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I want to end on the most important point, which is the programme review for 2010. At the moment, TA soldiers face a six-month cut in their training. All they ask is for some reassurance that this cut will not continue
into the next financial year. We are asking TA soldiers not to train for six months, but we might not learn until as late as 31 March whether the cut will continue into the next year. I understand from my sources in the MOD that many options are being run up, whereby these cuts will continue into the next financial year. I am not suggesting that the Minister would ever not be honest in this House, but can we have a degree of honesty when he replies about whether such cuts are being considered for next year? At the very least, will he undertake to announce before December that next year's funding for the TA will come in? That will underline to members of the Territorial Army that he values the TA and that it has a future.
Finally, will the Minister spare me and my colleagues in the TA the platitudes about how much he values the TA? Rather than telling me how much he values the TA and the role that we play in supporting the regular Army, will he give us some actions and decisions through which he will reverse this damaging and short-sighted announcement?
Mr. Speaker: It is the normal course for the Member concerned to seek the agreement of the sponsoring member, the Minister and the Chair. If the Minister is content for the hon. Gentleman briefly to contribute, I will allow him to do so.
It is important that we take heed of what has been said. However, may I take the Minister a little further? The Government have moved a little on this decision, but they need to reverse the whole decision and find another £20 million to replace this budget cut. Do we really understand the damage? We have touched on the subject of keeping skills at a high standard, whether someone is working in 101 Engineer Regiment or serving on the bomb disposal squad. The same applies to medics, whose skills cannot be turned off and on to suit the whim of the Government. Those skills must be honed week in, week out, ready for deployment. We do not know how many people we will need to back up. We can envisage the role that is required, but in the end we do not have the exact numbers.
If the main regiments are re-roling, the TA, which backs up those regiments, should also be doing the training. Unless we are to be left with a great void, I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to go to the Prime Minister, find that £20 million and reverse the decision.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): I start by genuinely congratulating the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing the debate, and thank him for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on what I know is an important issue of concern. I also genuinely-not platitudinously-offer my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his own long service as a member of the Territorial Army, which I know included service on operations overseas.
The TA and the UK reserve forces make a vital contribution to keeping our country safe-to defending our citizens, territory, interests and national security. As we set out in the strategic defence review, members of the TA are no longer held in the role that they served in during the cold war-that of direct territorial defence. They now expect to be mobilised and deployed on a range of operations in support of our defence policy overseas. Like our regular forces, they demonstrate the skills and values that place our armed forces in the top rank-supreme physical courage, commitment, excellence, application, leadership, judgment and selfless duty.
That duty has led to the deployment of 15,000 members of the TA on operations since 2003. More than 540 members of the TA are currently serving in Afghanistan. Like our regular forces, members of the TA stand ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. Tragically, 14 Territorials have died on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I pay tribute to their heroic efforts. We will not forget the price that has been paid.
When we have forces on the front line, both regular and reserve, putting their lives on the line for us, they have to be the priority. That is why Afghanistan comes first for defence. It is our main effort. It rightly gets first call on equipment, and first call on training and support. We are spending increasing sums from the Treasury reserve and the direct defence budget to do this. Additional spending on operations in Afghanistan has risen from £700 million three years ago to more than £3 billion this year. That is over and above the defence budget.
We have approved more than £3.2 billion-worth of urgent operational requirements specifically for Afghanistan. That additional spending has allowed us to more than double helicopter capacity compared with 2006, to quadruple the numbers of mine-protected Mastiff and Ridgback vehicles compared with six months ago, to increase specialised troops and equipment to target improvised explosive devices networks, and crucially, to deploy around 1,000 more troops in a little over six months, and to budget for a further increase if the conditions that we have set out are met.
Mrs. Moon: Does my hon. Friend agree that the other vital role of the Territorials is that they bring to the ordinary workplace an understanding of what our front-line troops are experiencing? They bring an understanding of the training needs, the equipment that is used, and the problems that they face. To destroy that connection is extremely damaging.
I return to the point that I was making. Making every effort to support and resource our operations in Afghanistan is not only a matter of drawing on the Treasury reserve. Many parts of the core defence budget, such as recruitment and basic training, contribute as well, so we need to re-prioritise the core defence budget too. Whatever way people argue, that inevitably means that tough choices will need to be made.
It is a very positive sign for the future that recruitment to the Army has experienced a significant boost this year-9,450 recruits are expected to complete training this year, more than 1,000 up on last year and 1,500 more than the year before that. Bringing the Army towards full manning is part of what the main effort is all about. It will also help us to meet the harmony guidelines for our regular forces and relieve pressures brought about by Afghanistan operations. But those new recruits will cost money to pay, train and equip-extra money that cannot be drawn from the Treasury reserve for that purpose. It has to be found within existing budgets, so there is a hard choice to make.
We have asked each area of defence to look at uncommitted budgets in this year and to prioritise in the context of Afghanistan. The Chief of the General Staff came forward with proposals from the Army to help to bring the budget into balance in the light of that recent recruitment boost. After discussion, the Secretary of State endorsed that advice from the military. He did so, being clear that we will not allow any risk to the Afghanistan campaign in the future to materialise. That is at the heart of what it means for Afghanistan to be the main effort, and we make no apologies for moving resources in that direction.
I shall now set out those measures as they affect the Territorial Army, as the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes has asked me to. The Army has proposed, as part of its contribution to bringing budgets towards balance this year and as a contribution to the main efforts, that it will reduce the amount spent on the Territorial Army this year which is not directly related to Afghanistan. That initial proposal was to suspend the remainder of this financial year's TA activity that was not directly supporting operations, contributing £20 million to a total saving of £43 million in the TA budget this year.
In saying that, let me be crystal clear: no individual deploying to Afghanistan does so without the required training; no TA soldier will be deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and prepared; and there is emphatically not a cut to pre-deployment training. The training needs of TA
personnel deploying to Afghanistan will continue to be individually assessed, and each will receive the training that they need before they begin the pre-deployment training that is specific to the operation upon which they embark. For reserves, that training is then validated at the reserves training and mobilisation centre and by the Permanent Joint Headquarters, before individuals are mobilised to join a formed unit for an extended period of collective training ahead of operations.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have listened to the comments and representations that hon. Members have made in recent days. Although we have always been clear during the debate that those deploying to Afghanistan will get all the training that they need, we do understand the concerns that have been expressed about the effect on those who are not due to deploy in the foreseeable future. I of course understand why people might be concerned about the longer-term effect on capability if the current situation continues indefinitely.
In the short term, the Army is clear that the measures can be managed without impact on support for current operations. But, we are all clear that we will not allow any longer-term risks to materialise. We recognise that in some quarters there are genuine concerns that, if the habit of TA activity is lost for a few months, some of our volunteers may drift away and never return; and we understand that the TA is more likely to come through this difficult period in good order if its members are encouraged to come together regularly, even if not as frequently as in the past.
We will therefore ensure some degree of continuity for those who are not deploying to Afghanistan in the next few months. Taking all that into account, we announced today-I did so earlier today in the Chamber-a small adjustment to the measures that we proposed. We are reducing the saving by £2.5 million to fund one training evening per month for all TA personnel from now until April 2010. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome that change, because it is one that he called for.
Bill Rammell: It is for everyone concerned. As I said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the measure, because I know it is one that he called for. How individual TA units arrange it will be a decision for their chain of command.
Let me also say to the hon. Gentleman, as he has raised this point, that we do not propose to close any TA centres. However, I must emphasise that the remainder of the savings measures are unavoidably necessary in these challenging times and to focus spending on Afghanistan. Resources are tight, and I am sure the House agrees that we have to ensure that our mission in Afghanistan gets all the support it needs.
As I have said, the precise training that is affected is being determined locally, depending on local circumstances and priorities, and commanding officers have some flexibility in the implementation of savings measures. All new recruits to the TA will continue to receive phase 1 training. TA personnel who have not yet qualified for their annual training bounty will have the opportunity to undertake training to enable them to qualify. The
hon. Gentleman's cursory description of the training that will be available to get that bounty did not bear any relationship to what we propose.
I sympathise entirely if those restrictions cause local TA units to review commitments that they have made to public events. I am told that many units are deciding to honour, without payment, commitments such as providing support for remembrance activities, and they are to be applauded for doing so. I hope that as many TA bands as possible will feel able to continue supporting local remembrance events.
We are still working on the full details of the savings measures, but at this stage we do not anticipate that any TA centres will close as a result. We are very keen to maintain links with the employers whose invaluable support is so crucial to the TA. Liaison with current and prospective employers will continue via regional reserve forces, cadet associations and the Government's Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers initiatives. Some regional TA activities will be cancelled, but that will have little, if any, effect on relations with employers. I realise that reductions in normal activity are disappointing for TA members. However, I hope and believe that the majority will understand the reasons behind those reductions and the exceptional circumstances in which they are being applied.
On communication, I repeat the regret that I expressed earlier today that members of the TA found out about changes through the press, rather than through the chain of command. There has been an historic practice in the armed forces, under successive Governments, that such changes are communicated and cascaded through the chain of command. In this day and age-in the media environment in which we operate, with the 24/7 media-I do not think that is good enough. We need to reflect on that issue and to make improvements. I also repeat the commitment that I gave earlier today that the changes will be kept under active review.
Let me conclude by giving a commitment. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said about reassurance for the future, and I think it is incumbent on us in the Ministry of Defence to reach conclusions on the budget for 2010 as quickly as possible in order to give that reassurance. The TA is doing an incredibly good job on behalf of all of us, and we should support that. I hope that the change that I have announced today will be welcomed right across the House.