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Reserve Recruitment

Volume 588: debated on Monday 24 November 2014

The programme to grow the reserves is on track. We have reversed 18 years of decline. Our more recent official figures, published on 13 November, show an increase in both recruitment and the trained strength of the reserves. Enlistment numbers are increasing and recruitment times are reducing, thanks to improvements that the three services have made.

I am very concerned to hear that the net increase of just 20 reservists is actually a part of the Government’s plan. With our regular forces at their lowest numbers since the Napoleonic wars, the news that just 20 extra reservists have signed up is extremely worrying. Will the Minister tell us his assessment of why the almost £2 million spent on advertising and all the warm words have not led to the extra reservists that we desperately need given the huge reduction in the regular forces that we have seen?

In the six months to 30 September, 2,770 people joined the reserves. That is an increase of 61% compared with the same period last year. The bulk of the difference occurred during the second half of that period, because it is only in the last few months that our changes in the recruiting process have come through.

May I thank my hon. Friend for the important reforms that he has instigated and the fact that he has taken this back and we now look to substantial improvements? May I assure him that recruiting in the Yeomanry Squadron, with which I am associated, is going extremely well? The only problem that remains is for the Government to persuade employers that it is well worth letting their employees go for territorial service.

I am most grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend, who is of course a distinguished former Minister for the Armed Forces. I was privileged to visit the unit he mentions, the Royal Yeomanry, which is now over strength. The point he makes about employers is well taken. We recently enhanced the package for small businesses, with a supplementary £500 a month, on top of the rest of the compensation package for small businesses that release people for operations. We also have a considerable initiative in the wider country.

22. I declare an interest as a member of the Strathclyde-area Lowland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Can the Minister say whether he has carried out any regional or national analysis of reserve recruitment figures, whether there are any problems in different parts of the country and whether a more individual and specific approach to recruitment requires to be taken as a result? (906199)

I am most grateful for the service that the hon. Lady gives on the RFCA board in Scotland. The RFCAs are critical. To answer her question, we are looking at it. I do not have a comprehensive answer for her, but the four recruitment centres through which every recruit passes have a different track record. Some of them have had much tighter capacity constraints. We have taken measures to ease those. Scotland has had a number of interesting initiatives of its own, as well as leading the way on phase 1 training. We are trying to get best practice spread around the country.

25. However these figures are dressed up, the Ministry of Defence’s own figures show that the trained strength of the Army reserve has actually fallen over the last 18 months. Given that the Government have had to throw more money at the reforms, including added incentives to join up, will the Minister answer the one question that the Government have so far ducked: how much extra are these reforms costing, over and above original estimates? (906202)

Over the past six months, the trained strength of the volunteer reserves has increased by 400, and it is only in the last three months that most of the reforms we have introduced have bitten. The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that we are confident that the figure that we originally offered—1.8, over the 10-year period—will be adequate for the purpose. We are still aiming to reach our targets. Numbers are growing and recruiting is increasing rapidly.[Official Report, 2 December 2014, Vol. 589, c. 1MC.]

A key plank of the Government’s defence policy was to increase the number of reservists to make up for the reduction, by a fifth, of the regular Army, but the latest figures, however dressed up, show an increase of just 20 Army reservists in a year. The Government have had two years, spent millions on advertising and revised down their targets, and there has still been no improvement. It is becoming clear that this key plank is now dead wood. Does the Minister have a plan B, or is “Don’t panic!” the only answer offered by him and Captain Mainwaring there on the Front Bench?

The size of the volunteer reserves, including the then Territorial Army, halved under the last Government, and we inherited a structure that had lost most of its officers and was falling apart. The size of the Regular Army was reduced because of cash constraints that arose from an economic crisis we inherited. Our plans to expand the reserves are not designed as a direct substitute for regular numbers; they are designed to provide the kind of reserve—the framework for expansion—that would be needed in a time of national crisis.

Permission to speak, sir—they don’t like it up ’em, do they? We need to see a clear plan to address concerns about future gaps in the armed forces’ capability, so why have the Government rejected recommendations by the Public Accounts Committee to put in place contingency measures if reserve recruitment continues to fall? Surely that is just plain common sense. Is this not further proof that when it comes to defence, the Government have no strategy and just make it up as they go along?

I think the hon. Gentleman wrote that question before he heard my earlier answer. His premise is that reserve recruiting is falling, but reserve recruiting increased in the last six months by 61% compared with the equivalent period last year. We are confident that it will go on increasing, so the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is, I am afraid, wrong.