Previous Section Index Home Page

28 Apr 2009 : Column 707

The point that my right hon. Friend makes about Scotland can be made about many other parts of the United Kingdom too, and this is why there is a need to modernise the estate. I heard hon. Members talking about flogging it off, but much of the estate is not even owned by the MOD. We bear the costs of the maintenance of that estate, and it is not appropriate and not fit for purpose, so we need to spend in new areas.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I, too, wish to put on record my respect and admiration for the reserves, who are undoubtedly a valuable part of our armed forces. We have used them more and more in recent years, sending them to the front line much more than previously, and it is no surprise that the National Audit Office observed in its report that there are parts of the armed forces that simply could not manage without the reserves.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it, but it poses more questions than it answers and it is scant on detail. He tells us that there are seven strategic recommendations and 80 detailed ones. I notice that he was on his feet for 14 minutes and I should have thought that he could at least have told us what the seven strategic recommendations are in that time. Can he guarantee that we will get a further chance to ask questions when we have had sight of them? We have no idea of the extent of the changes that are being considered, or whether they will cost more or less. Nor do we have any sense of the time scale for the introduction of the measures or the likely impact on the wider armed forces.

The NAO also observed that reserve forces cannot be a substitute for the regular armed forces, given the inherent limitations in training time and the fact that they are not able to deploy as quickly as high-readiness forces. The Minister must surely accept that nothing in this review can change that.

We know that we will have an ongoing role in Afghanistan for many years, and we will be involved in the Balkans for some time yet. Given the burden that we have placed on the Territorials in recent years, can the Minister give us some indication of what that will mean for their numbers? If after everything that they have done their numbers are cut, it will feel like a slap in the face.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman says that we cannot manage without the reserves as if we should try to do so—

Nick Harvey: Absolutely not.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am glad to receive that response, because we should not be managing without the reserves. We should see them as part of our armed forces, and we should try to make them as relevant, as competent and as useful as they can be. That is what the enthusiastic individuals who volunteer for the reserve want, so it should be no surprise that we are using them. They are enthusiastic about being used, and the report is about enabling them in that regard.

The hon. Gentleman complains about lack of information. The report should have been passed to him before the statement. I acknowledge that he has not
28 Apr 2009 : Column 708
had sight of it and I apologise for that administrative error. I meant to get both my statement and the report to both Front-Bench spokesmen before we started. I have tried to be as open as I can and I have engaged with the all-party group on reserve forces. We have another meeting later this afternoon and I know that there is a level of interest and expertise in the House that needs to be fed into this review. I also know that General Cottam appreciated the information that he received.

The hon. Gentleman talked about numbers. It is difficult to predict what will happen, but there are no proposals for cuts in the reserves other than those that I have mentioned in the two areas. If we make the reserve as relevant, capable and deployable as we can, and if we put the work into understanding that capability, the potential is that the reserve will grow, because we will understand the risks that are associated with giving any particular issue over to a reserve capability. That will develop over time, and I hope that the reserve will at least give options to planners in providing capability.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): I am very concerned about the announcement made by my right hon. Friend as regards the Crown Gate Territorial Army training centre in Runcorn. It is a modern purpose-built facility and is the home of 80 Squadron, part of 33 Signal Regiment, which he has announced will be disbanded forthwith. It is also the home of the Army cadets and the Navy cadets. As he will be aware, Runcorn is very important for recruitment to the armed services in the north-west. I am extremely anxious that we maintain the reservist footprint in the town. Will he give me some assurances about the future of that centre in my constituency?

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am not surprised that he is concerned. The decision that we have taken is not about the facilities in his constituency, but about the capability provided by the Signals Regiment that is only a part of, and only one user of, those facilities. As I have said, it uses equipment that is now obsolete. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to see whether we can find ways of continuing to use the facilities—if they are as good as he says, we should certainly do so. We need to maintain our support to the Army and Navy cadets.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Will the Minister forgive me if I say that I found his statement a little thin on detail? I am sure that when we read the report of Major-General Cottam, who has done extremely good work, we will find it very meaty. However, the impression that I have from the Minister is that he is managing decline rather than inspiring recovery. What will come out of this statement that will bring the reserves up to their complementary strength?

Mr. Ainsworth: Two things more than any other will help us to continue to inspire people to volunteer, both of which I mentioned. I am sad that the right hon. Gentleman did not recognise that. The first is the proposition to lay out for the first time what we expect of our reserves—it is strange that it has never been spelt out, but it has not—and what we offer in return. The second is the need to bring better quality, more relevant training to people. If we do not give them support and
28 Apr 2009 : Column 709
opportunities, as well as the training that is needed to exploit those opportunities, who will be surprised if we struggle to attract the volunteers that we need? I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find, as he digs into the report, that far from managing decline, these moves have the potential to make the reserves relevant for the next century, as they have been for the last.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): May I first put on record my appreciation of the work done by the two Territorial Army units in my constituency? Will my right hon. Friend explain exactly how these new and additional resources will be made available to them? Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), may I too make a bid, in this case for the super-garrison to be in Central Ayrshire?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is a supporter of the reserve forces, as he is of the armed forces overall. Our statement today does not cover super-garrisons, I am afraid, but his bid is noted. We are trying to ensure that we shift resources so that we better cover the geographical area of the country by remodelling the estate—that is central to the changes that we are making today. If we improve the training, make it relevant and drop that which is irrelevant—the unnecessary burdens—we will give people a far better offer and be able to attract them to the reserve units in his constituency.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): The Minister cannot expect the House to be impressed by his suggestion a few moments ago that the reserves might actually grow in strength, on a day when he has just announced a further 2,000 cuts in their manpower. He will not deny that since this Government came into power, the reserves have virtually halved from 62,000 to 33,000. If, for perhaps sensible reasons, it is necessary to terminate the three Signals Regiments, would it not be fair to the reservists, when they are being used to a degree that is unprecedented in our history, for the 2,000 manpower that is being saved from the Signals Regiments to be allocated elsewhere in the TA?

Mr. Ainsworth: Where individuals are affected by the changes to the Signals Regiment, which I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman recognises are necessary, we will seek to use them and absorb them in the reserve. That will not be possible in every circumstance. Those people may not want to do other jobs, but where they do we shall do our level best to continue to use their enthusiasm. The point I was making about potential growth is that, better managed and better understood, the risk of allowing some capability to be rested entirely within the reserve will be reduced. Over time, there will be potential for the reserve to be used in areas where people have not dared to use it in the past and, therefore, the reserve might grow.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): May I say to my right hon. Friend that this leaves a dark cloud over the TA? We have uncertainty and a lot of questions that need to be answered. We ought not to be reducing the strength of the TA; it gives us the best value for money in the British armed forces and certainly backs up our full-timers. As he has rightly acknowledged, if there is a difference between the regulars and the TA, it is the
28 Apr 2009 : Column 710
valuable work the TA gives us at a very low cost. Will he consider re-badging and re-rolling the Signals, and will he tell us about the implications of his statement across the country? May I have an assurance that it will not affect C Squadron in Chorley—my TA unit?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sad that my hon. Friend sees a dark cloud. I urge him to read the review where he will see that there is no such thing. We are standing down the elements that are not relevant to defence requirement. For us to continue with that would be ridiculous in the extreme. No other cuts are proposed; this is a strategic review, designed to put the reserve in a better place. It ought to be seen not as a dark cloud but as an opportunity.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): My interest is in the register.

Will the Minister reflect on recommendation 50? Although the result may have more the character of an agreed merger than a hostile takeover bid, ultimately the outcome will be same: we will have lost an Army with its own ethos and acquired a mere reserve, and something of value will have been lost.

Mr. Ainsworth: This is an important issue. The balance between enabling a career structure for reservist officers and appropriately integrating and using them alongside regular forces will be difficult to strike, but there are times when reserve units should be and are commanded by regulars—there are times when the chain of command decides that is a good thing for a particular unit—but if that is overdone, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: we turn off the talent that could be coming into the reserve wanting to be officers and to progress as officers. I give him an assurance that it is the intention to try to get that balance right.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that before changes are made to the real estate, it is always useful to talk to local Members, because they have knowledge about accessibility to those premises and how a sudden change could dramatically affect both recruitment and the willingness of those in the TA to continue to serve?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is right, but if there is one thing about which I have absolutely no doubt it is that given the level of interest and expertise in the House, any changes to the estate will be discussed with local people, whether proactively or reactively. There will be no attempt to run away from that.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Scottish National party pays tribute to our reserves. We welcome the review but, like everyone else in the House, we are yet to see the details, so we will reserve judgment on them.

Has the Minister had the opportunity to read this weekend’s comments by the head of the Territorial Army in Scotland, Brigadier David Allfrey? He talked about plugging a serious gap in the recruitment of reservist officers and said that after a period of paid TA training, at no cost to their employer, employees facing redundancy could return to their companies in better economic times with new or improved management skills. In these difficult economic times, does the Minister agree that that sensible proposal merits closer inspection?

28 Apr 2009 : Column 711

Mr. Ainsworth: I have not read those comments but it sounds like they merit inspection. I think that the hon. Gentleman and others will be interested in a number of proposals in the report, such as military gap years and other ideas that individuals might wish to exploit.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I welcome the statement, mainly because the Department accepted all the strategic recommendations, which represents a refreshing approach.

May I make a plea to my right hon. Friend that he never says that we are disbanding part of the armed forces because their equipment is obsolete, because that might make many parts of them feel under threat? Will he assure us that when we reconfigure the Territorial Army, we will do all that we can to ensure that its members receive all the technological support and equipment that the British armed forces can offer so that when they move into the armed forces, they are not put at a disadvantage by having to retrain on new equipment?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sorry that my hon. Friend was annoyed by what I said, but the fact is that the units that I was talking about exist, and are structured, to use the Ptarmigan communications system, which is now obsolete. It was in place to support the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, but that is now supported by separate communications systems, so we no longer use or need the equipment. However, my hon. Friend is quite right to put forward his well-made point about integration and the need for interchangeable equipment.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the Minister agree that a pull-through from university officer training corps to the TA is extremely important, and will he confirm the great value that he attaches to OTCs? Secondly, does he realise that the reserve forces will become most attractive if they are properly funded and have the equipment that they need to do the job that they can do?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right that funding for equipment is important. People want to be properly equipped when they join both the regulars and the reserves but, as he knows, that is not the end of the story. The right and relevant training is key to the offer that we make to the reserves, and that is central to the proposals in the report.

Mr. Soames: And the OTCs?

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman made.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I agree with the aspirations set out in the statement, but I am concerned that I am no wiser about some of the points that have been made because the statement was thin on the proposals, although I will read the report when it comes through. Will the Minister assure us that before we get into the details we will have a full debate in which we can not only discuss the acquisition or relinquishing of property, but cover the whole thing at one time? I get the feeling that we are talking about getting rid of some of the property without dealing with the bigger issue.

28 Apr 2009 : Column 712

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is quite wrong. It will take anything up to 10 years to implement some aspects of the review, so I am certain that they will be discussed in the House again and again. I will remain engaged with the all-party group on reserve forces, and we will make written and oral statements whenever they are necessary.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): May I thank the Minister for all the review’s courteous exchanges with my all-party group on reserve forces?

The review brings good news in the form of innovative ideas for training, especially basic training, but that is balanced with extremely bad news about numbers, especially given that the establishments of several units do not provide the critical mass for training. May I press the Minister on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)? The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that critical to the offer is opportunities for command. I urge him not to depart from the rule that most TA and Royal Naval Reserve units are commanded by reservists, where adequate reservists are available, so that we avoid a repetition of the truly shameful exercise whereby a group of senior regular officers in the Navy were able to brush away four strong reservist candidates and impose a regular officer, on the basis that he had more time available.

Mr. Ainsworth: The principle espoused in General Cottam’s review is that we should have the best person for the job. That is the recommendation against which the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) reacted—recommendation 50. General Cottam and I have already discussed the matter and we agree that, in deciding who is the best person for a job, we should take account of the unit’s being a reservist unit, and the fact that the commander is a reservist will often be part of that assessment. As I said, sometimes the chain of command will decide for good reason that, at a particular point in time, it is appropriate that a regular officer commands a unit. However, we do not want to damage the career path—the ability to bring capable individuals into the officer corps—and we will do that if we take that too far.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I welcome the statement and look forward to reading General Cottam’s comprehensive review of the strategic aspects of the reserve forces, but I have one question. In his statement, my right hon. Friend mentioned flexible terms of engagement or employment. Will he confirm that he may use such language? Will he explain how those terms will benefit medical reservists, who are essential to our deployed forces?

Mr. Ainsworth: To be frank, I am not sure what impact they will have on medical reservists. I shall come back to my hon. Friend on that point. However, there are considerable barriers to flexibility in the terms and conditions of employment in the reserves. For instance, it is detrimental to an individual, on leaving the regular service, to go straight into the reserve. Is that sensible? Such people have all the skills and are capable soldiers, sailors or airmen, but the effect of the current terms and conditions is to discourage them from transferring straight into the reserve. I do not think that that is sensible, and nor did General Cottam.

Next Section Index Home Page