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Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): On Monday, the Minister said that TA manning levels are 31,680. In my role as an officer in the TA, I am responsible for officer training in the London district. Of the 130 potential officers who have come through in the past year, 60 have already dropped out and only one has passed through Sandhurst in the past 12 months.

Ann Winterton: My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly and backs up what I am trying to say.

Part of the problem is defining the role of the TA nowadays. It was always thought to be a reserve force and never intended to be a continual front-line force. It is difficult for young people at the start of their civilian careers to expect to be called up for 10 months' continual service in a three-year period; and we must not overlook those who are older.

I regret that the Ministry will not answer the question, which has been posed several times, about how many TA personnel have left after having been deployed. I appreciate the Minister's saying that, where possible, the term of commitment is to be extended from three to five years. At present, however—especially in the infantry, where the number of regulars is being cut—as soon as a private has completed basic training he will be called up in the next Operation Telic. The Ministry says that 2,000 TA infantry privates were available for Operation Telic 7 and some 1,500 were available for Operation Telic 8. I do not know where it gets those figures from, especially given that the 4th Battalion the Parachute Regiment was not even able to form a company for Operation Telic 7. A third of the numbers were supplied by the Tyne and Tees Regiment and the East and West Riding Regiment. I suspect that, as information on the ground suggests, new recruits finish their basic training and are deployed virtually immediately when the brown envelope drops on their doormat. Is it any wonder that so many leave when they see what is happening?
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We need to consider the effect on the employers of those deployed in the TA. SaBRE—Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers—provides an excellent lifeline, especially for employers. Although the number of TA medical personnel who have been deployed since the start of Operation Telic may seem small at 754, most if not all of them are employed in the national health service and need to be replaced in order to continue to provide the services required. The effect on small businesses can be devastating. Although the financial package for replacement of staff is good, it does not replace the expertise and experience of a key individual who is absent for such a long period. Those left behind can cope for a month or two—possibly for up to three—but 10 months is expecting too much.

Some 1,350 members of the TA have volunteered for a second or subsequent tour. One sometimes wonders why they do not join the regulars. Part of the answer might be that they are far better off financially if they do not do so because they receive their normal civilian wage. A person who is on a salary of £25,000-plus may   be in the same unit as a regular on a salary of £16,000.

Mr. Gray : I want to pick up on a small and technical but important detail. If a member of the Territorial Army volunteers for a second deployment to a theatre of war, he does not have the advantage of the pay and conditions that he gets if he is compulsorily mobilised. That means that people will not go for a second time to Iraq, for example, unless there is some change to their pay and conditions.

Ann Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that.

One can imagine a tight-knit unit with a medic on a large salary and someone on a much smaller salary. Men and women are aware of what is going on and there is a slight resentment among regulars who are not on the same remuneration package. The Minister said that one cannot tell the difference in the field between regular servicemen and members of the TA. The men on the ground know the difference—there may not be a difference in performance, but they know who is a regular and who is a member of the TA.

The Ministry must make up its mind about what it expects from the TA, because it may find that it simply cannot attract personnel in sufficient numbers to give the required commitment in future. I want to stress the importance of maintaining the existing network of TA centres. If there are fewer in future and they are located in the larger conurbations, that will inevitably result in fewer recruits. The Ministry and the defence chiefs are sailing close to the wind and must realise that simply throwing money at recruitment is not producing the right results.

Although I welcome the announcement of the improved package of measures for the reserve forces—we are waiting to hear exactly what they are—the result of current policy is putting the future of the reserve defence forces of the United Kingdom in jeopardy.
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4.5 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): It is always a privilege to take part in defence debates for the important reason that it gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to our brave servicemen and women in this country and throughout the world who do such an excellent job.

I had the privilege of accompanying the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) on a visit to RAF Marham yesterday, and I would like to place on record my thanks to Group Captain Bagwell and the team at Marham for showing members of the Select Committee on Defence the superb job that they do and their commitment and professionalism in carrying out duties on our behalf. When we left, every member of the Select Committee felt the same. However, there is a difference between being able to undertake duties with professionalism and commitment and being given duties and responsibilities that people should not have to accept. I intend to discuss that this afternoon.

I agreed almost entirely with the opening speech from the Government Front Bench. [Interruption.] I said "almost" entirely. I am a great supporter and extremely proud of the Government's defence policy. Our strategic defence review is one of the best reviews of any military in NATO and much of the rest of the world. The new chapter and White Paper followed as a result of the changing threats worldwide. The White Paper was a courageous document and a rational response to the threats. It called for a radical reorganisation of our assets, people and structures to create a more flexible, agile and responsive force that could have an increasingly further reach, with smaller packages carrying a bigger and better punch.

That model is emulated in other NATO countries. Last week, as part of the EU presidency, I had the privilege of attending a dinner with leading people in the defence community throughout Europe. I sat next to a person who paid tribute to the British Government's role in restructuring our armed forces. She told me that her country—a leading European country—modelled its reform proposals on the British strategic defence review. She had been an adviser to the Minister of Defence in her country and had drawn directly on the British review in shifting from a cold war scenario to one that, as the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire said, presents far greater and more invidious threats in many respects. It is much harder to tackle because it is so much less predictable, demanding greater responsibility, better equipment and better force structures.

However, when I outlined to the same person the Government's proposals for providing depth support for the RAF fast jets as yet another outcome of the review and rationalisation, she listened to me in absolute disbelief. She could not believe that the British Government, who have been taking a leading role throughout NATO in reorganising their armed forces and, just as importantly, the support for their armed forces, as has been mentioned quite a lot today, had now decided to place the depth support for their elite fast jet fleets back in-house with the RAF, after taking it away from the RAF just four years ago, on the sound military grounds that since the end of the cold war there has been no military case whatever for military personnel to carry
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out the factory maintenance and repair of fast jets. That can be done much more successfully by civilian workers working in a commercial environment, or by outsourcing that work to the private sector, if appropriate safeguards are put in place. Giving that work back to the RAF, however, makes no sense whatever.

We do not object to reducing the scale of logistical support. Every Member in the Chamber knows that following the force configuration, the over-capacity and huge duplication could not be justified. Also, as I think the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said in response to the statement, nobody disagrees with a rationalisation of logistical support, which was necessary. We agree with collapsing four lines of logistics for our front-line jets to two. In layman's terms, if we think of the example of a car, it is like moving from three at depot, industry and factory level and one on the front line, to a service station on the front line and a garage to take the car to for repairs.

It is a fundamental mistake, however, to mix the two on a front-line base, as proposed by the Government. It will put unfair pressures on our front-line airmen and women to meet operational targets on a base such as Marham, which we visited yesterday, and to carry out scheduled, planned, long-term maintenance upgrades and deep repairs. If we ask the same people to do the same job with limited resources, the danger is that we will put operational capability at risk. The bottom line is that, when push comes to shove, brave servicemen such as Group Captain Bagwell will meet his operational requirements to defend this nation every time. That is why it was proposed that the two functions should be separated in the first place.

I note with interest that, once again, our distinguished Defence Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire, expressed dismay that when he questioned the Minister following his statement, and asked what strategy was being adopted, or what plans there were for providing deep support for the joint combat aircraft and the joint strike fighter, the Minister was not able to reply. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire expressed his disappointment because it revealed that there was no principle underlying the Government's strategy of supporting their front-line aircraft. Let us bear in mind the fact that all the scenarios that we propose—or the overwhelming majority of them in terms of security threats and entering battle zones—require absolute dependence on the reliability and availability of our fast jets, particularly the Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR9, for many years to come. We must therefore get this right.

It was revealed not only that there is no principle underlying the Government's strategy, but that there is no strategy. The argument has been that we should centralise the second line of logistics—depth support—on a military operational basis. Let me tell the House that we are centralising some at Marham with the Tornado and some at Cottesmore with the Harrier, but despite today's announcement we do not know where we are going to centralise the depth support for the joint combat aircraft or the joint strike fighter. In his statement last week on the modernisation of logistics, the Minister failed to say where the Hawk training jets were going, but he did say that half or perhaps more than half of the RAF's rotary wing fleet is rolling back
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into one centralised unit—with the exception, I believe, of the Merlin and the Puma which are going, quite frankly, God knows where.

The point that I am making is that there is no rationale running through the policy on depth support. If there were a clear and transparent rationale, many hon. Members would have no difficulty in supporting it. I am afraid that statements that this jet is going forward and that jet is going back, or that this aircraft is going forward and that aircraft is going back, or that this helicopter is going forward and that helicopter is going back, smack of cuts for cuts' sake rather than a rationalisation. As I said, I would have no trouble supporting a proper rationalisation. There is a huge difference between saving money for defence by cutting costs and saving money for the front line by introducing genuine efficiency gains. Quite frankly, this stinks of cutting costs. In my opinion, it is even worse than that, because there is serious danger of undermining front-line capability.

The House will know that in March 2004 the Harrier was rolled forward to Cottesmore. In a speech in July this year, I explained to the House that it has been a costly mistake. Indeed, the cost of carrying out the work is escalating out of control. It was originally intended to be carried out by military personnel, but they cannot cope with the work, so an increasing number of civilians—almost 100 at present, employed by BAE Systems—are supporting it.

I have to apologise, because I told the House in July that it was taking an average of 200 days to turn round a Harrier—GR9, if upgraded, or GR7 if not—as compared with 100 days under the old depth support arrangements at DARA St. Athan, where civilians carried out the work in a commercial and centralised environment as they should. One of the biggest military aviation hangars in the world had only just been constructed. It opened only earlier this year and had 47 purpose-built bays to provide depth support for the entire fleet of fast jets in the RAF. It was the size of six football pitches and cost £80 million—but, no, that is not going ahead and it is being broken up.

I told the House in July, as I said, that it was taking 200 days at Cottesmore compared with 100 days at St. Athan under the older arrangements. In the contract bid for that work, it would have taken 60 days to turn those aircraft round. I was wrong, because it takes 232 days to turn round those aircraft—four times longer than it would have done if the aircraft had remained at St. Athan. That is only a small part of the fleet, yet we are now proposing to put the lion's share and major part of our front-line fleet—the Tornado aircraft—on these military operational bases.

I am deeply concerned about the effect on the future availability of our aircraft. In ministerial replies to questions, I have been told that Harrier availability has increased dramatically since the roll forward to Cottesmore and that turn-round times are quicker. That is not true—and the evidence that shows that is available and has been presented to the Minister. Instead of openly and transparently challenging the evidence, the MOD has shut down the computer logistics information technology system that makes the information available, to ensure that no one finds out either the true cost or the amount of time spent on the work.
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I ask the Government for what must be the third or fourth time to think very carefully about this issue. Even if they are sticking to their principle—if it is a principle—of rolling forward the Tornado to Marham, for goodness' sake, they should look very carefully at and evaluate the effects of rolling forward the Harrier. We must find ways to retain this capability—doing so in-house is one option—that do not involve a sole monopoly supplier such as BAE Systems. I cannot see how we could incentivise a sole supplier of a service, given that there would be no alternative competitor or in-house provision to turn to in order to reduce costs. I predict that costs will escalate out of control. We must look at other options, such as slowing this process down or retaining, as I said, in-house capability one way or another, be it through the private sector or through the Defence Aviation Repair Agency in St. Athan. We must do so for the future of the British military.

In the few seconds remaining to me, I finish by saying that I hope that defence training rationalisation will come to St. Athan.

4.21 pm

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