Previous Section Index Home Page

28 Apr 2009 : Column 701

Reserves (Review)

3.34 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the report on the strategic review of reserves, which I am publishing today and which has been placed in the Library of the House.

I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to Britain’s reserves. They make an important contribution to current operations, serving with dedication and commitment alongside our regular forces. As I speak, more than 2,000 reservists are on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq on tasks ranging from fighting on the front line to force protection and medical support. That is 8 per cent. of our forces deployed. Reservists have served with distinction in all the conflicts that our forces have faced in recent times, from the Balkans to Sierra Leone. Some 18,000 have been deployed to operational theatres since 2003. Since then, 15 have made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives on our behalf. When I visit operational theatres, I never fail to be impressed by the men and women of our reserve forces who give up their time to serve their country.

However, it is not only the armed forces that benefit from our reserves. Society does too. Individual reservists learn and develop leadership, problem-solving and confidence-building skills that make them more capable employees and citizens. They also make a crucial contribution in the United Kingdom, helping out in emergencies from foot and mouth to flooding to providing cover during the firefighters’ strike.

The demands faced by our reservists have changed considerably, and we are using them more than we have before in peacetime. We need them to do more than simply prepare to defend the UK in the event of major conflict. We require them to augment our regular forces on expeditionary operations, yet the structures, training and organisation of our reserve forces have not changed to match that requirement and now need to be overhauled.

We owe it to our reservists, their employers and their families to ensure that they are supported to face the challenges of today and the future, not of the past. People wrongly say that this is about tackling stretch by using the reserves to plug gaps in the regular forces. That is not the case. It is, in fact, about optimising the contribution of all elements of defence today and in the future. The reserves are an integral part of that, and are themselves overwhelmingly keen to play a relevant role in current operations.

That is why last year my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) commissioned a strategic review of reserves. As a result, for the first time in recent years, the reserves have been the subject of a review in their own right. The review was conducted by a small team led by Major-General Nicholas Cottam, which consulted openly throughout defence and beyond. It listened carefully to the views of the reserves community, including the reserve forces and cadets associations.

General Cottam’s comprehensive review addressed all strategic aspects of reserve service. I am today placing copies of it in the Library of the House and on the Ministry of Defence website. As one would expect from such a careful analysis conducted over several months, it is very detailed. We have therefore produced a summary
28 Apr 2009 : Column 702
of the review, which will also be placed in the Library today. General Cottam confirms that the summary report accurately reflects his review. It also indicates how we shall take forward this important work.

General Cottam’s work offered seven strategic recommendations. I am pleased to announce that we are accepting all of them. They flow into more than 80 detailed recommendations. General Cottam was not asked to produce an implementation plan, as his review was properly designed to be strategic. Consequently, some of his detailed recommendations will require considerable further scoping work, taking into account resources and priorities across defence. That will make for difficult choices, but the review provides the solid foundation on which they can be made. I am, however, pleased to announce that around half the recommendations will be implemented immediately.

The review has redefined the “purpose” of the UK’s reserves, and notes that they provide defence with a cost-effective way of retaining certain specialised skills. Precisely those niche capabilities and that depth of personnel prove so invaluable in our current operations. The review also acknowledges that reservists may remain vital for supporting national resilience and it recognises the very important role that they play in connecting the armed forces with the nation.

A key tenet of the review is bringing greater clarity to reservists about what we expect of them and what they can expect in return. That has been captured in the “Proposition”, which sets out for the first time what reserve service offers. Specifically, it states that we must ensure that

Part of that challenge is the opportunity to lead and command, which is why General Cottam’s detailed recommendations include proposals for officer recruitment and education. If we deliver the “Proposition”—I am determined that we will—the outcome should be a better trained, better organised reserve, better able to deliver its tasks.

I should like to give the House a few examples of what we are doing now to help achieve that outcome. We shall develop better and more flexible terms and conditions of service, which will allow a range of different forms of reserve service as well as easier movement between the regular and the reserve services by removing complexity and administrative barriers.

Reservist training will be refocused, with a greater emphasis on preparation to support current operations. Initial training will be restructured so that new recruits receive sufficient military skills to participate in their units’ collective training within six months of joining, and are fully trained and eligible for mobilisation in three years. Routine training will also be reviewed and sufficient man training days allocated to ensure that annual military competency standards can be achieved by all.

The Territorial Army will be better integrated with the regular Army to ensure that, combined, they are best structured to support current and future operations. That will include stopping reservist tasks that are no longer needed, thereby bringing efficiencies and enabling
28 Apr 2009 : Column 703
manpower to be used for higher priorities. Some tasks of that nature have been identified during separate work as part of the Department’s annual planning round.

As mentioned in the review, certain elements of 2 (National Communications) Signal Brigade are identified as no longer having a clear operational role. That is partly because they hold capabilities that are no longer current, and partly because their tasks can be achieved elsewhere in defence, not least because of improvements in wider national resilience.

In addition, some TA signals units operate communications equipment that is now obsolete, and those posts will be removed. They include Headquarters 12 Signals Group and 33, 34 and 35 Signals Regiments—it is logical to reallocate those resources to higher defence priorities. That decision has not been taken lightly and we are very aware of the exceptional contribution made by the Royal Signals within the TA. However, we must focus resources where we need them most. Where possible, those affected by the decision will be offered other opportunities in the TA, and we will conduct further work to determine the most effective configuration for the TA Royal Signals. As I said, those decisions were taken separately from the reserves review, but they are entirely consistent with it.

We shall also rationalise and improve the way that we approach the civil contingency reaction force and the part that it plays in wider national resilience tasks. That will make it more effective and less burdensome to the units involved. We shall also be working closely with the Department for International Development to determine how best to employ niche reservist skills in support of stabilisation operations.

We need to rationalise the reserve estate. Some of it is underused, out of date and in poor repair; some of it is simply unacceptable for modern military use. In some places, sites sit near to one another, while elsewhere the reserve has no footprint at all. I am therefore setting in train work to deliver a modern, better managed and fit-for-purpose volunteer estate. This important work will take time and I am determined that it be done properly.

Employers play a vital role in delivering and supporting our reserves. They bear the gap while an employee is training and an even greater one when reservists are away from the workplace on deployed operations. We are very fortunate that so many of our employers are so accommodating of the demands that go with a reservist commitment. They recognise the additional skills and qualities that individual reservists can bring to any organisation, but we want to work better with employers. We shall continue to provide assistance and support to them through our employer support organisation, Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers, which is commonly known as SaBRE. In addition, we shall give greater direction to the reserve forces and cadets associations, to ensure that their excellent work in support of the reserves is more coherent and co-ordinated.

The review that we publish today is important for our armed forces and for Britain’s reserves. It makes it clear that the two are not separate; rather, that the reserves provide an integral part of our military force structure. The review provides a firm basis from which we can
28 Apr 2009 : Column 704
work further to develop and improve our reserve forces and how we support them. I believe that this is an exciting opportunity for our reservists. The review’s outcome is a comprehensive piece of work that has been welcomed by the single service chiefs. The review is a blueprint to ensure that our reserve forces have a clear and bright future to match their illustrious past, and I commend it to the House.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The whole House can and will take pride in the achievements of our reserve forces. We pay tribute to the sacrifices that they have made for the security of our country. Like many hon. Members, I have met our reserves in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have never failed to be impressed by their professionalism and courage.

I am slightly surprised that the Minister failed to acknowledge the important role of the 234 TA troops currently serving on the green line in Cyprus, as part of Operation Tosca, although I am sure that that was an oversight. This is the first time that Op Tosca has been fully resourced by the TA, which deserves congratulations on the work that it has done.

The main focus of the Minister’s statement was the TA. Very little—in fact, I think nothing at all—was said about the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marines Reserve or the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. How will the report impact on those forces? I am sure that the members of those reserve forces serving in Iraq or Afghanistan will be surprised, to say the least, that they seem to have been omitted today.

We welcome the genuine attempt to improve and expedite basic training for both soldiers and officers, but could the Minister tell us what assessment the Government have made of the attractiveness to potential recruits and, more importantly, employers of condensing basic training into six months? It also surprised me a little that there was no mention in the Minister’s statement of the welfare issues affecting our reservists and their families. Perhaps he can tell the House in his response what measures in the report’s recommendations will improve the welfare of our reserve forces and their families.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that it is a major disincentive when regulars take a disproportionate number of places at the top of TA units. Will he assure the House that, when reservists can carry out a role, they should do so, and that, when appropriately qualified, reservists will have priority?

The Minister said at the beginning of his statement that the reserve forces make a crucial contribution in emergencies. Surely it would be more accurate to say that they have made such a contribution, because the Government are effectively abandoning their own plans, set out in 2002, for the civil contingency reaction force. Who is going to carry out that role, if not the TA? The assumption seems to be that the blue light services and the regular services will assume that responsibility, but the regular Army is already overstretched and is increasingly being concentrated into super-garrisons. So, let me get this right: with a potential flu pandemic at our door, the Government are abandoning their own civil contingency reaction force and, instead of using the widespread footprint of the TA across the country, they intend to depend more on the regular Army, which they are concentrating in fewer and fewer geographical locations. Are they kidding us?

28 Apr 2009 : Column 705

No one can argue with the need to rationalise the reserve estate, but the Minister says that detailed work needs to be done first, and that it could take some time. Hmm. Will he then tell us why the Government have a figure of £75 million in the MOD budget for financial year 2011-12 as a contribution made by the reserve estate? How did they arrive at that figure? Has some work already been done, or has that number simply been borrowed from the fantasy figure library that the Chancellor has been putting to such good effect recently?

I have a further point about money. In the discussions that the Minister has had with the Department for International Development on using reservists in support of stabilisation operations, has he discussed transferring any elements of DFID’s funding for that purpose? If so, how much?

In 1997, the establishment figure for the TA was 59,000. Today, the figure is 58,500, even though the current strength is only 28,920. Following the Minister’s statement today, what will the establishment figure be? Given that the TA has been funded to only 83 per cent. of its capacity in recent years, what will that figure be today? Simply put: how much is the TA being cut by, and how much money will it get?

Despite General Cottam’s excellent work, changes to the shape of our armed forces should be made within the context of a strategic defence review—which is hugely overdue—and not in this piecemeal fashion. I am afraid that this statement is short on detail and indicative of a Government who lack direction. If the Minister really wants to abolish obsolete bodies and make them disappear, I am sure that the voters will be only too happy to help.

Mr. Ainsworth: It is traditional to thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. He is right about Op Tosca; I am sorry that I did not mention it. He is, however, totally wrong about my omitting other reservists. I mentioned the reserve throughout. Obviously, I concentrated on the TA because the measures that have been taken in the spending round apply to the TA. He should not be surprised that I majored on that issue and did not try to hide it from the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the establishment. There are no plans to take any further cuts in the establishment. Indeed, the report proposes increases in the establishment of the other services—the naval and air reserves. However, the figures for the deletions that are being made in the Signals Regiments amount to around 2,000 individuals. Of course, that would come off the establishment— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is right: there will be more than that in terms of posts, but in terms of individuals in place, about 2,000 people will be affected.

With regard to welfare, paragraph 3.5 on page 21 of the report says that we must recognise the needs of reserves during their deployment and through into their period with the reservists. We have made commitments in the service personnel command paper to improve welfare provisions, and those will apply to regular forces as well as to reservists.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned money and I wondered whether he would. He knows that I am trying desperately to help him at the moment by getting information out of the shadow Chancellor that might be of use to him,
28 Apr 2009 : Column 706
and I shall continue in those endeavours. He is right to say that the review does not print money, but it does spell out a strategic framework against which the reserve will have an opportunity to bid for defence resources more effectively than it otherwise would.

On the civil contingency reaction force, the important thing is that we keep the command and control mechanism in place so that people can be called up when they are required. We need to relieve the reserves from burdensome training that they do not really need to do, and which they do not welcome, in order to give them more effective, higher level training that will make them better reserves and more able to augment our regular forces.

Des Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and may I ask him to pass on my personal thanks and appreciation to General Cottam and his team for a job that I am sure was extremely professionally and well done? I have not had the opportunity that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) may have had to read the whole report; I have not seen it at all, but I shall study it carefully and I may have further observations to make.

I agree with the points that have been made, and I am sure will be made by those on both sides of the House, about how our admiration for our reserves increases by the day. From my experience in the last year in which I was Secretary of State for Defence, I know that increasingly, on every operational visit that I made, it became impossible to tell the difference between the regular members and the reserves of any of the three services. That is the highest compliment that I can pay reservists and, indeed, it was the compliment paid to them by regular members of all three services in my presence on many occasions.

The strategic review’s strength was that it was wanted by the reservists; the loudest voices of welcome for it came from reservists themselves. That strength was augmented by the way in which General Cottam conducted the review in a transparent and inclusive fashion. I just wish to ask my right hon. Friend two questions. First, can we continue that inclusiveness and transparency by developing an implementation group, as we did in the Department on other occasions to ensure that those who were consulted were included in implementation? The second is a plea on behalf of the south-west of Scotland, which gives a lot of people to the services, but has very little footprint of the reserves in its communities. Can we have some please?

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my right hon. Friend for that; indeed, he established this review in the first place, so he understands better than anyone the need for it. As he rightly says, the members of the reserves are extremely impressive and highly capable people who have a real desire to serve in today’s operations. What we are really seeking to do is to catch up with the movement that has been effectively made on the ground by putting in place, through this review, the systems that are necessary to serve them in doing that.

My right hon. Friend raises two specific points. I can tell him that an implementation group is set up to look at the individual recommendations, and I assure him that I will see to it—I am sure that those involved will want to do this in any case—that it will be as inclusive as possible in how it goes about its work of deciding which of those recommendations should be taken forward and in what way.

Next Section Index Home Page