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28 Oct 2009 : Column 349

Future of the Territorial Army

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Will Members who are not staying for the debate please leave the Chamber as quickly and quietly as possible?

I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.16 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I beg to move,

Let me begin by paying tribute to Corporal Thomas "Tam" Mason of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, who died from wounds at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Selly Oak on Sunday, and also to Corporal James Oakland of the Royal Military Police, who was killed in central Helmand province on Thursday 22 October. While we think about the families of those who have been killed, we also think about the families of those who have been injured, whose lives will never be the same either.

Through good times and bad, the Territorial Army has given a proud 101 years of service to this country. Since 2002, reserve forces have contributed some 20,000 personnel to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans, most of them from the Territorial Army. Fourteen Territorials have died on those operations. Today we are debating the future of the TA because of the cuts that the Government proposed to TA training, which in the past 24 hours have been rightly and swiftly reversed.

All Governments make mistakes. All people make mistakes. Smart people recognise them and rectify them, and exhausted Governments dig in. What is worse, they tend to try to delude themselves that the bad decisions are actually difficult decisions with hidden virtue. Let us face it: we have seen it all before. Some of us have lived through it before. Here is the recipe. Typically, you take a relatively small sum of money to be saved and find the most politically costly way of doing it. Then, when you run into trouble, you backtrack and make concessions. When threatened with a Back-Bench revolt, you perform a spectacular U-turn, so that you actually save no money at all but spend the maximum amount of political capital. That is exactly what we have seen in recent days on the TA issue.

Although they were forced into it, the Government made the right decision by performing a U-turn on the shameful cuts in TA training, because the cuts would have had a long-term impact on recruitment and on the overall future readiness of the TA. Whether or not an individual is deployed on operations, regular and
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routine training is required to ensure medium and long-term readiness levels for any future deployments, whether to Afghanistan or to another unforeseen destination.

Pre-deployment training is meant to augment, not supplant, routine TA training. The weekly and monthly training gives the TA the skills that are required to allow them to perform alongside their regular Army counterparts. It also gives our Territorials the esprit de corps and confidence to work together as a unit in challenging circumstances, whether at home or in Helmand. How can a Territorial who has not been to the range for six months, driven an armoured vehicle for six months or trained with his comrades for six months be expected all of a sudden to conduct several weeks of pre-deployment training and be ready for deployment on the front line? The answer is that no Territorial can be expected to do that, which is why the cuts were wrong in the first place.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was right for the Prime Minister to intervene and overturn a decision by Land Command? Does he agree that the problem with Land Command is that it is easy to pick on the TA and never pick on the regulars?

Dr. Fox: And it is very easy to pick on the generals instead of the politicians, because if people are given a set of bad choices to choose from, they are likely to make unwelcome decisions.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recognise the particular anger at the Government's recent TA policy that is felt by people such as a 20-year-old undergraduate constituent of mine who is due to go to Afghanistan next June and who relies on his TA pay for income?

Dr. Fox: Indeed I do, and I think that there is a degree of hurt and resentment that will not quickly go away in many of those who feel that they have been slighted by events of recent days.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that when the Army was asked to make cuts amounting to £43 million, the regular generals were rather Machiavellian in choosing to cut the TA budget, knowing that that would be very unpopular with the country and that it would probably be reversed? Is it not, however, also at a stroke a blow to the one Army concept, because what will the TA now think about the regular Army, and in particular the regular generals?

Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend puts her finger on the key point that there will be long-standing damage to morale as a consequence of what has happened in recent days, and that cannot easily be rectified by a U-turn by politicians.

As a result of all these points, one must ask why the Government considered such cuts to begin with, when almost all the advice they received runs against such a decision. On training, the Cottam report-whose seven strategic recommendations were accepted in full by the Government-said:

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The Government said these cuts would not have a long-term impact on providing Territorials for Afghanistan, but that is not the view of senior Army officers. According to the "Land forces in-year savings measure communication plan" dated 12 October 2009, the

The excuses given by the Government also need to be scrutinised. As always, there is more than meets the eye. We were told that money had to be found to fund new recruits. On Monday, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), said that

Because of this recession-the longest recession since records began, and longer than the Government expected-and the media recruitment drive of the past year, there are more recruits in the regular Army than there is money to train them from the Government budget. The Government have demanded savings from other areas of the Army to fund this, but the Government knew last year that regular Army recruitment was already taking off.

On recruitment, the Chief of the General Staff briefing team report of 2008 stated:

Such a direct message from the head of the Army should at least have been a warning to the Government, so why did the Government not plan to fund their own target numbers for recruitment, especially when we are in a war? I understand that they probably believed that they would fail in this, as they have in so many other things, but why were no financial contingencies made?

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the case he is making on the Government's proposed cut to the TA budget highlights the following point? The Government's claim that they were not overstretching the Ministry of Defence with the demands that they placed on it in recent years and under-resourcing is completely contradicted by the fact that they felt that such a cut to the budget had to be implemented.

Dr. Fox: Indeed, and many of the myths the Government have been peddling in recent times have been blown apart by events of the past few weeks. If there really is a problem in funding all the new recruits, and if money was going to be diverted from the TA budget to address that but now that is not going to happen, where will the MOD find the money that will still be required to fund those extra recruits? What other areas will have to experience cuts because the Government failed to plan properly?

That brings me to the other excuse given by the Government-it is perhaps even more telling. The Secretary of State said in a recent debate:

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Yet the Government have repeatedly told the House in recent years that they

It has always been the House's understanding that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be funded from the reserve and would not have an impact on the core budget. If operations in Afghanistan are fully funded from the reserve, why does the Ministry of Defence need to adjust the core budget to reprioritise operations in Afghanistan? What is the MOD core budget paying for that the Treasury is not?

One of the most telling things that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair ever said was contained in one of his long farewell tour speeches. When speaking on one of Her Majesty's ships he said, "Under Labour, we have kept spending on defence constant at about 2.5 per cent. of GDP, if you include Iraq and Afghanistan." In other words, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were being fought on a peacetime budget, and that has always meant that there would be some impact on the core budget. It is now clear that- as many Members of the House have said in many debates in recent times-all costs associated with operations in Afghanistan will not be paid in full above and beyond the core defence budget.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the key issue is that the Government, rather than feeling remorse or a sense of error in what they have done, have retreated due to political pressure? Does he agree that, as he rightly points out, the strategic imperative to invest in the Army is clear-cut, but the Government seem to be trying to make savings on a tactical basis and that that means there is a continuing danger?

Dr. Fox: That is a little unkind; a surrender is a surrender. We are always willing to accept one from the Government, especially when they have already got things wrong. This whole episode has taught us a number of things. The Secretary of State says that the Chief of the General Staff agreed to these cuts, but if someone is given bad options, they are likely, inevitably, to make unwelcome choices. This Government have shown that they do not understand the ethos of the TA and of volunteering; the MOD failed to prepare for the upshot in recruitment, even though it was warned a year ago by the head of the Army; and, finally, operations in Afghanistan are not fully funded from the reserve, as the Government wanted us to believe.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Has my hon. Friend noticed that whatever the mistake, the Government always blame someone else and never take responsibility? The Government asked for the cuts; the Government knew what cuts were proposed; the Government accepted those cuts; and the Government should be ashamed of themselves.

Dr. Fox: I must tell my right hon. Friend that inside this Government they play the blame game extremely well-now they are even blaming one another. No. 10 is briefing at this very moment that this was all the MOD's fault and that No. 10 rode to the rescue of the MOD to save it from itself; our Prime Minister, the great champion of the armed forces and long-term advocate of their welfare, has come to the rescue of the Secretary of
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State, who clearly does not understand these issues. After the shocking report that we saw this morning about the long-term consequences of what has happened with the cultural shift in the Government, the Prime Minister is not on a strong wicket when it comes to blaming anybody else for the state in which our armed forces find themselves.

The Cottam review acknowledged that reservists remain vital for supporting national resilience and recognised the very important role that they play in connecting the armed forces with the nation. I know that I speak for the vast majority in the House when I say that I could not agree more. The connection between each community and each local TA unit makes the TA worth its weight in gold, and it can never be taken for granted-I might suggest that after the past week's events, politically it might never be taken for granted in the same way again. The TA plays an important role in Afghanistan. The Secretary of State knows that, because he sees it on his morale-boosting tours there, one of which he recently completed with the Home Secretary-goodness knows how depressed one has to be before one's morale is boosted by the Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary on tour.

This whole episode that we have witnessed in recent days smacks of a Government who no longer make joined-up decisions and whose political instincts have gone walkabout. What do they cut to reprioritise MOD funds for Afghanistan? Do they cut waste, bureaucracy or inefficiency? No, in order to help the war effort, they reduce the training for the troops who may be needed for the war effort. The trouble is that the act of doing so means that many of those in the TA might be gone by the time that the Government need them. We could not make up this level of incompetence. The TA represents some of the bravest and best things about Britain; the Government represent some of the most pointless and useless. It is time to go.

4.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from the second 'operations;' to the end of the Question and add:

The Territorial Army and the UK reserve forces make a vital contribution to keeping our country safe-to defending our citizens, territory, interests and national security. They also make a vital contribution to the fabric of our society as a whole. They represent important values: a strong volunteer ethos, a commitment to service, giving back to society and the values of community.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way in a moment.

Our reserves are no longer held in the role they served during the cold war, that is, for direct territorial defence. The TA has become an integral arm of the Regular Army, supporting the operational commitments of regular forces as set out in the strategic defence review.

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Almost 20,000 reservists have served on operations since 2003, including 15,000 members of the TA, and 650 reservists are serving in Afghanistan, some 7 per cent. of all of the forces deployed. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, 14 members of the TA have died on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and more have been wounded, 31 returning with potentially life-changing injuries. Their sacrifice must not and will not be forgotten.

Mr. Hoyle: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: In a moment.

Against that sacrifice, and to ensure our essential national security, Afghanistan comes first for defence. It gets first call on money, first call on equipment and first call on training and support. We are spending increasing sums from the Treasury reserve and the defence budget to do that. Additional spending on operations in Afghanistan has risen from £700 million in 2006 to more than £3 billion this year.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: In a moment.

We have approved more than £3.2 billion 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 number of mine-protected Mastiff and Ridgback vehicles compared with six months ago, to increase the number of specialised troops and equipment to target the improvised explosive device networks, to deploy about 1,000 more troops in a little over six months and to budget for a further increase of 500 if the conditions that we have set out are met.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to a number of hon. Members in a moment.

Afghanistan First is not only a matter of drawing on the Treasury reserve. Many parts of the core defence budget contribute too, including spending on recruitment and basic training. We need to make tough choices with resources if we want to keep equipment, manpower and support flowing to Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Woodspring said that all we did was to give the Army bad options and bad choices, and that we should not have been entirely surprised when they came up with the decisions that we took. He also said that we failed to plan properly. One can plan all one likes and can come up with all the options that one likes, but who is coming up with the money? I am hearing people from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Benches-

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way to hon. Members in a moment.

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