Before I call the Chair of the Defence Committee, it may be helpful to the House if I explain again, briefly, the new procedure to which it agreed last year. Essentially, the pattern is the same as for a ministerial statement. Mr Arbuthnot will speak for up to 10 minutes—obviously he is not obliged to take all that time, unless he considers it necessary—after which I will call Members who rise to put questions to the right hon. Gentleman, and will call him to respond to them in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Their interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part if they feel so inclined.
(Select Committee Statement) There is little time available to us, so I shall cut my remarks to the bone in order to allow other Members to ask questions about the Defence Committee’s report, “Future Army 2020”—a report which speaks for itself.
We welcome many aspects of the changes that are being introduced by the Ministry of Defence. We welcome the increased spending on the reserves, the fact that reservists will have more training days, and the fact that they will work more closely with the regulars. We welcome the Government’s commitment to report annually on the state of the reserve forces, although our report calls on the Government to go further. All those measures will help to tie the armed forces into the public that they defend, and to reduce what we describe as the disconnect between the armed forces and the public.
However, we also have real concerns. We are concerned about the fact that the radical reduction of the Regular Army to 82,500 was simply announced to the Chief of the General Staff, without consultation on whether that was the right figure to address the threats we face, without testing or experimentation, and without being referred to the National Security Council, although it amounted to a reduction of 12,000 personnel and although the figure of 94,500 appeared in the strategic defence and security review as recently as 2010. It was a figure set purely on the basis of the finances that were available, rather than through any reiterative process of negotiation.
We are concerned about recruitment to both the regulars and the reservists. A career in the armed forces is a fantastically valuable and enjoyable one—as usual, I declare my interest: my eldest daughter is a lieutenant in the reserves—and people should not hold back from applying for that wonderful career. However, recruitment has not gone as well as it should have, partly because of failings in the Army’s own processes, partly because of IT failures, and partly because of the transfer of the role to Capita.
We are also concerned about the fact that the regulars are being made redundant before the reservists have been recruited. We understand the efforts that everyone is making to put the recruiting difficulties right, and I hear that things are turning around, but turn around they must. As we say in the report, we face the possibility that the Army will be short of personnel in key supporting capabilities.
Army 2020 presents a radical vision of the future role and structure of the Army. The Government have said it has to work, as there is no plan B. That is the challenge that confronts the Ministry of Defence and the Army. We congratulate the new Chief of the General Staff on his appointment; he has a challenging time ahead. We thank the outgoing Chief of the General Staff for his fantastic work and service over many years. And we commend the report to the House.
The Committee has produced a considered report, in whose formation I was privileged to be involved at a very late stage. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there is a genuine risk that service numbers may fall so low as to affect our ability to sustain a force which the country needs to retain an expeditionary capability to intervene when necessary, unless there is a longer-term strategic rethink of the way in which we fund defence activities?
I do consider that there is that risk, and I consider that it is a twofold risk. There is the risk that already exists because of the recruiting issues about which we have expressed concern, but there is an even greater risk of further raids on the defence budget in the future. I personally believe that the defence budget should increase, but in any event we must guard against both those risks.
My right hon. Friend and I visited the Army recruiting and training centre together. Does he agree that it is truly astonishing that it is only since the arrival of the new director general, Major General Chris Tickell, that really obvious things—such as data protection for medicals, returning some of the focus on recruitment to potential recruits and, above all, sorting out the software—are at last being dealt with for the purposes of both regular and reserve recruiting?
I am far too old to be astonished by anything, but I will say that many such issues came to light, and were dealt with, only as a result of my hon. Friend’s assiduity and fantastic work.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for their report. Does he think that it confirms what may of us have been saying for a long time, namely that Army 2020 is being driven by financial considerations? The most worrying part of the report that I read was the part that revealed that the permanent secretary to the MOD, rather than the head of the Army, had set the Army numbers. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that further redundancies in the regular forces should be paused until the recruitment problems have been sorted out?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s final question, I would say that we may be too late for that, because the recruitment notices have probably already been delivered. However, it is worrying that the 82,500 figure does not appear to have been subjected to any tests or experiments to establish whether it adequately addressed the threats that the country faces. As I said in my brief statement, I think it should have been a reiterative process. Obviously, there is a financial envelope within which we all have to work. Whether that is large enough rather depends on the threats we face.
I would like to place on record my appreciation of the right hon. Gentleman, who steps down as Chairman of the Defence Committee shortly. Does he agree that as the final five or six years of this decade unfold, if circumstances require it—notwithstanding the fact that civil servants determined the size of the Army—the Government should step in and increase recruitment so that the country gets the Army it should have?
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, who also does assiduous work on the Defence Committee. It should not be civil servants who determine the size of the Army; it should be this House that determines the size of the Army—it should be Ministers. Ministers are, of course, in overall control, but these are issues that should be discussed by the House of Commons on a regular basis and determined by Ministers.
According to Ministry of Defence figures, there is a shortfall in jobs across the military. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of our report’s most alarming findings was the number of vacancies in specialist trades, where jobs are being cut and the right personnel are not being recruited? The Army had the equivalent of 8,000 specialist vacancies it could not recruit for.
I agree with the hon. Lady, who serves so wonderfully on the Select Committee. These issues are brought out clearly in the report. She also referred to the matter in the estimates debate on Tuesday. There are real shortages in relation to cyber-reserves. We must build up those specialist areas to guard against the threats this country faces.
The figures announced in Army 2020 are significantly different from those predicted in the strategic defence and security review in 2015. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the great value of this strong report is not necessarily with regard to the past, because all those redundancies have happened, but with regard to the future? Looking forward to the next SDSR, does he agree that it is vital that if the SDSR is to have any value whatever it must become binding for the subsequent five years?
My hon. Friend, who also serves on the Defence Committee, makes, as always, a very good point. It is a matter not of astonishment, because I am not astonished about anything, but of surprise that the National Security Council has not already been brought into this process. It needs to be brought into the next process on a regular basis.
Current events in Ukraine and the continuing need for our country to persuade our allies in Europe to spend more on defence make me believe the Government should revisit the target they have set of a regular Army of 82,500. Has the Defence Committee looked at the feasibility of a Government revising the figure if they think there is a political need to do so?
In our report the Defence Committee calls on the Government to set out how they would rapidly rebuild the regulars as well as building on the reservists. It is difficult enough as it is to recruit into the regulars and the reservists, but regeneration of that capability is important, and the Government must address that.
The report correctly highlights the real possibility of capability gaps, along with the fact that the plans to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists were borne of financial necessity rather than strategic design. Has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of the prospect of rising costs leading to false economies, such as the fact that it costs more to deploy reservists than regulars? Although this cost may have been offloaded on to the Treasury, it could still be a cost borne by taxpayers. The cost may be too much and certainly more than originally envisaged given that the plans come out of a need to make savings. The National Audit Office is also looking into the matter on behalf of taxpayers.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We say in the report:
“We note that Reservists are cheaper to employ so long as they are not called up. This will only prove to be a cost saving so long as future governments are not required to undertake operations. This will need to be closely monitored.”
I hope—indeed, I am sure—that the Government will do exactly that.
The report is about Army 2020. It talks about retaining the regimental structure but building an adaptive and reactive force with an integrated reserve. There is money for that until 2019, but there will be a defence and security review in 2015-16. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the resources and the integration quality, not the changes to the structure that have been outlined, will need to be re-examined at that time?
The hon. Gentleman, who has been on the Defence Committee since, I think, 2003, and who knows more about it than any of us, is quite right. He will raise his points in the next Defence Committee inquiry into Future Force 2020, which will tie together all these issues in the reports that the Committee does to build up to the next defence and security review.
My hon. Friend is right. The fighting power of the Army seems to have been less used than we would like by the MOD both as a concept and in its language in recent years. Fighting power involves the conceptual component—the thought process—the moral component, which is the ability to get people to fight, and the physical component, or the means to fight. We call on the MOD to produce a regular report on that so that we can understand how well defended the country actually is.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on producing what is, I must say, really rather a disturbing report, certainly from my perspective. He talks about Army 2020 as a radical vision, but I am still not quite clear whether he believes it is radically good or radically bad. The report says that the Committee members have “considerable doubts” as to whether Army 2020
“will meet the needs of the UK’s national security.”
I cannot think of anything more serious than that.
Well, it is radical in that it goes to the root of what the Army is about. It changes the entire configuration of the Army from a predominantly—hugely so—regular Army with a very small proportion of reservists, to an Army of 82,500 regulars and 30,000 reservists. That is certainly radical. I think certain things really work well, but there are other things which are not working so well about which we have real concerns. I have said that and we have made that point in the report.
I certainly look forward to the Government response to this report. Much of it focuses on the rebalancing of the regular and reservist ratio, and I should declare an interest as a reservist myself. Many reservists currently fail to secure their bounty or credits for promotion because they miss their annual camp. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new ambitious reservist recruitment targets, as spelled out on page 38 of his report, are more likely to be met if the Army is more flexible in allowing a series of four-day commitments to be completed throughout the year for those who are unable—for work or family reasons—to make the fixed dates of an annual eight to 14-day camp?
My hon. Friend knows far more about it than I do. I am sure he is right. I am sure the answer is in the report somewhere, but I cannot put my finger on exactly where.