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Reserve Forces

Volume 570: debated on Monday 4 November 2013

13. What assessment he has made of the level of recruitment to the reserve forces in 2013 to date. (900865)

May I first welcome the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to his new role and congratulate him on his appointment? I hope that, in the interests of Britain’s armed forces, we will be able to have a constructive relationship, as he quite properly holds me to account for the decisions of this Government, and I hold him to account for the decisions of the last one.

When the previous Administration took office in 1997, the Territorial Army was more than 50,000 strong. By the time they left office in 2010, that figure had halved. That pattern of decline has been arrested, and the strength has now been stabilised. Recruitment figures for the first three quarters of 2013 are due to be published by Defence Analytical Services and Advice on 14 November. This is a new data series, and quarterly figures will be published thereafter.

I declare an interest as a member of the Strathclyde area committee of the Lowland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association.

Most people would describe the current recruitment target as challenging and difficult to meet. There appears to be a lack of clear strategy on recruiting more women and more people from the black and minority ethnic population in order to achieve that target. Will the Secretary of State explain how he intends to disseminate best practice in those areas?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important point. At the moment, the armed forces recruit about 8% of their strength from women, who make up about 50% of the target age group population, and just 3% of their strength from black and ethnic minority communities, which will make up about 24% of the target age group population by 2020. We have to do better in those areas, and one of the challenges that we have set for the armed forces, and for the Army in particular, is for them to work out how they can pitch an offer that is more attractive to female and black and ethnic minority recruits, and specifically how they can use female recruits more effectively within Future Force 2020.

20. I recently joined more than 100 supporters of 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers as they marched on Parliament protesting against the Government’s decision to scrap it. Ministers believe that the battalion can be replaced by reservists, but the chairman of the Northumberland and North East Fusilier Association is concerned that it will be impossible to recruit the necessary numbers. Will the Secretary of State tell us to what extent the targets are being met? (900872)

The reconfiguration of the Army, including the changing role of reservists and the changing structure of the Army, are not simply about trying to recruit reservists to replace disbanded infantry battalions. Most of the reservists we recruit will be specialists, rather than having a light infantry role. The White Paper that I published earlier this year set out a plan to reverse the long-term decline of the Army Reserve, redefining its role and setting out details of improved equipment, training, terms and conditions. Under the plan, we will grow the Army Reserve to a trained strength of 30,000 by 2018. I can also tell the House that, although it is still early days, a snapshot of data for the recruiting campaign that started on 16 September is quite positive. We received 1,576 applications to join the Army Reserve during the first four weeks of the campaign, and 380 were received last week. It is very early days, but those early signs are quite promising.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the encouraging early signs in the recruiting campaign. There will come a time when it will become plain either that he will have achieved the Future Force 2020 ambition of replacing regular soldiers with reservists or that he has not done so and will have to change his plan. When will that date be?

The Army is in the final stages of setting out a properly thought-through recruiting target set, defining the number of recruits needed during each period of time in order to deliver the trained output required if we are to achieve our 2018 target. As soon as I have those data from the Army in final form, I will publish them. They will set our target curve, and I expect to be held to account if we go significantly off it.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive me if I press him a little further on this topic. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the targets are proving difficult to achieve. Given that the target of 30,000 is fundamental to the success of the restructuring of the Army, what contingency plans are now in place, and what incentives are being offered to individuals—and their employers—to become part of the Army Reserve?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Unfortunately, I am not his “learned Friend”: I am used to being called an accountant, but not a lawyer. I can reassure him that a variety of measures are in place to incentivise recruitment to the reserves; in particular, a bonus to attract those leaving the regular Army into volunteer reserve service has proved very successful, with significant upturn in the translation rate over the past few months. There will be a range of further incentive measures that we can introduce as and when it is necessary in order to deliver the targets which I shall publish shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind remarks, which I greatly appreciate. We will, of course, work with him where appropriate. I welcome to her post my Nottinghamshire colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who I understand is the first woman Defence Minister in the House of Commons, which is a great credit to her.

The Government need to explain to the House and the country today what is happening with their programme of reform to the armed forces. I declare an interest, as my soon-to-be son-in-law serves in the Territorial Army. A recent high-level memo from the Ministry of Defence states clearly that there are clear problems and worries over Army reform and that recruitment targets are likely to be missed. That has caused senior military figures, Members of the House and the armed forces community to raise serious concerns. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the nation’s security will not be compromised and that a reduction in the regular Army will take place only if adequate uplift in the reserves is achieved?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. The memo from which he quoted did not say what he claimed it said. It said that in the absence of any action to stimulate recruitment we would face a very difficult challenge. We are now taking precisely that action. The hon. Gentleman may have seen an article that came from an interview with the Chief of the Defence Staff, in which he made it clear that he was very confident that we will deliver these numbers. I share that confidence.

We look forward to the Defence Secretary publishing that memo so that we can all see what it actually said. Is not the problem one of credibility? The Government cannot get their figures right. Just today, we learned that the cost of new aircraft carriers has increased by £800 million to £6.2 billion. That is after the £100 million wasted last year on reversing the decision on fighter jets. A few months ago, the Defence Secretary told us he had balanced the books at the MOD, and then just a few weeks ago we were told that there was an £1.8 billion underspend. How can the British public have confidence that the Government will meet their target for recruitment to the reserves when they have got so much else wrong? When will the Defence Secretary take some responsibility and stop blaming everyone else but himself?

With that last remark, the hon. Gentleman has probably pre-empted my response. If I were him, I would tread a little more carefully around the issue of the cost of the aircraft carriers—until he hears, in due course, what precisely we have done. A huge amount of work is going on across the Army around the reserves recruitment initiative. There are many different strands to this work. I have made a commitment in the past, which I will repeat today, to be as transparent as possible with Parliament as this campaign gets under way. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that we are just five weeks into a five-year campaign to halt and reverse the attrition in our reserves that the previous Government oversaw.

In my experience, inquiries about recruiting by no means turn into enlistments. Everything we have heard suggests that the recruiting for the reserves will be difficult. Was it therefore correct for our regular forces redundancy programme to have gone ahead with the urgency that it did?

Perhaps my hon. Friend did not hear me earlier. I was not talking about inquiries; I was talking about 1,576 applications to join the Army Reserve in the first four weeks of the campaign. The simple fact is that if we are to live within our budgets and restructure the Army for its tasks in the future, the decisions we made about the size and shape of the regular Army must go forward, and the recruitment and training of 30,000 Army reserves must happen. We will make sure that they do so.