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Armed Forces (Redundancies)

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on redundancies in the armed forces.

On 19 October last year, in the strategic defence and security review, the Government announced reductions in the size of the armed forces, reducing the Army by 7,000, the RAF by 5,000 and the Navy by 5,000. This was to reshape the armed forces for Future Force 2020 and also to respond to the budgetary pressures resulting from the need to reduce the inherited deficit and deal with the black hole in the Ministry of Defence’s finances.

Following the announcement, normal procedure for proceeding with the redundancies was followed. Let me briefly describe this. The armed forces modelled the manpower that they needed for Future Force 2020 and consulted their own people on the best methods and time scales for achieving that. The families federations have been kept fully informed. Yesterday’s announcements were simply part of that process. Following yesterday’s announcement of the RAF programme, the Army and Navy will follow on 4 April with their programmes. The Army and RAF will give individuals notice that they will be made redundant on 1 September, followed by the Navy on 30 September. The exact timing of further tranches has not yet been decided.

Afghanistan is the Government’s defence main effort. Decisions in the SDSR were therefore weighted towards the protection of capability for the mission in Afghanistan, which, as the Prime Minister has said, will see us transition to full Afghan lead in 2014.

Redundancy is never a painless process, whether in the armed forces or elsewhere, and it is sad to see committed and patriotic men and women lose their jobs. But in that process, it is essential that they are made fully aware of the options available and the time scales involved, which means that a timetable needs to be adhered to, for the sake of themselves and their families. It would simply be wrong to alter that timetable for the convenience of the Government. Personnel were expecting the announcement this week, and to delay it for political expediency would have been to betray their trust. Difficult though it may be, under this Government political convenience will not be the final arbiter of our decisions.

I start by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s condolences regarding Private Dean Hutchinson and Private Robert Wood.

This is the second time in recent weeks that the Secretary of State has had to come to Parliament in this way. Surely it is not too much to ask that when he is making announcements about 11,000 armed forces redundancies he should volunteer to come here, and not have to be summoned to appear.

Yesterday there was a written ministerial statement, which contained a fraction of the information that was briefed to the media. Some will think that that was because, on the day when the Government were discussing a no-fly zone over Libya, they did not want to defend in the Commons the 2,700 redundancies in the RAF—but I think it is more serious than that. In November the Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box:

“no one currently serving in Afghanistan, or on notice to deploy, will face compulsory redundancy.”—[Official Report, 8 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 13.]

I always try to give the Secretary of State the benefit of the doubt, as he knows, so I believed him. More importantly, the armed forces and their families believed him. In making that promise he gave his word, and in breaking his pledge he is playing with words.

Why did the Ministry of Defence brief the media yet keep Parliament in the dark? How many people who have served in Afghanistan will be made redundant, and will the Secretary of State repeat his guarantee that no one currently serving in Afghanistan will be sacked on their return? Unless he can answer those questions and give that guarantee, it is disgraceful that some of our forces taking on the Taliban today will be welcomed home as heroes by the public, and sacked by their Government.

First, as I have just explained to the House, this is not a new announcement but simply procedure following on from the announcements made in the SDSR. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that this is the second time that we have had an urgent question on this subject, and I noticed that when the Opposition last had the opportunity to ask a question, they were not asking for details about these particular schemes but wanted to talk about e-mails and other peripheral issues. For them suddenly to come forward with a new-found interest in this particular issue strikes me as the most sad and cynical opportunism.

I have repeatedly made it clear that we have compulsory redundancy schemes in the armed forces because we need to maintain the rank structure and skills base required. When compulsory redundancies are announced, they will not affect those in receipt of the operational allowance, those within six months of deploying or those on post-operational tour leave, as I made clear in the House.

Sadly, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have to refer to the fallen on occasions. As we speak, a military funeral is taking place at St Peter’s church in Colchester, so the statement that we have been given is very important.

The Secretary of State has twice now given the House assurances that members of 16 Air Assault Brigade from my constituency serving in Afghanistan will not be made compulsorily redundant. Does he agree, however, that the manner in which the Ministry of Defence is handling matters causes concern not only to serving personnel in Afghanistan but to their families back home?

The processes being followed are those that the armed forces would normally follow when setting out redundancies. There is never a good time to announce redundancies. It is particularly politically difficult when our armed forces are in combat in Afghanistan. However, if we are to keep faith with our personnel, we must follow the timetables that we have set out for them. It would be easy to delay announcements at the inconvenience of our service personnel simply for the convenience for politicians. That is entirely the wrong way to proceed.

The Secretary of State knows that Moray is the most defence-dependent constituency in the UK, that a great many people at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss have just learned that they are to be made redundant, and that 14 Squadron has just returned from Afghanistan, had a homecoming parade, and is now being disbanded early. Does he understand that that bad news is compounded by the delayed decision and announcement about the future of RAF Lossiemouth?

At the risk of repeating and repeating myself, I say that the hon. Gentleman makes the point well about the basing review. It will report when we have decided on the best balance across the United Kingdom for the wider interests of UK defence.

The review of reserves continues, looking at the financial and capability implications and the wider footprint. It is not directly affected by the results, but on implementation, we would of course have to take into account the shape of the armed forces resulting from the SDSR decisions.

The Secretary of State is trying to tell us that all the decisions spring from his strategic defence review—but is that true? He did not tell us about the cuts to the Tornado when he cut the Harrier. When the Prime Minister told us that he would protect the infantry, he did not tell us that he would cut the Royal Marines. The Secretary of State, many other Members and I know that decisions are still being made on further cuts in the Ministry of Defence. He criticised us for not having a strategic defence review, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that we still have not had one. He must open up the decision and take some proper, publicly accountable strategic decisions about the shape of our armed forces.

If I may correct one minor inaccuracy, I said that we had decided to cut 17,000 jobs in the armed forces. In fact, the work that the armed forces carried out means that the figure is considerably smaller. Instead of 7,000, it is 5,000 for the Army; instead of 5,000, it is 3,300 for the Navy.

Of course, the budgetary pressures continue. As any Labour politician knows, the previous Government left Ministry of Defence finances in an absolute shambles. The problem will not be tackled overnight.

No one should doubt my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the welfare of our armed services, but there is a concern that the resources devoted to the Ministry of Defence are top-heavy relative to our troops on the ground. Will he remind the House of the measures that he is taking to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is streamlined?

It is worth remembering when we discuss those matters that although we have had reductions of some 11,000 in the armed forces, we are looking at reductions of 25,000 in the civil service to bring the MOD into a much better and more efficient shape and to help control the budget. My hon. Friend is correct that we will also look at rank structure to ensure that we are not making reductions in the more junior ranks while maintaining those at a higher level in the armed forces.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the cost to the Department of the redundancy payments in his announcement will be?

I am not able to give that figure yet, because the armed forces themselves have not decided which posts will be lost. When we can provide a figure to the House, we will certainly do so.

I know how angry the nonsense in the Army a couple of weeks ago, when sergeant-majors and warrant officers were sacked by e-mail, made the Secretary of State. Newark, my constituency, will feel the effect of the RAF redundancies, in particular. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be no further such nonsense when the next announcements are made?

What I set out today is the correct procedure that should be followed. What we discussed on a previous occasion is what happens when it is not followed. It would have been easy for the Government to say, “We will not go ahead with this programme this week; we will not have those face-to-face interviews with the personnel concerned because it is politically inconvenient for us at this time.” That would be the wrong way to proceed. We have a duty of care to those who are being made redundant to ensure that processes and timetables are followed, and that they and their families get the maximum certainty in the circumstances.

I am sure that the Secretary of State draws no pleasure from this painful process, but further to the point made by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), I and many others struggle to understand why the redundancies are not included in a single package with the base closure programme in July. Would it not have made more sense to do this in a more joined-up way?

Work will always be ongoing. As well as the basing review, we have the Army returning from Germany and reform of the procurement process, on which I last week set out some additional measures. This is an ongoing process and there will be second and third order changes as a result of the SDSR for some time to come. The Department requires huge downsizing—it has an inherited budgetary deficit of £38 billion—and we cannot expect to do that overnight. Had we done things more quickly, I would no doubt have been accused of rushing the base review as well.

In the past when we have managed headcount through redundancies, we have also turned off the tap on recruitment and training, with disastrous long-standing consequences. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that we will continue to try to attract the highest-quality young people to our armed forces and to train them properly?

We will continue to recruit the highest calibre possible. Some reductions in redundancies have been achieved by slowing down the number of those coming into the armed forces, but we cannot avoid redundancies through that process, because we need to continue to recruit, not least for the campaign in Afghanistan.

In the light of the Secretary of State’s announcement that 170 trainee pilots will not be retained by the RAF, will he say how much it costs to train such a pilot in the first place?

I am not sure that that figure is available, but I will try to find out. It is important that when we are unable to continue training, we will offer those concerned alternative careers inside the RAF where possible. However, it is inevitable that if we reduce the number of aircraft, we will have a reduced requirement for pilots. Those trainees will not continue to the end of their traineeship because there has been a reduction in the size of the aircraft fleet, which, as I said, is a necessary part of the spending reductions required to bring the budget into balance. We did not create that budget; we inherited it.

My constituency is home to most of the Salisbury plain garrison towns. We will wait with eager anticipation to see the final numbers in September, but can the Secretary of State assure the House, first, that those who are injured in the line of duty will not be in the first line for redundancies, and secondly, that we will do all we can to support those who leave the armed forces in moving into other roles, particularly in teaching and in mentoring young children?

My hon. Friend makes two very important points. First, clearly, when those who have been injured are still recovering, there will be no question of redundancy. Secondly, it makes a great deal of sense to encourage such mentoring programmes. We often hear that young people do not have sufficient role models, and getting people from the armed forces into our schools will provide young people with the sort of role models that will be of real value to them.

Can the Secretary of State repeat his previous pledge that no member of the armed forces who is currently serving in Afghanistan will be made redundant?

When we finally get to the point when redundancies are announced—that is some way off yet—nobody who is in pre-deployment training, or deployed and in receipt of the operational allowance, or recovering from injuries sustained on operations, or on post-operational leave, will be made compulsorily redundant.

It is sad news that 13 Squadron at RAF Marham is to be disbanded, although I understand that this will not lead to automatic redundancies. Further to earlier questions about the basing review, which the Secretary of State has said will be announced in the spring or summer, can he confirm that it will not only cover the short term and the Tornado, but look at where the joint strike fighter will be based, to provide long-term security for the armed forces personnel in my constituency?

The basing review, when it is announced, will examine what we require in line with Future Force 2020 and the strategy set out in the SDSR, and it is only appropriate that it should do so. It is much better that we should have a clearly set out aim-point of 2020 and be working towards that. Given the shambolic budget and the deficit that we inherited, we all recognised that we would not be able to make changes overnight. In 10 months we have gone quite far in returning that budgetary imbalance to a more sustainable position, and we intend to do the same with the basing review.

The scale and pace of the cuts that the coalition has decided to implement go far deeper and faster than is necessary to deal with the deficit. Can the Secretary of State say whether those cuts are permanent?

The fact is that there has not been even a hint of an apology from the Opposition about the appalling situation that they left behind. Nobody on the Government Benches came into politics to see cuts in our armed forces; they were forced on us by the utter incompetence of the Government who went before us. I also noticed that in the question asked earlier by the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), there was no hint of what Labour policy is, or what the Opposition might do to reverse any of the cuts.

As of this moment the changes are being considered—they will be announced later in the year—so obviously none will impact on any short-term decision about a no-fly zone in Libya.

At a time of enormous uncertainty—not just about Libya, but about the middle east and northern Africa—does the Secretary of State agree that making long-term strategic reductions in our capabilities for short-term cost reasons will hearten the Taliban and encourage their resurgence in future years, in the knowledge that we are in disarray over piecemeal successive cuts to our strategic capability?

The idea that these are short-term cuts for short-term reasons beggars belief. Next year we will spend more on debt interest than on defence, the Foreign Office and aid put together. Even if we eliminate the deficit in this Parliament, the debt interest will still go up, so future generations will still be living with the legacy of Labour’s economic incompetence. This is not something short term; this is long-term pain imposed on the British people by the economic incompetence of another socialist Government.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Defence Medical Services have for some time struggled to maintain the correct numbers of certain clinical specialists. Can he assure the House that any potential reduction in size of Defence Medical Services will not jeopardise its ability to grow and retain those key clinical personnel?

It is a key point that we have those appropriate personnel. Indeed, in the review of the reserves, which has already been mentioned, I am particularly concerned to ensure that we retain full access to medical specialties. However, although we may be saturated in terms of secondary care, there is still scope to improve the primary care offered in the armed forces through the reserves.

What assurances can the Secretary of State give senior military personnel who have expressed their opinion on this matter that, following the announcement of the decisions, we will have the capability to deal with the potential threat in the near future?

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question—and as I have explained, that is why we have compulsory redundancies in the armed forces. We cannot simply accept the people who volunteer for redundancy, because we have a duty to maintain the rank structure and the appropriate skills. That is why we will allow people to volunteer for the scheme, but ultimately we may not be able to accept all who volunteer, and may have compulsory redundancies elsewhere instead. It is for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman raises—because we have to maintain the skills and structures involved—that we have a compulsory scheme in statute in this country.

As a former RAF officer who took advantage of a previous redundancy scheme, I was pleased to visit 1466 Air Cadet Squadron in Holmfirth recently. Many of the young people there aspire to serve in the Royal Air Force. They are the potential brave servicemen and women of the future, so will the Secretary of State confirm that we will keep their morale up?

It is always worth pointing out to those who wish to have a career in the armed forces that there is a bright future for them. Under Future Force 2020, not only will Britain have the fourth biggest defence budget in the world, but the RAF will see the number of Typhoons grow and the introduction of the new joint strike fighter, and we will also upgrade our lift capability through the introduction of the A400M. I would certainly encourage anyone who wants to continue with their careers to do so, but I also warn Opposition Members that playing politics with redundancies or other issues that have a clear impact on morale is extremely dangerous.

Yesterday the Secretary of State tabled a statement outlining his plans for members of the armed forces and their redundancies. He told the House that nobody preparing to deploy in Afghanistan, serving in Afghanistan or recently returned from Afghanistan would be made redundant. Within minutes the media were reporting that this was not the case. He seems to be dodging the issue today, so will he now repeat that exact pledge on the Floor of the House?

I will say it for the third time in the House, although I should say to the hon. Gentleman that I can only explain it to him; I cannot understand it for him. At the point where any compulsory redundancies are made—that will be some time later in the year, as I have made clear in the timetable already set out by the armed forces—no one serving in Afghanistan in receipt of the operational allowance, no one preparing to go there, nobody on post-deployment leave and nobody who is recovering will be made compulsorily redundant.

The squadrons that were removed from service were not covered by the SDSR announcement; what happened was the result of the previous Government’s decision in the 2009 planning round, which is now being implemented.

We must not forget that 11,000 of our bravest men and women have lost their jobs because of the Secretary of State’s decision. Many of them, and their families, watching or listening will find his tone rather distasteful and smug at this time. We must remember that they are men and women who risk their lives every day in defence of this great country. They deserve a lot more respect than they are being shown in the Secretary of State’s answers.

Clearly we are going to disagree on our approach, because what the hon. Gentleman calls smug, I would call angry. We are very angry indeed that we were left with a £38 billion hole in the Ministry of Defence and a massive national deficit, the interest payments on which are bigger than our defence budget. We are angry, but we are absolutely determined to get the situation under control, and then we will urge the British people never again to elect such an economically incompetent Government as the previous one.

My right hon. Friend was kind enough to write to me yesterday following his statement, knowing that RAF Cranwell is in my constituency. All serving RAF personnel in my constituency well understand the £38 billion hole that we were left with by the last Government. However, RAF Cranwell is considered the home of the Royal Air Force. Can he give me an assurance today that it will always be considered the home of the Royal Air Force?

That is the tide of history, and nothing I could say or do would change it. However, I reiterate to my hon. and learned Friend that we must go through the proper processes where redundancies are concerned. We must stick to the timetables concerned, because that is part of our duty of care to the men and women who serve in our armed forces. We cannot have arbitrary dates set to suit a political timetable, at the expense of our armed forces. That would be quite wrong.

I understood from yesterday’s statement that 170 RAF trainee pilots would not be retained. In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), the Secretary of State seemed to imply that they would be redeployed in the RAF. Can he confirm whether we are talking about cuts, with those pilots leaving the RAF, or whether they will be used for something else?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The reductions are a consequence of reducing the number of aircraft in the RAF, so there is also a reduction in the number of pilots needed, and therefore a reduction in the number of pilots in training. If alternative employment within the RAF can be found for those individuals, we will attempt to provide it.

Will the Secretary of State be kind enough to outline the terms of a typical redundancy package? What is the reserve liability for those unfortunate enough to be made redundant?

Because there is such a wide range of individuals who might be leaving the armed forces, it is difficult to say what a typical package would be. It will also range across the three services, as well as depending on seniority. I will attempt to get for my hon. Friend an indication of what the numbers might look like, although I cannot guarantee that will be able to do so with any great accuracy.

The Secretary of State’s commitment to armed services personnel who will be deployed in the future is welcome. However, does that commitment extend to armed service personnel currently deployed in Afghanistan, such as the Royal Irish Regiment, and what consultation will the right hon. Gentleman carry out with the regional representatives of those armed forces personnel?

In looking at their personnel, the armed forces will want to consider a range of issues, not least which personnel they want to retain and which personnel they might accept for compulsory redundancy. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise any specific issues with any of the service chiefs, I am sure that they would be happy to listen to his representations.

Has my right hon. Friend given any consideration to providing extra support for personnel made redundant, to help them move out of the military and secure jobs in alternative employment?

As I said some time ago in the House, it takes time to transform a civilian into a member of the armed forces, and it takes time to transform a member of the armed forces back into a civilian. It is absolutely necessary to give our full support to all individuals who are leaving. We have set out some particular programmes relating, for example, to those who could move into teaching or mentoring, and we will continue to look at how many programmes we can bring in to ensure that the transition back to civilian life is as smooth and productive as possible.

I am staggered by the short memories of Labour Members about the scale of the economic challenges facing the country and the Department as a result of the incompetence of the last Government. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether other trusted allies are also realigning their military forces in the light of economic challenges and changing strategic priorities?

All countries need to continue to do so. The fact that the United Kingdom, with the world’s fourth biggest defence budget—still above 2% of GDP spend, which is our NATO commitment—has been able to do so, and to announce investment in programmes ranging from our submarine programme, our lift capability and our fast jets while making changes to Army structure, is a testament to the skills in our armed forces. Notwithstanding the horrendous financial situation that we inherited from the previous Government, the skills of our armed forces are contributing hugely to our ability to reach a path in 2020 whereby this country can hold its head high on defence.

I must thank the Secretary of State and all right hon. and hon. Members for their succinctness, which enabled every colleague who wanted to take part in these exchanges to do so.