Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-45)



  Q40  John Smith: Specifically on overstretch and the greater demands we are putting on our forces, expecting more fighting power from smaller forces, do you still hold the view that you used to hold that service personnel should not be engaged in non-military tasks, thereby freeing them up to focus on front line capability?

  John Reid: You are at an advantage, having been privy to my closest thoughts, in questioning my consistency. I can see exactly where this Exocet is heading. Yes, wherever possible—and you can be sure that I have been asking that question in deliberations about the reconfiguration. For instance, to pick a hypothetical subject, aircraft repair. Not every example of what I applied has borne the fruits I thought it might bear. At least I am told that, but I am testing the evidence on that. I see exactly where you are coming from.

  Chairman: I am sure we shall have to ask something further about that at some stage.

  Q41  Linda Gilroy: Your answers have tended to suggest that training strength is much more positive than it has been and is addressing the issues under the PSA targets to do with the Army particularly. What about the reserves though? Are you concerned that the increasingly frequent requirement for them to serve overseas is affecting recruitment and retention or have you got that on track too?

  John Reid: This goes back to my own view on reserves which was that they were much more valuable than others were suggesting and that, during the Strategic Defence Review, we should have larger numbers than they were suggesting, though lower than they were at the time, but the quid pro quo was that they should be deployed more actively. Therefore you do not join the TA just to be a weekend soldier but to serve your country when it comes up. That has an upside and a downside. The upside for TA soldiers and the other reserves is they are actually engaged and given the respect now, I believe, by the regulars that they always ought to have had. The downside is it can get more wearing because you are perhaps being asked to deploy more regularly than previously. The short answer to your question is I think the morale in our reserve forces is good. The number is less than we ought to have. I think they are about 85% of establishment. One of the ironies in the history, I am sure if we check, is that whatever level you have for reserve forces, particularly the TA, we always manage to maintain 85% of the level we picked. No matter how much we reduce it, it has refused to come down. You asked me a straight question earlier and I will try and answer it here: is Iraq the reason for this? We do not think so because we ask people in the continuous attitude surveys and Iraq is not flagging up as one of these issues. I think it is probably more of an issue with recruitment of younger soldiers where the mums and dads, the gatekeepers, may be more concerned, but it does not seem to be an issue with the TA and the reserves.

  Q42  Linda Gilroy: What about employers? Are they proving to be a barrier in that respect more than they used to be or do you have particular programmes targeted at that?

  John Reid: Amazingly, I find employers are hugely supportive. Of course they are supporting people now. They are not just going and training. They are going to serve their country and in many cases they are suffering injury. All of us here would want to pay a tribute to the contribution that the reserve forces make because it truly is fantastic. The figure of their participation, for instance in Iraq, is now around 11,000. That is a lot of people, effort and contribution from our reserve forces so thanks to them and thanks to the employers, because this could not happen unless we had good hearted and public service minded employers in this country. They are not all in the public sector. Some of these are in the private sector as well. We want to encourage more of that, obviously.

  Chairman: I am conscious that we have not dealt with procurement issues. I do not know whether colleagues on the Committee would like to ask any questions about procurement. We dealt with some procurement issues at the last two evidence sessions that we held.

  Q43  Mr Borrow: We had your colleague in front of us last week. I wondered if you could give us a commitment that the industrial defence strategy will be published before Christmas?

  John Reid: Yes. This is what I have asked for. Not everything that ministers ask for arrives because as we all know no plan survives first contact with reality, far less the enemy. I think we have waited years for this. We have talked about it. It is one of these great policies like the integrated transport policy. We all love talking about it and we may even be able to define generally what it means but it never seems to arrive. I would just like it to arrive. The upside of that is that, having asked for 20 to 30 years for clarity, British industry will increasingly find that clarity perhaps is not all they wanted. They wanted clarity with the indication through that clarity that they would be able to get all the demand they wanted for their own products. It is not going to be possible in giving clarity to please everyone but I hope that it will give both the Ministry of Defence, the employers and producers in this country and elsewhere a far better transparency about the future that enables them to plan and to adapt to changing circumstances and demand.

  Q44  Mr Havard: If it is coming out in December and you want the clarity and the transparency, how do you see that debate going forward? How is this document going to be used to do that?

  John Reid: I asked for Paul Drayson as a minister incidentally, lest there be any controversy round that. I wanted to bring his skills as a negotiator and businessman for the benefit of the taxpayer and the armed forces by getting better value for money. I have asked him to apply his mind, in consultation with both industry and the various other stakeholders, including the employers, some of the workers in the industry and so on, to work out the bones and the outlines of our defence industrial strategy. In layman's terms what will it do? It will say look, here is the money that we have over the coming period to spend on defence equipment. Here is what we think we are going to need out of that. Here is what we think we would want to buy in Britain because either for immediate, intermediate or long term strategic reasons we want to retain that production capacity here. Here is what we would prefer to buy in Britain but are prepared to go outside and here is what we will buy off the shelf. That is a very snappy, 30 second summary. That will not please everyone but at least it will have a degree of honesty, clarity and assistance in managing future change which would be absent in the absence of that but we will not pretend there is going to be enough to suit everyone.

  Q45  Mr Havard: Have you seen the White Paper? How is the debate going to happen?

  John Reid: I have not decided that yet. Perhaps I can come back to you on that.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, this has been the very briefest canter round the course and it has been inevitably the first evidence session which has not been able to go exceedingly deep. Nevertheless, we are very grateful to you and your team for the answers you have given to us and we look forward to seeing you again. Thank you very much indeed.

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