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28 Oct 2009 : Column 361

This is an indication that the MOD is in a financial hole that it has dug for itself. It shows that Ministers have lost control of their budget. Let me take as an example of that something that is close to my heart and that the Minister hears me going on about all the time-the aircraft carriers, which are finally going to be commissioned on Rosyth. There have been two incidents recently. The first is the last-minute two-year delay, which is putting an extra £1 billion on the budget, taking the costs from £4 billion to £5 billion. That has been planned for years, but suddenly, at the last minute, there is a change of tack and an increase in the time scale of two years, and it costs us an extra £1 billion. Secondly, there have been recent reports that the carrier spec will be changed so that one carries aeroplanes and the other carries helicopters. We do not know whether that is true, as Ministers have not told us, but if it is, it has again happened at the last minute. That is no way to run a defence budget, and such emergency cuts are having a huge impact on how we are running our defences.

In recent months, the Prime Minister has made great play from the Dispatch Box of Labour's desire to protect the front line and cut backroom bureaucracy. As the Secretary of State leaves the Chamber, I wonder whether he will appear on the next party political broadcast to use the cuts proposed for the TA as an example of how that has been achieved. This episode surely damages Labour's claim that it is protecting the valuable and slashing waste.

What message does the episode send to the TA? A former major, Mark Cann, who served for 12 years with the TA, recently said that the cuts would be a significant deterrent to new recruits and would send

There is already dissatisfaction. The 2006 NAO report showed that one fifth of TA members were not satisfied with the level of training that they were given. If cuts are made to a level of training that was already inadequate as far as TA members were concerned, surely that will cause the TA further damage.

It is often difficult to tell exactly what is going on in the MOD. It does not tell us an awful lot and its budgets are opaque. We found out about the cuts because the TA is in the community and we have friends and relatives who are part of it, but what else has happened? What other cuts have been made that we do not know about? Will there be a series of parliamentary statements over the coming weeks to explain what else is being considered? The Secretary of State enlightened us on some matters, but I presume that they are only part of what is being considered. We would like to know what else is going on so that we can help. We have helped on this occasion, with a cross-party effort to find a solution to the problem, and if Ministers trusted us a little more with information we could perhaps help them even more.

It is interesting that the RAF and the Navy have not come to the same conclusion as the Army about their reserves. Why is that, and did Ministers seek their advice before making their decisions about the TA? Perhaps the Navy and RAF are not as cunning as the Army. I suspect that, as was suggested earlier, the Chief of the General Staff knew that the cuts would create
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huge uproar and would be reversed and that he would get his own way. If he is that cunning, that is interesting, and I wonder why the Secretary of State did not see it coming. Perhaps he is equally cunning and was trying to persuade the Prime Minister that the cuts were not palatable, and it has been an organised plan all along. I wish that the MOD could be so organised and well planned more often.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the role of special advisers? They are meant to spot these things coming, and there has been a 100 per cent. increase in their number in the Department since 1997. I wonder whether the taxpayer is getting value for money.

Willie Rennie: Point well made.

The situation calls into question the Government's judgment. It was already in question over the Gurkha situation, which they mishandled badly. For a long time they misread the mood of the public, who had great passion for the Gurkhas. Unfortunately, the same team of Ministers has made the same mistake again. They have misread the public mood, and I do not believe that they have the judgment that is required for such decisions.

We do not really know where the £17.5 million has come from. We understand that it is perhaps from the Treasury, but what is going to be sacrificed in return? It would be interesting to know what that sacrifice is, and we should be told in the interests of transparent government. The Prime Minister made great play of the power of this Parliament when he was first elected Prime Minister, but we have not heard an awful lot of that since and we do not have an awful lot of transparency. If we are to have power-if we are to be empowered in this Parliament-we need the information on which to make such judgments. In his summing up, will the Minister tell us what has been sacrificed in return for the £17.5 million or £20 million?

The cuts would have had significant consequences for morale, as we have heard, and for retention and recruitment-if the regular drill nights were not taking place, people would break the habit and no longer be hooked, exacerbating the reserve-regular divide. Having the one Army has been developing well in recent years, but unfortunately I think that this situation will do significant damage. Even mentioning cuts will have damaged the TA, which will be concerned that the cuts will be offered up in future.

As we all know, those in the TA are not amateurs just because they are part time; they are professionals-the Minister also believes that. There are numerous examples of heroic acts in the TA and people have been awarded the military cross or honoured for their bravery, such as Private Luke Cole and Lance Corporal Darren Dickson. A TA regiment protected a NATO headquarters following a car bombing. Those people were commended for their bravery and for their commitment to the TA. Unfortunately, even mentioning cuts does huge damage to the TA's morale and effectiveness.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that I have some praise for the Government. Back in 1998, they slashed the size of the TA from around 56,000 to 41,000 as part of the defence review. They were heavily criticised at the time and came under considerable pressure to change course. It took them about four years to recognise that
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mistake, but it has taken them only 14 days to recognise this one, which is an incredible improvement. They should be commended for recognising their mistakes via a speedier process. Perhaps the NHS could learn a few things about reducing waiting times and recognising mistakes.

I also praise the Government for engaging with Members, listening to their advice and acting. It has not been a comfortable time for the ministerial team, but the way in which they have handled the concern deserves commendation. However, the original decision was suspect.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), I remind the House that at the moment there is 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. Judging from the amount of interest that is being shown, it would be helpful-without me having to alter the limit-if hon. Members could try to keep well within it. In that way, everyone should be satisfied.

5.8 pm

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): I first alerted Mr. Speaker that I would seek to catch his eye in this debate on Monday evening, after listening to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and having had my own thoughts as I was doing so. However, developments have shot a major hole in the arguments that I had in my heart and mind at that time. Being a simple man-I am not stupid-I shall salvage what I was going to say and make a couple of simple points. I hope that it will take nothing like 15 minutes to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Before those developments, I had intended to begin my speech by referring to a report entitled, "New Roles for the Reserve Forces" and I shall do so now. I wrote the report in November 1994 and presented it to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which accepted it in full. I pointed out a number of things in the report: that there were jobs that the reserves and Territorials could do that were not being done at the time; how they could fill in for the regular Army; the difficulty that reserve forces had in obtaining their release because employers were less than happy to let them go, for however short a period; and what a good job they could do. The report has been picked up over the years-not because I wrote it, but because it made sense. The reserves have proved themselves well worth the confidence that has been placed in them.

At that time, there was a major gap between the Terriers and the regulars. Many regulars looked on them as part-timers who would be more of a liability than an asset. Many of the part-time commissioned ranks were not readily allowed to take command of regular units. That has all changed.

I have been to Afghanistan five times, and on three of those occasions the driving and protection units that took care of us were so-called part-timers, there for three or four months. They were so professional that it is difficult to describe. There was no difference between the full-time regulars and the Terriers. That happens because confidence has been built up throughout the units. It happens because those so-called part-timers have had the time to do the bonding necessary for the esprit de corps that we emphasise so strongly in all our regular units. They become regular units of their own kind.

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When the suggestion was made to reduce the ability to continue that bonding, I thought that it was bordering on the insane. I received an e-mail today from a constituent. His name is Ken Milner. I do not know him, but he lives in Lutton crescent in Billingham. He says:

I do not know why he calls me sir, as most people do not afford me that kind of courtesy-

He then makes a nice point, saying:

That is an effective way of describing the situation that we were facing.

I am pleased that the reversal has been made, but I want to consider why it came about. Who first dreamed up the idea, and for what motive? At first glance, it has the paw prints of accountants all over it-those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. For that reason, I look in the direction of the Treasury. Even if someone on the general staff made a detailed suggestion, it must have been motivated by pressure from elsewhere. That is not a healthy way to approach our defence.

I make an appeal for all these matters to be considered in a non-partisan fashion. Defence is not a party political issue. When we consider defence, we are talking about lives-the lives of those whom we send to do our bidding, whether in this country or someone else's; the lives of those associated with them, their parents and kindred; and the lives of those with whom they might come into conflict.

Our whole consideration should concern the degree to which we incur the cost of life, the spending of life and the wasting of life. I know that the Secretary of State must consider the economics of the situation. He talked today about options, and I listened to him, but although cash considerations might be important, they must be secondary.

There is another matter that I must bring to the Government's attention. It is not a personal matter, but I must put it in almost personal terms: we heard of the importance of Afghanistan, and it is important that we achieve our goal there, although I am not talking about victories; there will be no victory in Afghanistan. There might be gain, and we might allow the Afghan Government to get their security forces into such a position and state that they can look after their own affairs-and the sooner that we can do that the better-but we will not do that by cutting the dedicated resources that we put into it. We need to increase, rather than reduce.

We must ensure that we provide sufficient equipment and personnel. I had the privilege only five weeks ago of listening to Stanley McChrystal, who brought out his
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new ideas on how to attend to the Afghanistan problem. When he told me his ideas about treating the Afghan people, rather than the Afghan territory, and when he outlined the additional risk to our personnel that will be experienced there, I pointed out to him that I had been going there for some years and that I had heard David Richards, then McNeill when he took over from Richards, and then McKiernan when he took over from McNeill. I said, "Look General, it's all right you giving us this. You're selling this to me, and I can buy it. It makes sense. But what happens in 12 months' time when somebody else comes in with some new ideas?" He said, "No, that won't be the case. I'm going to be here in 12 months' time." I said, "But you've got a family to take care of." He said, "No, I'm here for as long as it takes, and so is Rodriguez," -one of his No. 2s-and so was his civilian aide, apparently.

The whole situation there is changing in a crucial way. Initially, the risks will be higher. Our resources need to be stronger. More personnel are needed-and the determination must be more resolute. I tell the Ministry of Defence not to make again the same mistake it made this time. That mistake was in looking only at its fiscal assessments and what money it had to play with, rather than at the lives dependent on the money. Do not make that mistake. That is what accountants get paid for-and that is what they get cashiered for.

5.18 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I declare that I was a Territorial Army soldier. I was commissioned in 1980 and left in 1992 as a rifle commander. I was part of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and was incredibly proud of my time in the Territorial Army. I did not do it for money or because I wanted to become a major in the Army. I did not do it because I saw it as a grandiose way of furthering myself. I did it because I felt that it mattered. I had another life, and at the weekends I dropped my family and did my job. Two weeks of the year I went off and trained. I went to Germany, Gibraltar, America and Canada. What was I doing in these places? I was not on jollies; I was helping out the Regular Army. That is what the TA is.

When I joined, there was an A4 poster showing two soldiers in the old tin-pot helmets and with the old self-loading rifles and bayonets, and the slogan was, "If you were the Russians, could you tell which was the TA?" The answer is no, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you could not, any more than you can today. When those soldiers go out anywhere in the world, unless you know from the shoulder flash that they are from a Territorial unit, or unless you ask them, you cannot tell the difference, and the difference certainly does not bother the enemy, as has been proven time and time again.

However, the problem is that we have seen change being made to the TA, which has never been good. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), when he was a special adviser to the then Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), changing the rules for employers so that people could be deployed. We have come an enormous way in getting the TA out, but the most crucial part of being in the TA was not being there for the weekends; rather, it
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was that people could train with those men. What will disappear faster than anything else is the coherence of the formed unit.

The Rifles have just been out in Afghanistan. What made their tour successful was training together. The people in the Rifles joined together, commissioned together and went through the battle camps together. They were there together. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say that the programme would be put back as quickly as possible, but we have troops training all the time to go. Even specialists in the Territorial Army train as formed units, and they go as formed units.

If we send a trooper out-I will give the Minister an example in a second-without knowing that unit or the blokes behind it, we will have problems. I have experience of that from 1990, when my regiment was in Germany, mech training-in other words, in armoured cars. The Gulf war came along, and the 3rd Battalion the Fusiliers was told that it was being deployed, but it did not have the men. We were in Aachen, where we were rung up and asked, "Could you supply a company of troops immediately?" The colonel came and said, "I need roughly 150 men to go to Iraq." We were only on a two-week camp. The blokes put their hands up almost to a man to go with the battalion-and the Minister will remember that that battalion had a friendly fire incident in the Gulf war.

Those men did not shirk; they went out. The reason why the colonel could do that was that the men in that unit knew each other. They could join the battalion because they knew what they would have to do. The company commanders who were there at the time said that they were superb. In fact, Lord Bramall recently quoted an officer who said at the time, "Thank goodness for the Territorial Army." We make the difference when the difference is required.

However, it goes beyond that. When we go to remembrance parades and see the lords lieutenant doing their thing, or when we see events in our constituencies-we all have the same thing-who is augmenting the regulars? It is the Territorials on parade, because we do not have the resources. Not only are the Territorials the public face of the military a lot of the time, because the troops are away doing other things, but they are the face of recruiting. Let us be honest: the reason why we are recruiting at the moment is the recession. That happened in the '90s, too, when recruiting went up. People will join because they cannot get jobs elsewhere, but that will not last.

Mr. Brazier: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Of course I will give way to the Parachute Regiment.

Mr. Brazier: I am listening to my hon. Friend's excellent speech. On a longer-term issue, his vital point about formed units appears, to put it mildly, pretty thin in the Cottam review. Although there is much in the review, about properly resourced individual training and so on, that we as a party welcome, if it is the blueprint for the future, would he join me in urging the Government and those on our Front Bench to look hard at getting the idea of formed units more firmly written into the Cottam review?

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