Skip to main content

Army Reserve

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 2 February 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

It is a great pleasure to have this Adjournment debate on the Army Reserve. I asked for this because I am concerned that a yawning gap is opening up between the laudable ambitions of Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and what is actually proposed for the reserve. Ironically, this debate takes place at a time when large numbers of reservists, on both sides, are central to the darkening military picture in Ukraine.

When I served in the Territorial Army Intelligence Corps in the 1980s, there was not necessarily an expectation of being deployed, because it would have meant that the third world war had started, but the situation has now been quite different for many years. Those joining the reserves now expect to be deployed, and for many reservists it is one of the attractions of joining. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has consistently made it clear that he sees the reserves as an important element of cost-effective armed forces. At the peak, they provided 23% of our forces in Iraq and 13% in Afghanistan. More recently, they have performed further crucial roles in the covid emergency and in dealing with cyber-threats.

Page 19 of the Ministry of Defence document “Future Soldier Guide”, in a section headed “Army Reserve Transformation”, states:

“Our nation’s Reservists will play a vital and pivotal role in delivering Future Soldier. We require a more capable, more ready and more usable Army Reserve, which is assured to deliver against mandated tasks across the UK or overseas. Every part of the Army Reserve will have a clear warfighting role and stand ready to fight as part of the Whole Force in time of war.”

On that point, as a former infantry officer, it strikes me that, if we remove support weapons, we obviously have a less capable unit, but we also lose the interest and the attraction to retain troops.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Part of the way in which the reserves used to be recruited made clear the importance of formed bodies. The building of comradeship and interest and the use of civilian skills in the reserve forces was an important part of attracting people. I will say more about that because we do not want to lose them.

The MOD document continues:

“Over the coming years the Army Reserve will increasingly take responsibility for Homeland Protect and Resilience operations, supported by the regular component.”

That should increase focus and clarity and it should be very exciting. Unfortunately, serious issues on structure and resourcing threaten to blow away those good intentions. My first concern is that, at a time when the Regular Army is being reduced—again—it seems extraordinary that we are cutting the Army Reserve, too. Could the Minister confirm that the MOD plans to cut the establishment of the Army Reserve from 30,100 trained, with a further 3,000 on phase 1 training, to 27,100 trained, with a further 3,000 on phase 1 training? That is a cut of about 10%.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member on bringing the debate forward. I concur and entirely support the figures to which he refers, because the figures that I have from within Northern Ireland indicate that the position is similar for us in Northern Ireland. I have been made aware of the proposed restructuring of our Army Reserve, medical units and infantry in Northern Ireland, leading to a 10% reduction in numbers. I declare an interest as a former reservist and part-time soldier for 14 and a half years.

Northern Ireland has a commitment to the reserves, an ability to recruit and a willingness to deploy. Indeed, Northern Ireland has contributed comparatively more to operations overseas than any other region. The reduction that the hon. Gentleman refers to is ludicrous. I fully understand the need to restructure and to meet up-to-date operational needs, but why throw away the willing volunteers that we have in Northern Ireland? I cannot understand where we are going.

I very much agree. The hon. Gentleman made the point that Northern Ireland has contributed disproportionately to the reserves. I should declare that when I did my final passing out camp in the intelligence corps, we shared our barracks with the Royal Irish Rangers; indeed, I passed out with a Royal Irish Rangers pipe band. I must say to anyone who has not experienced it that they should not knock it until they have tried it. There is nothing quite like marching in Army formation with an Irish pipe band. As he said, the Northern Irish have contributed hugely to the reserves and we are all in this House grateful to them for what they do.

Much worse than the actual cut in numbers is the way in which the cut is proposed, including the erosion of the already fragile structure of all our combat units, instead of simply closing a few. The essence of effective reserves, both for use in small operations and to form a basis for regenerating a larger army, is putting together a body of officers and soldiers who train, study and socialise together, building links of comradeship that can stand the test of combat.

Britain did that successfully in the two world wars and more recently in Iraq and in the early part of Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, where formed companies of infantry, and sub-units from other elements, were successfully deployed. Unfortunately, in the latter stages of Operation Herrick, that approach was torn up and reserve units were exclusively used to backfill regular ones—“augmentation”, as the Army calls it. That offered no command roles for junior reserve officers, just supporting posts.

The consequences were dire. The “Reserves in the Future Force 2020” report uncovered that the junior officer base of the Army had disintegrated, and applications for reserve Sandhurst courses collapsed. Putting that right and moving back towards formed bodies was at the heart of the rebuilding programme of the past decade. Indeed, in the past two years, we have seen a yeomanry squadron rotate successfully into Operation Cabrit in eastern Europe and two reserve infantry battalions, 6 and 7 Rifles, provide the framework for Operation Tosca in Cyprus.

That is why the widely discussed proposals for the cuts in the Army Reserve are so devastating. Instead of simply disbanding a few reserve units—perhaps from an area such as logistics where there is a successful record of using armed civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan—I understand that the plan is to devastate every infantry battalion by reducing the manning in three company battalions to just 340 and in four company battalions to 430. Each company will consist of just two rifle platoons and a single section of support weapons, instead of a support platoon.

Besides the obvious point that this seems a very odd time to reduce our reserves of anti-tank weapons and mortars, that will leave each company much smaller and with no in-house staff for the residual support element. Given that nobody gets a full turnout, even when manning recovers from the devastation of covid, that would leave a sub-unit structure without the critical mass for company-level training. At battalion level, it will become impossible to generate a formed company for an extended deployment, as the proportion of even a well-recruited unit who can take many months off work in peacetime is inevitably limited.

That brings me to the state of the reserves recruiting programme. During covid, the collapse in activity was damaging to units, much of it, I suspect, concealed in the statistics by a failure to discharge non-attenders. So the decision largely to turn off the reserve pipeline for many months was ill judged, but, since it restarted last year, astonishingly, the marketing has been done without consultation or even co-ordination with reserve units, or with the reserve forces cadets associations with their local footprint and knowledge. The Minister will know that that has not produced the surge that the Army Reserve hoped for, and badly needs, after the setbacks of covid. I await the figures for the most recent quarter with some trepidation.

There is now a threat to the progress that has been made on reserve officer courses at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Three years ago, the post of deputy commandant reserves, which had played such a big part in the recovery of reserve officers, was abolished. Now, the decision has just been taken to sideline the reserve colonel at Sandhurst, to whom the various university officer training corps reported. The reserves depend on the OTCs for the bulk of their officer supply and much of their training, and almost all OTCs are commanded by regular officers. Now they will answer to a regular officer, too. So the senior reserve voice has been frozen out of that critical area for the health and regeneration of the Army Reserve. OTCs may become little more than recruiting organisations for the Regular Army.

Those concerns about manning are reinforced by a number of other emerging trends. At a time when covid and the recruiting pause have left such gaps, is it really a good time to suggest that, where units can recruit above strength and their neighbours cannot, they will be forbidden to do so? That would punish those who are successful, and make it a certainty that we will never recruit up to our new, further reduced target.

In a separate “Future Soldier” document, the reserve component narrative states at paragraph 3, line 4:

“An assured and capable Reserve will require a new approach to training, basing and force generation that sets the Army Reserve up for success. Reservists may not need to give more of their time; but making much better use of their time will be essential.”

That is exactly right, but let us look at the detail.

To take training first, many experienced reservists would say that the biggest waste of their time is the approach of many of the arms schools, which insist that reservists are trained at the same slow speed as regulars, despite reservists having a higher educational minimum standard and, crucially, needing to make progress in the short periods they can spare from civilian jobs. Some forward-leaning institutions, such as Chatham and Larkhill, have modularised, pushing out much of their courses to units and making use of distance learning. Others, such as Bovington and Leconfield, continue to insist on courses being almost all delivered on site and frequently at a very slow pace—a considerable problem for reservists whose day jobs and homes are far away.

What is being done to tackle those institutions that simply do not understand that reserves need to be prepared in a way that fits around their civilian work patterns?

Turning to basing, there are plans that elements of the reserve estate will be closed and that units will be grouped in larger, better centres. Although, in principle, this should improve some dire accommodation, we need to be cautious. Most journeys to training take place in the rush hour, so peak traffic journey times are critical in assessing the expectation that recruits with demanding day jobs will be willing to travel after a hard day’s work. This is particularly seen in threats to delete successful sub-units. Unless the alternative location is close, it will simply drive people away, further reducing manning.

I declare an interest of sorts, as a former TA infantry officer during the cold war. On a positive note, I am delighted to report that my godson Alexander Blackwell, who I saw today, recently graduated from Sandhurst as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve.

The Territorial Army did great service in both the first and second world wars. Given that we now have 125,000 Russian troops ringing Ukraine, does my hon. Friend agree that we should never, under any circumstances, take our reserves for granted? Time and again, they have been literally the last line of defence.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right, and I fear that, at times, we have acted as if we seem to be taking them for granted, which we absolutely must not do.

One of the best ways of making the slender resources available to the reserve estate go further would be reducing bureaucracy in the Defence Infrastructure Organisation so that the reserve forces and cadets associations can crack on with using their local knowledge and the business acumen of their volunteers, as they used to do so successfully. On that subject, when will the Ministry of Defence publish the 2021 report of the RFCA external scrutiny team?

I am sure the Minister will be familiar with section 47 of the Defence Reform Act 2014:

“On receiving a report…the Secretary of State must lay a copy of it before Parliament.”

Heaven forfend that the Secretary of State would inadvertently break the law, but I understand he has had a copy of this report since last July.

On the question of force generation, right across the English-speaking world, from the National Guard with its presence in every American population centre to the Australian army reserve, reserve forces are proud of their local ties and footprint. Earlier this decade, changes that paired reserve battalions with regular battalions wisely built on that here.

Earlier I stressed the importance of keeping the emphasis on formed bodies, which train, socialise and build comradeship to fight together. It is a shame that the Army’s reserve narrative lists, for conditions short of war, supply individuals to regular units ahead of using formed bodies. That points towards the slippery slope that we went down in the dying days of Operation Herrick, with the destruction of the reserve officer corps.

Returning once more to the reserve component narrative of “Future Soldier”:

“While Army Reserve will play an increased role, the management of the Army Reserve will change to ensure that employers are not adversely affected.”

The greatest barrier to employer support is last-minute changes in call-out plans and arrangements that wreck the plans that employers have generously made to allow their employees to engage in military service. That happened frequently in Operation Rescript at the peak of the covid crisis and continues to happen on other operations. When will steps be taken to ensure that such last-minute changes are identified and recorded, and to ensure that the officers concerned are called to account?

To summarise, I welcome much of the Army’s vision for the reserve, but I believe there is a real danger that the cuts to numbers and resources, and the structures emerging, will undermine them.

Given the long list of cuts, does my hon. Friend agree that the time has come to restore a separate vote for the reserves so that Parliament can know where the money is going?

That is a very good idea. Having served on the Public Accounts Committee for 16 years, I always like things that make it clearer where the money is going.

As I now have the privilege of serving on the current Public Accounts Committee, I entirely endorse the sensible suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway).

I hope the Minister is listening, because my right hon. Friend is a man not lightly to be trifled with. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), the Chair of that Committee—with whom I co-operate extensively, as I chair the Public Accounts Commission, which provides the budget for the National Audit Office—is a lady not to be trifled with. I hope that the Minister and the Ministry of Defence will take that seriously, otherwise I think they may find that there are questions on it at future PAC hearings.

At a time when regular manpower is being cut, the Army Reserve is rightly being asked to do a great deal more, and it needs the structures, systems and resources that will allow it to deliver.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) for his thoughtful and constructive speech, and it is my great pleasure to respond to it. I am also very pleased to have heard the contributions of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), and I pay tribute to their own military service.

Let me establish the context of the debate before answering some of my hon. Friend’s questions. I share his sense of the terrific value of our reserve forces. He outlined correctly their central role in our national security: we have already heard how critical that role has been in the operations in, for instance, Afghanistan and Iraq, and, of course, we have also seen their recent response to the covid pandemic in Operation Rescript. All Members will have seen in their own constituencies the terrific work carried out by both regular and reserve forces in assisting the national health service. In May 2020, a total of 2,300 reservists were in service in Operation Rescript, and we should also acknowledge their current work in delivering support to the Scottish Government in driving ambulances and assisting the NHS in Scotland. We should pay tribute to how they support our national resilience on health, day in and day out.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford rightly drew attention to the international context. Given the remarkable situation on the Ukraine border, we should acknowledge the central importance of the reserves in our defence capability: we see their remarkable range of expertise and professionalism as something that we can readily call upon, and something that is intrinsically valuable. It is part of our contribution to NATO, and it is something that we rightly appreciate. I hope that, despite the criticisms raised, my hon. Friend feels—this is at the heart of our doctrine outlined in Future Soldier, to which he alluded, and at the heart of the integrated review—that our Army Reserve retains a central role in our defence proposition.

Let me now turn to some of my hon. Friend’s specific challenges. The 27,100 figure that he quoted relates only to the Army; it does not include 1,500 reservists in other parts of Defence, and the 300 who are undergoing training. If we look at the numbers in the round, we see that the story is quite positive. Those figures do not illustrate a depreciation in the strength of the Army Reserve, which is currently 26,230. Moreover, restructuring will give it the opportunity to shape itself correctly to enable us to deliver the most effective outcome. This is not just about having a very large establishment; it is about having a very high level—or a higher level—of availability and deployability, which the Future Soldier programme will seek to deliver.

The Minister has responded very positively to questions that I have asked in the House about recruitment in Northern Ireland, but, if he does not mind, I will ask him a direct question now. Figures that I have received about the proposed restructuring of the Army reserve medical units in Northern Ireland show a 10% reduction. Can the Minister confirm that that will not be the case?

I do not know the answer on that specific unit in Northern Ireland, but I will take that away and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Returning to the point about deployability, what we are seeking to achieve is a more potent and deployable reserve that can help us to respond to the threats we face. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk referred repeatedly to Future Soldier. Although that reduces the structure of a large proportion of Army Reserve units, it does not do so to a size that impacts the overall strength of the Army Reserve. Through the work of the integrated review, we have sought to match the force to the threats and address the historical imbalance in the structure of the Army Reserve by standardising sub-unit numbers, which brings greater coherence. Our units now have a common structure based on whether they have three or four sub-units. By maintaining all our combat units, we have maintained the best possible geographical spread to assist with the increased role in homeland resilience.

The Future Soldier reserve structure places a warfighting demand on combat units for companies, squadrons, platoons and troops to augment regular units. My hon. Friend’s central proposition was that augmentation is a bad thing, but in terms of agility and providing best impact, my judgment, through operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that a very powerful operational outcome was delivered by that system of augmentation, which, on balance, I think is a good thing.

On that point, the concern is that if there are no genuine command roles for junior reserve officers, the Minister will devastate the future recruitment for junior officers. They will increasingly understand that they will not have that opportunity if augmentation is all there is. I am not saying that augmentation is always a bad thing, but if the story gets abroad that it is the only thing and that junior reserve officers will not have command roles, we will not have junior reserve officers.

On the numbers, I would like to question the Minister a little further. He mentioned the 27,100 figure and then said there would be 1,500 in addition, taking it up to 28,600, and a further 300 taking it to 28,900. That is still significantly lower than the current establishment, which is 30,100, plus a further 3,000 on phase one training. That does sound to me like a diminution, although I thought I heard him say that it was not a diminution. Can he clarify that?

The 27,100 does not include 1,500 Army reserves who are in other tri-service units. It also does not take into account the 3,000 who are undergoing phase one training. Taken in the round, that gets us north of 31,000, which, overall, is very similar to where we are now. I therefore regard that as not a diminution of strength. It is also a case of looking at the deployability rate. We are seeking to drive up availability and deployability, which I think is currently at 60%. Let us drive that up. But I would rather have a higher rate of deployability, which is how we get a better outcome and better lethality from our reserves, than a larger establishment with lower rates of deployability. My hon. Friend will know that traditionally availability and deployability, judged by those who receive their bounty across Territorial or Army Reserve units, has been extremely low and that is something we seek to drive relentlessly upwards.

Churchill called the Territorials “twice the citizen”, because after a hard day’s work they go home, eat something quickly and dash out for training. When the Minister receives submissions asking him to close Army Reserve centres—I know that, as a Minister, he instinctively understands these things—will he look very carefully before signing them off? If we make the distance unrealistic to, after a hard day’s work, get to the training centre, do the training and then get home, we will lose lots of good-quality people. Does he promise he will bear that in mind before he initials any submissions?

I do, and I am grateful for that comment. I will come back to what my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk was saying about that earlier. Proximity of training opportunities is crucial. It is a function of geography, and we take it seriously.

Let me return to what my hon. Friend was saying about opportunities for command for young reserve officers. Establishment laydown notwithstanding, the range of opportunity that the integrated review, the defence Command Paper and Future Soldier bring to young officers, and enlisted servicemen and women, are manifold and extremely exciting. We are entering an era in which we are seeking to be deployed on a wider and more sustained basis right across the world. The offer that we make in terms of operational experience and opportunity at every level, including sub-unit command at a junior level, is extremely exciting. That is the feedback that I get from the reserve soldiers I meet.

The Minister has been very responsive to our concerns. He has referred to deployability a couple of times. What will be the impact on deployability if there are 10% reductions in Northern Ireland? It is very important to us to have a Territorial Army—a reserve force—that can actually respond, and I think the Minister wants that. Let us air that issue of deployability for Northern Ireland.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s sincere interest in the issue. I will write to him, relaying some information about future establishment strength and current deployability judged on bounty. That will be interesting for me, and I look forward to sharing that information with him.

Does the Minister believe that the new structure, in which each infantry company has lost the critical mass for training—barely 80 men—will attract good-quality officers to improve their attendance?

I think good people will principally be encouraged to join by the prospect of serving in exciting overseas operations. Look at the opportunities that exist in Kenya, Oman and right across the middle east in a more sustained fashion. The offer that we make—“If you join, you will have the prospect of serving”—is very exciting and should not be underestimated.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk make a good point about officer training corps. Importantly, he talked about estates. I reaffirm our interest, concern and sincere belief that training needs to be proximate to the people who are enjoying those opportunities. The Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), takes that very seriously when he is making judgments about the estate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk asked when we would publish the RFCA 2021 report. That will be in due course, but we note his interest sincerely. I am grateful to have answered the debate tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

7.33 pm

House adjourned.