I apologise on behalf of the Secretary of State, who is unable to come to the House as he is dealing with departmental business overseas.
The Territorial Army makes a vital contribution to keeping our country safe, and 540 TA members are currently deployed on operations in Afghanistan. When we have forces in the front line putting their lives on the line for us, they must be the priority, and Afghanistan is the main effort for defence. It gets the first call on money, the first call on equipment, and the first call on training and support.
More than £3 billion has been drawn from the Treasury reserve to support operations this year, but we need to reprioritise the core defence budget as well. That means that tough choices need to be made. Recruitment to the Army has experienced a significant boost this year—over 1,000 more recruits are expected to complete training than did so last year—but those additional recruits need to be paid for. The Chief of the General Staff presented proposals to help bring the budget into balance, and, as extra money cannot be drawn from the Treasury reserve for the purpose, the Army proposed to reduce the amount spent on the Territorial Army this year, as well as taking other measures.
After discussion, the Secretary of State endorsed the approach taken by the Army. We did so while making it clear that we would not allow any risk to the Afghanistan campaign in the future to materialise. No TA soldier will be deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and prepared, and pre-deployment training is emphatically not being cut.
Our initial proposal was to suspend the remainder of non-deployment TA training in this financial year, with a saving of £20 million; but, as a Government, we do listen. The Secretary of State has therefore decided on a small adjustment to our original proposals to ensure continuity for those not immediately being deployed to Afghanistan, and to help retention. All TA personnel will now receive at least one training night per month in the current financial year. This measure reduces the in-year savings by £2.5 million.
I realise that the reductions in normal activity are disappointing for TA members, but I believe that they will understand the reasons behind those reductions and the exceptional circumstances in which they are being applied. Tough choices cannot be made without consequences, so let me be clear. The media and the Opposition have been calling for more focus on current operations, but they cannot will the ends and then oppose the means. These measures are sensible, proportionate and will ensure that we make Afghanistan the main effort, and I hope they will be supported on both sides of the House.
I would like to ask three simple questions. First, the Government have previously told us that they
“always finance our military commitments overseas out of the reserve.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 1083.]
Then the Secretary of State said last week:
“We are adjusting the core defence budget to reprioritise Afghanistan”.—[Official Report, 15 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 469.]
Some of us are surprised that it was not already the No.1 priority, but if it is fully funded from the reserve, as the Government say, why are they cutting the core TA budget by £43 million?
Secondly, we know that, due to the recession and the major recruitment drive in the past year, there are more recruits in the regular Army than there is money to train them, and the Government have now demanded savings from other parts of the Army. Why did the Government not plan to fund their own target numbers for recruitment, especially in the middle of a war?
Thirdly, do the Government really understand the ethos of volunteering or the effect their plans could have on future available numbers? For many, the TA is a habit; break the habit, break the TA. Pre-deployment training is only of use if we have the numbers to start with. Is it not the case that pre-deployment training is meant to augment, not supplant, routine TA training, so routine training is just as important as pre-deployment training? Whether or not an individual is deploying on operations, regular and routine training is required to ensure medium and long-term readiness in the TA for any future deployments to Afghanistan, or elsewhere.
These proposals are a shambles. They must be reversed.
The hon. Gentleman knows full well how the reserve operates. Most of the cost of operations is met from the Treasury reserve, but the defence budget still meets some of the cost. Where activity would take place regardless of operations, the defence budget meets the cost even if the activity directly supports operational capability. That was the case under the last Government, and it is the case under this Government.
The reality is that we face increased pressures this year, including due to increased numbers coming into the Army, which we welcome, as well as less income from estates disposal and as a result of exchange rate fluctuations. Reading between the lines of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, I think that he actually welcomes the minor adjustment we have announced today. It is one that has been called for from those on the Opposition Benches. I also have to say that it ill behoves the Opposition—whom, let us remember, are not proposing one additional penny of expenditure within the defence budget—to urge us to prioritise efforts in Afghanistan and then to cry foul as soon as that leads to difficult decisions. That is dishonest and disingenuous, and it ill serves our TA. [Interruption.]
The financial problems of the Ministry of Defence are well known to us all, but of all the possible ways of trying to plug the gap, doing so through the Territorial Army must surely be the worst possible candidate. In financial terms, this amounts to a very small saving. The damage that could be done, however, is disproportionate to any saving that could be made.
An increasing burden has been put on the Territorial Army in recent years. If it were not for its efforts and the skills it brings from civilian life, we would have struggled in our operation in Afghanistan in recent times. It is carrying a far bigger burden than it has ever been used to bearing in the past. The Government’s judgment is very wide of the mark, and they would do very well to reflect on Napoleon’s maxim that “the moral is to the physical as three to one”, in which case this decision will do far more damage to the morale and preparedness of the TA in years to come than is worth the tiny amount they are going to penny pinch from it. I think the Government would do well to reflect on this, and find other ways of making these very meagre cuts to plug their very big black hole.
I absolutely agree with the underlying assertion of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which is that the role of the TA is critical to meeting our future defence capabilities, and, indeed, our existing defence capabilities. As I said earlier, 544 members of the TA are currently serving in Afghanistan, and doing an incredible job on our behalf.
I reiterate that in the changes we are making, no pre-deployment training will be cut from the reserves. Having listened to the arguments that have been put forward, we are also ensuring that through this small adjustment, we can make sure that during this financial year there is an ongoing relationship between members of the TA and the activities they undertake.
I am not known to be hostile to the Government on defence, but I am very concerned about the Territorial Army, knowing its importance. Three hon. Members signed an early-day motion that is very modest in its aspirations, not over-the-top. What I would ask, despite having heard the explanation, is whether, even at this stage, such a small amount of money, which must be minuscule compared with the overall defence budget, can be looked at seriously again. Does this not send the wrong message? Are we not talking about the most effective element of our entire defence budget? Surely some other area could be plundered if necessary in the short term, instead of sending that erroneous, potentially damaging message—
I have great respect for my right hon. Friend, who has enormous experience in these areas. We have listened to the concerns and arguments that have been put forward, which is why we have made this minor adjustment—in response to those. However, on the overall argument, if we are to reprioritise our efforts to the front line in Afghanistan, there are no easy options in arriving at that conclusion. That is why we have taken the decisions we have. Nevertheless, we have listened to the arguments that have been put forward, and I think that when my right hon. Friend looks at the detail of what we are proposing, he will find some reassurance.
First, this is a savings measure for this year. Secondly, people within the TA and those who aspire to join it understand the overall operational environment within which we are working, and the fact that we need to focus our efforts on Afghanistan. Thirdly, I do not believe that this will adversely hit recruitment to the Territorial Army.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s adjustment. I fully agree with his requirement to prioritise, and I have full confidence in the Chief of the General Staff, General Richards. May I also therefore explain the problem that I have? If prioritisation is to be carried out and Afghanistan is essentially a conflict where we have to win the people—not just a conventional war against an army—then our greatest resource is people. I therefore believe that it would be right to keep his decisions under careful review. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), I would not like us to get into an intransigent position whereby we have taken a decision from which we cannot back off, and then discover that it is having an effect on that reservoir of people on whom the armed forces defends, which includes the Territorial Army. I ask my hon. Friend please to keep the situation under review.
I agree with the underlying thrust of what my right hon. Friend is saying. There has been—I choose my words carefully—much debate in the public and media environment in recent months about Ministers taking advice from the military, and he is right to underline the fact that this proposal was put forward by the Chief of the General Staff and that we have, upon consideration, agreed with it. Nevertheless, on his point about careful review, we have not adopted an intransigent position, as evidenced by the adjustment we are making this afternoon. As with all decisions, we will keep this under active review.
We are looking forward to seeing the Minister at 5 o’clock. May I urge him to ask the Chief of the General Staff, in his next conversation with him, whether he is aware of the sacrifices that the families of Territorials make, and whether he would consider imposing such a percentage cut on the income of regular families in this way? Could I also ask—
May I say to the hon. Gentleman, who takes an enormous interest in these matters, that I am looking forward to the meeting at 5 pm, which I asked for in order to engage with the all-party group? We can go into some of the detail of this at that stage. I understand the concern being put forward on behalf of families, but I reiterate that if we are to prioritise and focus our efforts on Afghanistan, that inevitably entails difficult decisions.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the announcement of the £20 million reduction that was made has already caused a great deal of demoralisation within the TA? Does he further accept that today’s announcement, although welcome, does not go far enough to overcome that demoralisation?
I met my right hon. Friend before the summer recess to discuss his specific concerns. The original proposals, to which he referred, were driven by changes in communications technology, which led to an overall improvement in the capability of the TA. Nevertheless, in respect of these changes, we have listened to the arguments that have been put forward by many Members, himself included, and we have made this adjustment.
The TA in Scotland will be affected in exactly the same way as the TA across the country. Non-pre-deployment training is being affected, but the adjustment that I am announcing today goes some way to addressing that concern. The TA, both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom, makes an enormous contribution to the safety and security of our country.
Given that the cuts were proposed by General Sir Richard Dannatt, has my hon. Friend announced the first Tory U-turn? Will he accept my reassurance that he will have our full support if he is to keep this policy under constant review?
I welcome the announcement that the Minister has made. It is a small step in the right direction—I hope that by the end of the evening a few more steps in the right direction will have been taken. No member of the TA is to be deployed unless they have passed through the reserves training and mobilisation centre at Chilwell. That is currently a testing organisation, but as a result of this change, the RTMC will become a training organisation before deployment. The Minister may have inadvertently misled the House, because at the moment some TA soldiers are being deployed at risk. I simply want his assurance that no more will be deployed at risk as a result of this decision.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has welcomed this change. I know that it was a suggestion that he put forward last week, and that is evidence that, as a Government, we listen to the views expressed. However, I wish to be clear and specific about pre-deployment training. The advice provided through the chain of command from the service chiefs is that this will not impact on pre-deployment training and no TA soldier is being deployed at risk.
Having spent some time with the TA as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I am sure that my hon. Friend would wish to join in the tributes to the outstanding work that they have done. Does he accept that for people who have repeatedly been out to Afghanistan and Iraq this will look like a very poor return for their enormous service on the front line?
I do pay tribute—I did so earlier—to the incredible work that the TA does on our behalf. Members of the TA who have deployed to Afghanistan—indeed, this applies to the 544 deployed there at the moment—will understand the necessity to prioritise towards our efforts there. For that reason, the measure will provide some support. We have also listened and made the adjustment that is being put forward this afternoon.
The Minister says that no TA soldiers will be deployed to Afghanistan unless they have been on pre-deployment training. Does he accept that a large number of TA soldiers may choose to walk away because of these spending cuts, so there will be fewer soldiers to go on pre-deployment training in any case?
I do not believe that that is the case, and the hon. Gentleman under-represents the commitment and enthusiasm of members of the TA. I do not believe that they will walk away. Nevertheless, with the small adjustment that we are making today, we have made it clear that we have recognised the need for some ongoing, month-by-month, paid training for reservists, even if they are not deploying to Afghanistan. I believe that that will be welcomed in the reserves.
I am sorry for the Minister, who has become an apologist for a crass decision. The problem that we face is, as he quite rightly states, that we have to make tough and hard decisions. However, we should not make the wrong decision—and that is what we have seen. Will he reflect on what he has heard today, go back to the Secretary of State and put the budget back in place? Otherwise, we will have nobody left in the TA.
I know that my hon. Friend has an enormous commitment to the Territorial Army. Nevertheless, with respect, I do not agree with his assertion. There are no easy options in managing the defence budget. Let us consider the challenges that we are facing this year: a significant uplift in recruits to the regular Army, reduced income from estate disposal and exchange rate fluctuations. I can honestly say to my hon. Friend that there are no easy options.
Members of the armed forces are aware that one does not blame one’s subordinates for one’s own mistakes. May I say to the Minister, who is a likeable cove, that it is unworthy of him to blame the Army and the Chief of the General Staff for the fact that he has had to come up with these cuts? Does he accept that the sole responsibility for these decisions lies with Ministers, who were responsible for underfunding the Afghan campaign and the armed forces as a whole?
It simply is not accurate to say that we have underfunded the Afghan campaign. The expenditure from the reserve has risen from £700 million three years ago to more than £3 billion today. I am certainly not blaming the military for this decision—I was simply asserting that it is a fact that in the debate about how decisions are made, Ministers listened to the advice of the service chiefs, and this decision is in line with that advice. Nevertheless, the responsibility for the decision is mine and that of the Secretary of State.
May I impress on the Minister how angry and disillusioned members of the Territorial Army are? They were reassured that they were members of one Army, and now they are being treated as second-class citizens. Their pre-deployment training might not be in doubt, but how does the Minister expect them to turn up with the right levels of fitness and skills to take part in that pre-deployment training for Afghanistan?
I do understand the concerns; I have a TA regiment in my constituency. I endorse and agree with the hon. Lady’s view on one Army and the critical role that the TA plays, but she is under-acknowledging the change that we are making today, which I believe will be widely welcomed by members of the TA.