[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 5 December 2012, on Future Army 2020, HC 803-i, Session 2012-13, and on 10 July 2013, HC 576-i; uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 8 October 2013, on Future Army 2020, HC 576-ii; written evidence to the Defence Committee, on Future Army 2020, reported to the House on 24 April, 9 July and 8 October 2013, and published on the internet.]
I beg to move,
That this House notes concerns about the Government’s defence reforms in relation to whether its proposals for the reserve forces will deliver either the anticipated cost savings or defence capability; and urges the Government to delay the disbandment of regular units until it is established that the Army Reserve plan is viable and cost-effective.
Let me first express my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. Many of us on both sides of the House believe this to be an important topic for discussion.
I suggest that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists are on the rocks. Territorial Army numbers are at a low ebb; reserve recruitment targets are being missed; costs are rising; and there are delays and disorganisation. The plans will produce neither the anticipated cost-savings nor the capability envisaged. The time has come to say “Halt”—to halt the axing of the regular battalions and units until we are sure that the reservist plans are both viable and cost-effective. We run the risk of wasting taxpayers’ money on the back of false economies and unrealistic expectations.
Were we not promised by the previous Secretary of State that the cuts to the regular forces would happen only if it were clear that we could increase the reserves? Yet that is not going to happen, so what happened to the original promise?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the original plan, which was to allow the build-up of the reserves before we axed regular battalions because it was deemed that deployability was terribly important. Exchanges took place on the Floor of the House in 2011 between the then Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), which clearly confirm that the plan was to get the balance right—to build up the reservists before winding down the regulars.
My first questions, then, to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who is replying to the debate, are: why and when did the plan change? To make this debate as productive as possible, I would be delighted to take interventions from my right hon. Friend if he wishes to answer the questions we pose as the debate proceeds. I think that the questions why and when the plan changed are wholly legitimate ones, because the plan has changed and the House should be in no doubt whatever about that. Just two years ago, the plan was to say, “We will not wind down the regular troops until we know that the reservists are up to strength”. That plan has changed.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the plan also changed in respect of the original strategic defence and security review. It initially planned for a reduction of 7,000 troops, but it suddenly increased to 13,000 and if recent press reports are to be believed, it might be even higher.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. A number of changes to the plan have occurred, but to my knowledge, at no time have we had any explanation from the Dispatch Box of why the plans have changed, of the cost implications or indeed of when they changed.
The entire Army reforms depend on the successful recruitment of reserves. Let us examine that for a moment, and let us remember that without such recruitment up to 30,000, the Army reform plans fall apart. What do we know about recruitment so far? We know that TA numbers have been falling, not rising, since 2009 and are now at their lowest ebb since 2007. We know today that new reservist recruitment targets are being missed. The front page of The Daily Telegraph, under the heading “Reforms have left the Army in chaos” refers to documents clearly showing that reservist recruitment targets both for this and next year are being missed—and not just by a small margin, but by a massive margin—thus bringing the whole plan into doubt. Various reasons are put forward, including criticism of the Ministry of Defence for closing down local recruitment offices, and there is talk about privatisation and Capita, but I think that is somewhat overplayed. What we know is that there has been a lack of communication in the IT systems in the MOD as between Capita and Atlas. There are all sorts of reasons, but the bottom line is that key reserve recruitment targets are being missed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The issue of recruitment targets within the reserve forces and the TA cannot be helped when it can take several months to get from someone signing up to join to turning up for their first night’s training. That is too long for people to be delayed along their way.
My hon. Friend, who has experience of these matters, makes a valid point. [Interruption.] Yes, he is my hon. and gallant Friend.
Other reasons include the draw-down in Afghanistan, which is perhaps not encouraging reservists to sign up, and the fact that employers are reluctant to let key employees go. There is a host of reasons, but as I say, the bottom line is that the key reserve recruitment targets are being missed. Another key concern is that costs may be rising faster than anticipated, yet the Government have not presented to Parliament a fully costed plan, despite numerous requests for them to do so.
On that point, would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on an observation in the current issue of the Army Reserve Quarterly to the effect that it is all to do with
“rebalancing Her Majesty’s Forces in light of the country’s needs and resources in the years ahead”?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Before he deals further with the question of cost, may I as a layman suggest to him that, if the reservists cannot make up their membership in time for the disbandment of the regular battalions, there is bound to be a gap in capability?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall be dealing with the capability gap—very briefly, if my hon. Friend will forgive me—because I think that it is an important issue, but may I test the patience of the House and stick to the cost issue for the time being? There is a real risk that, if costs rise faster than anticipated, we shall create false economies that will bring the whole project into doubt. That is terribly important, and we are right to ask questions about it on behalf of the taxpayer.
The Government have not come here to present a fully costed plan, but the pieces of the jigsaw that we can see do not reveal a rosy picture. We know from the Green Paper—and the Independent Commission to Review the United Kingdom’s Reserve Forces has confirmed this—that it costs more to train a reservist than to train a regular. We know that those who leave the regular forces to join the reserves will be given a £5,000 bounty, payable over four years. We have some questions about the reservist award, which is the difference between reservists’ pay and what they earn in civilian life. We are told that the potential cost has been accounted for, but the assumptions have not been made clear. We also know that, because employers are reluctant to let key employees go for extended periods, the Government have come up with an incentive for prospective employers amounting to £500 per reservist per month. Those are all added costs, but we still do not know what the fully costed plan is.
My hon. Friend referred to the Independent Commission to Review the United Kingdom’s Reserve Forces. I serve on the commission, and I do not accept his statistic. Broadly speaking, the cost of a reservist is about a fifth of the cost of his regular counterpart. In America, it is about a quarter, and my guess is that following the changes that we are making, it will be something between a quarter and a fifth.
I must say to my hon. Friend, with the greatest respect, that he has confused training with deployment. There is no argument in the House about the fact that reservists will be cheaper; the question is, how much cheaper will they be? When costs are rising, do we enter the terrain of false economies—which brings into doubt the whole question of value for money and whether the plan should have been instigated in the first place? I was talking about training. There has been a dispute about whether it costs more to train a regular, but my hon. Friend should know from the Green Paper that it costs more to train a reservist.
However, this is not just about the bits of the jigsaw that we have seen. We know that there are hidden costs further down the line. According to a recent report by the charity Combat Stress, reservists are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as regular troops. We may be storing up a ticking time bomb for ourselves. The necessary support structures for reservists are not in place, and I should be interested to know whether there are any proposals in that regard.
May I ask the Minister how much of the £1.8 billion—spread over 10 years—has been set aside for the Government’s plans? We are told that that money has been set aside and all is well, but there are various reports that some of it has already been eaten into. Has any of it been spent, and if so, how much?
While I am on the subject of costs, may I question the Minister about the impact assessment, which attempts to take an overall view of the costs? Again, we are dealing with assumptions and projected usage rates, and not all the figures are on the table, but I think we can all agree that the assessment is very dependent on projected usage rates. The way in which the reserve forces are used will depend on assumptions about future costs.
Artificially low rates can create false economies. The central case in the document seems to be based on an assumption of 3,000 annual deployments. I must ask the Minister whether that projection is realistic, given the original rationale of the reserve reforms. We are meant to be replacing 20,000 regular troops with 30,000 reservists. If the central projected use is 3,000, something is not adding up on the terrain. We need to examine the facts very carefully, because, again, we may be creating false economies and the taxpayer may be presented with a much larger bill than was originally envisaged.
As my hon. Friend knows, I strongly support those who are concerned about a capability gap, but I am slightly worried about some of the figures that he has given. For example, the figure relating to the higher cost of training a reservist is correct on a per-day basis, but it is not correct overall. What worries me is that, if Members give incorrect figures, the Government will very quickly knock them back. Let us stick to the main thrust, which is our fear that there will not be enough soldiers to fight in any future deployments that may take place.
I am indeed very worried about the possibility that we shall not have enough troops to deploy. I refer my hon. Friend to the Green Paper, which states that it costs more to train a reservist than to train a regular. However, he has made a valid point about the manpower gap, which I think is a central issue of concern. Will 30,000 reservists be enough, even if they can be recruited? According to figures from the Ministry of Defence, the present TA mobilisation rate is 40%. In other words, for every 100 TA soldiers on paper, 40 are deemed to be deployable at any one time. That suggests that if we are plugging a gap left by 20,000 regulars, we shall need 50,000 reservists, not 30,000.
In response to a letter sent to him a while ago by 25 Conservative Members, the Secretary of State suggested a mobilisation rate of 80%. He said:
“The total strength target for the Army Reserve in 2020 is 38,000, in order to deliver 30,000 trained reservists.
May I ask the Minister what research, what study, what evidence justifies the claim that the MOD’s budgets will double the mobilisation rate? It is one thing to recruit 30,000 reservists, but doubling the mobilisation rate as well would require an extremely large investment. Many of us would be interested to know what evidence supports the claim that the £1.8 billion that has been put aside will achieve both those objectives. It is a very, very tall order.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) raised the issue of the capability gap, and he was right to do so, because there is a fear that the Government plans risk creating such a gap. The Army reforms were put together before the strategic defence and security review, and since then a string of events have changed the international strategic dynamic. The nature of conflict is changing. Previously, it was thought of very much in binary terms—there would be one bloc against another bloc—but more fluid geopolitical forces are now at play, both state and non-state. War is becoming more asymmetrical, and we need well trained, agile, regular forces at high readiness if we are to meet the challenges that lie ahead. There is no disguising among the military their frustration about the fact that they could not have been more supportive to the French in Mali. The penny may have dropped on that side of the channel, but it has not yet dropped on this side.
I must ask the Minister whether 40 days’ training is really enough. Let us be absolutely clear about this: the Government’s plans represent a step-change in our approach. We are proposing to deploy whole units of reservists into the field. We have got to ask serious questions about this. Some would say, “Well, it happens in the US with the National Guard,” but it is, perhaps, not fully appreciated that the US National Guard has its own bases and its own equipment and training programmes. They take it very seriously in the US; they throw a lot of money at it, and even then the National Guard units are not infantry units. That is the interesting thing: the National Guard units are not infantry units, despite the investment the US puts into it.
My last visit to a National Guard infantry unit was in Kabul about a year and a half ago. It was doing an excellent security job, and it also had detached platoons along the Pakistani border. Some 60% of the American infantry is in the National Guard and 40% is in its regular army.
All I would say to my hon. Friend is that there is a general view that the National Guard is very much focused on supporting roles, and the Americans treat their National Guard very differently from what I think is being proposed here. For example, I do not know of there being any details about separate training programmes, operational programmes or equipment programmes in the Government’s plans, which we have yet to see. All we are asking is to see those plans, because £1.8 billion may sound like a lot of money but it is spread over 10 years, and we must consider the scale of what we are asking—not just raising 30,000 reservists, or, to be more accurate, adding another 12,000 or 13,000 reservists, but doubling the mobilisation rate. That is a very big ask indeed.
What research has been undertaken to ensure that the money earmarked is sufficient to bring reservist units up to the same standard as regulars upon deployment? That is especially important given that it appears that human rights legislation will require equal training and equipment. That has not been raised much in the debate thus far, but human rights legislation is a concern in the sense that it is going to say, “Any troops put into the field, reservist or regular, have to have equal training and equipment.” I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.
There is a concern that these plans are having a distorting effect on the ground. I come back to the fact that well-recruited battalions are being axed, including my own battalion, the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, yet more poorly recruited, and therefore more expensive, battalions are being saved. Such a policy reinforces failure. Can the Minister justify the decision for 2RRF to replace on the list one of the more poorly recruited battalions when it was not on the original list of five battalions to be scrapped? We know, because we have seen it in writing from the MOD, that five battalions were originally due to be axed as they had poor recruitment figures. One of those was replaced. They had to go looking for another battalion and they fell upon 2RRF, which happened to be the best-recruited battalion in the British Army. Many fusiliers and their families in swathes of constituencies across the north and the midlands of England would like an answer to that question.
Both 2RRF and the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are very close to my heart, my dad having been a member of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers before and during the second world war. I wonder what the MOD wants out of our defence forces. One of the battalions to be axed, 2RRF, is referred to as “Daring in all”, and it is said:
“Where ever the Fusiliers have deployed to they have proved capable of meeting every challenge with courage, determination and a will to win.”
That is on the Army website.
That goes without saying. I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman says. We have still not yet had a straightforward answer to a straightforward question: 2RRF was not in the original five; those five were chosen because of their poor recruitment and retention figures; one was removed and they had to go looking for another battalion to take its place; and they just happened to fall upon the best-recruited battalion in the British Army, and one with a very proud recruiting history. We recruit from across the major cities of Lancashire, Warwickshire and Northumberland—Newcastle, Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester—as well as from London, yet we were told we were having trouble with our recruitment, and that is simply not the case.
No wonder ex-military chiefs are critical. Many are pointing out that strategic thought has been abandoned at a time when many other countries, not necessarily friendly to the west, are increasing their defence budgets. They are asking all politicians to think again.
There comes a stage with any struggling project when common sense and evidence dictate a revaluation and I believe we have reached that point now. There is no doubt—let us be clear about this—that reservists are cheaper than regulars, but rising costs threaten the anticipated cost savings and raise the very real prospect of false economies, and that is before we consider the issue of capability gaps, yet the Government seem determined to plough on with this misguided plan and play down concerns.
That is evidenced today by this important debate having been downgraded, I believe, to a one-line Whip. That does not surprise me, but, all the same, I think it speaks volumes about the Government’s approach. This is a very important issue and the debate has been very well-subscribed to, yet we drop it down to a one-line Whip at a time when the Government have still not produced fully costed plans and there are very real concerns about whether 30,000 reservists can plug a gap left by 20,000 regulars.
I intend to test the will of the House on this motion. The time has come to say “Halt”—halt to the axing of the regular battalions until we know that the reservist plan is both viable and cost-effective; otherwise the taxpayer could bear the brunt of many false economies to come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this debate. It is the second such debate he has secured, and in the first debate we won the vote but the Government did not take a blind bit of notice. I hope they will do so today.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I had the pleasure the other day of helping to hand in a petition to No. 10 Downing street, when I met, and talked to, many of the ex-fusiliers. There is no doubt that they feel very strongly about what has happened to their regiment and battalions.
I appreciate that periodical reorganisations are necessary and that cuts sometimes might be required to ensure efficiency, but let us be clear: that is not what is happening here. This is a financial, not a strategic, change.
The Government say these cuts will not affect our military capability, but they clearly will. We are losing whole battalions—20,000 troops are to be axed. The Government know this will damage our military capability, creating gaps that will cost us both financially and strategically. That is why they keep insisting that their plans for reservists will fill this gap. That may or may not be the case. I am not a military expert and do not wish to discuss whether or not 30,000 reservists are a substitute for 20,000 regulars. I do, however, have experience of industry and, as a result, I am highly sceptical of the Government’s plans.
I fear that the Government are being highly optimistic in relying on 30,000 reservists. To be in the Territorial Army is admirable and I respect all reservists, but it is admirable because it is a serious time commitment—and, more than that, they can sometimes put themselves in harm’s way. In today’s economic climate, it is not easy for people to request time off from their employer, let alone take large amounts of time off. If companies are tightening their belts, employees feel it is important to be present, hard working and seen to be valuable to the company. Especially given today’s high living standards and bills, no one wants to risk losing their job. Many employers will also be very reluctant to make the extra demands of their employers. We must remember that being a reservist does not mean taking hours off; it can mean taking weeks off. There will be a real fear that being a reservist can jeopardise someone’s career. That is not to say that people will not volunteer to be reservists, but when push comes to shove reservists will put their employment first.
I understand that there are to be incentives for employers to take on reservists, but, again, I fear that when work is demanding and a deadline is looming employers would rather have their employee at work and will put pressure on reservists accordingly. Furthermore, I understand that the Territorial Army’s current mobilisation rate stands at 40%, so only 40 of every 100 soldiers are deemed fit for deployment. Given that figure, we have to bear in mind that we are going to need to recruit about 50,000 reservists, rather than 30,000. The TA has had a net loss in officers and soldiers since 2009; TA numbers are now at their lowest level since 2007. I also understand from recent reports that the reserves recruitment drive, which ought now to be in full swing, is falling well short of its targets for both this year and next. I will leave others to discuss the strategic considerations and the cost of the plans, which is considerable and escalating. I simply call on the Government to delay the axing of the 20,000 regulars until it is beyond doubt that the reserves plan is viable and cost-effective. Let us wait to see what the reservists plans look like before making such significant cuts.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because it gives me the opportunity to highlight the sad disbandment of the 72 Engineers Regiment, which has its headquarters in my constituency. Although it is to be amalgamated into other regiments, the 72 Engineers Regiment has a long history of residency in my constituency and has the freedom of the borough. Many people in the borough are deeply saddened to see the demise of the regiment.
I am sure that most of the House would agree with my hon. Friend.
We need to ensure that we do not cause unnecessary costs to the taxpayer and that we do not damage our military capability. Finally, I urge the Government to consider abandoning the plan to disband the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers altogether. It is an excellent battalion with a proud history—the Warwickshire county regiment is part of that history—particularly during the second world war, and it has an outstanding track record of recruitment. I urge the Government to reconsider disbanding it while keeping more poorly recruited, and therefore more expensive, battalions.
I welcome this debate and I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham).
I understand my hon. and gallant Friend’s loyal defence of his fine former regiment. As the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war is almost upon us, it is time to remember six Lancashire and Warwickshire Fusiliers who won Victoria Crosses in that war. Sir John French made the famous remark that without the Territorial units available at the very beginning of the fighting we would have lost in France before the war had really begun.
The reality is that we have a good plan that is being unevenly implemented. America’s land forces are almost exactly split 50:50 between regulars and volunteer reserves. Canada has 44% regulars and Australia has 36% regulars; in all countries there are more reserve infantry than regulars. Uniquely, Britain has a target that is much less ambitious. It is broadly the case that a reservist costs a fifth of the price of a regular. All of us who are keen on defence would like more resources to be allocated to defence. Indeed, more than 20 years ago, I stepped down from my post in government as a Cabinet Parliamentary Private Secretary over that issue. However, the reality is that we have to work within these very difficult economic times, and the alternative to 30,000 reservists is not 20,000 regulars, but somewhere between 6,000 and 7,500, and that would be if we got rid of all the specialist medics, cyber-people and so on whom the Regular Army does not have.
I therefore strongly support this plan; I have seen the work of American and Australian reservists, and I am proud that 20% of the British division that captured southern Iraq was made up of reservists. However, I am concerned about some of the details of how the plan is being implemented. From the beginning, Ministers and the Chief of the General Staff have made a strong commitment to it. Ministers have secured the support of every employers’ organisation in the country. The CGS, starting with his own pitch to employers in his excellent article in the Financial Times, immediately spotted the governance issue by appointing, for the first time since the second world war, a TA two-star—a major-general—to play a pivotal role in it. The problems largely lie within the recruiting group. At a time when the proposition has improved immeasurably as a result of changes the Army Board is making, it is deeply depressing that this department is failing to deliver.
I have before me the monthly recruiting statistics for one unit—I will not disclose which, for obvious reasons. In the 12 months before the first push on TA recruiting in autumn 2011, the unit had enlisted between three and 12 people a month. The figures after that push are: 15 for November 2011, 21 for December 2011 and 19 for January 2012. Then, for a reason not understood by anyone, the recruiting group introduced its new system for medicals and common selection, without any market testing and without talking to units, and within three or four months the figures had dropped to one or two a month. That muddle was sorted—it had nothing to do with Capita. Second time around, the arrangements with Capita—I do not blame Capita—were introduced without any market testing or discussion with units. I am sure we have all dealt with cases of soldiers who have waited six or nine months with their documents repeatedly lost in the system.
Time is extremely short, so I want to suggest three things that the Government need to do turn this around. The units I talk to tell me again and again that there is more interest in joining the reserves and that the figures for the two groups that are not under control of the recruiting group—officer applicants and ex-regulars—are both improving. So, first, we need to get more of the control over the enlistment process back with the units again.
May I suggest that this is a clear example of where the plan is driven by costs, rather than by strategic design? The cost for Capita to take on the recruitment was derived in large part by scaling down, if not selling up completely, local recruitment offices. So to start opening those offices, although a sensible proposition, would require additional cost if we are going to reverse that recruitment loss.
My hon. and gallant Friend makes an interesting point. That is not what I am arguing for, although I would strongly argue that it is ridiculous that the offices we still retain are open 9 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday instead of, for example, 9 am to 9 pm Tuesday to Thursday, which would allow the people there to do both jobs rather than only regulars. I am calling for more emphasis on the units. A temporary measure has been adopted in that area, which I suggest should be more permanent—it need not be expensive.
The second major change we need is to have a senior reservist officer in the recruiting group who is tasked with talking to units and who has real power in the way in which decisions in that area are made. We have done it at Land Command at the senior level, where two highly effective successive deputy commanders at Land in that position have worked well, and the improvements in the proposition have stemmed in no small part from that. The same needs to be done in the recruiting group.
The third change we need is on a relatively small scale, as seven or eight changes among the 400-odd decisions that had to be made to the location of the reserves are not right. Seven or eight really well-recruited sub-units have been wrongly selected for disbandment, including the best-recruited squadron in the yeomanry, which is going down to troop level, the best-recruited battery in the TA gunners and three or four well-recruited infantry sub-units.
I believe that this plan is achievable and it is moving us in the direction of the allies we fight alongside. It is a good plan; it just needs an improvement in implementation.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who made an earnest plea. I also thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for all he has done to secure the debate today and the debate last year. He deserves our support for what he said today.
This is an important debate, because, as yet, the Government have not made a good enough case for their plans to reform the country’s armed forces completely by 2020. Furthermore, we know that, of the three services, the Army will be most affected by the Government’s proposed changes. I confess that a particular concern for me from a local perspective is the plan to disband 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
A year ago, on 18 October, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has mentioned, the House debated the proposed disbandment of that battalion. The vote was won, but we know that it was not binding and the Defence Reform Bill is before Parliament with the disbandment proposals intact. All the while, the Army is working to implement its restructuring by 2018.
Colleagues speaking in support of this motion cannot yet see any evidence that supports the Government’s decision to give reservists a bigger role in defending the country. To complete the transformation of the Army, the Government must meet their target of recruiting 30,000 new reservists by 2018. However, the Assistant Chief of the General Staff told the Defence Committee in July of this year that achieving the 6,000 target for this year is “looking tough”. Even if recruitment improves, there are concerns from many quarters about how employers will react when their staff, serving as reservists, have to be deployed for up to 12 months at a time every five years. There is also concern that the compensation of £500 a month to cover each reservist is too low to cover employers’ costs.
Moreover, can Future Force meet the same capability levels as the Army today? With less time for training and with a voluntary role, these soldiers cannot be expected to be comparable with full-time, fully trained and battle-ready Army personnel.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. On the question about being battle-ready and so on, under the American system the regular troops are used to seize ground and the reserve troops, who can bring extra expertise—they include policemen, farmers, business men and so on—are used to hold ground. They are often more successful than regular troops at building links with the local community.
The point at issue is the transformation to reservists.
So far, the Government have not been able to instil in either Members of this House or the people of this country any confidence in their cost-cutting proposals, because they have not laid the figures on the table. Instead, they have launched headlong into reform, announcing redundancies and undermining the morale of our forces on active service. I remind the Minister that the military covenant states that our military deserve our support, respect and fair treatment, and they should have that at all times.
As for the question of the depletion of our Regular Army, earlier this year I had the honour, along with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), of taking to Downing street a 10,000-strong petition, which was co-ordinated by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and signed by the people of the north-east, asking the Government not to disband the 2nd Battalion. On Tuesday this week, hundreds of fusiliers marched through Whitehall in support of a national petition to save their battalion that was presented at 10 Downing street. It was an emotional afternoon, charged with the pride of a regiment that has the best recruitment record in the land, yet tinged with sadness and dismay that that proud tradition could soon be consigned to history.
After the march, I was honoured to bring four veterans from the north-east on their first visit to Parliament. I am pleased to say that while I showed them around this great place, every member of staff and every MP we encountered treated them with the utmost courtesy and respect. Those veterans—Jim, Terry, Jim the Stick and Mac—fear for the future of their battalion and the opportunities for young people in the north-east to follow them into a full-time Army career.
None of us wants to see the battalion or any other unit disbanded in haste and without our being sure that the Government’s plan is cost-effective and wholly workable. This House, our armed forces and the people of the country have a right to see evidence from the Government that they can make the savings and maintain the level of defence that they claim the reforms will deliver.
If the Government are serious about defence reform, they must acknowledge the relevance of the motion and act in accordance with it. I support the motion and urge all other Members in Westminster today to do so, too.
The first responsibility of any Government is the defence of the realm. I put that point to the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House and warned him that on his watch the size of the British Army will fall to the level it was at the time of the battle of Waterloo.
I have considerable sympathy with the points that are being made about saving 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I will not venture too far in that direction, but I will say that I have placed on record my reservations and concerns about where the replacement of regulars of reservists will get to. I pointed out in an intervention on my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) the fact that the current issue of Army Reserve Quarterly states:
“These changes are not in isolation: they are part of rebalancing Her Majesty’s Forces in light of the country’s needs and resources in the years ahead following the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty.”
It goes on to say:
“The changes being made are modernising the Army to face an unpredictable future, transforming the Army to one that is affordable, wholly integrated, designed to be adaptable, and ready to meet the challenges of the future.”
My fear is that we might perhaps have a generational challenge in the leadership of our major political parties. I am of an age that I can remember the aftermath of the second world war and other conflicts, so I feel that reducing the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces to even lower numbers than present is not in the national interest. Today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph, a paper that I follow—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing a word I was struggling to find; it was not my original thought, but it will do.
The Daily Telegraph reports today:
“Controversial plans to restructure the Army are ‘failing’ because cuts to the defence budget are putting off potential new soldiers…according to a leaked document”,
“The memo, which is understood to have had wide distribution within the Ministry of Defence, says that ‘disappointing’ recruitment to the new Army Reserve means that targets for a larger part-time force will not be reached.”
It goes on to quote that document, saying that
“the Army faces ‘increased risk to its structure and operational capability’”.
The full-time Army has been cut from 102,000 to about 82,000 and five battalions will be axed. As someone who would desperately like to see 3rd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment reinstated, I well understand why people are anxious about battalion cuts. The cuts are supposed to be offset by a major expansion in the part-time reserve force, which is expected to grow from 19,000 to 30,000.
Just while my hon. Friend is mentioning the distinguished Royal Anglian Regiment, one should also say that the Territorials have produced a number of distinguished Members of Parliament, including Sir Winston Churchill and the hon. Member for Raleigh, a former member of the Royal Anglians.
Or indeed, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I welcome a fellow Essex MP to the debate, and in a few minutes I will also be delighted to welcome from Essex the new Deputy Speaker. It is good to see an Essex girl doing so well.
The Daily Telegraph says that the 10-page report dated 6 August and marked “Restricted” claims that the Army is currently recruiting barely half the number of new reservists needed to hit the target. It says:
“The Army is currently failing to attract and recruit sufficient Army Reserve personnel. Reserve info numbers in Quarter 1 are disappointing. If this continues the Army will miss its challenging inflow targets both this year and next.”
That would have consequences for the full-time Army. The report continues:
“Only 376 recruits joined the Reserve between April and June, missing a target of 1,432. That puts the Army on course to recruit only 50% of the overall 2013-14 target”.
The defence of the realm should be based on the defence needs of the nation; it should not be resources led. I get the distinct impression that it is being resources led. I pay tribute to our service personnel and their families. I suggest to my colleagues, friends and chums on the Government Front Bench that, should windfall funds materialise from the disposal of MOD assets, which they could well do, the money should be used primarily to modernise our Army married housing. The modernisation programme is currently on hold because it is claimed that the country cannot afford it, but as heard in Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, the economy is improving. So if there is an MOD windfall, I suggest that the money goes on improving our housing.
I should like to end on an upbeat subject and advise the House that on Wednesday 6 November at 7.30 in the atrium of Portcullis House the Colchester military wives choir will be making a return visit. Everyone is welcome to come along and hear them.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this debate. It is an honour and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell). We reside on the same corridor upstairs, and exchange pleasantries on a daily basis.
I should also declare an interest as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, because I was part of the decision-making process for securing the debate today. I am rounding the circle. because I declared the same interest in the Committee.
I have previously alluded to my sadness and that of my constituents at the disbandment of the 72 Royal Engineers TA Regiment. It was a real pleasure to attend an event here yesterday afternoon, mostly about the Royal Engineers, at which members of the 72 Regiment were present. We saw the great work that the Royal Engineers do across the country and in far-flung fields. It is particularly disappointing that, as part of the review, in which we hoped to see an expansion of the TA, the headquarters of the regiment was removed from my constituency. As I said earlier, they have the freedom of the borough, and we will see their passing with great regret.
I referred in an intervention to the impending demise of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which recruits mainly from the north-west. I am concerned that if we disband the 2nd Battalion, that will leave one full-time regular battalion within that regiment. Using the Government’s own defence review criteria, single-battalion regiments are automatically subject to review, so that would place in jeopardy the last remaining 1st Battalion of full-time regular soldiers within the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The regiment is close to my heart. It was my dad’s regiment; he was a regular soldier, serving in Palestine and north Africa. He was captured in the early days of the second world war before becoming a prisoner of war for a number of years. I wonder why we are seeing the potential demise of such a regiment, which dates back almost 330 years.
I really wonder what more we want from our service personnel than what the Fusiliers already provide. According to the Army website,
“The First Fusiliers epitomise the modern British soldier … The Second Fusiliers are a superb, operationally hardened, light role infantry battalion.”
They are supported by the 5 RRF, a TA battalion, which has stations at Alnwick, Ashington, Newcastle, Tynemouth, Washington, Bishop Auckland and Doncaster—mainly a north-east regiment of the territorial reserve force. We have grave concerns about the future of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers per se.
Comparisons between the capability of our TA reserve forces and front-line regular forces and that of the American services are almost meaningless. Given the size of the American regular capability and the resources available to it, to compare them with our regular forces, who I believe are much better troops on the ground even though they are obviously many fewer in numbers, is meaningless. I would ask Government Members not to make such comparisons because they demean this debate.
I welcome the debate and ask the Government to think again about the proposals. There could be hidden cost implications down the line, and we worry about our real defence capability come 2020.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), and I thank him and his colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for taking note of the submission made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), me and other hon. Members from across the House at last week’s meeting, and for granting this debate today.
This matter is one of enormous importance to my constituents in Bury, and I want to explain briefly why that is. The motion refers to the disbandment of regular Army units. As we have already heard, one of the units to be disbanded is the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Bury has long been a productive recruiting ground for the Fusiliers—originally the Lancashire Fusiliers raised in 1688, who had their barracks in the town of Bury, as I know you are well aware, Mr Deputy Speaker. Following a previous reorganisation of the regular Army units, back on 23 April 1968, the Lancashire Fusiliers joined the Royal Northumbrian Fusiliers, the Royal Warwickshire Fusiliers and the Royal Fusiliers to form part of the new Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
The people of Bury are extremely proud of the town’s links with the Fusiliers. The town is home to the Fusiliers museum, which has recently moved from the site of the old barracks to a new venue right in the heart of the town. This was visited by the Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), when he was shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Just a few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport also visited the museum.
Earlier this year, in the summer, the Bury parish church played host to the funeral of Drummer Lee Rigby—a Fusilier—who was so brutally murdered here in London. The church is the garrison church of the Fusiliers. Each year on the Sunday nearest 25 April Bury commemorates the terrible losses sustained by the Fusiliers at Gallipoli in 1915. The Fusiliers were awarded six Victoria Crosses for the bravery that they displayed at that landing, and famously they are remembered as having won six VCs before breakfast.
We must never lose sight of the reason why the Government have had to make these difficult decisions. It is right that the defence budget must be balanced; no one disputes that. It is nevertheless prudent constantly to review the plans that the Government have put in place and monitor them to ensure that they are on track and that they will deliver the planned savings. My constituents are understandably angry and disappointed that the 2nd Battalion is being disbanded at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the world. On Tuesday this week I was honoured to meet the hundreds of former Fusiliers and their families who marched down Whitehall to hear the speeches in Old Palace Yard. This was the second such march, following the one we had last year. It is just one indication of the strength of feeling not just in Bury, but in all the towns from which the Fusiliers recruit right across the country.
The 2nd Battalion is one of the best—if not the best—recruited battalions in the British Army. My constituents ask why Scottish battalions, which are much more poorly manned, are being retained when the 2nd Battalion is being disbanded. They wonder whether the answer has anything to do with the impending referendum on independence for Scotland.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I be the first hon. Member of this House to welcome you to your new position, to congratulate you on your election as Deputy Speaker, and to wish you well in your new role in the House?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
May I, from the Opposition Benches, welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? I see that you are getting clear guidance from your fellow Deputy Speaker. From my experience of the right hon. Member for Chorley (Mr Hoyle), I would not listen too closely to him on every occasion, as he has a mischievous sense of humour.
My constituents in Bury are concerned that not enough reservists will be recruited to fill the massive hole that will be left by the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion. The original plan was to keep the Regular Army battalions in place until it was clear that the plan to replace them with reservists was viable. It surely makes sense to be absolutely certain that the reservists recruitment plans are on track before the regular units are disbanded. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay that the plan to recruit more reservists is behind schedule, but we should not have to rely on leaks published in The Daily Telegraph. What are the facts? Exactly how many reservists should have been recruited by now? Exactly how many have been recruited? They are not a cheap option. We need to know the facts. I urge the House to vote for the motion.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you in your place. I support the comments of my colleagues.
I commend my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his persistence in raising these questions. As has been said, the Government plan to more than double the size of the TA to 38,000. That figure has not been used yet, but as I understand it, that is the target figure, of which 30,000 will be potentially on call. At the same time the number of regulars will be reduced by 20,000. The motion
about whether these reforms
“will deliver either the anticipated cost savings or defence capability”.
My sympathies are with the members of the Government Front-Bench team, whom I know reasonably well after three years here. I know that none of them wishes to be in this position.
During my nine years in the Army, I worked alongside many reservists. They were capable, professional and dedicated. Their magnificent contribution to many recent operations from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya leaves us in no doubt of their valour or significance. However, reservists have other priorities in their lives, and that is even more pertinent in today’s tough and competitive world. For these reasons and others, their numbers must be kept to a sensible and manageable proportion of the whole. No military commander I have spoken to, serving or retired, agrees that the increase in the proportion of reservists to regulars is correct. Today’s conflicts require well trained, professional, regular troops to hit the ground running, so if we are to cut our armed services, the proportion of regulars to reservists must be higher, not lower.
Twenty thousand fully trained and experienced regulars are leaving the Army, creating what I and many other campaigners and commentators would consider a yawning capability gap. The Government argue that they inherited a multibillion pound hole in the defence budget, which was unsustainable. Although I accept that premise, I do not agree with the conclusion that we should cut the armed services to the extent that we are planning, and certainly not before plan B has proved sustainable.
To me, this is all about priorities. We are happy to strike a moral pose and devote many billions of pounds to overseas aid, much of which is unaccountable, while starving of cash the very organisations that defend our country. I have no problem with giving money to overseas aid, but it should be better targeted, and I think that a statutory target is incorrect. Furthermore, projects such as HS2, which is very controversial, will cost billions of pounds, and, dare I say it, there is the old elephant in the room, the EU. Charity starts at home, especially in austere times.
It is a sobering thought that at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland we had nearly 30,500 troops serving there. In my day it took about six men to put one man in the field. Working on that basis, if—God forbids it ever happens again—Northern Ireland flares up, we would be pushed to meet that commitment, let alone retake the Falklands if Argentina were ever in a position to launch an attack.
Ministers tell us that this reduction is
“to make best use of the resources available”
“harness better the talents of the country”.
It sounds good, but does it deliver? According to a leaked document from the MOD, it does not. I would be grateful if Ministers would confirm what percentage of GDP is spent on our armed forces. I am told that it is now below 2%, the minimum that our membership of NATO demands. In my day, it was above 5% —money that was needed not only to maintain our commitment to NATO, but for the defence of our dependants and of course to safeguard the realm, which is the most solemn duty of this House.
Yet today more redundancies loom and more reliance will be placed on reservists, who are not rallying to the MOD’s bugle call to the extent that we were led to expect. Those who do respond will receive 40 training days a year. Will that be enough to give a reservist confidence when his or her boots hit the ground? Will the already overstretched training facilities be able to cope with the increase in demand? Will the new arrangements be to the reservist’s detriment? As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has said, the statistics show that reservists are 50% more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than their regular counterparts.
I question whether the £1.8 billion investment over the next 10 years will be adequate. The Government’s target is a total Army Reserve strength of 38,000 by 2020, but it is reckoned that this will give us 30,000 trained reservists. I question whether that will be achievable, and certainly the statistics we have heard today indicate that it probably will not be.
As a humble Back Bencher, I urge the Government to stop dismembering our armed services before it is too late and at least ensure that plan B is in place and working.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I would like to associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who sadly is no longer in the Chamber. Like him, I think that the whole plan for the Army Reserve is a good one. I know a great many serving reservists in my constituency who are excited and enthused about their role in a fully manned, 30,000-strong force that will ensure that they and others in future can make their contribution to the British Army. I note with interest that the south-west has been given an important role to play in this expansion, with the equivalent of 940 new posts being created for the region. However, like my hon. Friend, I have some concerns about the proposals as they stand.
What is in no doubt is that one has great respect for the TA and, in many respects, wants the reserve plan to work. What one is arguing here is that, given the shortfalls in recruitment and the rising costs, surely it would be wise and prudent to stop the axing of the regular battalions until we know that the reserve plan is viable and cost-effective, because we in this House must not forget that defence is the first priority of Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have certainly never forgotten my personal responsibility or the fact that the defence of our nation is, collectively, our first responsibility in this Chamber, and I do not think for one moment that the Ministers on the Front Bench have forgotten their responsibilities either. We have not yet had an opportunity to hear the Minister respond to the debate or explain the current situation with regard to reservist recruitment. I have some concerns about recruitment, which is why I am speaking in this debate.
The Green Paper published in July contained some proposals that concern me. One, in particular, is for the reconfiguration of D company of 6th Battalion The Rifles. I believe that the proposal, as it stands, will frustrate the delivery of the Army Reserve plan in Cornwall, particularly the aim of maximising its local potential now and in years to come. D company is an important part of 6 Rifles. It is currently based and headquartered in Truro and Plymouth, which allows riflemen from across Cornwall to play a full role in the life of the regiment. The Green Paper proposes a reconfiguration that would see the majority of the company, including its headquarters, based in Plymouth by 2016 and one platoon housed at a new facility in Barnstable.
The move from Truro would cause real problems for serving riflemen living in west and central Cornwall and impact on future recruitment from those areas. Cornwall, as Members will know, is a large and rural county, and it can take a considerable time to travel to Plymouth. A rifleman taking the train from Falmouth in my constituency to an evening training session in Plymouth would face a four-hour round trip. Those travelling further west would face even longer journey times. Is it reasonable or, with a view to future recruitment, wise to add such an inconvenience to the many other sacrifices required of our reservists?
I agree wholeheartedly. My constituency will see the closure of Coltman house, a well served TA centre in Burton. When we are trying to encourage more people to join the TA, it makes absolutely no sense to make it more difficult for them to do so.
I definitely agree with the principle of my hon. Friend’s point.
As well as creating a tangible difficulty for Cornish riflemen, the proposed move from Truro will inflict a blow to local military identity. The link between Cornwall and The Rifles dates back to 1782, when the 32nd Regiment of Foot, a predecessor unit, was designated as Cornwall’s county regiment. That designation has lasted through the centuries and the reorganisations of recent years and, until now, has been physical as well as theoretical, with members of the regiment serving within Cornwall. The end of 231 years of The Rifles’s boots on Cornish soil will weaken the link between county and regiment.
I know that the Ministry of Defence recognises that such links not only are a matter of sentiment and heritage, but have a real impact on local recruitment. The case against reconfiguration therefore rests on the threat to recruitment, but the argument cited in its favour is that the move from Truro will save money. When considering this, it is important to remember that Truro’s TA centre, which is currently home to D company, would stay open if The Rifles move. The centre currently also supports local Army cadets and provides a base for the Royal Army medical field hospital and a squadron of the Royal Logistic Corp. The Green Paper would not alter those arrangements. If the move goes ahead, Truro TA centre will remain open as a facility but support fewer reserve units. It is difficult to see how that could lead to significant financial savings. Indeed, the proposed establishment of a new platoon-sized facility at Barnstable looks likely to incur costs that would not have to be met if Truro were retained as a Rifles base.
The reconfiguration does not need to be completely abandoned in order for its adverse impact to be mitigated. It is generally accepted that it makes sense for the company headquarters to move to Plymouth, as the nearest large urban area, but only while one platoon remains in Truro to enable continued service from central and west Cornish residents. I understand that that was the expected scenario following the talks with local commanders in advance of the Green Paper, so the loss of all Rifles units came as a dreadful shock. Given Cornwall’s population of 530,000, which is expected to grow at a fast rate in the coming decades, it seems likely that a Truro-based platoon would be readily able to recruit sufficient reservists to man it. It is currently a well manned unit.
In conclusion, my concerns about the reorganisation are very local. I support and welcome the strategy for the Army Reserve, which I think is widely supported by reservists in my constituency, but over 100 people have contacted me to express their consternation about the proposed move, including many serving riflemen in my constituency. During his time at the Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) listened closely to those concerns, met me and agreed in writing to look again at the proposed move. He had also been planning to visit Truro to help him to understand further the impact that the move would have. I hope that his successor as Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), will be able to continue that close consideration of that local concern. I hope that will lead to the proposed reconfiguration being reviewed. Such a review is simply essential if Cornish residents are to serve in The Rifles in the manner in which they have proudly done for centuries and if Cornwall is to continue to contribute to the British Army to the extent envisioned in the Army Reserve plan.
May I wholeheartedly join in the warm welcome that has been extended to you today, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is delightful to see you in the Chair.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). I echo what she and other speakers have said about the size of the task that is facing Ministers with the £35 billion black hole they inherited, the need to put our armed forces on a sound financial and strategic footing—
The figure comes from someone who knows more about this than me; it is contained in the National Audit Office report of 2010. I have only six minutes to speak. I will happily debate the black hole in the accounts and the whole of the debt that the previous Government left to this Government, but that is not really why I want to take part in the debate. I wanted to do so to pay tribute to our Ministers. We have an excellent Minister who has served in the armed forces and we are lucky to have him serving in this Department.
The longer this debate has gone on, the more it has become clear to me that something is going wrong with the implementation of the Government’s plan. I speak on these matters as a layman. I do not have any gallant service of my own, but as a Conservative I take an interest in our armed forces and the strength of our defence. I am not remotely qualified to judge the merits of the plan, nor the size of the Army, although I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said about the size of our armed forces. Least of all am I qualified to judge the relative capabilities and costs of reservists as against regular soldiers. However, there is clearly common ground emerging that something is going wrong with the recruitment of reservists. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who has played a distinguished role in this regard, described it as “uneven”. Perhaps the Minister can put me right, but it seems that initial reports are not uniformly optimistic about the recruitment of reserves to take the place of our regular forces.
Let me put to the Minister the case that has already been put in a very distinguished way by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). If there is a problem with the recruitment of reservists, and those reservists are needed to make up for the capability lost through the loss of the five regular battalions, surely the Government should look again at the question of disbanding those battalions.
I am not even slightly distinguished. I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the risk of there being a capability gap. Does he agree that, while the MOD may well hope that the TA recruitment figures will improve, there must arrive a point at which it will become obvious that that is not going to occur? We might therefore want to hear from the Minister a date or a time at which the MOD might be ready to admit that the bold plan in “Future Army 2020” has not worked and will think again about regular units.
I hope that the Minister has heard my hon. Friend. If I may, I would put it even more strongly. My hon. Friend mentioned hope. I would say to the Minister that, if there is even an element of doubt about the recruitment of reservists, the Government should put these plans on hold and look again at the whole question of disbanding the regular battalions. In saying that, let me make it absolutely clear that I mean no disrespect at all to the excellent individuals who serve in our Territorial Army and to whom we owe the deepest debt of gratitude, not least for the way in which they have performed in Afghanistan.
This is simply a question of whether the implementation of the plans as they stand will give us the capability that we require. I very much hope that it will not be part of the Government’s thinking or policy to say, “Here we have a plan which should meet our capability needs, and will also save us costs, but even if it doesn’t meet our capability needs we will go ahead with it none the less.” That is not a position in which a Conservative-led Government should find themselves, and I am sure that they will not under the watchful custodianship of my right hon. Friend the Minister.
Let me say a few words about our Navy, which is also encompassed by the defence reforms. The previous Government’s strategic defence review in the late 1990s concluded that Britain required a fleet of 32 surface ships, destroyers and frigates, in order to fulfil its capability needs. Now we have a fleet of 19 surface ships in the form of frigates and destroyers. I know that these ships have greater capability than ever before, but I would be surprised if they had acquired a capability proportionate to the loss of numbers that has been experienced since the defence review in the late 1990s. Even as an amateur strategist, I can understand that, as the noble Lord West, a former Sea Lord, has helpfully pointed out, a ship can only be in one place at one time. I doubt that there are fewer threats in the world today than there were in the late 1990s and that the world has become a much safer place since the turn of the last century. While other nations are responding to the world as it is by increasing the number and capability of their surface fleet, we are seeing a diminution in ours.
The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned Waterloo. Helpfully, next Monday is Trafalgar day, which used to be celebrated nationally and is still celebrated in our Navy. I was interested to find out how many warships the British Navy had at the time of the battle of Trafalgar, and my rather amateur research unearthed a figure of 950 warships in 1805, so we may not have had a very big Army, as the hon. Gentleman said, but we certainly had a very good Navy.
My hon. Friend is right. Who knows what we may be called on to deal with through our Royal Navy? At the time of the Falklands conflict we had 60 frigates and destroyers. Recently our Navy played a very important role in the conflict in Libya. Four of the ships that we used in that conflict have since been decommissioned or are on their way to being decommissioned. Let me put this into further context by saying that, on the eve of the second world war, a conflict that tells us all we need to know about the need for military preparedness, Britain had 272 surface warships and the largest Navy in the world.
On ships of the past, the cannonballs only went so far; today, the force multipliers on ships are enormous. The situation is not comparable. We have fewer forces and fewer castles. Things have moved on in our capabilities, and that is what we need to focus on.
I hope that the ships have very great capabilities because we have only 19 of them. I think that my hon. Friend will know from his military expertise that it is said in the Navy that three ships are needed for every one that is deployed, so at any time we can deploy six ships. Let us hope that they are indeed mightily powerful. As I said, other nations are not taking the same view as us and are increasing the size of their navies. I am pretty sure that some of those navies will have very good capabilities as well.
Although our surface fleet may now be on the rather modest side, happily we are not short of commanding officers, because in our Navy we have 40 admirals and 260 captains. That is a ratio of just over two admirals per surface warship. If one takes into account our submarine force and HMS Illustrious, which is due to be decommissioned next year, we will have one and a half admirals per vessel in our Navy. At least we can see that all possibilities will be well and truly covered. As for the 260 captains, one is tempted to guess that, although in the past the dream of a captain may have been to command a ship, today his dream may be to set foot on one.
We do not have to look far back in time to find occasions when we have needed our Navy at short notice, and who knows when we may need it again? It is an excellent branch of our armed forces, as is the case with all our armed forces. Whatever we say about the size and capabilities of our armed forces, we know the quality of the people who are involved in them. They are excellent individuals who never hesitate to serve their country and put their lives at risk, and we are very lucky to have each and every one of them.
I say to the Minister that it is a credit to the Government that they have made it such an explicit priority to give our forces the equipment they deserve. However, on the reserves, as a straightforward, ordinary Conservative Back Bencher, I think that the Government need to think again.
It is a pleasure to be the first Liberal Democrat Member to welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to wish you well. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) welcomed you when you were waiting in the wings and I am sure he shares my view that your eye should never stray far from the Liberal Democrat Benches.
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has a huge, historic association with my constituency. The regimental headquarters of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was in Alnwick and its museum is still there. The regiment also has a major Fusilier Territorial Army centre and the benefit of very good recruitment areas, which is why it is such a well-recruited battalion. The north-east, Lancashire, the midlands and London could hardly be better places for recruitment.
The defence plans, which have been widely discussed today, involve a significant and risky reduction in regular numbers and are dependent on a massive increase in reservists on a scale unprecedented in modern times. Two things follow from that. First, we need to make sure that we achieve regular recruitment at the necessary level, organised in a regimental structure that supports efficiency of operation. Secondly, we need to make sure that we do not take out regular strength until we can be sure that we have the reservists to replace it.
That brings me directly to the mistake that I think has been made, namely the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. On Tuesday, hundreds of Fusilier veterans marched on Whitehall—it was a truly magnificent sight—after we had presented a petition to Downing street.
The same logic can indeed be applied, but the sheer strength of feeling with regard to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is significant, as is the number of Members who are taking part in this debate because of their concern about the future of the 2nd Battalion and of the regiment in general.
I do not want to spend too long on why the mistake was made, but it is clear that in the case of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers the decision to stand down was based not on efficiency, but on the cap badge argument, which preserved Scottish battalions that did not recruit as well as the Fusiliers. Interestingly, the cap badge argument did not count for much when, a few years earlier, we lost the King’s Own Scottish Borderers—the other regiment that had its regimental headquarters in my constituency—and they were merged with the Royal Scots to become one battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. In effect, the two regiments associated with our area have sustained losses.
Since the decision was made—Ministers may claim it was right, but I think it was wrong—the facts have changed, and when the facts change, Governments have to look at things again. It has become clear how difficult it will be to meet the TA recruitment target. I do not know many people—indeed, anyone—who are confident that we will achieve the targets in the given time scale. It is therefore likely—in fact, I am certain—that there will be a capability gap.
The reason we are not meeting the targets is not that there is a shortage of people willing to enlist. As I explained in my speech, we have had two big surges, but both were wrecked because the Department in charge of recruiting and enlistment has set up systems that are simply not volunteer-reservist friendly.
My hon. Friend, who has worked diligently on strengthening the TA and its role in our military structure, makes an important point. I am not sure whether that is the whole answer or argument. If we are deterring potential recruits as a result of slow processes, that should be put right. Many years ago my hon. Friend was my Conservative opponent and he became aware during that time of the significance of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in my area.
As well as the slowness of TA recruitment, TA centres are being closed. Alnwick in my constituency is keeping a good and strong TA centre of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The TA centre in Berwick was reassigned some time ago to the Royal Logistics Corps, which no longer needs it. I think we should have kept it and that it should be reassigned back to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
If we give up on rural areas and create a situation whereby it is too far for people from rural areas to attend training nights, we will cut off a significant source of recruitment. There are many loyal people in rural areas who want to serve and many ex-regulars return to rural areas. At the very least, we need to devise ways in which the training structure can accommodate people who live 30, 40 or 50 miles away from a training centre, if we are not simply to write off a whole area of recruitment.
I do not want to take up much more time. It is clear from today’s discussion that a lot of people, for various reasons, have serious concerns about our ability to meet the TA targets. I therefore suggest to Ministers that the contingency plan they should have to hand and keep in preparedness is the retention of at least one of the regular battalions, and the obvious choice is the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
It is a pleasure to speak in your first debate in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I speak as a former Territorial Army soldier, first in the Honourable Artillery Company and then in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I served for about 12 years in total. A great-great uncle of mine lost his life as a member of the 25th Battalion the Royal Fusiliers during the German east African campaign of the first world war.
My understanding of the objective that the Government have set for the reserve forces and the Army Reserve in particular is that they need to capture 0.15% of the working-age population. I do not think that that target is beyond us, because many of our closest allies, such as America, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland, all manage to achieve significantly better than that. If our neighbouring countries and closest allies can achieve that, we should have faith in the volunteer ethic in British society. It is also important to remember that we will still have a larger proportion of regular forces in our total military than many of our closest allies.
No dissent from other Members, please.
I agree with the optimism and hope of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that we can recruit a first-class reserve army to play the role called for by Army 2020. However, does he agree that the statistics so far are extremely disappointing to say the least? Does he think we will reach a point during the next year or two when it will become obvious that we will not be able to achieve the Army 2020 targets and we will have to think again?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. I have one or two positive suggestions on how we might be able to improve recruitment, based on what has worked in the past. I also have every confidence that our colleagues on the Front Bench want and need this to work. They are not stupid and I am sure they will make the necessary adjustments, if needed.
At present there are 19,000 people in the Army Reserve and the Government want 30,000, an increase of 11,000. To put that in round terms, that will be fewer than 20 recruits per parliamentary constituency, although I do appreciate the point that has been made about the fact that the Army Reserve is becoming slightly more regional than local.
Employers will play an essential role in this process. It is really important that the National Employer Advisory Board and Support for Britain’s Reservists & Employers do their job well and properly. I also want chambers of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI and the Institute of Directors—all the employers’ groups—to get behind the need to recruit and retain more reserves.
When I first joined the Honourable Artillery Company as a young man, I was working in the Lloyd’s of London insurance market, which had a reserve forces association. Many young underwriters and brokers joined the reserve forces. There was significant employer buy-in. We could talk about our weekend’s training when we got back on Monday morning. It was a normal and natural thing to do. There is no reason why clusters of employers could not copy that model.
I accept that, but there is no reason why the chamber of commerce in my hon. Friend’s constituency or the Federation of Small Businesses could not do the same thing. I would like to see stalls on the high streets, in the market towns and at the village fairs in his constituency. We should literally be setting out our stall to get young men and women to join the reserve forces. Groups of employers could do the same thing.
To highlight one employer, Carillion is doing an excellent job of encouraging its staff to join the reserve forces because it is a two-way trade. Not only does the country get the reserve forces that it needs, but employers get back a capable, determined and well-trained employee who will be of even more benefit to their work force. It is important to recognise that this is not just about employers doing the decent thing; there are sound business reasons for employers to get behind the reserves. The Government also provide assistance to meet mobilisation costs.
It is important to recognise the contribution that the Territorial Army, as it used to be called, has made to recent campaigns. Up to 10% of our forces in Afghanistan have come from the Territorial Army. Indeed, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned the figure of 14% for Iraq in our debate on 23 April.
We need a simple and straightforward recruiting system. My memory of joining the Territorial Army in 1980 is that it was a quick and easy process. Captain Simon Lalor, who is now a major-general, was the recruiting officer of the Honourable Artillery Company. I had friends in the company and I went in to see him. The process was very quick and I was doing my recruit basic training before I knew it. There was not a long delay, but I am sure that the necessary security checks were undertaken then, as they must be now. If we were able to do it quickly, simply and easily then, I am sure that we can do so now. That is important because if a young man or woman who is bursting with energy and commitment wants to join the TA, we have to act quickly to capture that enthusiasm or we may lose them.
I return to the point that I made about the need for community engagement. It is important that businesses, civic leaders, Members of Parliament, mayors, county council and unitary council chairs and so on get behind this effort, support the reserve forces and encourage people to join their local unit. I think that an extra 11,000 reserves is possible. I have heard about the difficulties with the current recruitment process that have been outlined, but I still believe that recruiting 11,000 reserves is possible.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. The central difference between the recruitment processes in this country and other English-speaking countries is that reservists here have very little say over the way in which it is designed, organised and implemented.
I defer to no one in this House more than my hon. Friend for their knowledge of and commitment to the reserves. He has advised the House well and loyally over the past few years. There are two Defence Ministers on the Front Bench and I am sure that they will have heard his comments. I know that they want to get the process right and that they will leave no stone unturned in ensuring that we achieve the target.
We need community buy-in. We need employers and civic leaders to be out there supporting our reserves. We need an extra 11,000 reserves. We have done it in the past. In 1990, we had 70,000 people in the Territorial Army. Surely it is possible for us to get to a figure of 30,000. I refuse to believe that we cannot do that if we have the right enthusiasm, motivation and recruiting systems.
It is a great pleasure to see you in your new position, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I will talk about why the regimental system is so emotive for so many people in this House. I was in the Army, but I really wanted to join the Royal Air Force because my father was an RAF officer. However, he rather ruined it for me when I discovered that I was colour blind. I said, “Dad, that means I can’t fly and I can’t join the RAF.” He said, “That’s right son.” I said, “What about the Navy, dad?” He said, “Starboard and port are red and green. You’ve got to be able to see those.” So I said, “What about the Army?” He said, “Son, the Army will have anyone.”
When I got to Sandhurst, I discovered that the Army was not just the Army, but that I had to go in for a regiment. I did not really understand that. I lived in Cheshire and went to school in Essex—I was an Essex boy. I ended up being interviewed for the Cheshire Regiment. It was weird. I did not really understand what the regimental system was until I got to the regiment in Bahrain on 25 July 1969. When I arrived, I was suddenly taken into this very proud organisation. I discovered that the Cheshires had real ethos and spirit.
I was taught regimental history very rapidly. I was taught that the colours were the heart of the regiment and that they were carried by subalterns. Everybody in the Chamber will remember the story of the two young officers who were given the colours in 1879 to cross the River Buffalo in South Africa and died saving the colours. Essentially, the colours were the regiment. That gave great character to each regiment.
I did not understand how much that tradition mattered until I went to Londonderry later that year. When I lost a third of my platoon, I saw why regiments were so important. My men went back into the regimental system and said, “We’ve got to do the right thing.” Twelve years later, I saw that pride in action again when I lost six men at Ballykelly on 6 December 1982. When I buried six of my soldiers, four of their mothers put their arms around me and said, “We understand how you feel.” That was amazing. That is why the regimental system is so important to Government and Opposition Members. The regiment is a family and it acts like that. It gives the Army huge strength in adversity. That is why it is so important and why we must preserve it.
On Monday, I hosted a visit to this place for 15 soldiers and officers from my old regiment. I reminisced fondly about my time in the regiment. They tolerated an old man’s yearnings. However, when I looked at them, I could see that they were not with me. They had a different view. They were not the Cheshires that I had been in; they were another lot. Since 1 September 2007, they had been in 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment and they were no longer the Cheshires. They had a new regimental identity that had been bonded in battle on two severe tours in Afghanistan. I realised that the way that I looked at things was all over and that a new generation was coming. I do not like it, but I have to accept it. Fundamentally, there are some things that we must accept.
I do not want 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers or any other regiment to go. I do not think that the reserves are getting the recruitment that is needed. Old regiments do not die; they fade away, just as those that made them go to their makers. Those of us who have served and have seen our comrades in action have great difficulty in accepting change—I do not like it, and I will fight tooth and nail to keep the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and the other battalions. Sometimes, however, we will have to accept that we cannot do that. That is why people such as me, and other hon. and gallant Members from across the House, are fighting so hard for their local battalions and regiments.
I have 16 seconds left, so let me say this: please do not confuse regiments and battalions. A regiment consists of many battalions, and many of those battalions are from previous regiments. My time is up. Think of previous battalions.
It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) who has given distinguished service. I never rose higher than a most diffident and incompetent trooper in the Honourable Artillery Company, so I speak with some diffidence in this debate. I may be an amateur in military strategy, but I know a bit about parliamentary procedure, and I am concerned about the way that debates on our armed services are effectively being downgraded. The House is on a one-line Whip, and we are debating a motion that we have not heard a lot about. The motion
“urges the Government to delay the disbandment of regular units until it is established that the Army Reserve plan is viable and cost-effective.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who is sitting next to me, will press the motion to a vote, so it will—I presume—be passed by the House. It is incumbent on the Government to listen to the House if it expresses an opinion in such terms.
On that point, I stress that this is a serious motion, but the House needs to reflect on how we pay tribute to our armed forces. I do not believe that a half-day debate on a Thursday is the way to do that. We previously had four debates a year on the issue. I hope that the powers that be will listen—I hope my hon. Friend will agree—and that we can return to that and do justice to what our armed forces are doing for this country.
I agree with my hon. Friend. When I arrived in the House we had an annual Navy debate, which was the only debate in which Mr Bonner Pink—a great man who represented Portsmouth—spoke in the course of an entire year, so important was it. We greatly respect my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, but we would like the Secretary of State to be present on these occasions and in these most important debates.
We are, of course, sympathetic to Defence Ministers, and we know the intolerable pressure they have been put under. I will not get into a debate about the £35 billion black hole, just in case the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) intervenes on me, but as we know, the money has to come from nowhere—or rather, from somewhere—and difficult decisions must be made. I hope that was not a Freudian slip, Madam Deputy Speaker, and by the way, welcome to the Chair. Thank you for calling me; you are doing wonderfully well so far.
We all know the pressure that those on the Front Benches are under, but that does not absolve them from answering the central question in this debate. We can argue about the relative costs of reservists compared with regular forces, but we cannot deny that the previous Secretary of State made a pledge to the Chair of the Defence Committee that we would not reduce the Regular Army unless we were sure we could recruit these reservists. That is the nub of this debate, and we must not get lost in the detail. We must keep our eyes firmly focused on the issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) has played a distinguished part in this debate, and his independent commission concluded:
“Our Reserve Forces are in Decline.”
Why are they in decline? The commission concluded:
“We have failed to modernise Reservist Roles.”
We must ask my hon. Friend, and the Minister, whether we can increase the burdens we place on reservists when we are still modernising their role. The 2013 MOD White Paper “Reserves in the Future Force 2020: Valuable and Valued” was produced in response.
We all hope that that is true and will happen, but the fact is that we are still faced with what appears to be a crisis in recruitment. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has ensured that two national papers gave enormous prominence to this subject this very day. There is a leaked report in The Daily Telegraph—perhaps the Minister will not want to comment on that—but we do not need a leaked report to know that the recruiting drive is in trouble. According to The Daily Telegraph
“only 50 per cent of the overall 2013-14 target of 6,383”
has been met. Clearly, something is going wrong.
Why have we closed recruiting services and placed the emphasis on Capita? I have some experience of dealing with Capita from the Public Accounts Committee. Is that really the right, hands-on way to recruit our Territorial Army and reserve forces? The Army is reducing the Regular Army by 19,500 personnel, and working to increase the Army reserve to 30,000 from a current trained strength of 19,000. That is fair enough. It has been said in the debate that we need to recruit 20 people per constituency, so why are we not doing so? We must get a grip on the issue and understand from the Minister exactly what is happening on the ground. Why are we cutting people who have done their jobs well and who would like to continue in the Regular Army in the hope of promotion and a career? Why are we cutting them and recruiting reservists when we are still not meeting our quotas?
Many colleagues, as well as other commentators, have been just as suspicious of the MOD’s ability to recruit and train so many recruits in such a short time span, and the more the debate continues, the more some of us worry about that. How many regulars will sign up as reservists? They entered as career soldiers and many may feel betrayed at being forcibly deprived of their jobs. Will they be keen to join as reservists? What preparations have the Government made for the loss of those skills and experience? The redundancy notices that the soldiers have received are real and can be held in their hands; the reservists who are meant to replace those soldiers are merely theoretical.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay pointed out that the plans are “flawed” and present a “high risk”. A think-tank suggests that current defence policy is
“merely a mechanism to slash defence spending.”
I do not accuse Ministers of that, but they must reply to the charge. Is the policy a mechanism to reduce defence spending, or does it hold up? Even the Liberal Democrats, our coalition partners, have expressed concern that the changes envisaged
“have not been adequately thought through and could pose risks.”
In conclusion, I believe history has shown that a standing Army adds tremendous value to Great Britain. During the first and second world wars, it was immensely easier to mobilise the male population, because we could add them to pre-existing units. It was both easier and wiser to add another battalion—or two or three—to an existing regiment, than to imagine an entire reserve force almost ex nihilo. These regiments have long and proud histories that have come under sustained attack over the past half century.
I cannot. I will keep going for the last few seconds of my time.
Obviously, not every regiment can last for ever, but tradition is a priceless, incorporeal thing that takes centuries to build and yet can be destroyed in an instant. We must again remember Admiral Cunningham, who was criticised for the heavy losses his Navy ships suffered when they were exposed to German air assault as he protected the Army. He said:
“It takes three years to build a ship, but it takes three centuries to build a tradition.”
The tradition of our Regular Army is a real thing that we still have in this country. The reforms seek to replace that with a continental-style citizen army, and to do so stealthily without properly saying so. It may take only 40 days of a year to train a reservist, but we may lose centuries of tradition if the reforms are implemented in the wrong way.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh). I welcome you to your place, Madam Deputy Speaker, as other hon. Members have done. I hope that my voting for you will not in any way affect the frequency with which I am able to catch your eye, although I live in hope. I hope hon. Members join me in welcoming the new the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for veterans. I am pleased to see her in her place.
I am grateful for the debate. I should declare that I am proud member of the TA, which is soon to be called the reserves. I congratulate the Government on hosting the next NATO summit next year. The debate is on defence reforms and is about the capabilities to meet future threats and commitments. I wish to focus my remarks on one aspect of defence capability, the significance of which is not, in my view, fully appreciated by the House, namely the utilisation of our Queen Elizabeth class carriers.
We tend to obsess about platforms, ships and aircraft, but not what they are expected to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) fell into that. The 24 lb guns used in the battle of Trafalgar are different from the assets we have today.
My hon. Friend knows far more about these matters than I do, but may I gently draw his attention to the fact that we will not have the splendid Queen Elizabeth carriers until 2020? In the meantime, our only helicopter carrier is being taken for what is called recycling next year.
It depends which frigates we are talking about. It will be rare for us to participate in a conflict without an international flotilla, so we need to think about frigates other than our own. I want to focus on Britain’s military capability, which goes far beyond providing the senior service with a replacement for the Invincible class and thinking of carriers in terms of the battle of Medway and so forth.
We either need carriers or we do not. If we need the capability, we need a minimum of two carriers to guarantee that one is permanently operational. Let us bear in mind what happened in the operation in Libya. Halfway through the operation, the Charles de Gaulle had to head back to France for a refit. Previously, 40% of air operations had come from it. Let us also bear in mind our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, which highlight the need for a new and adaptable, but arm’s length, doctrine of intervention, with the flexibility for upstream engagement and stabilisation, including humanitarian tasks, based on a much lighter footprint. The carriers could become the centrepiece of British expeditionary capability.
The Queen Elizabeth class carriers provide an opportunity to facilitate a step-change in long-range manoeuvrable technology and capability, and allow us to recalibrate our joint-service approach to littoral, expeditionary and inland conflict prevention and upstream engagement. In a wider context, strategic carriers allow us to extend and embolden Britain’s diplomatic soft power and hard power in a manner not seen for a generation, for the reason my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has given. In my view, we are not reaching the carriers’ potential.
I will come to funding in a second.
In my view, the full potential of the carriers needs to be exploited. For example, we are not considering having unmanned aerial systems on board, but that will become the norm in future. Drone systems like the ScanEagle, the Fire Scout and the X47-B are already available and exist on other carriers, yet we do not have a programme to consider them, even though our ships will be around for the next 40 years. On capability, it is worth noting that two thirds of airborne operations conducted over Afghanistan by the Americans took place from aircraft carriers based in the Indian ocean. We need to recognise that those are versatile bits of kit.
Rotary systems have been mentioned. The Apache played a pivotal and interesting but new role in Libya, with the use of Hellfire missiles, extending the range at which we can use our force capability. Hellfire has a range of 8 km, the Storm Shadow 500 km, and Brimstone 12 km. I stress these points because two thirds of the world population lives within 250 miles of the coastline. That is where future conflict will take place. If we do not want to put boots on the ground, it is aircraft carriers that will allow us to conduct and expedite such operations.
Continuing to operate two carriers will send a powerful message to potential adversaries, both state and non-state, but also to our allies, such as the US, allowing us in turn to employ greater leverage on their decision making. It will also save millions of pounds because we would not have to create forward bases or undertake long-range operations. In the operations in Libya, Tornados had to be refuelled five times—three times on the way there and two on the way back, putting massive strain on the airframes. Operating two carriers will give us greater flexibility compared with running just one. With one carrier, operations are likely to be carrier-strike only—there would be little expeditionary capability.
Hon. Members have spoken passionately about retaining the soldiers who live in their constituencies. My question is this: what are the soldiers expected to do? Huge work needs to be done on expeditionary capability, upstream engagement and stabilisation. We could win the war quickly, but lose the peace because we do not have such stabilisation. Aircraft carriers can play an important role in that. Two aircraft carriers could have a tailored expeditionary capability that we have never had.
Other nations are watching us with interest. The Americans have the Wasp class carriers, which are 44,000 tonnes, and the Nimitz class carriers, which, because of sequestration, are likely to be removed. They are looking at the 65,000 tonne class with interest, and also saw what we did with the Apache. They may want to follow suit. We do not talk this up. Building a third aircraft carrier is not even being considered because of the embarrassment and the legacy problems of the past.
I believe that the additional annualised cost of a carrier, which has been mentioned—about £65 million a year—is a small price to pay for the diplomatic signal and military statement of intent it would send to potential adversaries, state and non-state alike. It would significantly reduce the operational cost of war fighting, conflict prevention and peacekeeping roles. It would also elevate Britain’s ranking as Europe’s senior military power, justifying our permanent membership of the UN Security Council. I hope that hon. Members on both sides the House support my call for operating two aircraft carriers.
I welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. The great challenge speaking before the two Front Benchers is that just about everything that can be said has been said. I shall try not to let that stop me.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on his speech and his two-carrier Royal United Services Institute policy, which I am working my way through. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on his tenacious campaign. He has fought with great integrity and spoke today with great clarity.
I regret that an investigation being carried out by the Intelligence and Security Committee has prevented my taking part in the debate. My hon. Friend has referred to the two-carrier solution. Does he agree that the only reason we can consider that solution is the Government’s wise decision to have the short take-off and vertical landing joint strike fighter on the carriers? Otherwise, there was no way we could operate two carriers.
In that, as in most cases, the Government are very wise.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate. I shall ask three brief questions. The first question, to the House, is this: do we need to restructure our armed forces? We had not had a review for many years. Given the military deficit that the Labour Government left the current one, if Labour were still in power—heaven forefend—it would have had to have one.
The second question is whether we need to rebalance the armed forces in favour of the reserves. Broadly speaking, that is the right thing to do. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay because in this post-cold war asymmetrical world he referred to, it is not appropriate to have an overwhelming number of regular forces. It is more appropriate to have a flexible reserve-based force. Our allies are doing that. In 1990, our Territorial Army was more than twice the size than the proposed Reserve Army, so I do not think that having approximately 30,000 reservists out of a total of 120,000 in our armed forces is inappropriate.
There have been many reforms and there has been opposition to them. There was opposition to “Options for Change” a generation ago, and to the Keith Speed reforms in 1980. There was opposition to the changes in 1959, and I am sure there was opposition to Edward Cardwell’s reforms in 1872. The question is not so much whether reform is wrong, but whether the Ministry of Defence has got this reform right. Broadly speaking, I think it has. The question we are asking ourselves is can we recruit enough people into the reserve to match the draw-down of our regular forces at a time of falling joblessness and increased career alternatives for young people? The answer is yes, if we get it right.
Gap planning is the trial and tribulation of any organisation. Businesses all around the country have to deal with gap planning, particularly when people who are in the reserves need to go on deployment or training. The issue for many such firms—I used to be involved in an organisation that had a lot of reservists going on deployment—is not so much planning for 40 days away, because that is something that can, to a greater or lesser extent, be planned for; the challenge is ensuring that there is somebody to step temporarily into the reservist’s role, that the handover is done effectively, the person is able to discharge their other responsibilities while stepping into that role, and, when the reservist returns, that the handover back is smooth. Making sure that those sorts of challenges are dealt with is one way for companies big and small to be confident about recruiting and retaining reservists. That is particularly important for firms whose bread and butter is deploying their resources at their clients’ sites. They have to consider what their clients might think of their staff leaving and coming back for periods of time.
The key message for the Minister, who is knowledgeable about these matters and is committed to our armed forces, is to ensure that big and small businesses recognise the advantages of having reservists on their books. Most firms put great store in training and skill capability. They need to know that the MOD, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy will train the reservists on their books, giving them the skills that their firms want, need and can use. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said in a very good speech, it is incumbent on the MOD to work with the Federation of Small Businesses, the CBI and local chambers of commerce to ensure that businesses know the value of the training that reservists will receive, so they are more likely to want to recruit and retain them. If we do that, we can move further and faster towards the objective the Minister hopes to achieve, and this change in the deployment of our resources will be successful.
I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate, which has been excellent. There have been 16 speakers. I have done a quick tally and I think we have had 10 blue on blue attacks and two yellow on blue attacks so far. It has been good to recognise the importance of our armed forces and the unique role that reservists play. I have seen our reservists in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think everyone in the House would like to thank them for their contribution to the defence of our country. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
My hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) and for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), the hon. Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) raised the issue of the fusiliers. The Minister needs to answer why the Government have decided to axe the fusiliers in spite of the their good recruitment record.
The current situation needs to be put into context and I know that some hon. Members have short memories. It is important to recognise that, at the time of the strategic defence and security review, the Prime Minister said:
“Our ground forces will continue to have a vital operational role, so we will retain a large, well-equipped Army, numbering around 95,500 by 2015—7,000 fewer than today.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 799.]
We all know the reduction was increased to 13,000 and that compulsory redundancies have taken place. There is concern among many that the increase in the reserve is not for operational purposes, but to fill the gap.
We have heard that the reason for the gap is the previous Labour Government’s black hole in the finances—the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) tried to support that notion. We have heard about a £35 billion black hole, a £36 billion black hole and a £38 billion black hole. The fact is that a 2006 National Audit Office report said that the gap in the defence budget, if it continued in line with inflation, would be £6 billion and would only go up to £36 billion if there were flat growth over a 10-year period. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), will learn to listen in time. The Government have used that to hide behind their reason for making cuts to defence spending.
I will not give way. Unfortunately, I do not have much time.
It is time for the Government to be honest with our servicemen and servicewomen and say why they are making these cuts. The real reason is that in the SDSR, the Government reduced the defence budget by 9% and have made some silly mistakes since.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth East spoke eloquently about the need for the carriers, but he was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Defence Secretary who not only recommended changing the “cats and traps”, which wasted £74 million, but wanted to mothball one of those carriers.
I am sorry, but I do not have much time.
There is clearly a recruitment crisis, but as is often the case, the Government are implementing a policy without thinking it through. That might be okay with things such as the green deal, but it is not acceptable when the defence of our country is at stake. From the recruitment figures, it is clear that there is a crisis. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) mentioned the drop in recruitment in one unit. I have got to say, having spoken to people, mistakes have been made, and I do not believe it is all Capita’s fault; the decision, which rests with Ministers, to take Army recruiters out of centres has been a mistake, and as has been recognised, they will have to backfill them. That needs addressing.
Another issue clearly needs addressing. Whether we like it or not, the general impression created by the Government is that the armed forces are not open for business. They can spend as much time and money as they like on glossy adverts, but if they are handing out P45s, giving the impression that people are not required in our armed forces, it is not surprising that people are not joining the regulars or the reserves.
There are some concerns over the leak in The Daily Telegraph this morning, one of which relates to mental health. Next week, we will table amendments to the Defence Reform Bill raising issues that need to be addressed as part of the long-term mental health care of reservists. To be fair to the Government, however, they have carried on and improved some of the things we did on mental health care for regulars.
When he was Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), rightly committed to getting the balance right. He said he would not reduce the level of the regulars until the reforms to the reservists had been carried out, which I think was a sensible, well intentioned proposition and the right approach, but now that things are going wrong, why are the Government steaming ahead? This is a serious issue. It is not just that the policy is failing. It is not good enough to say that this is not about the wider issue of finance and support for our armed forces. Unless Ministers change tack now, in the not-too-distant future, the defence capability of this country could be at dire risk.
As this is a debate on the armed forces, I wish to endorse the tribute paid earlier by the Secretary of State for International Development to Lance Corporal James Brynin of the Intelligence Corps, serving with 14th Signal Regiment, who was tragically killed in action in Afghanistan on 15 October. He died in the service of his country, defending our freedoms, and I suspect I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts are with his family and loved ones as they come to terms with their grievous loss.
On a less sombre note, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who mentioned Trafalgar, that according to the Naval Historical Branch, a Jean Francois served at Trafalgar, although I am relieved to say it was in the Royal Navy.
In the Royal Navy. That’s our side, Bob.
I also say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) that I have not read his paper on carriers, which I think was published by the Royal United Services Institute, but having heard his speech today, I promise him that I will.
I am glad to have the opportunity to respond for the Government in this important debate, and I would like to remind the House why we are making these changes. On 3 July, we published the White Paper, “Reserves in the Future Force 2020: Valuable and Valued”, setting out our vision for the reserve forces and the detail of how we would make reserve service more attractive. It also confirmed our intention to change the name of the Territorial Army to the Army Reserve to better reflect their future role.
With this new approach, the UK is not breaking entirely new ground. In fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who arguably knows more about the reserves than the rest of the House put together, pointed out, it will bring us into line with our principal allies and partners, who currently rely more heavily on reserves than we do. Currently, reserves represent about 17% of our total armed forces, and that is scheduled to rise to 25% under our proposals. This compares to 36% in Australia, 51% in Canada—that is the figure I have—and 55% in the US.
Since the original Haldane reforms in the last century, the reserves have always made an essential contribution to national security. In world war two, eight of the 13 infantry divisions that went out in the British expeditionary force were from the Territorial Army. That shows the scale of the contribution it has made historically.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Although the reserves were bigger in those days, more resources were put into them. The big question is whether we will have sufficient resources to put into an increasing number of reserves. My fear is that we will not and that the regulars will suffer as a consequence.
I understand my hon. Friend’s question. I believe that we will—we are devoting £1.8 billion to our programme of reserve expansion, which is a significant amount, given all the challenges in the budget.
Reservists have made a significant contribution to recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well, with in excess of 25,000 mobilised for tours on Operations Telic and Herrick. Just as we were told earlier that the United States National Guard takes its responsibilities seriously and is taken seriously, I would respectfully suggest that our 25,000 men and women who served in those theatres were taking their responsibilities pretty seriously as well. Between them, those reservists have gained more than 70 gallantry awards in those campaigns. I would also humbly remind the House that 24 reservists made the ultimate sacrifice in combat during those operations.
We are establishing greater links with the national health service to enhance our medical units. Many of the lessons learned in combat, including at Camp Bastion—for instance, in treating haemorrhaging and bleeding—have now been fed back into the NHS. We are also setting up a new cyber-reserve unit—although I can scotch the rumour this afternoon that it has anything to do with attacking 38 Degrees. It is true that reserves can in some cases be more expensive than regular forces when deployed on operations, but they are significantly cheaper when held as a contingency.
Yes, I understand that my predecessor gave my hon. Friend a commitment that he would look at that issue closely. I will honour that commitment and look at it too. I cannot prejudice the outcome, but I promise my hon. Friend that I will look at it.
Central to the White Paper was the improved offer to reserves, which includes, among other things, investing an additional £240 million in improved training for reservists, including more overseas training, and investing an additional £200 million over the next 10 years for improved equipment. The reserves have already received the same new-style uniform as their regular colleagues, while Bowman radio equipment is being issued, along with new vehicles and personal fighting equipment. We will also pair Army reserve units with regular units to enable the sustained delivery of high-quality training and the development of fully integrated capabilities, as well as the sharing of knowledge, skills and experience.
Much has been said about support from employers, which is vital—we recognise that. Only recently I launched the corporate covenant, which all the major employer organisations have signed up to, including the Business Services Association, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Confederation of British Industry. In addition, individual companies such as Barclays, BAE Systems, National Express and General Dynamics have joined the covenant, one of the key points of which is endorsing the release of reserves. I am attending an event tonight, where I confidently anticipate more firms will sign up. Employers tell me there are benefits to having reservists on their payroll. They are highly motivated and trained personnel who can take their military leadership skills back into the workplace.
I am afraid I really do not have time.
For some employers, there will be directly transferrable qualifications, skills and experience between reserve service and civilian employment, which can be very valuable. To come to the heart of this matter, I believe that as parliamentarians we should get behind the reserves and the Army to support them in their endeavours. It is true that there have been some administrative issues in the process—it is too bureaucratic, as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out. However, we are working with our recruiting partner, Capita, and the senior Army leadership to actively address those issues.
I believe we can work through those issues, simplify the system and meet the objective. We should remember that the key target is 30,000 trained to phase two by 2018. We start with around 19,000 or so trained. That is not a cold start: we are two thirds of the way there, and we need to achieve the other third over four years. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) summed it up brilliantly: we need, on average, an additional 20 reservists from each parliamentary constituency across the country in order to do that. I believe we certainly can do that. As the Chief of the General Staff reminded us at a successful reception in Parliament for the Royal Engineers reserves only yesterday, that is a challenging proposition, but a workable one. I agree with CGS: we can do this; let us get on with it.
I would like to add my warm welcome to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in your new post.
I am afraid that I listened to my right hon. Friend the Minister, but found that key questions remained unanswered. In fact, I do not think he answered one of the questions I put to him. In a debate of this nature and importance, it is a shame that he is not willing to take an intervention from the Member who sponsored it. The bottom line is that questions such as “When did the plan change from back in 2011?” and “How much of the £1.8 billion has already been spent?”, questions about the impact assessment, about the costs involved in doubling the mobilisation rate and so on and so forth have not been answered in detail—all we have had is a sense of direction.
No one doubts for one moment the courage and service of past reservists or indeed of future reservists. One is not critical of that—
I do not normally comment on leaked documents, and I am not about to start now. What I will say to my hon. Friend on the point of costs—in fairness, I had only about seven minutes—is that he knows that he wrote to the Secretary of State about this in detail and he knows that the Secretary of State replied to him in detail and rebutted every point that he made. For the benefit of the House, I will ensure that a copy of that letter is placed in the Library this afternoon.
I am pleased that the Minister is going to do that because all the points made by the Secretary of State have, in turn, themselves been rebutted; many of them were based on false assumptions.
Given how little time is left, let me clarify this. One is not saying “Scrap the reservist plans”. In many respects, one wants them to work. What one is saying is that there comes a point in any project whereby if extra costs keep being thrown into a plan—because it is failing or because recruitment targets cannot be met or because costs are rising and TA numbers are at a low ebb or because of disorganisation—there comes a point when one has to ask “Is this project creating false economies, therefore costing the taxpayer dear?” The motion says simply that we should “delay” the axing of the regular battalions until we know that the reservist plan is both “viable and cost-effective”; otherwise, because of false economies and unrealistic expectations, the taxpayer could pay dearly. That is not unreasonable, but I am afraid that my right hon. Friend has failed to answer that central point in the motion. I thus have no hesitation whatever in pressing the motion and calling for a Division.
That this House notes concerns about the Government’s defence reforms in relation to whether its proposals for the reserve forces will deliver either the anticipated cost savings or defence capability; and urges the Government to delay the disbandment of regular units until it is established that the Army Reserve plan is viable and cost-effective.