Our programme to grow the reserve forces remains on track, and has reversed many years of decline. Central to that is an improved offer, including better training, equipment and remuneration, and an improved experience for reservists. A total of 8,640 people joined the volunteer reserve in the 12 months to 1 December, a 46% increase on the number who joined during the equivalent period a year ago. Trained strength has risen to 26,560, well ahead of target.
In fact, the Government are still nearly 8,000 short of their target number of trained reservists, and the shockingly poor recruitment figures have started to improve only since the Government raised the age limits, allowing some recruits to join until they are in their mid-50s. The Major Projects Authority has judged the plans “unachievable”. Do the Government now accept that the Army has been cut too far and too fast?
I do not accept that. The Major Projects Authority report to which the hon. Lady referred is more than a year old, and the figure that she identified as the target—35,000 trained reservists—must be reached by April 2019. We are moving fast in that direction.
23. Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book, does my hon. Friend consider that one way to recruit additional reserves —and, indeed, other members of the armed forces—would be to create a help to build scheme, so that service families find it easier to obtain a piece of land and build a house? (903072)
24. As the Government are still short of their target on trained reserves, does the Minister acknowledge the concerns raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who has warned that these cuts are leading to severe capability gaps in our armed forces? (903073)
We had to take some painful decisions when we took over in 2010 as part of the coalition Government, because the country was spending £4 for every £3 coming in. After the reshaping, we have now moved to a position where, despite there still being some tough decisions to take, this country has committed to spending 2% on defence and to a large expansion of its equipment programme.
My hon. Friend will recall his visit in June last year to a newly established reserve unit at D Company 4 Para at Edward Street in Rugby. Is he as pleased as I am to note that that unit is already beyond its section strength? In the past six months, 12 new reservists have started in Rugby alone. Does this not show that the offer to reservists is attractive?
The largest changes in pay have actually been to reservists, where we have introduced holiday pay for the first time. We have also introduced a pension for the first time; it was previously only available to those who mobilised. I think it is fair to say that the changes in the regular pay arrangements, which are basically a simplification, have also gone down well.
May I thank the Minister for the recruiting we are allowed to do in Northern Ireland? Just under 7% of the reserve forces are from Northern Ireland, which represents 3% of the population. Might the Minister look at recruiting more from Northern Ireland, so we can carry on being the backbone of the armed services?
Northern Ireland has always been an excellent recruiting ground for both regulars and reservists, and I am conscious also of the fact that, beyond the statistics, as the hon. Gentleman mentions, a higher proportion of people from Northern Ireland have been mobilised than from any other part of the UK.