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"able to regenerate such capabilities...after hibernation."
We might be able to tuck up regulars in a warm box, with plenty of straw, and wake them up in the spring, but Territorial soldiers do not "hibernate". Without training, they will go and find something else to do, and they will never look back. Why has it taken two weeks of muddle for Ministers to accept something that, on the Conservative Benches at least, was blindingly obvious?
Ministers have told us that regulars are now being recruited to strength. They asserted that this triumph prompted the cuts that have caused so much heartache. The implications are quite staggering. They are saying that financial balance at the MOD has up until now assumed an under-strength Regular Army at a time when we are heavily engaged in conflict in Afghanistan. However, the Opposition try to be helpful when we can, so let us see whether we can help Ministers out of the financial conundrum that they are left to struggle with after the Government's U-turn. Against their regular counterparts, Territorials are as cheap as chips. The National Audit Office has pointed out that non-deployed TA soldiers cost £10,000 a year, against £55,000 for a regular. The deployed costs will be lower too, given superannuation and the fact that in practice reservists do not have access to many of the regulars' benefits.
The calculation has also been done by our allies, who, unlike us, have acted on it. One quarter of Britain's total strategic forces is provided by the reserves. In the US,
Canada and Australia, the figures are 53, 42 and 41 per cent. respectively. Volunteer reservists, for example, make up 18 per cent. of trained strength in the UK, compared with at least 25 per cent. among our principal allies, yet this cost-effective force is set to decline even further, both in raw numbers and as a proportion of our overall strength. As we have heard, the note of 12 October says that TA trained strength was predicted to fall from 20,000 to 18,000 by April 2010, putting at risk the TA's ability to deliver 700 to 800 soldiers for Operation Herrick from 2012 onwards.
How could Ministers even contemplate such a thing? Although last night's spectacular U-turn is welcome, much irreparable damage will have been done. I expect that the Minister of State will have received sackloads of similar protests from Territorials and those who support them, not least from among his constituents in Harlow. We have certainly received such protests, but unfortunately time does not allow me to read them out, much as I would like to.
In April, the then Secretary of State endorsed each of the seven strategic recommendations in General Cottam's report on the strategic review of reserves. It is worth reminding ourselves of the central proposition, with a capital P, given in the report:
"Defence will offer the challenge and reward which attracts people to volunteer, and undertakes to train and support them throughout their Service, including when mobilised and recuperating."
"Training is pivotal to the Proposition."
Indeed, the Secretary of State endorsed that at the Dispatch Box on 28 April. How is it that the Government considered driving a coach and horses through a blueprint for the reserves that they signed up to just six months ago?
The latest wobble was the result of the Government's stated desire to focus all our efforts on Afghanistan, but expeditionary warfare has historically been the province of regular armies. Big state-on-state conflicts are inevitably the domain of irregulars. In presenting Territorials as second-class soldiers, Ministers are recklessly discounting unforeseen generic conflict or catastrophic civil contingency. May I remind Ministers that the Government's first priority is the defence of the United Kingdom? Important though a successful outcome of Operation Herrick undoubtedly is, nothing should divert us from that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) made an excellent speech. She drew attention to A Company Third Royal Anglian, which is about to deploy, and we wish it well. She spoke powerfully about the cheese-paring that is so demoralising to both part-time and full-time troops. It also demoralises me.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) engaged in typically fighting talk. He mentioned that he was a veteran of the Honourable Artillery Company, and he rightly highlighted its antiquity. May I gently point out to him that the Royal Navy was founded by King Alfred in the 9th century? My hon. Friend praised augmentees versus formed units. That is a debate for another day, but as an augmentee, I have a great deal of sympathy with what he said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) also talked about the one Army concept. He rightly mentioned Operation Tosca, which I fear is often forgotten, but which is very important in the context of the Territorial Army.
I hope that the Minister will answer the points so comprehensively put by hon. Members. Let me add a few of my own. Will he comment on the Territorial Army civil contingencies reaction force, which was launched in 2002 with great fanfare, but which was never funded? Is it safe to assume from the Secretary of State's prevarication when challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) on 28 April that that tasking is now defunct?
Will the Minister elaborate on the remarks made in April about the use of niche reservist skills and support for stabilisation operations and the Department for International Development? Will he also say what funding transfer will take place to permit such employment, a point that was ducked in the response to my hon. Friend on 28 April? What timeline exists for the Cottam review implementation team? When will the detailed single-service analysis required by General Cottam and accepted by Ministers be reported to the House?
Let me gently remind the Minister of the fate of the last Government who tried to short-change the militia. Let me also express the hope that he will prove equal to the task of regaining the trust of the men and women of the Territorial Army, who have been so badly served over the past fortnight.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): We have had a genuinely good debate today, and I would like to thank all Members for their contributions. I will start on a note of consensus, and we shall see how long I can keep that going. The arguments in the debate have revealed that there is palpable consensus across all parties on support for the Territorial Army. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision-making process have been over recent weeks, I acknowledge, on behalf of the Government, that the cross-party support for the TA has been clear, consistent, important and influential. I wish to pay tribute to the work of the TA, without whose efforts, dedication and professionalism our defence capability in this country would be much, much weaker.
I should like to respond directly to the point raised by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) about the structural disbandment of the civil contingency reaction force. The decision to remove the requirement for the reserve forces to train the CCRF was taken in line with the recommendation of the reserves review, which received significant cross-party support when it materialised. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 placed a much greater emphasis on the civil authorities providing resilience in times of emergency, thus removing some of the liability that had previously been held by the reserve forces. The removal of the requirement to train the CCRF did not affect the size of the reserve forces, and the entire UK reserve forces remain ready to support UK resilience operations in times of emergency. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by that.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab):
Clearly, everyone welcomes the rethink on the £20 million for TA training. The armed forces review has caused some pain in the TA in my constituency, however, because it
has led to the disbanding of the 58th Signals Squadron. That has clearly been the result of an Army decision to reorganise its signals function. However, the base in Cross Heath in Newcastle is used not only by the TA but by Army and Air Force cadets. Can my hon. Friend give me an assurance that that building will not close, and that the team at the Ministry of Defence will liaise with the cadets to ensure that they have a base from which to operate? The cadets are the recruits of the future.
Bill Rammell: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The decision involving the communications-driven exercise to which he refers has affected a number of regiments across the country, and I believe that it was the right decision. However, we do not intend to close TA bases as a result of it. I hope that that gives him some reassurance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) demonstrated his long-standing commitment to the Territorial Army. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on his 12 years' experience as a member of the TA. I pay tribute to the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and to his dedication to defence matters, particularly those involving the TA. He referred cogently to his and his constituents' experience of the real TA cuts under the last Conservative Government in the 1990s. He made that point very powerfully. He also asked me about the Gibraltar Regiment-an issue about which I know he is concerned. There is a moratorium on deployment at the moment because of concerns about the applicability of the armed forces compensation scheme and the way in which that relates to the Gibraltar Regiment. I understand my hon. Friend's concern and, as I said to him earlier, I am meeting officials tomorrow and I will try to come back to him on that as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made a number of criticisms about the in-year measures, particularly about what he described as the cheese-paring of the defence budget. I would simply say to him that, at just under 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product, UK defence spending is high by international standards- [ Interruption. ] This is a serious point. In cash terms, we spend more on defence than any country except the United States of America and China. In that context, I want to ask for some realism in our debates about what we can afford for defence.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about mental health issues. Let me reassure him that the reserves mental health programme is an important strand of our work. It has been well addressed in the MOD, and includes the setting up of helplines and the provision of staff to support it. There is a need, as he said, to ensure that it is communicated across the TA, which is what we are determined to do.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), in what I thought was a measured and good contribution, made a number of important points. He asked me about the previous changes that we had announced and their impact on pre-deployment training. Let me be clear that, even though we are now in a different position, those changes would not have affected pre-deployment training-to Afghanistan, or indeed to any other deployment.
I was going to pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in the all-party group-until I heard what he had to say. Nevertheless, I will pay tribute- [Interruption.] "They don't like it up 'em," he says, but I will pay tribute to the work he does. On the decision making, it is a reality that this proposal was recommended by Land Forces and endorsed by the Chief of the General Staff. Nevertheless, we-Ministers and the Secretary of State-accept responsibility for it. That is where I have to say that I found the hon. Gentleman's attack on my role in coming to the all-party group on Monday a little wide of the mark. I deliberately took responsibility, instead of the general, for responding to the debate and to questions at the all-party group meeting because the decision was a political one, for which I felt responsible.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) made an important contribution about the TA's role in his constituency. I would genuinely like to congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith), who I know is new to the House, on her speech. She made a trenchant criticism of the Government-and in that, she is following in the footsteps of her predecessor, who was both an honourable and a genuine friend of mine.
The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) made a number of criticisms. Through an intervention, I was able to make clear to him that his view of our role in Afghanistan differs not only from that of the Government, but from that of his own Front-Bench team. It is important to underline that despite the difficulties in Afghanistan, there is a clear and vast majority of MPs across the parties in support of what we are doing. That point should be made clear.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who leads for the Liberal Democrats, started very well, decrying the fact that the official Opposition had engaged in a cheap stunt by altering their motion overnight to refer to the role of the Leader of the Opposition. Despite that, however, and despite the fact that £20 million is on the table from the Treasury to reverse the initial decision, the hon. Gentleman says that he is nevertheless going to vote with the Conservative Opposition this evening. I have to say that that is an even more confusing Liberal Democrat policy formulation process than is usually the case.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife also asked the Government to trust him and the House to be more involved in the decision-making process. Let me be clear that we face difficult challenges, and that I would like to do that. If we are going to do it, however, he and his party will have to face up to reductions in spending as well as increases, as that is the only realism that will allow us to move forward. In that regard, I have to say that I am not holding my breath.
The hon. Gentleman also asked me what would be sacrificed because of the changes announced in the last 24 hours, and what impact they would make on the
Ministry of Defence. Let me be clear again that there will be no impact on the Ministry of Defence, as we have been able to manage the change through £20 million of additional funding from the Treasury-no ifs, no buts: this is additional money.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) started by saying that he welcomed the Government's decision, which he felt was the right one. He then talked about Regular Army recruitment, which clearly costs more in training, saying that we should provide that money. I agree, but his argument is, of course, fatally undermined by the fact that he proposes not one penny extra in defence expenditure on top of what the Government are proposing. The immediate slashing of public spending to deal with the public deficit would make the job of any Government in managing our defence expenditure that much more difficult. I know that in private the hon. Gentleman shares that view, but he is hamstrung by the views of his Front-Bench colleagues. He is also holed below the water by the fact that people judge politicians not by what they say, but by what they do. Under this Government, defence expenditure has increased by 11 per cent. in real terms. In the last five years of the Conservative Government there were half a billion pounds' worth of cuts in defence each year. That is the reality, and I think it should be proclaimed loud and long.
Neither I nor the Government will take lectures from the Conservative party on the TA. I say that very clearly and very precisely, because it was the last Conservative Government who cut Territorial Army liability numbers by a third in four years, from 90,000 to just over 60,000, at the same time as cutting the TA training budget. As I said earlier, the fact is that if we started slashing expenditure now to tackle the deficit, as the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues would have us do, none of this could be achieved without cuts significantly worse than those that were considered, and it is dishonest to suggest otherwise.
Some criticisms have been made of the decision-making process. It has been said that we have performed a U-turn. Again, I will not take lectures on U-turns. A few weeks ago the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), told The Times that he would engage in £30 billion-worth of defence cuts to the A400M aircraft programme, which involves two aircraft carriers. The following day, he was forced to retract that statement.
Bill Rammell: It was clearly printed as a result of discussion in which the shadow Chancellor had engaged, and I know for a fact that the Tory Front Benchers were very concerned about that commitment.
The hon. Member for Westbury made a number of stringent attacks on me and on my ministerial colleagues. I understand his frustration. If the leader of my party had told General Dannatt that our defence team lacked expertise in defence matters, I would be frustrated as well. That is, of course, what the Leader of the Opposition told General Dannatt about the Conservative Front-Bench team.
Let me conclude by making very clear that the Territorial Army and the UK reserve forces are an absolute credit to this country. In the last decade they have proved their worth as never before. As we speak, they are serving alongside our regular forces in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan must come first in terms of defence. That means not only drawing on the Treasury's reserves for the operations themselves, but looking across the defence budget to prioritise the activities that support our efforts in Afghanistan. It means that we must make tough choices on resources, and that is the reason for the process of decision making in which we have engaged in recent weeks.
Nevertheless, I think it right and proper for any Government who make a decision to listen to criticism and to concerns. We have heard representations from across the House. We understand the concerns that have been raised, particularly with regard to Territorial Army retention. We have now received assurances from the Treasury that this year additional ring-fenced money will be made available to ensure that the measures on TA training are no longer required, and the normal TA training regime will be restored as quickly as possible. That is important.
As for the future, the Department undertakes an annual planning round in order to prioritise and allocate available resources for the next year. I can confirm today not only that we are making those changes, but that we do not plan to reduce levels of training available to members of the Territorial Army as part of the process. Perhaps Opposition Members would indicate whether they support that approach.
Let me make it clear that we are absolutely right to put Afghanistan first. It is not possible to preach austerity, as the Opposition do, and then call foul whenever a measure is proposed to relieve budget pressures. We have listened: responsive government is right. There are those who will criticise us for changing our minds, but there are those who would have criticised us for obstinacy and irresponsibility had we done the opposite. That is politics. We were determined to do the right thing, that is what we have done, and I urge my colleagues to support me in the Chamber this evening.
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