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 Dean Hutchinson of 9 Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps and Private Robert Wood of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment the Royal Logistic Corps who were 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 will now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows.
“On 19 October last year, in the strategic defence and security review, the Government announced reductions in the size of the Armed Forces—reducing the Army by 7,000, the Royal Air Force by 5,000 and the Royal Navy by 5,000. This was to reshape the Armed Forces for Future Force 2020 and also to respond to the budgetary pressures resulting from the need to reduce the inherited deficit and deal with the black hole in the MoD’s finances.
Following the announcement, normal procedure for proceeding with the redundancies was followed. Let me briefly describe this. The Armed Forces modelled the manpower they needed for Future Force 2020 and consulted their own people on the best methods and timescales for achieving this. The families federations have been kept informed. Following yesterday’s announcement of the RAF programme, the Army and Navy will follow on 4 April with their programmes. The Army and RAF will give individuals notice that they will be made redundant on 1 September, followed by the Navy on 30 September. The exact timing of further tranches has not yet been decided.
Afghanistan is the Government’s main defence effort. Decisions in the SDSR were therefore weighted towards the protection of capability for the mission in Afghanistan which, as the Prime Minister said, will see a transition to full Afghan lead in 2014.
Redundancy is never a painless process, whether in the Armed Forces or elsewhere, and it is sad to see committed and patriotic men and women lose their jobs. But in that process it is essential that they are made fully aware of the options available and the timescales involved. That means a timetable needs to be adhered to for the sake of themselves and their families.
It would simply be wrong to alter that timetable for the convenience of the Government. Personnel were expecting the announcement this week. To delay for political expediency would have been to betray their trust. Difficult though it may be, in this Government, political convenience will not be the final arbiter of our decisions”.
My Lords, I join the Minister in offering condolences to the families and friends of Private Dean Hutchinson and Private Robert Wood. It is right that the Minister draws attention to the wounded, some of whom will carry the price of their bravery for the rest of their lives.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Secretary of State’s response in another place as a Statement in this House and I thank him for giving me an early view of the Statement. This Statement, together with the Written Ministerial Statement yesterday, is about cuts in manpower and how they are to be achieved. It is extremely precise: it talks of 344 pilots who will continue training, another 170 who will not and so on. Sadly, we learn that even more precise details were supplied to the press yesterday at a conference at 2 pm—which was before this House received details, before we had details in the Written Ministerial Statement and before the details that came out today in the other place. Can the Minister tell me whether in fact such a detailed briefing did take place yesterday at the Ministry of Defence? I am sure that it did. I will not comment on whether that is a good thing—the House must comment on that. However, I am sure that Members of the House would wish that details had come here or to the other place first.
The Statement has to be taken together with yesterday’s Written Ministerial Statement. The essence of the two documents is that there is some detailed grand plan of what we are trying to achieve. It refers to Future Force 2020 and the SDSR as the basis for this. It speaks with such precision that you would think there was a precise description of where we are trying to get to with this grand plan. I can only assume that, within the Ministry of Defence, there is a clear view of what the force strength will be in 2015 and what the force strength will be in 2020. I can assure the Minister there are no figures in the SDSR to enlighten us and there are no figures I know of in the public domain. The Royal Air Force and the fast jets in particular are in the top of our minds and the Statement is principally about redundancies in the Royal Air Force. Can he give us some statement or indication of what front-line force these manpower adjustments are designed to yield in 2015 and what front-line force we are looking for in 2020? Can he also assure us that this Government, if elected, will provide funding from 2015 to 2020 to deliver the so far undefined Future Force 2020 promise?
I am sorry that these days one has to read the press to keep up to speed with the Government’s thinking on defence. In today’s Times, it is suggested that a further £1 billion of cuts will be needed between now and April. Is that true? Is it likely that he will be coming back to the House to tell us about more cuts, and will those cuts involve additional manpower losses or additional losses of capability?
I turn to what may be one of the most crucial elements of this Statement on redundancies: what I call the Afghanistan promise, which was made in the other place by Dr Fox on 8 November 2010. He said:
“It would not be possible for the Government to say that no one who had ever served in Afghanistan in any way, shape or form since 2001 would not be made redundant”.
At the end of the day, one accepts that there has to be a little more flexibility than something as extreme as that. But he went on to say:
“I reiterate what I have said: that because we need to maintain the Afghan rotation, no one currently serving in Afghanistan, or on notice to deploy, will face compulsory redundancy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/11/10; col. 13.]
Can the Minister confirm that anybody serving in Afghanistan on 8 November 2010 will not be made redundant under this? I believe that would be a perfectly reasonable interpretation of that promise. Unfortunately, yesterday’s Written Ministerial Statement was much softer. It said it would be those who had “recently” served in Afghanistan. Can the Minister confirm that “recently” means 8 November 2010 and if not, and he is actually resiling on the promise made on that date, can he define what “recently” now means?
What of those who are made redundant? The Written Ministerial Statement, at the bottom of page 2, starts to talk about what we will do for them. It starts off with good words about how we have a duty to these people and about how they have served us bravely, and now that they are made redundant they must face a future. It ends up by saying:
“A comprehensive package of support and advice on housing, finance and finding a job will be made available”.
That is starting to sound like something tangible. But it goes on to say:
“Over the coming months, Ministers will scrutinise those plans in detail, working closely with domestic departments, to ensure they are as good as can be achieved”—[Official Report, 1/3/11; col. WS 108.]
“as good as can be achieved”,
Surely, this is the moment to meet a promise that I thought I heard the Prime Minister make, to put the military covenant in law so that these assurances are tangible and can be delivered. The Minister has an opportunity, when he brings the forthcoming Bill to this House, to bring forward proposals to give a real, tangible base to the military covenant and I encourage him to do that. Will the Minister give us clarity on what sort of forces we are planning for, will he give us clarity on the Afghanistan promise and will he give us clarity on the military covenant? If he cannot, how does he expect to maintain the morale of our brave men and women?
My Lords, this is no new announcement. The department briefed the press at 2 o’clock yesterday but those being briefed were not allowed to leave the building until the WMS was laid. That is exactly what happened when the noble Lord’s party was in power; nothing has changed. We have gone out of our way to keep both Houses informed and will continue to do so. In the Oral Statement on the SDSR in October, the Prime Minister announced that the MoD would reduce the Armed Forces by 17,000 and that this would necessitate redundancies. That has been discussed in this House, including in an Urgent Question two weeks ago.
Yesterday, the Defence Secretary updated the other place, as I did here in a WMS, on the dates on which the various areas of the Armed Forces will look for redundancies. The RAF published its details yesterday; the Army and Navy will do so in April. Decisions on specific individuals will not be made until September. I must make it clear that we are not hiding anything and, as I have said before, I am always happy to organise briefings for any noble Lords in the MoD.
The noble Lord asked me about 2020. We have a clear view. As stated in the SDSR, the Future Force is structured to give us the ability to deploy highly capable assets quickly when needed but also to prepare a greater scale and range of capabilities if required. The aim is to do so affordably and in a way that minimises demands on our people, with five central concepts: readiness, reconstitution, reinforcement, regeneration and dependency. This flexible approach will allow us more effectively to counter the threats that we are most likely to face while maintaining the ability to respond to different threats in future.
The noble Lord asked me about further cuts. I can confirm to him that there is still a lot of work to be done on this; we are having a lot of discussions in the department, and I assure the noble Lord that the House will be the first to hear.
The noble Lord asked me about Afghan redundancies. Those engaged in combat operations for which they are in receipt of operational allowance, within six months of deploying on or recovering from those operations, on the day when the redundancy notices are issued will not be made redundant unless they are volunteers for it. I hope that that makes it clear.
The final question was what will happen when a serviceman or servicewoman is made redundant. All personnel will be entitled to receive support to transition to civilian life. Personnel leaving under the redundancy programme will qualify for the level of resettlement support for which they would have been eligible had they completed the commission or engagement on which they were serving when made redundant. We expect most if not all personnel to qualify for the full resettlement programme and the comprehensive services offered by the career transition partnership—the arrangement between the MoD and Right Management Limited. The package includes training courses, job-finding and individual counselling, CV and job interview preparation, analysis of transferable competences, conversion and skills enhancement training and information services. Under this package, job-finding support is available for up to two years after leaving the military.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I associate myself with the remark that the Minister has made concerning those who have given their lives or been injured in the defence of our country. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families.
The National Security Council was supposed to be at the heart of our defence strategic planning. On Monday the Government confirmed that they wanted to see a no-fly zone established over Libya, but on Tuesday they confirmed that 11,000 of our service personnel were to be made redundant. If this is the quality of our strategic planning, would it not be better to keep the troops and sack the National Security Council?
Absolutely not, my Lords. We are reshaping our Royal Air Force to be configured for Future Force 2020. It makes sense that we reduce the number of pilots only if we are reducing the number of planes. On the question of a no-fly zone in Libya, no decisions have yet been taken.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm what I have heard at the coalface among soldiers, sailors and airmen—that the redundancy terms for this round may be significantly meaner than those that were available in the early 1990s when we had another large redundancy programme? If that is the case, why?
My Lords, it is not necessarily meaner than last time. 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 possible. We have gone to great lengths to ensure that the process and the practical application of this is both fair and understandable, and we are putting great effort into ensuring that it is communicated appropriately to all members of the Armed Forces.
My Lords, we on these Benches associate ourselves with the Minister’s condolences. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Royal Army Chaplains Department, whose ministry is so appreciated by the bereaved and injured, and, indeed, to the chaplains of all our services.
I declare an interest as a former pupil of the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, which still serves the needs of children of people serving in the Armed Forces. Will the Minister assure us that the children’s places of those who have been made redundant will be safe at that school and that the educational arrangements that have been made for other children of those made redundant will be honoured by the Government?
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. I agree with everything that he says about the Royal Army Chaplains Department. I was in Afghanistan last week and had the great honour to talk to a couple of those chaplains. They are doing very great work. I cannot give the right reverend Prelate an answer here and now on the specific case of the children about whom he asked, but I will write to him and deposit a copy of the letter in the Library.
My Lords, every case of wounded, injured or sick personnel will be assessed individually. No one will leave the Armed Forces through redundancy or otherwise until they have reached a point in their recovery where that is the right decision, however long it takes.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Urgent Question. This is a very significant reduction for the Royal Air Force. Is this the end of the reductions, or are there more to come? It is very important for the service to know exactly where it is.
My Lords, the whole House holds the Minister in very high regard. We are all grateful for the attempts he makes to keep this House informed in what I am sure must be for him, as well as for many of us, very painful circumstances. However, these redundancies are not only very unfortunate but utterly short-sighted and irresponsible. The nation will rue the day when we lose those skills. In repeating the Statement, the Minister has increased the confusion about the nature of the guarantees that are being given by the Government to those who are serving in Afghanistan or who are on leave after operations there. How many more soldiers, sailors and airmen would have been covered by the guarantee had it been dated from 8 November than will be covered, given that the guarantee now runs only from the date of issue of the redundancy notices? If the Minister does not know the answer off the cuff—obviously, I forgive him if he does not—will he be kind enough to write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House?
I thank the noble Lord for that question. These are very painful cuts. When I became a Minister I did not look forward to making lots of cuts. It is a very difficult situation in which I find myself but we inherited this black hole and we have to act.
We did. The noble Lord asked how many people were affected. I cannot give him a figure at the Dispatch Box but I will write to him and deposit a copy of the letter in the Library.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, asked about the Royal Air Force. There will be cuts to two Tornado squadrons. This week’s announcement to remove two squadrons of Tornados implements a decision taken by the previous Government during planning round 10.
My noble friend asks about recruitment, and I have an answer somewhere. The Armed Forces depend upon high-quality young men and women who want to join them for a rewarding and exciting career. The level of recruitment will be reduced during the redundancy period to suit new structures, but recruiting will continue.
My Lords, these painful redundancies are an outcome of the strategic defence and security review, which, as the Minister said, was aimed at delivering Future Force 2020. Can he confirm that that Future Force, as planned, will be achievable only with specific real-term growth in the defence budget in the second half of this decade? What assumptions are his department making about the financial planning levels for those years?
My Lords, will my noble friend clear up an additional matter about redundancy? The Statement says:
“The Army and RAF will give individuals notice that they will be made redundant on 1 September followed by the Navy on 30 September. The exact timing of further tranches has not yet been decided”.
Does this mean that in the Army and Navy, after 1 September and 30 September respectively, there will remain people who do not know whether the threat of redundancy will materialise for them? If it does not mean that, will he kindly say what it does mean?
My Lords, will my noble friend be kind enough to revisit the answer he gave to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce? His question, as I understood it, was: will the redundancy payments that are being offered to these people be meaner than those offered to people made redundant previously? I do not think that my noble friend answered that.
My Lords, the impression abroad is that the delay in arriving at a good and proper military covenant is that the MoD and the Government wish to get this lot out of the way, as has been discussed in your Lordships’ House this afternoon. Is it not a fact that great stress was placed in our debates in the past few weeks on the immediate need to bring forward a new military covenant that would not only set the scene for redundancies and everything else that we have been talking about, but would assume complete responsibility from the day that someone joins the services until he dies? It was made clear in several speeches that it was the responsibility of the Government to look after those who are being made redundant or who leave the services for any other reason. I say that because more and more evidence is appearing of soldiers, sailors and airmen slipping through the system, over the net and through the net, and now begging on the streets of Manchester, Birmingham and London. When will the military covenant be brought forward, so that we will know what the total responsibilities of this Government to soldiers, sailors and airmen are?
My Lords, the noble Viscount said that we give the appearance of wanting to get this lot out of the way. That is not the case. As the noble Viscount knows, we value all members of the Armed Forces. I understand that several service men and women will come forward for voluntary redundancy. The noble Viscount mentioned people slipping through the net. If he knows of any such cases, I would be very grateful if he could bring them to my attention.
As far as the military covenant is concerned, we are writing into law, through the Armed Forces Bill, the commitment that the Secretary of State for Defence will lay before Parliament every year a report on what is being done to live up to the covenant. We are committed to rebuilding the covenant to improve support for service personnel. We are doing everything we can to provide them with the right support, focused on the most important areas, despite the financial situation we inherited. We will soon publish a new tri-service Armed Forces covenant—the first of its kind. This will set out the relationship and obligations between the Armed Forces community, the Government and the nation. The report will also set out how we are supporting our Armed Forces, their veterans and families in such key areas as healthcare, housing and education. This will ensure that all future Governments must stand up for the Armed Forces.
Could we return to the terms of redundancy? I am somewhat confused about the meaning of “meanness”, compared with the meaning of “fairness”. An earlier question was asked about meanness and the noble Lord described the terms as being fair. The question is: fair to whom? I simply ask whether the terms of redundancy are the same as before—the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, referred to them—or different.
I am sorry to go on about this issue but when it comes to fairness and meanness, surely there is one way of answering the question. Will they get less this time, given the change in the value of money, than they got last time? If they will, prima facie it is meaner.
With respect, that is not really satisfactory. Could the Minister, who is very thoughtful on these matters, give the matter some thought and maybe put it in writing in a letter to the House? That would enable us to make a comparison. The point that has been brought up by the noble and gallant Lord is a very fair and important one. To have the rumour running around that this is meaner but fairer, or something of that nature, just plays into a demoralisation argument. Please do not go there.
My Lords, the noble Lord and the noble and gallant Lord raise a very important point. I am happy to put this in writing to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. I will certainly deposit copies of those letters in the Library to clarify this issue.