Question for Short Debate
My Lords, in the interests of noble Lords, who may not be able to hear me because of my croaky throat, I shall keep my remarks reasonably short. I am sure the Deputy Chairman will appreciate that that might allow a little more time for some of my colleagues. I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Howe is to reply to this Question for Short Debate. The Minister has been in place for only a short period of time, but I think that there is general agreement on both sides of the House that he has grasped his portfolio with alacrity, calmness and a great deal of courtesy. We look forward to his reply.
There has been some very poor press over at least the past six months, and the House has been paying close attention to recruitment levels in the Armed Forces. Recruitment into the Reserve Forces has received a bad press and has caused alarm among a number of noble Lords on all sides who hold the strength of the Reserve Forces dearly. I hope very much indeed that, to the extent that there is going to be some better news, the noble Earl will be kind enough to brief colleagues around the table, not only for the record but to instil a greater degree of confidence in the press.
In 1986, I became a junior Minister, serving my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, who was the Minister of State and who is in his place today. I had responsibility for the Reserve Forces at that time. A little later when I had left Parliament, Lord Younger, who was a very distinguished Secretary of State for Defence—I had the pleasure of serving twice in the ministry, partly under his stewardship—who had also left, rang me up to ask me to come to see him. He was then in the private sector, so I went to very palatial premises. He did not enter into a discussion; rather, he issued a very polite instruction, which was that he wanted me to take over from him as president, in 1999, of the Council of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations. I served in that post for 12 years, and I pay tribute to my successor, my noble friend Lord De Mauley, who has taken up that responsibility with great energy and enthusiasm. When I first became the president, the Army contingent of our Reserve Forces numbered more than 50,000. I think that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne is nodding his head in agreement with my recollection.
That shows that my noble friend had better mathematical training than me, but that figure probably includes all the Reserve Forces. It was certainly a very much larger number than we have today. What we need in this different era, one in which we face different threats because they no longer come from the continent but from around the world, is satisfactory size Reserve Forces—and in that I include the Maritime Reserve and the Royal Air Force Reserve. However, I shall concentrate my brief remarks principally on the Army. I believe that the strength of the Reserve Forces depends on a number of key factors, of which I will cover only three. However, there are many more to which your Lordships may wish to refer in due course.
The first factor is recruitment. Recruitment responds to the prospect of deployment. It is a natural desire of those joining any of the three reserves to serve the country, and the opportunity to do it in practice and reality is extremely important. That prospect is vital. I understand that there has been some progress—I look forward to hearing from the Minister about this later—towards meeting the target of 30,100 trained Army reservists by 2020.
In my judgment, there are three specific categories of recruitment needs. First, we have to attract young officers, coming principally from universities or colleges of further education, because they are there to lead their men. Records—certainly over the past 10 years, to my knowledge—have shown great difficulty in recruitment, particularly when the economy is growing. It is very important that we concentrate on that, working in tandem with those in higher education institutions who share that view. Secondly, recruitment figures from the medical profession are not brilliant at the moment. In my limited experience, the medical profession responds to a call for reserves if it understands the need and the threat. Nothing could be more dramatic than the service of reservists and regulars in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak. That is one example, but there are many others around the world where those coming from a medical background to join the reserves have a real contribution to make. Thirdly, on ethnic minorities, we still have a lot more to do in persuading all the sections of our ethnic minorities in this country that it is a noble and worthwhile demonstration of citizenship to join the reserves.
The second factor is the prospect of deployment abroad. I think that as young men and women we all enjoyed the prospect, at university or in higher education, of being able to travel abroad. That is particularly relevant for reserves. So I appreciate that we have had deployment in Kabul in Afghanistan, Cyprus, Ukraine and the Falklands over the past 10 years—I may have my figures slightly in error—but the thrust of that deployment seems to have been working. I hope that that opportunity will continue to encourage recruitment. When deployed, it is very important that the reservist has the same kit, weapons and accoutrements as regular soldiers, and there has to be proper training beforehand with the regulars so that they feel part of one combined armed force.
The third factor is the recognition that the population at large sometime does not give to those who have served in the reserves. According to the records that I have looked at, we have had 70 decorations for conflict abroad over the past 10 years, I believe. That recognition is extremely important. Thirty-one reservists made the ultimate sacrifice and died in Iraq or Afghanistan. How many people, even in this great Parliament, would be able to recognise that even that small, but real, number had made that sacrifice?
I have taken heart, and I encourage others to read the excellent report from General Brims, who was chairman of the review. I shall paraphrase one quote for reasons of brevity: General Brims’s excellent report came to the conclusion that solid progress was being made. His comment about the cultural disconnect between regular and reserve components is important, and we have to do something about that. That is the next challenge which we have to face. I look forward to the other contributions to be made by noble Lords, particularly the Minister.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Freeman for introducing this Question for Short Debate. I have a couple of interests to declare. First, General Brims was my divisional commander in Iraq in 2003, so of course I have to say nice things about him, but there are plenty of nice things to say. Secondly, I am still commissioned in the TA, but this is my last year of service and I am no longer training.
I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, to his position as opposition spokesman. He has of course been a Defence Minister in the past, so I suspect that he will be able to give my noble friend Lord Howe a run for his money.
I still think that the plan for volunteer reserves is deeply flawed—in particular, in trying to suggest that volunteer reservists will be identical to their regular counterparts. They cannot be. They may be interchangeable and they can certainly be interoperable, but they are never going to be the same. There is simply not enough time for training to get to that level of proficiency. The problem is not with the actual role but with their wider experience. For instance, before I was commissioned I was a recovery mechanic and I operated a heavy recovery vehicle. In fact, because of my civilian experience and knowledge and everything else, I knew far more about that recovery vehicle than my regular counterparts. I had deep engineering experience and understanding of the vehicle. However, if I was asked to reliably identify a Soviet armoured fighting vehicle, I would not be able to do so. A regular would be able to, because on a wet Thursday afternoon he would not be able to go home until he could identify to his staff sergeant every single Soviet armoured fighting vehicle. Those in the TA do not have the time to do that.
My noble friend Lord Freeman talked about the problem of officers. It is a big problem, especially given that the average age of an Army Reserve officer is about 44. That is far too old. Given contemporary employment patterns, I am not sure how the Minister will be able to increase recruitment of the direct entry junior officers. Late entry officers are very good but, as soldiers put it, you need a proper Rupert.
We need to be careful about the term “trained strength” when we look at the recruiting and strength figures, because they can be misleading. “Trained” presumably means that the serviceman—the volunteer reservist—has passed their basic training and their basic trade course. In the case of a simple trade such as a driver or the logistics corps, that is not much of a problem. A REME vehicle mechanic in my own corps has an “A” trade, which requires much more training, but there is only the same amount of training time available—a few weekends and a two-week trade course. It is not possible to make a proper vehicle mechanic in two weeks. A lot of work has been done in the REME to address this problem, and there is a need to be careful, as far as possible, to recruit civilians with appropriate experience. Being trained or not trained is not a binary condition.
We have better news on recruiting. There is time to meet the targets, but the problem will be retention. When I had what I must say was a very small command, I concentrated relentlessly on retention and I did not worry about recruiting. In fact, I hated it when I was told to run an open day because my soldiers did not want to take part in an open day; they wanted to go and do something. I always concentrated on retention and at some points in my TA career I got in trouble because I was over establishment. I had more people than I was supposed to have. I was told to reduce the numbers and I said, “Which ones am I supposed to get rid of, because they all turn up?”.
We will have to concentrate on retention so that we do not lose the recruits we have. During the Cold War days in BAOR, every so often there were massive exercises. In the run-up to those exercises no one would leave the TA because we knew we had a fabulously interesting exercise to go on, but those days are gone. There are other ways in which we can damage retention, including by not funding accommodation improvements. I have some helpful questions for the Minister that I know he will try to answer.
My final plea is about the scale of Exercise Saif Sareea. We need to have brigade deployment, not a battle group, and we need to make sure that there are a lot of opportunities for the TA in that exercise.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for tabling this Question for Short Debate. I do not come to this as a former Defence Minister or as somebody who has served in the reserves; I am very much a novice. I am now on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. So far, I have only six days’ experience, so I am not pretending to speak as somebody who has been involved, but over the years I have been involved in Liberal Democrat policy-making on defence. Somewhat like the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, we had concerns about the reserves policy that was adopted after the last strategic defence and security review, and in particular we had questions about recruitment.
It appears from debates we have had in the Chamber in the past few months that recruitment seems to have improved, but I want to look at three related issues on the medical side of things. I will draw, to some extent, on the RAF, so we will move away from the Army briefly. The three things I want to touch on are recruitment medicals, the Defence Medical Services, and mental health and other provision for reserves.
In particular, recruitment medicals were touched on in the excellent report by the Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations. That came up on a visit where I met a dozen recent reserve recruits who said, “If you want to understand what we’re doing, you should be a reserve”. They shared real frustration. Ten of the 12 of them said it had taken an inordinately long time to get their medical appointment. There seems to be a bit of a disconnect. If RAF bases have medical centres, which they do, and those centres are able to do recruitment medicals for regulars, why can they not do them for reservists as well? At the moment, medicals are out to contract with Capita. It seems to take an inordinately long time to get appointments and there is a danger of appointments being shifted. That sort of frustration causes a real problem right at the start. There are people who are enthusiastic about becoming reservists but they are told, “You can’t have that date”, and they are messed around, but those people have other jobs and do not necessarily have the time to be messed around because Capita cannot schedule their appointments. Could there not be some rationalisation of the medical aspect of recruitment?
The second issue was highlighted to me by the BMA in an email yesterday and is also in the report. It is about the Defence Medical Services. At the moment, there is undermanning of the regulars, which means additional demand on the reserves. While the reserves are clearly able to step up to the mark, and there is no question that they are absolutely able to do the job, one of the issues about more regular deployments is what employers feel about it. The slightly worrying thing is that the BMA seems to be suggesting a growing concern among NHS trusts about doctors being deployed. If our own ministries are not able to facilitate the deployment of reservists, that raises some serious questions. Does the Minister know whether this is more a systematic problem or whether it is only in the medical area that reservists are having problems being released for deployment?
The final issue is medical provision for reservists—in particular, in respect of mental health issues. Again, if you are a regular, you have access to the Defence Medical Services. If you are a reservist on a base, or during training and deployment, you have access to those services; but when you are back in your community, there may be issues that are not spotted because you are not working with your peers on a day-to-day basis. NHS doctors, despite the Armed Forces covenant, may not be looking for the sort of health issues that military doctors would be looking for. Is the Minister able to pass this back to the NHS and look at ways of improving those synergies so that our reservists have the same strength of medical provision as the regulars?
My Lords, I share our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for this Question for Short Debate. The Whole Force Concept is journeying from theory to reality. It is a tricky journey, it seems to me, not because the Government set the wrong course five years ago but because of the scale and complexity of the task. It is true that many essential defence skills, and especially many essential national security skills, reside in the private sector as well as in the Armed Forces. To bring these together coherently and effectively requires both strategic direction and effective management.
I will turn first to the scale of the challenge and then briefly to the complexity. The recruiting of reservists in substantial numbers, with a target of 35,000 across the three services, is frequently discussed. Less often, as far as I can see—here I echo one of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee—is the issue of retention addressed. However, it is surely the key not just to meeting the target for the numbers of reservists, but for delivering trained and skilled men and women to serve in defence and security. Can the Minister pay more attention to employer engagement to help with retention?
Despite our hope, which I know is very widely shared, that employers consider it good and beneficial as well as right and a source of pride to have reservists in the workforce, I would suggest that the reality is not always so encouraging. It has not been unknown in the past for reservists to hide their military service, using annual leave for training for instance, until circumstances demanded disclosure when deployment occurred. Even today employers need help, with better consideration of the challenges of timing and back-filling that arise when a reservist moves into active service. Particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises, but also with the household names at the middle management level, challenges are faced and pressures must be met. The risk of failing to pay attention to this engagement is that the reservist finds that he or she may be less inclined to remain available. They know their mobilisation is causing problems and that the military do not always appear to understand business needs and pressures, but that flexibility and consistency is essential. Late requests for training leave in the build-up to deployment, for instance, can aggravate the situation. Retaining recruited reservists demands more attention to employer engagement, especially as more frequent mobilisation exacerbates the complexities for the individual, the family and the employer. Can the Minister indicate what additional measures Her Majesty’s Government will take to improve retention?
The Armed Forces covenant has a central role to play in emphasising commitment across the community to all parts of the services, including reservists. Next month a covenant training day at Lambeth Palace will consider a variety of issues, including reservists, and I am delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will be speaking at it.
I will add a brief second point about the journey that we are taking. There are dangers in slipping into free-wheeling, as others have called it. Good intentions and motivation are not enough. Strategy and management must be robust. Two commentators have written that it is as if a new and exciting belief system has emerged without the enabling architecture of churches, priests and congregations. Your Lordships will appreciate that the analogy and argument attracted my attention. The point is clear, I hope, that the sheer complexity of blending Regular forces, reservists and civilian contractors will not just happen. The stated aims of reservists providing extra capacity at somewhat lower readiness, skills not otherwise available to the military, and rebuilding the connection with wider society are laudable, but the task of building this capacity is great and the risk of failing is a capacity gap that our defence and security must not bear.
My Lords, I was inspired to add my name to speak in this debate after having the privilege of attending a dinner on Monday evening at the Honourable Artillery Company in the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent. Those attending included a small number of senior representatives of the corporate world, together with representatives of the Honourable Artillery Company and a head teacher at the local academy in that area.
These dinners are held twice a year and are known as “employers’ dinners”. The purpose is to focus on the enormous value of reservists in the Armed Forces. Although it was very much Chatham House rules, I have to say that I was totally inspired by our principal host and by General Sir Richard Barrons, Colonel Commandant and President of the HAC. The latter spoke with amazing force and commitment about the need for and worth of the reserves. If every young person and their employer could hear General Barrons speak, I think we would meet the numbers overnight. However, I took away an important question from the event, one which I have thought about for some time. What proportion of the reserves come from a military background and how many people who are not from a military background are attracted by the current rather formulaic advertising campaigns?
In common with fellow guests at the HAC, I do not come from a military background. Mine is the legal profession and the corporate world. So, from my perspective, even the language of the Armed Forces, including all those acronyms, is quite different from my own. This was a common theme among the guest: if you do not come from that kind of background, how do you relate to what being a reserve has to offer? Which part of the Armed Forces would suit which type of applicant? Indeed, with great respect, the word “reserve” is not exactly enticing. In other words, the branding and the clarity with which the opportunities out there are articulated to potential candidates are crucial. Is enough being done to address this?
The 77th Brigade, based in Newbury, which I learned about on Monday evening, is a great example which I am convinced would—and, I hope, does—attract some excellent candidates. As many of your Lordships will know, it was originally set up as the Security Assistance Group, formed following the Army 2020 plan. The name was changed to reflect the independence of mind of the Chindits—I am extremely pleased to see my noble friend Lord Slim in his place. Branding anything as related to the Chindits should in itself be enough to attract the best young volunteers. The importance of how we explain to young people what is possible—what they can achieve as a result of this, what contribution they can make in terms of learning leadership skills, the ability to cope in difficult conditions and so on, and what that can then lend and contribute to their world of work—is immeasurable.
The 77th Brigade attracts a mix of regulars and reserves who are specialists in their fields, influencing attitudes and behaviours in other countries. There is expertise for security capacity building and for training foreign security forces. There will be many young people in the private sector and the professions with the requisite skills—including, for example, social media, marketing and public relations—who, with the right approach, would be attracted to making a contribution in this way. In addition, the Joint Cyber Unit—again with the right approach—would attract many with technology skills who would be excited by the challenges and the contribution they could make to this joint cyber reserve.
There is a further and final sticking point. The best spooks out there, who I suggest, if they knew about it, might be willing to give of their time to contribute to our national security, will probably not want to run up and down hills on Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons or want to do drill. I hope that this is no longer a prerequisite. Can my noble friend confirm that a spook can remain relatively physically unfit while mentally keen?
My Lords, I am delighted that the Chancellor, George Osborne, has committed to the 2% target that Britain was instrumental in implementing at NATO. Our doing so was a crucial step in maintaining our capability to respond to unknown and unforeseeable circumstances, and yet the current plans the Ministry of Defence maintain for the reserves severely reduce our capabilities to respond to threats. I believe it is being used as a cost-cutting measure rather than as a means to improve our Army. It is means before ends, once again, just as it was in SDSR 2010.
The need to update our Reserve Forces is crucial. When the independent commission first investigated the Armed Forces, it noted that in 2005 the Army Reserve—then called the Territorial Army—was no longer required to support large-scale operations. Despite this, the reserve was not modified to reflect this, leaving 80 major units configured for operations. It is difficult to compare our military to America’s, given the wholly different size and nature of the Army Reserve, but in the United States, reserves make up 32% of the current army. In Australia it is 30%, and yet here in the UK it is only 16%. The Future Reserves 2020 consultation paper makes clear that the Canadian reserve force is far more prepared for active combat than our current force, drawing attention to the nature of graduate recruiting into the Army as preferable to that within our own Reserve Forces. The paper points out the effectiveness of Australian reservists in providing military aid to the civil authority for events such as the Olympics—as was required over here—in a manner instructive to the UK Army.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for initiating this important debate. I think the whole House would agree that reforms to modernise and upgrade our reserves are paramount. Yet I am concerned that the strengthening of the Army Reserve is primarily a cost-cutting measure rather than a military one. The integration programme has been poorly executed, to the extent that 65% of Regular Army members surveyed believe that reserves are currently not well integrated. Does the Minister recognise this? Given that the aim of the Army 2020 programme is to create a fully integrated force, this is worrying. These statistics demonstrate that the overall priority of the Government has not been to maintain the quality necessary within our Armed Forces. This is a real worry, because reserves seem to be making up for cuts in the Regular Army. For me, reserves taking the place of the Regular Army is an oxymoron. Surely the increase in reserve strength and capability should be something designed to complement the Regular Army, not replace it. Would the Minister agree?
Even with the course the Government have chosen to go down, it is essential that at no point are we left with an incapable force. Unfortunately, the current nature of the replacement programme leaves us threatened with just that. It is especially dangerous and leaves us vulnerable as a nation while the necessary transition to a more integrated force is being completed. As the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, said, the timeline of the recruitment and training of the reserves should be a cause of concern to us all. It was initially the case that the number of Regular Army members would not fall until the number of reserves had risen to compensate for the demand. Yet the projects set out in the Army 2020 plans are being used to cover for increasing weaknesses in the body of our Regular Army. The National Audit Office showed that recruitment of reserves is 67% down on required figures, and the figure for regular personnel is below target at 34%. Would the Minister confirm those figures? The figures confirm the fears that I and others have that the redevelopment of the reserves is primarily for budgetary reasons rather than military ones. Projections in this report have shown that we will only reach the 30,000 figure for reservists in 2025. In the years before achieving that objective and completing the transition to a fully integrated Army, we will be significantly less able to respond to threats. Would the Minister accept that? Such a reduced Army will mean that we are unable to exert ourselves significantly in the world or to cope with the so-called black swan events that are impossible to predict, and without the capability to respond swiftly in future years.
The United States Defense Secretary said, just recently, that Britain has always punched above its weight when it comes to our Armed Forces. Today is the 75th anniversary of the Royal Engineers’ bomb disposal unit. Today I heard Warrant Officer Karl Ley, who was awarded the George Medal for clearing more roadside bombs than anyone else in history—139, including 42 in a single village. He said that the British Army is the best-trained in the world, and he said it with pride. He said that because we are the best-trained in the world, “We train hard, we fight easy”. The British Army has to retain that culture and reputation of excellence as the best of the best in the world—something that is a matter of pride for all of us. The reform of our reserves to form a more integrated force is necessary to achieve that goal, but it should be pursued as a method to strengthen our Army capabilities, not as a method to save money and thereby weaken our capabilities.
My Lords, I declare interests as colonel commandant of the yeomanry and colonel of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry, a regiment that I commanded early in the millennium, which might make me what my noble friend Lord Attlee calls a “proper Rupert”. I am also president of the Council of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations, in which latter capacity I succeeded my noble friend Lord Freeman, to whom I am extremely grateful for bringing this debate.
In those capacities and in my efforts to research for myself our progress towards our targets for 2020, I have recently visited the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry in Scotland, 7 Rifles in London and 622 Squadron RAF at Brize Norton, as well as my own regiment in the Royal Yeomanry at annual training in Sennelager, and a magnificent event to mark the unveiling of a memorial to Trooper Potts VC, hosted by 94 (Berkshire Yeomanry) Signal Squadron.
Listening to this debate, one could be forgiven for going away with the understanding that things are not going quite as they should be for the reserves. The reality is that they are generally going considerably better than they have been for very many years. I should pay tribute to the unprecedented support given to the Reserve Forces by the Government, emanating from my right honourable friend the Prime Minister himself. I would also single out for thanks the Minister for Reserve Forces, my honourable friend Julian Brazier, who is doing an outstanding job.
The Defence Reform Act 2014 gave the Reserve Forces and cadets’ associations a statutory responsibility for reporting annually on the state of the reserves. In that regard I draw noble Lords’ attention to this year’s external scrutiny team’s annual report, all of which is worth reading. I know the Government have taken care to note it.
Time is rationed, so I must focus my remarks on recruiting, although I would have liked to speak about several other matters, such as capability, integration and the reserves estate. I will not have time either to talk specifically about officer recruiting, to which my noble friends Lord Freeman and Lord Attlee referred, except to say that they are right and that this is a particular area of concern.
On the issue of numbers generally, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will confirm that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are making good progress and will achieve their targets, give or take a little, by 2018. The Army has the biggest challenge but is making progress, and I expect it to take a little longer, but I emphasise that, from the reports I hear, this is often because units have found workarounds rather than relying on the system in place.
Focusing on the Army, bearing in mind the aim of 30,000 people trained, in round numbers there were 21,000 in April this year—the Minister may be able to give us more up-to-date figures—with 4,400 more under training. However, this looks better when one appreciates that the trained strength is up by 1,000 since the year before and, more significantly, the figure for those under training is up by a further 1,000 since the year before. Aspects of the recruiting process remain cumbersome—too many applicants have been dropping out while in the pipeline because it has taken too long—but now the services have got a grip and are enlisting candidates conditionally while still awaiting their final medical clearance, which is eminently sensible and partly answers the very real problem identified by, I believe, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.
The Army is suffering on both regular and reserve recruiting, so a red light is flashing about how well the Capita recruiting group contract is working. There is a systemic problem with the way in which the process is set up, but there is a reluctance to acknowledge it and it would bear ministerial investigation. As ever, there is no substitute for units taking direct responsibility for individual recruits, making them feel part of the team immediately and managing each of them through the pipeline. That is now happening and things are improving.
Three of the recommendations in the external scrutiny team’s report are crucial for recruiting, and they bear repeating. Recommendation 15.3, to which I have just referred, proposes a review of,
“the separate roles played by the national call centres, the Armed Forces Careers Offices, the recruiting field forces and Reserve units to ensure that they are clearly optimised for Reserve recruiting”.
Recommendation 15.4 states that there should be a review of,
“the medical entry standards required of recruits”,
and that the MoD and the services should,
“ensure that the screening contracts are appropriately incentivised and assured to achieve success”.
Recommendation 15.5 states that we need to,
“determine the recruiting resources necessary to ensure steady state manning of the Reserve beyond the FR20 period”.
On a couple of specific matters, perhaps I could ask the Minister how the Civil Service 1% challenge is progressing. When I was at Defra, we made significant efforts to draw to the attention of civil servants the benefits of reserve service. It would be good to know how that is going because it seems a bit awkward for the Government to ask private sector employers to encourage their people to become reservists if the Government do not do the same, and more.
Finally, on the grounds that we need to recruit everyone bright and fit enough that we can, I ask my noble friend whether foreign and Commonwealth nationals can be recruited into the reserves, and what progress there has been on recruiting ethnic minorities, who historically have been underrepresented, so that major efforts have been made to attract them.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for his kind welcome. As to my relationship with the Minister, I am sure that we each give as good as we get, but I rather suspect that much more unites us than divides us in how we should defend our country.
When I served as a Defence Minister my mission statement, put simply, was, “We will value our service men and women and do everything in our power to care for them”. Our most valuable resource is not the latest piece of kit but our people, and nowhere is that more important than in the Armed Forces. The first duty of any Government is to care for the welfare and well-being of their citizens, and I believe that that must include the defence of our nation.
The noble Lord, Lord Freeman, in opening this debate, has articulated well the important role that our reserves play in the defence of Britain. For more than a decade now we have seen the regulars and the reserves working more closely together, although there is clearly much more to do. Indeed in the Army, as a result of Army 2020, there is even greater demand on our reserves than ever before. This brings me to a particular worry: the mental health of our reservists.
The annual report of the Reserve Forces external scrutiny team, helpfully provided to us by the library, gives cause for concern. It points out that the protracted exposure of reservists to intense operations makes the matter of their mental health very important indeed. The team have a statutory duty to report on this matter, but they struggle to do so because of the paucity of data available and they doubt that UK Defence Statistics is in a position to provide them with anything better. What are the Government doing about this? Without adequate data, the external scrutiny team cannot be expected to carry out their duties properly. I appreciate that it is a big ask because the team themselves say that the department’s ability to track individual cases is very limited. I would suggest that one reason for this is that reservists’ first point of contact on health matters is the National Health Service. One problem there is the lack of signposting.
In late spring 2006 I was still a Defence Minister, and I was due to speak at the annual conference of the BMA. The telephone rang and it was Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said he was giving me the DCM—“Don’t Come Monday”—and I was no longer a Minister. Had I gone to the conference, my remarks would have been about signposting, urging GPs, whenever a patient presented with a mental health issue, to ask: “Are you ex-service?”. If the answer was yes, in addition to treatment the GP should point them in the direction of the Veterans Agency, as it then was, or organisations like Combat Stress. Is that being done now? If not, will the Government take it up with the BMA? I understand that GPs are encouraged to refer those patients with service connections back to the military healthcare system. Is that happening? Of course, such signposting should apply to our reservists, too. The scrutiny report recommends that the Armed Forces covenant team look at this. Can the Minister give us an undertaking that this will be done?
Many reservists who may be suffering with mental health problems may be inclined towards denial in case it affects their full-time employment. In terms of the ongoing duty of care, if a reservist has a mental health problem, what is the MoD doing to help with their domestic and employment concerns? Does the Minister’s department collect data from the Armed Forces charities that work in this field?
I spent a day with a Combat Stress counsellor, after I had ceased to be a Minister, visiting veterans and their families, discussing health, financial matters and domestic worries. What I experienced that day has been with me ever since. I visited homes and saw photographs of strong, healthy, young men proudly in uniform. In one particular case, sitting alongside one such photo, I saw a shrunken wreck of a man who will never be the same again. I met his wife and children, struggling to cope, living with someone they now hardly knew. I witnessed the care, attention, sympathetic understanding and practical advice that Combat Stress offered the family that day. After a couple of hours we left that home where the atmosphere and hopefulness was in marked contrast to the despair I had witnessed when I arrived. I have nothing but admiration for the Armed Forces charities that go that extra mile to fill the gap that we as a country are not filling.
Finally, the external scrutiny team offered to work with the MoD to determine how reservists’ mental health reporting can be made more effective. Can the Minister say something about this in his reply? Can he give us an assurance today that his department will act upon this request? Perhaps he can come back to us at a later stage with an update, perhaps as a Written Statement. We, and more importantly our reservists, should not have to see the external scrutiny team come back next year, unable to make progress because of a lack of information to protect and help in their welfare.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Freeman for the opportunity that this short debate has provided for me to speak about the strength of our Reserve Forces. We are addressing this matter head on by means of the Future Reserves programme. In the 2013 reserves White Paper we described the changes that we planned to make to the Reserve Forces as substantial, as requiring a shift in the way that we thought of the Reserve Forces—both in the country and in the Armed Forces themselves—and as requiring changes to the way that we support them. We also said that the plans were eminently achievable. The expansion of the Reserve Forces under the Future Reserves programme is critical to our ability to deliver defence on a sustainable financial basis. It will enable us to ensure that the Armed Forces are structured and resourced to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The Government are now restructuring and revitalising our Reserve Forces, investing in new equipment and training, and reversing a long period of decline and underinvestment.
The programme is about doing defence differently. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in particular, with considerable emphasis that it is not about swapping regular personnel for reserves, and it is certainly not about providing defence on the cheap. It is about changing the way that we deliver defence to make the best use of our resources, to better harness the talents of wider UK society and to help restore the links and understanding between the Armed Forces and the communities that they serve. We should be in no doubt that whatever the size of the Armed Forces, we must always have reserves.
My noble friend Lord Freeman asked about recruitment, which has been a running theme in this debate. I am pleased to be able to report that our programme to grow the reserves is on track, with a huge amount achieved already, although we are not complacent and recognise that significant challenges remain. In the year to 1 September, more than 8,300 people joined the volunteer reserves—an increase of nearly 70% on the previous 12-month period—taking their total strength close to 33,000. Most notably, more than 6,400 people joined the Army Reserve, an increase of 81% on the equivalent period in the previous 12 months. All three services have already exceeded their end-of-year trained strength targets. However, that does not mean that we can relax. We must and will work to maintain this progress to meet our commitment to creating a force of around 35,000 trained volunteer reserves by April 2019.
I can also say with confidence that the offer we are now making to reservists and potential recruits is the best it has ever been. In the two years since the White Paper was published, we have made substantial improvements to the support that we provide to them. For example, we have invested in new equipment and better training, including more opportunities to train alongside regulars and on exercises overseas; we have given reservists access to the same pension scheme as regulars; and we have given them a paid annual leave entitlement, as well as other significant benefits that I shall not list.
We are also offering reservists a greater range of interesting and challenging opportunities than before. New call-out powers enshrined in the Defence Reform Act have allowed us to use reservists in the same way as regulars, and reservists have taken up the challenge. In the past 12 months, they have supported defence engagement activity overseas, including providing vital training to indigenous forces in Afghanistan and Ukraine; they have been deployed as formed elements to our bases in the Falkland Islands and Cyprus; they have provided specialist help to deal with the Ebola outbreak in west Africa; and they have taken part in counterterrorist and counterpiracy operations alongside their regular counterparts. All told, around 600 reservists have been called out for service since the Defence Reform Act took effect.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth asked about the issues arising from working alongside regulars and contractors. Our recent experience in operations such as in Afghanistan and Iraq has shown that reservists and regulars can and do work together seamlessly, and they both work very closely with contractors, as well as with allied forces and other government departments and agencies. Almost two-thirds of regulars who have served alongside reserves rate them as professional. That comes from the recent Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey.
However, we are not just making wider use of reservists on operational service; we are offering them more and better training opportunities as well. In the current training year, the services have planned more than 50 overseas training exercises involving reserves, including a series of Army exercises in Kenya involving integrated companies of regulars and reserves. We are also giving reservists more recognition for their contribution to defence. In June, the first ever Reserves Day was held as part of the build-up to Armed Forces Day. This provided an opportunity for the whole of the UK to celebrate our Reserve Forces and for reservists to show pride in their service. Reserves Day will be an annual event from now on.
My noble friend Lord Attlee and the right reverend Prelate emphasised the importance of retention. The changes that I have described are all part of improving the experience of being in the reserves, which is vital in enabling us to motivate and retain people with the right skills. They are having a positive effect. Around a year ago, it became evident that we had turned a corner and that more people were choosing to stay in the reserves than were choosing to leave.
My noble friends Lord Freeman and Lord De Mauley asked about the recruitment of ethnic minorities. Despite some very good work in recent years across defence, there is a clear need to do more to increase the recruitment and retention of women, black, minority ethnic and other minority communities. This is a defence priority. To help achieve that aim, we have established a defence diversity inclusion programme within the MoD that covers civilian and military employees.
My noble friend Lord Freeman and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about recruitment to the medical reserve. The majority of medical reservists undertake their primary careers within the NHS, as we know. The Defence Medical Services and the NHS have developed a close working partnership to promote the benefits of reserve service which is supported through engagement events, myth-busting information and a dedicated reserve section on the NHS employers’ website. This collaborative approach is undoubtedly a factor in the increased success in recruiting into the three single-service medical reserves, but we are not complacent on that score either.
My noble friend Lord Attlee asked about problems recruiting direct-entry officers. The services are aware of that issue and have begun to put programmes in place to attract officers and to shorten their training pipelines. My noble friend Lady Buscombe asked about 77 Brigade recruiting and fitness standards. Fitness standards for some elements of 77 Brigade are different from those of most other formations.
I should also mention, to the right reverend Prelate in particular, our continuing work with employers. In the White Paper we said that we want to build relationships with employers that are tailored to reflect their individual circumstances, open and predictable and based on mutual benefit. We understand the commitment that employers of reservists are asked to make, and we are immensely grateful for that commitment. We consulted extensively with employers of reservists before the White Paper, and we have responded positively to the observations they made. For example, we have established the Defence Relationship Management organisation, which provides account management services for the most significant employers and employer organisations at the national level and information and support for reservists and employers through its website and helpline. We have increased the financial assistance available for employers and introduced new incentive payments of up to £500 per calendar month per reservist for small and medium-sized employers when their reservist employees are mobilised. There are other things as well that I could mention but I do not have time to do so.
We launched our employer recognition scheme in 2014, and gold and silver awards emanate from that. The 700th corporate covenant was signed in September and more have been added since. Central government is playing its part too, with a challenge set by the Cabinet Secretary for 1% of members of the Home Civil Service to become reservists, a point mentioned by my noble friend Lord De Mauley. As at July this year, there were more than 1,250 Civil Service reservists, which reflects a 7% growth in the preceding nine months. That challenge remains a high priority within government.
I hope I have illustrated the significant number of strategic measures that we have put in place to help us to grow the reserves and develop their capability. We have also taken some important practical steps. We have overcome a number of technical challenges that were affecting Army reserve recruitment. I say to my noble friend Lady Buscombe that by making more imaginative use of various advertising media and methods, so that more people can see our messages about what the reserves can offer, there has been an increase in advertising recall and resonance among those who have seen or heard the advertisement.
I am conscious that my time will shortly be up but I cannot fail to address very briefly the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, about the mental health of reservists. Incidentally, I warmly welcome him to his new position. More than £14 million is being invested to deliver a significant change in occupational health services for reservists. There are programmes in place to make sure that mental health briefings and preparations for reservists are aligned with those of regular personnel. The veterans and reserves mental health programme is open to current and former members of the reserve services. There are conditions attached, but treatment will be offered by the Defence Medical Services to individuals whose mental health is assessed to have suffered primarily as a result of their operational service as a reservist. This care can be accessed for life as long as it is clinically indicated.
My time is up. I regret not having addressed all the points raised, but I hope this has been a helpful résumé of where we are with this important agenda.