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Royal Marines

Volume 782: debated on Tuesday 4 April 2017

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to change the size and role of the Royal Marines.

My Lords, the naval service, which includes the Royal Marines, is growing, with 400 more personnel, more ships, new aircraft and submarines. It is only right that the naval service decide the balance of roles within it to ensure that skills are matched to front-line priorities. That is a military judgment which is kept under continuous review and thus is a matter for the First Sea Lord and the other military chiefs to advise on.

My Lords, the House understands that tough decisions are taken in times of austerity, but on the “Today” programme last week the Secretary of State said that if something is no longer needed, it is redundant. This could signal a deliberate move towards a capital-intensive engagement, away from elite personnel—the Royal Marines is a world-renowned flexible amphibious force—all at a time when hybrid warfare is increasingly likely. In this context, can the Minister say whether the Royal Marines are viewed as redundant?

My Lords, the Royal Marines are certainly not redundant. As the noble Baroness knows, they have a worldwide reputation as one of the world’s elite fighting forces. But at the same time it is important that we look at matching roles to tasks, and that lies at the nub of her Question.

My Lords, I do not think that the Minister is being completely clear when he talks about the growth in numbers. The 2010 SDSR led to a reduction of around 4,000 naval personnel, which was a ridiculous number, and only 400 were added five years later. There is a shortage of money in the Navy, and it is no good saying that the Navy makes the choice: it is having to make very hard decisions because it is underfunded. Does the Minister not agree that there is a lack of coherence in our amphibious capability, in that we are paying off HMS “Ocean” early, having spent £65 million on her; we have sold an LSD(A) to the Australians and have an LPD in reserve; and now we are talking about reducing the number of Royal Marines?

My Lords, I do not accept the picture being painted by the noble Lord. As he knows, the annual budget cycle is our yearly process which allocates resources to defence spending requirements for the next 10 years. It focuses on ensuring that the programme is affordable and balances military and financial risk. The 2017 annual budget cycle is in fact still under way, but the process means that we continually reassess our financial position and prioritise accordingly.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister not agree that this is precisely the sort of operational matter that should be left to the Joint Chiefs of Staff? I want to place on record my admiration for the Royal Marines, with whom I had contact on HMS “Cumberland” and at other times when serving with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, which I commend to the House.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and I fully agree with her. Ministers make decisions based on military advice in this area.

My Lords, I shall take this to another point. The whole House would be shocked if there were redundancies among the Royal Marines, but the Government have form on denying full pensions to Armed Forces personnel made redundant. In 2013 I raised the issue of servicemen who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and were made redundant just days before they qualified for their full pension. One was so angry that he sent his medals back. Will the Minister state today that if there are redundancies in the Armed Forces, this shameful sleight of hand will not be repeated against the men and women who served our country?

My Lords, I will of course look into that and I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the matter. All I would say is that no part of the Armed Forces can be exempt from the need to look for efficiencies. Navy Command would not be doing its job if it did not regularly ask itself whether the balance between marines and sailors is right, whether there are roles that need to be performed by those currently performing them, and whether there is duplication of roles. That is a normal part of military and financial management.

My Lords, the Minister has generously acknowledged that what Britain needs in these uncertain times is forces that are fast, flexible and mobile. As he rightly said, the Royal Marines are second to none worldwide with that capacity. If this is about hard choices, would it not be to play fast and loose with the nation’s defence to place the strength and capability of the Royal Marines at risk in order to fund two gigantic, empty tin cans rattling around the oceans without aircraft to fly from them—or now, it seems, troops to put in them?

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord and the House know that the carriers, when they arrive, will be fully manned and have British aircraft on them before they are brought into service. I can assure him that we will make sure that the Royal Marines are properly trained and equipped to perform the vital tasks we ask them to undertake.

My Lords, I listened very carefully to the answers the Minister has given. If there is a key strategic judgment to be made about the balance of capabilities between the surface fleet and the Royal Marines, surely the last strategic defence and security review was the time and opportunity to do that. It was not done then, so is not the only conclusion we can draw from the current situation that there is insufficient funding in the Ministry of Defence to afford what was decided upon at the end of the last SDSR?

My Lords, we set out our key priorities in the 2015 strategic defence and security review. At that time we announced an £11 billion investment package towards our highest priority defence equipment needs over the course of this Parliament. We have been quite open that some of the funding for this is contingent on delivering efficiency savings. I concede that the savings are challenging, but we are working very hard to deliver them.