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I am hearing Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members who agree that Afghanistan is the top priority, but whenever it comes to prioritisation they are not prepared to make the hard choices that are necessary in order to bring it about. I should like to hear a little more than, "Do a little more planning", or, "Give people
some different options." What options? If people are saying that more money should be spent, let them say where it is to come from.
Mr. Hoyle: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. The Government have a concept of one Army, made up of regulars and TA members. Will he use his offices and best endeavours to ensure that the Government's commitment to rebuilding a unified TA will be at the top of his priorities?
Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, I want to do that, but there are people both inside and outside the House who criticise us because they believe that Afghanistan, where we have 9,000 people deployed, must be our main effort and priority. One cannot have more than one first priority. Afghanistan is my first priority.
Patrick Mercer: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State. He is making some extremely good points, but he keeps using one word that is wrong. He keeps referring to "operations", but surely we have gone beyond that. What is happening in Afghanistan now is war, and the mistake is that, by trying to divide the Territorial Army from the regular Army, the Government will not be on the war footing needed to deal with a war situation.
Mr. Ainsworth: That is just semantics- [ Interruption. ] Yes, it is. I am saying that Afghanistan is the main effort. No one dares to disagree with that, but no one is prepared to make the choices necessary to deal with the problem.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. As chairman of the all-party reserve forces group, may I say, on behalf of the group's members in all parts of the House, that we are delighted that the correct decision has now been taken? I know that both the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister for the Armed Forces have taken a considerable interest in this matter, but will they ensure that longer-term planning takes account of the fact that reserve forces, as the American experience has shown repeatedly, can play a much bigger part in making defence cost-effective?
Mr. Ainsworth: I accept that, and I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware that, like him, I have had a real interest in the Territorial Army for many years. In the long term, we have to sort this issue out.
Before I turn to the TA itself, I shall set out the scale of the challenge. There are enormous pressures on the MOD budget in the short term that have been brought about by a number of factors. Those include the fact that we must ensure that operations in Afghanistan have the support required, not only from the Treasury reserve but from the defence budget as a whole, and the difficult fiscal situation that demands that each Government Department must live within its means. Other factors, as the hon. Member for Woodspring pointed out, are the economic slow-down that has impacted on our planned revenue, such as that from the defence estate, the fall in the value of the pound against other currencies that has impacted on the costs of our overseas interests, and a boost in recruitment, to the Army in particular, that has exceeded expectations and requires additional investment.
That means that tough choices have to be made now. The Chief of the General Staff came forward with proposals from the Army for savings of £20 million in TA expenditure. Those were part of a package that included other measures such as saving money on the hire of civilian vehicles, clothing, entertainment, accommodation, and cadets. This was not one thing alone. Hard choices had to be made in order to deal with the issues that we are faced with, and to give the priority that we must and want to give, on which, in principle, we all agree.
I consulted closely with the Chief of the General Staff before approving these measures. In the Army's view, there were no alternatives in the uncommitted in-year budget that would be less damaging. In the short term the Army has been clear that these proposals could be managed without impact on support to current operations. Let me be clear: no one deploys to Afghanistan without the required training. No TA soldier is deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and prepared.
Dr. Fox: For the sake of clarity, we know that more recruits have come forward than expected, but the Army is still below the target level set by the Government. Is the Secretary of State telling us that the Army is not funded for its establishment figure?
Mr. Ainsworth: We have-I make no apologies for this-agreed not just with the Chief of the General Staff, but with all the single service chiefs, that we will ensure that Afghanistan is the main effort. In order to do that, nobody was prepared to say anything other than that when the opportunity to recruit to the Army was there, it should be taken, and it should be taken in full. There is no doubt that that, in part, caused the in-year problems, along with the other issues that I have spoken about.
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I wholly support what my right hon. Friend is doing, and understand the pressures that he is under and the messages given about Afghanistan First. I remind him that the last time we had a Tory Administration in this country, they came up with Front Line First, which halved the TA and stripped hundreds of millions of pounds out of the training budget for the Regular Army, which resulted in some of the problems that we inherited at Deepcut and elsewhere.
Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out the contrast between the record of the Opposition and that of the Government. The budget has increased over our period by 10 per cent. in real terms since 1997. As my right hon. Friend points out, that is in marked contrast with the last five years that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) was in power. There were cuts of £500 million a year for the last five years of the last Tory Government. I shall give way to him so that he can explain why that happened.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): First, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that under our Government, we were not at war, and we are now at war? Secondly, will he please explain in plain English the word "additional" in his amendment to the motion? Since when has replacing a cut been additional? Additional means more, not merely putting back what he has stolen.
Mr. Ainsworth: I have in this year's budget an additional £20 million ring-fenced in order to restore the TA cuts. I am very grateful to the Treasury which, as we all know, has some difficulties itself, for providing those additional funds.
As I said, no TA soldier is deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and prepared. I have listened to the comments and representations made by hon. Members in recent days, and I understand the concerns that have been expressed about the effect on retention in the TA. In the light of those representations, and with the assurances from the Treasury that additional ring-fenced money will be made available, we have decided to maintain the normal TA training regime. That will be restored as quickly as possible.
Looking forward, the Department undertakes an annual planning round in order to prioritise and allocate available resources for the next financial year. This process has not been concluded, but we will have to look at all parts of the budget in the round. Measures from across other parts of defence are being considered to bring budgets into balance and these will be set out as decisions are made. Such difficult decisions are being taken by working with the service chiefs, not against them.
I am determined to protect operations in Afghanistan. That is my bottom line. Tough choices cannot be made without consequences. The media and the Opposition have been calling for more focus on current operations. They cannot will the ends and oppose the means. The hon. Member for Woodspring tries to have his cake and eat it. He cannot preach austerity, as the shadow Chancellor does, and then call foul on any measure that is proposed to relieve budget pressures.
I can assure the House of the Government's continuing and long-term commitment to defence and to the UK reserve forces and the Territorial Army. After years of overall cuts under the Conservative party, this Government have increased spending on defence since 1997 by 10 per cent. in real terms. As part of that investment, we are seeking a better and more intelligent use of the reserve
forces to ensure that all parts of defence contribute to the whole in a way that is both efficient and effective.
On 28 April this year, I published a strategic review of reserves and I made a statement to the House. The MOD agreed the seven strategic recommendations made by the review and work is under way to implement 46 of the 89 detailed recommendations. Those include 10 of the 12 detailed recommendations related to training, all of which have been completed or are progressing. The reserves review was all about the long term; about better management, better training and the integration of our reserve forces. It also established a mandate for change, in order to allow greater flexibility and utility in the employment of our reserves. It set in place a strategic framework for how we will integrate, train and support our reserve forces, and develop a strategy for the management of the volunteer estate.
The implementation programme-programme Citizen-is progressing well, but work on recommendations beyond those already endorsed will require additional resources; not planning, not options, not semantics, but additional resources. We are implementing as much as we can from the reserves review within the bounds of the resources currently available. Headquarters Land Forces is in the early stages of developing options for the shape of a future Territorial Army, but a defence review must come first and set the parameters for the use of our armed forces.
Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): The Secretary of State speaks about additional resources. Why is it then that our soldiers, including members of the Territorial Army, are still making what our commanders describe as unnecessary road moves because of lack of helicopters? On 8 September, a private company went to the MOD and offered 12 MI-17s, 12 Bell 142s and one MI-26, which would have provided about 2,500 additional flying hours, fully weaponised and fully conditioned for theatre, flown by former RAF pilots. Why was £7 million a month, just over twice the housing benefit payments in my constituency, not spent in order to get our troops out of the danger of improvised explosive devices?
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has just heard the figures on our increased spending in Afghanistan. He wants increased spending over and above that, on helicopters; he wants increased spending on the TA; he wants us out of Afghanistan-
Mr. Ainsworth: Well, the hon. Gentleman's problem is that his hon. Friends on the Conservative Front Bench do not agree that there should be additional spending on defence-quite the reverse: they are planning cuts in defence. They cannot hide behind charlatan words, they have got to come to a point.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for finding the additional funds for the Territorial Army and its training. That is important. However, I remind him of the consequences: when we had 17,000 troops in Northern Ireland under the previous Conservative Government, it damaged the concept of one Army. Will he make sure that work is done to rebuild that concept, and that the Chief of the General Staff is made responsible for ensuring that such work takes place?
Mr. Ainsworth: I say to my hon. Friend, who has taken an increasing interest in defence matters over a period, that I do not think that there was any work or planning on reserves during the Conservative party's period in office. We are trying to do that planning, but we have to do it realistically, and resources are a part of the issue.
At this point, we should not limit our options or be prescriptive on setting boundaries. Once the work is complete, and in the context of the defence review, we will have established a robust and agile framework through which the reserve forces' capability can meet the future demands of defence.
We can look forward, confident that UK forces will continue to be a force for good in the world. The UK's reserve forces, including the Territorial Army, are an integral part of that vision, playing an increasing role in defence both at home and on operations abroad.
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): For the first time ever, I had the Defence Secretary on his knees. Before his speech, he was begging for forgiveness, but unfortunately it was only for the fact that he has to leave early for an appointment at 5 o'clock. I forgive him if he leaves, but I am sorry that he will miss the brilliant speech that I am about to give.
I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who paid tribute to those who have fallen in recent weeks. I also make special mention of Corporal Tam Mason, who was brought up in Rosyth in my constituency. He is one of many from Fife, and particularly West Fife, who have fallen serving their country, and I pay tribute to him.
The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) is not present, but I pay special tribute to him for the way in which he has gone about dealing with this matter, offering his advice and expertise to try to reach a sensible solution. He and I sat together on the Defence Select Committee for some time, and I am sure that other Committee members will attest that he was a valuable member.
I also wish to praise other hon. Members: the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), and the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is present. There has been a truly cross-party effort, and it is a tribute to the House that we have come together to find a practical solution. That is why I was disappointed by the Conservative leadership, which has chosen to seek all the credit for the outcome. The overnight change in the motion, which praises the Leader of the Opposition, reveals the real motivation for the debate. Unfortunately, the Conservatives may be more interested in themselves than in the TA. We will not rise to the cheap political wheeze that they have undertaken overnight. We will vote for the motion because we believe in the TA, not because we believe in the attempts by the Conservatives or their leader to make cheap party political capital out of this debate. However, I do not want to be distracted by that cheap stunt.
Following the Government's welcome change of heart, we must examine the reasons why we are in this position in the first place. There were numerous reports about the potential effects of these cuts, including tanks not
being able to be driven more than 9 miles in any one month and having no live rounds on ranges. I am sure that the Defence Secretary would say that none of this was true because these decisions had not been made and it was up to local units to make them, but if the detail of those cuts had not been established, that would have been equally terrible. Ministers should have had some foresight about their potential effect. If they were working in the dark and had not done their homework on this last-minute cut, then that is irresponsible.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Given that these cuts have been reversed, is not the most damaging thing about all this its effect on the TA, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) said? Those of us who served in the TA thought that we were part of one Army-that our training was as good as that of any regular officer or soldier standing alongside us, and we often did the same job that people are now doing in Afghanistan. Sadly, when it came to the crunch, Ministers gave the impression that senior officers in the Army were ready to ditch the TA. We do not know whether that is true, but it will undermine relations between the TA and the regular Army for years to come. That is the most damaging aspect of what has happened over the past few days, and it cannot be reversed.
Willie Rennie: Next time I make a speech, I will sit a wee bit further along so that the hon. Gentleman cannot read it. He makes exactly the points that I planned to make, and does so in a forceful and valid manner. The long-term damage that has been caused to the divide between the regulars and the reservists will take some time to recover. There will be a constant fear that next time the pressure comes, perhaps in less politically sensitive times, the TA may again be offered up for potential cuts. Having that hanging over the TA all the time will be extremely debilitating to its morale and operations.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It will be debilitating to those seeking to join the TA and to those in the TA, but equally so to employers, who have recently been so patient so often in losing their employees. What message does he think that the Government's shenanigans and volte-face over the past 24 hours are sending to employers?
Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman is spot on. The 2006 National Audit Office report specifically referred to the fact that many of those in the TA-about one in three-reckoned that there was insufficient support for their employers. To make further cuts on top of that surely does not send the right message to employers that they should take seriously their contributions to the defence of the nation. That is causing even more damage.
When we have time to plan, we can often find innovative ways to do things, or see that the same job can be done with less money. However, that operation takes time. Emergency cuts such as these are rarely efficient and often destructive. What Department would be able to cope with this proportion-30 per cent.-of its budget going in one fell swoop? What Department would be able to cope with such a massive reduction with just a few weeks' notice? No Department would be able to cope with that-it would be absolute chaos. That is what would have happened to the TA had the cuts proceeded.
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