With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s consultation on reserve forces.
Reserve forces play a vital role in delivering Britain’s defence capability. In the last 10 years, more than 25,000 reservists have deployed on operations overseas, and more than 2,000 deployed in support of the Olympic games this summer. Sadly, 29 have paid the ultimate price while on operational service over this period. The whole House will want to join me in saluting their sacrifice.
As well as delivering a range of combat capabilities, reservists have provided numerous specialist functions, from nuclear, biological and chemical protection in Iraq, to deployed medical support, saving the lives of our injured troops in Afghanistan. Whether at home or abroad, we should be proud of the dedication, determination and courage with which so many of our reservists serve this country.
Last year, the Future Reserves 2020 commission reported that, in spite of that service and sacrifice, our reserves—particularly the Territorial Army—were in decline. Their numbers were getting smaller, the full range of their capabilities was not being used, and they were not being used in a cost-effective manner. In the Territorial Army, we still have major units configured as they were when the task was to provide mass reinforcements to counter a cold war era Soviet threat, and we remain unable to mobilise reserves to assist our regular forces on their vital standing tasks, such as the defence of the Falkland Islands.
The commission found that those deficiencies, when taken together, were contributing to an erosion of the effectiveness of the reserves and of the links between our armed forces and wider society. We cannot allow that to continue. The 2010 strategic defence and security review called for a transformation of our armed forces to meet the new security challenges and threats of the 21st century while addressing the deficit in the Defence budget. In Future Force 2020, we are building an adaptable whole force to meet those challenges and threats, with our Army, Air Force, maritime and marine reserves at the heart of that force. The reserves of the future will be integral to, and fully integrated with, our regular forces, capable of being deployed as formed sub-units and units—as well as continuing to deliver individual augmentees—together providing an agile, high-tech capability, which is able to defend our country, project power abroad and respond to diverse contingencies.
Historically, mobilisation of the reserves has often been seen as indicative of an emerging large-scale crisis for which the numbers of regular forces would be insufficient—a view reinforced by the current legislative framework, under which reservists cannot be mobilised to support standing military tasks—but in future, as an integrated element of our armed forces, the reserves will be a part of almost every type of operation that our armed forces conduct, whether in combat, capacity-building or fulfilling more routine standing commitments. Indeed, some very specialist capabilities, such as cyber, media operations and medical capability, cannot cost-effectively be held in the regular forces, and we will rely upon the reserves to deliver them.
The routine delivery of the nation’s security will broaden from being the sole preserve of the standing regular forces into a responsibility that is shared, through the role of the reserves, much more widely across society. To deliver it, we are investing an additional £1.8 billion in our reserves over the next 10 years, enabling us to increase their size to a trained strength of approximately 35,000. For the first time in 20 years, our reserves will be on an upward and not a downward trajectory. By 2018, we will have grown the trained strength of the Army Reserve to 30,000, the maritime reserve to 3,100, and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force to 1,800.
Reserve units will be paired with, train with, and achieve the same standards as, their regular counterparts. They will use the same equipment and the same vehicles, and wear the same uniforms as the regulars, and they will deploy routinely, together with regular forces, on major overseas exercises. This year alone, reserve units will conduct some 22 overseas exercises, with probably twice that number next year. Integrated regular-reserve overseas training exercises are being developed and will become routine. Already, the additional investment we have put in place is making a difference. As I saw for myself last night at the Royal Yeomanry Territorial Army centre in Fulham, Territorial Army units are taking delivery of WMIK—weapons mount installation kit—light reconnaissance vehicles, Bowman radios and new Regular Army uniforms and weapons.
As by far the largest element of our reserves, the changes will be felt most keenly by the Army. To reflect the significant change in the role of Army reservists, I propose that the name of the Territorial Army should become the Army Reserve. We will consult on that proposal. Vital to delivering this transformation will be offering a new proposition to our reserves: if they make the commitment, turn up regularly to train and are prepared to deploy, in return, we will make the commitment to equip, train and fund them properly. In the future, we will give reservists much better defined, more fulfilling roles, properly resourced and with adequate training, underpinned by a balanced package of remuneration and support for them and their families, much more closely aligned to the pay, allowances and welfare support provided to the regulars. In return, we will expect them to commit to required levels of training, to meet the same exacting standards as the regular forces and, crucially, to be available to deploy alongside them.
National emergencies apart, we will provide greater predictability about periods of liability for deployment for our reserves. That will mean, typically, a deployment of no more than six months in a five-year period for Army reserves, although total mobilisation could be up to a year to cover operation-specific pre-deployment training and post-operation recuperation. This predictability will help those who serve our country, and their families, to plan their lives, and it will also help employers of reservists to plan their work forces, because, crucially, to achieve our aims we need to develop a new relationship with civilian employers. Too often in the past, that relationship has only started at the point at which reserves have been mobilised. That has got to change. It is vital that we create a much more open and collaborative relationship with employers, including: providing greater certainty about reservists’ liability for deployment, with advance warning of when their call-up liability period will be; giving confidence to employers that the skills and aptitudes reservists develop in training and on deployments will be of benefit in their civilian careers; and recognising that the relationship will need to be tailored to different types and size of employers.
I fully accept that it may be large public and private sector organisations that are best able to offer, absorb and manage periods of employee absence, and I am delighted that companies such as BT, the AA and BAE Systems have shown their support to our reserves and this consultation process. With the growth of statutory leave provisions and flexible working practices, however, employers of all sizes are more accustomed than they used to be to managing periods of absence. Further, in a modern, dynamic economy, increasing numbers do not pursue conventional careers, creating a sizeable pool of self-employed people from which to recruit.
I look forward, in the consultation process, to exploring further with businesses of all sizes how we could better recognise the support they give to our armed forces, perhaps through a kitemark-style national recognition scheme for reserve-friendly employers, or possibly through the use of targeted financial incentives for smaller employers.
Taken together, the proposals in the Green Paper point to a new strategic direction for our reserve forces. They are challenging, requiring the support of both reservists and employers to succeed, but they are also deliverable. Reserve numbers in 2018 will still be less than half the size of the Territorial Army in 1990, and recruitment levels are now starting to rise after a long-term downward trend.
Too often in the past, our reserve forces have been neglected and taken for granted—an afterthought when it came to investment and training and a soft target when it came to last-minute in-year budget cuts. That will no longer be the case. Under our proposals, with a balanced defence budget and an additional £1.8 billion of investment, our reserve forces of the future will be better trained, better equipped and better resourced than ever before. Collectively, they will take on greater responsibility, and benefit from greater reward and greater respect.
In the years to come, we will have Army, Navy and Royal Marines reserves, and a Royal Auxiliary Air Force, sitting at the heart of the defence of our national security —reserve forces of which we can be proud, supported by employers to whom we will owe a deep debt of national gratitude. I commend this statement to the House.
Our reserve forces can make an enhanced contribution to our regular forces and UK force projection capability. In recent years, reservists have operated in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, in Libya. We remember each who has been lost or injured, and pay tribute to their courage and their sacrifice—a comment that is more pertinent in this Remembrance week. We, like the Government, support the modernisation of the reservists and support a name change to reflect their contemporary composition.
Today’s plans build on the last Government’s record of support for reserves, but when the Government announced deep cuts in the regular forces of 30,000 and a doubling of reserve numbers to compensate, many would not have known that the cut in regulars would go ahead regardless of whether the target for reservists is met. Given that it is the Government’s policy to rely on reservists to meet the defence planning assumptions, surely it would make more sense to make the cut in regular capacity contingent on growth in reservist capability. The Secretary of State’s comments today will be checked to some degree by concerns that he has announced a policy without yet having a clear idea of how it will be achieved, and today we have a new list of unanswered questions. Concerns will be heightened by the criticism, made by the Green Paper’s co-author, of a backlog of applicants. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House and others on whether he has increased the number of medical officers and computers available to applicants?
In the limited time available to me, I want to ask specific questions and look for specific answers in five areas. On employment, the Secretary of State announced that three companies are supporting his consultation, and we look forward to more being announced. Support from employers is vital, and we therefore welcome the approach outlined, in particular the consideration of a kitemark. Does the Secretary of State envisage such a kitemark being taken into consideration in decisions on defence procurement? Will he also say what specific incentives there will be for private companies, and whether those already taking on reservists will be recognised? It is vital, in our view, that legislation is now considered to protect reservists against discrimination in employment interviews, pay and career promotion.
On the nature of deployment and integration with regular forces, it is our judgment that reserves should not form stand-alone units on operations, and that the present system of integrating individually into infantry companies should remain. One great strength of the reserve force is its local identity, so will the Secretary of State say a little more and offer clarity on the fate of existing TA units?
On training, an enhanced front-line role must be matched by a proportionate improvement in pre-deployment training. The integrated concept should extend beyond tours of duty to preparation too, so we recommend that reservists train alongside regulars with more advanced equipment. What is the Secretary of State doing specifically, in addition to what he has already commented on, to enable such a change of practice to take place?
On mental health, reservists’ new role comes at a time when medical analysis shows us they are more susceptible than regulars to post-deployment mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many reservists return to civilian life without decompression with those who share their experiences, and do not have access to military medical services. What improvements are being made to post-deployment care?
On benefits, our support for reservists should extend to those signing up while they are signing on for benefit. Greater mandatory training requirements for reservists could, it has been reported, lead to individuals not meeting claimant eligibility criteria. A condition of claiming must be about consistent search for employment, but someone who has lost their job should not lose their benefit because they volunteer. I hope the House agrees that no one who fights for their country should be made worse off. I have asked a number of questions of the Secretary of State, but I would like clarity and an absolute guarantee on the record that no one will be affected in that manner.
In conclusion, it is in our nation’s interest that, at a time of enormous uncertainty across the world, a greater degree of clarity is provided on how we recruit and retain a new generation of reservists. We will support and continue to scrutinise the Government’s actions, because it is now clear that our nation’s security will depend on the professionalism of our reservists and on the Government’s ability to get this right. We wish them well in that endeavour.
I am grateful to Mr Murphyat least for the very first and very last sentiments he expressed. I am grateful for his broad support for reform of the reserves and for the name change, which might seem trivial but is hugely symbolic of our intentions. I am also grateful for his good wishes at the end.
The right hon. Gentleman tells the House that what we are doing builds on “the last Government’s record of support for the reserve forces”. That would be the proposal to cut their funding by 30%, slash their training days and stop live firing of ammunition, I suppose! He asked me about the balance of regulars and reserves, but he was quoted this morning on the BBC website as saying that we need a smaller but stronger armed forces. That is the first time I have heard him admit that our armed forces have to be smaller, as we cut our coat to fit the budgetary cloth that we have inherited from Labour.
The right hon. Gentleman made a fair point about the backlog of applicants in the system following the move to common selection in April 2012. We are aware that we must deal with this issue before we publish the White Paper next spring. Steps are in hand to deal with his points about medics and computer access. The Army is acutely aware that it has to get people quickly from the point of application into the reserves, and not keep them hanging around, as I am afraid has happened in some cases over the past few months.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the kitemark proposal and whether it would be taken into account in the awarding of defence contracts. I do not believe that that is the appropriate way to award contracts. Where those contracts are subject to competition under European competition directives it would be illegal to offer priority to an accreditation that is only available to UK companies.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about specific support for employers. He will see, when he reads the Green Paper, a number of questions about the nature of the support that we should give. Financial support is already available to employers when reservists are called up for deployment. We have not closed our minds to the possibility of further financial support, but there is a fixed pot of money available to support this initiative— £1.8 billion—and, if we use it to pay employers, we cannot use it for kit and equipment for reservists. I want to ensure, therefore, that where we offer financial incentives, they are precisely targeted—at the smallest employers, I would expect—where they will do the most good. We have some excellent large companies supporting the initiative, but, with the greatest respect to them, I do not want to hand them a wodge of taxpayers’ money to recognise the excellent work that they are already doing. However, I am much more open to the idea of financial support for smaller companies.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about discrimination. We make it clear in the Green Paper that if there is evidence of widespread discrimination against reservists and if we cannot find an effective way of dealing with it without legislation, we will not hesitate to legislate.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the existing basing lay-down. We cannot set out now the future basing lay-down for the Army Reserve, because we have not yet set out to the House the Regular Army basing lay-down. I expect to be able to do that before Christmas so that, when we publish the results of the consultation and our White Paper in the spring, we will be in a position to set out the planned lay-down of TA units around the country. Those will have to reflect the population centres where we expect to be able to recruit in the future, and we must be hard-nosed about ensuring that our limited resources are deployed in the areas where we can expect to recruit reservists.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about training alongside regulars. As the White Paper makes clear, that will be standard practice in the future. He also talked about mental health. I completely accept his point. One issue that the Green Paper raises relates to full access to the military mental health support system, both for serving regulars and reservists, and for regular and reservist veterans, and the assurance that reservists will be offered decompression time after operations. The lessons learned as a result of the Murrison report—the work done by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has responsibility for international security strategy—will be transferred to the reservists.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of jobseeker’s allowance. I have just asked for this to be checked, and I can confirm to him that jobseeker’s allowance is preserved for reservists and is not removed. That is an important point. People who find themselves facing a period of unemployment have an excellent opportunity to undergo their basic reserve training.
I want to finish by remonstrating with the right hon. Gentleman on one point. I do not know whether he realises the significance of what he said about deployment as formed units and sub-units, but for people in the reserve forces that goes to the very heart of this question. If we cannot support them to be able to deploy in formed sub-units and units, they will regard this as a pyrrhic victory indeed. I urge him to look carefully at what he said on this matter and consider the Opposition’s position, because the Regular Army and the reservists, to a man—
Indeed, to a man and a woman, they want to see the reserve forces able not only to continue supplying first-class augmentees, but to deploy where appropriate as formed sub-units and units.
I very much welcome the creative and supportive way in which my right hon. Friend set out the Government’s approach to the reserves. Will any legislative changes be required to guarantee that reservists can be used for the full range of military tasks? As part of the consultation, will the Government make available to the House the experiences of how other countries incentivise employers? Other countries, particularly the United States, have a much better record than most of being able to use reservists in a full range of tasks and ensuring that they have a full range of promotional opportunities.
I can tell my right hon. Friend Dr Fox that legislation is already in place to protect the employment position of reservists who are mobilised. He will also see when he reads the Green Paper that we are proposing legislation to extend the circumstances under which we are able to mobilise reservists, so that they can be mobilised not only for operational service overseas, but for homeland resilience and routine operations, such as the crucial defence of the Falkland Islands. He will also see that the Green Paper contains a section setting out some examples of practice in important allied nations. I am sure he already knows this, but what others will learn from that section is that at present we have a disproportionately low percentage of reserves in our total force mix compared with most of our comparable allies. What we are doing will move us back a bit further towards the average force mix of our normal allies.
The medical reserves, such as those from the Territorial Army unit in Ellesmere Port, contain a lot of extremely highly skilled people who are necessary to the advancement of safety in the field. They have done a fantastic job in the recent past under both Administrations and are drawn largely from a much more devolved health service. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with his colleague the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that proper mechanisms are in place for reservists coming from the health service?
The Department of Health, along with a number of large companies, is one of our key partners in the current partnering arrangement. Many NHS trusts that I have spoken to are acutely aware of the benefits to them of properly managed reserve service. Those returning from the role 3 hospital in Camp Bastion have without doubt the best trauma training available anywhere in the NHS.
If the hon. Gentleman reads the Green Paper, he will see that, as well as appeals to corporate social responsibility and collective responsibility for the national defence, there is a strong strand of mutual benefit between the reserves, the Army and employers. We need to draw out and develop those mutual benefits, and I am sure that we will be able to do that in the case of NHS trusts.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this statement, and I know that he will agree with me that the House will also wish to congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Brazier, without whose persistence this statement would not have taken place. I declare an interest, in that my daughter is a reservist second lieutenant.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is so important that this proposal succeeds that it deserves a campaign led by the Prime Minister and, I suggest, the Leader of the Opposition, as well as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Secretary of State for Defence, to encourage employers to recognise the enormous benefits that they will get from employing people with the work ethic and the discipline that reservists show every day?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I am very happy to acknowledge the role of my hon. Friend Mr Brazier, who has played a crucial part in developing this agenda.
Yes, my right hon. Friend is right: it is essential that we achieve success in this regard. I do not regard this as a partisan issue, and I hope that Mr Murphy will think carefully about the point about deployed formed units and sub-units. I would be happy to arrange for him to have some briefing on this matter, if necessary, from the relevant people in the Army and Army Reserve. I hope that we can take this forward not only on a cross-government basis but on a cross-party basis.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire has hit the nail on the head in talking about the benefits to employers. If we are going to make this process work, we must draw out the benefits for employers, in the general management and personal skills that reserve service will bring to their work force, and given the specific vocational training that the Army can give to reservists. One proposal in the Green Paper is to use civilian-recognised qualifications in the armed forces, making it easier for members of the armed forces—regular and reservist—to use the skills that they have acquired during service to enhance their careers in the civilian economy.
It will vary between the services, but for the Army, which will be by far the biggest part, it will increase from 35 to 40 days a year, of which it will be expected that 16 days are delivered as a continuous period of training deployment—the same as now. The additional days will be delivered through weekend and evening training sessions, to minimise any additional burden on employers.
Mr Speaker, may I thank you for the contribution that you are making by giving a party for employers in a fortnight’s time?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his really excellent and thoroughly thought through statement. I should like to underpin what he said by making a further point. The shadow Secretary of State made what was otherwise a rather well thought through response, and it was a pity that the point came up about formed units. The plain fact is that, since 2009, the reserve forces have been used as a part-time personnel unit organisation, and that does not appeal to high-quality leaders. We must have formed units and sub-units in the picture.
I know that my hon. Friend commands great respect on this issue across the House and I am sure that Mr Murphy will have noted what he has said, reinforcing the point that I have already made. I genuinely hope that we can build consensus on that issue.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of his statement. I welcome the intention to increase the number of reservists. However, the reserve forces will need to be reconfigured to meet his objective of integrating with the regulars. May I ask him about the Royal Marines Reserve in particular? Will he ensure that the reconfiguration is done sensitively, and that the modern, fully equipped bases around which recruitment is now good are protected wherever possible to ensure the broadest possible geographical spread of the specialist skills? This would help to achieve the Government’s objective of an overall increase in numbers.
One wonders whether the hon. Gentleman could be referring to any particular base. Yes, he is absolutely right. First of all, we have to fix the lay-down for the regular forces; and then we have to make sure that the location of reservists is appropriate, both from a recruiting and a training point of view. Our intention is that reservist units will be paired with specific regular units, so they will work with them on a routine basis. There are obviously issues of geography that need to be taken into account. We will set out the regular basing plot before the House rises for the Christmas recess—with your permission, Mr Speaker—and I then expect to be able to set out the reserve plot and the pairing pattern when we deliver our response to consultation conclusions and the White Paper in the spring.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and commend his approach to this ambitious project—taking it steadily, consulting widely and not looking for a quick fix. Has he, like me, detected great enthusiasm on the part of our reserve forces for this new and ambitious programme, a determination to make it work, and an eager anticipation for what he has promised—equivalent training, equipment and remuneration to the regular Army?
My right hon. Friend talked about rebuilding the relationship particularly with smaller employers. In doing that, will he give consideration to those smaller employers perhaps paying their national insurance as a way of supporting the ongoing relationship between smaller employers and their employees who are members of reserve forces?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is probably fair to say that we can rely on our hon. Friend Mr Brazier to speak for the reserve forces. The response I have heard from reservists has been as enthusiastic as my hon. Friend’s response would suggest.
What we are asking of reservists in the future is a bigger commitment: to turn out for the training on a mandatory basis, and to be available for deployment on a more regular basis than in the past. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, every reservist I have spoken to welcomes that greater rigour and discipline. They want to be part of a serious disciplined military force, and they want also the recognition that will come with that greater level of rigour and discipline. The new kit is already being rolled out. As I said, I saw some of it last night, and some more of it last Friday in Corby—[Interruption] —a random Territorial Army depot that my office chose for me to visit.
My hon. Friend asked me about smaller employers, and he will see when he reads the Green Paper that we looked at the possibility of making some kind of national insurance rebate, but concluded that it would be very complex to administer and that if we are to target financial assistance at smaller employers, it would be better done in the form of cash payments.
As I have already made clear, I am not in a position at the moment to give specific assurances around individual units, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that by the spring of next year the lay-down will be clear both for regulars and reservists.
I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has announced this morning about rebuilding our reserves. I suggest, however, that central to that will be a deal between those who are leaving the regular forces whom we will ask to remain in the Army Reserve, and others thereafter. That demand on them needs to be coupled with a satisfactory financial settlement in order that they will stay for a number of years.
Ex-regulars are an important potential source of reinforcement for the reserves. About 18,000 people leave our armed forces every year: that is the normal turnover outwith any specific redundancy programme. At present they are required by statute to be available in the regular reserve for a time-limited period, but in practice that arrangement is defunct. We considered whether we should seek to use the legislative powers to enforce it, but concluded that it would be better for us to approach the matter through incentivisation —incentivising ex-regulars to bring to the reserves the fresh skills and training that they have so recently received. I am confident that we shall be able to reinforce the volunteer reserves significantly with immediate ex-regulars.
I do not want to be parochial, but, while I welcome the broad thrust of the Secretary of State’s announcement, may I ask what it means for squadrons in Cardiff and Swansea? I am thinking of 223 Transport Squadron’s medical unit—which has served on the front line, and on which I served very briefly as a teenager—of 580 Transport Squadron, and of the medical squadron detachment 144. Can the Secretary of State assure me that sensitivity will be applied, and that their historic identity as well as their long-term future will be guaranteed?
As I think the hon. Gentleman will understand, I cannot give him specific assurances about individual units, but I can say this to him. We are expanding the reserves. We are experiencing a period in which the trajectory is upward. When units do not have just a nominal strength but are well recruited, with people who turn out regularly for training, they can expect a positive future.
Mindful of the fact that the Army Reserve—soldiers, sailors and airmen—must be as up to par as regular soldiers, sailors and airmen, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the resources dedicated to training and sustaining the professionalism of the reserve Army and other reserve forces will be roughly equivalent to those that are required to sustain and retain the efficiency of regular soldiers, sailors and airmen?
I have set the likely training requirement for the Army Reserve at 40 days a year once basic training has been completed. The experts—the professionals in the Army on whom I must rely when it comes to these matters—tell me that that will be sufficient for the tasks that we will ask reservists to perform. Clearly there will be some tasks that we will not ask them to perform; similarly, there will be some tasks for which we will rely on them entirely. However, I am confident that the training offer, and the funding to support it, will give us a reserve that is capable of deploying effectively with the regular Army, delivering the high-quality military output that we require.
The key to all this will be recruitment: finding the 30,000 and, subsequently, the 35,000 reservists who will be needed. Can the Secretary of State tell us a little more about the role of the current Territorial Army centres? When I go down to Cobridge barracks, as I will on Remembrance Sunday, what assurances can I give all the people who are based there? Without the necessary recruitment—and given that the Secretary of State is also privatising recruitment—we shall not have the whole of the country and the local centres to produce the 35,000 whom we shall need by 2020.
Let me be clear about the numbers. The 30,000 figure represents the total trained strength of the Army Reserve in 2018. We currently have a trained strength of about 17,000. In the other two services, the current numbers are not far short of the targets. The big increase must be in the Army reserves. The challenge is to find about 13,000 more reservists over the next six years. I think that that is achievable, especially bearing in mind that in 1990—just 20-odd years ago—the Territorial Army was 72,500 strong, and that it was even stronger than that in earlier days.
However, the hon. Lady has identified what will constitute a tension. On the one hand, we want reservists to be close to regular Army units, because that facilitates training; on the other hand, we recognise that reserve units will need to be based in the recruiting areas within the centres of population, because the part-time training that reservists undertake requires them to be able to reach TA centres relatively easily. In the spring, we will set out a basing plan which I think will effectively manage that tension.
Let me first draw the House’s attention to my interest as a member of the reserve forces.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the level of awareness and positive attitudes to the reserves among the regular forces is increasing massively, partly owing to the integration of training that has already taken place under the present Government?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who, I believe, has just completed her reserve training. She, at least, is helping me to meet my targets.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that a key measure of success is the attitude of serving regulars to their reservist colleagues. Training together, working together and deploying together is crucial. I have asked regulars in Afghanistan privately, in the canteen, how they work with their reservist colleagues, and the universal answer is “They are no different. When we are out here, we are all doing the same job.” We need to ensure that that ethos is spread throughout the whole force, and I am confident that we shall be able to do so.
What training and education will be given to employers—small employers, rather than large employers with large personnel departments—to support them when reservists return to employment, particularly when issues involving mental health problems arise?
That is a very good question. We want to segment the market, to consider the different needs of different types and sizes of employer, and to tailor the package in order to deliver something usable to them. Our approach to a company with a personnel department will be entirely different from our approach to a small company in which the boss does all the personnel work himself. During our consultation, we shall look for feedback from businesses of all types on how they can best be supported when they employ reservists.
In my experience, when a soldier was made redundant or reached the end of his service, he would be greatly reluctant to become involved with the Territorial Army. Will the Secretary of State expand on the incentives that will be offered to former regular soldiers, male and female? I think that any dependence on large numbers of ex-regulars will be difficult to meet.
That may have been my hon. Friend’s experience, but it is not the advice that I have received, including advice from reserve units that already contain significant numbers of ex-regulars. When I visited a reserve unit last night, a significant number of ex-regular officers and NCOs were on parade.
We will, of course, have to ensure that moving to the reserves is not only financially attractive, but a smooth process. I know that there has been a problem with ex-regulars encountering delays and being required to jump through unnecessary hoops, but we should be able to deal with that, given that these are people who, by definition, already have the skills and the training that we are seeking in the reserve forces. The question of how we can deliver financial incentivisation is one of the issues for consultation, and I should welcome my hon. Friend’s input.
The north-east provides a higher proportion of recruits to the armed forces than any other region in England, but all too often they find their return to civvy street very challenging, particularly when it comes to unemployment. Will the Government consider widening the kitemark to include employers’ records on hiring veterans and military spouses?
That would be a separate issue, and I do not want to confuse the two issues. It is an important area, however, and, as the hon. Lady will know, the Prime Minister has recently appointed Lord Ashcroft to act as a champion for veterans’ transition, focusing in particular on how we support veterans out of the service and into employment. I would not want the House to have the impression that large numbers of ex-service people are unemployed, however. Some 90% of those service leavers who are seeking work have found employment within six months of leaving. Given the economic backdrop, I think that is quite a reasonable achievement.
When I joined the TA, there was no difficulty in getting recruits. There was Monday night in the drill hall with one’s chums, the occasional weekend on Salisbury plain, and two weeks’ camp in Germany. Is there not a real problem now, however, in that the Secretary of State is asking people to devote perhaps one year in five to being in a very challenging and dangerous environment such as Afghanistan? What will happen if we simply do not get the recruits? Does that point not underline the importance of maintaining the standing regular Army, rather than relying on future projections of TA numbers that may not materialise?
There are different types of recruits and, to put it frankly, I say with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend that someone who is looking to join up in order to prop up a bar on a Monday night and have an occasional outing on Salisbury plain is probably not the person we are looking for. All the discussions I have had with reservists suggest to me that they want to be taken seriously, and they know that a higher training tariff, a greater focus on skills and much more working together with the regular Army—sharing the burden of routine tasks and routine deployments with it—is the way to increase the esteem in which the reserve is held.
What we are doing on the size of the regular Army is determined by the budgetary envelope we have as a result of the black hole in the defence budget that we inherited. The exercise announced today is about ensuring that, notwithstanding that necessity, we maintain the military capacity we need in the future.
I am not quite sure what that question was all about. Under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, reservists’ employment rights are protected when they are mobilised—employers are required to keep their workplace open for them. As I said in my statement, however, our Green Paper addresses the issue of discrimination. We have not ruled out the use of legislation if there is evidence of systematic or widespread discrimination against reservists, if that cannot be tackled in any other way, just as we have legislation preventing employers from discriminating against someone who might be likely to take maternity leave, for example.
Notwithstanding the bar talk, my hon. Friend Mr Leigh made a serious point about the synchronisation of the draw-down or reduction in regular forces and the uplift in reserve forces. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be enough flexibility in the emerging policy, consultation and Bill—which it is hoped will be introduced before the new Session—for us to be able to take steps to ensure there will be no reduction in regular forces unless we are completely confident that they are back-filled with the new reserve forces?
The trajectory for moving to the planned size of the regular Army of 82,000 is set. That is driven by our determination to maintain a balanced budget and to avoid the chaos under the previous Government when every year—sometimes twice a year—and at enormous cost, budgets for equipment had to be reset and projects were cancelled or delayed. A number of levers will be available to us in recruiting reservists, including the recruitment of ex-regular forces reservists. We will retain enough flexibility to be able to use those levers if we are not getting the result we want over the next six years.
Order. I am keen to accommodate all colleagues who wish to ask a question about this statement, in which there is clearly heavy interest, but it would be helpful if colleagues could be economical with their questions and answers, as we have two debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee to follow.
Given that defence procurement is exempt from the normal rules of preferential treatment, will the Secretary of State expand on why he said he thought it would be illegal to give such preferential treatment to firms kitemarked under the scheme for employing reservists?
I specifically said that that was where the procurement is not exempt from European Union procurement rules. Not all defence procurement is exempt; only the procurement of warlike supplies is exempt. Some of the strongest and most effective corporate supporters of the reserve service are the big defence contractors. I therefore think the hon. Gentleman is looking to pursue a contractual solution to a problem that does not exist, because they are already among the best in this regard.
I welcome the statement, and in particular the comments about additional engagement with employers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to get greater backing from employers is to give them greater certainty over the level of reservists’ deployment so that they can plan ahead?
That is one of the important steps we are taking. Making mobilisation liability, duration and frequency predictable is one of the tools for making reservist employees more attractive to employers.
Some communities where bases will close have long-standing historical ties with the military, such as Kirton-in-Lindsey in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State work with such communities to ensure that they can take advantage of the opportunity presented by the new plans for reservists, so that they can maintain their ties even though bases may close?
That is an important point. It is important that local employers realise that through supporting the reserve service they can support the retention of Army reserve bases in their area. We will certainly be sensitive to those historical links as we look at the basing lay-down.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, as the measures announced should mean that reservists will not again go unprepared into a warzone, as they did in Iraq under the previous Government. I have many ex-Gurkha soldiers and others of Nepalese heritage living in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend know of any initiatives to raise a Gurkha reservist unit so as to take advantage of the loyalty, courage and skill of these brave men and to protect their proud history and distinct character?
My hon. Friend asks an extremely good question, and I shall go away and look into that matter. I have not heard of such an initiative. I suspect it may require legislation, but if there is a pool of talented ex-regular skill that we can tap into, we should certainly look to do so.
I was pleased to see Mr Wilson agreeing that his question was, indeed, a very good one, and it will warrant a reply, but perhaps, like a good wine, it will need to mature.
Battersea has the great honour to be the home of the London Regiment of the TA, and many of its members have given very distinguished service in Afghanistan over the period of our combat operations there. They have told me about the high level of integration between regulars and reserves. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we maintain that as we draw towards the end of these combat operations?
Yes. Best practice involves a high level of such integration being delivered on operations. I must say that that has probably not been uniformly the case, but it is certainly the model for the future.
Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the welcome £1.8 billion in increased funding for the reserve forces will be used exclusively for the reserve forces, and will not somehow find its way into the budgets of the regular forces, which has happened in the past?
From all the discussions I have been involved in, I can assure my hon. Friend—who I know has deployed as a reservist in Afghanistan—that the traffic is the other way. If anything, the Army is planning to invest rather more in the reserves than the announced budget suggests.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the opportunities arising from his plans is to bring into the reserves people who have specific skills in cyber and advanced telecommunications, which are importantly placed in the civilian population? We need to get them into the reserve forces.
Yes, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Certain skills needed in modern warfare are found in the civilian sector, with cyber and advanced IT skills being obvious examples. How we use reservists who have those skills does not necessarily require them to undertake the same type or level of training as, for example, an infantry reservist; in practice, their daily civilian job is giving them the on-the-job training they need. We will seek to be flexible in how we use and train reservists who have specialist skills.
In 2003, nearly 4,000 Territorial Army soldiers were rushed to Iraq even though their level of training did not qualify them to be sent to rifle ranges in the UK. As a direct consequence of being deployed without being fully trained, one of them died. Will the Secretary of State confirm that under the scheme he has announced there will be no short-cuts on reservists’ training?
I take on board entirely what my hon. Friend says. The significance of my statement today is that the training that has become, in effect, optional over the past half a decade will become mandatory once again; people will have to do the training tariff they are required to do, and they will be recognised for doing so. People will not be able to remain in the Army reserve if they do not do the training they are required to do.
May I use this opportunity to pay tribute to those reservists—and more regulars, especially those from 3 Commando Brigade—who have lost their lives while defending our country? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the armed forces covenant will certainly cover those people, that we will ensure that we have a structure in place to look after service families when reservists go off on operations and that we share information on the reservists with organisations such as the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and Combat Stress, so that they are in a position to deal with those people as and when they come back and need help?
As my hon. Friend will see when he reads the Green Paper, it contains a section that talks about extending the armed forces covenant appropriately to cover reserves. On supporting families, he is absolutely right, although we face a different challenge because reservist families, by definition, do not live in military communities and are dispersed, so this has to be done in a different way. Access to the regular military support apparatus, for example, the military health care, dental facilities and mental health facilities, is a crucial part of the package.
I acknowledge the broad support of the Federation of Small Businesses and the massive contribution made by large employers, but may I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on the situation of micro-businesses and businesses that have between five and 10 employees? It is crucial to develop a realistic package to provide the incentives for business owners to release their staff to participate, particularly in areas such as Salisbury, where there is great enthusiasm to do so.
The consultation is designed exactly to explore with different types of employer in different sectors and of different sizes how best we can work with them, recognising that different challenges are faced by different types of business.
My constituents are very proud of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Territorial Army units, which will be on parade as part of the Crawley remembrance services taking place this Sunday. Will the Secretary of State tell us what plans he has for the REME units as part of this welcome statement on growing and supporting our reserves?
My hon. Friend rightly points out that many of our reserve units will be on parade this Sunday, taking a full and active part in the commemorations. As he will know from comments I have already made, I cannot give unit-specific assurances, but I can say this to him: in the restructuring of the Regular Army, a deliberate decision has been taken to reduce manpower disproportionately in logistics, engineers and REME, which will require a disproportionate growth in the reserve strength in those three areas. I think he can probably work out the rest for himself.
As someone who ran a small business, I can tell the Secretary of State that there will be strong support on this from small businesses, but they will need to plan for the absence of people, many of whom will be key members of staff. Businesses will be looking for a lengthy period of notice about planned deployments, so can he reassure the House as to his proposals on the matter?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. Yes, we are saying the period of liability for deployment will be determined in advance and will be of broadly fixed duration. There will be a broadly fixed period of immunity before deployment again, and there will be longer periods of specific notice of any given deployment.
In my previous career, I came across instances where being a reservist did adversely—wrongly—affect someone’s promotion opportunities. One way of balancing that would be to go down the procurement route in respect of the kitemark. I believe that other countries in the EU would do this in terms of local content, so are we not dismissing it too easily?
There are a number of ways in which we can address discrimination. As I said, I have not ruled out the use of legislation, but I also believe that the package we have set out today will make it less likely that employers will feel the need to discriminate against reservists, because we are making their liability for service more predictable and more well understood in advance. I do not believe that using things such as the kitemark scheme as a way of conveying a privileged position in a bidding process is compatible with our overall objective of achieving best value for money for the taxpayer in the procurement of military equipment.
Our reservists are some of the best informed about what works and what does not work currently, and about the challenges they have faced. So how will the Secretary of State ensure that our reservists, particularly those serving abroad, in Afghanistan and elsewhere—I have a very good friend who is serving with the United Nations in Cyprus—are able to contribute to the consultation?
The consultation is being made available online. Indeed, it is being published in electronic form only, apart from the requirement of the House to deliver hard copies here. If it were not for that, this would be an all-electronic consultation. It will be given publicity through the chain of command. Furthermore, the responses that we receive will be processed by an independent contractor and anonymised before we get them, so reservists may feel confident that they can respond anonymously with their views.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State and to colleagues.