Skip to main content

Armed Forces: Redundancies

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 15 February 2011


My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Private Martin Bell, 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, Ranger David Dalzell, 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, Private Lewis Hendry, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, and Private Conrad Lewis, 4th Battalion The Parachute Regiment, who were all killed on operations in Afghanistan recently. My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.

With the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence:

“As a result of the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review, it has sadly been necessary to plan for redundancies in both the Civil Service and the Armed Forces. At all times this should be done with sensitivity to the individuals concerned, with an understanding of the impact that this will have on them and their families.

There are two cases where this has not happened recently. Let me deal with them both. The first concerns the 38 Army personnel who have received an e-mail, as reported in today’s press. This is a completely unacceptable way to treat anyone, not least our Armed Forces. The correct procedure was not followed. I regret this and want to reiterate the unreserved apology already made by the Army and on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. Arrangements have already been put in place to ensure that this does not happen again, and the Army is already investigating the particular circumstances.

The second case concerns the redundancy of trainee pilots. It was always going to be the case that, with fewer airframes, we would need fewer pilots. The fact that they found out through the publication of inaccurate details in a national newspaper will, I am sure, be deprecated by both sides of the House and can only cause the individuals concerned undue distress. I understand the concerns of those facing redundancy and the temptation of those in Opposition to exploit every issue to political advantage but I hope that, with issues as sensitive as individual redundancies, we can refrain from making a sad situation worse for the individuals and their families”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I and these Benches wish to join in the sincere condolences to the families and friends of Private Martin Bell, Ranger David Dalzell, Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Beckett, Private Lewis Hendry and Private Conrad Lewis. Like, I am sure, everyone in the House, I share the sentiments of the Minister about the grave impact that these operations are having not just on those who die but on those who are seriously injured. They put themselves in harm's way on our behalf.

Yesterday, the Opposition chose not to take a Statement on Afghanistan because we are working in a largely bipartisan way with the Government on Afghanistan. I commend the Minister for the efforts that he makes to keep interested Ministers so well informed of what is happening and I decided that it was inappropriate to take the time of the House on that issue. I can assure noble Lords that we will continue to work with the Government on a bipartisan basis in this important area.

The same does not apply to the events of the past couple of days. I note the Statement that has been repeated in the House. I welcome the fulsome apology about the 38 warrant officers, but I note that we only deprecate the article in the Daily Telegraph. I think the Government should go further. Short of this article being a figment of the Daily Telegraph's imagination—I doubt it can be, given its usual care—the Ministry of Defence is responsible, one way or another, for a leak which will have been profoundly hurtful to the people involved. I hope that the Minister will be able to make a rather more fulsome statement in his response to this event.

What assurances can the Minister give us that this will not happen again? It is important in this difficult period that Ministers take personal responsibility for this difficult area of managing personnel, ensuring that statements are made in an orderly way, that proper discipline of information is maintained, that there is proper support and that people hear bad news from those who should be giving them bad news; for example, those in their chain of command. I hope that the Minister can go further in his assurances about how these events will be prevented from happening in the future.

However, I feel that these events are not just in themselves sad and wrong but that they are actually symptoms of the SDR. It was done too quickly. The document turned out to be a simple Treasury-forced cuts exercise. It was ragged and, if we are to believe newspaper reports, not fully worked through. It is not the job of the Opposition to lay out how we would run the country, but it is our job to comment and to hold to account. We believe that the deficit is being reduced too deeply and too fast. We fear that what we have seen over the past couple of days are symptoms of chaos occurring in the Ministry of Defence. The redundancies of which we have heard seem to have been crudely worked out, inefficient in their long-term effects and, of course, executed in a grossly insensitive way. What assurances can the Minister give us that we are not creating holes in our medium and long-term capability? What assurances can he give us that these redundancies have been thought out with the care that should have been applied to the cutting of resources in the incredibly complicated world of defence? Will he be able in future to make those cuts in a way which assures us of that all round capability?

I hope that the Minister, perhaps repeating a Statement made by the Secretary of State, will be able to come to the House in the not-too-distant future to make a Statement on that very big task: 17,000 service personnel are to go; 25,000 civil servants are to go—that is 29 per cent. Knowing, as I do from my previous experience, the sheer complexity of the Ministry of Defence, I fear for our military capability if that is not done in a thoughtful, careful way. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance on that and some promise of a future more detailed Statement about how redundancies will occur, how they have been thought through and where they will occur.

Finally, I turn to the issue of morale. From this Government, our brave men and women have seen cuts in pensions, cuts in allowances, pay freezes, a most amazing U-turn by the Prime Minister on his commitment to put the military covenant into law and, finally, this fiasco. What is the Ministry of Defence going to do to arrest the inevitable erosion of morale that these events will have brought about?

My Lords, first, I am very grateful to the shadow Minister for reasserting the bipartisan approach to Afghanistan. That is very important for our national security and for the morale of our Armed Forces.

Turning to today's Statement, I agree with the noble Lord that it is completely unacceptable for members of the Armed Forces to be treated in this manner. No one should ever be informed that they are to lose their job by e-mail. The Army’s procedure of informing its personnel through the chain of command has clearly failed in this case. The Secretary of State has demanded a full explanation from the Army as to how that was allowed to happen and how those personnel were not told first in person by their commanding officers. Immediate measures have been put in place to ensure that that cannot happen again.

The noble Lord asked about the SDSR. It was difficult and was completed under challenging timescales. It was carried out in full consultation with service chiefs, and provided the appropriate vision for defence to 2020. We would prefer not to be making reductions in our Armed Forces, but the economic position we find ourselves in unfortunately requires that. As for the overall reductions, the SDSR announced 17,000 service reductions and 25,000 civilian reductions, managed through natural wastage and redundancies. As for the redundancy plan, a full plan is in place for the military redundancy programme, with full information available to all service personnel to make decisions for themselves and their families as soon as it is available. There will be an initial voluntary early release scheme for MoD civilians in the coming financial year. That is under different terms from the Armed Forces programme.

Finally, the noble Lord mentioned the very important issue of morale. There is little doubt that the uncontrolled and inaccurate release of information through the press, bypassing the normal chain of command, does very little to improve morale.

My Lords, my question relates to lessons learnt. I was in charge of naval manning in the early part of the 1990s, just after a major redundancy package. All the training pipelines had been shut down, cut or curtailed, and all recruiting had been stopped. All of these things were being done to reduce manpower levels as a result of the then Government’s peace dividend, as it was called. I found it was very hard to kick-start recruiting programmes and training pipelines, and the growth of the economy in the late 1990s led to a net outflow from the service. It was so difficult. My noble friend touched on this, but can the Minister assure the House that we have learnt the lessons—I know they were written down by all three services—and that we are not discarding our seed corn? From what one has seen so far of the pilot thing, it seems that we are discarding seed corn, and I hope it will not happen more generally because, if we are, we are standing into danger of making the same mistakes again.

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that of course lessons have been learnt, particularly by the unfortunate person who sent the e-mail. As far as recruiting is concerned, the Armed Forces depend upon high-quality young men and women wanting to join for a rewarding and exciting career. The level of recruiting will be reduced, but I can assure the noble Lord that it will continue.

My Lords, the redundancy programme will apply to all Armed Forces personnel at one-star rank—that is Army Brigadier-equivalent—and below. Senior officers have different terms of service, being employed on a posting-by-posting basis and will therefore leave under different terms outside the redundancy programme, including termination of service without additional compensation.

Gurkhas are employed on exactly the same conditions of service as all other personnel and will be considered equally alongside their peers if there is a requirement to reduce personnel.

Irrespective of the incompetence and insensitivity with which these redundancies have been handled, for which the Government have quite rightly and properly apologised, the redundancies of uniform personnel are surely disgraceful and quite irresponsible in relation to the country’s future defence capability and needs, and quite shameful in the way that so many individuals have been treated. Will the Minister assure the House that at least those who have served, are serving or will serve in Afghanistan will not subsequently be subject to this redundancy programme? Surely, even this Government recognise that it would be monstrous if people were asked to risk their lives in Afghanistan and were unceremoniously sacked when they came home.

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that personnel on, or preparing for, operations in Afghanistan will not be made redundant unless they wish to be.

My Lords, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute and acknowledge the very fulsome apology that my noble friend made in regard to these two very unfortunate incidents. I have considerable sympathy with my noble friend and Ministers given the black hole that they inherited, the financial reductions that are, unfortunately, having to take place and the effect they are having within MoD and on our services. It is quite obvious that there are a lot more negative announcements to come. I appeal to my noble friend to look ahead with Ministers and block together some of these negative announcements. There is nothing worse than having a daily drip, drip of negative announcements, which will clearly have a very deleterious effect on morale and recruitment, let alone the effect on any potential enemies that this country might have. Overall, are we now not looking to the Prime Minister to give a much clearer and firmer commitment to an increase in defence expenditure from 2015? Otherwise, it is almost impossible for the MoD to plan properly.

My Lords, on the point about the drip-drip, my noble friend’s suggestion is excellent and I will take it back to the department. On the extra money post-2015, the Prime Minister is on record as saying that he understands that we will need substantial sums post-2015 to make Vision 2020 work.

My Lords, I think that the Minister has understood the mood of the House perfectly well, and I congratulate him on reminding us before he repeated the Statement of the sacrifices that are being made by British servicemen in defence of our freedom. On our Armed Forces, I have always taken the view that our most valuable assets are not pieces of kit and platforms but our service men and women. The Minister said that the Secretary of State had ordered an inquiry into this debacle. Can he tell the House that there will be a further Statement following the completion of that inquiry?

My Lords, unfortunately I cannot give the noble Lord that assurance. One of these matters is for the Army and one is for the Royal Air Force. They are conducting internal inquiries, and we will make a decision depending on what they come up with. The investigation into the Army leak will report very quickly—within a maximum of two weeks, and, I hope, within a matter of days.

My Lords, it is not necessary to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, that somehow or another the armed services could have been excused from the cuts that unfortunately the Government had to tackle with urgency as a result of the economic situation that we were in. Nevertheless, it can be accepted, as I hope the Minister will, that there is something in what the noble Lord said: that this was symptomatic of a deeper problem. Is not that deeper problem, frankly, that the MoD is no longer fit for purpose? It is not fit for purpose because the previous Government failed simply, consistently and over many years to deal with deep dysfunctionalities in that organisation. Does that not place on this Government the urgent need substantially to review the whole Ministry of Defence in order to solve what is basically a broken organisation?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that that is exactly what we are doing. I have sat through interminable meetings to try to get on top of this situation, and I assure him that the new PUS is determined to get on top of our financial problems as quickly as possible.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the Prime Minister’s very welcome assurance of his personal commitment to a real-terms increase in defence spending over the period of the next spending review. Will the Minister tell us precisely what financial assumptions the Ministry of Defence is now making in its forward planning for that period? On what sums is it basing its calculations?

I think that I will write to the noble and gallant Lord about that. I am sure that I have those figures in my briefing, but it would take a bit of time to find them and I do not want to test the patience of the House.

My Lords, there are practical consequences in the short and medium terms. Will my noble friend assure the House that the impact of the redundancies that are now being revealed will not be an increase in the already ferocious number of combat flying hours of personnel in Afghanistan?

My Lords, I can give my noble friend that assurance. The SDSR was designed specifically not to affect operations in Afghanistan.

My Lords, a bald e-mail that states, “Start applying for your retirement”, is indeed indicative of a dysfunctional system in the MoD. The Secretary of State in the other place earlier today failed to take ministerial responsibility for this, which we regret. Instead of barbs with puerile comments, would it not be correct for the Secretary of State to take that ministerial responsibility and report back to this House so that we could say that this military covenant will not turn into a shambles?

My Lords, with the greatest respect, this was one very unfortunate error by one individual in the Army—the noble Lord mentioned the e-mail today. In the Ministry of Defence, we go to enormous lengths to make sure that redundancies are carried out correctly, and this happens in almost every case.

My Lords, if one goes a little deeper, the noble Lord will recall that when he was in opposition, during the time of the previous Administration, the position of a commanding officer was gone into in considerable detail in your Lordships’ House and in Committee. The purpose was that most of us were very put out by the fact that the authority of a commanding officer was being denuded. The noble Lord might agree that this incident, as I understand it, of bypassing a commanding officer and directly talking to a warrant officer will have a very adverse effect on commanding officers in battle on operations. In the examination that the noble Lord has said is going on, I hope that the position of the commanding officer of a unit—the key man in any operation—is not being denuded or his authority removed in any way whatever.

My Lords, I share the noble Viscount’s views 100 per cent about the importance of commanding officers. I can give him the assurance that we do not intend to do anything to undermine that position. The investigations are matters for the Army and the Royal Air Force. It would be quite wrong for the Secretary of State or me from this Dispatch Box to make any promises or decisions and try to micromanage what the Army and the Royal Air Force do.

Perhaps I may make it clear that I—and I am sure that I speak for most Members of this House—attribute absolutely no blame in this matter to the Minister. He is in a very unfortunate position at the Dispatch Box today and he is handling himself with great dignity. However, on the recruitment of fast jet pilots, given the number of years that it takes to train one of these brave young men to the height of the necessary skills, and given that this Government’s policies are supposed to come to fruition in roughly the same amount of time, how are we to have any confidence that the Government have confidence in their own economic measures when they are laying off those people? They will have investment and talents that will come to fruition at just the time that they claim their economic policies will succeed.

My Lords, I share 100 per cent the noble Lord’s views on fast jet pilots. Last week, I was fortunate enough to go to RAF Coningsby to see the hugely impressive work of the Typhoons. But, due to the reduction of the RAF’s aircraft fleet, the number of student pilots in the flying training pipeline will unfortunately be reduced by about 170 personnel. We will endeavour to find alternative positions, where available, within our branches, such as personnel support, engineers or logistics. However, I must make clear that there will be the need for redundancies. As these pilots are under training, it will not impact on operations.

My Lords, in the context of morale, will my noble friend share with the House how he thinks that the silent majority, to which some in your Lordships’ House like me belong, can do more than is being done to help improve morale in the field?

My Lords, that is a very interesting question. I cannot think of an instant bright answer, but I will cogitate on it and come back to my noble friend.