier movement between the regular and the reserve services by removing complexity and administrative barriers.
Reservist training will be refocused, with a greater emphasis on preparation to support current operations. Initial training will be restructured so that new recruits receive sufficient military skills to participate in their units’ collective training within six months of joining, and are fully trained and eligible for mobilisation in three years. Routine training will also be reviewed and sufficient man training days allocated to ensure that annual military competency standards can be achieved by all.
The Territorial Army will be better integrated with the regular Army to ensure that, combined, they are best structured to support current and future operations. That will include stopping reservist tasks that are no longer needed, thereby bringing efficiencies and enabling manpower to be used for higher priorities. Some tasks of that nature have been identified during separate work as part of the Department’s annual planning round.
As mentioned in the review, certain elements of 2 (National Communications) Signal Brigade are identified as no longer having a clear operational role. That is partly because they hold capabilities that are no longer current, and partly because their tasks can be achieved elsewhere in defence, not least because of improvements in wider national resilience.
In addition, some TA signals units operate communications equipment that is now obsolete, and those posts will be removed. They include Headquarters 12 Signals Group and 33, 34 and 35 Signals Regiments—it is logical to reallocate those resources to higher defence priorities. That decision has not been taken lightly and we are very aware of the exceptional contribution made by the Royal Signals within the TA. However, we must focus resources where we need them most. Where possible, those affected by the decision will be offered other opportunities in the TA, and we will conduct further work to determine the most effective configuration for the TA Royal Signals. As I said, those decisions were taken separately from the reserves review, but they are entirely consistent with it.
We shall also rationalise and improve the way that we approach the civil contingency reaction force and the part that it plays in wider national resilience tasks. That will make it more effective and less burdensome to the units involved. We shall also be working closely with the Department for International Development to determine how best to employ niche reservist skills in support of stabilisation operations.
We need to rationalise the reserve estate. Some of it is underused, out of date and in poor repair; some of it is simply unacceptable for modern military use. In some places, sites sit near to one another, while elsewhere the reserve has no footprint at all. I am therefore setting in train work to deliver a modern, better managed and fit-for-purpose volunteer estate. This important work will take time and I am determined that it be done properly.
Employers play a vital role in delivering and supporting our reserves. They bear the gap while an employee is training and an even greater one when reservists are away from the workplace on deployed operations. We are very fortunate that so many of our employers are so accommodating of the demands that go with a reservist commitment. They recognise the additional skills and qualities that individual reservists can bring to any organisation, but we want to work better with employers. We shall continue to provide assistance and support to them through our employer support organisation, Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers, which is commonly known as SaBRE. In addition, we shall give greater direction to the reserve forces and cadets associations, to ensure that their excellent work in support of the reserves is more coherent and co-ordinated.
The review that we publish today is important for our armed forces and for Britain’s reserves. It makes it clear that the two are not separate; rather, that the reserves provide an integral part of our military force structure. The review provides a firm basis from which we can work further to develop and improve our reserve forces and how we support them. I believe that this is an exciting opportunity for our reservists. The review’s outcome is a comprehensive piece of work that has been welcomed by the single service chiefs. The review is a blueprint to ensure that our reserve forces have a clear and bright future to match their illustrious past, and I commend it to the House.
The whole House can and will take pride in the achievements of our reserve forces. We pay tribute to the sacrifices that they have made for the security of our country. Like many hon. Members, I have met our reserves in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have never failed to be impressed by their professionalism and courage.
I am slightly surprised that the Minister failed to acknowledge the important role of the 234 TA troops currently serving on the green line in Cyprus, as part of Operation Tosca, although I am sure that that was an oversight. This is the first time that Op Tosca has been fully resourced by the TA, which deserves congratulations on the work that it has done.
The main focus of the Minister’s statement was the TA. Very little—in fact, I think nothing at all—was said about the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marines Reserve or the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. How will the report impact on those forces? I am sure that the members of those reserve forces serving in Iraq or Afghanistan will be surprised, to say the least, that they seem to have been omitted today.
We welcome the genuine attempt to improve and expedite basic training for both soldiers and officers, but could the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the attractiveness to potential recruits and, more importantly, employers of condensing basic training into six months? It also surprised me a little that there was no mention in the Minister’s statement of the welfare issues affecting our reservists and their families. Perhaps he can tell the House in his response what measures in the report’s recommendations will improve the welfare of our reserve forces and their families.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that it is a major disincentive when regulars take a disproportionate number of places at the top of TA units. Will he assure the House that, when reservists can carry out a role, they should do so, and that, when appropriately qualified, reservists will have priority?
The Minister said at the beginning of his statement that the reserve forces make a crucial contribution in emergencies. Surely it would be more accurate to say that they have made such a contribution, because the Government are effectively abandoning their own plans, set out in 2002, for the civil contingency reaction force. Who is going to carry out that role, if not the TA? The assumption seems to be that the blue light services and the regular services will assume that responsibility, but the regular Army is already overstretched and is increasingly being concentrated into super-garrisons. So, let me get this right: with a potential flu pandemic at our door, the Government are abandoning their own civil contingency reaction force and, instead of using the widespread footprint of the TA across the country, they intend to depend more on the regular Army, which they are concentrating in fewer and fewer geographical locations. Are they kidding us?
No one can argue with the need to rationalise the reserve estate, but the Minister says that detailed work needs to be done first, and that it could take some time. Hmm. Will he then tell us why the Government have a figure of £75 million in the MOD budget for financial year 2011-12 as a contribution made by the reserve estate? How did they arrive at that figure? Has some work already been done, or has that number simply been borrowed from the fantasy figure library that the Chancellor has been putting to such good effect recently?
I have a further point about money. In the discussions that the Minister has had with the Department for International Development on using reservists in support of stabilisation operations, has he discussed transferring any elements of DFID’s funding for that purpose? If so, how much?
In 1997, the establishment figure for the TA was 59,000. Today, the figure is 58,500, even though the current strength is only 28,920. Following the Minister’s statement today, what will the establishment figure be? Given that the TA has been funded to only 83 per cent. of its capacity in recent years, what will that figure be today? Simply put: how much is the TA being cut by, and how much money will it get?
Despite General Cottam’s excellent work, changes to the shape of our armed forces should be made within the context of a strategic defence review—which is hugely overdue—and not in this piecemeal fashion. I am afraid that this statement is short on detail and indicative of a Government who lack direction. If the Minister really wants to abolish obsolete bodies and make them disappear, I am sure that the voters will be only too happy to help.
It is traditional to thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. He is right about Op Tosca; I am sorry that I did not mention it. He is, however, totally wrong about my omitting other reservists. I mentioned the reserve throughout. Obviously, I concentrated on the TA because the measures that have been taken in the spending round apply to the TA. He should not be surprised that I majored on that issue and did not try to hide it from the House.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the establishment. There are no plans to take any further cuts in the establishment. Indeed, the report proposes increases in the establishment of the other services—the naval and air reserves. However, the figures for the deletions that are being made in the Signals Regiments amount to around 2,000 individuals. Of course, that would come off the establishment—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is right: there will be more than that in terms of posts, but in terms of individuals in place, about 2,000 people will be affected.
With regard to welfare, paragraph 3.5 on page 21 of the report says that we must recognise the needs of reserves during their deployment and through into their period with the reservists. We have made commitments in the service personnel command paper to improve welfare provisions, and those will apply to regular forces as well as to reservists.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned money and I wondered whether he would. He knows that I am trying desperately to help him at the moment by getting information out of the shadow Chancellor that might be of use to him, and I shall continue in those endeavours. He is right to say that the review does not print money, but it does spell out a strategic framework against which the reserve will have an opportunity to bid for defence resources more effectively than it otherwise would.
On the civil contingency reaction force, the important thing is that we keep the command and control mechanism in place so that people can be called up when they are required. We need to relieve the reserves from burdensome training that they do not really need to do, and which they do not welcome, in order to give them more effective, higher level training that will make them better reserves and more able to augment our regular forces.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and may I ask him to pass on my personal thanks and appreciation to General Cottam and his team for a job that I am sure was extremely professionally and well done? I have not had the opportunity that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) may have had to read the whole report; I have not seen it at all, but I shall study it carefully and I may have further observations to make.
I agree with the points that have been made, and I am sure will be made by those on both sides of the House, about how our admiration for our reserves increases by the day. From my experience in the last year in which I was Secretary of State for Defence, I know that increasingly, on every operational visit that I made, it became impossible to tell the difference between the regular members and the reserves of any of the three services. That is the highest compliment that I can pay reservists and, indeed, it was the compliment paid to them by regular members of all three services in my presence on many occasions.
The strategic review’s strength was that it was wanted by the reservists; the loudest voices of welcome for it came from reservists themselves. That strength was augmented by the way in which General Cottam conducted the review in a transparent and inclusive fashion. I just wish to ask my right hon. Friend two questions. First, can we continue that inclusiveness and transparency by developing an implementation group, as we did in the Department on other occasions to ensure that those who were consulted were included in implementation? The second is a plea on behalf of the south-west of Scotland, which gives a lot of people to the services, but has very little footprint of the reserves in its communities. Can we have some please?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that; indeed, he established this review in the first place, so he understands better than anyone the need for it. As he rightly says, the members of the reserves are extremely impressive and highly capable people who have a real desire to serve in today’s operations. What we are really seeking to do is to catch up with the movement that has been effectively made on the ground by putting in place, through this review, the systems that are necessary to serve them in doing that.
My right hon. Friend raises two specific points. I can tell him that an implementation group is set up to look at the individual recommendations, and I assure him that I will see to it—I am sure that those involved will want to do this in any case—that it will be as inclusive as possible in how it goes about its work of deciding which of those recommendations should be taken forward and in what way.
The point that my right hon. Friend makes about Scotland can be made about many other parts of the United Kingdom too, and this is why there is a need to modernise the estate. I heard hon. Members talking about flogging it off, but much of the estate is not even owned by the MOD. We bear the costs of the maintenance of that estate, and it is not appropriate and not fit for purpose, so we need to spend in new areas.
I, too, wish to put on record my respect and admiration for the reserves, who are undoubtedly a valuable part of our armed forces. We have used them more and more in recent years, sending them to the front line much more than previously, and it is no surprise that the National Audit Office observed in its report that there are parts of the armed forces that simply could not manage without the reserves.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it, but it poses more questions than it answers and it is scant on detail. He tells us that there are seven strategic recommendations and 80 detailed ones. I notice that he was on his feet for 14 minutes and I should have thought that he could at least have told us what the seven strategic recommendations are in that time. Can he guarantee that we will get a further chance to ask questions when we have had sight of them? We have no idea of the extent of the changes that are being considered, or whether they will cost more or less. Nor do we have any sense of the time scale for the introduction of the measures or the likely impact on the wider armed forces.
The NAO also observed that reserve forces cannot be a substitute for the regular armed forces, given the inherent limitations in training time and the fact that they are not able to deploy as quickly as high-readiness forces. The Minister must surely accept that nothing in this review can change that.
We know that we will have an ongoing role in Afghanistan for many years, and we will be involved in the Balkans for some time yet. Given the burden that we have placed on the Territorials in recent years, can the Minister give us some indication of what that will mean for their numbers? If after everything that they have done their numbers are cut, it will feel like a slap in the face.
The hon. Gentleman says that we cannot manage without the reserves as if we should try to do so—
I am glad to receive that response, because we should not be managing without the reserves. We should see them as part of our armed forces, and we should try to make them as relevant, as competent and as useful as they can be. That is what the enthusiastic individuals who volunteer for the reserve want, so it should be no surprise that we are using them. They are enthusiastic about being used, and the report is about enabling them in that regard.
The hon. Gentleman complains about lack of information. The report should have been passed to him before the statement. I acknowledge that he has not had sight of it and I apologise for that administrative error. I meant to get both my statement and the report to both Front-Bench spokesmen before we started. I have tried to be as open as I can and I have engaged with the all-party group on reserve forces. We have another meeting later this afternoon and I know that there is a level of interest and expertise in the House that needs to be fed into this review. I also know that General Cottam appreciated the information that he received.
The hon. Gentleman talked about numbers. It is difficult to predict what will happen, but there are no proposals for cuts in the reserves other than those that I have mentioned in the two areas. If we make the reserve as relevant, capable and deployable as we can, and if we put the work into understanding that capability, the potential is that the reserve will grow, because we will understand the risks that are associated with giving any particular issue over to a reserve capability. That will develop over time, and I hope that the reserve will at least give options to planners in providing capability.
I am very concerned about the announcement made by my right hon. Friend as regards the Crown Gate Territorial Army training centre in Runcorn. It is a modern purpose-built facility and is the home of 80 Squadron, part of 33 Signal Regiment, which he has announced will be disbanded forthwith. It is also the home of the Army cadets and the Navy cadets. As he will be aware, Runcorn is very important for recruitment to the armed services in the north-west. I am extremely anxious that we maintain the reservist footprint in the town. Will he give me some assurances about the future of that centre in my constituency?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am not surprised that he is concerned. The decision that we have taken is not about the facilities in his constituency, but about the capability provided by the Signals Regiment that is only a part of, and only one user of, those facilities. As I have said, it uses equipment that is now obsolete. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to see whether we can find ways of continuing to use the facilities—if they are as good as he says, we should certainly do so. We need to maintain our support to the Army and Navy cadets.
Will the Minister forgive me if I say that I found his statement a little thin on detail? I am sure that when we read the report of Major-General Cottam, who has done extremely good work, we will find it very meaty. However, the impression that I have from the Minister is that he is managing decline rather than inspiring recovery. What will come out of this statement that will bring the reserves up to their complementary strength?
Two things more than any other will help us to continue to inspire people to volunteer, both of which I mentioned. I am sad that the right hon. Gentleman did not recognise that. The first is the proposition to lay out for the first time what we expect of our reserves—it is strange that it has never been spelt out, but it has not—and what we offer in return. The second is the need to bring better quality, more relevant training to people. If we do not give them support and opportunities, as well as the training that is needed to exploit those opportunities, who will be surprised if we struggle to attract the volunteers that we need? I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find, as he digs into the report, that far from managing decline, these moves have the potential to make the reserves relevant for the next century, as they have been for the last.
May I first put on record my appreciation of the work done by the two Territorial Army units in my constituency? Will my right hon. Friend explain exactly how these new and additional resources will be made available to them? Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), may I too make a bid, in this case for the super-garrison to be in Central Ayrshire?
My hon. Friend is a supporter of the reserve forces, as he is of the armed forces overall. Our statement today does not cover super-garrisons, I am afraid, but his bid is noted. We are trying to ensure that we shift resources so that we better cover the geographical area of the country by remodelling the estate—that is central to the changes that we are making today. If we improve the training, make it relevant and drop that which is irrelevant—the unnecessary burdens—we will give people a far better offer and be able to attract them to the reserve units in his constituency.
The Minister cannot expect the House to be impressed by his suggestion a few moments ago that the reserves might actually grow in strength, on a day when he has just announced a further 2,000 cuts in their manpower. He will not deny that since this Government came into power, the reserves have virtually halved from 62,000 to 33,000. If, for perhaps sensible reasons, it is necessary to terminate the three Signals Regiments, would it not be fair to the reservists, when they are being used to a degree that is unprecedented in our history, for the 2,000 manpower that is being saved from the Signals Regiments to be allocated elsewhere in the TA?
Where individuals are affected by the changes to the Signals Regiment, which I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognises are necessary, we will seek to use them and absorb them in the reserve. That will not be possible in every circumstance. Those people may not want to do other jobs, but where they do we shall do our level best to continue to use their enthusiasm. The point I was making about potential growth is that, better managed and better understood, the risk of allowing some capability to be rested entirely within the reserve will be reduced. Over time, there will be potential for the reserve to be used in areas where people have not dared to use it in the past and, therefore, the reserve might grow.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that this leaves a dark cloud over the TA? We have uncertainty and a lot of questions that need to be answered. We ought not to be reducing the strength of the TA; it gives us the best value for money in the British armed forces and certainly backs up our full-timers. As he has rightly acknowledged, if there is a difference between the regulars and the TA, it is the valuable work the TA gives us at a very low cost. Will he consider re-badging and re-rolling the Signals, and will he tell us about the implications of his statement across the country? May I have an assurance that it will not affect C Squadron in Chorley—my TA unit?
I am sad that my hon. Friend sees a dark cloud. I urge him to read the review where he will see that there is no such thing. We are standing down the elements that are not relevant to defence requirement. For us to continue with that would be ridiculous in the extreme. No other cuts are proposed; this is a strategic review, designed to put the reserve in a better place. It ought to be seen not as a dark cloud but as an opportunity.
My interest is in the register.
Will the Minister reflect on recommendation 50? Although the result may have more the character of an agreed merger than a hostile takeover bid, ultimately the outcome will be same: we will have lost an Army with its own ethos and acquired a mere reserve, and something of value will have been lost.
This is an important issue. The balance between enabling a career structure for reservist officers and appropriately integrating and using them alongside regular forces will be difficult to strike, but there are times when reserve units should be and are commanded by regulars—there are times when the chain of command decides that is a good thing for a particular unit—but if that is overdone, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: we turn off the talent that could be coming into the reserve wanting to be officers and to progress as officers. I give him an assurance that it is the intention to try to get that balance right.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that before changes are made to the real estate, it is always useful to talk to local Members, because they have knowledge about accessibility to those premises and how a sudden change could dramatically affect both recruitment and the willingness of those in the TA to continue to serve?
My hon. Friend is right, but if there is one thing about which I have absolutely no doubt it is that given the level of interest and expertise in the House, any changes to the estate will be discussed with local people, whether proactively or reactively. There will be no attempt to run away from that.
The Scottish National party pays tribute to our reserves. We welcome the review but, like everyone else in the House, we are yet to see the details, so we will reserve judgment on them.
Has the Minister had the opportunity to read this weekend’s comments by the head of the Territorial Army in Scotland, Brigadier David Allfrey? He talked about plugging a serious gap in the recruitment of reservist officers and said that after a period of paid TA training, at no cost to their employer, employees facing redundancy could return to their companies in better economic times with new or improved management skills. In these difficult economic times, does the Minister agree that that sensible proposal merits closer inspection?
I have not read those comments but it sounds like they merit inspection. I think that the hon. Gentleman and others will be interested in a number of proposals in the report, such as military gap years and other ideas that individuals might wish to exploit.
I welcome the statement, mainly because the Department accepted all the strategic recommendations, which represents a refreshing approach.
May I make a plea to my right hon. Friend that he never says that we are disbanding part of the armed forces because their equipment is obsolete, because that might make many parts of them feel under threat? Will he assure us that when we reconfigure the Territorial Army, we will do all that we can to ensure that its members receive all the technological support and equipment that the British armed forces can offer so that when they move into the armed forces, they are not put at a disadvantage by having to retrain on new equipment?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend was annoyed by what I said, but the fact is that the units that I was talking about exist, and are structured, to use the Ptarmigan communications system, which is now obsolete. It was in place to support the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, but that is now supported by separate communications systems, so we no longer use or need the equipment. However, my hon. Friend is quite right to put forward his well-made point about integration and the need for interchangeable equipment.
Does the Minister agree that a pull-through from university officer training corps to the TA is extremely important, and will he confirm the great value that he attaches to OTCs? Secondly, does he realise that the reserve forces will become most attractive if they are properly funded and have the equipment that they need to do the job that they can do?
The hon. Gentleman is right that funding for equipment is important. People want to be properly equipped when they join both the regulars and the reserves but, as he knows, that is not the end of the story. The right and relevant training is key to the offer that we make to the reserves, and that is central to the proposals in the report.
And the OTCs?
I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman made.
I agree with the aspirations set out in the statement, but I am concerned that I am no wiser about some of the points that have been made because the statement was thin on the proposals, although I will read the report when it comes through. Will the Minister assure us that before we get into the details we will have a full debate in which we can not only discuss the acquisition or relinquishing of property, but cover the whole thing at one time? I get the feeling that we are talking about getting rid of some of the property without dealing with the bigger issue.
My hon. Friend is quite wrong. It will take anything up to 10 years to implement some aspects of the review, so I am certain that they will be discussed in the House again and again. I will remain engaged with the all-party group on reserve forces, and we will make written and oral statements whenever they are necessary.
May I thank the Minister for all the review’s courteous exchanges with my all-party group on reserve forces?
The review brings good news in the form of innovative ideas for training, especially basic training, but that is balanced with extremely bad news about numbers, especially given that the establishments of several units do not provide the critical mass for training. May I press the Minister on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)? The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that critical to the offer is opportunities for command. I urge him not to depart from the rule that most TA and Royal Naval Reserve units are commanded by reservists, where adequate reservists are available, so that we avoid a repetition of the truly shameful exercise whereby a group of senior regular officers in the Navy were able to brush away four strong reservist candidates and impose a regular officer, on the basis that he had more time available.
The principle espoused in General Cottam’s review is that we should have the best person for the job. That is the recommendation against which the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) reacted—recommendation 50. General Cottam and I have already discussed the matter and we agree that, in deciding who is the best person for a job, we should take account of the unit’s being a reservist unit, and the fact that the commander is a reservist will often be part of that assessment. As I said, sometimes the chain of command will decide for good reason that, at a particular point in time, it is appropriate that a regular officer commands a unit. However, we do not want to damage the career path—the ability to bring capable individuals into the officer corps—and we will do that if we take that too far.
I welcome the statement and look forward to reading General Cottam’s comprehensive review of the strategic aspects of the reserve forces, but I have one question. In his statement, my right hon. Friend mentioned flexible terms of engagement or employment. Will he confirm that he may use such language? Will he explain how those terms will benefit medical reservists, who are essential to our deployed forces?
To be frank, I am not sure what impact they will have on medical reservists. I shall come back to my hon. Friend on that point. However, there are considerable barriers to flexibility in the terms and conditions of employment in the reserves. For instance, it is detrimental to an individual, on leaving the regular service, to go straight into the reserve. Is that sensible? Such people have all the skills and are capable soldiers, sailors or airmen, but the effect of the current terms and conditions is to discourage them from transferring straight into the reserve. I do not think that that is sensible, and nor did General Cottam.
May I read back to the Minister part of his statement? He said, “People wrongly say that this is about tackling stretch by using the reserve to plug gaps in the regular forces.” Although we understand that he has to put a brave face on the decisions that he is having to take today, will he at least be realistic? Where would we be without the medics, the helicopter pilots and even the infantry reservists, and the professional Army had to try to manage current operations on its own? The reserves are filling gaps, and reducing reserve and TA forces further means that fewer gaps will be filled when we need to fill them.
The hon. Gentleman talks as though we should not augment the regular forces with the reserve—as though we should stand them aside in readiness for the old cold war scenario of the Russians coming over the western plains. That was the purpose of the reserves for a period in our history, but that is not what they want to do or what they have been doing for some time. We will not attract the individuals we want to attract if we do not make them relevant to current operations. Yes of course we want to use the reserve, and it is appropriate that we do so.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Defence Estates review. In 2006, the National Audit Office’s report found that there was “little understanding” in defence of the overall “costs of Reserve Forces”. Will he say whether the review has cast light on those costs, either apart from or including the Defence Estates part of them, and will the money freed be used for the investment that must be needed if the new proposition is to be achieved?
The review team looked at the National Audit Office findings, and there is comment on that. Of course there is potential in some areas to make savings, if not on the properties themselves, then on the overheads for things that are under-utilised. However, there is a need for investment, so we have to try to see to it that the reconfiguration gets due priority in our planning rounds in future. We also have to see to it that reserves get the funds that they need, so that they can have the estate that they need, so that they can get the training that they need to be effective.
Is the Minister aware that his statement this afternoon was deeply unreassuring? I fear for the future of General Cottam’s careful report. The Minister made many references to using reserves to fill gaps in the armed forces; he made no reference at all to formed units, which are absolutely essential if we are to continue to develop leadership and have the structure around which our armed forces can be re-expanded in times of emergency. History has shown that we need that insurance policy. Not to insure is a false economy.
The hon. Gentleman might remember that I said to the House that we would reconfigure training so that people would be able to train as a unit within six months. He now tells me that I did not mention units at all.
I echo my right hon. Friend’s praise for our remarkable reservists and the employers who support them, and echo what I thought sounded like an expression of regret for the loss of TA numbers in Signals. May I ask him to say a little about his ambition to improve training, which he mentioned in his statement, with regard to the times and places of training and, where appropriate, the engagement of reservists’ employers in planning it?
Throughout the review, training plays a central role. Providing training that is better placed geographically; integrating training with regular training, where appropriate, so that reserves can train alongside regulars; and reservist units and sub-units being able to use regular training capacity and facilities, and take up that capacity effectively, are all issues covered by the review. One of the things that we will need to talk to employers and reservists about is our growing need to try to attract people into the reserves to provide niche capabilities. Generally speaking, people want to go into the reserves to do something different; they do not want to do what they do in their day job. In stabilisation operations, we will sometimes need them to do what they have an expertise in. They and their employers will need to be consulted about that.
I remind the House of my interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Interests.
The reduction of the TA estate is a mistake, and I fear that the driver is financial. In 2002, I took command of a bomb disposal squadron that had recently been amalgamated with another squadron. The assumption was that the personnel from the closed TA centre would commute to the new TA centre. That never happened, and the new unit was immediately under-strength. Given that the Minister has repeatedly reassured the all-party group on reserve forces that cost was not the driver for the review, will he simply confirm to the House that the £75 million that will be saved, as a result of selling off that estate, will be reinvested in the TA, not the regular Army?
The review was not cost-led, and I have repeatedly told the all-party group that. The review could not and did not seek to protect the reserves entirely from the pressures on the rest of defence. The proposals that came forward from the planning round were not of General Cottam’s making, and not of the reserves’ making. It would have been wrong to say, “Because we have a strategic review, we’re going to ring-fence the reserves, and they will not bear any of the pressure for change within the rest of defence.”
The TA, alongside which I had the pleasure of serving as a regular soldier, will regard the statement as an insult—not the review, but the statement—because of its complete lack of content. The Minister could not bear to say that 2,000 soldiers—it will be over 2,000 soldiers—will be cut from the British Army. That was not in his paperwork. The way forward is to have a review about how we will keep those soldiers in the TA. That should have been done before the cuts were announced today.
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it is good practice that individuals or the TA would want to maintain capability that is no longer required, I disagree, and I think that every sensible individual listening to him would disagree too.
May I just ask the Minister whether he has ever heard of retraining? If people are in the TA, we should keep them in the TA, not cut the numbers, because at the moment we desperately need them. However, may I ask him whether it is possible to calculate in the review the exact number of volunteer reserve mobilisations in any one year, because we cannot do so currently? Will he bear in mind, while praising the reservists for all that they do, that they can choose whether or not they go on a deployment, but regulars cannot do so? It is important that the relationship between the regular Army and the reservists is kept on an even keel.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: where we can keep those individuals who are affected by the proposals on the Signals Regiments in the TA and offer them other opportunities, we will do so. That applies to all of them, so the point that the hon. Lady makes has been taken on board. I do not think that we should discard those individuals in any way. Some of them may choose not to do other jobs—that is a matter for them—but we will do everything that we can to keep them.
Regarding mobilisation and the way in which we mobilise, the hon. Lady will see that there are proposals for changes in mobilisation in the reserves, and she will want to look at them.