[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I start by saying happy St George’s Day to all, and in particular, to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—it is their day, too.
Reservists combine a military role with their civilian job. They are not normally kept under arms, and their traditional military task has been to fight when the country mobilises for war, or to defend against invasion. Reserve troops are not normally considered part of the nation’s standing body of military forces, although now it appears that that might change.
Reservists can be used in many ways. Most urgently, they can be BCRs—battle casualty replacements—for combat losses in front-line units during a conflict, as they were in both world wars and in more recent conflicts, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In both world wars, they were also used to form complete units. They can be used for more static activities, such as guarding, security patrols or for manning prisoner of war camps. Most certainly, their expertise enhances military intelligence, communications and medical facilities. Reservists give the nation an immediate increase in soldiers, without the months of training that it would take to build up such combat power. They are usually less expensive than maintaining a standing force, as they are used only when required.
The quality of reservists is often very high. Many have expert civilian skills that are transferable to and improve the professional efficiency of the military. For instance, some reservists involved in cyber-security are second to none, and without the Territorial Army and reservists serving in our military medical services, we would definitely have fewer survivors from the current firefights in Afghanistan. Many in the TA see military service as an integral part of their life. It may be a hobby, but it is a very serious one, about which they are normally extremely enthusiastic. That enthusiasm can often be turned to military advantage. Calling out reserves can also be a visible and deliberate signal of determined escalation during a mounting crisis.
Yet too often in the past, the TA has become the repository for weapons and equipment no longer used by the Regular Army. Selection may be neither as rigorous nor as well funded as that of regular soldiers. Members of the TA obviously do not have the same amount of time to sharpen or maintain their military skills, as they normally hold down full-time jobs as well. TA or reserve service is an add-on to their lives and it is one that sometimes has to be squeezed. Employers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, are always concerned that a key member of their team might, just might, be mobilised, leaving them with a gaping and difficult gap in their companies for up to a year.
I accept that the Ministry of Defence fully recognises those problems and is trying to take steps to mitigate them. I agree, too, that a fix is perfectly possible for some of the points I have outlined, but I find it difficult to see how the worries of SMEs, which may lose a vital worker, can be overcome.
Reservists serving on the front line is a subject that has interested me for some time. In 2007, I wrote and presented a television programme on the TA’s involvement in Iraq. In doing so, I interviewed a number of TA and reservist soldiers on the job at the coalition air base near Basra. I was surprised to find that about 14% of the personnel in the British forces there were TA or reservists. In truth, I was very impressed by the TA soldiers and reservists I found there. They were clearly professional and up to the job. In my time in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, I, too, had excellent TA soldiers under my command. They did very well. Today, I gather that routinely about 10% of any force that the UK deploys will be made up of TA and reservists. Since 2003, more than 28,000 TA soldiers and reservists have been deployed on operations. That is a tremendous record of service, which is a great credit to the TA and reservists.
The “Future Reserves 2020” public consultation exercise ended on Friday 18 January. Comments on it have been sought from reservists, their families and employers, as well as members of the regular forces. That feedback is being used by the Ministry of Defence to help shape the White Paper, which is due to be published at any moment. Once that happens, we will have a much better idea about what the future reserves will look like. However, one thing is clear already: the Ministry of Defence wants reserve forces to be an integral and integrated element of the UK’s armed forces, and I support that fully.
A major proposal is to increase the number of trained soldiers in the TA, or what seems likely to be called the “Army Reserve”, to 30,000 by 2018. Apparently, future reservists will be better resourced, better equipped, and better trained than the current TA. They are also expected to take on a broader range of roles to meet the changing security challenges that the UK will face in future. However, all that has to be managed with very little change in man training days—envisaged to be 35 days a year per soldier, I think. Many in the Regular Army, as well as the TA, think that that is too little and, based on my experience, I agree with them.
I understand that the Ministry of Defence is designing Army Reserve units to deploy and operate intact. That has happened in the recent past: for example, the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion the Cheshire Regiment took on United Nations duties in Cyprus for six months, although at reduced strength. However, to do an operation at full strength when we are not in a total war would be very difficult.
I accept that the Government will maintain that we are in a totally new ball game, but over recent years, the TA has consistently shrunk. In 1997, the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment went on its annual two-week camp with more than 400 soldiers. Last year, its successor battalion, the 4th Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, which is, in fact, an amalgamation of three 1997 volunteer battalions—from the King’s Regiment and the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, as well as the Kings Own Royal Border Regiment—went on its annual camp with just 250 soldiers. That is worrying.
The trained strength of the TA this month apparently stands at 19,000 and its total strength is 26,640. I presume that the figure of 19,000 must be based on TA soldiers who have passed stage two of their training and have picked up their bounty for doing their full annual commitment. However, to be honest, I do not believe that 19,000 TA soldiers are readily available for operational deployment if required.
In 2007, when I researched the programme about TA soldiers deployed in Iraq, my investigations suggested that, from a total TA strength of in excess of 30,000 then, only about 7,000 to 8,000 were prepared to deploy, could be released from their jobs, or indeed, were medically fit enough to fight. A considerable number of TA officers and soldiers seemed to be classified sick or, at least, lacked the required FE medical category—FE meaning “fit for everywhere”. Therefore, I am cagey about believing that the current TA really has 19,000 soldiers ready to fight. I bet that the figure is much lower, and if that is the case, the idea that we will have 30,000 deployable Army Reservists by 2018 stretches belief.
According to Defence Analytical Services and Advice, in the nine months between 1 April 2012 and 1 January this year, the TA actually reduced by 600 trained soldiers. That is hardly a good omen as we start the drive to recruit 30,000 deployable and trained soldiers. I suspect that considerably less than 50% of the current 19,000 trained TA personnel could actually do the business. Even the Defence Secretary, when questioned by the Defence Committee, suggested that that figure was considerably lower—as I recall, about 14,000. I know that disquiet about the exact number of fully trained TA soldiers is also widely shared by current Army officers, both regular and TA.
Two days ago, I spoke to Nicholas Watkis, who has recently retired from the TA after 40 years and, during that time, very often completed specialist operational service in support of deployments overseas. He told me that, to get 30,000 deployable soldiers, our Army Reserve would need to fish for them in a pool in excess of 80,000. He says that he repeatedly made this point when serving and had sent a letter stressing this requirement to the Chief of the General Staff last July. If I am right, getting 30,000 trained and deployable soldiers by 2018 may be something of a pipe dream, and, if so, this will have a dramatic impact on the post-2020 assumption that our Army could reach a total strength of 112,000 trained personnel quickly with mobilisation.
An old military maxim—and a great one—is that soldiers who train together should fight together. Indeed, this was what gave the famous pals battalions of the first world war such strength in battle. They all knew each other well and were determined not to let down their mates. I know that the Ministry of Defence is devising cunning plans to try to ensure that Army Reserve units deploy complete, but getting a large number of people released from their normal jobs simultaneously and with agreement from the individuals, families and employers would be very difficult. Undoubtedly, it would require an incredible amount of staff work and effort, unless, of course, the nation is fighting for its life, as it was from 1939 to 1945. So I am intrigued to see how the forthcoming White Paper will address this difficult problem.
There really is not much recruiting and training time until 2018, and yet we still have no idea about where Reserve Army units will be based, especially as it is suggested that many TA centres will be sold off. If local TA centres go, I think there is far less chance that Army Reserve soldiers will travel long distances from home for training, presumably in Regular Army bases. Not having their parent unit close to their families is hardly an Army Reserve recruiting incentive. On that point, local TA centres will often be the only evidence available to local people that we actually have an Army, as the regulars all seem to be being grouped in regional super-garrisons.
As the Army Reserve expands, the Government plan to cut the number of regulars in the British Army by about 20,000 to 82,000. If that happens, one in three of our soldiers will be civilians in uniform. To me that seems a high percentage and a gamble with our nation’s defences. Ministers have told me that they are confident we will reach that target of 30,000 available Army Reservists by 2018. I truly hope they are right, but I remain to be convinced. I am also a little worried that identifying, training, deploying and retaining such individuals will really be a saving on the costs of maintaining regular soldiers when all other factors are considered, including the difficulties of getting people mobilised, up to speed militarily and then looking after them and their families when their specific operation ends.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. There is a further danger that he has not yet described. If this grand plan works, all will be fine and dandy, but there is a huge problem of timing. The redundancies in the Regular Army are happening now, but we will not know until 2020 whether recruiting the TA to replace them has been successful. If it is not successful, we as a nation are scuppered.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for giving way. I can agree with much of what he has said because when I worked in industry many years ago, it bothered me that people always had difficulty getting time off for the TA, or civic duties, as we used to call them then. We are reducing the numbers of regular soldiers at the expense of some famous regiments. The matter has not been resolved yet. That bothers me, particularly in the case of regiments such as the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. What we will get is a substitute for a Regular Army if we are not careful. History tells us that we cannot have that substitute.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will expand on that subject in a few minutes.
There is a serious need to address reservists’ and their families’ support requirements, which are different from those of regulars. Findings by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research indicate that, after operations, reservists are at greater risk of suffering mental health-related problems than regular soldiers. A 10-year study on the health and well-being of UK Gulf war veterans concluded that reservists were twice as likely to have mental health problems as their regular counterparts. The reasons behind this increased risk are not fully known, but the issue may in part be because of the differences between support networks for regulars and reservists. Unlike their colleagues in the regular forces, reservists do not have an extended period of time surrounded by their peers when they return home from duty. They often swiftly revert to their civilian job, without the opportunity to share experiences with others who have served alongside them. Support networks are hugely important for the soldiers themselves, and indeed their families, who often feel isolated when their loved one is away.
Perhaps my greatest worry about providing more than 30% of the British Army’s order of battle from reservists is my simple belief that the British Army is too small. We now have fewer infantry battalions than the small county of Cheshire had in the first world war. We have already cut the infantry too far. Four fine battalions: 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment; 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment (the Staffords); and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh Regiment are due to be disbanded over the next 18 months, a point made by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). That is well before the MOD will have anything like its forecast 30,000 trained and deployable reservists.
There will be at least a four-year gap between the battalions going and the surge of reservists ready and able to take their place. Obviously, I am a little sceptical about what will happen. Sense suggests that we should not cut our regular infantry until we have the Army Reserve in place. I would like to see these premature disbandments stopped until the MOD proves its case.
I am truly concerned that the future reserves will not be able to deliver what is expected of them. It will be through no fault of their own. The first duty of Government, above all else, is the defence of the realm. History must surely show us that cutting our defences to the bone—and, in my view, beyond that—is folly. Nobody knows what will happen in future. I believe we have a duty to maintain what we think to be sufficient soldiers to defend our country at whatever price.
I was and remain a huge supporter of the TA, but I simply have grave concerns about whether its successor, the Reserve Army, will be able to provide crucial and immediate support to our front-line troops if that is required. I have suggested some of my main worries in these opening remarks. I now look forward to listening to the opinions of the Minister and my colleagues.
Order. A considerable number of Members desire to speak. I do not want to impose a time limit, so I ask them to be considerate of their colleagues. Given the number of Members who have asked to speak, contributions should be six minutes.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship once again, Dr McCrea; I think that this is my third outing with you in the past three years. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this timely debate. I am sure that the Minister is heartened that so many of his Conservative colleagues are here, obviously to support him.
The debate is timely because the decisions made in the 2010 strategic defence and security review are beginning to hit home. The regular basing announcement was made some five weeks ago, and the first thing that struck me was that, for all the talk from the Ministry of Defence about our single Army and the regulars and reserves being the same, it is clear that some people in the MOD—not the Minister, who has experience in the reserves, but some of his civil servants—think that the reserves are an afterthought. We still do not have the lay-down for the reserves, because the work has not been completed, and not making a single announcement was a grave mistake. Hon. Members on both sides of the House share that view, so will the Minister address why there was not a single announcement, rather than two separate bits?
Shrinking Army strength has been mentioned. When the Chief of the General Staff appeared in front of the Defence Committee in December, we directly asked him at what point the British Army would no longer be able to achieve the planning assumptions made in the 2010 SDSR. As the hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned, 2018 is universally agreed as that critical date.
The mistake has been to cut the Regular Army before the reserves have been uplifted. We are already falling behind on the recruitment target for reserves. In a written answer to a question about the recruitment target for this financial year, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), replied that out of an Army Reserve target of more than 6,500, only 2,000 reserves had been recruited in the first three quarters of the year. I think that we would all agree that that shows that we are already significantly off track.
I am sure that the Army will tell the Minister for the Armed Forces that it has a plan, and that that will centre on the £1.8 billion that has apparently been allocated to the reserves for the next 10 years. The Army probably has not told him that all £180 million for the first year was spent on the regulars. Not one penny of the money allocated to the reserves was spent on the reserves. The Chief of the General Staff took the money—I understand why he had to make this choice—and spent it on his regulars. Will the Minister explain the point of giving the reserves money if the regulars then claw it back to spend on their own pressing requirements?
The hon. Member for Beckenham also talked about training. I am not convinced, and nor is the Defence Committee, that the adaptable forces themselves will have sufficient training. They will go to readiness for only six months in a three-year period and it is clear that relatively senior military personnel still do not have a grasp on how that can be delivered. Why would somebody join the Regular Army, wanting to become a professional soldier, if they are to be told after their training, “Congratulations, you are off to the adaptable force, where you will get your kit for only six months in three years and you will effectively be doing something useful for only six months in three years”? The problem will be even worse for the reserves attached to the AF, so will the Minister explain how he will ensure that there is adequate training for the adaptable force and the reserves?
It is important to recognise that there are tasks to which the reserves are particularly well suited—the medical corps and logistics, for example. It is obvious, but when operational requirements increase, those skills need to be uplifted. However, the “teeth of the British Army”, as the Army calls it, is a capability that must be maintained all year round. I am not sure that I have heard how the MOD intends to ensure that we have sufficient reserves not only with the skills for logistics, the medical corps, public relations and other back-office functions, but to fill combat roles.
I am conscious of the time available, and many speakers will probably be more knowledgeable than me. I hope that we will get answers from the MOD today.
I am proud to be a yeoman. Throughout history, the reserves have risen to the challenges that they have been set. I appreciate the concerns of regular soldiers and regiments that the Regular Army has to contract, but the British Army has contracted and expanded over the years in accordance with perceived threats. To listen to some hon. Members, one would think that no regiment in the British Army had hitherto been disbanded. My grandfather served as a regular in the Highland Light Infantry and my great grandfather served as a regular in the Gordon Highlanders, and both regiments were disbanded many years ago. The reserves have managed to fulfil full-time regular roles with great efficiency. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made it clear that when he was interviewing soldiers in Iraq, he could not distinguish between full-time regular soldiers and the reservists, because the reservists demonstrated all the professional skills of a regular soldier.
My last appointment in the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve was as honouree colonel of what would seem to many a somewhat unglamorous unit. When they were on parade, however, they all had a chest full of medals, because they had served in pretty well every conflict since Iraq 1. We were always over-recruited. That was the laundry troops of the Royal Logistics Corps, and that demonstrates that if we give men and women a purposeful task through which they can see that they are contributing, whether that is as laundry troops, in the Army media group or as front-line combat troops, they will respond. There has been a scintilla of a suggestion from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham that reservists do not necessarily have a high degree of competence.
The hon. Gentleman said that it was all very well for reservists to be working as medics or doing back-office jobs. During my 22 years in the TAVR, I was fortunate to serve for eight years as a staff officer to the artillery commander of the Allied Command Europe Mobile Force. If one is trusted as a command post officer to have under one’s command a multi-force battery of guns, as a TA officer, it is perfectly clear that, with training and commitment, reserve officers, men and women can do whatever task is required of them in the British Army.
We will clearly need to recruit men and women into the reserves, and as MPs, we all have a duty in that. We all have convening skills. I certainly talk to local employers in my patch to ensure that they understand what is required of them and what is involved in the reserve forces of the 21st century, and to ensure that Oxfordshire gives the armed forces—the Army and our reserves—the fullest possible support, as it always has done. I hope that Ministers will consider ensuring that those employers that step up to the plate by releasing men and women to the reserves are able to demonstrate that on their letterheads. Such a thing has been done in different ways throughout history.
My final point is totally separate from, but related to, the thrust of my comments. The reserves have a number of skills that the Regular Army either does not have, or is giving up. One of the Royal Logistic Corps units that regularly trains at Bicester, in my constituency, is a railway unit that is made up almost entirely of Network Rail employees. Its intention is to keep a railhead open from ports to theatres of war. It was used in Kosovo, and its guys are very committed. When I was recently in Kosovo, the Kosovan Government said that they would be very willing to have them go there to continue their training, if the Ministry of Defence was agreeable. I understand that the unit might be threatened with disbandment, but such areas of expertise within the reserve forces are worth keeping.
I was a founder member of the Army’s media group, which was set up by Colonel Alan Protheroe—recently deceased, I am afraid—who was a deputy director-general of the BBC, because the Regular Army realised that it did not have people who could cope with journalists and the media in times of conflict. Over the years, the group has built up considerable expertise. The reserves often can cost-effectively ensure that the Army has areas of expertise that it can call upon.
The evidence of history will show that when the yeomanry—the reserves—have been given a task and training, and have been told what is required of them, they have always stepped up to the plate. I have every confidence that if the reserves are pointed in the right direction and given the right support and training, along with the encouragement of this House and others, they will have no difficulty recruiting and retaining, and ensuring the operational efficiency required for the defence of the realm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
I begin by declaring an interest: I am in the process of joining the RAF reserves—[Hon. Members: “Good for you.”] Thank you. I used to be a TA soldier—I volunteered to be mobilised in 2008, spent a year with 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and served with them on Op Herrick 9 in Afghanistan. I was immensely proud to serve with 29 Commando as part of 3 Commando Brigade; it was one of the best years of my life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made some interesting and valid points, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. He was very positive about the TA’s role and the contribution it could make. I pay tribute to the fact that reserves have served with great courage in every recent conflict, from the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, and have made a major contribution to the success of the operations. We hear time and again—in fact, a number of us were talking just last night to senior and non-commissioned officers of the 4th Mechanised Brigade who said the same thing—that reserves are often as good as or in some cases even better than their regular counterparts, due to the specialist skills they can bring to their units, their life experience, their enthusiasm and their determination to prove themselves alongside regular soldiers.
On the whole, I welcome the Government’s commitment to reservists. We have been left to lag behind other nations in that area, and I am pleased that that is finally being rectified. I fear, however, that we have cut our regular forces without first ensuring that we are able to bring our reservists up to the required numbers and capabilities.
I shall draw on a recent example from my previous unit. I know a new recruit who signed up enthusiastically last August, but the process and the administration have taken such a long time that he has only just been able to join the unit and begin his basic training. An eight-month-plus delay before a new recruit can even begin basic training is a major obstacle to the kind of recruitment drive the Government need and hope for. It is no surprise that TA numbers are falling when that is a recruit’s first experience of the reserves. If that is the best we can do, I fail to see how we will ever reach the target of 30,000 combat-ready reservists, in time to replace the 20,000 or so regulars lost to defence cuts.
I believe there are two major strands to the debate. The first is how we can improve the capability and effectiveness of our reserve forces, including issues such as kit, training days and manpower and, in the particular case of the TA, how we can make the “one Army” concept a reality. The second strand is that the Government are being forced to take this action because of the reduction of the Regular Army down to roughly 82,000.
Taking reserves first, the issue is not just one of manpower, resources or training; we must change the culture in this country towards our reservists, particularly and importantly among employers. Although I am sure that some large corporations could easily accommodate their employees serving in the reserves, small and medium-sized enterprises, with work forces of only a dozen or so, might find it more difficult to allow staff to leave for a tour of duty or extended training, or to go to the annual camp. It is vital, therefore, that the reserves provide added value for employers. As well as providing the honour of earning a kitemark for releasing employees for service, we could consider financial compensation for employers, or training for those who serve so that they can earn transferable qualifications that add value to their civilian careers.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this important debate.
Is my hon. Friend aware that even in professions that have well-established systems for replacing people, such as the supply system in teaching, a lot of reservists find it difficult to get time off for deployment or training courses? He is absolutely right to mention changing the culture as well as the practice.
Absolutely, and I am surprised that professionals such as teachers find it difficult, but that is given what I have experienced and witnessed under the old regime. If we are considering putting on more pressure, with more commitment, the position will, I fear, only worsen, if we do not radically consider how we can make it as easy and as profitable as possible for employers.
The “Future Reserves 2020” review could be a great opportunity for the future of our armed forces. Fostering a “whole force” mentality and a closer relationship between regulars and reservists could help to eliminate some of the obstacles that frequently make life difficult for reservists. The indisputable fact is that reservists currently operate on 35 man-training days a year—a number which it is planned to increase to only 40 days —compared with 223 working days for a soldier in the regulars. The “Future Reserves 2020” review states the desire to deploy reservists as sub-units, or even perhaps full units, while recognising that it is impossible to train sub-units to the standard required within the 12-month mobilisation window as things stand. Significantly increasing the number of man-training days required would place a huge demand on reservists and their civilian employers, and I am not convinced that an extra five days alone will be enough to progress from our current situation to one in which we can mobilise sub-units trained to the necessary standard. As such, it seems that far greater investment is needed in training infrastructure if we are to accommodate greater numbers of reservists and train them to a higher level than we currently achieve.
I have concerns that the expenditure required to recruit and train such a large number of reservists, as well as radically to restructure the reserve forces as a whole, will mean that the savings made will be significantly less than expected. It is imperative to ensure that we can supply the equipment, training and personnel necessary to bridge any capability gap left by the reduction in the size of the regulars. We cannot afford to be left with an under-strength military because the “Future Reserves 2020” recommendations end up costing more than expected. I hope that the Minister can make a firm commitment that that will not be allowed to happen, regardless of the financial cost.
I was elected to Parliament on a mandate to increase the size of the Army, yet the country now faces the reality of a force of only 82,000 soldiers. That is the smallest it will have been since before the Napoleonic wars, despite us all having seen how stretched we have been in recent years in conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much tribute has been paid recently to the performance of our troops in the Falklands conflict and the leadership of Baroness Thatcher, but the sad truth is that we could not mount that type of operation on such a scale today. We have no aircraft carriers and a much reduced Navy, and the Government are overseeing the redundancies of 20,000 soldiers.
Earlier this year, in relation to the new front against global terror in Africa, the Prime Minister said:
“we must frustrate the terrorists with our security, we must beat them militarily, we must address the poisonous narrative they feed on, we must close down the ungoverned space in which they thrive”.—[Official Report, 21 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 27.]
How does the Minister expect us to project that force globally, given the armed forces we are left after the SDSR? In any future conflict that comes from left field, as conflicts normally do, are we just to hope that there is a NATO airstrip nearby that we can use?
Members might ask where the money will come from to increase spending on our armed forces, and rightly so. However, I remind colleagues that we are still committed to ring-fencing the aid budget. We are still sending aid to a country with a space programme. We are still paying roughly £50 million a day to the EU. Surely the Government’s first priority must be the defence of our country.
Former US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta recently expressed his concern that neither the US nor the UK could afford to weaken their defences in the process of solving their budget woes, but that is exactly what we are doing. Two years after the SDSR, we are still waiting for the White Paper on the reserves. It is incredible that the Government can go ahead with the redundancies of 20,000 soldiers without knowing whether or how their policy of replacing them with reservists will work. I implore Ministers to look again at some aspects of the SDSR.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, which was born out of experience of commanding soldiers in the field.
When I was a young platoon commander in Berlin in 1984, we were told not to worry, because the quality of our troops and our kit would see us through. We knew very well that we could hold out only for so long, because quantity has a quality all of its own, as the German forces on the eastern front during the second world war found to their cost.
I mention that because I see similarly flawed thinking in the Government’s plans for 30,000 reservists somehow to plug the gap left by the loss of 20,000 regular troops. Let us be clear: this plan is designed to save money. It is not what the MOD would have wanted to do, as the CGS confirmed to the Defence Committee. The focus seems to be on the bottom line. The plan might work on paper, but a number of us severely doubt whether it will work on the ground.
I have three main concerns. First, could this be a false economy? The Green Paper admitted that it costs more to train reservists than regular soldiers, a fact confirmed by the Secretary of State during Defence questions. When we add in other factors, such as force-generation figures and the additional costs of matching a TA soldier’s civilian salary, there is a big question mark over how much this will all cost. To date, the Government have been coy about costings. We are promised a White Paper, but it has been too long in the coming. As several colleagues have said, none of that would matter were it not for the fact that five regular infantry battalions will be disbanded over the next 18 months; indeed, 20,000 regular troops have been given their marching orders. Pursuing such a policy before we are sure that the reservist plan will work is foolhardy and a high-risk strategy.
Secondly, I have concerns about whether 30,000 reservists could plug the capability gap. In my day—in the 1980s—TA reservists, gallant though they were, were essentially expected to ship out to Germany and wait for the Warsaw pact forces to come to them. Today, reservists are expected to have a much broader range of roles, but they are still expected to achieve that higher skill base with about 35 to 40 days’ training. We live in a world where challenging, asymmetrical warfare will become the norm.
My third concern is about boots on the ground. I doubt whether 30,000 reservists can plug the gap. The Government make great play of the fact that they have had many expressions of support from prospective employers, but expressions of support and boots on the ground are often two very different things. The latest MOD figures I have—they are fresh out of the MOD, and the Minister is welcome to challenge them if he so wishes—show that the establishment strength of the TA infantry is about 6,700 soldiers, but only 2,800 of them are actually eligible for mobilisation. That suggests an effective rate of about 40%. The MOD’s own figures—as I say, the Minister is welcome to challenge them if he so wishes—suggest that, in terms of plugging the gap left by 20,000 regulars, the Government’s estimate of 30,000 reservists is way off beam. A minimum of 50,000 reservists is more the ballpark figure.
We then need to look at further factors, which could throw even the figure of 50,000 into doubt. MOD figures confirm that the TA is losing infantry soldiers. Furthermore, as a number of colleagues have pointed out, the current economic climate means that small and medium-sized enterprises, in particular, will struggle to allow key employees to leave employment with them for extended periods without being compensated by the MOD. I am not convinced that that costing has been factored in.
For those three reasons—value for money, the capability deficit and boots on the ground—several of us have severe reservations about the Government’s plans. Meanwhile, however, those plans are having distorting effects on the ground. Excellent infantry battalions are being lost, and the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is a case in point. It is one of the most experienced battalions in the British Army, having served in all the major conflicts during the past 15 years, including Kosovo and Bosnia. It remains one of the best recruited. By the MOD’s own admission, it was not one of the original five infantry battalions to be disbanded; instead, more poorly recruited battalions were meant to go. However, through interference, intervention or whatever we want to call it, it was decided to save a poorly recruited battalion north of the border. The MOD then had to go hunting for a battalion south of the border, and, for some reason, fell on 2RRF.
I am conscious that I am running out of time, so I will proceed if I may.
In our contracting Army, one-battalion regiments stand less chance of survival. We were told a few years ago that the future rested with larger battalions. However, that distortion means the Government are spending millions of pounds unnecessarily supporting understrength battalions. Surely, the Minister can understand that it is more economical to keep well-recruited battalion families together than to spend millions of pounds trying to bring understrength battalions up to strength. Such a policy simply suggests we are reinforcing failure.
In short, these plans are fundamentally flawed. Parliament has not been made aware of the costings to justify their execution, despite the fact that five regular infantry battalions have already been given their marching orders. I strongly suggest to the Minister that it would be wiser to see whether the plans work first, before losing 20,000 regular troops.
There is one final reason why the Government’s policy is high risk. Our armed forces are being reduced at a time when many countries, which are not necessarily friendly to the west, are increasing their expenditure. No one can tell where the next threat will come from. We must always remember that the first duty of the Government is defence of the realm.
I apologise to you, Dr McCrea, and to other Members for being late. I was unavoidably detained with a constituent. I am sorry that I was not here to hear all the brilliant speech by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. It has been an education to listen to hon. Members who have served in the reserves, as I know the Minister has, and he will no doubt talk about his experience.
I will be brief; I do not think I will need even five minutes. I want to talk about the plans to disband the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, a TA regiment with a base in Vicar street in Dudley. Under the proposals, A Squadron, which is the Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire yeomanry, and B Squadron, which is the Shropshire yeomanry, of the Royal Mercian Lancastrian Yeomanry, are to be merged and transferred to the Royal Yeomanry. Other changes involve transferring C Squadron and D Squadron to the Queen’s Own Yeomanry.
I am concerned that those changes will mean the midlands losing half its five squadrons, essentially so that a new organisation can be created in Scotland. That is my understanding. I have written to the Secretary of State and pointed out that the RMLY is one of the best recruited yeomanry regiments in the Territorial Army. The people of Dudley make an enormous contribution to A Squadron. They recently recruited 47 new trainees, and another 60 leads are currently being processed. That is exactly the sort of contribution that the Minister would want communities such as mine to make, so that the Territorials can expand. Two dozen from the regiment are currently serving the country overseas. That is an enormous contribution, and the people of Dudley are very committed to the TA.
The Minister will be delighted to hear that Ellowes Hall school, a comprehensive in Gornal in my constituency, is the first state school to set up an Army Cadet Force, working with the Territorials. That is a brilliant initiative by the fantastic head teacher, Andy Griffiths, and it is exactly what other schools should do. I do not know, but I suspect, that many hon. Members who have served in the Territorial Army will have done so as a result of being in the cadet forces at school. I went to a bog standard comprehensive in the middle of Dudley and hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that we did not have the opportunity to do those things. Of course, it was possible to join the cadets, but if there is a cadet force in a school, I think there is much more likelihood of people taking part; but I have digressed.
If the Dudley and Telford units are merged, it will, as the hon. Member for Beckenham pointed out, be much more difficult for people who have done a full day’s work in Dudley and who will then have to travel 30 or 40 miles to do their training and fulfil their responsibilities to the Territorial Army in Telford. It is also important for a diverse community such as ours to have a Territorial base at its heart. At events such as the past weekend’s St George’s day parade, or on Remembrance day, the Territorials parade in the town, and people see them as a central part of the community.
I urge the Minister not only to listen to what I have said about the contribution that the unit makes to the Territorial Army, and about local people’s commitment to it, but to speak to the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne). He is a former commanding officer there, as I am sure the Minister knows. Will the Minister also visit Dudley with me, and visit the base? He could at the same time come to Ellowes Hall school and meet the cadets of what I believe is the first cadet force to be established in a state school recently. Will he also guarantee the future of the Territorial Army in Dudley, so that my constituents can continue to make a huge contribution to our nation’s defence?
I had the privilege to serve as a Territorial soldier for 12 years, first in the Honourable Artillery Company and then in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, two regiments in which I know other hon. Members have served with great distinction.
A fact that has not yet come out in the debate is that, to achieve the Government’s target of a Reserve Army of 30,000 we need to recruit only 0.15% of the younger working age population. When the Minister with responsibility for veterans, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), was a Territorial soldier like me in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a Territorial Army of 75,000 trained soldiers, so I do not believe that the Government’s target of an Army Reserve of 30,000 is unrealistic; I believe we can achieve it.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there has been a massive change in culture and psyche from the 1980s and early 1990s to recent years? I got my opportunity to serve in the reserve forces only because so many had left because of compulsory mobilisation. I was already three years over the age limit. That is how much things have changed.
I accept that there has been a change in the culture, and part of the Government’s job will be to give the Army Reserve a clear direction and mandate. We have already received commitments about training and equipment. Only today, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall, said in an article in The Daily Telegraph that there would need to be a “cultural reset” among employers. That is right, and my hon. Friend’s point is valid.
We need not look far to find other countries that have already achieved what the Government want to achieve. The reserve forces of our near neighbour Ireland are already larger as a proportion of the working population than the total that the Government want to achieve here. The same thing has already been done in the United States and other countries. It is by no means unachievable. Of course, what is envisaged will be easier for larger companies; but we need only 0.15% of the younger working age population—we are not talking about taking the crucial foreman of a small engineering business away on a six-month tour of duty, so that the firm will collapse. We will be able to manage things by taking the employees we need from larger companies, and from among part-time and seasonal workers and those whose civilian work fits their Reserve Army commitments.
One of our key concerns is that, although enough money thrown at the situation will get 30,000 reservists, the MOD’s figures suggest a 40% effective rate when it comes to established strength and ability to mobilise. On those MOD figures, it is not 30,000 but a minimum of 50,000 reservists that are needed—and then there are additional concerns.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, in that we must make sure that the 30,000 we seek are battle ready and deployable. That is a fair point and my hon. Friend is right to make it.
In the late 1980s, there was the National Employers Liaison Committee, but we will need a similar body to do the work of cultural reset that the Chief of the General Staff has suggested. We need a band of patriotic employers. Perhaps the idea of something on the letterhead would be useful, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) suggested.
The Army Reserve plays a crucial role as a bridge between the civilian and military populations, two communities that can become very separate. When I was a Territorial soldier the great phrase that was used was “one Army”. There should not be a distinction between regular soldiers and part-time soldiers who are somehow less professional. We need to re-establish the ethos of one Army, with both components working together and integral to the whole. Several hon. Members have already pointed out that in Afghanistan up to 10% of troops on the ground have been provided by the Territorial Army; and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned a figure of up to 14% for Iraq.
As we know, the Government are putting £1.8 billion towards the training and equipment that the reserve forces will need. The increase in training from 35 to 40 days a year will come from weekend and evening commitments, and so should not be a burden on employers.
I speak as a graduate of only the second officer training course to run alongside the regulars’. Does my hon. Friend recognise what a step change there is in training? Next year’s recruits will get nearly 10 times more weapons handling training than I had.
My hon. Friend speaks knowledgeably, as she is currently a reserve officer, and that is right. The question comes down to the quality of the training, and the understanding of the reserve forces that they have an important role in the armed services overall. That message will come clearly from the Government to employers, and to the whole of society. The training, focus, equipment and mission are critical to the achievement. Of course, the Government already help companies with financial assistance to cover mobilisation costs. It is important to put that on the record.
I absolutely recognise that the decisions are difficult—they are not easy. Like every other hon. Member in this room, I grieve when battalions are disbanded, and we all recognise the heartache and real difficulty that is caused. The Government inherited a great challenge: a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget was left by the Labour party when it left government, which is forcing this Government to take some very difficult decisions. If we approach this with the right spirit and a can-do attitude, and if we look at other countries that have already more than achieved what the Government intend, I believe that we can do it without imperilling the crucial defence of the realm.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), including on the fact that he has the second-last ever Distinguished Service Order awarded for gallantry. I am conscious that many hon. Members—including the Minister, whom I am pleased to see in his place, and the Whip, the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster)—have been on active service, and that I have not.
Let me be absolutely clear that I firmly believe that the Government’s direction is right. I have one or two reservations on details, but we should be clear that the tiny proportion of the work force that we need to recruit to make it work is much smaller, and the balance with which we will be left is a much smaller proportion of reservists, than in any other English-speaking country.
I am sorry, but I am conscious that I must leave time for other Members.
The national guard and the US army reserve make up more than half of the American army, and two thirds of Australian infantry battalions are in the Australian army reserve. The fact is that other countries have delivered such a change and have been able to do so. When I visited units from the national guard in Afghanistan, I was told that its brigade, commanded by a civilian soldier—he is a banker in civilian life—had achieved a 98% turnout for its deployment for three months’ work-up and nine months’ active service there. I was intrigued by the roles that it had been given. The infantry battalion that I visited had detached platoons along the Pakistani border defending provincial reconstruction teams, a role in which older soldiers with civilian skills could produce double value, given the skills that they bring as well as their being infanteers.
I am a great believer in maintaining political control over the call-up of volunteers, but the one area we must delegate is disaster and emergency relief. The Americans, Australians and Canadians all say that that is their No. 1 recruitment factor with employers and local communities, although it is a tiny proportion of their activity.
I want to suggest a couple of things that need sorting out. We must be clear that we are talking about the integration of two forces, each of which has a very different ethos. There is a danger of sliding back into the old days of assimilation. The absolute shambles in recruitment for the nine months from April to December, which will leave a permanent gap in the numbers, was because of the Regular Army’s imposition of a completely unworkable system on the reserves. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) gave good examples of that. It has now been sorted out, but it has left a nine-month gap in recruiting numbers.
If we are to maintain the distinction of ethos, we must also be clear that the vast majority of volunteer reserve units abroad are commanded by reservists. Unbelievably, 24 out of 30 commands went to regular officers on a 2011 list; the last was a little better, but not a lot. If we are to produce the volunteer ethos, soldiers need to be commanded by people who are used to dealing with employers, understand how to market training to soldiers with competing demands and, above all, have the moral plus that comes from being able to look a soldier in the eye, when he is under serious pressure from his employer, and say, “I’ve been there too”, not someone who can take Mondays off. To do that, we must provide more support for Territorial Army commanding officers, so that people with busy civilian jobs can fulfil their role on a genuinely part-time basis, as they do everywhere else in the English-speaking world.
We need to see off the attempt by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation to take over the control of the reserve forces and cadets estate from the reserve forces and cadets associations, which have much lower overheads and are far more efficient. We must also sort out the muddle in cyber, where a centre of excellence—the Specialist Group Royal Signals—has been broken up, with its squadrons sent off to different parts of what some of us think is a rather expensive and wrongly oriented set-up.
Those are points of detail, however. The fact is that the Government have set the right course. They are tackling a profound imbalance in the system. Everyone here wants defence to have a higher priority, but the balance was wrong and the Government are doing everything they can to restore it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my hon.—and distinguished—and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and other Members on their speeches, all of which have been excellent.
Before I touch on a few points about the reservists, I want to expand on the general state of our armed services. After this vision for the future, will we have sufficient armed forces to safeguard our country and all our various roles and peacekeeping tasks around the world, such as in NATO? I very strongly argue that we will not and that as our professional, regular arm becomes smaller, the share of regular to reserve should be higher, not lower.
We now have to field 30,000 reservists, which will require a substantial jump in the numbers. My research indicates that, of the 38,000 reservists required in 2009-10, we recruited in the region of 29,000, and only 19,000—50%—of those were fully trained. Our target is now to have 30,000 trained reservists by 2018, but we currently have 19,000 reservists trained to phase 2 levels, which is exactly the same as two years ago. We therefore need to recruit thousands more. Interest in joining the Territorial Army rose by 6% this year, but it would need to increase by 400% to meet the new Government target, which I do not believe is feasible.
Are the reservists value for money? Training the current 19,000 reservists to phase 2 levels costs £455 million a year, for which the Army could have recruited 10,500 full- time, professional, regular soldiers. My sources tell me that that is what they would rather have. I am not here to disparage what the TA reservists do or their honourable and fantastic role, as some colleagues think Government Members have done. We have not said that or implied it. I served for nine years in the Regular Army and met many hundreds of reservists, all of whom did the most fantastic job, as they still do.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the 47 new recruits to the TA unit in Dudley and the 60 new leads currently being processed, which I mentioned earlier? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of contribution that local communities need to make if we are to hit the targets? Would it not therefore be a real risk if there were less activity at the TA base in Dudley after the merger goes ahead?
I did not quite get the gist of the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I of course pay tribute to the reservists in his constituency. I hope that he will forgive me for not picking up quite what he said. I have not got long, so I will finish quickly.
Reservists take between 36 and 40 months to be considered fit for mobilisation. As I understand it, they may then be used for 12 months in any five-year period. Will the Minister confirm that? Yet I understand that the Government may spend £1.8 billion in enticements to the new lot of reservists over the next 10 years. Again, I would be grateful to the Minister if he could confirm whether that is true. In these tough times, £1.8 billion over 10 years to entice people into the reserves is an awful lot of money. Perhaps that money would be better spent on the regulars.
A possible solution that has been mooted is to cut the reserves by half, to 15,000. That would save money and retain the essential niche roles of, for example, lawyers and tanker drivers, whom we have already discussed in this debate. Of course that niche market must be maintained; such people do a fantastic job.
I want to draw to an end because there is, I think, one more speaker. If not, the Minister will sum up. Let me just go back to my first point and ask whether this is the direction that we in this country want to go. Many honourable and distinguished predecessors of ours in this place have issued warnings when our country has cut her armed services. We are now cutting down to a point where, whatever the calibre of the extra reserves, and they will of course be top notch, will they be enough to fulfil all the roles, commitments and responsibilities that this country has? Some Members have compared what we are doing here, or not doing here, with other countries. I always think that it is a great danger to compare the United Kingdom and what we are trying to do with our armed services with another country, such as America, which has a very different budget from our own. America has the ability to produce aircraft and all the equipment that it needs to train its reserves.
Back in the 1980s when I was a regular soldier, the TA was having huge difficulties getting on to the appropriate training ranges and all the things that it needs to do. I suggest today that with all the training disappearing in Germany and everyone coming back to this country, these facilities will be hard sought by the Regular Army let alone the TAs who desperately need it as their percentage increases.
You are extremely kind, Dr McCrea, and I shall stick to two minutes if I possibly can. Not for the first time has my gallant and hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) done a great service to the country and to the House—to the country previously in his distinguished military career and to the House today in securing this debate. Inevitably, the debate has concentrated on the Territorial Army, or the Army Reserve as it may be known in the future. Let us also put in a word for the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marine Reserve, and the RAF Reserves, all of whom make a valuable contribution.
As a former junior member of the senior service reserve, I well recall what a bridge the reserves constituted, and still constitute, between the armed forces and society. The role of the reserves should be flexibility to deal with the unknown. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, we do not know from where the next crisis will come, and we will not know the nature of that crisis until it is upon us. Reserves should be an augmentation of, not a substitute for, regular forces. If trained-up former regulars constitute our reserve, we will have a better chance to get them to the sort of standards that we need very quickly than when we are dealing with civilian-only reserves. Nevertheless, there is potential in both cohorts. I am concerned that the strategic context is being skewed by budgetary constraints. The truth of the matter is that we are having the debate in these terms because not enough money is being spent on defence.
Finally, I am concerned that in the future we will see a repeat of the sort of false opposition that was put forward by certain people in the past between what was called preparing for a war in the future against an unknown modern state, and fighting the war in which we are engaged at the moment, namely counter-insurgency. We have seen how quickly the threats change. We are making important decisions about the future. For example, we must decide about the future of the nuclear deterrent. I do not want to see that debate skewed by people who think that if we cancel Vanguard class replacement submarines we will get more troops. The truth is, we get the defence that we pay for. We are not paying enough; we should pay more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing the debate and making some important points. It is worth reflecting on how valuable it is to have so many Members in the Chamber who have served or are serving in the reserves, or who have served in the regular forces along with the reserves.
The Secretary of State for Defence has set out his ambitious plans for the future of our reserves, shifting a greater emphasis on to them by doubling their numbers to 30,000 by 2020. The reserves have played an important role in our forces. In recent times, they have served in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. I believe that 29 reservists have lost their lives serving their country in the past 10 years, and we pay tribute to them.
When those plans were announced, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) made it clear that we support an enhanced role for our reserve forces. They make a very useful contribution, particularly in specialist roles, and we agree that they can make an even bigger contribution. However, we must get the changes right, and we have concerns about the Government’s proposals.
Any expansion of our reserve forces will succeed only if the Government work with employers. We must consider carefully the particular challenges that members of the reserve forces face in employment, and the Government are not dealing with the matter correctly. We have already heard that the recruitment target is being missed, and it seems that the MOD will have to increase recruitment by about 66% this year even to stand a chance of meeting its targets.
A recent survey from the Federation of Small Businesses set out some of the challenges. It found that six in 10 businesses would not consider granting reservists additional leave for training, so if the Minister wants the plan to become a reality, he might have to consider passing further legislation. The survey also showed that one in three businesses said that nothing would encourage them to employ a reservist, while 39% of those who had employed a reservist, or would consider having one in their company, said that the proposed reforms would have a negative impact on their businesses. A staggering 89% said that they had not heard of the MOD’s employer awareness events, so there is clearly some distance to go.
Over the past three years, the reserves have lost around 1,000 members. It would appear that bureaucratic problems mean that there is a backlog in the processing of applications, so the target is looking challenging and perhaps unattainable.
When the proposals were announced in November, the Secretary of State spoke about a kitemark to recognise employers that encourage and support their employees to participate in the reserves. In principle, that is a good idea, so we hope the Minister will be able to update us on when the scheme will be in place. We also think that it could be extended to companies that have a good record on employing military spouses and veterans, because clearly more work needs to be done in that area. Membership of the reserve forces should not be a barrier to employment, so the Government should look at our proposals for anti-discrimination legislation applying to members of the forces.
As the Government have cut numbers in the regular forces so dramatically, the system has to work. The enhanced role for reservists must be matched with improved training. We have heard a lot about an integrated concept between reserves and regulars over the past few months. That should not be limited to operations; it must also be extended to preparation. If we are asking our forces to serve together on operations, they must train together as well.
Reports have shown that reservists are much more likely than others to suffer from poor mental health, especially if they have been on active duty, and we need to look carefully at the reasons why. For example, reservists are less likely to have a military support network, they do not receive the same decompression as the regulars and there is the problem that reservists do not gain access to specialised MOD health care in civilian life. I am sure that the Government are serious about meeting their target, so they will want to take heed of the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress, which have come together to highlight the problems of mental health care among reservists. Post-deployment care needs to improve, and we have to ensure that employers have a better understanding of the issues that reservists can face when they return from serving. Access to MOD health care needs to be considered much more carefully.
We should not forget about the families of reservists, although the recent handling of the bedroom tax was an example of how not to do things. The Government finally U-turned by recognising that reservists and their families could be affected by the bedroom tax, because they are mentioned in the exemption. The Government need to think about how they implement the armed forces covenant because the necessary processes are not in place.
Hon. Members have highlighted concerns about capability by asking whether we will meet the target and therefore have the capability that we as a country want. I hope that the Minister will address the crucial question of how many reservists must be recruited if we are to have a deployable force of 30,000.
The worry is that the Government have a policy but not a proper plan to see it through, and there are some unresolved questions and problems. In the coming years, it appears that our national security will increasingly depend on reserve forces, so it is vital that the Government get this process right. We, of course, will want to support them in doing so.
Dr McCrea, I fear that we are very constrained by our time, but I also congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on securing this debate. I think that we first met when we served in “Military Operations 2” in the Ministry of Defence in 1984, when his hair was less grey.
I know that this debate is very important to many Members of the House, and that it is especially important to members of our reserve and armed forces. I am grateful for all the contributions that have been made. I will address some of the questions that have been put later, if I have the time; otherwise, I will be very happy to answer hon. Members’ questions by letter.
Our reasons for changing the structure of the Army, which include a much greater reliance on a fully integrated reserve, are well known. They are both an imaginative and pragmatic response to the dire financial situation that this Government faced on entering office in 2010, as well as a determination to do the right thing by establishing a credible, relevant and useable Army Reserve fit for the demands of the 21st century while maintaining a larger proportion of regular forces than our closest allies. I can assure you, Dr McCrea, that none of us came into government to reduce the size of the armed forces, including the Regular Army. However, to quote the last Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), “There is no money”.
The principle of greater integration of the reserve was established in the report by the independent commission to review the UK’s reserve forces, which was led by the vice-chief of the defence staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) also took part in that process, and we are grateful to him for that. We are committed to expanding the volunteer Army Reserve to a trained strength of 30,000, and to integrating those reserves fully into the structure of the Army as a whole. As has been mentioned already by hon. Members, that requires a change in the attitude of society and of the Army towards the reserves.
Achieving that has already involved hard choices on the Regular Army side, to make sure that the Army plays its part in ensuring that the MOD continues to live within its means, while maintaining an Army that is capable of operating across the full spectrum of operational capability and one that also offers fulfilment and challenge for its reserve members.
Many hon. Members have spoken with passion and some experience about a lot of issues, including whether we can get this Army reserve of 30,000 at the pace that we require. To be clear, a target of a trained reserve of 30,000 is well within historic norms. In 1997, the Territorial Army was over 50,000 strong; it was reduced to around 40,000 by 2000; by 2009, it was down to just 26,000; and we now reckon that we have about 19,000 trained reserves. That shows that the current initiative to increase its trained strength from the current level of around 19,000 to 30,000 is perfectly achievable. Indeed, to look at it in parochial terms, this increase would require rather fewer than 20 individuals per parliamentary constituency to join up and to train in the Territorial Army.
By the way, we should not overlook the contribution that the reservists have already made to operations. In the last 10 years, almost 30,000 members of the TA have been deployed in operations overseas. Of those, some 3,500 members were compulsorily mobilised to take part in Telic 1 in Iraq, and during operations in the past 10 years more than 70 members of the TA have received operational honours, while 21 have sadly been killed on operations either in Afghanistan or Iraq.
The Government are investing heavily in future reserves and taking other actions to create the conditions required to achieve our target of an integrated Army. Extra financial investment is indeed worth £1.8 billion over 10 years, as has been mentioned, of which the Army Reserve will get the largest part. Other investment includes, for instance, overseas reserve training exercises at company level, which are very much welcomed. It also includes more equipment arriving to provide more modern support for the reserves, including modern vehicles, the latest weapons, and phones and radios, which is exactly what reservists want.
I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.
We have planned that, over time, reservists will have access to exactly the same equipment for training that is currently used by regulars. There will be opportunities for deployment, as we have mentioned already, but there will also be opportunities for shorter periods of deployed service commitment for those in some specialist roles, and reserves will also routinely fill roles that historically were the preserve of the regulars.
Officers and soldiers will also have command appointments, which have not always been available, and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has been bending my ear about that for many, many years—since way before 2010. We need the Government and society to get behind this process. The skills and experience gained by reservists will be of considerable value to civilian employers, as has been mentioned, making the proposition all the more attractive.
We need to get behind the new reserves. NEAB, which is the National Employer Advisory Board, and SaBRE, which is Support for Britain’s Reservists and Employers, although I do not know where the “a” in SaBRE came from, are working on these issues, and we need to continue that work. Soon we will publish the White Paper that will set out a number of measures to encourage that process, and the collaboration with employers is absolutely vital. I take the point that it is not an easy answer, but we are determined to get this process right.
Of course, collaboration needs to be tailored to fit different types and sizes of employers. I was in Keighley last week, visiting Snugpak, which had a SaBRE commendation signed by the Secretary of State for Defence. Snugpak is a medium-sized enterprise rather than a small one, which incidentally produces some very decent kit if anyone wants insulation for their camping trips. While I was there, I spoke to a reservist who was indeed supported by his employer. However, we need to take this process further.
Although it is still in its early stages, we are confident that we can get a more streamlined recruiting process, in conjunction with Capita. I know that Capita has been slightly criticised in one or two scurrilous magazines such as Private Eye, but we believe that we are getting there and Capita should deliver an acceleration in enlistments during the next few years. If my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, who was somewhat sceptical about that, wishes to review the recruiting process, we would be very happy to facilitate that. Key changes that we are introducing include: a national recruiting centre administering all applications to a common process; a more imaginative approach to marketing; and a fully resourced assessment process for the reserves.
I am sorry but I really do not have time to give way.
We remain confident that our proposition, in addition to being the right thing to do, will deliver value to the taxpayer. The independent commissioner for reserves concluded that reserves are significantly cheaper to maintain than regulars, and that they are no more expensive than regulars even when we take into account the costs on operations. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who just tried to intervene, I will say that part-timers are inevitably cheaper than full-timers.
As I have said, we need a change in the mindset regarding reserves, and a change in the attitude towards them. I absolutely believe that this policy is the right thing to do. It is not that we are keen to reduce the regular Army, but it is ridiculous to have a trained reserve of 19,000 for a country of our size; that is a ridiculously small number. We can do better than that—using reserves has huge social benefits—and we shall do better than that. Rather than admire the problems that we faced on inheriting an overblown defence budget in 2010, this Government have taken the necessary decisions to deliver a credible future Army which is fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
Just before I sit down, may I also say that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and I served in another English regiment, and not just in the Fusiliers? On St George’s day, we used to have a service, quite a good lunch as I recall and then the rest of the day off.