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Reserve Recruitment

Volume 588: debated on Monday 17 November 2014

I am most grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for the opportunity to make this statement. Future Force 2020 represents one of the fundamental steps this Government have taken to ensure that our defence is delivered on a sustainable financial basis. The Government have ensured that the armed forces, both regular and reserve, are structured and resourced to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This is a far cry from the position we inherited, where our armed forces were run on a fundamentally unaffordable basis by the previous Government. After years of neglect, this Government are reforming and revitalising our reserve forces. We are investing £1.8 billion in better training and equipment, and reversing the decline and years of underinvestment in our reserves. We have always said that increasing the trained strength of the reserves to about 35,000 would not happen overnight; it is a five-year programme, but one year in we are making steady progress, and during the latest quarter we enlisted about twice as many people as we did in the equivalent period last year.

The expansion of the reserves is about doing defence differently. It is not about swapping regular personnel for reserves or doing defence on the cheap; it is about changing the way we deliver defence to make the best use of our resources and to harness the talents of the wider UK society. The contribution of our reserve forces will deliver, in a cost-effective way, the capable and usable armed forces that the nation needs. It will better harness the talents of the wider community and help restore the links and understanding between the armed forces and that community.

There have been a number of technical challenges affecting Army Reserve recruitment, which have been widely discussed in this House before, and we continue to introduce measures to improve recruitment. So far, those have included: improved financial incentives—much greater incentives with employers; removing delays, sometimes of many months, caused by medical documentation and security checks; increasing capacity at selection centres; and giving a key role for mentoring back to units.

The programme to grow the reserves is on track. We have reversed 18 years of decline. The Army’s latest projections indicate that the Army Reserve can reach its 30,000 trained strength target by April 2019. The Chief of the General Staff, the Secretary of State and I are all committed to achieving that target.

The future reserves programme is a bold change programme. It will make defence more flexible and able to deal with the changing demands placed upon it. I say this to the House: the plan is working.

I thank the Minister for responding. No matter how he dresses up the figures, the latest recruitment figures for the Army Reserve show that the trained strength has fallen between April 2013 and October of this year. If one was being charitable, one would say that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists are struggling to say the least. Those of us who have opposed those plans have questioned the resulting capability gap as 20,000 regulars have been shown the door and the false economies that will loom as the Government are forced to throw more money at failing plans.

Let us be absolutely honest about this: these plans have been in a state of flux from the beginning. The 2010 strategic defence and security review showed haste and little strategic overlay. In 2011, the then Defence Secretary stated that he would keep the regulars in order to check that the reservist plan was working and to recruit those reservists. In 2012, that plan was changed, and the regulars were allowed to leave before we had recruited any reservists. Meanwhile, the start line keeps getting changed. We talk about “one year in”, but we are actually 18 months into this plan and there has been no acknowledgement from the Government. We now have this sorry state of affairs where 20,000 experienced troops have left, including some from my own battalion the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and we are now recruiting—even if one puts the most optimistic spin on these figures—at a rate of seven reservists a month. If we are to meet our deadline and targets, we need to be recruiting nearer 250 a month. Let us not forget that we are 18 months into the plan.

The Public Accounts Committee has condemned the plan. It said that the plan has put anticipated savings at risk

“and is not delivering value for money.”

The National Audit office was critical, saying:

“There are significant risks to value for money which are currently not well understood by the Department or the Army.”

It has even been said that these plans have been put on the Treasury’s watch list.

I have a series of questions for the Minister. There have been extra costs: £10,000 given to ex-regulars to join the reserves,£300 to the civvies, £500 to the employee reservist per calendar month, pension liabilities, and the IT fiasco. How much extra are these plans now costing over and above the original estimate?

Secondly, how big are our capability gaps? Can the Minister guarantee that there will be no operational fall-out from these plans and tell us what assessment has been made? Finally, in this increasingly uncertain world, surely the time has come for a fundamental reappraisal of the need for stronger defence. Trying to get our defence on the cheap is not the right approach. We should now start recruiting regulars to the Army to bring up the trained strength of the Regular Army to at least 100,000. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for his thoughts. Let us be clear on the numbers. The Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the Army, said to the Defence Committee on 5 November:

“Already, at the six-month point, we have got to 2,100”—

he was talking about new recruits to the reserves—

“and it is my sense that we will increase the numbers beyond the target in this year…It is not something that will be solved overnight, because we have had the last 10 or 15 years when we have not invested in the Reserve in the way that we are now investing in the Reserve.”

The point—I have tried to explain this to my hon. and gallant Friend a number of times—is that we had a very long period of decline and neglect. In setting up a new system that for the first time for a decade re-established proper medical checks and proper fitness checks, started to collate the numbers properly and so on, we had some glitches, which have been widely discussed. Most of the improvements we made have happened only in the past few months. In the last quarter, we recruited almost twice as many people as in the equivalent quarter last year. I am grateful to him for his continuing interest in the subject, but may I recommend that he does what almost every single unit I have visited recommends and visits some reserve units to discover the exciting things that are going on?

The Army Reserve has expanded by just 20 troops in the past year—20, not the 30,000 personnel promised by the Prime Minister. Capita is being paid £50 million a year to assist in recruitment, meaning that each new net recruit costs taxpayers £2.5 million. That does not include the millions spent on online and other advertising campaigns. The Minister is failing so badly, two years after the policy was announced, that the upper age limit for recruitment is now to be raised, even though, from his reply to the question, one would not think that anything had changed.

This is a shambles—yet more along the lines of the failed IT systems that wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and the repeatedly missed and repeatedly readjusted recruitment targets. Now we have the fiasco of the increase in the upper age limit for recruitment, changing the goalposts to meet the targets. Urgent clarity is needed on the level of integration between regular and reserve units following the recent statement by the new Chief of the General Staff. Will the Minister confirm whether it is now Government policy that reservists will not be called on routinely and will instead be used only in times of emergency? When was he consulted on that change in policy?

May I ask the Minister to be honest with the Army and the British people about what size he envisages not only the reserve but the British Army will be at the end of the process? He said that his policy is bold. Yes, it is bold, but it is fundamentally flawed, it has failed to be tested, and the tragic consequence will be that Britain's defence will be vulnerable for years to come.

I think that the hon. Gentleman had drafted his points before he heard my answer to my hon. and gallant Friend, so I will not repeat the same points about the changes in the system that are just coming through now and are evident in the latest quarter.

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s more substantive questions. The message coming from the Chief of the General Staff has been cleared with the Secretary of State and me. We are all at one on this and I am grateful for the opportunity to make that clear. When we talk about integration, there is an important distinction to be made between compulsory call-out, which will occur only in times of public emergency—in the long term, because we suddenly hit an unexpected conflict, or in the short term, because of flooding and so on—and opportunities for intelligent mobilisation for formed bodies or individuals that will be there all the time. Most people join the reserves because they want an opportunity to deploy on operations. It may help the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for a long time, if I give a few examples of that.

In February, under Operation Toral, the next phase in Afghanistan, a formed platoon from my local battalion, 3rd Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, will go to Afghanistan with its sister unit, the Royal Anglians. We have 24 people, 19 of whom are medics, going out on the Ebola operation. In 2012, the framework battalion for Cyprus was a reserve battalion. The opportunities are there, but call-out will be compulsory only when there is a real emergency. It is worth noting that 25,000 individuals went through Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them under a Labour Government. All of them went through the intelligent mobilisation process, except for a relatively small number involved in the original Iraq operation.

My understanding throughout this has been that Labour’s policy is to support our plan in principle, while doing what an Opposition always should do: hold the Government to account for delivery. I have heard nothing in what the hon. Gentleman has said to suggest that that has changed, and I am pleased about that.

Order. A large number of hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Ordinarily, I try to accommodate everybody; that probably will not be possible today, because there is considerable pressure on time, as there are two statements to follow. What is required is exemplary brevity, a tutorial in which can now be provided by Mr James Gray.

I will seek to do that, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Minister has a long-standing commitment to the reserve Army, which I salute. I am proud that my Territorial Army regiment is, I understand, 125% above its recruitment target, which is great. Other regiments around England could follow that example. However, does he agree that we cannot replace regular soldiers with reserves on a regular basis? Would it not be better to do away with the 82,000 and 30,000 figures, and replace that with an Army of 112,000, which could be made up partly of one and partly of the other?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I am not quite certain what he is proposing. We are planning for an Army of 82,000 regulars, and 30,000 reservists integrated with them—in other words, available as formed sub-units or individuals to supplement the regulars outside periods of great national emergency, and to be called up in much larger numbers during periods of great national emergency.

May I pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that I failed to answer? We make no apology whatever for recruiting older people to specialist roles, such as intelligence roles, and as medics, where they have specialist skills. As for the new standards of fitness and so on that we are introducing for medics, there is no suggestion of having those people in the combat arms.

Those of us who, in principle, support what the Minister is trying to achieve have always warned about the potential for over-optimism, and about the resistance and about the need to drive this in. None of this appears to be working at the speed that was envisaged. The Government really have to accept that there is a bigger gap in capability than they have hitherto acknowledged, and that the gap will probably go on for longer than was planned. They must acknowledge that and say what they plan to do about it.

I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he, too, buys into the principle of the plan. We are committed to the same targets. He will see that as the measures that we have taken to unblock the recruiting system feed through into the numbers—let us remember that we are looking at 12-month rolling data, and that will take time—we will achieve these targets. We are committed to getting 30,000 reservists trained by 2018. I look forward to further exchanges on this with Members from across the House.

The assumptions underlying this policy were not tested because of the experiences of the Minister for the Armed Forces in the TA 30 years ago. I wrote to the Secretary of State over a year ago to point out that this policy was highly unlikely to work, and that the Department would have to throw a fortune at it to try to make it work. It is not working. When will Ministers face up to that? At the current rate of progress, it will take between 100 and 200 years to achieve the target.

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend. He says that the policy should have been tested; the recommendations came out of an inquiry chaired by the Chief of the Defence Staff. They have been strongly and publicly supported by the Chief of the General Staff, both publicly in front of the Select Committee on Defence and privately in front of the all-party group, of which my hon. Friend is a member. We know that we can achieve this; the plain fact is that we said that it would take five years. We are unblocking the recruiting system. The units that I visit all suggest that they are well on their way. We will achieve the targets.

When those reforms were originally launched, one of the key principles was for the reservist force to “routinely share” jobs that were once the

“exclusive domain of Regular forces”.

There was therefore that integration. Back in October, when the Chief of the General Staff suggested that reservists would be used only in emergencies, he was kind of rebuked for not being in line with Government policy. Is not the reality now that the original policy of sharing is no longer possible, and we are reduced, because of the numbers, to using them only in national emergencies?

I have the greatest admiration for the hon. Lady. I sat next to her on the Defence Committee for four years, but she really has missed the point on this. Nobody has rebuked the CGS. The CGS designed the detail for this plan in his last job but one. The hon. Lady misunderstands the difference between opportunities for regular use of reserves, of which I have just given three examples, and compulsory call-out. That is the distinction she must understand.

Does the Minister agree that recruitment to the Army Reserve in the six months to 30 September will be well over 2,000 people, which represents a 60% increase on the same period last year? If that acceleration in Army Reserve recruitment is sustained, it will be in stark contrast to the planned reduction in the TA under the last Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a 60% increase over six months, and as the bulk of that occurred during the most recent quarter, it is almost a doubling in that period. He is absolutely right. It is a tremendous turnaround after years of decline under the previous Government.

I thank the Minister for reversing the daft proposal to close the TA centre in Widnes following my representations. Does he have any concerns about how Capita is working? For example, a constituent of mine has applied to join the regulars but has been given four separate dates verbally and has still not been able to join the Army. Is not the problem with Capita as well?

Will the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have the greatest respect, write to me so that I can look into that individual case? We have had a number of delays in the system. We are sorting those out, and the process is now working much faster for both regulars and reservists, but I would be grateful for a letter.

I have been waiting by my phone for the call to join the Army Reserve, but so far nothing has happened. What percentage of the 30,000 Army Reserve personnel will be available for not a great national emergency at any one time—assuming we get 30,000?

Over a decade or so, 25,000 reservists were called out of what was then a falling institution. I have given my hon. and gallant Friend some examples of the things we are calling reservists out for now—on intelligent mobilisation, not compulsorily, for Afghanistan, for Cyprus, and for interesting exercises all over the world, such as the British Army Training Unit Suffield in Canada and live firing in Kenya. I cannot give him a firm number, but we have seen that large numbers of reserves are available and willing to come. Compulsory call out, as the CGS has made clear, will happen in a national emergency.

On 24 June, the MOD told me in answer to a written question that £300 million had been spent so far on the recruiting partnering project. How much money has been spent to date on this fiasco?

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him a total figure. I do not recognise the figure he quotes, but I will write to him. Most of the Capita programme is directed towards the regular forces. It has had some difficulties, some around software, which has been a feature of Governments of all complexions. It is in the process of a considerable set of improvements, most of which are now in place.

I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on all the efforts he is making in this regard, but may I make one small point? According to the sources I speak to, the smaller the Army gets, the more professional it needs to be in order to be more flexible in dealing with a greatly changing world, so the proportion should stay at 80:20 and not move to 70:30. Can we therefore go back the other way and have a smaller Army, yes, but one that is more professional, not less so? I am not saying that the part timers are not professional—they are—but a smaller full-time Army has the necessary flexibility.

I hear my hon. and gallant Friend with respect. However, if he visits, as I am sure he does from time to time, the Royal Wessex Yeomanry in his own constituency, he will see just how good that unit is and how much it can achieve. The size of the Regular Army came out of the very difficult decisions that we had to make in the strategic defence and security review. We have to be clear that if we want to have a framework to expand a small professional Army, and if we want to keep connections between that small professional Army and the wider civilian community, we need a substantial reserve.

I do not think that anyone in the House would dispute the fact that this is a bold challenge. No one is unaware that there have been technical problems and glitches, but the Minister must know that there is a high degree of concern that only 32% of the regulars have confidence that reservists will be well integrated within their units, and that there has been a net increase to the reserves of only 20. What can we do to improve on those figures?

I have already answered the second question from the hon. Lady, who is another fellow member of the Select Committee, by listing the very many changes that we have made to the recruiting pipeline and noting that in the last quarter we almost doubled the numbers coming through. On her first point, there are indeed some in the Regular Army who do not agree with the changes, having seen former comrades leave, but the fact is that a Chief of the Defence Staff chaired the original commission that set out the overall plan and the Chief of the General Staff wrote the detailed blueprint.

Order. We need a pithy question without preamble, perhaps to be authored and delivered by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).

Is not part of the problem that the increase in reserves has been seen as a cover for a cut in regular forces? What can the Minister, as a champion of the reserves even when we were spending more money on the armed forces, say to dispel that impression?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, not least because he is a former member of the Royal Naval Reserve, who are well ahead of their recruiting targets. The short answer is that if we want defence to prosper in this country when there are very many calls on the public purse, we need the footprint around the country that the reserve forces have—they are represented in half of all the constituencies in this House—to remind people what armed forces are all about.

Does the Minister accept that part of the problem is that some applicants, although they have the potential, do not yet meet all the requirements? Does he believe that there is a place in the recruitment system for the military preparation course that was devised by Lieutenant Colonel Tony Hollingsworth, who runs Knowsley Skills Academy?

The right hon. Gentleman asks a really excellent question. This is why we are looking at the criteria again. We have reintroduced proper medicals, proper fitness tests, proper intelligence tests, and all the things that disappeared under the previous Government. He is right. There should be room for flexibility, and where people are, for example, a little bit below the right level in the fitness test, units have measures in place to give them coaching to bring them to up it. I would like to have a longer conversation with him about this another time.

I am proud of our reserve forces and grateful to employers who participate to allow workers to serve, but given the huge cuts in the regular forces what happens if recruitment for the reserve forces does not meet the targets the Minister is talking about?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We are confident that we will meet the targets. I say again that in the last three-month period we achieved almost double the equivalent level for last year. We are committed to those targets so his question does not arise.

After this expensive disaster, does the Minister have a shred of a regret about hacking away 20% of the Army’s strength, particularly given the fact that some regular soldiers served in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at the Olympics and were then told, “There’s your P45. Now sod off.”? What a disgraceful way to treat soldiers.

This Government have taken huge steps to build the armed forces covenant and to ensure that veterans who left the armed forces on redundancy terms were well looked after. Members of the hon. Gentleman’s own Front-Bench team made it clear that under Labour there would have to be cuts in defence. The previous shadow Secretary of State said:

“The truth is the Labour Party would have to make cuts if we were in power.”

We have had to make difficult decisions because of the economic circumstances we inherited.

As someone who has visited reserve units, I find increasing optimism among commanding officers and others that they are going to achieve the targets. May I suggest a very small tweak? The emergency service cap on recruits needs to be reviewed. For example, in the Met police a reserve recruitment cap of 0.25% has existed since the cold war. This could be an ideal recruiting ground. Will the Minister look at it?

I am most grateful for the question from my hon. and gallant Friend, who served in the same regiment as I did, although he was a regular and I was a reservist. He is exactly right. The cap is being addressed. Clearly, the Metropolitan police need to have a cap, but it is much too low at present. There is a discussion going on. A commanding officer I met had lost three military police soldiers from her unit because they had got jobs with the Met and been made to resign because the quota was filled.

I am not a defence buff, but I believe in the security of our country and I recognise the dangers that are emerging across Europe. If I were sitting in the Kremlin right now, I would be very happy about the run-down of our regular forces. What does the Minister say about that?

I have too much respect for the hon. Gentleman to get too party political about what happened to our defences under the previous Government. If he chooses to cruise the BBC website, he will find that in the past four weeks Vladimir Putin has announced a very large expansion in the Russians’ part-time reserve army.

One area of apprehension in Salisbury is the package of incentives and support available to small and medium-sized employers. Will the Minister say something about why employers should be content to allow their employees to volunteer to join the reserves, and why that package has improved?

The first thing we should recognise is that this is part of corporate social responsibility. Any employer who signs up faces the prospect that in extremis his employee might be compulsorily mobilised. What he gets for that is somebody who is motivated and who is trained in a variety of ways not available in civilian life. What he gets also is a loyal employee with good values. The financial side has been improved in various ways, including the £500 a month extra compensation for a small business that loses an employee on operations, over and above the full compensation package.

Does the Minister think that the closure of recruiting offices such as the one in Bury in my constituency has had any effect on the number of reservists being recruited?

I do not believe that that has had a direct effect. Most reservists join initially through their local reserve unit or, in some cases, through the national website. There was one immediate indirect effect—while all the glitches were in the system, which we have ironed out over the past few months, the lack of somebody immediately available on the high street to mentor somebody who had not already got dug in with a unit made a significant difference. I do not believe it will make a long-term difference.

Being the fourth highest spender on defence in the world has led to the deaths of 632 of our brave British soldiers in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and in Helmand in the belief that not a shot would be fired. Why cannot we pursue an independent foreign policy and recognise that spending above our budgets and trying to punch above our weight always results in dying beyond our responsibilities?

I am not sure how that fits into the statement, but I am very happy to comment. The fact is that we should be proud of what we have achieved in Helmand province. That operation started, as did the previous one, under a Labour Government.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but I have taken 20 Back Benchers and I did give notice that it might not be possible to accommodate everybody, rather exceptionally, today.