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Armed Forces Redundancies

Volume 526: debated on Monday 4 April 2011

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

Today, the Army and the Royal Navy will announce details of their tranche 1 redundancy fields, setting out the specialisations, branches and ranks from which we are seeking volunteers for redundancy. This was a planned, publicised and expected announcement, following that already completed for the Royal Air Force on 1 March this year to deliver the necessary reductions in the size of our armed forces as required by the strategic defence and security review.

We had wanted to lay a written ministerial statement at 4 o’clock this afternoon—a time chosen by the services to allow sufficient time for them to brief service personnel ahead of their hearing about it from a third party. Indeed, many will have read a story on armed forces redundancy published in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. It was extremely disappointing that any details were leaked and equally appalling that the press would publish a story that will in no way change the difficult decisions we have to make, but adds a further concern to service personnel and their families—a position we have striven to avoid. Indeed, it was to allow all personnel to be briefed that we passed details to the chain of command on Friday.

As has been made clear in this House on several occasions, we would prefer not to make anyone redundant, but we have to do this to make the very real required savings in defence costs to take control of the deficit. As has been emphasised, this Government will not, for political expediency, shy away from announcing details when they are expected; our armed forces deserve this honesty.

The redundancy programme will not impact adversely on the current operations in Afghanistan or in Libya, where our armed forces are fighting so bravely on this country’s behalf. This was a key assumption in the strategic defence and security review. We will inform all those individuals selected for redundancy in this, the first of up to four tranches, in September 2011—specifically, 1 September for the Army and RAF and 30 September for the Royal Navy. Those voluntarily leaving the armed forces will do so within six months; non-volunteers will do so within a year. For all those leaving the armed forces as a result of these changes, every effort will be made to assist in what can often be a difficult transition. We will continue to work hard in this area. Our people deserve nothing less.

For the third time in just seven weeks, Ministers have had to be summoned to the House of Commons to speak about the treatment of our armed forces. I should have thought that after the sacking of warrant officers by e-mail and the sacking of trainee RAF pilots by media press release, Ministers would be banging on your door, Mr Speaker, demanding the right to come here to make a statement rather than being summoned to appear before the House. Let us hope that this is the last occasion on which Ministers will be dragged here to explain their Department’s actions. On previous occasions the Secretary of State has simply shouted some political slogans across the Chamber, and I hope that the change of Minister today signals a change in tone, because armed forces families are expecting a different tone.

Labour Members are committed to a bipartisan approach to policy on both Afghanistan and Libya. The Secretary of State originally gave a commitment that none of those currently serving in Afghanistan would be sacked on their return, but has since had to admit that he cannot honour that commitment, and that personnel will be sacked after their post-operational leave. Can the Minister confirm that those serving in and around Libya at this very moment will also be liable for compulsory redundancy in September?

As for the sacking of RAF trainee pilots, the Secretary of State said—quite fairly, I thought—

“It would make common sense to ensure that those closest to the end of their course could be allowed to continue, if possible.”—[Official Report, 15 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 820.]

How much common sense has prevailed? How many trainee pilots have been sacked within just 10 hours of earning their RAF wings?

We all know that no one can stop all redundancies in the Ministry of Defence. However, the first time this was mishandled, Ministers said that it had been an accident. The second time, they said that it had been a mistake. In the opinion of Labour Members, the third time is simply inexcusable. It is time for this shabby treatment of our armed forces to end, and it must end soon.

This is no accident. On 1 March, the Secretary of State said in response to a question from the right hon. Gentleman that there would be an announcement today on redundancies as they were planned. [Interruption.] It was in the House of Commons. As Opposition Front Benchers know full well, it was planned for a written ministerial statement to be issued at 4 pm, and indeed I was going to conduct a briefing for Members of Parliament in all parties to explain the situation. Instead, the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), has decided that a Minister should come to the House of Commons. What we are announcing is not new; this is political expediency on the part of the Labour party. The right hon. Gentleman was told on 1 March that the written ministerial statement would be issued.

The right hon. Gentleman raised three points in particular. First, he mentioned redundancies following post-operational leave. Of course those who have served in Afghanistan may have to be considered for redundancy, because 55% of the Army [Interruption]—which, as Opposition Members have spotted, amounts to 11 out of 20—will have served in Afghanistan.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of people on operations in Libya. We do not yet know what operations will be current in September, when people will receive their redundancy notices. We are considering the matter carefully, and we would certainly not wish to make anyone who is serving on combat operations redundant.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about redundancies of RAF pilots who had only had 10 hours of training to go. I am afraid I cannot comment on that, but I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman and let him know the answer.

Will the Minister remind the House how many uniformed armed services personnel will need to leave the service over the next two years under the current plans, and will he tell us why this cannot be done by means of natural wastage rather than redundancies?

As far as possible, it is being done by means of natural wastage, and indeed by reducing recruiting, but, as my right hon. Friend will understand, we must continue to recruit because otherwise there will be an imbalance in the armed forces. The number that we are looking at, off the top of my head—in fact I have it here, if my right hon. Friend will wait one second—is 11,000.

The Minister says these cuts will have no impact on either Afghanistan or Libya, but can he confirm that, despite the leading role we have played in the Libya operation, we are providing only about 8% of the aircraft being used in the no-fly zone and the Chief of the Air Staff has today said that the Royal Air Force is stretched to breaking point? How does the Minister square the following three points: the stretch, the fact that we are providing only 8% of those aircraft, and his insistence that the cuts are having no effect on operations?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman played a very honourable part in the last Government explaining to the then Prime Minister how he was trying to increase operational capacity without increasing spending, and I know that he pointed out to the last Prime Minister that there was not enough money for our operational requirements. On the Royal Air Force in particular, as the Prime Minister said in October, and as the Chief of the Air Staff has confirmed and explicitly stated in his article, we wish to see an uplift in real-terms defence spending from 2015. The Prime Minister has said that.

Will my right hon. Friend outline the extent to which the rules on regular reserve liability will affect those being made redundant, and confirm that those who do have that liability will be kept close, up to date and informed, as they form a very valuable potential contingency in the event of a declining international situation?

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. The regular reserve personnel do indeed play a very important role, and I will make sure that they are kept informed.

May I point out to the Minister that the armed forces do not have any trade union or federation representing them, and it is up to everyone in this House to look after their interests? What is the Minister doing to ensure that, for those who might be affected by these cuts, there are after-care services in place so they have assistance in looking for jobs and families are not moved out their homes? What are we as a Parliament going to do to ensure that we look after the people who protect this country?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we have a responsibility to make sure our armed forces personnel and their families are properly looked after, and that is what I do. I should say that in September when individuals are issued with redundancy notices, volunteers for compulsory redundancy—that is the way it is put—will have six months of notice to work, while those who are compulsory non-volunteers will have 12 months of notice to work. They have full resettlement courses, which are extremely valuable, and I should say to both the House and the people outside that the personnel who serve in the armed forces are first rate and almost invariably find that outside employers wish to take them on because of their qualities.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the strategic defence and security review has factored in operations such as the one we are undertaking in Libya, and that we will retain the personnel to be able to respond to such events again?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because he is absolutely right. The National Security Council came up with various scenarios, including operations such as the one in which we are currently partaking in Libya.

All 11,000 redundancies are termed compulsory. We are hoping that we will receive volunteers for as many posts as possible, but we are not just going to accept volunteers because some of them will be people we wish to keep, so we will not want them to enter the redundancy programme.

We all very much regret every single compulsory redundancy under this deficit-driven SDSR, but we none the less accept they have to happen. Does the Minister agree that it is terribly important that those involved are given the most generous possible conditions of redundancy, whether voluntary or compulsory, in keeping, of course, with their normal terms of service?

Yes, I do agree. Individuals will find that the terms of redundancy are generous and attractive, which is why we expect a lot of people to volunteer.

Will the Minister order an official inquiry into the way that our armed forces personnel continue to learn of their fate through the newspapers, and will that inquiry investigate Ministers themselves?

For the sake of clarity, will the Minister confirm that the reductions in manpower announced today are not in addition to anything announced in the strategic defence and security review? Were all the reductions planned, and had the Minister always planned on coming to the House today to announce them?

Indeed, we announced to the House on 1 March that the redundancy programme would be announced on 4 April. That is exactly what was planned in the SDSR and there is nothing in addition. I am sorry that some people have wished to make political capital of the matter.

I have known the hon. Gentleman for a long time and know that he takes a particular interest in these issues, but I do not think his facts are correct on this occasion. There were issues in the past but—and here I will be rather consensual—equipment procurement got a lot better during the final years of the previous Administration. Equipment procurement is now much better, particularly in operational areas.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for his doughty response. We will now return to the subject of redundancies.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have no doubt about the ability of our armed forces to fulfil the tasks given to them, but I have some worries about morale. Will the Minister join me in appealing to the media to take a responsible attitude to the way they report these facts, and to have respect for the chain of command?

I agree with my hon. and gallant Friend because, like him, I have served in the armed forces and I find the political posturing and use of the media in these cases deeply regrettable. All that does is create an atmosphere in which people are uncertain and concerned about their futures.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the UK manufacturing industry’s profound disquiet at the continued reduction in the capacity of the armed forces? Has he discussed such matters with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, or only with the Treasury?

UK defence manufacturing is not my responsibility and I have not discussed it with the Secretary of State.

I am confident that the review into reserve forces, “Future Reserves 2020”, will lead to a more robust reserve forces scenario and I look forward to reading it shortly.

In his initial comments, the Minister deplored the fact that these details had been leaked to the media, yet he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) that he would not hold an investigation into the matter, and that he would not be looking into Ministers’ offices. That is despite the fact that there have been regular briefings that clearly cannot have come from anywhere other than the Ministers’ offices. He cannot have it both ways; he must stop briefing and ensure that newspapers do not get these stories unfairly.

I find it a strange accusation that I have been briefing the media on redundancies in the armed forces. It is not a pleasant subject and has not given the Government tremendously good publicity—I think we can agree about that. On past occasions, the Secretary of State has indeed instituted investigations into leaks, but I assure the House that this leak did not come from Ministers.