Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I do not have the specific figures about north-east funding in front of me, but he will be aware that the Government have committed an extra £12.7 billion to

17 Oct 2013 : Column 906

the NHS, in contrast with Opposition Front Benchers, who I think described that proposal as “irresponsible”. The level of funding going into the NHS is very significant. On A and E and NHS waiting times, average waiting times remain low and stable. The number of patients who have been waiting longer than 52 weeks is 352—clearly that is 352 too many—but that compares with a total of 18,458 at the end of May 2010, when his party left power.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Ellen, a year 11 student from my part of Somerset, wrote to me about the cancellation of her GCSE maths exam in November, having heard about it not through her school nor through Parliament but through the Sunday papers. May we have a debate to consider the method of communicating such changes, which Ellen says causes confusion, distress, upset and anger, and to see whether it would be preferable and more sensible for changes to apply only to students who started studying for their exams last month rather than making dramatic changes for those like Ellen who, since 2009, had planned her work with her teachers for an exam next month?

Tom Brake: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was able to be in the Chamber on Monday when the Minister for Schools made a statement about standards; she may find that pertinent to the issue. She has raised a specific point about which I will ensure that the Department for Education writes to her.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): My constituents continue to suffer from cold calling by claims management companies. Will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Justice to make a statement to this House on the performance of his Department in regulating those companies, including looking at whether to transfer that responsibility to the Financial Conduct Authority?

Tom Brake: I am sure that every Member in the Chamber has sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. These calls are persistent and an irritant, and we need to ensure that, as far as possible, the matter is addressed. He asked for the Secretary of State for Justice to respond to the issue. I will make sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of his concerns and writes to him about the matter.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): May we have a debate on local authorities’ winter highways maintenance preparedness?

Tom Brake: I am sure that we are all hoping our local authorities will be getting in the appropriate levels of salt and sand to ensure that we have, as far as possible, an accident-free winter. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that the Department for Transport continues to liaise with local and national partners to improve winter resilience so that this country enters the forthcoming winter season well prepared. A national strategic salt reserve of no less than 425,000 tonnes is going to be brought to bear on this issue. If he wanted to raise specific issues about local authorities, he could do so on Monday at Communities and Local Government questions.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 907

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 589, which deals with lower taxes for lower earners?

[That this House welcomes the Government taking 2.2 million people out of income tax so far by increasing the personal allowance threshold; further welcomes the Government raising the income tax threshold even further to £10,000 in 2015; notes that the Government is committed to helping the low paid with the cost of living by lowering taxes so that they can keep more of their own money; further notes that the National Insurance threshold remains at £7,748; and therefore urges the Government to examine the possibilities of increasing the threshold for National Insurance in the long term to help low earners with the cost of living.]

My right hon. Friend mentioned earlier the fact that our Conservative Chancellor has cut taxes for 20 million lower earners in our country. May we have a debate on whether we can help lower earners still further by raising the threshold for national insurance?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is a doughty campaigner on many issues and has had great success with some of them. I am pleased that the issues he mentions are very much on the Government’s agenda. Once we have hit the threshold to allow people to earn £10,000 before they pay any income tax, the Liberal Democrats would like to push the matter further, and the Government as a whole might like to do so as well. He raises the specific issue of national insurance contributions, and I am sure that he would support the Government’s initiative to reduce those in relation to employers. I can assure him that I have just read his early-day motion, and fantastic it is too.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Deputy Leader of the House is demonstrating that he could be Leader of the House by filling in for him today. Could this be extended so that other deputies could take over for a day? Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister could take over for a day; may I suggest 1 April?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman. It was all going so well until the last phrase. In fact, I misheard it so I will just stick with the first part. I think it is entirely appropriate for deputies to take over on the occasions when they are required to do so. I was rather expecting my shadow, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), to take over for today as well; I am not quite sure what happened there.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Today is international credit union day and the Bishop of Stafford is opening in a Stafford department store a branch of the Staffordshire credit union, with which I have an account. Could we have a debate on how credit unions can provide viable and excellent competition against payday lenders and other forms of credit on the high street?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Perhaps I should declare an interest as a member of the Croydon, Sutton and Merton credit union. Clearly, there is real potential for credit unions to enter the market and provide people with loans at low rates of interest and to make a sustainable contribution. I am

17 Oct 2013 : Column 908

sure that Members of all parties are interested in the subject of credit unions, so the hon. Gentleman may want to consider making representations to the Backbench Business Committee through an all-party delegation.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): Data published yesterday show that my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency is one of the top three in the country for falling unemployment, with particularly encouraging falls of more than 40% year on year for both long-term unemployment and 18 to 24-year-old claimants. Could we have a debate on job creation, in order to explore not just that positive news, but how we can accelerate growth and ensure that it is spread around the country?

Tom Brake: I would welcome such a debate. I am pleased for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that there has been a significant drop in unemployment in his constituency, which is something that is being replicated to a greater or lesser extent around the whole country. Employment is up, unemployment is down and youth unemployment is slightly down. Clearly, there are still many issues that we need to address and the debate suggested by the hon. Gentleman might give the Government the opportunity to focus on youth unemployment, on which we could make even more progress.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): For some time I have been in correspondence with the Foreign Office on the unacceptable and illegal discrimination faced by UK and other foreign national lecturers in Italy. Despite repeated attempts to get the European Commission to act and intervene, no action has been taken and the Commission is now looking to close the file. Could we therefore have an important debate on this clear and systemic breach by Italy of the free movement of workers within the European Union, and its discrimination against them, and the failings of the European Commission to act on it?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is right. This is a serious issue and it is the Government’s view that the discrimination faced by UK and foreign national lecturers in Italy is not only unacceptable, but illegal. We have been pressing the Italian authorities to find a solution and the hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Minister for Universities and Science met the Italian Education Minister on 5 October and raised the problems faced by foreign lecturers working in Italy. He received assurances that the Italians are actively looking into a solution over the next year.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): May we have a debate on what I think is the case that someone from my constituency of Beckenham who happens to be a Scotsman and wants to go to university in Scotland has to pay tuition fees, whereas someone who lives in Scotland who happens to be an Englishman does not and someone who comes from France, Germany, Italy or Spain does not, either? It seems extraordinary.

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is right. He will be aware that higher education is a devolved matter for Scotland and that under EU law member states cannot discriminate on grounds of nationality against people

17 Oct 2013 : Column 909

from other member states in the conditions of access to vocational training, which includes higher education. Where certain residency and nationality conditions are met, EU nationals and their family members will qualify for home fee status and will therefore be treated the same with regard to tuition fees as UK nationals who also satisfy the residency conditions.

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), I welcome the drop in unemployment in my constituency of Mid Derbyshire. I visited the local A4e last week, which is very successful at getting more than 100 long-term unemployed people a month into employment, but I was told that its biggest problem related to those with mental illness. May we have a debate on how we can further help people with mental illness who are long-term unemployed?

Tom Brake: The hon. Lady is right that organisations that are seeking to address long-term unemployment are coming across people with substantial challenges such as mental health issues and drug or alcohol addiction. The Government are committed to assisting them through various work programmes. She has made a pertinent point that requires a written response. She may be interested to know that I am meeting Rethink Mental Illness later today to talk about the sorts of issues that she has raised.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): A few months ago, the Secretary of State for Health rightly made a statement to announce the suspension of the Safe and Sustainable review into children’s heart surgery after the Independent Reconfiguration Panel found that it had been flawed and biased. It seems that the same thing may be happening again. May we have another statement on the composition of the clinical reference group because three of its four members established a position in 2010 on what should happen? One of them, Anne Keatley-Clarke, the chief executive of the Children’s Heart Federation, has behaved in a thoroughly unprofessional manner. The Independent Reconfiguration Panel described her charity’s role as

“a source of unhelpful divisiveness”.

May we have a statement so that we can discover why a supposedly neutral body is being set up in such a biased way?

Tom Brake: I am afraid that I cannot guarantee my hon. Friend a statement, but I can offer him the opportunity to raise the matter at Health questions on Tuesday. He

17 Oct 2013 : Column 910

has made serious allegations about the composition of the clinical reference group and it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State for Health to respond.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Principled employment agencies throughout the United Kingdom are suffering and some are closing because of the practices of unprincipled employment agencies, which exploit staff by underpaying them and incorporating expenses into their remuneration, thereby undercutting the principled agencies that pay people properly. May we have a debate on how the rules could be changed to stop that unfair practice?

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to that issue, of which I was not aware. I am sure that she will pursue the matter at Business, Innovation and Skills questions next Thursday. It might be possible for me to secure a response for her in the interim.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): As the Deputy Leader of the House knows, the Government are planning to introduce a hybrid Bill into the House before the end of the year on the vexed subject of High Speed 2. It will be accompanied by an environmental statement that contains more than 50,000 pages of information. On the day on which it is laid, the Government’s consultation period will commence. It is rumoured that it will be only eight weeks long and will take place over the Christmas period. Will he grant a debate on the efficiency and effectiveness of the consultation periods that are being allowed by the Government, to ensure in particular that my constituents and other people who will be affected along the line have a decent time to reply to what will be one of the largest environmental statements in history?

Tom Brake: Again, I am not in a position to guarantee such a debate. However, my right hon. Friend will be aware that the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill will be debated in this place on Thursday 31 October and she may have an opportunity to raise those issues during that debate. She will also be aware that there have been many legal challenges to what the Government are doing on this issue, but that overwhelmingly the Government have been successful in overturning them.

Andrew Bridgen: On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: There will be no points of order now because we have a statement.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 911


11.53 am

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s progress in Afghanistan.

First, may I welcome the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) to his new role? I very much look forward to his contribution to the important area in which we both now work.

Secondly, I pay tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin of 14 Signal Regiment, who was tragically killed in action in Afghanistan on 15 October after coming under enemy fire during an operation in Nahri Sarraj. My thoughts are with his family and loved ones as they come to terms with their terrible loss. Four hundred and forty-five members of the UK armed forces have died on operations in Afghanistan since 2001. Their bravery and commitment to our nation’s security will never be forgotten.

Our objective in Afghanistan has not changed since the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament in July. We are protecting the UK by ensuring that Afghanistan is not used as a base for terrorism against our country and our allies. We are helping the Afghan Government in three main ways: to increase the capability of Afghanistan’s national security force; to make progress towards a sustainable political settlement; and to build a viable state that helps meet the needs of the Afghan people. Progress has been made on all three fronts. This summer, through the fiercest months of the Taliban fighting season, Afghan national security forces led the security response to the insurgency threat for the first time. That followed President Karzai’s milestone announcement in June that the ANSF has assumed lead responsibility for security throughout the country.

The ANSF has now reached its temporary surge strength target of 352,000 army, police and air force personnel, and today leads 93% of all operations across Afghanistan. Those numbers are having an effect on the battlefield. Despite an increase in violence levels and high-profile attacks in June, the ANSF responded effectively to the majority of security incidents, and launched several proactive operations to disrupt planned attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. That resulted in just one high-profile attack taking place in the capital since July, and an overall reduction in violence levels throughout July and August. Crucially, the ANSF is succeeding in keeping the insurgency out of the protected communities, and the majority of violence is now taking place away from populated areas.

There have been several successful operations in recent months, which were notable not only for their size but for their complexity and degree of co-ordination. For example, the ANSF launched Operation Seamough at the end of July—a combined clearance, security and international aid mission to secure the main supply routes south of Kabul. That operation involved more than 1,300 Afghan security personnel, working alongside other arms of the Afghan Government, as well as humanitarian organisations. In line with the clear progress of the Afghan national security forces, the UK and our international security assistance force partners are continuing the process of draw-down and redeployment.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 912

Today we have four UK bases in central Helmand as well as Camp Bastion—down from 137 UK bases at the height of the conflict. On 9 August the military headquarters of the UK’s Task Force Helmand moved from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion, symbolising the changing UK military profile in central Helmand. We have also reduced the total number of UK armed forces personnel in theatre from 7,900 in May, to currently around 6,800. By the end of the year we will have reduced that even further to 5,200 personnel, notwithstanding occasional fluctuations due to temporary surges into theatre.

We must not forget the challenges that still remain, and throughout all this the insurgency has remained a determined and resilient enemy. However, as we approach the final year of the ISAF campaign, we can be optimistic about Afghanistan’s future. Encouragingly, recent Afghan polls show that 90% of Afghans feel that security in their area is fair to good, and 80% of Afghans say they feel safe travelling outside their area during the day. Such perceptions in the minds of ordinary Afghans will ultimately determine the country’s fate. The ANSF is an essential component in achieving that, and in building a secure and viable Afghan state that can provide long-term security and governance for its people.

Progress has also been made in securing a sustainable political settlement for Afghanistan ahead of presidential and provincial elections in 2014. Afghans want and deserve the right to decide the future of their country, and we are committed to helping them achieve that. A constitutional, peaceful transfer of power from President Karzai to his successor will be a significant milestone for the Afghan people, yet we cannot underestimate the challenge of holding those elections. We are working hard to support the Afghan authorities to make them as credible, inclusive and transparent as possible, and we very much welcome the fact that two vital pieces of electoral reform were passed by the Afghan Parliament and signed by President Karzai in late July. That was an historic moment and the first time that Afghanistan has had laws of that kind debated and voted on by Parliament, rather than adopted by decree.

DFID has given £12 million to support the Independent Electoral Commission. The IEC has recruited and trained more than 5,600 officials for voter registration, including almost 2,000 women, as well as encouraged people to vote through public service announcements on TV and radio. So far, it has helped to ensure that more than 2 million Afghans have registered to vote—as of mid-October—of whom around 31% are women. Efforts to encourage women to participate in the electoral process will increase in the coming months. DFID’s programme to support women’s political participation will build the political capacity of female political candidates through training and mentoring. That is part of a wider DFID programme to strengthen political governance in Afghanistan and has been fast-tracked so that our support for women’s political participation is embedded long before the elections. Ahead of the election, the Afghan Government must continue to meet the needs of their people. DFID is taking an active role in supporting the lives of ordinary Afghans, be it to improve their livelihoods or exercise their rights.

Our support for the HALO Trust in removing landmines and unexploded ordnance from land in Herat province in western Afghanistan continues to deliver excellent results. Reporting from the HALO Trust and the United

17 Oct 2013 : Column 913

Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows that, thanks to UK aid, more than 20,000 families, many of whom are internally displaced people, have benefitted from the return of land to productive use in the Jebrail township in Herat. Hazara refugees returning from Iran also benefit. Between April and June this year, HALO cleared more than 1.6 million square metres of land in Herat province and disposed safely of two anti-personnel mines, 10 anti-tank mines, 63 unexploded ordnances and 1,609 small arms ammunitions. The UK has committed to making the whole of Herat province free from mines and unexploded ordnance by 2018.

Elsewhere, UK support for the Afghan Government’s comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility continues to help farmers in four provinces across Afghanistan to improve their livelihoods by increasing the value of agricultural crops and building better links to markets for their products. In Helmand, UK support for technical and vocational education and training has helped more than 15,000 graduates to secure employment, already exceeding the programme’s 2014 target. DFID is looking at how best to strengthen the programme further to ensure that graduates get the best out of their training.

We believe that DFID’s support for Afghan civil society through the Tawanmandi programme is having a lasting impact. One of Tawanmandi’s core partners, the Community Centre for the Disabled, has successfully worked to improve the welfare of disabled people. As a result of its efforts, the Government of Afghanistan have passed legislation to enshrine the rights and active participation of disabled people in society. The second call for Tawanmandi grant proposals has recently closed, and we look forward in the near future to being able to extend our support to more Afghan organisations, including those supporting women and youth groups.

We are determined to support women in Afghanistan, who continue to face severe challenges in their daily lives, including the regular threat of violence. We are already providing support for girls’ education and women’s empowerment in addition to working with the Government of Afghanistan to ensure they uphold their responsibilities and commitments to protect women. Earlier this year, I said I wanted to go further and make tackling violence against women a strategic priority for DFID’s work in Afghanistan. My officials have consulted experts, non-governmental organisations and Afghan women to ensure that our implementation reflects their needs. I will announce our revised approach in due course.

In July, DFID and Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials took part in a senior officials meeting in Kabul, where donors reaffirmed their aid commitments of more than $16 billion until 2015. However, the international community also delivered a clear message that existing levels of aid will be at risk if the Afghan Government fail to take forward their reform commitments. As well as ensuring credible and inclusive elections, we are particularly keen to see progress on tackling corruption, upholding women’s rights and managing the economy. Failure to deliver those reforms could jeopardise the stability of Afghanistan. During the recent World Bank annual meetings in Washington, I met Finance Minister Zakhilwal and reiterated the importance of Afghanistan continuing to make credible progress on agreed reforms, including the International Monetary Fund programme.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 914

Finally, the UK Government look forward to co-chairing with the Afghan Government the 2014 ministerial meeting to assess further progress against the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. We expect that that will take place three to six months after the formation of the next Afghan Government. Working together, the Afghan Government and their international partners have a unique chance to set the conditions for political, security and economic transition. We must continue to focus on that over the coming months, and I commend this statement to the House.

12.4 pm

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for advance sight of it. I also thank her for her warm wishes. I look forward to shadowing her, supporting her where possible and scrutinising when necessary, in particular when the Government seek to forge a domestic and global consensus on the post-2015 agenda for international development.

We meet amidst myriad security challenges, and while countless countries and communities seek UK support. For all the conflicts and the contest for resources, our commitment to Afghanistan must remain a constant beyond the 2014 military draw-down. Our safety at home is in part dependent on the security and stability of that country.

We reflect on the fact that Afghanistan cannot become a forgotten conflict in the knowledge that British men and women are risking their all for our security. That was brought home to us with the news of the death of Lance Corporal James Brynin of the 14th Signal Regiment. His family and friends, and all those lost, are in the thoughts of all of us and in the prayers of many of us.

The Opposition support the Department for International Development’s work in Afghanistan and we recognise that progress has been made. More children are attending school, access to health care is improving, the economy is growing and, for the first time, Parliament-approved elections are forthcoming. Progress, however, is not irreversible. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world, progress on the millennium development goals is slow, violence and corruption persist and, while the courage of many individuals in the Afghan security force is not in doubt, the resilience and capacity of that force remains uncertain.

I would like to ask the Secretary of State questions about four areas. I start by asking whether she agrees with the recommendation of the Select Committee on International Development that

“the UK Government reconsider DFID’s focus on creating a ‘viable state’, giving greater emphasis to the provision of services and alleviating poverty”.

It would appear that the two are symbiotic and that, should the alleviation of poverty be sustainable and services locally responsive, credible Afghan institutions and a viable Afghan state are prerequisites.

The enabling of such a state, however, is, as the Secretary of State herself alluded to, dependent on a reflective and genuine political settlement. These issues will come to the fore at next year’s Tokyo review conference, but the Secretary of State said that existing levels of aid will be “at risk” if the Afghan Government fail to take forward their reform commitments. Will she say which specific reforms she is referring to, and give an assessment

17 Oct 2013 : Column 915

of current progress and what is required to preserve current levels of aid? More immediately, what has been the impact of the arrest of senior Pakistan Taliban leader, Latif Mehsud, on establishing a post-2014 security agreement?

A political settlement is vital outside as well as inside the country. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions have taken place with the Government of Prime Minister Sharif regarding NATO convoy routes, transportation of British equipment from Afghanistan through Pakistan, and Pakistan’s support in the run-up to Presidential elections?

It was a shared belief of the international community that female advancement was vital to delivering a secure society across Afghanistan. It was concerning, therefore, that the International Development Committee recently stated that “the situation for women” had “deteriorated in some respects”. The Secretary of State rightly talked about wider research and work. I invite her to update the House on progress on the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 relating to the role of women in conflict, and on whether members of the Afghan civil service and military are being educated in the terms of that resolution.

We on the Opposition Benches are committed to effective delivery of aid. We know that that means that expertise on the ground is essential; but it is also compulsory in Whitehall. I pay tribute to the many civilian staff whose integrity and ingenuity is so central to our nation’s proud development record. Reports of high staff turnover and loss of capacity in DFID, however, are a worry. Can the Secretary of State say, therefore, how the numbers of individuals working on Afghanistan in her Department have changed since 2010? Specifically, how many staff have Afghan linguistic skills?

Finally, this is the UK’s fourth military campaign in Afghanistan. We have no intention of there ever being a fifth. In a conflict that has never had a purely military solution, the success of the DFID mission will be increasingly crucial in building the lasting stability that our armed forces have fought so tenaciously to secure.

Justine Greening: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those comments and questions. He is quite right that our Afghanistan programme needs to take a balanced approach. Alongside our work on livelihoods, it needs to focus on basic service provision. In fact, as he will know, much of the work done through the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund has focused very much on that—on schools and health. Particularly in places such as Helmand, the UK has played a leading role in the provincial reconstruction team to ensure that those things happen on the ground.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the challenges and risks around donors’ support for Afghanistan going forward. What the donors want, including the UK, is for people to stick to what was agreed in Tokyo and the mutual accountability framework. It is very important that we see the progress that ultimately can only be made by the Afghan Government, particularly by passing the necessary laws through Parliament. The law on the elimination of violence against women, for example, which has passed through Parliament, must now be seen to be implemented. We also need to see action

17 Oct 2013 : Column 916

taken to bear down on corruption and a successful outcome to the appeal process in relation to the Kabul bank corruption. We want to see the Afghan Government continue to make significant progress in several areas, alongside the work that donors are doing on their behalf.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the post-2014 security agreement and was right to point out that the bilateral security agreement under discussion between the US, predominantly, and Afghanistan is yet to be finalised. Ultimately, that is a matter for the US Government, but clearly we are committed to playing our role in a NATO-led process after 2014, and as he will be aware, to date, we have been very clear that that will focus on our work with the Afghan national army officer academy. In addition, alongside that support, we will provide security and support for any UK personnel involved.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly flagged up the massively important relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of course he will know that the UK has played a key role in brokering the so-called trilateral talks, which have seen the UK bring together Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the World Bank meetings at the weekend, I met both Ishaq Dar, the Pakistan Finance Minister, and Minister Zakhilwal, the Afghanistan Finance Minister, both of whom made it clear that they saw as key the need to grow economic links, in particular, between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I was encouraged by their enthusiasm to work together and follow up those initial discussions between their respective Governments with meetings over the coming months. As I told them, the UK stands ready to play its role in helping that relationship to grow and become a positive one.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly flagged up the challenge of ensuring that we do not lose the gains we have seen on women and girls. This is a massively important point. I have elevated the issue of violence against women and girls to a strategic priority for my team to ensure that it never gets lost within the work that we do. It is worth bearing in mind the context. For a start, life expectancy in Afghanistan is 49, while 87% of women can expect to suffer violence during their lives. Under the Taliban, they faced the worst prospects of any women in the world. We are quite right, therefore, to focus on this issue, and Parliament is right to send out a message that we believe this matters massively. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank colleagues from across the House for enabling us to speak with one voice on this agenda over the past 12 months. I spend a lot of time talking with women in Afghanistan—I had a chance to meet parliamentarians there—and I know that it makes a difference to them. I can assure him, therefore, that this will remain a priority, and over the coming weeks I will set out how we will up our game.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talked about staff in Afghanistan with linguistic skills. Obviously, the UK Government work closely, including on development, with many locally employed staff, which helps to ensure that we have the right skills in place. We recognise that it is an incredibly dangerous and challenging place for anyone to work in, which is why we have been clear that we want to be responsible and help those people in danger after working for the UK Government. That is why we have been clear about a repatriation package where we think those risks are significant.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 917

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. This is an important statement, but I remind the House that there are two debates to follow under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, the first of which is especially heavily subscribed, so I must appeal to colleagues to ask single, short supplementary questions, without preamble, and to the Secretary of State for her customarily pithy replies.

Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): What does my right hon. Friend regard as the greatest strategic threat to the longer-term success of our mission in Afghanistan?

Mr Speaker: A master class from the Chairman of the Defence Committee.

Justine Greening: Ultimately, it will be having successful elections that can deliver a leadership in Afghanistan able to create a state that can keep itself secure. Without security, all our development work, including that on women and girls, will be undermined. Ultimately, what matters is having strong leadership in Afghanistan, which we hope to get following the 2014 elections.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree with the secret Ministry of Defence document, published in response to a freedom of information request, advising the Government to conceal the news of deaths in Afghanistan and elsewhere in order to make future deaths more palatable? I do not know whether she has visited the facilities at Brize Norton, but it is clear that there are no facilities there to express grief, as there were on previous bases. Is it not right that the public understand the full effect of the grief of the relatives—a wound of grief that will never heal—rather than have a Government who try to conceal the true cost of war?

Justine Greening: I do not believe that there has been any such attempt. The UK has played a major part in the international security assistance force campaign and has played a correspondingly high price through the tragic loss and injury of UK servicemen and women. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is committed to ensuring that their memory will live on and that they can be commemorated appropriately.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Next Tuesday, at a slightly earlier time than normal—3.15 pm— 120 soldiers from 1st Mechanised Brigade, returning from Afghanistan, will arrive at the north door of Westminster Hall, where right hon. and hon. Members will have the option to thank them for all they have done. Does my right hon. Friend agree that their legacy—the legacy of the 445 people who have died and the others who have been injured—will be a relatively stable and peaceful Afghanistan, and that the legacy of her work and that of other Departments will be to continue that good work?

Justine Greening: Yes, I absolutely pay tribute to the work of those soldiers; they have put their lives on the line, and many have lost their lives, in order to create a more stable Afghanistan that can be part of how this

17 Oct 2013 : Column 918

country remains secure in the future. The contribution they have made to our nation is incalculable, and we should recognise that, honour it and never forget it.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): The Afghan security forces cannot be sustained financially by the Afghan Government, certainly not in the short to medium term. What discussions have the UK Government had with their counterparts in the USA about post-2014 funding for the Afghan security forces?

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that under the Tokyo mutual accountability framework and the summit that saw it emerge, donor countries committed to giving, on average, about $4 billion of annual support up to 2017. As I pointed out to the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), that is a contract between ourselves and the Afghan Government that needs them to deliver on the part of the framework relating to progress that only they can make. There is, however, a commitment and will to ensure that funding is in place for the Afghan national security force. I should also say, briefly, that we are working to help the Afghan Government to increase their tax base, so that they do not need to rely so much on the donor community. In fact, tax receipts have risen from $200 million several years ago to more than $2 billion, in part thanks to DFID’s work with the tax revenue authority to help it do a better job.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the loss of British servicemen’s lives in Afghanistan is more than double what it was in Iraq, which was only 179—I say “only”!—and that the cost of operations in Afghanistan has so far been double what it was in Iraq? Given that we established the Chilcot inquiry to look into lessons learned from Iraq, what consideration are the Government giving to having a similar inquiry, once we have withdrawn, into what lessons can be learned from this long and bitter campaign?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Obviously we have yet to go through the draw-down process, between now and the end of next year. His point about the lessons we can learn from this conflict and the UK military role in it is well made and will certainly be considered at the highest level in Government.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): The Secretary of State’s commitment to dealing with violence against women is extremely welcome. One thing we have found in this country is that it is helpful for women who want to report violence to have women to whom they can report it. Only 1% of the Afghanistan police force is female. What can the UK Government do to improve on that?

Justine Greening: We can continue our work with civil society, other donors and women’s groups across Afghanistan to encourage and help women to become part of the national police force. We can also continue DFID’s work as part of the Tawanmandi programme, which has seen legal aid centres established in several districts, as well as mobile legal aid centres, so that the availability of justice for women goes well beyond having women in the national police to having a justice system

17 Oct 2013 : Column 919

that they can rely on. Clearly that is a huge challenge, and I do not underestimate how far we are in Afghanistan from having the kind of justice system that people rely on and need here in the UK.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Can the Secretary of State reassure the House about the future, after 2014, of the vital work that her Department is doing for Afghan women and girls, including through the girls education challenge fund, the grants to War Child, Save the Children and Afghanaid, and the work with the Independent Election Commission, which is improving the visibility of women in the electoral process in that country?

Justine Greening: Yes, I can. I think of the women and girls agenda very much in terms of ensuring that women and girls have a voice and are participating in communities and national societies at all levels, and ensuring that they have a choice over how they run they lives and have control over their lives and their bodies. They should not have to live in fear of violence. DFID will continue to work across those areas and play what I would like to be a major role in the Afghan donor community to ensure that we push this agenda.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): Let me associate myself with the remarks about Lance Corporal James Brynin, who makes me think of Corby’s own Victoria Cross hero, Lance Corporal James Ashworth, and the Ashworth family’s worry about the future of our troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Given that they will be operating under a NATO mandate, can the Secretary of State tell us who will be responsible for their safety after 2014?

Justine Greening: There is a NATO command structure in place, but perhaps I should take this opportunity to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the draw-down will take place in a co-ordinated and agreed fashion within ISAF. We will ensure that our troops continue to have in place not only the security to keep them safe and secure, but the logistics needed to do their job effectively.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): On the draw-down of Her Majesty’s armed forces, may I encourage my right hon. Friend to discuss with the Defence Secretary returning as much kit and equipment as is practicable and practical back to the UK and, in particular, hosting it at RAF Cosford and MOD Donnington in my constituency, where there is lots of space?

Justine Greening: I am sure that the Secretary of State for Defence will have heard that kind offer. The redeployment of equipment is driven by operational requirements predominantly and, then, an assessment of what is value for money. I can assure my hon. Friend that the first desire is to see equipment redeployed or, if not, sold, or otherwise gifted or destroyed.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State how the repatriation of kit is going? Is the timing on schedule or are there any major problems? Given the choice of what we leave behind, I hope we are also being sensible and making

17 Oct 2013 : Column 920

the right choices, with a view to minimising the risk of kit perhaps being used against us in, heaven forbid, any future conflict.

Justine Greening: Perhaps I can take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend back to the House. It is great to see him in his place. To answer his point about progress on redeployment, we have got about a third of the way through so far, in terms of equipment such as motor vehicles and major equipment, but also some of the smaller matériel that we need to bring back from Afghanistan. We are on track to bring back all the equipment we want to between now and the end of 2014. As I have said, we will take a close look at value for money as we take those decisions.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): In the summer of 2008, 16 Air Assault Brigade transported a massive power station turbine through hostile and difficult terrain to the Kajaki dam. Five years later, may we have an update on the Kajaki dam mission?

Justine Greening: That is a specific project that for some reason is not in my briefing, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and give him an update on progress.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must do all we can ahead of next year’s important provisional and presidential elections to support the election commission to register voters, particularly women?

Justine Greening: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We are working in three areas: combating fraud, which we know was a feature of previous elections, registration and ensuring that women go out and vote. We are working hand in hand with the United Nations Development Programme on the latter.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May I thank the Secretary of State for paying tribute to Lance Corporal James Brynin, who was from Shoreham in my constituency? He was bravely serving his country on his second tour of Afghanistan and was helping to defend civilians and ISAF personnel when he came under attack. He was described by his family as having the “heart of a lion” and by his commanding officer as

“immensely popular and an outstanding soldier in every respect.”

Lance Corporal Brynin was fighting for the safety of people in Afghanistan. When I visited Tajikistan a while ago, I taught in a school of Afghan refugees, who spoke well of their education in Afghanistan—they spoke excellent English—and the support for their schools, but had been driven out of their country by threats of kidnap and non-military violence from the Taliban and others. What is being done to stem the flow of people out of their country, so that we can look after them safely in their own country, where they belong?

Justine Greening: At the heart of all this is the work we have done to staff up and help to improve the Afghan national security force, which includes not only the army and the police but latterly the air force as well. As I said in my statement, they are now conducting 93% of operations and 90% of their own training. The draw-down takes place against the backdrop of our

17 Oct 2013 : Column 921

continuing work to ensure that they can play the role that my hon. Friend describes in the coming years. That role is vital, because as I said earlier, without security Afghanistan will not develop in the way that the people there and we want it to.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): In my experience of being on operations in Bosnia and working with aid workers, it was crucial that they were able to work in a secure environment. After December 2014, it will be much more difficult. May I ask for my right hon. Friend’s assurance that as much effort as possible is made in DFID to ensure the security of the large number of our aid workers left in Afghanistan when British soldiers are largely withdrawn?

Justine Greening: I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend that that is a constant preoccupation of mine, not just in Afghanistan but in all our country programmes where DFID staff are working. As we have seen in a different place, with the kidnap and, luckily, the subsequent release of Red Crescent workers in Syria recently, we often carry out work in dangerous places. We should never forget that when we put in the resources to keep our staff safe, and I can assure my hon. Friend that that is uppermost in our minds.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The UK has been given the task of taking a lead in reducing the narcotics trade and the growing of poppies in Afghanistan, which is essential if the country is to become a viable state subject to the rule of law. What ongoing role will the UK have and how do we intend to transfer the responsibility to Afghan agencies?

Justine Greening: The principal route for DFID, aside from our strengthening of institutions in the security and policing spheres, has been the focus on livelihoods, particularly in the agricultural sector. The reality is that

17 Oct 2013 : Column 922

we simply must give Afghan farmers an alternative to cultivating poppies. That has clearly been a real challenge. We have seen some significant progress, but the challenge remains, which is why DFID’s livelihoods work will continue.

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): I was delighted to hear the Secretary of State mention the HALO Trust which, along with MAG, is helping to de-mine large areas all over the world. When the Select Committee went to Afghanistan, I noticed that women were employed to de-mine areas, which helps to raise their status in the country. I hope that we will be able to continue to fund that in the future and the wonderful ICRC-funded hospital—everyone who works there is at least a single amputee if not a double amputee, providing fantastic role models for disabled people.

Justine Greening: I am very grateful for that question. As I have said, we want to allow HALO to continue the important work it does and clear Herat province of mines by 2018. I can assure my hon. Friend her that this work on health, and particularly improving the access of pregnant women to health facilities, will continue to be one of our key priorities.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Following my right hon. Friend’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), how effective does she think the comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility really is?

Justine Greening: I think it has been effective, and the main challenges in getting it to work effectively have been to do security, which has fluctuated from month to month. We face a constant challenge in being able to work in the communities in Afghanistan. It is a challenge that we meet, and I am proud of DFID’s work, particularly with respect to livelihoods. As I have said, we will continue that work.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 923

Backbench Business

Defence Reforms

[Relevant Documents: Oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 5 December 2012, on Future Army 2020, HC 803-i, Session 2012-13, and on 10 July 2013, HC 576-i; uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 8 October 2013, on Future Army 2020, HC 576-ii; written evidence to the Defence Committee, on Future Army 2020, reported to the House on 24 April, 9 July and 8 October 2013, and published on the internet.]

12.32 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House notes concerns about the Government’s defence reforms in relation to whether its proposals for the reserve forces will deliver either the anticipated cost savings or defence capability; and urges the Government to delay the disbandment of regular units until it is established that the Army Reserve plan is viable and cost-effective.

Let me first express my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. Many of us on both sides of the House believe this to be an important topic for discussion.

I suggest that Government plans to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists are on the rocks. Territorial Army numbers are at a low ebb; reserve recruitment targets are being missed; costs are rising; and there are delays and disorganisation. The plans will produce neither the anticipated cost-savings nor the capability envisaged. The time has come to say “Halt”—to halt the axing of the regular battalions and units until we are sure that the reservist plans are both viable and cost-effective. We run the risk of wasting taxpayers’ money on the back of false economies and unrealistic expectations.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Were we not promised by the previous Secretary of State that the cuts to the regular forces would happen only if it were clear that we could increase the reserves? Yet that is not going to happen, so what happened to the original promise?

Mr Baron: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the original plan, which was to allow the build-up of the reserves before we axed regular battalions because it was deemed that deployability was terribly important. Exchanges took place on the Floor of the House in 2011 between the then Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), which clearly confirm that the plan was to get the balance right—to build up the reservists before winding down the regulars.

My first questions, then, to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who is replying to the debate, are: why and when did the plan change? To make this debate as productive as possible, I would be delighted to take interventions from my right hon. Friend if he wishes to answer the questions we pose as the debate proceeds. I think that the questions why and when the plan changed are wholly legitimate ones, because the plan has changed and the House should be in no doubt whatever about

17 Oct 2013 : Column 924

that. Just two years ago, the plan was to say, “We will not wind down the regular troops until we know that the reservists are up to strength”. That plan has changed.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the plan also changed in respect of the original strategic defence and security review. It initially planned for a reduction of 7,000 troops, but it suddenly increased to 13,000 and if recent press reports are to be believed, it might be even higher.

Mr Baron: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. A number of changes to the plan have occurred, but to my knowledge, at no time have we had any explanation from the Dispatch Box of why the plans have changed, of the cost implications or indeed of when they changed.

The entire Army reforms depend on the successful recruitment of reserves. Let us examine that for a moment, and let us remember that without such recruitment up to 30,000, the Army reform plans fall apart. What do we know about recruitment so far? We know that TA numbers have been falling, not rising, since 2009 and are now at their lowest ebb since 2007. We know today that new reservist recruitment targets are being missed. The front page of The Daily Telegraph, under the heading “Reforms have left the Army in chaos”refers to documents clearly showing that reservist recruitment targets both for this and next year are being missed—and not just by a small margin, but by a massive margin—thus bringing the whole plan into doubt. Various reasons are put forward, including criticism of the Ministry of Defence for closing down local recruitment offices, and there is talk about privatisation and Capita, but I think that is somewhat overplayed. What we know is that there has been a lack of communication in the IT systems in the MOD as between Capita and Atlas. There are all sorts of reasons, but the bottom line is that key reserve recruitment targets are being missed.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The issue of recruitment targets within the reserve forces and the TA cannot be helped when it can take several months to get from someone signing up to join to turning up for their first night’s training. That is too long for people to be delayed along their way.

Mr Baron: My hon. Friend, who has experience of these matters, makes a valid point. [Interruption.] Yes, he is my hon. and gallant Friend.

Other reasons include the draw-down in Afghanistan, which is perhaps not encouraging reservists to sign up, and the fact that employers are reluctant to let key employees go. There is a host of reasons, but as I say, the bottom line is that the key reserve recruitment targets are being missed. Another key concern is that costs may be rising faster than anticipated, yet the Government have not presented to Parliament a fully costed plan, despite numerous requests for them to do so.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On that point, would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on an observation in the current issue of the Army Reserve Quarterly to the effect that it is all to do with

“rebalancing Her Majesty’s Forces in light of the country’s needs and resources in the years ahead”?

17 Oct 2013 : Column 925

Mr Baron: I would need further clarification of the comment, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is real concern about the plan among both the regular and the TA/reservist units in the Army, not just at the front end but in the highest echelons.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Before he deals further with the question of cost, may I as a layman suggest to him that, if the reservists cannot make up their membership in time for the disbandment of the regular battalions, there is bound to be a gap in capability?

Mr Baron: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall be dealing with the capability gap—very briefly, if my hon. Friend will forgive me—because I think that it is an important issue, but may I test the patience of the House and stick to the cost issue for the time being? There is a real risk that, if costs rise faster than anticipated, we shall create false economies that will bring the whole project into doubt. That is terribly important, and we are right to ask questions about it on behalf of the taxpayer.

The Government have not come here to present a fully costed plan, but the pieces of the jigsaw that we can see do not reveal a rosy picture. We know from the Green Paper—and the Independent Commission to Review the United Kingdom’s Reserve Forces has confirmed this—that it costs more to train a reservist than to train a regular. We know that those who leave the regular forces to join the reserves will be given a £5,000 bounty, payable over four years. We have some questions about the reservist award, which is the difference between reservists’ pay and what they earn in civilian life. We are told that the potential cost has been accounted for, but the assumptions have not been made clear. We also know that, because employers are reluctant to let key employees go for extended periods, the Government have come up with an incentive for prospective employers amounting to £500 per reservist per month. Those are all added costs, but we still do not know what the fully costed plan is.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): My hon. Friend referred to the Independent Commission to Review the United Kingdom’s Reserve Forces. I serve on the commission, and I do not accept his statistic. Broadly speaking, the cost of a reservist is about a fifth of the cost of his regular counterpart. In America, it is about a quarter, and my guess is that following the changes that we are making, it will be something between a quarter and a fifth.

Mr Baron: I must say to my hon. Friend, with the greatest respect, that he has confused training with deployment. There is no argument in the House about the fact that reservists will be cheaper; the question is, how much cheaper will they be? When costs are rising, do we enter the terrain of false economies—which brings into doubt the whole question of value for money and whether the plan should have been instigated in the first place? I was talking about training. There has been a dispute about whether it costs more to train a regular, but my hon. Friend should know from the Green Paper that it costs more to train a reservist.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 926

However, this is not just about the bits of the jigsaw that we have seen. We know that there are hidden costs further down the line. According to a recent report by the charity Combat Stress, reservists are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as regular troops. We may be storing up a ticking time bomb for ourselves. The necessary support structures for reservists are not in place, and I should be interested to know whether there are any proposals in that regard.

May I ask the Minister how much of the £1.8 billion—spread over 10 years—has been set aside for the Government’s plans? We are told that that money has been set aside and all is well, but there are various reports that some of it has already been eaten into. Has any of it been spent, and if so, how much?

While I am on the subject of costs, may I question the Minister about the impact assessment, which attempts to take an overall view of the costs? Again, we are dealing with assumptions and projected usage rates, and not all the figures are on the table, but I think we can all agree that the assessment is very dependent on projected usage rates. The way in which the reserve forces are used will depend on assumptions about future costs.

Artificially low rates can create false economies. The central case in the document seems to be based on an assumption of 3,000 annual deployments. I must ask the Minister whether that projection is realistic, given the original rationale of the reserve reforms. We are meant to be replacing 20,000 regular troops with 30,000 reservists. If the central projected use is 3,000, something is not adding up on the terrain. We need to examine the facts very carefully, because, again, we may be creating false economies and the taxpayer may be presented with a much larger bill than was originally envisaged.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, I strongly support those who are concerned about a capability gap, but I am slightly worried about some of the figures that he has given. For example, the figure relating to the higher cost of training a reservist is correct on a per-day basis, but it is not correct overall. What worries me is that, if Members give incorrect figures, the Government will very quickly knock them back. Let us stick to the main thrust, which is our fear that there will not be enough soldiers to fight in any future deployments that may take place.

Mr Baron: I am indeed very worried about the possibility that we shall not have enough troops to deploy. I refer my hon. Friend to the Green Paper, which states that it costs more to train a reservist than to train a regular. However, he has made a valid point about the manpower gap, which I think is a central issue of concern. Will 30,000 reservists be enough, even if they can be recruited? According to figures from the Ministry of Defence, the present TA mobilisation rate is 40%. In other words, for every 100 TA soldiers on paper, 40 are deemed to be deployable at any one time. That suggests that if we are plugging a gap left by 20,000 regulars, we shall need 50,000 reservists, not 30,000.

In response to a letter sent to him a while ago by 25 Conservative Members, the Secretary of State suggested a mobilisation rate of 80%. He said:

“The total strength target for the Army Reserve in 2020 is 38,000, in order to deliver 30,000 trained reservists.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 927

May I ask the Minister what research, what study, what evidence justifies the claim that the MOD’s budgets will double the mobilisation rate? It is one thing to recruit 30,000 reservists, but doubling the mobilisation rate as well would require an extremely large investment. Many of us would be interested to know what evidence supports the claim that the £1.8 billion that has been put aside will achieve both those objectives. It is a very, very tall order.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) raised the issue of the capability gap, and he was right to do so, because there is a fear that the Government plans risk creating such a gap. The Army reforms were put together before the strategic defence and security review, and since then a string of events have changed the international strategic dynamic. The nature of conflict is changing. Previously, it was thought of very much in binary terms—there would be one bloc against another bloc—but more fluid geopolitical forces are now at play, both state and non-state. War is becoming more asymmetrical, and we need well trained, agile, regular forces at high readiness if we are to meet the challenges that lie ahead. There is no disguising among the military their frustration about the fact that they could not have been more supportive to the French in Mali. The penny may have dropped on that side of the channel, but it has not yet dropped on this side.

I must ask the Minister whether 40 days’ training is really enough. Let us be absolutely clear about this: the Government’s plans represent a step-change in our approach. We are proposing to deploy whole units of reservists into the field. We have got to ask serious questions about this. Some would say, “Well, it happens in the US with the National Guard,” but it is, perhaps, not fully appreciated that the US National Guard has its own bases and its own equipment and training programmes. They take it very seriously in the US; they throw a lot of money at it, and even then the National Guard units are not infantry units. That is the interesting thing: the National Guard units are not infantry units, despite the investment the US puts into it.

Mr Brazier: My last visit to a National Guard infantry unit was in Kabul about a year and a half ago. It was doing an excellent security job, and it also had detached platoons along the Pakistani border. Some 60% of the American infantry is in the National Guard and 40% is in its regular army.

Mr Baron: All I would say to my hon. Friend is that there is a general view that the National Guard is very much focused on supporting roles, and the Americans treat their National Guard very differently from what I think is being proposed here. For example, I do not know of there being any details about separate training programmes, operational programmes or equipment programmes in the Government’s plans, which we have yet to see. All we are asking is to see those plans, because £1.8 billion may sound like a lot of money but it is spread over 10 years, and we must consider the scale of what we are asking—not just raising 30,000 reservists, or, to be more accurate, adding another 12,000 or 13,000 reservists, but doubling the mobilisation rate. That is a very big ask indeed.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 928

What research has been undertaken to ensure that the money earmarked is sufficient to bring reservist units up to the same standard as regulars upon deployment? That is especially important given that it appears that human rights legislation will require equal training and equipment. That has not been raised much in the debate thus far, but human rights legislation is a concern in the sense that it is going to say, “Any troops put into the field, reservist or regular, have to have equal training and equipment.” I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

There is a concern that these plans are having a distorting effect on the ground. I come back to the fact that well-recruited battalions are being axed, including my own battalion, the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, yet more poorly recruited, and therefore more expensive, battalions are being saved. Such a policy reinforces failure. Can the Minister justify the decision for 2RRF to replace on the list one of the more poorly recruited battalions when it was not on the original list of five battalions to be scrapped? We know, because we have seen it in writing from the MOD, that five battalions were originally due to be axed as they had poor recruitment figures. One of those was replaced. They had to go looking for another battalion and they fell upon 2RRF, which happened to be the best-recruited battalion in the British Army. Many fusiliers and their families in swathes of constituencies across the north and the midlands of England would like an answer to that question.

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): Both 2RRF and the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are very close to my heart, my dad having been a member of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers before and during the second world war. I wonder what the MOD wants out of our defence forces. One of the battalions to be axed, 2RRF, is referred to as “Daring in all”, and it is said:

“Where ever the Fusiliers have deployed to they have proved capable of meeting every challenge with courage, determination and a will to win.”

That is on the Army website.

Mr Baron: That goes without saying. I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman says. We have still not yet had a straightforward answer to a straightforward question: 2RRF was not in the original five; those five were chosen because of their poor recruitment and retention figures; one was removed and they had to go looking for another battalion to take its place; and they just happened to fall upon the best-recruited battalion in the British Army, and one with a very proud recruiting history. We recruit from across the major cities of Lancashire, Warwickshire and Northumberland—Newcastle, Coventry, Birmingham, Manchester—as well as from London, yet we were told we were having trouble with our recruitment, and that is simply not the case.

No wonder ex-military chiefs are critical. Many are pointing out that strategic thought has been abandoned at a time when many other countries, not necessarily friendly to the west, are increasing their defence budgets. They are asking all politicians to think again.

There comes a stage with any struggling project when common sense and evidence dictate a revaluation and I believe we have reached that point now. There is no

17 Oct 2013 : Column 929

doubt—let us be clear about this—that reservists are cheaper than regulars, but rising costs threaten the anticipated cost savings and raise the very real prospect of false economies, and that is before we consider the issue of capability gaps, yet the Government seem determined to plough on with this misguided plan and play down concerns.

That is evidenced today by this important debate having been downgraded, I believe, to a one-line Whip. That does not surprise me, but, all the same, I think it speaks volumes about the Government’s approach. This is a very important issue and the debate has been very well-subscribed to, yet we drop it down to a one-line Whip at a time when the Government have still not produced fully costed plans and there are very real concerns about whether 30,000 reservists can plug a gap left by 20,000 regulars.

I intend to test the will of the House on this motion. The time has come to say “Halt”—halt to the axing of the regular battalions until we know that the reservist plan is both viable and cost-effective; otherwise the taxpayer could bear the brunt of many false economies to come.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. May I remind Members that there is a six-minute limit?

12.57 pm

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this debate. It is the second such debate he has secured, and in the first debate we won the vote but the Government did not take a blind bit of notice. I hope they will do so today.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I had the pleasure the other day of helping to hand in a petition to No. 10 Downing street, when I met, and talked to, many of the ex-fusiliers. There is no doubt that they feel very strongly about what has happened to their regiment and battalions.

I appreciate that periodical reorganisations are necessary and that cuts sometimes might be required to ensure efficiency, but let us be clear: that is not what is happening here. This is a financial, not a strategic, change.

The Government say these cuts will not affect our military capability, but they clearly will. We are losing whole battalions—20,000 troops are to be axed. The Government know this will damage our military capability, creating gaps that will cost us both financially and strategically. That is why they keep insisting that their plans for reservists will fill this gap. That may or may not be the case. I am not a military expert and do not wish to discuss whether or not 30,000 reservists are a substitute for 20,000 regulars. I do, however, have experience of industry and, as a result, I am highly sceptical of the Government’s plans.

I fear that the Government are being highly optimistic in relying on 30,000 reservists. To be in the Territorial Army is admirable and I respect all reservists, but it is admirable because it is a serious time commitment—and, more than that, they can sometimes put themselves in harm’s way. In today’s economic climate, it is not easy for people to request time off from their employer, let alone take large amounts of time off. If companies are tightening their belts, employees feel it is important to

17 Oct 2013 : Column 930

be present, hard working and seen to be valuable to the company. Especially given today’s high living standards and bills, no one wants to risk losing their job. Many employers will also be very reluctant to make the extra demands of their employers. We must remember that being a reservist does not mean taking hours off; it can mean taking weeks off. There will be a real fear that being a reservist can jeopardise someone’s career. That is not to say that people will not volunteer to be reservists, but when push comes to shove reservists will put their employment first.

I understand that there are to be incentives for employers to take on reservists, but, again, I fear that when work is demanding and a deadline is looming employers would rather have their employee at work and will put pressure on reservists accordingly. Furthermore, I understand that the Territorial Army’s current mobilisation rate stands at 40%, so only 40 of every 100 soldiers are deemed fit for deployment. Given that figure, we have to bear in mind that we are going to need to recruit about 50,000 reservists, rather than 30,000. The TA has had a net loss in officers and soldiers since 2009; TA numbers are now at their lowest level since 2007. I also understand from recent reports that the reserves recruitment drive, which ought now to be in full swing, is falling well short of its targets for both this year and next. I will leave others to discuss the strategic considerations and the cost of the plans, which is considerable and escalating. I simply call on the Government to delay the axing of the 20,000 regulars until it is beyond doubt that the reserves plan is viable and cost-effective. Let us wait to see what the reservists plans look like before making such significant cuts.

Ian Mearns: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because it gives me the opportunity to highlight the sad disbandment of the 72 Engineers Regiment, which has its headquarters in my constituency. Although it is to be amalgamated into other regiments, the 72 Engineers Regiment has a long history of residency in my constituency and has the freedom of the borough. Many people in the borough are deeply saddened to see the demise of the regiment.

Mr Cunningham: I am sure that most of the House would agree with my hon. Friend.

We need to ensure that we do not cause unnecessary costs to the taxpayer and that we do not damage our military capability. Finally, I urge the Government to consider abandoning the plan to disband the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers altogether. It is an excellent battalion with a proud history—the Warwickshire county regiment is part of that history—particularly during the second world war, and it has an outstanding track record of recruitment. I urge the Government to reconsider disbanding it while keeping more poorly recruited, and therefore more expensive, battalions.

1.2 pm

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I welcome this debate and I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham).

I understand my hon. and gallant Friend’s loyal defence of his fine former regiment. As the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war is almost upon us, it is

17 Oct 2013 : Column 931

time to remember six Lancashire and Warwickshire Fusiliers who won Victoria Crosses in that war. Sir John French made the famous remark that without the Territorial units available at the very beginning of the fighting we would have lost in France before the war had really begun.

The reality is that we have a good plan that is being unevenly implemented. America’s land forces are almost exactly split 50:50 between regulars and volunteer reserves. Canada has 44% regulars and Australia has 36% regulars; in all countries there are more reserve infantry than regulars. Uniquely, Britain has a target that is much less ambitious. It is broadly the case that a reservist costs a fifth of the price of a regular. All of us who are keen on defence would like more resources to be allocated to defence. Indeed, more than 20 years ago, I stepped down from my post in government as a Cabinet Parliamentary Private Secretary over that issue. However, the reality is that we have to work within these very difficult economic times, and the alternative to 30,000 reservists is not 20,000 regulars, but somewhere between 6,000 and 7,500, and that would be if we got rid of all the specialist medics, cyber-people and so on whom the Regular Army does not have.

I therefore strongly support this plan; I have seen the work of American and Australian reservists, and I am proud that 20% of the British division that captured southern Iraq was made up of reservists. However, I am concerned about some of the details of how the plan is being implemented. From the beginning, Ministers and the Chief of the General Staff have made a strong commitment to it. Ministers have secured the support of every employers’ organisation in the country. The CGS, starting with his own pitch to employers in his excellent article in the Financial Times, immediately spotted the governance issue by appointing, for the first time since the second world war, a TA two-star—a major-general—to play a pivotal role in it. The problems largely lie within the recruiting group. At a time when the proposition has improved immeasurably as a result of changes the Army Board is making, it is deeply depressing that this department is failing to deliver.

I have before me the monthly recruiting statistics for one unit—I will not disclose which, for obvious reasons. In the 12 months before the first push on TA recruiting in autumn 2011, the unit had enlisted between three and 12 people a month. The figures after that push are: 15 for November 2011, 21 for December 2011 and 19 for January 2012. Then, for a reason not understood by anyone, the recruiting group introduced its new system for medicals and common selection, without any market testing and without talking to units, and within three or four months the figures had dropped to one or two a month. That muddle was sorted—it had nothing to do with Capita. Second time around, the arrangements with Capita—I do not blame Capita—were introduced without any market testing or discussion with units. I am sure we have all dealt with cases of soldiers who have waited six or nine months with their documents repeatedly lost in the system.

Time is extremely short, so I want to suggest three things that the Government need to do turn this around. The units I talk to tell me again and again that there is more interest in joining the reserves and that the figures for the two groups that are not under control of the

17 Oct 2013 : Column 932

recruiting group—officer applicants and ex-regulars—are both improving. So, first, we need to get more of the control over the enlistment process back with the units again.

Mr Baron: May I suggest that this is a clear example of where the plan is driven by costs, rather than by strategic design? The cost for Capita to take on the recruitment was derived in large part by scaling down, if not selling up completely, local recruitment offices. So to start opening those offices, although a sensible proposition, would require additional cost if we are going to reverse that recruitment loss.

Mr Brazier: My hon. and gallant Friend makes an interesting point. That is not what I am arguing for, although I would strongly argue that it is ridiculous that the offices we still retain are open 9 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday instead of, for example, 9 am to 9 pm Tuesday to Thursday, which would allow the people there to do both jobs rather than only regulars. I am calling for more emphasis on the units. A temporary measure has been adopted in that area, which I suggest should be more permanent—it need not be expensive.

The second major change we need is to have a senior reservist officer in the recruiting group who is tasked with talking to units and who has real power in the way in which decisions in that area are made. We have done it at Land Command at the senior level, where two highly effective successive deputy commanders at Land in that position have worked well, and the improvements in the proposition have stemmed in no small part from that. The same needs to be done in the recruiting group.

The third change we need is on a relatively small scale, as seven or eight changes among the 400-odd decisions that had to be made to the location of the reserves are not right. Seven or eight really well-recruited sub-units have been wrongly selected for disbandment, including the best-recruited squadron in the yeomanry, which is going down to troop level, the best-recruited battery in the TA gunners and three or four well-recruited infantry sub-units.

I believe that this plan is achievable and it is moving us in the direction of the allies we fight alongside. It is a good plan; it just needs an improvement in implementation.

1.10 pm

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who made an earnest plea. I also thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for all he has done to secure the debate today and the debate last year. He deserves our support for what he said today.

This is an important debate, because, as yet, the Government have not made a good enough case for their plans to reform the country’s armed forces completely by 2020. Furthermore, we know that, of the three services, the Army will be most affected by the Government’s proposed changes. I confess that a particular concern for me from a local perspective is the plan to disband 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

A year ago, on 18 October, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has mentioned, the House debated the proposed disbandment

17 Oct 2013 : Column 933

of that battalion. The vote was won, but we know that it was not binding and the Defence Reform Bill is before Parliament with the disbandment proposals intact. All the while, the Army is working to implement its restructuring by 2018.

Colleagues speaking in support of this motion cannot yet see any evidence that supports the Government’s decision to give reservists a bigger role in defending the country. To complete the transformation of the Army, the Government must meet their target of recruiting 30,000 new reservists by 2018. However, the Assistant Chief of the General Staff told the Defence Committee in July of this year that achieving the 6,000 target for this year is “looking tough”. Even if recruitment improves, there are concerns from many quarters about how employers will react when their staff, serving as reservists, have to be deployed for up to 12 months at a time every five years. There is also concern that the compensation of £500 a month to cover each reservist is too low to cover employers’ costs.

Moreover, can Future Force meet the same capability levels as the Army today? With less time for training and with a voluntary role, these soldiers cannot be expected to be comparable with full-time, fully trained and battle-ready Army personnel.

Mr Brazier: I am listening carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. On the question about being battle-ready and so on, under the American system the regular troops are used to seize ground and the reserve troops, who can bring extra expertise—they include policemen, farmers, business men and so on—are used to hold ground. They are often more successful than regular troops at building links with the local community.

Mrs Glindon: The point at issue is the transformation to reservists.

So far, the Government have not been able to instil in either Members of this House or the people of this country any confidence in their cost-cutting proposals, because they have not laid the figures on the table. Instead, they have launched headlong into reform, announcing redundancies and undermining the morale of our forces on active service. I remind the Minister that the military covenant states that our military deserve our support, respect and fair treatment, and they should have that at all times.

As for the question of the depletion of our Regular Army, earlier this year I had the honour, along with the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), of taking to Downing street a 10,000-strong petition, which was co-ordinated by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and signed by the people of the north-east, asking the Government not to disband the 2nd Battalion. On Tuesday this week, hundreds of fusiliers marched through Whitehall in support of a national petition to save their battalion that was presented at 10 Downing street. It was an emotional afternoon, charged with the pride of a regiment that has the best recruitment record in the land, yet tinged with sadness and dismay that that proud tradition could soon be consigned to history.

After the march, I was honoured to bring four veterans from the north-east on their first visit to Parliament. I am pleased to say that while I showed them around this great place, every member of staff and every MP we encountered treated them with the utmost courtesy and

17 Oct 2013 : Column 934

respect. Those veterans—Jim, Terry, Jim the Stick and Mac—fear for the future of their battalion and the opportunities for young people in the north-east to follow them into a full-time Army career.

None of us wants to see the battalion or any other unit disbanded in haste and without our being sure that the Government’s plan is cost-effective and wholly workable. This House, our armed forces and the people of the country have a right to see evidence from the Government that they can make the savings and maintain the level of defence that they claim the reforms will deliver.

If the Government are serious about defence reform, they must acknowledge the relevance of the motion and act in accordance with it. I support the motion and urge all other Members in Westminster today to do so, too.

1.15 pm

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The first responsibility of any Government is the defence of the realm. I put that point to the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House and warned him that on his watch the size of the British Army will fall to the level it was at the time of the battle of Waterloo.

I have considerable sympathy with the points that are being made about saving 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I will not venture too far in that direction, but I will say that I have placed on record my reservations and concerns about where the replacement of regulars of reservists will get to. I pointed out in an intervention on my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) the fact that the current issue of Army Reserve Quarterly states:

“These changes are not in isolation: they are part of rebalancing Her Majesty’s Forces in light of the country’s needs and resources in the years ahead following the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty.”

It goes on to say:

“The changes being made are modernising the Army to face an unpredictable future, transforming the Army to one that is affordable, wholly integrated, designed to be adaptable, and ready to meet the challenges of the future.”

My fear is that we might perhaps have a generational challenge in the leadership of our major political parties. I am of an age that I can remember the aftermath of the second world war and other conflicts, so I feel that reducing the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces to even lower numbers than present is not in the national interest. Today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph, a paper that I follow—

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Avidly.

Sir Bob Russell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for providing a word I was struggling to find; it was not my original thought, but it will do.

The Daily Telegraph reports today:

“Controversial plans to restructure the Army are ‘failing’ because cuts to the defence budget are putting off potential new soldiers…according to a leaked document”,


“The memo, which is understood to have had wide distribution within the Ministry of Defence, says that ‘disappointing’ recruitment to the new Army Reserve means that targets for a larger part-time force will not be reached.”

17 Oct 2013 : Column 935

It goes on to quote that document, saying that

“the Army faces ‘increased risk to its structure and operational capability’”.

The full-time Army has been cut from 102,000 to about 82,000 and five battalions will be axed. As someone who would desperately like to see 3rd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment reinstated, I well understand why people are anxious about battalion cuts. The cuts are supposed to be offset by a major expansion in the part-time reserve force, which is expected to grow from 19,000 to 30,000.

Mr Brazier: Just while my hon. Friend is mentioning the distinguished Royal Anglian Regiment, one should also say that the Territorials have produced a number of distinguished Members of Parliament, including Sir Winston Churchill and the hon. Member for Raleigh, a former member of the Royal Anglians.

Sir Bob Russell: Or indeed, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). I welcome a fellow Essex MP to the debate, and in a few minutes I will also be delighted to welcome from Essex the new Deputy Speaker. It is good to see an Essex girl doing so well.

The Daily Telegraph says that the 10-page report dated 6 August and marked “Restricted” claims that the Army is currently recruiting barely half the number of new reservists needed to hit the target. It says:

“The Army is currently failing to attract and recruit sufficient Army Reserve personnel. Reserve info numbers in Quarter 1 are disappointing. If this continues the Army will miss its challenging inflow targets both this year and next.”

That would have consequences for the full-time Army. The report continues:

“Only 376 recruits joined the Reserve between April and June, missing a target of 1,432. That puts the Army on course to recruit only 50% of the overall 2013-14 target”.

The defence of the realm should be based on the defence needs of the nation; it should not be resources led. I get the distinct impression that it is being resources led. I pay tribute to our service personnel and their families. I suggest to my colleagues, friends and chums on the Government Front Bench that, should windfall funds materialise from the disposal of MOD assets, which they could well do, the money should be used primarily to modernise our Army married housing. The modernisation programme is currently on hold because it is claimed that the country cannot afford it, but as heard in Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, the economy is improving. So if there is an MOD windfall, I suggest that the money goes on improving our housing.

I should like to end on an upbeat subject and advise the House that on Wednesday 6 November at 7.30 in the atrium of Portcullis House the Colchester military wives choir will be making a return visit. Everyone is welcome to come along and hear them.

1.22 pm

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this debate. It is an honour and a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell). We reside on the same corridor upstairs, and exchange pleasantries on a daily basis.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 936

I should also declare an interest as a member of the Backbench Business Committee, because I was part of the decision-making process for securing the debate today. I am rounding the circle. because I declared the same interest in the Committee.

I have previously alluded to my sadness and that of my constituents at the disbandment of the 72 Royal Engineers TA Regiment. It was a real pleasure to attend an event here yesterday afternoon, mostly about the Royal Engineers, at which members of the 72 Regiment were present. We saw the great work that the Royal Engineers do across the country and in far-flung fields. It is particularly disappointing that, as part of the review, in which we hoped to see an expansion of the TA, the headquarters of the regiment was removed from my constituency. As I said earlier, they have the freedom of the borough, and we will see their passing with great regret.

I referred in an intervention to the impending demise of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which recruits mainly from the north-west. I am concerned that if we disband the 2nd Battalion, that will leave one full-time regular battalion within that regiment. Using the Government’s own defence review criteria, single-battalion regiments are automatically subject to review, so that would place in jeopardy the last remaining 1st Battalion of full-time regular soldiers within the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The regiment is close to my heart. It was my dad’s regiment; he was a regular soldier, serving in Palestine and north Africa. He was captured in the early days of the second world war before becoming a prisoner of war for a number of years. I wonder why we are seeing the potential demise of such a regiment, which dates back almost 330 years.

I really wonder what more we want from our service personnel than what the Fusiliers already provide. According to the Army website,

“The First Fusiliers epitomise the modern British soldier … The Second Fusiliers are a superb, operationally hardened, light role infantry battalion.”

They are supported by the 5 RRF, a TA battalion, which has stations at Alnwick, Ashington, Newcastle, Tynemouth, Washington, Bishop Auckland and Doncaster—mainly a north-east regiment of the territorial reserve force. We have grave concerns about the future of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers per se.

Comparisons between the capability of our TA reserve forces and front-line regular forces and that of the American services are almost meaningless. Given the size of the American regular capability and the resources available to it, to compare them with our regular forces, who I believe are much better troops on the ground even though they are obviously many fewer in numbers, is meaningless. I would ask Government Members not to make such comparisons because they demean this debate.

I welcome the debate and ask the Government to think again about the proposals. There could be hidden cost implications down the line, and we worry about our real defence capability come 2020.

1.27 pm

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), and I thank him and his colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee for taking note of the

17 Oct 2013 : Column 937

submission made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), me and other hon. Members from across the House at last week’s meeting, and for granting this debate today.

This matter is one of enormous importance to my constituents in Bury, and I want to explain briefly why that is. The motion refers to the disbandment of regular Army units. As we have already heard, one of the units to be disbanded is the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Bury has long been a productive recruiting ground for the Fusiliers—originally the Lancashire Fusiliers raised in 1688, who had their barracks in the town of Bury, as I know you are well aware, Mr Deputy Speaker. Following a previous reorganisation of the regular Army units, back on 23 April 1968, the Lancashire Fusiliers joined the Royal Northumbrian Fusiliers, the Royal Warwickshire Fusiliers and the Royal Fusiliers to form part of the new Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

The people of Bury are extremely proud of the town’s links with the Fusiliers. The town is home to the Fusiliers museum, which has recently moved from the site of the old barracks to a new venue right in the heart of the town. This was visited by the Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), when he was shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Just a few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport also visited the museum.

Earlier this year, in the summer, the Bury parish church played host to the funeral of Drummer Lee Rigby—a Fusilier—who was so brutally murdered here in London. The church is the garrison church of the Fusiliers. Each year on the Sunday nearest 25 April Bury commemorates the terrible losses sustained by the Fusiliers at Gallipoli in 1915. The Fusiliers were awarded six Victoria Crosses for the bravery that they displayed at that landing, and famously they are remembered as having won six VCs before breakfast.

We must never lose sight of the reason why the Government have had to make these difficult decisions. It is right that the defence budget must be balanced; no one disputes that. It is nevertheless prudent constantly to review the plans that the Government have put in place and monitor them to ensure that they are on track and that they will deliver the planned savings. My constituents are understandably angry and disappointed that the 2nd Battalion is being disbanded at a time when there is so much uncertainty in the world. On Tuesday this week I was honoured to meet the hundreds of former Fusiliers and their families who marched down Whitehall to hear the speeches in Old Palace Yard. This was the second such march, following the one we had last year. It is just one indication of the strength of feeling not just in Bury, but in all the towns from which the Fusiliers recruit right across the country.

The 2nd Battalion is one of the best—if not the best—recruited battalions in the British Army. My constituents ask why Scottish battalions, which are much more poorly manned, are being retained when the 2nd Battalion is being disbanded. They wonder whether the answer has anything to do with the impending referendum on independence for Scotland.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I be the first hon. Member of this House to welcome you to your new position, to congratulate you on your election as Deputy Speaker, and to wish you well in your new role in the House?

17 Oct 2013 : Column 938

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Nuttall: Certainly.

Mr Francois: We on the Government Benches have noted, Madam Speaker, that you have achieved what the military would call an initial operating capability. We wish you the very best and we are sure that you will succeed.

Mr Nuttall rose—

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Nuttall: Certainly.

Mr Jones: May I, from the Opposition Benches, welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker? I see that you are getting clear guidance from your fellow Deputy Speaker. From my experience of the right hon. Member for Chorley (Mr Hoyle), I would not listen too closely to him on every occasion, as he has a mischievous sense of humour.

Mr Nuttall: My constituents in Bury are concerned that not enough reservists will be recruited to fill the massive hole that will be left by the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion. The original plan was to keep the Regular Army battalions in place until it was clear that the plan to replace them with reservists was viable. It surely makes sense to be absolutely certain that the reservists recruitment plans are on track before the regular units are disbanded. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay that the plan to recruit more reservists is behind schedule, but we should not have to rely on leaks published in The Daily Telegraph. What are the facts? Exactly how many reservists should have been recruited by now? Exactly how many have been recruited? They are not a cheap option. We need to know the facts. I urge the House to vote for the motion.

1.34 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Madam Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure to see you in your place. I support the comments of my colleagues.

I commend my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his persistence in raising these questions. As has been said, the Government plan to more than double the size of the TA to 38,000. That figure has not been used yet, but as I understand it, that is the target figure, of which 30,000 will be potentially on call. At the same time the number of regulars will be reduced by 20,000. The motion

“notes concerns”

about whether these reforms

“will deliver either the anticipated cost savings or defence capability”.

My sympathies are with the members of the Government Front-Bench team, whom I know reasonably well after three years here. I know that none of them wishes to be in this position.

During my nine years in the Army, I worked alongside many reservists. They were capable, professional and dedicated. Their magnificent contribution to many recent

17 Oct 2013 : Column 939

operations from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya leaves us in no doubt of their valour or significance. However, reservists have other priorities in their lives, and that is even more pertinent in today’s tough and competitive world. For these reasons and others, their numbers must be kept to a sensible and manageable proportion of the whole. No military commander I have spoken to, serving or retired, agrees that the increase in the proportion of reservists to regulars is correct. Today’s conflicts require well trained, professional, regular troops to hit the ground running, so if we are to cut our armed services, the proportion of regulars to reservists must be higher, not lower.

Twenty thousand fully trained and experienced regulars are leaving the Army, creating what I and many other campaigners and commentators would consider a yawning capability gap. The Government argue that they inherited a multibillion pound hole in the defence budget, which was unsustainable. Although I accept that premise, I do not agree with the conclusion that we should cut the armed services to the extent that we are planning, and certainly not before plan B has proved sustainable.

To me, this is all about priorities. We are happy to strike a moral pose and devote many billions of pounds to overseas aid, much of which is unaccountable, while starving of cash the very organisations that defend our country. I have no problem with giving money to overseas aid, but it should be better targeted, and I think that a statutory target is incorrect. Furthermore, projects such as HS2, which is very controversial, will cost billions of pounds, and, dare I say it, there is the old elephant in the room, the EU. Charity starts at home, especially in austere times.

It is a sobering thought that at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland we had nearly 30,500 troops serving there. In my day it took about six men to put one man in the field. Working on that basis, if—God forbids it ever happens again—Northern Ireland flares up, we would be pushed to meet that commitment, let alone retake the Falklands if Argentina were ever in a position to launch an attack.

Ministers tell us that this reduction is

“to make best use of the resources available”

and to

“harness better the talents of the country”.

It sounds good, but does it deliver? According to a leaked document from the MOD, it does not. I would be grateful if Ministers would confirm what percentage of GDP is spent on our armed forces. I am told that it is now below 2%, the minimum that our membership of NATO demands. In my day, it was above 5% —money that was needed not only to maintain our commitment to NATO, but for the defence of our dependants and of course to safeguard the realm, which is the most solemn duty of this House.

Yet today more redundancies loom and more reliance will be placed on reservists, who are not rallying to the MOD’s bugle call to the extent that we were led to expect. Those who do respond will receive 40 training days a year. Will that be enough to give a reservist confidence when his or her boots hit the ground? Will the already overstretched training facilities be able to cope with the increase in demand? Will the new arrangements be to the reservist’s detriment? As my

17 Oct 2013 : Column 940

hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has said, the statistics show that reservists are 50% more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than their regular counterparts.

I question whether the £1.8 billion investment over the next 10 years will be adequate. The Government’s target is a total Army Reserve strength of 38,000 by 2020, but it is reckoned that this will give us 30,000 trained reservists. I question whether that will be achievable, and certainly the statistics we have heard today indicate that it probably will not be.

As a humble Back Bencher, I urge the Government to stop dismembering our armed services before it is too late and at least ensure that plan B is in place and working.

1.41 pm

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I would like to associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who sadly is no longer in the Chamber. Like him, I think that the whole plan for the Army Reserve is a good one. I know a great many serving reservists in my constituency who are excited and enthused about their role in a fully manned, 30,000-strong force that will ensure that they and others in future can make their contribution to the British Army. I note with interest that the south-west has been given an important role to play in this expansion, with the equivalent of 940 new posts being created for the region. However, like my hon. Friend, I have some concerns about the proposals as they stand.

Mr Baron: What is in no doubt is that one has great respect for the TA and, in many respects, wants the reserve plan to work. What one is arguing here is that, given the shortfalls in recruitment and the rising costs, surely it would be wise and prudent to stop the axing of the regular battalions until we know that the reserve plan is viable and cost-effective, because we in this House must not forget that defence is the first priority of Government.

Sarah Newton: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I have certainly never forgotten my personal responsibility or the fact that the defence of our nation is, collectively, our first responsibility in this Chamber, and I do not think for one moment that the Ministers on the Front Bench have forgotten their responsibilities either. We have not yet had an opportunity to hear the Minister respond to the debate or explain the current situation with regard to reservist recruitment. I have some concerns about recruitment, which is why I am speaking in this debate.

The Green Paper published in July contained some proposals that concern me. One, in particular, is for the reconfiguration of D company of 6th Battalion The Rifles. I believe that the proposal, as it stands, will frustrate the delivery of the Army Reserve plan in Cornwall, particularly the aim of maximising its local potential now and in years to come. D company is an important part of 6 Rifles. It is currently based and headquartered in Truro and Plymouth, which allows riflemen from across Cornwall to play a full role in the life of the regiment. The Green Paper proposes a

17 Oct 2013 : Column 941

reconfiguration that would see the majority of the company, including its headquarters, based in Plymouth by 2016 and one platoon housed at a new facility in Barnstable.

The move from Truro would cause real problems for serving riflemen living in west and central Cornwall and impact on future recruitment from those areas. Cornwall, as Members will know, is a large and rural county, and it can take a considerable time to travel to Plymouth. A rifleman taking the train from Falmouth in my constituency to an evening training session in Plymouth would face a four-hour round trip. Those travelling further west would face even longer journey times. Is it reasonable or, with a view to future recruitment, wise to add such an inconvenience to the many other sacrifices required of our reservists?

Andrew Griffiths (Burton) (Con): I agree wholeheartedly. My constituency will see the closure of Coltman house, a well served TA centre in Burton. When we are trying to encourage more people to join the TA, it makes absolutely no sense to make it more difficult for them to do so.

Sarah Newton: I definitely agree with the principle of my hon. Friend’s point.

As well as creating a tangible difficulty for Cornish riflemen, the proposed move from Truro will inflict a blow to local military identity. The link between Cornwall and The Rifles dates back to 1782, when the 32nd Regiment of Foot, a predecessor unit, was designated as Cornwall’s county regiment. That designation has lasted through the centuries and the reorganisations of recent years and, until now, has been physical as well as theoretical, with members of the regiment serving within Cornwall. The end of 231 years of The Rifles’s boots on Cornish soil will weaken the link between county and regiment.

I know that the Ministry of Defence recognises that such links not only are a matter of sentiment and heritage, but have a real impact on local recruitment. The case against reconfiguration therefore rests on the threat to recruitment, but the argument cited in its favour is that the move from Truro will save money. When considering this, it is important to remember that Truro’s TA centre, which is currently home to D company, would stay open if The Rifles move. The centre currently also supports local Army cadets and provides a base for the Royal Army medical field hospital and a squadron of the Royal Logistic Corp. The Green Paper would not alter those arrangements. If the move goes ahead, Truro TA centre will remain open as a facility but support fewer reserve units. It is difficult to see how that could lead to significant financial savings. Indeed, the proposed establishment of a new platoon-sized facility at Barnstable looks likely to incur costs that would not have to be met if Truro were retained as a Rifles base.

The reconfiguration does not need to be completely abandoned in order for its adverse impact to be mitigated. It is generally accepted that it makes sense for the company headquarters to move to Plymouth, as the nearest large urban area, but only while one platoon remains in Truro to enable continued service from central and west Cornish residents. I understand that that was the expected scenario following the talks with local commanders in advance of the Green Paper, so the loss of all Rifles units came as a dreadful shock. Given

17 Oct 2013 : Column 942

Cornwall’s population of 530,000, which is expected to grow at a fast rate in the coming decades, it seems likely that a Truro-based platoon would be readily able to recruit sufficient reservists to man it. It is currently a well manned unit.

In conclusion, my concerns about the reorganisation are very local. I support and welcome the strategy for the Army Reserve, which I think is widely supported by reservists in my constituency, but over 100 people have contacted me to express their consternation about the proposed move, including many serving riflemen in my constituency. During his time at the Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) listened closely to those concerns, met me and agreed in writing to look again at the proposed move. He had also been planning to visit Truro to help him to understand further the impact that the move would have. I hope that his successor as Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), will be able to continue that close consideration of that local concern. I hope that will lead to the proposed reconfiguration being reviewed. Such a review is simply essential if Cornish residents are to serve in The Rifles in the manner in which they have proudly done for centuries and if Cornwall is to continue to contribute to the British Army to the extent envisioned in the Army Reserve plan.

1.49 pm

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): May I wholeheartedly join in the warm welcome that has been extended to you today, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is delightful to see you in the Chair.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). I echo what she and other speakers have said about the size of the task that is facing Ministers with the £35 billion black hole they inherited, the need to put our armed forces on a sound financial and strategic footing—

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Clappison: I have only just started, but of course I will.

Mr Jones: I think we have had black holes of £38 billion and £36 billion, and now we have £35 billion. Can the hon. Gentleman explain that, because the Government are clearly reluctant to do so?

Mr Clappison: The figure comes from someone who knows more about this than me; it is contained in the National Audit Office report of 2010. I have only six minutes to speak. I will happily debate the black hole in the accounts and the whole of the debt that the previous Government left to this Government, but that is not really why I want to take part in the debate. I wanted to do so to pay tribute to our Ministers. We have an excellent Minister who has served in the armed forces and we are lucky to have him serving in this Department.

The longer this debate has gone on, the more it has become clear to me that something is going wrong with the implementation of the Government’s plan. I speak on these matters as a layman. I do not have any gallant service of my own, but as a Conservative I take an interest in our armed forces and the strength of our

17 Oct 2013 : Column 943

defence. I am not remotely qualified to judge the merits of the plan, nor the size of the Army, although I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) said about the size of our armed forces. Least of all am I qualified to judge the relative capabilities and costs of reservists as against regular soldiers. However, there is clearly common ground emerging that something is going wrong with the recruitment of reservists. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who has played a distinguished role in this regard, described it as “uneven”. Perhaps the Minister can put me right, but it seems that initial reports are not uniformly optimistic about the recruitment of reserves to take the place of our regular forces.

Let me put to the Minister the case that has already been put in a very distinguished way by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). If there is a problem with the recruitment of reservists, and those reservists are needed to make up for the capability lost through the loss of the five regular battalions, surely the Government should look again at the question of disbanding those battalions.

Mr Gray rose—

Mr Clappison: I give way to my hon. Friend, who is much more distinguished in these matters than I am.

Mr Gray: I am not even slightly distinguished. I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the risk of there being a capability gap. Does he agree that, while the MOD may well hope that the TA recruitment figures will improve, there must arrive a point at which it will become obvious that that is not going to occur? We might therefore want to hear from the Minister a date or a time at which the MOD might be ready to admit that the bold plan in “Future Army 2020” has not worked and will think again about regular units.

Mr Clappison: I hope that the Minister has heard my hon. Friend. If I may, I would put it even more strongly. My hon. Friend mentioned hope. I would say to the Minister that, if there is even an element of doubt about the recruitment of reservists, the Government should put these plans on hold and look again at the whole question of disbanding the regular battalions. In saying that, let me make it absolutely clear that I mean no disrespect at all to the excellent individuals who serve in our Territorial Army and to whom we owe the deepest debt of gratitude, not least for the way in which they have performed in Afghanistan.

This is simply a question of whether the implementation of the plans as they stand will give us the capability that we require. I very much hope that it will not be part of the Government’s thinking or policy to say, “Here we have a plan which should meet our capability needs, and will also save us costs, but even if it doesn’t meet our capability needs we will go ahead with it none the less.” That is not a position in which a Conservative-led Government should find themselves, and I am sure that they will not under the watchful custodianship of my right hon. Friend the Minister.

Let me say a few words about our Navy, which is also encompassed by the defence reforms. The previous Government’s strategic defence review in the late 1990s

17 Oct 2013 : Column 944

concluded that Britain required a fleet of 32 surface ships, destroyers and frigates, in order to fulfil its capability needs. Now we have a fleet of 19 surface ships in the form of frigates and destroyers. I know that these ships have greater capability than ever before, but I would be surprised if they had acquired a capability proportionate to the loss of numbers that has been experienced since the defence review in the late 1990s. Even as an amateur strategist, I can understand that, as the noble Lord West, a former Sea Lord, has helpfully pointed out, a ship can only be in one place at one time. I doubt that there are fewer threats in the world today than there were in the late 1990s and that the world has become a much safer place since the turn of the last century. While other nations are responding to the world as it is by increasing the number and capability of their surface fleet, we are seeing a diminution in ours.

The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned Waterloo. Helpfully, next Monday is Trafalgar day, which used to be celebrated nationally and is still celebrated in our Navy. I was interested to find out how many warships the British Navy had at the time of the battle of Trafalgar, and my rather amateur research unearthed a figure of 950 warships in 1805, so we may not have had a very big Army, as the hon. Gentleman said, but we certainly had a very good Navy.

Richard Drax: Bearing in mind that 85% of our trade comes by sea, would it not be foolish if we did not have the Royal Navy to protect, not least, our trade routes? My hon. Friend may recall that one man tried to cut us off before, not too long ago.

Mr Clappison: My hon. Friend is right. Who knows what we may be called on to deal with through our Royal Navy? At the time of the Falklands conflict we had 60 frigates and destroyers. Recently our Navy played a very important role in the conflict in Libya. Four of the ships that we used in that conflict have since been decommissioned or are on their way to being decommissioned. Let me put this into further context by saying that, on the eve of the second world war, a conflict that tells us all we need to know about the need for military preparedness, Britain had 272 surface warships and the largest Navy in the world.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): On ships of the past, the cannonballs only went so far; today, the force multipliers on ships are enormous. The situation is not comparable. We have fewer forces and fewer castles. Things have moved on in our capabilities, and that is what we need to focus on.

Mr Clappison: I hope that the ships have very great capabilities because we have only 19 of them. I think that my hon. Friend will know from his military expertise that it is said in the Navy that three ships are needed for every one that is deployed, so at any time we can deploy six ships. Let us hope that they are indeed mightily powerful. As I said, other nations are not taking the same view as us and are increasing the size of their navies. I am pretty sure that some of those navies will have very good capabilities as well.

Although our surface fleet may now be on the rather modest side, happily we are not short of commanding officers, because in our Navy we have 40 admirals and

17 Oct 2013 : Column 945

260 captains. That is a ratio of just over two admirals per surface warship. If one takes into account our submarine force and HMS Illustrious, which is due to be decommissioned next year, we will have one and a half admirals per vessel in our Navy. At least we can see that all possibilities will be well and truly covered. As for the 260 captains, one is tempted to guess that, although in the past the dream of a captain may have been to command a ship, today his dream may be to set foot on one.

We do not have to look far back in time to find occasions when we have needed our Navy at short notice, and who knows when we may need it again? It is an excellent branch of our armed forces, as is the case with all our armed forces. Whatever we say about the size and capabilities of our armed forces, we know the quality of the people who are involved in them. They are excellent individuals who never hesitate to serve their country and put their lives at risk, and we are very lucky to have each and every one of them.

I say to the Minister that it is a credit to the Government that they have made it such an explicit priority to give our forces the equipment they deserve. However, on the reserves, as a straightforward, ordinary Conservative Back Bencher, I think that the Government need to think again.

1.59 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It is a pleasure to be the first Liberal Democrat Member to welcome you to the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to wish you well. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) welcomed you when you were waiting in the wings and I am sure he shares my view that your eye should never stray far from the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has a huge, historic association with my constituency. The regimental headquarters of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was in Alnwick and its museum is still there. The regiment also has a major Fusilier Territorial Army centre and the benefit of very good recruitment areas, which is why it is such a well-recruited battalion. The north-east, Lancashire, the midlands and London could hardly be better places for recruitment.

The defence plans, which have been widely discussed today, involve a significant and risky reduction in regular numbers and are dependent on a massive increase in reservists on a scale unprecedented in modern times. Two things follow from that. First, we need to make sure that we achieve regular recruitment at the necessary level, organised in a regimental structure that supports efficiency of operation. Secondly, we need to make sure that we do not take out regular strength until we can be sure that we have the reservists to replace it.

That brings me directly to the mistake that I think has been made, namely the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. On Tuesday, hundreds of Fusilier veterans marched on Whitehall—it was a truly magnificent sight—after we had presented a petition to Downing street.

Bob Stewart: Based on the logic that we should keep regulars until we have reservists to take their place, we should mention in the same breath the other three regiments that are being lost, including mine, the Mercian Regiment.

17 Oct 2013 : Column 946

Sir Alan Beith: The same logic can indeed be applied, but the sheer strength of feeling with regard to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is significant, as is the number of Members who are taking part in this debate because of their concern about the future of the 2nd Battalion and of the regiment in general.

I do not want to spend too long on why the mistake was made, but it is clear that in the case of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers the decision to stand down was based not on efficiency, but on the cap badge argument, which preserved Scottish battalions that did not recruit as well as the Fusiliers. Interestingly, the cap badge argument did not count for much when, a few years earlier, we lost the King’s Own Scottish Borderers—the other regiment that had its regimental headquarters in my constituency—and they were merged with the Royal Scots to become one battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. In effect, the two regiments associated with our area have sustained losses.

Since the decision was made—Ministers may claim it was right, but I think it was wrong—the facts have changed, and when the facts change, Governments have to look at things again. It has become clear how difficult it will be to meet the TA recruitment target. I do not know many people—indeed, anyone—who are confident that we will achieve the targets in the given time scale. It is therefore likely—in fact, I am certain—that there will be a capability gap.

Mr Brazier: The reason we are not meeting the targets is not that there is a shortage of people willing to enlist. As I explained in my speech, we have had two big surges, but both were wrecked because the Department in charge of recruiting and enlistment has set up systems that are simply not volunteer-reservist friendly.

Sir Alan Beith: My hon. Friend, who has worked diligently on strengthening the TA and its role in our military structure, makes an important point. I am not sure whether that is the whole answer or argument. If we are deterring potential recruits as a result of slow processes, that should be put right. Many years ago my hon. Friend was my Conservative opponent and he became aware during that time of the significance of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in my area.

As well as the slowness of TA recruitment, TA centres are being closed. Alnwick in my constituency is keeping a good and strong TA centre of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The TA centre in Berwick was reassigned some time ago to the Royal Logistics Corps, which no longer needs it. I think we should have kept it and that it should be reassigned back to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

If we give up on rural areas and create a situation whereby it is too far for people from rural areas to attend training nights, we will cut off a significant source of recruitment. There are many loyal people in rural areas who want to serve and many ex-regulars return to rural areas. At the very least, we need to devise ways in which the training structure can accommodate people who live 30, 40 or 50 miles away from a training centre, if we are not simply to write off a whole area of recruitment.

I do not want to take up much more time. It is clear from today’s discussion that a lot of people, for various reasons, have serious concerns about our ability to meet

17 Oct 2013 : Column 947

the TA targets. I therefore suggest to Ministers that the contingency plan they should have to hand and keep in preparedness is the retention of at least one of the regular battalions, and the obvious choice is the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.