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University Training Units

Volume 506: debated on Monday 22 February 2010

The Government fully recognise the value of the university royal naval units, the officer training corps, the university air squadrons and the defence training undergraduate scheme, which allow individuals to develop skills that are extremely valuable in future careers either within or without the armed forces. There are currently no plans to change the role of the university training units.

I remind the House of my interest. Just one month before the start of the new training year, OTCs and Territorial Army units are yet to have next year’s training budget confirmed. That forms a major problem for the commanding officers of those units, and it is a problem that the Armed Forces Minister recognised on 26 October, when he said that

“it is incumbent on us in the Ministry of Defence to reach conclusions on the budget for 2010 as quickly as possible”.—[Official Report, 26 October 2009; Vol. 498, c. 140.]

Four months on, we still do not know, so will the Minister simply confirm that all budgets will be in place before 1 April?

The reductions in university OTCs—on training, for example—were made on the recommendation of the head of the Army in order to make in-year savings. I accept that they have caused some problems for individual units. We reinstated the moneys for the trainers, but decisions on this year’s budget are ongoing within the MOD and will be announced in due course.

What effect does the Minister believe cuts in university training programmes and cuts in the training of those already serving in the armed forces will have on the long-term skills and capability of our men and women who serve in uniform? Is not the fact that the Government have brought these proposals forward another damning indictment of their mismanagement of the defence budget and the impact it has on the armed forces?

The decision to reduce or take away pay in the OTCs was taken on the recommendation from the head of the Army to make in-year savings. Costs are involved in supporting undergraduate schemes across the three armed forces, so if we are to ensure that we have a balanced defence budget and a balanced defence force, all factors need to be taken into consideration. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure that money goes directly into university schemes, I challenge the hon. Gentleman to say, first, where it will come from and, secondly, whether it will affect other parts of the defence budget?

As a member of the university air squadron when I was an undergraduate, I am well aware of the vital role that these schemes play in recruiting for our armed services. The Minister has just told us that the head of the Army proposed cuts in the training budget, so what assessment has he or his Department made of the impact it will have on the number of recruits coming through these schemes, and what cost will fall on the Army if such recruitment no longer takes place?

As I have said, this is a recommendation for in-year savings this year. Again, I will challenge the hon. Gentleman: if a future Conservative Government wish to ring-fence this area, they can, but they will have to say what would give in the defence budget. In terms of the strength of the UOTCs, the establishment for 2009 was 2,946 and the establishment at the moment is 3,500.

While I welcome the Minister’s support for university training units, I am none the wiser after the last three answers as to how that valuing of them will be turned into real action or which of the unique training opportunities that those units provide will be preserved and which the Minister thinks can simply be dispensed with.

The hon. Gentleman has to realise that the concentration is on current operations in Afghanistan. In November last year, the head of the Army instigated a review of the UOTCs. The reference group that he has set up includes the chair of the Council of Military Education Committees of Universities of the UK. It is important that, under its terms of reference, the steering group looks at everything that the UOTCs do to ensure that they are effective for the Army and provide value for the taxpayer.

The memo from HQ Land dated 12 October, which leaked in-year cuts to the OTC, warned of downstream implications for officer recruitment. Ominously, it went on to say that because money was so tight, there may be further cuts in the pipeline to be discussed with Ministers. Given that the MOD’s financial position since October cannot be said to have improved, will the Minister say what further discussion he has had on cuts to cadet forces, which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), would probably call “descoping”? Given that the nature of recent conflict requires us to have more able people in military leadership roles than ever before, may I press the Minister for a proper assessment of not only the likely damage to recruitment numbers but also the military effect of his gross budgetary short-termism?

I assume from what the hon. Gentleman suggests that this is yet another uncosted commitment from the Conservatives. The proposal was put forward by the head of the Army. The head of regional forces has set up a study into the OTCs, which will report by June this year. It includes not only the financial implications, but how the OTCs are structured and how they will go forward. A similar exercise is being done for the Royal Navy and the RAF. That is a proper way of listening to our military commanders’ advice about what is fit for purpose in the long term, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to state today that a future Conservative Government will ring-fence money for the UOTCs, he will need to tell taxpayers and voters come the election where else in the defence budget money will come from.