I beg to move,
That this House expresses its continued support for the role of the Territorial Army (TA); notes that the reserve forces have contributed some 20,000 personnel to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans since 2002, most of them from the Territorial Army, and that 14 Territorials have died on those operations; deplores the decision made to freeze TA training, contrary to the recommendations of the Cottam Report, of which all seven strategic recommendations were accepted by the Government in April 2009; further notes the adverse impact the decision would have had on the TA’s war fighting capability and its ability to respond to natural disasters and other contingencies in the United Kingdom; considers that there will be an enduring threat to TA morale, recruitment and retention as a result of the Government’s lack of support; notes the leadership displayed by the Leader of the Opposition in opposing the cuts to the TA; and calls on the Government urgently to take steps to mend the damaged morale of the TA.
Let me begin by paying tribute to Corporal Thomas “Tam” Mason of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, who died from wounds at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Selly Oak on Sunday, and also to Corporal James Oakland of the Royal Military Police, who was killed in central Helmand province on Thursday 22 October. While we think about the families of those who have been killed, we also think about the families of those who have been injured, whose lives will never be the same either.
Through good times and bad, the Territorial Army has given a proud 101 years of service to this country. Since 2002, reserve forces have contributed some 20,000 personnel to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, most of them from the Territorial Army. Fourteen Territorials have died on those operations. Today we are debating the future of the TA because of the cuts that the Government proposed to TA training, which in the past 24 hours have been rightly and swiftly reversed.
All Governments make mistakes. All people make mistakes. Smart people recognise them and rectify them, and exhausted Governments dig in. What is worse, they tend to try to delude themselves that the bad decisions are actually difficult decisions with hidden virtue. Let us face it: we have seen it all before. Some of us have lived through it before. Here is the recipe. Typically, you take a relatively small sum of money to be saved and find the most politically costly way of doing it. Then, when you run into trouble, you backtrack and make concessions. When threatened with a Back-Bench revolt, you perform a spectacular U-turn, so that you actually save no money at all but spend the maximum amount of political capital. That is exactly what we have seen in recent days on the TA issue.
Although they were forced into it, the Government made the right decision by performing a U-turn on the shameful cuts in TA training, because the cuts would have had a long-term impact on recruitment and on the overall future readiness of the TA. Whether or not an individual is deployed on operations, regular and routine training is required to ensure medium and long-term readiness levels for any future deployments, whether to Afghanistan or to another unforeseen destination.
Pre-deployment training is meant to augment, not supplant, routine TA training. The weekly and monthly training gives the TA the skills that are required to allow them to perform alongside their regular Army counterparts. It also gives our Territorials the esprit de corps and confidence to work together as a unit in challenging circumstances, whether at home or in Helmand. How can a Territorial who has not been to the range for six months, driven an armoured vehicle for six months or trained with his comrades for six months be expected all of a sudden to conduct several weeks of pre-deployment training and be ready for deployment on the front line? The answer is that no Territorial can be expected to do that, which is why the cuts were wrong in the first place.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was right for the Prime Minister to intervene and overturn a decision by Land Command? Does he agree that the problem with Land Command is that it is easy to pick on the TA and never pick on the regulars?
Does my hon. Friend recognise the particular anger at the Government’s recent TA policy that is felt by people such as a 20-year-old undergraduate constituent of mine who is due to go to Afghanistan next June and who relies on his TA pay for income?
Does my hon. Friend agree that when the Army was asked to make cuts amounting to £43 million, the regular generals were rather Machiavellian in choosing to cut the TA budget, knowing that that would be very unpopular with the country and that it would probably be reversed? Is it not, however, also at a stroke a blow to the one Army concept, because what will the TA now think about the regular Army, and in particular the regular generals?
My hon. Friend puts her finger on the key point that there will be long-standing damage to morale as a consequence of what has happened in recent days, and that cannot easily be rectified by a U-turn by politicians.
As a result of all these points, one must ask why the Government considered such cuts to begin with, when almost all the advice they received runs against such a decision. On training, the Cottam report—whose seven strategic recommendations were accepted in full by the Government—said:
“Training is pivotal to the Proposition. The delivery of training should be overhauled to make it more relevant, consistent and correctly resourced.”
The Government said these cuts would not have a long-term impact on providing Territorials for Afghanistan, but that is not the view of senior Army officers. According to the “Land forces in-year savings measure communication plan” dated 12 October 2009, the
“TA trained strength may fall from 20,000 to around 18,000 by 1 Apr 2010, putting at risk the TA’s ability to deliver 700-800 trained soldiers for Op HERRICK from 2012 onwards.”
The excuses given by the Government also need to be scrutinised. As always, there is more than meets the eye. We were told that money had to be found to fund new recruits. On Monday, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), said that
“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.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2009; Vol. 498, c. 23.]
Because of this recession—the longest recession since records began, and longer than the Government expected—and the media recruitment drive of the past year, there are more recruits in the regular Army than there is money to train them from the Government budget. The Government have demanded savings from other areas of the Army to fund this, but the Government knew last year that regular Army recruitment was already taking off.
On recruitment, the Chief of the General Staff briefing team report of 2008 stated:
“We are making progress and the figures are showing early signs of recovery. The recession will also help but we must not be complacent and must continue to be innovative with recruiting methods, reduce waste in training, and retain those currently serving.”
Such a direct message from the head of the Army should at least have been a warning to the Government, so why did the Government not plan to fund their own target numbers for recruitment, especially when we are in a war? I understand that they probably believed that they would fail in this, as they have in so many other things, but why were no financial contingencies made?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the case he is making on the Government’s proposed cut to the TA budget highlights the following point? The Government’s claim that they were not overstretching the Ministry of Defence with the demands that they placed on it in recent years and under-resourcing is completely contradicted by the fact that they felt that such a cut to the budget had to be implemented.
Indeed, and many of the myths the Government have been peddling in recent times have been blown apart by events of the past few weeks. If there really is a problem in funding all the new recruits, and if money was going to be diverted from the TA budget to address that but now that is not going to happen, where will the MOD find the money that will still be required to fund those extra recruits? What other areas will have to experience cuts because the Government failed to plan properly?
That brings me to the other excuse given by the Government—it is perhaps even more telling. The Secretary of State said in a recent debate:
“We are adjusting the core defence budget to reprioritise Afghanistan”.—[Official Report, 15 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 469.]
Yet the Government have repeatedly told the House in recent years that they
“always finance our military commitments overseas out of the reserve”.—[Official Report, 5 February 2009; Vol. 487, c. 1083.]
It has always been the House’s understanding that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be funded from the reserve and would not have an impact on the core budget. If operations in Afghanistan are fully funded from the reserve, why does the Ministry of Defence need to adjust the core budget to reprioritise operations in Afghanistan? What is the MOD core budget paying for that the Treasury is not?
One of the most telling things that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair ever said was contained in one of his long farewell tour speeches. When speaking on one of Her Majesty’s ships he said, “Under Labour, we have kept spending on defence constant at about 2.5 per cent. of GDP, if you include Iraq and Afghanistan.” In other words, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were being fought on a peacetime budget, and that has always meant that there would be some impact on the core budget. It is now clear that— as many Members of the House have said in many debates in recent times—all costs associated with operations in Afghanistan will not be paid in full above and beyond the core defence budget.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the key issue is that the Government, rather than feeling remorse or a sense of error in what they have done, have retreated due to political pressure? Does he agree that, as he rightly points out, the strategic imperative to invest in the Army is clear-cut, but the Government seem to be trying to make savings on a tactical basis and that that means there is a continuing danger?
That is a little unkind; a surrender is a surrender. We are always willing to accept one from the Government, especially when they have already got things wrong. This whole episode has taught us a number of things. The Secretary of State says that the Chief of the General Staff agreed to these cuts, but if someone is given bad options, they are likely, inevitably, to make unwelcome choices. This Government have shown that they do not understand the ethos of the TA and of volunteering; the MOD failed to prepare for the upshot in recruitment, even though it was warned a year ago by the head of the Army; and, finally, operations in Afghanistan are not fully funded from the reserve, as the Government wanted us to believe.
Has my hon. Friend noticed that whatever the mistake, the Government always blame someone else and never take responsibility? The Government asked for the cuts; the Government knew what cuts were proposed; the Government accepted those cuts; and the Government should be ashamed of themselves.
I must tell my right hon. Friend that inside this Government they play the blame game extremely well—now they are even blaming one another. No. 10 is briefing at this very moment that this was all the MOD’s fault and that No. 10 rode to the rescue of the MOD to save it from itself; our Prime Minister, the great champion of the armed forces and long-term advocate of their welfare, has come to the rescue of the Secretary of State, who clearly does not understand these issues. After the shocking report that we saw this morning about the long-term consequences of what has happened with the cultural shift in the Government, the Prime Minister is not on a strong wicket when it comes to blaming anybody else for the state in which our armed forces find themselves.
The Cottam review acknowledged that reservists remain vital for supporting national resilience and recognised the very important role that they play in connecting the armed forces with the nation. I know that I speak for the vast majority in the House when I say that I could not agree more. The connection between each community and each local TA unit makes the TA worth its weight in gold, and it can never be taken for granted—I might suggest that after the past week’s events, politically it might never be taken for granted in the same way again. The TA plays an important role in Afghanistan. The Secretary of State knows that, because he sees it on his morale-boosting tours there, one of which he recently completed with the Home Secretary—goodness knows how depressed one has to be before one’s morale is boosted by the Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary on tour.
This whole episode that we have witnessed in recent days smacks of a Government who no longer make joined-up decisions and whose political instincts have gone walkabout. What do they cut to reprioritise MOD funds for Afghanistan? Do they cut waste, bureaucracy or inefficiency? No, in order to help the war effort, they reduce the training for the troops who may be needed for the war effort. The trouble is that the act of doing so means that many of those in the TA might be gone by the time that the Government need them. We could not make up this level of incompetence. The TA represents some of the bravest and best things about Britain; the Government represent some of the most pointless and useless. It is time to go.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from the second ‘operations;’ to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the Government’s additional £20 million ring-fenced by the Treasury for Territorial Army training; and further welcomes the Government’s policy to ensure that TA members deployed to Afghanistan are fully and properly trained for their role and to ensure that, for all TA members, normal training will take place in the evening and at weekends.”
The Territorial Army and the UK reserve forces make a vital contribution to keeping our country safe—to defending our citizens, territory, interests and national security. They also make a vital contribution to the fabric of our society as a whole. They represent important values: a strong volunteer ethos, a commitment to service, giving back to society and the values of community.
I shall give way in a moment.
Our reserves are no longer held in the role they served during the cold war, that is, for direct territorial defence. The TA has become an integral arm of the Regular Army, supporting the operational commitments of regular forces as set out in the strategic defence review.
Almost 20,000 reservists have served on operations since 2003, including 15,000 members of the TA, and 650 reservists are serving in Afghanistan, some 7 per cent. of all of the forces deployed. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, 14 members of the TA have died on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and more have been wounded, 31 returning with potentially life-changing injuries. Their sacrifice must not and will not be forgotten.
In a moment.
Against that sacrifice, and to ensure our essential national security, Afghanistan comes first for defence. It gets first call on money, first call on equipment and first call on training and support. We are spending increasing sums from the Treasury reserve and the defence budget to do that. Additional spending on operations in Afghanistan has risen from £700 million in 2006 to more than £3 billion this year.
In a moment.
We have approved more than £3.2 billion of urgent operational requirements specifically for Afghanistan. That additional spending has allowed us to more than double helicopter capacity compared with 2006, to quadruple the number of mine-protected Mastiff and Ridgback vehicles compared with six months ago, to increase the number of specialised troops and equipment to target the improvised explosive device networks, to deploy about 1,000 more troops in a little over six months and to budget for a further increase of 500 if the conditions that we have set out are met.
I shall give way to a number of hon. Members in a moment.
Afghanistan First is not only a matter of drawing on the Treasury reserve. Many parts of the core defence budget contribute too, including spending on recruitment and basic training. We need to make tough choices with resources if we want to keep equipment, manpower and support flowing to Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Woodspring said that all we did was to give the Army bad options and bad choices, and that we should not have been entirely surprised when they came up with the decisions that we took. He also said that we failed to plan properly. One can plan all one likes and can come up with all the options that one likes, but who is coming up with the money? I am hearing people from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Benches—
I shall give way to hon. Members in a moment.
I am hearing Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members who agree that Afghanistan is the top priority, but whenever it comes to prioritisation they are not prepared to make the hard choices that are necessary in order to bring it about. I should like to hear a little more than, “Do a little more planning”, or, “Give people some different options.” What options? If people are saying that more money should be spent, let them say where it is to come from.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. The Government have a concept of one Army, made up of regulars and TA members. Will he use his offices and best endeavours to ensure that the Government’s commitment to rebuilding a unified TA will be at the top of his priorities?
Yes, I want to do that, but there are people both inside and outside the House who criticise us because they believe that Afghanistan, where we have 9,000 people deployed, must be our main effort and priority. One cannot have more than one first priority. Afghanistan is my first priority.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State. He is making some extremely good points, but he keeps using one word that is wrong. He keeps referring to “operations”, but surely we have gone beyond that. What is happening in Afghanistan now is war, and the mistake is that, by trying to divide the Territorial Army from the regular Army, the Government will not be on the war footing needed to deal with a war situation.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. As chairman of the all-party reserve forces group, may I say, on behalf of the group’s members in all parts of the House, that we are delighted that the correct decision has now been taken? I know that both the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister for the Armed Forces have taken a considerable interest in this matter, but will they ensure that longer-term planning takes account of the fact that reserve forces, as the American experience has shown repeatedly, can play a much bigger part in making defence cost-effective?
I shall make some progress with my speech, and then I shall give way some more so that we can deal with the points that have been made about how to deal with the TA in the long term.
Before I turn to the TA itself, I shall set out the scale of the challenge. There are enormous pressures on the MOD budget in the short term that have been brought about by a number of factors. Those include the fact that we must ensure that operations in Afghanistan have the support required, not only from the Treasury reserve but from the defence budget as a whole, and the difficult fiscal situation that demands that each Government Department must live within its means. Other factors, as the hon. Member for Woodspring pointed out, are the economic slow-down that has impacted on our planned revenue, such as that from the defence estate, the fall in the value of the pound against other currencies that has impacted on the costs of our overseas interests, and a boost in recruitment, to the Army in particular, that has exceeded expectations and requires additional investment.
That means that tough choices have to be made now. The Chief of the General Staff came forward with proposals from the Army for savings of £20 million in TA expenditure. Those were part of a package that included other measures such as saving money on the hire of civilian vehicles, clothing, entertainment, accommodation, and cadets. This was not one thing alone. Hard choices had to be made in order to deal with the issues that we are faced with, and to give the priority that we must and want to give, on which, in principle, we all agree.
I consulted closely with the Chief of the General Staff before approving these measures. In the Army’s view, there were no alternatives in the uncommitted in-year budget that would be less damaging. In the short term the Army has been clear that these proposals could be managed without impact on support to current operations. Let me be clear: no one deploys to Afghanistan without the required training. No TA soldier is deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and prepared.
We have—I make no apologies for this—agreed not just with the Chief of the General Staff, but with all the single service chiefs, that we will ensure that Afghanistan is the main effort. In order to do that, nobody was prepared to say anything other than that when the opportunity to recruit to the Army was there, it should be taken, and it should be taken in full. There is no doubt that that, in part, caused the in-year problems, along with the other issues that I have spoken about.
I wholly support what my right hon. Friend is doing, and understand the pressures that he is under and the messages given about Afghanistan First. I remind him that the last time we had a Tory Administration in this country, they came up with Front Line First, which halved the TA and stripped hundreds of millions of pounds out of the training budget for the Regular Army, which resulted in some of the problems that we inherited at Deepcut and elsewhere.
I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out the contrast between the record of the Opposition and that of the Government. The budget has increased over our period by 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997. As my right hon. Friend points out, that is in marked contrast with the last five years that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was in power. There were cuts of £500 million a year for the last five years of the last Tory Government. I shall give way to him so that he can explain why that happened.
First, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that under our Government, we were not at war, and we are now at war? Secondly, will he please explain in plain English the word “additional” in his amendment to the motion? Since when has replacing a cut been additional? Additional means more, not merely putting back what he has stolen.
Let me make some progress.
As I said, no TA soldier is deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and prepared. I have listened to the comments and representations made by hon. Members in recent days, and I understand the concerns that have been expressed about the effect on retention in the TA. In the light of those representations, and with the assurances from the Treasury that additional ring-fenced money will be made available, we have decided to maintain the normal TA training regime. That will be restored as quickly as possible.
Looking forward, the Department undertakes an annual planning round in order to prioritise and allocate available resources for the next financial year. This process has not been concluded, but we will have to look at all parts of the budget in the round. Measures from across other parts of defence are being considered to bring budgets into balance and these will be set out as decisions are made. Such difficult decisions are being taken by working with the service chiefs, not against them.
I am determined to protect operations in Afghanistan. That is my bottom line. Tough choices cannot be made without consequences. The media and the Opposition have been calling for more focus on current operations. They cannot will the ends and oppose the means. The hon. Member for Woodspring tries to have his cake and eat it. He cannot preach austerity, as the shadow Chancellor does, and then call foul on any measure that is proposed to relieve budget pressures.
I can assure the House of the Government’s continuing and long-term commitment to defence and to the UK reserve forces and the Territorial Army. After years of overall cuts under the Conservative party, this Government have increased spending on defence since 1997 by 10 per cent. in real terms. As part of that investment, we are seeking a better and more intelligent use of the reserve forces to ensure that all parts of defence contribute to the whole in a way that is both efficient and effective.
On 28 April this year, I published a strategic review of reserves and I made a statement to the House. The MOD agreed the seven strategic recommendations made by the review and work is under way to implement 46 of the 89 detailed recommendations. Those include 10 of the 12 detailed recommendations related to training, all of which have been completed or are progressing. The reserves review was all about the long term; about better management, better training and the integration of our reserve forces. It also established a mandate for change, in order to allow greater flexibility and utility in the employment of our reserves. It set in place a strategic framework for how we will integrate, train and support our reserve forces, and develop a strategy for the management of the volunteer estate.
The implementation programme—programme Citizen—is progressing well, but work on recommendations beyond those already endorsed will require additional resources; not planning, not options, not semantics, but additional resources. We are implementing as much as we can from the reserves review within the bounds of the resources currently available. Headquarters Land Forces is in the early stages of developing options for the shape of a future Territorial Army, but a defence review must come first and set the parameters for the use of our armed forces.
The Secretary of State speaks about additional resources. Why is it then that our soldiers, including members of the Territorial Army, are still making what our commanders describe as unnecessary road moves because of lack of helicopters? On 8 September, a private company went to the MOD and offered 12 MI-17s, 12 Bell 142s and one MI-26, which would have provided about 2,500 additional flying hours, fully weaponised and fully conditioned for theatre, flown by former RAF pilots. Why was £7 million a month, just over twice the housing benefit payments in my constituency, not spent in order to get our troops out of the danger of improvised explosive devices?
Well, the hon. Gentleman’s problem is that his hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench do not agree that there should be additional spending on defence—quite the reverse: they are planning cuts in defence. They cannot hide behind charlatan words, they have got to come to a point.
I thank my right hon. Friend for finding the additional funds for the Territorial Army and its training. That is important. However, I remind him of the consequences: when we had 17,000 troops in Northern Ireland under the previous Conservative Government, it damaged the concept of one Army. Will he make sure that work is done to rebuild that concept, and that the Chief of the General Staff is made responsible for ensuring that such work takes place?
I say to my hon. Friend, who has taken an increasing interest in defence matters over a period, that I do not think that there was any work or planning on reserves during the Conservative party’s period in office. We are trying to do that planning, but we have to do it realistically, and resources are a part of the issue.
At this point, we should not limit our options or be prescriptive on setting boundaries. Once the work is complete, and in the context of the defence review, we will have established a robust and agile framework through which the reserve forces’ capability can meet the future demands of defence.
We can look forward, confident that UK forces will continue to be a force for good in the world. The UK’s reserve forces, including the Territorial Army, are an integral part of that vision, playing an increasing role in defence both at home and on operations abroad.
For the first time ever, I had the Defence Secretary on his knees. Before his speech, he was begging for forgiveness, but unfortunately it was only for the fact that he has to leave early for an appointment at 5 o’clock. I forgive him if he leaves, but I am sorry that he will miss the brilliant speech that I am about to give.
I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who paid tribute to those who have fallen in recent weeks. I also make special mention of Corporal Tam Mason, who was brought up in Rosyth in my constituency. He is one of many from Fife, and particularly West Fife, who have fallen serving their country, and I pay tribute to him.
The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) is not present, but I pay special tribute to him for the way in which he has gone about dealing with this matter, offering his advice and expertise to try to reach a sensible solution. He and I sat together on the Defence Select Committee for some time, and I am sure that other Committee members will attest that he was a valuable member.
I also wish to praise other hon. Members: the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), and the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is present. There has been a truly cross-party effort, and it is a tribute to the House that we have come together to find a practical solution. That is why I was disappointed by the Conservative leadership, which has chosen to seek all the credit for the outcome. The overnight change in the motion, which praises the Leader of the Opposition, reveals the real motivation for the debate. Unfortunately, the Conservatives may be more interested in themselves than in the TA. We will not rise to the cheap political wheeze that they have undertaken overnight. We will vote for the motion because we believe in the TA, not because we believe in the attempts by the Conservatives or their leader to make cheap party political capital out of this debate. However, I do not want to be distracted by that cheap stunt.
Following the Government’s welcome change of heart, we must examine the reasons why we are in this position in the first place. There were numerous reports about the potential effects of these cuts, including tanks not being able to be driven more than 9 miles in any one month and having no live rounds on ranges. I am sure that the Defence Secretary would say that none of this was true because these decisions had not been made and it was up to local units to make them, but if the detail of those cuts had not been established, that would have been equally terrible. Ministers should have had some foresight about their potential effect. If they were working in the dark and had not done their homework on this last-minute cut, then that is irresponsible.
Given that these cuts have been reversed, is not the most damaging thing about all this its effect on the TA, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) said? Those of us who served in the TA thought that we were part of one Army—that our training was as good as that of any regular officer or soldier standing alongside us, and we often did the same job that people are now doing in Afghanistan. Sadly, when it came to the crunch, Ministers gave the impression that senior officers in the Army were ready to ditch the TA. We do not know whether that is true, but it will undermine relations between the TA and the regular Army for years to come. That is the most damaging aspect of what has happened over the past few days, and it cannot be reversed.
Next time I make a speech, I will sit a wee bit further along so that the hon. Gentleman cannot read it. He makes exactly the points that I planned to make, and does so in a forceful and valid manner. The long-term damage that has been caused to the divide between the regulars and the reservists will take some time to recover. There will be a constant fear that next time the pressure comes, perhaps in less politically sensitive times, the TA may again be offered up for potential cuts. Having that hanging over the TA all the time will be extremely debilitating to its morale and operations.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It will be debilitating to those seeking to join the TA and to those in the TA, but equally so to employers, who have recently been so patient so often in losing their employees. What message does he think that the Government’s shenanigans and volte-face over the past 24 hours are sending to employers?
The hon. Gentleman is spot on. The 2006 National Audit Office report specifically referred to the fact that many of those in the TA—about one in three—reckoned that there was insufficient support for their employers. To make further cuts on top of that surely does not send the right message to employers that they should take seriously their contributions to the defence of the nation. That is causing even more damage.
When we have time to plan, we can often find innovative ways to do things, or see that the same job can be done with less money. However, that operation takes time. Emergency cuts such as these are rarely efficient and often destructive. What Department would be able to cope with this proportion—30 per cent.—of its budget going in one fell swoop? What Department would be able to cope with such a massive reduction with just a few weeks’ notice? No Department would be able to cope with that—it would be absolute chaos. That is what would have happened to the TA had the cuts proceeded.
This is an indication that the MOD is in a financial hole that it has dug for itself. It shows that Ministers have lost control of their budget. Let me take as an example of that something that is close to my heart and that the Minister hears me going on about all the time—the aircraft carriers, which are finally going to be commissioned on Rosyth. There have been two incidents recently. The first is the last-minute two-year delay, which is putting an extra £1 billion on the budget, taking the costs from £4 billion to £5 billion. That has been planned for years, but suddenly, at the last minute, there is a change of tack and an increase in the time scale of two years, and it costs us an extra £1 billion. Secondly, there have been recent reports that the carrier spec will be changed so that one carries aeroplanes and the other carries helicopters. We do not know whether that is true, as Ministers have not told us, but if it is, it has again happened at the last minute. That is no way to run a defence budget, and such emergency cuts are having a huge impact on how we are running our defences.
In recent months, the Prime Minister has made great play from the Dispatch Box of Labour’s desire to protect the front line and cut backroom bureaucracy. As the Secretary of State leaves the Chamber, I wonder whether he will appear on the next party political broadcast to use the cuts proposed for the TA as an example of how that has been achieved. This episode surely damages Labour’s claim that it is protecting the valuable and slashing waste.
What message does the episode send to the TA? A former major, Mark Cann, who served for 12 years with the TA, recently said that the cuts would be a significant deterrent to new recruits and would send
“a message from the politicians at the top that ‘we don’t value you’.”
There is already dissatisfaction. The 2006 NAO report showed that one fifth of TA members were not satisfied with the level of training that they were given. If cuts are made to a level of training that was already inadequate as far as TA members were concerned, surely that will cause the TA further damage.
It is often difficult to tell exactly what is going on in the MOD. It does not tell us an awful lot and its budgets are opaque. We found out about the cuts because the TA is in the community and we have friends and relatives who are part of it, but what else has happened? What other cuts have been made that we do not know about? Will there be a series of parliamentary statements over the coming weeks to explain what else is being considered? The Secretary of State enlightened us on some matters, but I presume that they are only part of what is being considered. We would like to know what else is going on so that we can help. We have helped on this occasion, with a cross-party effort to find a solution to the problem, and if Ministers trusted us a little more with information we could perhaps help them even more.
It is interesting that the RAF and the Navy have not come to the same conclusion as the Army about their reserves. Why is that, and did Ministers seek their advice before making their decisions about the TA? Perhaps the Navy and RAF are not as cunning as the Army. I suspect that, as was suggested earlier, the Chief of the General Staff knew that the cuts would create huge uproar and would be reversed and that he would get his own way. If he is that cunning, that is interesting, and I wonder why the Secretary of State did not see it coming. Perhaps he is equally cunning and was trying to persuade the Prime Minister that the cuts were not palatable, and it has been an organised plan all along. I wish that the MOD could be so organised and well planned more often.
Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the role of special advisers? They are meant to spot these things coming, and there has been a 100 per cent. increase in their number in the Department since 1997. I wonder whether the taxpayer is getting value for money.
Point well made.
The situation calls into question the Government’s judgment. It was already in question over the Gurkha situation, which they mishandled badly. For a long time they misread the mood of the public, who had great passion for the Gurkhas. Unfortunately, the same team of Ministers has made the same mistake again. They have misread the public mood, and I do not believe that they have the judgment that is required for such decisions.
We do not really know where the £17.5 million has come from. We understand that it is perhaps from the Treasury, but what is going to be sacrificed in return? It would be interesting to know what that sacrifice is, and we should be told in the interests of transparent government. The Prime Minister made great play of the power of this Parliament when he was first elected Prime Minister, but we have not heard an awful lot of that since and we do not have an awful lot of transparency. If we are to have power—if we are to be empowered in this Parliament—we need the information on which to make such judgments. In his summing up, will the Minister tell us what has been sacrificed in return for the £17.5 million or £20 million?
The cuts would have had significant consequences for morale, as we have heard, and for retention and recruitment—if the regular drill nights were not taking place, people would break the habit and no longer be hooked, exacerbating the reserve-regular divide. Having the one Army has been developing well in recent years, but unfortunately I think that this situation will do significant damage. Even mentioning cuts will have damaged the TA, which will be concerned that the cuts will be offered up in future.
As we all know, those in the TA are not amateurs just because they are part time; they are professionals—the Minister also believes that. There are numerous examples of heroic acts in the TA and people have been awarded the military cross or honoured for their bravery, such as Private Luke Cole and Lance Corporal Darren Dickson. A TA regiment protected a NATO headquarters following a car bombing. Those people were commended for their bravery and for their commitment to the TA. Unfortunately, even mentioning cuts does huge damage to the TA’s morale and effectiveness.
The Minister will be pleased to hear that I have some praise for the Government. Back in 1998, they slashed the size of the TA from around 56,000 to 41,000 as part of the defence review. They were heavily criticised at the time and came under considerable pressure to change course. It took them about four years to recognise that mistake, but it has taken them only 14 days to recognise this one, which is an incredible improvement. They should be commended for recognising their mistakes via a speedier process. Perhaps the NHS could learn a few things about reducing waiting times and recognising mistakes.
I also praise the Government for engaging with Members, listening to their advice and acting. It has not been a comfortable time for the ministerial team, but the way in which they have handled the concern deserves commendation. However, the original decision was suspect.
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), I remind the House that at the moment there is 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. Judging from the amount of interest that is being shown, it would be helpful—without me having to alter the limit—if hon. Members could try to keep well within it. In that way, everyone should be satisfied.
I first alerted Mr. Speaker that I would seek to catch his eye in this debate on Monday evening, after listening to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and having had my own thoughts as I was doing so. However, developments have shot a major hole in the arguments that I had in my heart and mind at that time. Being a simple man—I am not stupid—I shall salvage what I was going to say and make a couple of simple points. I hope that it will take nothing like 15 minutes to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Before those developments, I had intended to begin my speech by referring to a report entitled, “New Roles for the Reserve Forces” and I shall do so now. I wrote the report in November 1994 and presented it to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which accepted it in full. I pointed out a number of things in the report: that there were jobs that the reserves and Territorials could do that were not being done at the time; how they could fill in for the regular Army; the difficulty that reserve forces had in obtaining their release because employers were less than happy to let them go, for however short a period; and what a good job they could do. The report has been picked up over the years—not because I wrote it, but because it made sense. The reserves have proved themselves well worth the confidence that has been placed in them.
At that time, there was a major gap between the Terriers and the regulars. Many regulars looked on them as part-timers who would be more of a liability than an asset. Many of the part-time commissioned ranks were not readily allowed to take command of regular units. That has all changed.
I have been to Afghanistan five times, and on three of those occasions the driving and protection units that took care of us were so-called part-timers, there for three or four months. They were so professional that it is difficult to describe. There was no difference between the full-time regulars and the Terriers. That happens because confidence has been built up throughout the units. It happens because those so-called part-timers have had the time to do the bonding necessary for the esprit de corps that we emphasise so strongly in all our regular units. They become regular units of their own kind.
When the suggestion was made to reduce the ability to continue that bonding, I thought that it was bordering on the insane. I received an e-mail today from a constituent. His name is Ken Milner. I do not know him, but he lives in Lutton crescent in Billingham. He says:
I do not know why he calls me sir, as most people do not afford me that kind of courtesy—
“now the PM has done a u turn on this, if in fact he was ever driving it forward. You have to feel sorry for him at times? Could I ask you to still keep pushing the Government/MOD to be sensible!
The original decision affected 19,000 casual workers, if we were categorised as part time they would not have attempted it. But that will never happen, too expensive for the Country and then our Generals and Ministers would be restricted by employment Law.
We already do a lot in our own time at our own expense from the top to the bottom, from an Officer to a Recruit. But to expect a system to maintain a standard but not train is plain daft.”
He then makes a nice point, saying:
“A 5 a side football team would not lay off for six months and then be ready to play in a final.”
That is an effective way of describing the situation that we were facing.
I am pleased that the reversal has been made, but I want to consider why it came about. Who first dreamed up the idea, and for what motive? At first glance, it has the paw prints of accountants all over it—those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. For that reason, I look in the direction of the Treasury. Even if someone on the general staff made a detailed suggestion, it must have been motivated by pressure from elsewhere. That is not a healthy way to approach our defence.
I make an appeal for all these matters to be considered in a non-partisan fashion. Defence is not a party political issue. When we consider defence, we are talking about lives—the lives of those whom we send to do our bidding, whether in this country or someone else’s; the lives of those associated with them, their parents and kindred; and the lives of those with whom they might come into conflict.
Our whole consideration should concern the degree to which we incur the cost of life, the spending of life and the wasting of life. I know that the Secretary of State must consider the economics of the situation. He talked today about options, and I listened to him, but although cash considerations might be important, they must be secondary.
There is another matter that I must bring to the Government’s attention. It is not a personal matter, but I must put it in almost personal terms: we heard of the importance of Afghanistan, and it is important that we achieve our goal there, although I am not talking about victories; there will be no victory in Afghanistan. There might be gain, and we might allow the Afghan Government to get their security forces into such a position and state that they can look after their own affairs—and the sooner that we can do that the better—but we will not do that by cutting the dedicated resources that we put into it. We need to increase, rather than reduce.
We must ensure that we provide sufficient equipment and personnel. I had the privilege only five weeks ago of listening to Stanley McChrystal, who brought out his new ideas on how to attend to the Afghanistan problem. When he told me his ideas about treating the Afghan people, rather than the Afghan territory, and when he outlined the additional risk to our personnel that will be experienced there, I pointed out to him that I had been going there for some years and that I had heard David Richards, then McNeill when he took over from Richards, and then McKiernan when he took over from McNeill. I said, “Look General, it’s all right you giving us this. You’re selling this to me, and I can buy it. It makes sense. But what happens in 12 months’ time when somebody else comes in with some new ideas?” He said, “No, that won’t be the case. I’m going to be here in 12 months’ time.” I said, “But you’ve got a family to take care of.” He said, “No, I’m here for as long as it takes, and so is Rodriguez,” —one of his No. 2s—and so was his civilian aide, apparently.
The whole situation there is changing in a crucial way. Initially, the risks will be higher. Our resources need to be stronger. More personnel are needed—and the determination must be more resolute. I tell the Ministry of Defence not to make again the same mistake it made this time. That mistake was in looking only at its fiscal assessments and what money it had to play with, rather than at the lives dependent on the money. Do not make that mistake. That is what accountants get paid for—and that is what they get cashiered for.
I declare that I was a Territorial Army soldier. I was commissioned in 1980 and left in 1992 as a rifle commander. I was part of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and was incredibly proud of my time in the Territorial Army. I did not do it for money or because I wanted to become a major in the Army. I did not do it because I saw it as a grandiose way of furthering myself. I did it because I felt that it mattered. I had another life, and at the weekends I dropped my family and did my job. Two weeks of the year I went off and trained. I went to Germany, Gibraltar, America and Canada. What was I doing in these places? I was not on jollies; I was helping out the Regular Army. That is what the TA is.
When I joined, there was an A4 poster showing two soldiers in the old tin-pot helmets and with the old self-loading rifles and bayonets, and the slogan was, “If you were the Russians, could you tell which was the TA?” The answer is no, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you could not, any more than you can today. When those soldiers go out anywhere in the world, unless you know from the shoulder flash that they are from a Territorial unit, or unless you ask them, you cannot tell the difference, and the difference certainly does not bother the enemy, as has been proven time and time again.
However, the problem is that we have seen change being made to the TA, which has never been good. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), when he was a special adviser to the then Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), changing the rules for employers so that people could be deployed. We have come an enormous way in getting the TA out, but the most crucial part of being in the TA was not being there for the weekends; rather, it was that people could train with those men. What will disappear faster than anything else is the coherence of the formed unit.
The Rifles have just been out in Afghanistan. What made their tour successful was training together. The people in the Rifles joined together, commissioned together and went through the battle camps together. They were there together. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that the programme would be put back as quickly as possible, but we have troops training all the time to go. Even specialists in the Territorial Army train as formed units, and they go as formed units.
If we send a trooper out—I will give the Minister an example in a second—without knowing that unit or the blokes behind it, we will have problems. I have experience of that from 1990, when my regiment was in Germany, mech training—in other words, in armoured cars. The Gulf war came along, and the 3rd Battalion the Fusiliers was told that it was being deployed, but it did not have the men. We were in Aachen, where we were rung up and asked, “Could you supply a company of troops immediately?” The colonel came and said, “I need roughly 150 men to go to Iraq.” We were only on a two-week camp. The blokes put their hands up almost to a man to go with the battalion—and the Minister will remember that that battalion had a friendly fire incident in the Gulf war.
Those men did not shirk; they went out. The reason why the colonel could do that was that the men in that unit knew each other. They could join the battalion because they knew what they would have to do. The company commanders who were there at the time said that they were superb. In fact, Lord Bramall recently quoted an officer who said at the time, “Thank goodness for the Territorial Army.” We make the difference when the difference is required.
However, it goes beyond that. When we go to remembrance parades and see the lords lieutenant doing their thing, or when we see events in our constituencies—we all have the same thing—who is augmenting the regulars? It is the Territorials on parade, because we do not have the resources. Not only are the Territorials the public face of the military a lot of the time, because the troops are away doing other things, but they are the face of recruiting. Let us be honest: the reason why we are recruiting at the moment is the recession. That happened in the ’90s, too, when recruiting went up. People will join because they cannot get jobs elsewhere, but that will not last.
I am listening to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. On a longer-term issue, his vital point about formed units appears, to put it mildly, pretty thin in the Cottam review. Although there is much in the review, about properly resourced individual training and so on, that we as a party welcome, if it is the blueprint for the future, would he join me in urging the Government and those on our Front Bench to look hard at getting the idea of formed units more firmly written into the Cottam review?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He served honourably in Territorial units and he knows exactly what he is talking about. What he has just described is one of the problems. There are now very few Members of the House who have had the time, or whatever it may be, to serve in the military. Those who have done so, as Territorials or as regulars, will know exactly what the background is, and why this is so important. The formed unit principle is the backbone of the Army. The Marines, the Navy and the Royal Air Force are slightly different, in that they have specialist units. The Marines go as battlefield replacements, which is very different. The Army does not do that; it goes as a unit, because of the strength of the regimental system.
The Territorial Army also takes a lot of boys—and now girls—who in other walks of life would be in prison, or at least in serious trouble. It gives those people respect, meals, a uniform and above all, discipline. That is never talked about, but it is the reality. Those young kids are given a chance. How many young kids get the chance to serve their country while trying to do something else at the same time? The answer is very few.
I thank my hon. Friend, who served honourably in the cavalry. There is absolutely no doubt that the cadets feed the TA, which feeds the regulars. It is a top-to-bottom Army. Who trains the cadets? It is mainly ex-Territorials or ex-regulars, who have the necessary experience. If we do not have those people, they will not be able to do that.
The crux of the argument is that TA units can augment local situations as well. If we get rid of the TA through not training it, it will not be available for deployment. Unless the Government give a firm commitment, not only now but for next year and the year after, that they are not going to cut the TA—an organisation of people who do this because they want to, and that has augmented from Dunkirk until now, and given 100 years of unselfish service—this will be a poorer country, and we will certainly have a poorer military, and a poorer TA.
It is pleasing that we are having this debate, which will allow us to express our views, and our commitment to and support for the Territorial Army. There is an issue here, and a lot of hon. Members on both sides of the House believe in the TA and want this money reinstated. There is a minority who want to make political gain from this, but the TA is not a political football and it ought not to be used in that way. We need to ensure that its future is safe for ever and a day, and that there will always be people in this House who are willing to stand up and be counted when pressure, cuts or the reorganisation of the TA are discussed. We must ensure that that voice remains.
I spoke about this on Monday, when the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell) drew the short straw. I accused him of being an apologist, and very emotional language was used in that debate. He has now taken the right decision, after the matter was taken away and considered by Ministers. It took the involvement of the Prime Minister to sort it out, but we have got the money back. We have achieved our objective, and I thank the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for listening and for doing the right thing by the TA. That is what this is about.
This commitment to the armed forces, and the expenditure, have continued to increase, and I want to see that continue, to ensure that these proposals do not return once we get into the next financial year. The challenge that we are now leaving with the Ministers and the Treasury is to ensure that that does not happen.
This was also a problem in the 1990s, and people might say that they did not like what happened in the ’90s. This experiment was tried by the previous Government at that time, and it failed. It failed miserably because, as far as the TA is concerned, we cannot turn the tap on and off. To say, “We don’t want you today, but we’ll come back for you in six months,” is totally unacceptable. We should have looked at the history and realised that, if the experiment did not work in the ’90s, it will certainly not work now. There is a lesson for us all, especially the Ministers, to learn here. When these matters are put before us, let us just dust them down and remember what happened previously.
I will explain what happened previously. A colleague of mine, Major Tom Ronagan, who is retiring a week on Thursday, is the longest-serving major in the British Army. He joined as a boy soldier in 1962; he served in Aden right through to the Balkans; he is a major of 64th Sea Squadron Chorley Medical Regiment, formerly the King’s Own Borderers, which has a great proud history. He said, “I saw this happen in the ’90s. It was decimation. When the notice went out to say the TA cut was taking place, you could not keep up with the kit that was being thrown through the door at us.” The then Government said, “We have got this wrong. We are changing our minds. We are going to put the money back into the TA.” They ended up getting on the phone, ringing round to say “Please rejoin. Don’t give up on the TA.” Mistakes have been made in the past; those mistakes must never ever be made again. That is what we have to learn from this exercise; that is why it is so important to overcome political point scoring.
I rightly challenged the Prime Minister to intervene personally; in fairness, the Prime Minister did. I pay my thanks to him, as he took the right decision. It is always interesting to look back in the light of mistakes. The late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century have seen the TA assume an exceptionally high profile. It has moved from being a force of last resort to becoming the reserve of first choice in support of the regular Army. That is the key. The support the TA gives to the Regular Army makes the concept of one Army so important: there is no difference between the Army in uniform and others training side by side. That concept has been badly dented, although I do not say destroyed. It has been badly affected. That is why it has to be rebuilt. Land Command has to realise that it is not a cheap shot to take on the TA when tough decisions have to be taken; it must not take this easy option again.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to interrupt his really excellent speech. As a point of detail, the Government got one thing right by having a focus for reservist advice in the centre, but does he agree that it is extraordinary that the director general of the Territorial Army, with 33,000 people in his organisation, is still only a one-star officer?
I totally agree: promotion is wanting and it should be given. I wholly agree, and the higher up the ranking we can go, the better it will be. Not so long ago, it only went up to brigadier; at least we have now achieved a general—only for the second time, I believe, so we should of course go up to a two-star officer. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct about that.
We can all score points, but we should think about the effect on our armed forces. We all remember the Balkans. When the Cheshires were serving out in the Balkans with redundancy notices in their top pockets, it had a devastating effect on recruitment and the future of the Army—just as this recent episode has done. Please, Ministers, learn from this. It is crucial to do so.
Afghanistan has, of course, proved a major challenge to the regulars and the TA. Serving out there is without doubt a challenge for both of them. We pay tribute to those who have lost their lives and those who have suffered horrendous injuries. There is no doubt that the investment we have put into the medical services has been crucial to getting people badly injured on the front line back to Selly Oak and to ensuring that they get the best of treatment. We must recognise that lives are saved that would previously have been lost. We must ensure that we never lose that commitment.
I also lost a constituent, Royal Marine Holland, who tragically died in Afghanistan. We know the heartfelt experience of seeing a body coming back to this country for burial; there is nothing more moving than seeing someone come home in those circumstances after serving their country. It is a tragedy when we lose so many young lives. We have to invest: whatever the requirement, whatever the need, we must meet it. We can do so only through commitment—and not, as I say, by point scoring.
I want to touch on another issue very close to my heart—the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, which is not allowed to serve in Afghanistan. Although it has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past, for some unknown reason someone has decided that it is not insured to serve in Afghanistan, which is an absolute tragedy. We were promised that the bar would be reviewed and lifted, but—I do not blame Ministers for this, because the matter never reached them—someone somewhere in the chain of command prevented that from happening. The regiment contains both regulars and TA members, and it seems ridiculous that people who wish to serve cannot do so. I hope that the Minister will investigate, will shake people up within the command structure, and will ensure that the decision can be changed.
I have asked for a meeting with officials tomorrow to discuss that very issue.
I am in danger of always congratulating the Minister: I must do so once again now. I welcome the news of that meeting, and hope that he will secure the right decision for the Royal Gibraltar Regiment.
I sometimes turn up to join the medical squadron at Chorley, which, backing up the 5 GS Medical Regiment, has played its part in Afghanistan. This year it has been deployed in Germany. We have also been deployed during a training exercise in Jersey, and we have been out to Cyprus. The TA is not backfilling purely for Afghanistan; it is backfilling in other parts of the British Army. That is what we are good at. We roll into whatever the requirement is, whenever we are called upon. Of the 69 in our strength, 29 have served in deployment during the last 12 months. I think that it is good that we can call on the TA in that way.
Let me say this to Ministers, and to all other Members who are present. We have learned a lesson, and, as I have said, I believe that that lesson will not be repeated. I hope that Ministers will take on board the message that the TA is important not just to the House but to the country.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be approaching the end of an excellent speech, but before he finishes, will he tell the House how he believes the dented one-army concept that he mentioned could be undented? What does he believe the Government, the MOD, the regular generals and everyone else must do to reassure the TA that it is very much part of the overall Army structure, and that we are very proud of it?
The first solution was to reinstate the money, and I think that that has gone furthest towards achieving the aim to which the hon. Lady refers. As for the second solution, I think that Land Command, along with Secretary of State, ought to issue a statement saying how valued the TA is, and that it will continue to be valued. I think that that is where the repair ought to start and that it is the way in which to remedy some of the damage that has taken place, but I am sure that the Minister will come up with some other great ideas.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it would also be appropriate for the Secretary of State, or even the Prime Minister, to summon business leaders to reassure them of the Government’s commitment to the reserves and the TA, and encourage them to continue to release them when they are needed?
Absolutely. We cannot give thanks enough to the businesses in this country that allow their employees to go out to Afghanistan, or wherever they may be deployed. It interrupts business, and puts a strain on small businesses in particular. I cannot give enough thanks to the businesses in our area in Lancashire, because without doubt we would not have been able to deploy the numbers that we have deployed without their support. I want to be able to reassure businesses—and I am sure that the Minister has taken this on board—that the TA has a future, that we welcome their commitment to the TA, and that there will be an equally strong commitment from the Government. We must retain that link, and ensure that it will never be destroyed.
It will be a privilege to walk to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday with the TA, and we must give thanks to it now that it has passed its 100th birthday. We have already celebrated the centenary of what is a modern TA—a TA that we look forward to seeing throughout the next 100 years. There are many tough decisions ahead, but this Government must never, ever make the wrong decision again.
This has been an unhappy day for the Ministry of Defence and the ministerial team. It started off with a statement on Nimrod that exposed institutional flaws in MOD culture, and now Ministers have had to come to the Front Bench to acknowledge a volte-face as a result of the Prime Minister’s direct interference.
There has been much recent talk that this House should become more responsive to events and that topical debates should respond to the events of the day. If such proposals had been put in place, we probably would not be having this debate, as it was chosen at a time when the future of the Territorial Army was under greater threat, with the threat of withdrawing £20 million—then reduced to £17 million—from the training budget. None the less, we are where we are and most of us welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has intervened and instructed the Secretary of State for Defence to return us to the position we were in about three days ago.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point about topical debates. It is worth remembering that this debate was called by the Conservative Opposition—and also that we forced the Government to make their U-turn on the decision—in a week when the topical debate is on the safety of fireworks. That is what the Government believe to be important.
Indeed, and I asked in last week’s business questions whether we could have a debate in Government time on the TA, and I was told that that was being looked at. This debate is not being held in Government time of course, but it is worth pointing out that when the recent announcement was made from No. 10, the Prime Minister said it was the right thing to do. Yes, it was the right thing to do, and therefore cutting the TA training budget was manifestly the wrong thing to do. I think Members of all parties can be united in agreement on that.
We must dismiss that last point. Members from both sides of the House came together. Rightly, Back Benchers went to see the Prime Minister and put on a lot of pressure. The House working together is what changed the decision, and we should acknowledge that instead of engaging in this cheap political point scoring.
Yes, as I said, we are where we are. I do not believe there has been much political point scoring from those on the Conservative Benches. Quite a number of my hon. Friends are actively serving in the reserve forces and the TA, and often are not here in the Chamber because they are deployed in Afghanistan. It is hard to claim that they are trying to score political points.
The Secretary of State’s speech and the rest of the debate have highlighted the confusion as to whether the Army is at full strength. The Army is clearly not at full strength, but, by the Secretary of State’s own admission, the Treasury has not provided sufficient funds if the Army were at full strength. In other words, the Army is—as it ever was, and as it will continue to be—reliant on the reserves and the TA. As has been pointed out, this economic recession—in large part created by this Government—has driven up the number of men and women who are queuing up to join both the TA and, in particular, the Regular Army. That could, perhaps, have been anticipated.
I want to say again that the recent political events have caused huge upset in the TA. I am not sure that the Government fully recognise the damage that has been done, and I therefore draw their attention to some of the websites on Facebook and the Army Rumour Service web forums so that they can see for themselves how those involved in the TA feel about what is going on. The word “closed” has been put over the TA sign in many instances. Of course the TA is not closed—quite the reverse—but I think the Government need to reassure the TA that it is an integral part of one Army and that it is appreciated for what it does. As I will continue repeating, and as the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned, the Government must also reassure employers, and particularly small employers who suffer disproportionately when their employees are sent abroad on active service, that they too are playing an integral part in this war in Afghanistan.
It is a war in Afghanistan. It is not an operation or a deployment; it is a war, and if the Government were to admit that, we might not have the cheese-paring of the defence budget that has got us into this situation in the first place.
I wish to discuss one more thing about the TA: how we look after its members when they are not deployed. Those in the Regular Army are quite well looked after even after they leave it, although there is a lot more that we could do on issues of mental health; we had a debate about that the other day. The difference is that when those in the TA return from active service they are, often within 48 hours or just a little longer, back to where they had left—in their regular jobs—without the supporting infrastructure of the regimental family, which can so often look out for those suffering mental distress as a result of having served. A disproportionate amount—I believe it is the majority—of those in the TA are serving, particularly in Afghanistan, as medics and come across far more horrific incidents than many of those in the regular forces. We need to examine what is being done should they encounter problems when they get home.
The reserves mental health programme, which has been available to TA and regular reservists since January 2003, is doing a good job. It is a helpful programme, but it does little to overcome soldiers’ reluctance to come forward to discuss mental health issues. Again, it is much easier if problems can be identified within the regimental family or the unit, but it is much more difficult when people have disappeared back into the society from which they came. A Royal British Legion survey of 500 general practitioners conducted in spring 2009 across England and Wales found that 85 per cent. knew nothing about the programme. That is a completely unacceptable figure, and I ask the Minister to see what he can do to increase awareness of the programme for the TA when its members are not serving.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. Would he like to endorse remarks made by an individual from the King’s centre, which is working on military mental health? It said that when the Territorials go as part of a formed unit with their own mates and their own officers the incidence of these problems is very much the same as in the Regular Army, but when they are taken off as individual reinforcements—this is for exactly the reasons that my hon. Friend has described—the incidences are much higher.
Yes, of course I do. That is why I welcome what the shadow Secretary of State has said about mental health follow-up telephone calls, as are made in America, to all those who have served in the forces, be they TA or Regular Army, for some years after they have been deployed and when they return.
I do not wish to detain the House for longer than I have to, because this debate almost need not take place now. I conclude by saying that on 8 November there will hardly be a Member from either side of this House who will not be taking part in Remembrance Sunday, honouring those who have given their lives for this country. When we stand in front of our Cenotaphs—I shall be in Exmouth, where we maintain that we have more wreaths than anywhere else, save the Cenotaph in London—we will not be remembering the gender or age of those who have died, we may not even be remembering the unit in which they served and we certainly will not be remembering whether they were in the regular forces, in the TA or in the reserve forces; we will be honouring them equally, because they have paid the ultimate price in giving their life for this country. If they are treated equally by us in death, so they should be treated in life by the Ministry of Defence.
I wish to speak briefly on behalf of my party on this extremely important matter, which I and a number of other hon. and right hon. Members have raised at business questions over the past few weeks.
I very much welcome the Government’s reversal of their original decision on this £20 million cut. In this short debate, we have listened to some very powerful speeches, particularly from Members who have served or are serving in the Territorial Army. It is important to hear their contribution because, as the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) has rightly said, we should be listening carefully to those Members who have first-hand experience and who know what it is all about.
I also respect the views expressed by other Members, such as the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who spoke powerfully, too. Members of parties have taken a common position of great concern and anger, reflecting the views of our constituents and of those who have served and are serving in the reserve forces, at the decision that was originally announced by the Government a number of weeks ago.
Among Labour Back Benchers and in the ranks of the official Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and the minority parties, there is a common view that that was the wrong decision. I welcome the fact that the Government have taken that on board and have come forward quickly to reverse that decision. We know, as has been spelled out, the damage that would have been done to recruitment, retention and morale—I do not want to rehearse all those arguments. The important issue that has been rightly highlighted and emphasised today is the longer-term damage that has been done. We can reverse the financial cut and restore the training and so on, which is quite right, but damage has been done, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and others, to the concept of one Army.
Morale and the difficulties that it will cause for the future will need to be addressed. The Government, those in charge of the Territorial Army and others in the regulars need to turn their minds to how they will tackle that issue. They must make it clear, as the hon. Member for Chorley said, that they will not repeat this mistake ever again. We must recognise the extremely valuable and important part that the Territorial Army plays in our armed forces and that we cannot turn on and off the training and all that goes with it and expect things to carry on as normal. If the men and women are needed, they should be there and able to respond with the necessary degree of preparedness.
I want to comment on an issue raised by the hon. Member for Bridgwater. The Territorials are the public face of the military in our constituencies. They are the face of recruiting and the men and women who will be seen on parade at Remembrance day events in the run up to Remembrance Sunday.
In my part of the world, Northern Ireland, we have the military band of the Territorial Army, which is now the only band in Northern Ireland that represents the armed forces. I received a number of representations, as did a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, from members of the Territorial Army who were very concerned at the fact that they were being asked to come along to events to commemorate the service of so many in Northern Ireland over the years—the sacrifice that has been made by so many in our armed forces—but were being told, “If you’re going to go along, you’re not going to get paid. Indeed, you might not be given permission to go along at all.” That was extremely detrimental, demoralising and a terrible blow to those men and women. It would be a terrible signal to send out to the people in Northern Ireland, given the fantastic and gallant service and great sacrifice of our armed forces in Northern Ireland over the years.
I attended a concert recently where the band of the Royal Irish Regiment was playing in aid of the Army Benevolent Fund. Is it not the case that if bands are cut back and are unable to perform in such a way, it affects not only the public face of the Army through the Territorial Army bands but the ability to raise money through the Army Benevolent Fund and other charitable organisations that supplement what the Government do for those who have paid a very high price, either through death or serious injury, and to help their families? For that reason, we should continue to support the bands and what they do.
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The Royal Irish Regiment band has raised a tremendous amount of funds and resources, and he is right to highlight that important aspect of the debate.
It is right to put on record again the thanks of the whole House to the men and women of the Territorial Army for their sacrifice and work over the years on behalf of our country. More than 1,000 men and women from Northern Ireland have been in operational deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that is a significant proportion of the reserve force in Northern Ireland. They go willingly, but they deserve the full support of the Government and the Ministry of Defence.
They need to know that they will have the training that they need to achieve the necessary degree of preparedness. We have heard all sorts of elaborate and Machiavellian conspiracy theories in this debate about who might have been responsible for the cuts proposal in the first place. Whoever they are—whether they are in the Ministry of Defence or among the generals—they must learn the lesson from this episode, and from the strong feelings represented on both sides of the House this afternoon. That lesson is that never again can such an approach be taken, and that the Territorial Army and the reserve forces must get our full support as an integral part of the Army.
I rise to speak on behalf of the 20 members of A Company Third Royal Anglian Regiment who are being deployed to Afghanistan from my constituency. Previously, more than 100 members of that company have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and a further 150 from the overall regiment will be going to Cyprus in 2011. That serves to underline the need for ongoing training, as I am sure that hon. Members from all quarters of the House agree. I join the tributes paid by this House at Prime Minister’s Question Time and on other occasions to the work of our armed forces. I know that all hon. Members agree with me in that regard, too.
This political fiasco has rolled on for 48 hours, during which time I have been touch with the captain of A Company Third Royal Anglians. He is based locally in Norwich, and I want to highlight to the House a number of the things that he told me. Other hon. Members know far more about battlefield activities than I do, so my intention is to speak about the other activities that my local troops tell me that Territorial Army members undertake for their country.
Members of the Territorial Army devote a huge amount of unpaid time to their country. For example, they prepare lessons during the week, outside the training hours that we have been debating. They also make phone calls to troops and their families, and write endless e-mails—we all know how much time e-mails take up every day.
Not only do Territorial Army members run training, take part in training and see action on the battlefield, but they provide welfare for troops on deployment and for those troops’ families. The Territorials’ work includes running the family coffee mornings and doing the small but essential things that I hope that colleagues with more direct experience than me acknowledge have to take place.
My contact with troops in my constituency, and the political fiasco that has taken place here, have made it clear to me that the unpaid time that troops put in, and the good will that they commit, are not the only things that we must acknowledge. We must also be aware of the vulnerability that they suffer if they do not receive the training that they need, and of the fact that they need time and resources to carry out the welfare work for troops and families that I have described.
Of course, I join other hon. Members in welcoming the reinstatement of the training budget. I am sure that no one here would disagree with that, but the Government must take further steps to put matters right. It is not just a public relations disaster: it is also, as other hon. Members have made very clear, a disaster for morale, recruitment and retention. It is also a potential disaster for the future safety of our troops and our country if it is considered acceptable for a Government to execute such a U-turn when it comes to our troops’ welfare.
The Government should be ashamed of themselves. If they are not ashamed already, I shall finish by quoting one further point from the A Company captain:
“We will have no formal representation at the Norwich Remembrance Parade as I won’t insist that troops attend when they are getting no financial compensation (even travel expenses) and I am not authorised to spend money on fuel to run the Company minibus from Aylsham Road to the City Centre and back.”
I see that hon. Members are shaking their heads at that. To me, that is shocking and something of which the Government should continue to be ashamed, even after the U-turn that they have made this week.
I welcome the constructive tone of the rest of the debate. There is much good feeling in the Chamber that should be built upon for the future, but there is still something rotten in the state of the MOD, if it is considered acceptable not to support troops, whether part-time or full-time, in getting to a Remembrance day ceremony. Many Members, myself included, are wearing poppies today, to show our support for the Royal British Legion and the work that goes into the run-up to 8 November this year and Remembrance day every year. Will the Minister—and, indeed, the now absent Secretary of State—join me by putting his hand in his pocket and giving 20 quid to my Norwich heroes?
I begin by paying tribute to Rifleman Jamie Gunn, Private Kyle Adams and Private Richard Hunt, who lost their lives in Afghanistan. I spoke to some of their parents this morning. The experience of attending their funerals and meeting their families has made me realise beyond any doubt that the real cost of the war in Afghanistan is not measured in money. That is irrelevant. The cost is in human lives. That is one lesson that we should all remember.
My own military experience is far more humble than that of those soldiers or of many hon. Members. I spent 18 months in the Territorial Army in 104 Air Defence Regiment in Newport back in the 1980s, at a time when the TA was seen in a very different light from the way it is seen now. We were not seen as being quite the same as Regular Army troops, and we were often jokingly referred to as the SAS—the Saturday and Sunday soldiers, or in terms rather less polite than that.
However, I learned quite a few lessons from the experience. Perhaps the most important was this. We used to train in three different ways. We would turn up every Tuesday night, every other weekend and for two weeks at the annual camp. I presume that the training schedule is fairly similar today. The one thing that I knew even at the age of 18, without a lot of experience of life, was that that weekly training session, the so-called drill night, was extremely important.
I do not know what was going through people’s minds when they thought it would be a good idea to get rid of that training. Did they think that drill night meant just a number of people marching up and down, and that that was not important? That is not the case, and it has not been the case for any unit, as far as I am aware. Drill night consisted of a little bit of drilling, yes, but also vehicle maintenance, weapons training, fitness training, map reading—a host of activities, all of which are vital soldiering activities. More than that, there was something else going on that may not have been quite so obvious to us at the time. We were knitting together and becoming cohesive as a unit. It is very important that people who are full-time civilians and part-time soldiers think of themselves as soldiers on a regular basis. That is what that one night a week enabled us to do.
The amount of money that we were being paid was very small. At that time of my life, I was doing manual jobs, but I did not think the money was particularly great. Nobody was doing it for the money. It was not about the money and never has been for TA soldiers, because any one of them could go and earn far more doing something else if they wanted a part-time job. But the money is important, because it sends out a message to people who are willing to give that commitment. It sends a message that the state respects them and wants to thank them for the time that they are giving up.
I can speak from personal experience only about the late 1980s. It is quite different now. The level of commitment is much greater. I never thought for one minute that by joining the TA in Newport, I would ever be sent off to war. It is highly unlikely that I would have been, and in fact I never got beyond Salisbury plain, but people who join the Territorial Army these days know that it is very likely indeed that they will end up in a war zone. The regiment that I represent, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers, has sent dozens of soldiers out to Iraq, where they have performed brilliantly. They will be deploying to Afghanistan later this year. These are people who have comfortable civilian jobs back in Monmouthshire, yet they are willing to spend six months of their life in a war zone for very little reward.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that many of the members of the TA have served with great distinction in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the Government need to show that they are a cherished part of Her Majesty’s forces.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is about showing the Territorial Army that we respect its commitment. At least three TA soldiers have lost their lives already in the conflict in Afghanistan.
It is astonishing that anyone thought that it would be a good idea to save £20 million by scrapping the drill nights. The Secretary of State, who sadly is no longer in his place—perhaps he has other things to do—asked for suggestions for saving money, and I tried to intervene. If he wanted such suggestions, they are easy to find. The MOD spent more than 100 times that £20 million cut refurbishing its own offices at a cost of about £2.4 billion. It has spent millions of pounds on consultants during the last few years. Presumably they are helping the equally well-paid MOD officials who cannot do their jobs properly without the consultants. Perhaps we could get rid of some of those consultants, or get rid of some of the MOD officials who cannot do their jobs without them. I am pretty certain that there is a £20 million saving to be made there without affecting anybody’s life. The MOD was even able to spend £250,000 on a work of modern art, because its spokesman said that they did not want pictures of dead admirals hanging around in the MOD headquarters.
I am pretty confident that, humble Back Bencher that I am, if I were given an afternoon in the Treasury I could come up with £20 million of cuts for the Government. I would start off by going through the back pages of The Guardian jobs section for the past 12 months, find everyone who got the jobs that were advertised and fire them all. Then I would look at anything with the word “equality” in it, because there would be a saving there as well.
If the hon. Gentleman goes back to what I said earlier, I do not believe that we should be thinking about money at all here. We are at war at the moment. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) made the point that we are at war, and he has more experience of the armed forces than any other hon. Member.
Many people have concerns about the operations that we are undertaking in Afghanistan, and many of those are not willing to express them too publicly because they greatly respect the valour and commitment of our armed forces out there. But it would be helpful if the Government could be a little more clear about what we are setting out to achieve. One moment they tell us that it is all about solving the drugs problem. Yet, as I know from my own work as a special constable, we do very little about drug dealers and drug users on the streets of this country. If we were serious about tackling drugs, it would be far better to put those drug dealers in jail for a long time than send young men and women out to Afghanistan. They say that it is about bringing democracy to Afghanistan, yet it has never had democracy. There is no culture of democracy there. I do not think that it is all that likely that we will build some kind of a liberal democrat paradise in the Hindu Kush overnight. Even if it were possible, I would have to ask why we are not trying to do that everywhere else in the world. Then they say that it is about al-Qaeda. It is perfectly legitimate for us to deal with that, but if it is about dealing with al-Qaeda training camps, why cannot we do what we did in Iraq for 10 years, when we simply used air strikes to bomb the bases that were causing us all of the problems, with very little loss of life? Unlike many hon. Members I am not a military expert and I do not have the answers, but many people are asking me the questions and they are difficult to answer, because the Government are not willing to put them over themselves.
The Minister has been a Member for longer than me, and he knows that as a Back-Bench Member, I do not have to follow the party line. I am not the sort of person who slavishly follows party lines; I am perfectly able to put over an opinion myself. He will be intelligent enough to realise that I have some concerns about his Government’s policy.
I have concerns about the Government’s policy. My Front Benchers are not in government yet, but I am sure that they will be shortly.
Although I may have doubts about some aspects of Government policy, I have no doubt about this, and I do not think that anyone else will: if we are going to fight a war of any sort, we ought to ensure that the personnel are properly equipped; that there is enough manpower to see that when they have done their six-month tour of duty, they have enough time off for their family and are not simply sent out to another war zone a few months later; and that they are properly and adequately paid. They are not paid anything like enough for the work that they do and the sacrifice that they make. When I see money being wasted in other Departments, I am irritated that the first place to which the Government turn to look for cuts is the one place where all the money ought to be ring-fenced.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue is about not just how we look after our soldiers while they are on the field of battle, but how we look after them and their families at home and in their barracks? Is it not true that there is pressure on the budget to improve the infrastructure for military families, and that it is being cut? He referred to the huge amount of money spent on refurbishing the MOD building. Is it not unfair that soldiers and their families face the prospect of living in sub standard accommodation because of further cuts?
Order. I was beginning to feel that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) was enlarging the scope of the debate, and I am quite sure that he would be if he followed the line suggested to him by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). I need to nudge the hon. Member for Monmouth back to the terms of the motion and the amendment.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks sense on many occasions, and I have no need to elaborate.
Will Ministers look into the fact that many members of the Taliban are in this country, claiming asylum and getting houses while British soldiers live in substandard accommodation? I join colleagues who are incredulous that the Government considered making the TA cuts in the first place. I therefore welcome the fact that they have gone into reverse gear, and I hope that the Minister will be able to state that for the little time that he has left in office, he will never, ever again consider cutting funding for the Territorial Army or any other branch of the armed services while we remain at war.
I add my contribution, as the chairman of the all-party Army group, to the very many magnificent speeches that we have heard, from all parts of the House, praising the fantastic work that the Territorial Army has done and will do, not only on deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq but here at home. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who most recently did precisely that. His regiment, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers, has the distinction of being the only regiment in the British Army to have “Royal” in its name twice. That is very unusual. It claims to be the senior regiment in the Territorial Army—outdone, of course, only by my regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, which is many hundreds of years older than his.
The whole House will have the opportunity to thank the Territorial Army soldiers who are currently deployed in Afghanistan, when the all-party Army group next welcomes the brigade returning from that country. That is on Monday 30 November, at 3.30 pm, when soldiers will march once again through Carriage Gates, by kind permission of Mr. Speaker. I very much hope that hon. Members will join me there to thank those soldiers for all that they have done.
However, the important point is that many soldiers in that body of 120 people, or thereabouts, will be Territorial Army soldiers. I strongly support the concept of one Army and the fact that one cannot tell the difference between a regular soldier and a TA soldier. I differ slightly from my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who said that the TA should be deployed only as formed units. The one-Army concept means that most of the 20,000 TA soldiers who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been trickle-deployed, not deployed as formed units. Nowadays, it is much better that our TA soldiers should be ready to be deployed individually in regular units rather than necessarily as formed units.
My own experience of the TA and the contacts I have with TA personnel very much confirm what my hon. Friend says. It is of course true that soldiers of all kinds, whether regular or territorial, would much prefer to be deployed with their mates—with their battalion or unit, or whatever it may be. However, most of the brigades currently deployed in Afghanistan are very mixed, hybrid brigades—there is almost no regular battalion that will be deployed as a formed unit with nobody else attached to it. I am afraid that the days are long gone when we would like to think of our TA units as battalions marching out of the front gates of the drill hall, marching into battle, and coming back. I am not sure that that is a correct part of modern warfare.
There is an aspect of the debate with which I am a little uneasy. There has been almost a feeling of collective relief at the astonishing U-turn that the Government have performed in recent days, with praise for Ministers for being so wise as to undertake it. There has been lots of talk about how it is a cross-party matter, and how it was really to do with the Army: “It was those funny generals—they did it. We Ministers went along with it for a bit, but now we have seen through it, and because we are wise Ministers we have reversed it and said, ‘Please don’t do that again, you naughty generals, because we’re clever Labour Ministers and we’re going to reverse it.’” I am sorry to bring an element of party political disagreement into the debate, but the fact is that this was done by a Labour Government.
Only two days ago, the Minister for the Armed Forces came along to the all-party group on reserve forces and told us how important it was that these cuts should go ahead. Then, under pressure, he said: “Well, all right, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We won’t cut this £20 million out of the TA budget, we won’t close the TA down—we’ll allow the boys to get together one Wednesday a month. Won’t that help you? That will cost us £2.5 million. Aren’t I being a nice Minister?” These cuts were made by the Government. If the Minister did not know about them, he jolly well should have done, and he must take responsibility for them. It was he and his colleagues who decided that the TA would effectively be closed down for six months from today. The notion that people could come back after that and go through their pre-deployment training, as the Minister kept saying, is absolutely nonsensical. The TA would effectively have been destroyed by the action that this Government took.
It is only because the Conservative party called today’s debate and tabled this motion that the Government Whips, no doubt correctly, told their bosses that they were going to lose. They knew that there were plenty of Labour Back Benchers who would either vote with us or abstain, with the Liberal Democrats and the minor parties voting with us too. The Chief Whip got in touch with the Prime Minister and said, “You are going to lose a vote on Wednesday. You are going to be humiliated over this ridiculous decision you’ve taken about the TA, just as you were humiliated over the ridiculous decision you took about the Gurkha pensions. You, Mr. Prime Minister, are going to lose, and therefore we’ve got to find an extra £20 million. We’re going to turn this round, not because we think it’s the right thing to do but because we’re yet again afraid of being humiliated in the House of Commons.” That is a disgrace. This Government chose effectively to close down the TA for six months, and then, under pressure, they came back and said, “We’re worried about this. We’ve suddenly realised that an awful lot of TA people will complain about it, so we’ll give you one night a month back for training.”
The decision was taken completely against the advice of the two-star generals and other senior people in the TA who advise the Government on this matter. They did not like it at all, but none the less went along with it. A two-star general, Major-General Simon Lalor—a first-class general he is too—came along to the all-party group on Tuesday and was not permitted to speak by the Minister, who insisted that he should speak, that it was a political matter, and that he should take the decision. The generals and others who were at that meeting were not allowed to speak. It was interesting to see that they were totally opposed to the decision. This Government decided to do this. They gave in very briefly with their one-night-a-month concept; now they have been forced, through straightforward political realities, to reverse their disgraceful decision.
I hope that when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, he will not palm us off with platitudes about how wonderful the Territorial Army is or say that he is somehow all in favour of it. I hope that he will apologise for the ridiculous decision that was taken and for being humiliated and having to turn it around.
I am pleased to have the opportunity in the final stages of this debate to make a modest contribution about some aspects of the TA that have not been covered in depth. I should perhaps declare that as a schoolboy I was a cadet in the school cadet force, and at university I was a member of the air squadron reserve. I am told that had there been a war in the 15 years after I left the air squadron, I would have had a military role of air taxi to senior VIPs such as Government Ministers or generals. I am sure that that is not the only reason why people are hugely relieved that we did not have to go to war.
I wish to touch on aspects of the TA’s functions that seem to have fallen out of the equation. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) mentioned in her excellent contribution that the TA’s role in support of the regular forces under the one-Army notion takes place not just in active theatre but in other operations beyond UK territory. For example, I understand that the commitment of British forces in Operation Tosca, the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, is now entirely staffed by a TA company. Its strength varies according to circumstances, but up to 100 members of the TA are on duty in Cyprus at any time, more or less unsupported by regular forces. There are TA contributions to Operation Fingal, continuing contributions in Kosovo, and the much more commented-on contributions in Afghanistan and, in recent years, Iraq.
Had the cut in training gone through as proposed, the Government indicated that there would not be any shortfall in training for deployment into active theatre. However, it was not made at all clear whether it would affect deployment to other theatres and peacekeeping missions internationally. That aspect had been forgotten.
Secondly, I wish to mention the role that the TA plays in supporting the civilian powers. The green goddesses are no longer in commission, but the TA has a clear and distinct role in supporting the civilian powers’ response to emergencies. That cannot be done without a degree of training. It is all very well to have bodies of men and women called up to provide support in an emergency, but they will be of no use whatever unless it is quite clear what their function will be. Providing clear instruction and direction during an emergency obviously requires training.
In recent times, the TA has been on stand-by and at the Government’s disposal, although it has not been called up, to respond to flooding incidents all round the country. In 2007 in my own area, it was on stand-by to assist during the flooding in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire.
The Government have had to contend with significant animal health challenges and emergencies in recent years, such as foot and mouth and the threats posed by bluetongue, which thankfully has not materialised, and H1N1. On all those occasions, the Government had the resources of the TA at their disposal. The Royal Irish Regiment, which is based in Tern Hill in Shropshire, in my constituency, was tasked with a bluetongue response a very short time after coming back from active duty in Afghanistan. That may or may not have been an appropriate military decision, but with a fully functioning TA the Government had the option of using alternative forces had an emergency arisen. The idea that the TA would still have been available to help with civil contingencies if it had lost the ability to train for the period that was intended is simply not right.
The third aspect of the TA’s role that I do not think has been properly expressed hitherto this evening is the link between the Army and civil society. The TA plays a considerable role in representing the Army and the other armed services in engagement with the public. Colleagues have discussed the role that it will play at Remembrance services over the next couple of weeks, but there is a continuous programme of education, and visits to schools, clubs and sports clubs for recruitment purposes. Many of us will have seen vans turning up in shopping centres and high streets in our constituencies on Saturdays. The people manning them and banging the recruitment drum are typically TA volunteers.
Regular units recruit from the TA, as a direct consequence of the exposure to the Army that the TA provides. In my own area, the Mercian Regiment has a current strength of 80, out of which, in the past 12 months alone, three officers and 11 soldiers were recruited directly into the regular forces. That is a very cost-effective recruitment method for the regular forces, and it simply would not happen if the TA did not meet regularly, and if TA members did not have the spirit, bonhomie and cadre that they get from their regular training.
The considerable anxiety that was expressed across the House by Members who have TA units within their constituencies was to do with that corps esprit. If there was no regular weekend connection between units in the TA, as appropriate each month, there would simply be no rationale to continue to turn up. The idea that the training tap can be switched on and off, as the Government seemed to indicate, was so far removed from the reality of what was happening on the ground as to stretch belief that the Government have any idea what the TA does on training nights.
In my area, there was a suggestion that people were thinking about their futures. Their families will already have had considerable concerns about the degree to which individuals commit themselves to the TA, which they do for very little monetary reward. If people were asked to volunteer for no reward at all, without any contribution to travel costs, or without confidence that anything would actually be happening if they turned up at the drill hall, another pressure would be brought to bear on them not to bother any longer and to go off and do their volunteering where it would be properly valued. That is another social factor that the Government completely failed to grasp.
I encourage the Minister to step forward to the Dispatch Box in a different spirit from that which he has had to have in the last 48 hours. He has had the most hapless task. During the excellent Adjournment debate on Monday evening, he listened to a very thoughtful contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who speaks with considerable knowledge given his experiences on active duty with the TA, but was unable to offer any kind of defence for the Government proposals. He then had to spend Tuesday being berated—I presume with senior colleagues—by Labour Back Benchers, and by all accounts, generals. Later, he had to front up to the Prime Minister and tell him that he must change his mind. I suspect that that is not a task that any junior Minister relishes in the dying days of this Government. However, he is now in a position, in his response to the debate, to make a positive statement of the Government’s commitment to the TA, which I sincerely hope he does.
We have had an extremely good debate, with 10 speeches from Back Benchers. Most of them have been concise and to the point, and we must be grateful for that brevity. It was a debate of high quality—one speaker from the Democratic Unionist party, two Labour and seven Conservative speakers, but no Liberal Democrat Back Benchers.
I declare my interest, as entered in the register, as a medical officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. I also wish to express some sadness that so much grief could have been caused by an attempt to squeeze just £17.5 million from the Territorial Army. Ministers enthuse over the so-called one Army concept, and we have heard a lot about that this evening, as well as talk of reservists being twice citizens. Words are cheap, and I fear that Ministers’ rhetoric has not necessarily been matched by their actions over the past two weeks.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) wondered how the Secretary of State had got himself into such a mess. The hon. Gentleman was also uncharacteristically churlish about our motion, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and I hastily crafted late last night when the Minister effected his U-turn. I did not see the Liberal Democrats in the Table Office, and it would of course have been open to them to have tabled an amendment.
As a regular and a reservist, I have seen just how easy it is to plunder the territorial, whether that be the TA, the special constabulary or the retained fire service. There is an almost institutional tendency for the top brass to recommend savings from reservists or part-timers. Territorials are caught in a sort of pincer movement between the generals and the accountants, with the budgeteers knowing full well that cuts to the TA produce immediate savings, while cuts to the regulars do not. I fear that Ministers have been badly advised throughout this, and it is a pity that they took the advice that they were being offered.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) was typically eloquent, but he is not in his place, so I shall not spend too much time praising him. He is a veteran of five parliamentary tours of Afghanistan and spoke passionately in support of the reserves and in favour of the one Army concept. He saw the paw prints of accountants over the past couple of weeks and he said, rightly, that those who know the price of everything often know the value of nothing. He doubted that there would be victory in Afghanistan, and by that I think that he meant victory in the classic sense. He thought that more resources should be given to our military and, in particular, to our reserve forces, and that accountants should be put in their place. There are plenty of accountants in this House who would probably disagree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) is an ex-Territorial. He spoke extremely well about training and operating as one Army, and in favour of formed units, which come up in debate a lot in connection with the TA. We appreciate their importance, and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has been especially strenuous in his support for them and for command opportunities for people in the TA. We are grateful to him for that, and he is, of course, absolutely right.
It is difficult to serve in a formed unit if those involved do not train together, as I know full well. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater feared that the events of the past few days would cause lasting damage, and I think that we are all agreed, to a varying degree, that there will be a residue from how this has played out over the past four weeks or so.
In a typically impassioned contribution, the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) talked about the lessons of the past not being learned, and if that is the case it is a great pity—although the circumstances of today are very different to those that applied in the 1990s. He also talked about the one Army concept being badly dented by the past few days and hoped that Ministers would do what they can to restore the confidence that the Territorials have in his Government, which has been so seriously damaged.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) raised the important point about employers, who will have looked at what has happened over the past few days and wondered whether they were right to be helpful to those employees who are Territorials or reservists. Employers will reason, “Well, if the Government do not hold reservists in the esteem that they should, why should we go to the effort of sparing them and sustaining real cost in many cases?” That is an important point to make, and I hope that Ministers will send out the clear message to employers who might be tempted to think along those lines that, in fact, Territorials are an essential part of our military capability. I also hope that they will do what they can to repair any damage that might have been done by what has happened over the past fortnight or so.
My hon. Friend also talked about reservists’ mental health. It is important to reflect that Territorials in particular are at risk from mental health problems attributable to service. The reasons are very complex and have a great deal to do with the fact that regulars come back and are still part of a unit, whereas very often Territorials—in particular, augmentees—are not, and so are especially at risk. It is important that we look after them. He also pointed out rather poignantly that on Remembrance Sunday we will be remembering reservists and regulars equally. Again, he used that comment to demonstrate the importance of the one Army concept applying in reality. I should add that there is a naval equivalent—the concept of being all of one company.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) commended the Government on reversing their position. I think that he was very generous in his remarks. He pointed out what is obviously right—that the reversal of the Government’s position was the result of pressure from all directions. He also emphasised the importance of the one Army concept and talked about the damage to morale that the threat to funding causes, with particular reference to military bands and the unique circumstances and contribution of the men and women of Northern Ireland.
The offending in-year savings measures emerged in a Headquarters Land Forces letter dated 12 October. We should bear in mind that despite the largesse that emerged last night, the leaked cuts to the officer training corps, cadet forces, Army recruiting, capital work on soldiers’ accommodation and service schools endure. I hope that the Minister will touch on those matters when he responds.
On 14 October, the Prime Minister, when questioned on the TA cuts contained in the 12 October briefing note, gave every appearance of not having a clue what was going on. On Monday, we were then treated to a grudging one-night-a-month concession costing £2.5 million before the final climbdown on the TA, but not on the rest of the leaked cuts, including—this is the context of today’s debate—those to the OTC and Army cadets. That deeply worrying episode suggests two things. The first is that the Government simply did not understand the impact that the cuts might have had on the TA, and the second is that all rational thought has gone from the MOD ministerial corridor in the last days of this Administration.
The October Public Accounts Committee report on support to high-intensity operations noted that training for regulars for contingent operations was entering what was referred to as “hibernation” to fund deployment-related training—“hibernation” is a horrible term, but it appears to have crept into the military lexicography in recent years. The PAC expressed the fear that we would not be
“able to regenerate such capabilities…after hibernation.”
We might be able to tuck up regulars in a warm box, with plenty of straw, and wake them up in the spring, but Territorial soldiers do not “hibernate”. Without training, they will go and find something else to do, and they will never look back. Why has it taken two weeks of muddle for Ministers to accept something that, on the Conservative Benches at least, was blindingly obvious?
Ministers have told us that regulars are now being recruited to strength. They asserted that this triumph prompted the cuts that have caused so much heartache. The implications are quite staggering. They are saying that financial balance at the MOD has up until now assumed an under-strength Regular Army at a time when we are heavily engaged in conflict in Afghanistan. However, the Opposition try to be helpful when we can, so let us see whether we can help Ministers out of the financial conundrum that they are left to struggle with after the Government’s U-turn. Against their regular counterparts, Territorials are as cheap as chips. The National Audit Office has pointed out that non-deployed TA soldiers cost £10,000 a year, against £55,000 for a regular. The deployed costs will be lower too, given superannuation and the fact that in practice reservists do not have access to many of the regulars’ benefits.
The calculation has also been done by our allies, who, unlike us, have acted on it. One quarter of Britain’s total strategic forces is provided by the reserves. In the US, Canada and Australia, the figures are 53, 42 and 41 per cent. respectively. Volunteer reservists, for example, make up 18 per cent. of trained strength in the UK, compared with at least 25 per cent. among our principal allies, yet this cost-effective force is set to decline even further, both in raw numbers and as a proportion of our overall strength. As we have heard, the note of 12 October says that TA trained strength was predicted to fall from 20,000 to 18,000 by April 2010, putting at risk the TA’s ability to deliver 700 to 800 soldiers for Operation Herrick from 2012 onwards.
How could Ministers even contemplate such a thing? Although last night’s spectacular U-turn is welcome, much irreparable damage will have been done. I expect that the Minister of State will have received sackloads of similar protests from Territorials and those who support them, not least from among his constituents in Harlow. We have certainly received such protests, but unfortunately time does not allow me to read them out, much as I would like to.
In April, the then Secretary of State endorsed each of the seven strategic recommendations in General Cottam’s report on the strategic review of reserves. It is worth reminding ourselves of the central proposition, with a capital P, given in the report:
“Defence will offer the challenge and reward which attracts people to volunteer, and undertakes to train and support them throughout their Service, including when mobilised and recuperating.”
The report asserts in recommendation 3, which let us remember was accepted by the Government, that
“Training is pivotal to the Proposition.”
Indeed, the Secretary of State endorsed that at the Dispatch Box on 28 April. How is it that the Government considered driving a coach and horses through a blueprint for the reserves that they signed up to just six months ago?
The latest wobble was the result of the Government’s stated desire to focus all our efforts on Afghanistan, but expeditionary warfare has historically been the province of regular armies. Big state-on-state conflicts are inevitably the domain of irregulars. In presenting Territorials as second-class soldiers, Ministers are recklessly discounting unforeseen generic conflict or catastrophic civil contingency. May I remind Ministers that the Government’s first priority is the defence of the United Kingdom? Important though a successful outcome of Operation Herrick undoubtedly is, nothing should divert us from that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) made an excellent speech. She drew attention to A Company Third Royal Anglian, which is about to deploy, and we wish it well. She spoke powerfully about the cheese-paring that is so demoralising to both part-time and full-time troops. It also demoralises me.
My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who is also an ex-Territorial, made an excellent contribution. He emphasised how much training fosters cohesion, and he was right to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) engaged in typically fighting talk. He mentioned that he was a veteran of the Honourable Artillery Company, and he rightly highlighted its antiquity. May I gently point out to him that the Royal Navy was founded by King Alfred in the 9th century? My hon. Friend praised augmentees versus formed units. That is a debate for another day, but as an augmentee, I have a great deal of sympathy with what he said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) also talked about the one Army concept. He rightly mentioned Operation Tosca, which I fear is often forgotten, but which is very important in the context of the Territorial Army.
I hope that the Minister will answer the points so comprehensively put by hon. Members. Let me add a few of my own. Will he comment on the Territorial Army civil contingencies reaction force, which was launched in 2002 with great fanfare, but which was never funded? Is it safe to assume from the Secretary of State’s prevarication when challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on 28 April that that tasking is now defunct?
Will the Minister elaborate on the remarks made in April about the use of niche reservist skills and support for stabilisation operations and the Department for International Development? Will he also say what funding transfer will take place to permit such employment, a point that was ducked in the response to my hon. Friend on 28 April? What timeline exists for the Cottam review implementation team? When will the detailed single-service analysis required by General Cottam and accepted by Ministers be reported to the House?
Let me gently remind the Minister of the fate of the last Government who tried to short-change the militia. Let me also express the hope that he will prove equal to the task of regaining the trust of the men and women of the Territorial Army, who have been so badly served over the past fortnight.
We have had a genuinely good debate today, and I would like to thank all Members for their contributions. I will start on a note of consensus, and we shall see how long I can keep that going. The arguments in the debate have revealed that there is palpable consensus across all parties on support for the Territorial Army. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision-making process have been over recent weeks, I acknowledge, on behalf of the Government, that the cross-party support for the TA has been clear, consistent, important and influential. I wish to pay tribute to the work of the TA, without whose efforts, dedication and professionalism our defence capability in this country would be much, much weaker.
I should like to respond directly to the point raised by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) about the structural disbandment of the civil contingency reaction force. The decision to remove the requirement for the reserve forces to train the CCRF was taken in line with the recommendation of the reserves review, which received significant cross-party support when it materialised. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 placed a much greater emphasis on the civil authorities providing resilience in times of emergency, thus removing some of the liability that had previously been held by the reserve forces. The removal of the requirement to train the CCRF did not affect the size of the reserve forces, and the entire UK reserve forces remain ready to support UK resilience operations in times of emergency. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by that.
Clearly, everyone welcomes the rethink on the £20 million for TA training. The armed forces review has caused some pain in the TA in my constituency, however, because it has led to the disbanding of the 58th Signals Squadron. That has clearly been the result of an Army decision to reorganise its signals function. However, the base in Cross Heath in Newcastle is used not only by the TA but by Army and Air Force cadets. Can my hon. Friend give me an assurance that that building will not close, and that the team at the Ministry of Defence will liaise with the cadets to ensure that they have a base from which to operate? The cadets are the recruits of the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The decision involving the communications-driven exercise to which he refers has affected a number of regiments across the country, and I believe that it was the right decision. However, we do not intend to close TA bases as a result of it. I hope that that gives him some reassurance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) demonstrated his long-standing commitment to the Territorial Army. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on his 12 years’ experience as a member of the TA. I pay tribute to the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and to his dedication to defence matters, particularly those involving the TA. He referred cogently to his and his constituents’ experience of the real TA cuts under the last Conservative Government in the 1990s. He made that point very powerfully. He also asked me about the Gibraltar Regiment—an issue about which I know he is concerned. There is a moratorium on deployment at the moment because of concerns about the applicability of the armed forces compensation scheme and the way in which that relates to the Gibraltar Regiment. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and, as I said to him earlier, I am meeting officials tomorrow and I will try to come back to him on that as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made a number of criticisms about the in-year measures, particularly about what he described as the cheese-paring of the defence budget. I would simply say to him that, at just under 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product, UK defence spending is high by international standards—[Interruption.] This is a serious point. In cash terms, we spend more on defence than any country except the United States of America and China. In that context, I want to ask for some realism in our debates about what we can afford for defence.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about mental health issues. Let me reassure him that the reserves mental health programme is an important strand of our work. It has been well addressed in the MOD, and includes the setting up of helplines and the provision of staff to support it. There is a need, as he said, to ensure that it is communicated across the TA, which is what we are determined to do.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), in what I thought was a measured and good contribution, made a number of important points. He asked me about the previous changes that we had announced and their impact on pre-deployment training. Let me be clear that, even though we are now in a different position, those changes would not have affected pre-deployment training—to Afghanistan, or indeed to any other deployment.
I was going to pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in the all-party group—until I heard what he had to say. Nevertheless, I will pay tribute—[Interruption.] “They don’t like it up ’em,” he says, but I will pay tribute to the work he does. On the decision making, it is a reality that this proposal was recommended by Land Forces and endorsed by the Chief of the General Staff. Nevertheless, we—Ministers and the Secretary of State—accept responsibility for it. That is where I have to say that I found the hon. Gentleman’s attack on my role in coming to the all-party group on Monday a little wide of the mark. I deliberately took responsibility, instead of the general, for responding to the debate and to questions at the all-party group meeting because the decision was a political one, for which I felt responsible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that; I know about the incredibly good work he does on behalf of the Territorial Army.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) made an important contribution about the TA’s role in his constituency. I would genuinely like to congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), who I know is new to the House, on her speech. She made a trenchant criticism of the Government—and in that, she is following in the footsteps of her predecessor, who was both an honourable and a genuine friend of mine.
The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) made a number of criticisms. Through an intervention, I was able to make clear to him that his view of our role in Afghanistan differs not only from that of the Government, but from that of his own Front-Bench team. It is important to underline that despite the difficulties in Afghanistan, there is a clear and vast majority of MPs across the parties in support of what we are doing. That point should be made clear.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, started very well, decrying the fact that the official Opposition had engaged in a cheap stunt by altering their motion overnight to refer to the role of the Leader of the Opposition. Despite that, however, and despite the fact that £20 million is on the table from the Treasury to reverse the initial decision, the hon. Gentleman says that he is nevertheless going to vote with the Conservative Opposition this evening. I have to say that that is an even more confusing Liberal Democrat policy formulation process than is usually the case.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife also asked the Government to trust him and the House to be more involved in the decision-making process. Let me be clear that we face difficult challenges, and that I would like to do that. If we are going to do it, however, he and his party will have to face up to reductions in spending as well as increases, as that is the only realism that will allow us to move forward. In that regard, I have to say that I am not holding my breath.
The hon. Gentleman also asked me what would be sacrificed because of the changes announced in the last 24 hours, and what impact they would make on the Ministry of Defence. Let me be clear again that there will be no impact on the Ministry of Defence, as we have been able to manage the change through £20 million of additional funding from the Treasury—no ifs, no buts: this is additional money.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) started by saying that he welcomed the Government’s decision, which he felt was the right one. He then talked about Regular Army recruitment, which clearly costs more in training, saying that we should provide that money. I agree, but his argument is, of course, fatally undermined by the fact that he proposes not one penny extra in defence expenditure on top of what the Government are proposing. The immediate slashing of public spending to deal with the public deficit would make the job of any Government in managing our defence expenditure that much more difficult. I know that in private the hon. Gentleman shares that view, but he is hamstrung by the views of his Front-Bench colleagues. He is also holed below the water by the fact that people judge politicians not by what they say, but by what they do. Under this Government, defence expenditure has increased by 11 per cent. in real terms. In the last five years of the Conservative Government there were half a billion pounds’ worth of cuts in defence each year. That is the reality, and I think it should be proclaimed loud and long.
Neither I nor the Government will take lectures from the Conservative party on the TA. I say that very clearly and very precisely, because it was the last Conservative Government who cut Territorial Army liability numbers by a third in four years, from 90,000 to just over 60,000, at the same time as cutting the TA training budget. As I said earlier, the fact is that if we started slashing expenditure now to tackle the deficit, as the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues would have us do, none of this could be achieved without cuts significantly worse than those that were considered, and it is dishonest to suggest otherwise.
Some criticisms have been made of the decision-making process. It has been said that we have performed a U-turn. Again, I will not take lectures on U-turns. A few weeks ago the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), told The Times that he would engage in £30 billion-worth of defence cuts to the A400M aircraft programme, which involves two aircraft carriers. The following day, he was forced to retract that statement.
It was clearly printed as a result of discussion in which the shadow Chancellor had engaged, and I know for a fact that the Tory Front Benchers were very concerned about that commitment.
The hon. Member for Westbury made a number of stringent attacks on me and on my ministerial colleagues. I understand his frustration. If the leader of my party had told General Dannatt that our defence team lacked expertise in defence matters, I would be frustrated as well. That is, of course, what the Leader of the Opposition told General Dannatt about the Conservative Front-Bench team.
Let me conclude by making very clear that the Territorial Army and the UK reserve forces are an absolute credit to this country. In the last decade they have proved their worth as never before. As we speak, they are serving alongside our regular forces in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan must come first in terms of defence. That means not only drawing on the Treasury’s reserves for the operations themselves, but looking across the defence budget to prioritise the activities that support our efforts in Afghanistan. It means that we must make tough choices on resources, and that is the reason for the process of decision making in which we have engaged in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, I think it right and proper for any Government who make a decision to listen to criticism and to concerns. We have heard representations from across the House. We understand the concerns that have been raised, particularly with regard to Territorial Army retention. We have now received assurances from the Treasury that this year additional ring-fenced money will be made available to ensure that the measures on TA training are no longer required, and the normal TA training regime will be restored as quickly as possible. That is important.
As for the future, the Department undertakes an annual planning round in order to prioritise and allocate available resources for the next year. I can confirm today not only that we are making those changes, but that we do not plan to reduce levels of training available to members of the Territorial Army as part of the process. Perhaps Opposition Members would indicate whether they support that approach.
Let me make it clear that we are absolutely right to put Afghanistan first. It is not possible to preach austerity, as the Opposition do, and then call foul whenever a measure is proposed to relieve budget pressures. We have listened: responsive government is right. There are those who will criticise us for changing our minds, but there are those who would have criticised us for obstinacy and irresponsibility had we done the opposite. That is politics. We were determined to do the right thing, that is what we have done, and I urge my colleagues to support me in the Chamber this evening.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House expresses its continued support for the role of the Territorial Army (TA); notes that the reserve forces have contributed some 20,000 personnel to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans since 2002, most of them from the Territorial Army, and that 14 Territorials have died on those operations; welcomes the Government’s additional £20 million ring-fenced by the Treasury for Territorial Army training; and further welcomes the Government’s policy to ensure that TA members deployed to Afghanistan are fully and properly trained for their role and to ensure that, for all TA members, normal training will take place in the evening and at weekends.”