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Reserve Centres

Volume 627: debated on Monday 10 July 2017

1. What discussions he has had with local authorities and the devolved Administrations on reserve centre closures; and if he will make a statement. (900293)

At the first Defence questions of the new Parliament, may I remind the House of my interest, namely that I am in my 29th year of service in the Army Reserve?

The Ministry of Defence regularly holds discussions with local authorities and the devolved Administrations on reserves. That includes engaging with all stakeholders on sites that are earmarked for closure or for the establishment of new reserve units. The release of sites no longer required by the Ministry of Defence will free up land for new housing and raise money to reinvest in our armed forces.

Like the Minister, my father was a Territorial Army reservist, so I know the importance of the reserve. Would it not make more sense, rather than jumping to a closure and then contacting the devolved Administrations, to have a pre-consultation to make sure that where facilities are being reviewed across the board—ambulance stations, fire stations and so on—we have a single estates strategy for public sector assets?

Of course, we do engage with local authorities to the best of our ability, but no final decisions have been made in the Army Reserve Refine programme. It would therefore be premature to engage with local authorities to say which, if any, Army Reserve centres are closing. However, that piece of work on the reserves brings good news as well, so I am delighted to take this opportunity to announce the creation of two new infantry battalions as a result of it: 4th Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, whose headquarters will be at Redhill, and 8 Rifles Battalion, whose headquarters will be at Bishop Auckland.

May I offer my hon. Friend very warm congratulations on his promotion to Minister for the armed forces? As a distinguished and senior officer in the reserve, is he not perfectly placed to make decisions on reserve centre closures?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his warm words. As his former Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for International Development, I know only too well of his contribution to the comprehensive approach during his tenure there. It is rare as a Minister to be appointed to a Department one actually knows something about. On that basis, I am delighted to be here. It is great to be in this position and I hope to use any experience I have.

May I, too, congratulate the Minister on seemingly knowing what he is talking about?

In recent days I became aware, via the office of the deputy lord lieutenant of the county of Dunbartonshire that he had informed the provost of West Dunbartonshire, as the local government’s civic leader, that armed forces veterans’ day would not take place due to there being no capacity in the armed forces to deliver it. As the Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire, it gives me grave cause for concern that veterans in local families in West Dunbartonshire, including those in my own family who have served, will not be given the appropriate thanks by their local community. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, advise me and other Members of the House whose local communities may have been unable to hold veterans’ day that this will not happen again?

Armed Forces Day has become quite a success, so I am disappointed to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I visited Bangor in Northern Ireland and my colleagues have visited other places in the United Kingdom. The Armed Forces Day centring on Liverpool this year was a particular success. However, I am concerned by what he says and would like to think that all our units, whether Army Reserve units, Regular units or cadet forces, will do whatever they can to support Armed Forces Day. I will certainly look into what he has said.

Does the Minister agree that a crucial criterion when considering dismissing or abandoning reserve centres is to ensure that our reserve centres are as close as possible to the reserve soldiers who will man them, so that they do not have to travel far?

Of course, our reserves have become very much a success over recent years. Over the last year, some 5,000 extra reserves were recruited—an increase of some 5% on the Army Reserve of 2016. One of the great challenges we face is to ensure that the footprint is equal across the country. That is why the Army Reserve Refine piece of work that is going on is so important. One of the principal aims is to ensure that the footprint is even across the country.

Abertillery in my constituency is home to the 211 Battery, which has the reserve’s only unmanned air systems operators. I understand that the Department is scrapping the Black Hornet unmanned aerial vehicle, but is still using the Desert Hawk model. Will that have an impact on the successful and popular Blaenau Gwent-based unit?

As I said earlier, I think that the reserves Refine piece is overwhelmingly a success story. I am sorry that I am not currently in a position to give the House the final details, but I will go out of my way to ensure that all Members are informed in advance of any changes in their local units.

My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to a footprint for the reserve forces. That is terribly important, because, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), they have to live near their bases. Reserve centres are also very useful as the outward face of the British Army throughout the nation where there is not otherwise any military presence. They are often co-located with, for instance, cadet battalions, and they have a huge usefulness quite apart from their military usefulness. Does it not concern my hon. Friend that what he described as a footprint may become a toehold?

I am quite confident that at the end of the reserves Refine process, the footprint will still be substantial across the United Kingdom. We are not considering major closures across the UK, and I would hate to imply that that is the correct impression. Indeed, today I announced the creation of two new reserve units. I think that, as we continue to increase the size of our reserves, the story is a positive one.