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4.36 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I, too, congratulate the three new Ministers in the Ministry of Defence. I shall be brief, as I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak.

I join all those who have said that in this dark time for the country and the world we should remember how much harder a time our armed forces and their families face than the rest of us. As the Member for Canterbury, I am conscious of the price that the 5th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, has already paid in casualties, along with the 3rd Battalion, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, our local Territorial Army battalion, which also has troops serving in Afghanistan. Lieutenant-Colonel David Richmond, the gallant commanding officer of the 5th Battalion—or the Argylls, as we still like to think of them—is currently recovering at Headley Court from serious wounds. I was saddened too by the deaths of three members of the sister regiment of my old unit, 23 Regiment Special Air Service.

The figures given by the Minister in the interchanges between Front Benchers on improvements in recruitment and retention reflect some commendable changes in terms and conditions of service, but also the economic downturn. It is worrying that in certain key areas, especially the fighting elements of the Army and air crew, we are still extremely short of people. In that context, it is important to remember that the bare numbers conceal a large number of people who are temporarily physically downgraded because they are recovering from wounds or injuries—in some cases mental as well as physical injuries. It is also a blunt truth that the physical requirements for joining the Army have gradually lowered over the past generation; the present combat fitness test, for example, is of a much lower standard than a generation ago.

I do not intend to get into the banter as to who is bidding higher on improving conditions of service, but I am glad that there have been some improvements. Let
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me isolate one small item that would not cost any money, and which was raised with me by the wife of an officer in the Argylls—the issue of allocation of school places. Currently, schools are allowed to ask for the address of a family who want to place a child in a school. An army family being posted into an area can put down the date that they will arrive, but under the normal system of quartering do not normally know exactly what their address will be. So we have seen the absurdity of a soldier’s wife having to stay in a hostel for months before her husband’s posting so that she could get her child into a heavily oversubscribed local primary school. That problem could be fixed at the stroke of a pen, and should cost nothing at all.

I want, however, to go beyond the question of terms and conditions and touch on the issue of cultural isolation, about which the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) had a certain amount to say, and the gradual erosion of the links between the service community and the wider community. I pay tribute to the study conducted by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), and his team earlier in the year, although I think he would be the first to admit that recommendations of the kind that he produced can make only a modest difference to a situation that has been gradually deteriorating ever since the ending of national service.

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee, that 79 per cent. is not a good enough approval rating, but it is not just a case of whether the civilian community approves of the armed forces who are taking the risks in Afghanistan and Iraq; it is a much wider issue. People with very little exposure to the armed forces are much less likely to encourage a son or daughter to join, and, to put it bluntly, less likely to support necessary defence spending.

The position has been worsened by the concentration of our armed forces, which is happening at a much faster rate than the rate at which they are becoming smaller numerically. The Royal Navy, apart from the submarine force, is now concentrated almost entirely on the western end of the south coast, and the Royal Air Force has lost all regular contact with large parts of the country, including the whole of north-west England. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire mentioned the move towards super-garrisons. Another of its effects is that, while we may talk of homecoming parades and the like, there will be progressively fewer small market cities and towns like Canterbury with a single regular and a single Territorial Army unit where such events can happen. Visiting my sister near Catterick, I was reminded that it already has a super-garrison with virtually no civilian community.

That brings me naturally to the subject of our reserve forces, which form a much smaller part of the picture than the reserve forces in America, Australia and Canada—three countries which, like ourselves, do not have a conscription model, which face the same challenges, and which are engaged in the same theatres in much the same way. Part of the reason why I believe that the connection is so much better in all those countries is that, in ball-park terms, volunteer reserves in the other three countries constitute roughly half their land forces;
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in Britain, the proportion is only about a quarter. In America, more than a third of air squadrons are volunteer reservists, while the proportion of individual pilots is much higher. In Britain we have fewer than 30 pilots in the volunteer reserves, and only 800 trained Royal Auxiliary Air Force reservists. As for the naval side, in America an aircraft carrier has been set aside for the exclusive training of reservists, while in Britain we do not even have a mine warfare vessel for the purpose.

That is why I welcome the MOD’s review of reserves. I must pay tribute to the work of General Nick Cottam and his team: I think that the MOD has chosen an extremely good project manager. I am also extremely grateful to the Minister of State, who I know has had to leave us early for a good reason, for the way in which he has fostered a relationship between that team and our all-party group. I am pleased to see present the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who is an active member of it, as well as serving on the Select Committee.

The Minister of State rightly drew attention to the huge role—quite disproportionate to their size—that the reserve forces have played in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I urge the House to bear in mind that, vital as that role is, it is not the first purpose of reserve forces. Their first purpose, when money is tight and the regular forces are overstretched in the here and now, is to provide a capability for the unexpected. Let us consider some recent events in which we have been involved. No one expected the Falklands war a week before it began, and no one expected that we would send armoured brigades to the desert of Saudi Arabia six months before we did so. We had no warning at all of 9/11, of course, but we would not now be in Afghanistan—or, arguably, Iraq—if it had not happened.

Reserves are a cheap way of keeping capabilities in place that might unexpectedly be needed. They are much cheaper than regular forces, but unfortunately, the one drawback is that they take much longer to build up than regular forces. It is possible to train an officer for the Regular Army in a year, but for the Territorial Army that typically takes three or four years. We cannot create them when we need them; if they are not in being, we have not got them. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the central theme of the two reports that our all-party group prepared has been the necessity of structuring reserve forces in a way that attracts good-quality men and women to act as officers and non-commissioned officers in them, so that we really have something usable there.

One of the most common remarks in debates before Afghanistan became a high-intensity war was that the Army could be structured so as to work in high-intensity operations and then go out and do an excellent job of peacekeeping, but if we ever designed an Army based around peacekeeping, it would ultimately fail in all its roles. A similar point needs to be made about volunteer reserves. If we design volunteer reserves to operate as formed units to provide a framework in which people have interesting and challenging work to do, with opportunities to take at least sub-units from time to time abroad on operations, we will produce an organisation that is also extremely good at producing quality augmentees for regular units, but if we allow some at least of the senior regular hierarchy to persuade us that we should just structure volunteer reserves to produce augmentees—
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spare lance-corporals and privates—to top up regular units, we will produce an organisation that not only cannot do the strategic job if the balloon truly goes up, but also in the long run, because it will have lost all its best officers and senior NCOs, is not training any quality augmentees either.

That brings me to a short list of a few of the things we pointed out in our reports. If the infantry and the Special Air Service and units such as 131 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers can provide formed sub-units that operate successfully, other parts of the TA should also be able to do so. However, in order for any part of the volunteer reserves to operate, they must have opportunities for interesting unit level exercises, but there are very few of those at present.

We must make more use of officer training corps and other university units for officer training. They are excellent organisations, but they are underutilised in a string of ways. Let me give one example: why cannot we have special-to-arm courses tacked on to the back of the Sandhurst courses in the summer so that a student who wants to can do what happens in America or Australia and undertake their whole officer training in one go?

I wish to mention two last points. One is a point made earlier about aviation. It is unforgivable that a country that has such a big, successful and dynamic aviation industry simply writes off the whole investment it makes in people who leave the RAF having trained as pilots. If the Americans can have reservists operating a whole range of aircraft, it is ridiculous that we cannot make more use of reservists on operations, at least for helicopters. The other point is about mine warfare. Mine warfare is either not needed at all—we do not use it in Afghanistan for obvious reasons, although we have naval pilots and Royal Marines heavily engaged there—or it is needed, in which case a hell of a lot of it is needed. The current arrangement whereby we have one expensive regular crew for each mine warfare vessel is ridiculous. It is both expensive and, by definition, has no surge capability; a mine warfare crew cannot be worked around the clock as their work is very exhausting. If we handed a couple of those over to the volunteer reserves and trained a large number of volunteer crews on them, for the same money we would be able to deliver a much greater capability.

At a time when our armed forces are increasingly isolated as well as overstretched, I am pleased that the Government are reviewing their reserve forces. I look forward to that review, and I urge the House as a whole and the Government to realise that volunteer reserves could play a much larger role in the defence of this country.

4.50 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and I pay tribute to him for his leadership of the all-party group on the reserve forces, which I may say a little more about in a moment. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) mentioned the deployment from in and around his constituency to Helmand, Afghanistan. From Plymouth and the surrounding area, too, there is a major deployment to Helmand, involving 29 Commando Regiment, 3 Commando Brigade and a
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lot of reserves, particularly medical reserves—people who in their normal lives work as medics at Plymouth’s Derriford hospital and other hospitals in Devon and Cornwall.

I am pleased that our lord mayor, Councillor Brian Vincent, is recognising the role of those people at the beginning of, throughout and at the end of that deployment. That is very much in accord with the recognition study undertaken by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), whom I welcome to his new position on the Front Bench. The lord mayor and his lady mayoress, Pauline, got up at 3 am to see the personnel off from the Royal Citadel, as they have done on a number of other occasions. Pauline has a son-in-law who is deploying, and events are planned for the many families who share the interests and concerns that go along with having military personnel in the family. The personnel will also be welcomed back with a parade, which should happen just before the end of the mayoral year.

I look forward to working with the new defence team, and I am very glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces remains part of that team. I welcome its new members, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), part of whose period of service on the Defence Select Committee I shared. Reference was made earlier to his robust and trenchant contributions, which we will certainly miss. He made many special efforts, including a visit to our dockyard in Plymouth when he had been unable to join the original Defence Committee delegation. He also made particular efforts to ensure that the needs and interests of new recruits and the ranks were well represented in our deliberations in Committee. I trust that he will continue to take that approach in his very different role as Minister.

I want also to pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, whom I always felt positively welcomed scrutiny. He had a listening ear and engaged with us fully—sometimes a little too fully for our liking—but he also took away ideas and put them into practice. When his period of office is examined, it will go down in history as one during which, with the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford and his recognition study, the various strands of personnel, families and service conditions that needed to be brought together were brought together, and were entrenched by making the external framework group permanent, so that it can ensure that such issues are not lost sight of.

I also welcome the new Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). As the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, my right hon. Friend brings to the post a depth of experience and an industrial background, and he represents a constituency in which submarines and defence matter. I hope that he and his team will engage with the Defence Committee and with constituency Members of Parliament in the same measure as the previous team did.

The Chairman of the Defence Committee, who spoke earlier, discussed a number of the inquiries that we have been doing and that we have in hand. The recruitment and retention report was comprehensive, and we await the Government response, which is to be published next week. The report dealt with the important role that
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families play as gatekeepers to recruitment, and with the reserves. I should add to the points made by the hon. Member for Canterbury only by saying that in a world in which people’s lives have changed out of all recognition and people do not expect to have one job for life, the reserves have a much wider and bigger role to play, as he indicated is the case in other countries.

The Committee has also been examining national security and resilience, following the Prime Minister’s publication of “The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an interdependent world” in March. We are looking into the contribution that the Ministry of Defence makes to security and resilience, what it understands the nature and scale of the threat to be, how that threat affects the defence planning assumptions and what capabilities—maritime, land, air and personnel—we need to provide as a result.

The Committee will continue to undertake number of inquiries into the MOD’s performance and expenditure plans. A persistent theme of those has been the concerns about how the Government should resolve the tensions between supporting the high tempo of current operations, especially given the urgent operational requirements, and addressing how priority given to those has an impact on force structure and the forward equipment programme. Most commentators expect cost pressures to result in cuts and delays to the forward programme, and perhaps the cancellation of a major programme. The chief of defence matériel told the Committee that he suspected that that would be so, and the ongoing speculation on the matter is inevitable until we learn the outcome of the review that the MOD is undertaking in order better to prioritise its spending plans.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) discussed the concerns about the size and make-up of the fleet. They tend to preoccupy those of us who live, work in and represent big naval communities in a way that does not take account of the equally strong rumour mill that deals with similar scenarios for land and air forces, particularly the Eurofighter—reference has been made to that. Admiral Sir Jonathon Band’s warning that the fleet could lose its flexibility if the Government cut back too far on warships and manpower needs to be heeded.

Huge cost savings could be found across the naval and other procurement programmes. Their implementation across the activity that forms the maritime change programme is extremely complex, involving the terms of business agreement for the joint ventures with BAE Systems and VT Group, as well as the Babcock purchase of my local dockyard, and the surface ship support programme and the submarine enterprise collaboration arrangement. They are all taking an extremely long time to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, and that is proving particularly difficult for those who want to see and understand the shape of the naval defence sector in Plymouth and Devonport.

Since the end of the naval base review, which concluded that all three naval bases were required, I have met the Minister for the Armed Forces numerous times, often with trade union and council representatives, to discuss the long-term future of the dockyard and naval base. Each time, he has gone to great lengths to assure us of
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Devonport’s future and to give as much information as he can. The last meeting was followed by a letter, in which he stated:

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that we are still on track to deliver that commitment in Devonport. I thank the Minister of State for all his patience in understanding the many representations that we have made in recent months on that matter. We will continue to make them, as the issue is so important to us in Devonport. We have accepted his reassurances and waited patiently, but that has not been easy, not least because we have watched the Government invest in orders for carriers, destroyers and submarines with high-profile and immediate benefits for shipbuilding dockyards elsewhere in the country, but not—at least as obviously and directly—for Devonport. That has led to a vacuum in which all sorts of stories can flourish. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport did mention the 57 per cent. increase in the revenue accounts, which suggests that Babcock is doing fairly well at the moment, and we hope that that continues long into the future.

Talk about confidence being sapped from our community, and the death of the dockyard and the naval base—the two are often confused—by a thousand cuts, will continue until we have greater clarity. Such talk thrives on recent decisions such as the one to switch the forthcoming refit of HMS Campbeltown from Devonport, its base port, to Rosyth. Such decisions are taken as symptomatic. I know that HMS Albion, HMS Westminster and HMS Monmouth will keep the yard busy for the next three years, but fears continue to abound about the strategic role for our naval base and the yard in the future.

Devonport is already of course home to the Navy’s three amphibious ships, the helicopter carrier Ocean and assault ships Albion and Bulwark. We want to become an amphibious centre of excellence, and the defence estates development plan, published earlier this year, said that a case could be made for regionalisation of the Royal Marines in the south-west, with closer proximity to the amphibious shipping. That has been costed, but is presently unfunded. The long-planned but unfunded aspiration to co-locate landing craft units from RM Poole and RM Turnchapel to Devonport naval base remains on hold. I hope that we will see some forward movement on that in the near future.

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