As a result of the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review, it has, sadly, been necessary to plan for redundancies in both the civil service and the armed forces. At all times this should be done with sensitivity to individuals concerned, and with an understanding of the impact that it will have on them and their families. There are two recent cases in which this has not happened. Let me deal with them both.
First, there are the 38 Army personnel who have received an e-mail, as reported in today’s press. This is a completely unacceptable way to treat anyone, not least our armed forces. The correct procedure was not followed. I regret this, and want to reiterate the unreserved apology already made by the Army and on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. Arrangements have already been put in place to ensure that it does not happen again, and the Army are already investigating the particular circumstances.
Secondly, there is the redundancy of trainee RAF pilots. It was always going to be the case that with fewer airframes we would need fewer pilots. The fact that people found out through the publication of inaccurate details in a national newspaper will, I am sure, be deprecated on both sides of the House, and can only cause the individuals concerned undue distress. I understand the concerns of those facing redundancy, and I understand the temptation of the Opposition to exploit issues for political advantage, but I hope that with issues as sensitive as individual redundancies, we can refrain from making a sad situation worse for the individuals and their families.
Yesterday I came to the House to support strongly the Government’s actions on Afghanistan, but today we are here for an entirely different reason: the revelation that dozens of soldiers with decades of service have been sacked by e-mail. It is a shame that Ministers had to be summoned to the Commons, when they should have immediately asked to come here voluntarily.
We all know that we cannot stop every redundancy in the armed forces, but this is no way to treat soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Secretary of State says that we should not play politics with such issues. Sacking anyone by e-mail is always wrong; sacking members of our armed forces in that way is utterly unforgiveable. But, unfortunately, as the Secretary of State says, a pattern is developing. One hundred RAF trainee pilots were sacked by media leak, some only hours away from getting their wings.
What is worse about this sordid affair is that the Government’s response has been to blame everyone else. In the morning it was the Army’s fault; by lunchtime it was a civil servant’s fault. But it was not the Army that decided to cut the deficit this far and this fast; it was not a civil servant who decided to go into a rushed defence review. It is the Government’s fault. They are locked into a logic of rapid deficit reduction, which means that mistakes are being made, some of them serious.
The country wants straight answers to direct questions. When will the Secretary of State announce who will be affected by the further reduction of 17,000 in the armed forces? On the sacking by e-mail, despite the Secretary of State’s previous promises, why did the Ministry of Defence agree that a soldier currently serving in Afghanistan should be sacked, and will the Secretary of State take personal responsibility for making sure that that never happens again? On RAF sackings, how many of the RAF trainees were within hours of fully qualifying as pilots? Have all those affected now been officially informed?
In all these matters there is a fine line between callousness and complacency. This was a callous event; the Government’s response this morning was complacent. They must act, act now, and make sure that it is never repeated.
The right hon. Gentleman should stick to agreeing with the Government; he is much more impressive on such occasions. What is sad today is not just the opportunism but the utter lack of humility, because we would not have had to reduce the armed forces or the civil service to such a degree if we had not inherited from the Labour Government a black hole in the MOD budget of £38 billion and a national deficit of £158 billion—[Interruption.] So before Opposition Front Benchers go about pointing fingers, they should look—[Interruption]—and the right hon. Gentleman should look, to the Government of whom he was a part, who left us economically wrecked. We will set out—[Interruption.]
Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber, and I am disturbed to note that a lot of it is being made by Members on both Front Benches. It does not impress me; it does not impress others. It should stop, and the Secretary of State will be heard with respect.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker.
The Opposition need to ask themselves why we have to make those reductions. It is because of the incompetence and the economic inheritance that they left behind. We will set out the programme of reductions in staff—the 17,000 mentioned—over the next five years. There was a great deal of inaccurate information in the newspaper story about the RAF trainee pilots. They are being briefed individually and collectively on the specific proposals that affect them. It is appropriate that that happens in private, not on the Floor of the House of Commons.
The events of the past 48 hours are sad, sorry events at which we should all express some regret, not least in the case of the individual who is serving his country in a hot war on the other side of the world. Does the Secretary of State accept that such events have a resonance beyond the units, and indeed, beyond the services, in which they occur? Does that not place an enormous obligation and responsibility on him and his fellow Ministers—to some extent discharged by the fact that he has come to the House personally to respond to the urgent question—to ensure that everything possible is done so that something of this kind never happens again?
Indeed. As I have said, we will take every measure to ensure that this does not happen, but we can never guarantee that individuals will not make mistakes; that is part of human nature. On the case that my right hon. and learned Friend mentions, the individual concerned was on assignment from Permanent Joint Headquarters working on an IT project in Afghanistan. He was on a temporary assignment, and not part of our regular forces sent into combat in Afghanistan.
What implication will the decision on the sacked RAF pilots in training have for the hundreds of jobs at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, outside York? Could some of those who are surplus to requirements as fast jet pilots be put on to helicopters instead, given the shortage of helicopter capacity that we heard about so often from the Secretary of State when he was in opposition?
The whole House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for being so straightforward in coming here to apologise for what is, without any question, a most disgraceful episode in our country’s history. Will he do two things? First, will he lay out precisely how he intends to make sure that this does not happen again? Secondly, the public will be asking for something for which they should be asking—a few hides to be flayed.
Over 1,000 service personnel in the most defence-dependent community in the UK face redundancy or re-posting when RAF Kinloss closes later this year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the correct procedures are followed with each and every one of these servicemen and women?
An unintended consequence of the introduction of NMS—the new management strategy—into the armed forces 20-odd years ago was that too often officers may be encouraged to see themselves as managers rather than leaders. Will the Secretary of State satisfy himself that within the chain of command that he has inherited, the military covenant is being properly served, particularly in relation to the 38 electronically sacked warrant officers?
As I have said, the Army is already undertaking an investigation of its own, and I expect that to conclude fully in a matter of days. The inquiry will draw the appropriate lessons on whether the chain of command was appropriately followed in this case. It would be appropriate for the inquiry to come to conclusions, and not for us, without the full information, to do so.
The Secretary of State’s tone in responding to the shadow Secretary of State was surprisingly strident. Just so that the House is clear, he is not actually blaming the previous, Labour Government for this abominable failure in procedure, is he?
I would hate the hon. Gentleman to get the wrong impression. What I am blaming the Labour Government for is the financial mismanagement that left a black hole of £38 billion in the MOD budget, and a massive deficit to get rid of. Without those, we would not have had to make redundancies of this scale in the first place.
On the future loss of so many pilots of fixed-wing aircraft, I am sure that my right hon. Friend would never admit to acting under duress, even if his toenails were being torn out by the Treasury. However, can he at least reassure us that some degree of flexibility in the availability of future fixed-wing aircraft pilots will be preserved, just in case we need them in the next 10 years?
Will the Secretary of State clarify for the House why no Minister appears to have had an oversight role in this process? In my 10 years in the private sector dealing with redundancy, it was normal practice for a senior manager to take on that responsibility.
Indeed, senior managers have taken responsibility. I have already had a report from the line managers responsible. When I have had the full information I will be able to determine where the responsibility lies, and what action may need to be taken by the Army.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that the sacking by e-mail of a number of senior non-commissioned officers is deeply regrettable—but it is no matter for Ministers. This is a straight lack of leadership inside the Army. I am amazed that we have seen nobody in uniform in the media apologising for this gross piece of conduct.
I realise that my hon. Friend will have been busy with his duties in the House, but the Assistant Chief of the General Staff has been in the media explaining the Army’s position on this matter. It is entirely appropriate that any measures that need to be taken in response are taken by the Army, not by Ministers—as I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his years of experience, will understand.
The Secretary of State will know that not only members of the armed forces but civilian staff, too, are affected by redundancies. I have written to him about the uncertainty over the future of civilian staff at Massereene barracks in Antrim. I hope that he will look into that matter.
Indeed I will, and I shall be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman if there are particular cases and circumstances that he wants me to look into. In general, the redundancies that will occur in the military as a result of the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review will be compulsory. For civilian staff, we want to consider natural wastage and voluntary redundancies where possible.
With soldiers from the Colchester garrison in 16 Air Assault Brigade currently deployed in Afghanistan, I remind the Secretary of State what he said to me on 8 November in response to a direct question:
“We need to maintain the Afghanistan rotation. It is therefore in the interests of common sense and fair play that no personnel serving in Afghanistan, or on notice to deploy, will be given compulsory redundancy.”—[Official Report, 8 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 12.]
Does that pledge still stand?
Will the Secretary of State comment on ministerial responsibility? Everybody else seems to be blamed, but nobody on the Government Front Bench. Will he agree to come back to the House and make a statement about this matter, and the dismissal of the RAF trainees, when all the facts have been established?
The redundancy process in the RAF will proceed as it should. The individuals concerned will be informed, and we will see whether alternatives are available for them. Those who need to leave will do so under the rules for compulsory redundancy, which are set out clearly for the armed forces.
The cases are different for civilian and military personnel. In the military there is a compulsory redundancy programme, so that we maintain the shape of the armed forces. We must maintain not just those on the front line, but the enablers whom they require. Things are different in the civil service—and while we will be losing 17,000 personnel across the armed forces, we will be losing 25,000 from the civil service in the Ministry of Defence.
RAF Valley, in my constituency, is a centre of excellence for fast jet training. Civilian staff and trainee pilots were unsettled, to say the least, to read reports over the weekend about redundancies. As the Secretary of State said, it is not for him to make redundancy announcements in the House. However, as Secretary of State, surely he should indicate what the impact of his announcement of job cuts will be on the RAF, so that bases such as RAF Valley have the stability and clarity that they need for the future.
We set out in the SDSR what we believed the shape and size of the RAF would be, and the need for fast jets in the future. When it comes to redundancies, it is hugely to be regretted that not only did the information appear first in a national newspaper, rather than coming down the chain of command to those involved—which is the correct process—but much of the information was inaccurate. That was a double blow for the personnel. As I said, those personnel will be informed personally of the decisions that affect them, so that their personal circumstances can be taken into account. I have no intention of announcing redundancies through the House of Commons.
That is primarily a matter for the RAF, but I have already asked for Ministers to be fully informed about the progress through any course that is being taken. It would make common sense to ensure that those closest to the end of their course could be allowed to continue, if possible. Not all those in the press stories, or the numbers in the press stories, will have to be made redundant. I hope that there will be some flexibility, and that common sense will be shown.
The whole of the SDSR was predicated on success in Afghanistan. Nothing that has happened in respect of any announcements made by the Army, the Navy or the Air Force will impact on our operations in Afghanistan. They remain the priority for the Ministry of Defence and the Government.
Even the previous Government, who were notoriously slack on controlling spending, made the MOD one of three Government Departments that were put into special measures. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all MOD redundancies need to be understood in the context of a Government and a Department where spending was rampant and out of control?
It is no secret that when this Government came to office, not only did we inherit generic economic incompetence, but inside the Ministry of Defence there was a specifically difficult case. I shall set out in the near future measures for achieving better control over the MOD budget, not least in real time.
Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that we will make sure that this episode will not be repeated in the case of the 3 Commando Brigade, based in my constituency, which is set to go out to Afghanistan in a few weeks?
As I said in answer to an earlier question, none of those preparing for or on deployment will receive redundancy notices. I shall certainly ensure that all the lessons are learned from this episode to make sure that no one else in the armed forces is put in that position either.
Should we not design a new armed forces “parliamentary deficit denier” tie? We would not have to make redundancies if it were not for the fact that when the present Government came into office, Labour had left the Ministry of Defence with the largest unfunded overdraft of any Government Department.
Not only is my hon. Friend correct, but the debt interest repayment that the country will have next year is bigger than the MOD budget, the Foreign Office budget and the overseas aid budget combined. What was shocking today was the fact that there were no regrets and no remorse, just naked self-interest from the Opposition.
When I was serving in the armed forces under the previous Government, colleagues of mine were given their redundancy notices while serving on the front line in Bosnia. That was not by mistake or leaked e-mail; it was an entirely deliberate process carried out by the Labour Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the phoney anger from those on the Labour Benches is designed to cover the fact that they left the MOD in a state of overspend, underfunding and complete chaos?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the significant, and indeed forced, expenditure on urgent operational requirements by the last Government—money that had to be taken from the reserve, which even the Labour-dominated Defence Committee commented upon last year—has contributed at least in part to the challenges that he now faces?
I did not expect to have to defend the record of the previous Government at any point, but when our armed forces require equipment it is the duty of the Government of the day to ensure that they get it. The UOR mechanism has been a very effective way of achieving that, and the current Government intend to carry on that practice.
I am proud to have RAF Linton-on-Ouse in my constituency. When graduates there have received their wings they proceed to RAF Valley and other RAF stations. There will be huge uncertainty surrounding the continuation of the programmes of both those who have graduated and undergraduates who are currently at RAF Linton. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give us today about their future?
As I have said, it is greatly to be regretted that we are losing personnel from the armed forces, including 5,000 from the RAF. All of us would wish that that was not the case, but we must deal with the economic reality as we find it. It is important that when announcements are made about redundancies, they are made appropriately through the chain of command, not through national newspapers or political announcements in the House. It is appropriate that we give sensitive treatment to those who are to lose their jobs. I believe that is how the whole House thinks it should be done.
Nobody should lose their job via an e-mail—but particularly not members of the armed forces, who put their lives on the line for this country. If whoever was responsible for sending that e-mail has not done the honourable thing by standing down and resigning, should they not be sacked?
As I said earlier, the Army is already looking into the particular circumstances of the situation. There has been an appalling mistake, and I know that the individual concerned will be absolutely mortified that it occurred. We need to find ways to ensure that it does not happen again, but we have to be careful about hanging individuals out to dry, particularly very experienced individuals, because of demands from the media or anywhere else.
The inaccurate reports of the firing of RAF pilots who have nearly completed their course will cause a great deal of anxiety to members of the RAF. The Secretary of State has rightly not gone into the details, because he wants officers to be informed first, but I ask him seriously to consider coming back to the House in due course so that we can question him further on this matter.
I am sure the House will have a number of occasions, at Defence questions and in future debates, to question me on the implementation of the SDSR and the CSR, and on the reasons why we had to make the reductions that we did, and how we are implementing them. When we have given information to the individuals concerned, then and only then will be the appropriate time to make announcements to the House.