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My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), who represents St. Athan, discussed the location there of much of the defence training college work on engineering and technical services. I understand that that includes moving training from Cosford to St. Athan and that, at one time, the thinking was that Cosford would therefore become available to provide some of the accommodation. I am unsure whether the plan has completely changed or whether the process of moving people from Cosford to St. Athan is taking longer than anticipated, but I understand that it is no longer possible to place troops coming home from Germany in Cosford as swiftly as was suggested just 12 months ago, in our last debate on this subject in the House. I therefore ask the Minister to say something about what that means for Stafford. At what pace might
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we expect more soldiers to return from Germany and be based at Stafford, rather than somewhere else?

Let me say a little about Stafford and its welcome for the military. There are now Gurkhas among the soldiers of 22 Signal Regiment who are with us. It has been a delight to see how the people of Stafford have taken to their hearts Gurkha soldiers and their children, who are now in our schools—some of them needing and receiving some support with English as an additional language—and how warm and welcoming the people of Stafford have been to Gurkhas’ wives, who have joined us and want to work in our local community. Some of them have needed support with English as a second language, too, and it was a joy to me to hear the principal of Stafford college say that, whether or not he got funding, they were going to get that help for free at his college. That was a great contribution by that college to the warmth of the welcome to our armed forces and their families in Stafford. Many of the Gurkhas’ wives have now been helped into work in the local community by Jobcentre Plus.

The new forces have been integrated into Stafford very well. As Members would expect, however, there is a growing challenge in accommodation. The accommodation provided for service personnel on the base is full, and there is a question about how we provide more accommodation, especially if more troops are coming to Stafford. Accommodation off the base is also an issue. Some soldiers and their families will want to buy homes locally, and people who want to stay in the area after they retire from the Stafford base will also want homes in Stafford. Clearly, whatever else happens in terms of population growth in the west midlands, we are going to need more homes for soldiers and their families in the Stafford area.

Now is a crucial time in Stafford. We are at the point when the local authority, Stafford borough council, is consulting on its local development framework, which includes where to put more houses. As all Members know, whenever there is talk of putting more houses anywhere, existing communities have great concerns about where those houses might go. That is an important message for the planners of Stafford to remember, but so too is the fact that there will have to be more homes because of the growth of the base at Stafford. Defence Estates must engage now with the planners at Stafford borough council. I am pleased to say that the news that comes to me suggests that that is happening, but it is important that they keep at it.

That is the main point I wanted to make in the debate, so I shall now finish where I started, by stressing the warmth of the welcome for the military in places such as Stafford. Later this year, we will have the first armed forces and veterans day. The month after that, there will be an open day at MOD Stafford. I am certain that the warmth we saw from the public towards our military in Stafford town centre on 28 February will be repeated on that day in June, and repeated again on that day in July, and long may that be so.

3.59 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): May I start by paying tribute to the 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, better known as the Argylls, and the
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3rd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, a Territorial Army unit, both of which are based in my constituency? The Argylls returned from Afghanistan with one young man killed and their commanding officer severely wounded, but despite that he is still commanding the regiment while recovering from an extremely bad gunshot wound. There were other wounded among the ranks of the Argylls and the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion TPWRR, who went to serve with them. Canterbury is extremely proud of them.

Despite the title of this debate, it is inevitable that all speakers will be tempted to stray into operations outside the UK, but I wish to make a wider point. The shadow Secretary of State made the point that defence planning assumptions are never right, whoever is in charge; one can never gaze into a crystal ball. It is worth reflecting on what a large proportion of the operations we have been involved in over the past 100 years were wholly unexpected. Had we been sitting in a debate of this kind in 1914—it is interesting to read the record of House of Commons debates at the time—we would have found that all serious opinion, or very nearly all of it, was focused on the homeland. We would have been talking about defence in the UK, because the crisis in Ireland was so bad, with guns being run in huge numbers into the island by those on both sides of the argument. Those who talked about the possibility of a continental war were thought to be eccentric.

In 1982, nobody expected the Falklands war the week before the Argentines attacked the islands; in 1990, we had ruled out, only three months before the first Gulf war, the possibility of deploying armoured vehicles outside the NATO area; and, of course, today’s operations were wholly unexpected on 10 September 2001. I could give other examples, but the fact is that, with the one important exception of the second world war, nearly all the large-scale operations in which we have been involved were unexpected a relatively short period beforehand.

That is why I say that although I listen with huge respect to all those who are rightly saying that we owe it to our forces to do the best possible job in supporting them on existing operations, it would be a disaster if we ever designed our armed forces entirely around existing operations. In his excellent speech, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) touched on a paradox that we face. We seem to be increasingly widely committed and there are so many threats out there—a number of colleagues have talked of threats outside this country, but there are some clear and distinct threats that particularly concern us today—that whoever is in government will face a huge mismatch between the resources that realistically will be made available and the potential demands on them. I make no apology for saying that the reserve forces play an extremely important role in other English-speaking countries in squaring that imbalance, and they could play a bigger role here.

Although my right hon. and learned Friend gave a brilliant summary of the problems in the reserve forces, I disagreed with him on one area. For the moment, however, I wish to pay tribute to the Government and to the Minister for the Armed Forces in particular. This small-scale but thoroughly worth while review, which was largely his brainchild and—perhaps I know more than I should do—was pushed through despite considerable opposition within substantial elements of the Ministry
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of Defence, both uniformed and civilian, has shed some light on opportunities missed and on things that need tackling. I very much look forward to seeing it come before the House, and I welcome the comment that there would be an oral statement and that, courteously, the team would be brought to meet the all-party group so that we can have a full discussion on the detail.

I think that General Nick Cottam did an extremely good job, although I pulled his leg quite publicly on disappearing to St. Paul’s just before the job was finished, in engaging with the reserve forces. He and his team got round and talked turkey with people making huge sacrifices on what was, after all, a secondary activity for them. None the less, that activity resulted in almost exactly one in every 1,000 on operations being killed in action, and we would do well to remember that; I believe that the tally is 17 at the moment—16 Terroritorials and one air reservist.

I will not repeat the statistics showing the large role that the reserve forces, despite their proportionately small size, have played in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earlier in the Balkans. Instead, I wish to focus on how an imaginative, forward-looking Government could make more use of reserve forces to square the resource circle. Reserve forces cannot solve the problem entirely, but they can contribute to the solution.

Compared with the other major models for all-volunteer forces—the US, Australia and Canada, but not France, where that model is new—we have a much smaller proportion of reserve forces. Broadly speaking, half the land forces in those countries are reservist—the figure is just over in the US, and just under for the other two—and their air and naval reserves are very large, whereas ours are very small as a proportion of the total.

I have four examples to give. First, 2 Signals Brigade exists to provide communications in the event of a nuclear strike or a major disruption, such as after a large-scale terrorist action. The brigade is not used for operations and sends relatively few people to operational theatres because it has a niche capability that we do not need for current operations. Hon. Members should consider how much less expensive 2 Signals Brigade is than keeping that capability within the regular forces.

Secondly, why—at a time when there is so little money and so much more that needs doing—do we retain air defence regiments in the regular Army? I know people will say that they can be used in a different role in operational theatres, but they have a niche capability and, while we should retain it within the British armed forces, the likelihood that it will need to be used in the near future is very low. In fact, I suggest that the possibility of a major terrorist strike that disrupts our communications is more likely than the need to fight an enemy with a superior air force in the near future. Have we thought about how we could release funds for other desperately needed priorities if that role were given to the reserve forces?

My third example is mine clearing. Traditionally, that was performed mainly by the Royal Naval Reserve, although of course some capability is needed in the regular Navy. It is an odd function, because most of the time, even on operations, it is not needed, but when it is needed we need a lot of it in a hurry. The two most obvious areas for our focus would be if the situation in the Gulf took an unexpected turn such as in a confrontation with Iran. I know from having worked in that region
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that there is an enormous area of very shallow water, where mine warfare could easily be conducted. The second is the waters around the UK, which is the subject of today’s debate. Many of our ports have long, shallow approaches.

How is our mine warfare capability currently organised? Almost all of it is within the regular Royal Navy. Therefore, I would argue, we have the worst of all worlds. We have expensive mine-clearing vessels, which carry people with very important skills, many of which are widely available in the civilian world, including deep-sea diving, survey work and so on. Each vessel has one, very expensive regular crew. If some vessels instead had two or three reservist crews, they would be much cheaper—a reservist crew is roughly a fifth of the cost of a regular crew—and, crucially, we would have a surge capability. God knows, mines are easy to lay these days, and if there was a mining threat and we had to try to clear all our major ports at once—if a couple of mines had gone off, we would not know where the others were—we would be able to work the vessels round the clock, which cannot be done with a single crew, especially as some of the skills involved, such as diving, are very tiring. An individual can dive for only a few hours a day.

My fourth example concerns unmanned aerial vehicles. I have not had time to pursue this subject matter through parliamentary questions, but somewhere there is a bit of a story about cost overruns, with which I suspect the Minister is familiar. Very small numbers of UAVs play a significant role in Afghanistan. They are very expensive and, I am told, the exercise is turning into rather an expensive one to man. I suggest that that is an area where reservists would be ideal—the skills involved in operating a UAV are widely available outside: hand-eye co-ordination, understanding of IT systems and a range of other skills in which it would not be difficult to train reservists. There must also be opportunities, particularly if we need a surge capability, to think about how we can transfer that role, at least in part, to the reserve forces, as we proposed in our all-party group report.

I have given four specific examples; let me now give a general one. To my mind, it is quite astonishing that our air reserves are so tiny. The Americans have a third of all their fast jet fighter formed units and getting on for half of all their pilots in their volunteer reserve—that is, the air national guard and the US air reserve. In the Air Force, we have a total of 28 reserve pilots, nearly all of whom are Hercules pilots. That is all. A phenomenal investment goes into training a pilot, even before we think about fast jet pilots and if we consider only helicopter training. The cheque is torn up, in Britain, as soon as the man leaves the service. The Australians and, in particular, the Canadians have made slightly more use than we have of their flying reserves and the Americans have made vastly more use of them. There must be more scope for this.

The Territorial Army has a highly successful small helicopter regiment that will be disbanded in a few months’ time, which seems extraordinary to me. The Navy has a very well developed air reserve, with more pilots than the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Few people from the air reserve have been deployed in operations, although one or two have, but its members have played a significant role in substituting for regulars and saving a lot of money in the training pipeline.

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Unbelievably, the Royal Naval Reserve officer who commands the air reserve, which has been consistently up to strength, has been downgraded by one rank. His regular staff officer is being taken away, and the next stage—which will mean that he will be unable to do his job—will be his replacement by a regular officer. The Royal Navy has, shamefully, already decided to replace the commander of the Maritime Reserves with a full-time regular officer who had never done a civilian job. It is no criticism of the individual concerned to say that that will not provide leadership to people who are giving up their free time or provide understanding to his regular brother officers in the RNR about what royal naval reservists can do.

The situation in the volunteer reserves at the moment is, in many areas, fairly dire. I agree with most of what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea said. In a recent presentation to the all-party group, Air Vice-Marshal Paul Luker, who is an ex-regular and the chief executive of the Council of Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations, commented on an establishment of 42,000, although he said that the true figure is probably not much over 30,000. He said that officer recruitment was generally poor and that it was proving difficult to maintain the officer corps, which is at the absolute heart of a successful service. He also said that he was concerned that some aspects of recruiting were so focused on the next operational tour that it was losing sight of building the unit and nurturing the cadre of officers and NCOs needed to maintain its ethos and cohesion. He said that that was particularly true of the Royal Marine Reserve and the Auxiliary Air Force squadrons, which had been used even more heavily than the Territorial Army. I welcome the review, which I think will provide some modest steps in the right direction. We are all anxiously waiting for it.

I turn now to the One Army Recruiting process and its two single-service counterparts. Paul Luker said that the process was not really delivering. In the old days, the reserve forces and cadets associations ran recruiting, and he did not make a bid for that to be restored, but I firmly believe that, although centralised recruiting can lead to significant economies of scale in such matters as the purchasing of television time and so on, the remaining local element of recruiting should be given back to the RFCAs. They have the people—on their council, or in the media and local communities—who have the feel for local areas that regional brigades do not.

The local regional brigade commander in my constituency is excellent. Indeed, he is one of the best people to have held that post in all the time I have been the MP, but the occupant of that role is changed every two years. The result is that no one, however good he is, can have quite the same relationship with the community.

We need to address the issue of officer training, some of which can be done very cheaply and easily. In the Officer Training Corps, the University Royal Naval Units and the University Air Squadrons, we have a substantial resource that we do not tap sufficiently. Very little effort is made in the central planning undertaken by the Army and the other two services to make use of them for the volunteer reserve.

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I was very proud to see my son, a medical student at King’s, pass out of the first phase of the London OTC. It was a family occasion, because the commanding officer was his first cousin once removed—that is, my wife’s first cousin. However, it is a measure of how much the Army has lost its way in respect of the OTC that my son has been told that choosing to sign up for a cadetship would mean that he would be required to leave the that splendid organisation. The reason is that he might be subject to an operational deployment, which would cost him a year in his planning.

The solution, as we said in our report, would be for the senior Army medical staff to get off their butts—if the House will forgive the expression—and sort the problem out with the royal colleges. That would be better than the present situation, which is that they just say, “Well, people serving in TA medical units can suffer from that, but we are not having our regular Army people, including cadets, suffer in that way.”

I want to focus on the OTCs for a moment longer and try to explain what I mean. Coming through a typical OTC are large numbers of very keen young men and women, a few of whom will join the regular Army and some of whom might make good Territorials. However, whereas the arrangements in a university regiment in Australia or in a reserve officer training corps unit in America are closely tied into the training cycle—for the Army Reserve in Australia or the National Guard in America—that is not the case here.

For example, a person who has served with the OTC, completed a commissioning course from Sandhurst and wants to do a special-to-arm course cannot schedule it to fit into the same university vacation. Such a person cannot therefore get right through the system while at university, but the Americans and Australians have recognised that students are short of money but rich in time—exactly the opposite of what they will experience afterwards. With proper organisation, we could have an officer corps whose members were very well trained when they reached the end of their time at university.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being here earlier, but I saw his name on the monitor and came in. I joined the Territorial Army when I was at university, for the adventure and experience that it would give me and because it meant that I could work on Sundays as well as Saturdays at a time when I needed the money. Had I had the opportunity to do much more training, I would have taken it.

Mr. Brazier: Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. With very little expenditure, we could do a great deal to fix our officer training.

I have talked about recruitment. I end with what is at the heart of the problem of retention of officers and senior and junior NCOs in the Territorial Army. As a result of the reserves review, the word “offer” has come into the vocabulary. If we want people to give up their time and to face serious penalties in their civilian career, what are we offering? The answer has to be: worthwhile and interesting commands, opportunities to train with those commands, whether it is a corporal commanding a section or a major commanding a squadron or company and, in extremis, the opportunity to take those commands on active service on an operational tour. That is why the National Guard almost always deploys formed units.

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There is terrific tension in the MOD between people who recognise that and those who see the TA simply as a feeder to pad out regular units. The Royal Marine Reserve, which has had some outstanding people, including Corporal Matt Croucher, who received the George cross, has chosen to go entirely down the latter route. That is why the RFCA identified the RMR as having serious trouble in retaining officer and NCO structures—its fabric is under threat. Ironically, some other units that one might think comparable, such as 21 and 23 SAS—I was privileged to serve with 21 SAS some years ago—and 131 Commando squadron, the sapper unit that supports the Royal Marines, have all gone down the route of sending formed sub-units commanded by volunteer reserve officers, and they have all done exceptionally well. One of 131 Squadron’s more ambitious operations in the Gulf got on to the front page of The Times. I cannot give more detail but the special forces regiments have taken decorations, as the Minister knows.

The future for the reserve forces lies in formed sub-unit deployments, although they can also provide limited padding for regular units. That brings me to my last point, which is the only one where I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea. He said that the reserve forces provided only surge capability, but that they were very good at it. I would go a little further. The reserve forces are willing to go on being used in continuing operations if they are used in the right way—provided they have the resources and, crucially, provided they have the support in the local community that is present in America but is, I fear, pretty indifferent in Britain. Reserve forces are there to support the regular forces, but to do that job they need resources, training, an officer corps and the support of the country. I look forward to the Government’s reserves review.

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