Previous Section Index Home Page

26 Mar 2009 : Column 503

In the second half of my remarks, which is linked to the first, I shall concentrate on our reserve forces. I declare an interest as I was for eight years the honorary colonel of a Territorial Army regiment. Hearing about the invitation to do that was as much of a surprise to me as it may be to other Members. Normally when someone ceases to be Secretary of State for Defence, the armed forces never wish to see them or hear of them again, regardless of personality or the colour of the Government concerned, so the invitation was unusual and a great privilege. One day I must table a parliamentary question to find out how many Secretaries of State for Defence in the Labour Government were so approached after their term of office. I suspect that the answer would cheer me up enormously.

The way in which the Territorial Army has been used over the past 12 years has been one of the most serious examples of problems in resources leading to policy decisions that have had, and continue to have, serious implications of a considerable kind. I remind the House that until the Reserve Forces Act 1996, the reserves had not been used since 1945. Such was the legal position throughout those years that there had either to be general mobilisation of the whole Territorial Army or no use of the reserves at all. For example, the Territorial Army was never used in the Gulf war or the Falklands war, because there was no legal basis that would have permitted that without mobilising the whole reserve force. That caused considerable frustration. Many individual reservists, having received splendid training, wanted to be able to use the skills they had been given.

As Secretary of State, I initiated the policy changes that led to the 1996 Act and I am delighted that we introduced it. However, the Act has been used in ways far different from anything that was contemplated. Under the Act, it was contemplated that it would be possible to use individual units for a particular short-term operation, or to fill some immediate gap to deal with what nowadays we would call a “surge requirement” for a limited period, but that is not what has happened. There has, in fact, been a continuous use of the reserves in the wars and operations that have continued without interruption since the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Afghanistan, our involvement looks like continuing for a number of years to come.

We had better be clear about the implications of that. The Labour Government’s general attitude towards the reservists has, I fear, been pretty shabby. One of the decisions that they took in the 1998 strategic defence review was to make a massive reduction in the size of the Territorial Army. It was 56,000-strong at that time; it has 36,000 people today. Over the past 12 years, we have entered the worst of all possible worlds; there has been unprecedented use of our reservists exactly when their numbers have been dramatically reduced to their lowest level for many generations, if not ever. It is that dysfunction and disharmony that are so indefensible, in my judgment.

Let me give the House figures relating to what has happened since 1997. Since 2003—that is, since our involvement with Iraq, Afghanistan and so forth—17,000 reservists have been mobilised. That represents 9 per cent. of those mobilised in Afghanistan, and 4 per cent. of those mobilised in Iraq. I draw attention to a particular
26 Mar 2009 : Column 504
point: when we passed the 1996 Act, we did not envisage those sorts of numbers. We said that the use of an individual reservist should be such that his or her cumulative exposure should be a maximum of one year in three. That remains, I think, the legal position today. The Ministry of Defence handout “Future use of the UK’s Reserve Forces”, published on 7 February 2005, says, in referring to the massive mobilisation that the 1996 Act never envisaged:

that is, the volunteer reserve forces—

It goes on to say:

That sounds good; that sounds as if the policy were becoming more flexible. However, the document goes on to say:

In other words, the Government make the concession and make it meaningless, in the same sentence.

It is not sustainable to continue with that policy. I say that to the Government and, indeed, to my right hon. and hon. Friends, because I suspect that they will have responsibility for the matter in the not-too-distant future. We already know the consequences. Reservists have been voting with their feet. After the Iraq war, between 2003 and 2005, some 15,000 reservists quit, and they have not been replaced. I mentioned earlier that the size of the Territorial Army is 36,000. That is not its authorised strength; its authorised strength is 42,000. The reason it has only 36,000 people is that it has not been able to recruit the numbers required. People have not been willing or able to join in the numbers that the Government presumably think necessary. That should cause serious concern to the Government Front-Bench team.

I make one final point in drawing to the end of my remarks. It may be said, “Well, you know, it is not just reservists whom we have had problems recruiting; the regular forces have had similar difficulties.” That is true, but there is a crucial distinction that I do not think has yet been mentioned. Over the past few years, we have gone through a period of very low unemployment. Historically, when unemployment is low, the regular forces have difficulty recruiting to the extent required. For very sad reasons, that will now change. Now that unemployment is becoming a serious problem, it is likely that the regular forces will not have anything like the same difficulty recruiting. Although that will benefit the regular forces, exactly the opposite argument will apply to the Territorial Army. Precisely because unemployment is increasing and getting very high indeed, employers will have not the slightest incentive, when they have such a vast number of people from whom they can recruit, to chose those who, for one year in three, or whatever the period will be, are required by the Government to fill the gaps that they are not prepared to fill through the regular Army.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): My right hon. and learned Friend is making a typically powerful speech. On the subject of recruitment and retention in both the regular Army and the Territorial Army, does he not
26 Mar 2009 : Column 505
think that it is an absolute disgrace that the Government are within a week of implementing a new pay round, and none of our professional men and women in the services have any idea what pay they will be entitled to from Wednesday of next week? When he was Secretary of State for Defence, would he have allowed such a shambolic situation?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I would certainly have tried to prevent it, but whether the Treasury would have allowed me to do so is the question that must be addressed. I have not the slightest doubt that the Ministry of Defence could make the announcement today if it were permitted to do so. Another part of Government is creating the problem, and it is a disgrace. My hon. Friend is right to refer to it.

The Minister was good enough to allow me to intervene on him to raise the review of the reserve forces. I welcome the fact that that review is taking a lot longer than originally intended—I make no complaint about that. However, looking at the review’s terms of reference, I am not convinced that those conducting it will be able to address the questions that I have raised today. I hope that they will do so—I hope that when the review is published, it will refer to the gross overstretch and misuse of the reserve forces. It is not good enough for the Minister simply to say that individual reservists like going out on operations—of course they do, I have not the slightest doubt about that, but it is not just about their personal interest. Their families and employers are also involved in the process, and the Government know perfectly well that the strains that have developed in recent years have made the current policy unsustainable.

I simply conclude by saying, first, that we cannot have foreign and defence policies that are not in harmony. Secondly, if the Government—whoever they are, Labour or Conservative—wish, as I hope they will, to have a world view and a global foreign policy, it is no longer possible to resist the argument that the regular forces in particular have to have the manpower compatible with that aspiration. While the reservists can help and may be used for special occasions, such as surge requirements, and to fill particular gaps—that is what they are there for; I do not have a problem with that—the idea that they can be a permanent way of supplementing the regular forces and getting regular soldiers on the cheap should never have come into play. It must stop, and the quicker it does, the better.

3.12 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): My right hon. and learned—and, now we discover, gallant—Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has just given an appalling portrayal of the defence of this country clinging on by the skin of its teeth.

Twenty-three years ago, just before I became a Member of Parliament, I sat in the Public Gallery and watched a Secretary of State mesmerising the House of Commons. If I thought that I would immediately follow him on the Floor of the House, after the intervening period in which he served as Secretary of State of Defence and Foreign Secretary, I would have been appalled, and I would have been right. However, it is a great honour to follow my right hon. and learned Friend in a debate on defence in the UK.

26 Mar 2009 : Column 506

I am afraid, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you may have a little difficulty keeping us in order, because the title of the debate is, at best, not very helpful and, at worst, utterly meaningless. It gives the impression of “Dad’s Army”. While many of our forces are of course deployed abroad, there is also a plucky home guard ready to fight off the Russians if they turn the wrong way coming out of the northern approaches. As a title, “Defence in the UK” is complete rubbish. The Defence Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into our relations with Russia. I shall confide to the House, hoping that it goes no further, that we do not consider ourselves under imminent threat of invasion.

We can, of course, in this debate discuss home basing issues, and I intend to say a little about Project Belvedere. We can discuss some of the training issues, in so far as training takes place in the UK, and we have heard from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) about St. Athan, which was a surprise to all of us. But “Defence in the UK”? Modern defence is not a geographical thing. It rests on industry, which is global, on our alliances, which are global, on our interests, which are global, and above all on our people in the armed forces, to whom I pay a very great tribute, and there are now few of them who stay in the UK for very long.

Whatever we do has an effect elsewhere. What happens in Pakistan, whether it is an attack by an American drone based in Afghanistan on insurgents in South Waziristan, or the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan, affects attitudes in the Pakistani community and in other communities in the UK, because the media are global too. Communication is now instant. To distinguish between the UK and Pakistan or Afghanistan is becoming increasingly pointless, since everything that happens there will instantly affect what happens here.

And that is what this country does not get. It is what this continent, Europe, does not get. They do not understand that leakage of nuclear weapons technology, as has already happened in Pakistan, thanks to A.Q. Khan, is just as likely to lead to a nuclear bomb going off in London as it is to one going off in Islamabad—in fact, rather more so. The people of this country, of this continent, do not believe and do not understand that if we allow the region of Pakistan and Afghanistan to become even more unstable than it already is, it is not the Islamic countries that will be the targets of the new rulers of those countries. It will be us, here in the UK, so we cannot afford to fail there.

But for reasons that my right hon. and learned Friend has just set out so eloquently, it looks as though, in financial terms, we cannot even afford to try to succeed. We are devoting to that particular struggle one twentieth of the number of troops and one fiftieth of the amount of aid that we devoted to the much richer and more stable area of Bosnia. We are using up our kit five times faster than we can replace it. We are fighting a war with a peacetime mentality.

That is because nobody is effectively proclaiming in this country or this continent that defence is good, that we have the right to defend our values, and that we have the duty to do so. The Secretary of State for Defence recently came out with a reiteration of the defence planning assumptions that is almost identical to the previous defence planning assumptions. There is a sense of treading water. Afghan operations must not mean that the Ministry of Defence or the armed forces will in
26 Mar 2009 : Column 507
a few years be trapped in a time warp. There needs to be new thinking now, thinking ahead for future challenges, because they are not even future challenges—they are challenges that we face now. It is just that we have not recognised how serious they are.

To give him his due, I believe that the Secretary of State for Defence believes in defence. I believe that of the whole defence ministerial team. However, the Ministry of Defence team alone does not have the capacity to deliver on the need to inspire and give the country the sort of warnings that Winston Churchill was giving in the 1930s. It needs the whole Government, including the Prime Minister, to pull in the same direction and they need to take the House, which is now nearly empty, with them.

This may seem a cheap point, but it happens to be true. To most hon. Members, a defence debate means an opportunity not to discuss matters fundamental to the survival of this country and our values, but to go to their constituencies. Yes, their work there is important, but it is rarely a matter of life and death, as what we are discussing today is. The Government need to take the country with them, but the plain truth is that the absence of Russian hordes in the northern approaches has meant that defence has become something that we have taken for granted and that some people, such as those involved in the Campaign Against Arms Trade, are even uncomfortable with.

In the House, there used to be three individual service day debates and two days’ debate on the statement on the defence estimate. All that became meaningless as the services did more and more on a joint basis, and it rightly changed in the late 1990s and the early part of this century. However, now there are three debates on policy, procurement and personnel, and two more were added—on defence in the world and defence in the UK—to make up for the defence estimates debate, those last two being particularly unfortunately named. We need a return to two days’ debate at a set time each year—perhaps when the MOD’s annual report is issued, so that there can be a useful focus. We need five general days’ debate on defence, and perhaps more.

I said earlier that I would say a little about the basing decision involved in Project Belvedere. For some time, the Ministry of Defence has been considering whether to re-base the Chinook helicopters that are currently at RAF Odiham. In the last debate on defence personnel, I discussed the issue at some length. I shall not do so again today; suffice it to say that the Chinooks should stay where they are. However, I want to say one thing. The Minister said that he was trying to bring the issue to a conclusion as soon as possible and that no decision had yet been made. Today we are having a debate on defence in the UK, and today would be the correct time to announce that the Chinooks will stay where they are. We all know that there is no money and no appetite to move them. The only obstacle in the way of the announcement of the decision, and in the way of some welcome clarity and direction for those who have been abortively slaving away at this ghastly project for years, is chronic indecision. I ask the Minister to make the announcement—just get it over with. He will feel a lot better for doing so, and so will we.

26 Mar 2009 : Column 508

Frankly, the design and implementation of the joint personnel administration system, or JPA, has been a disaster. Its failings were broadly responsible for the Comptroller and Auditor General’s qualifying the Ministry of Defence’s accounts. Neither the Ministry of Defence nor those, such as the Defence Committee, who scrutinise it, can see what is going on. Many personnel data are provisional, projected or uncertain and that has been the case for the past couple of years. In its quarterly reports, the Ministry of Defence cannot even properly report against some of its new departmental strategic objectives, because it does not have the necessary data.

Those failings may sound technical, but they have caused profound unhappiness among service personnel. Today I heard about the case of an Army captain who was posted abroad and was not paid for three months. When he got back, he discovered that his credit rating had been severely damaged. The response was: “It’s your fault. You should have looked on the internet to see that things were working properly.” Well, let us remind our soldiers to take their laptops with them to Musa Qala in future. We cannot treat our soldiers in this way.

Unless the JPA is sorted out, there will be more grounds for dissatisfaction within the armed forces than it is comfortable to imagine. We need to treat those people properly—in their housing, in relation to their families, in their medical care, in their pay and conditions, and in their life after they leave the armed forces. That is not just because we need them, although we truly do, and not just because they are courageous and effective, although they really are, but because it should and must be a matter of honour for us to recognise and appreciate that they sacrifice everything for their country and for our values. They give us our freedom, and we owe them more than we can express.

3.26 pm

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I want particularly to raise two issues that are of great concern to my constituency and have been raised with me by a considerable number of constituents.

The first issue, which has already been raised by several hon. Members, is Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons, particularly the decision to renew and replace the current Trident nuclear weapons system. As the Minister will be aware, this has for many generations been higher up the political agenda in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. There has traditionally been a far higher level of opposition to nuclear weapons in Scotland, for a variety of reasons.

Next Section Index Home Page