Defence Reform Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 10th December 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Liberal Democrat 4:34 pm, 10th December 2013

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for updating us on the very recent developments in connection with the Bill, but I share the concerns around the Chamber that we have not had time to absorb the Statement. By the time we go into Committee, there will have been an opportunity for further clarity and reflection on the Government’s position.

I shall speak on Part 3, on the reserves, but will start with Part 1. The MoD has long had a reputation for poor management of equipment programmes, in which delays and overspends are not infrequent. The MoD is not alone among departments where budgets overrun initial estimates of time and cost but it does have to take into account factors which may not be present in other parts of government. For instance, the equipment that our Armed Forces need is at the cutting edge of technology. This will always bring uncertainties. It will have a long lifespan so it needs to be capable of repairs and upgrades, and flexible enough to be responsive to developments in weaponry in less friendly parts of the world.

Specifications would be complex enough without another factor outside the control of the MoD, namely the requirement to respond to political decisions. Ministers may wish to keep jobs in particular parts of the country to address employment needs or to ensure that skills are not lost. They may decide to commission equipment for a variety of reasons which are not first and foremost military. I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Levene, and my noble friend Lord King that those who serve in the MoD—military and civilian—are not only committed to public service but have a wealth of experience, expertise and knowledge which deserves to be given credit. There will be service men and women with first-hand experience of what does and does not work in conflict zones, working alongside military analysts, strategists and engineers. They may even be the same people. Why is it, then, that Governments have a tendency to look first to the private sector for guidance on the future for defence, with the assumption that the higher the fees and salaries paid, the better the quality of the advice? This may be a misplaced assumption.

As my noble friend the Minister set out, and as was said in today’s Statement:

“We have also started to address the business skills gap within DE&S ... by the recruitment of new senior finance and commercial staff from the private sector”.

I fully recognise that such enhanced skills may be available only in the private sector, but has there been any skills audit within the MoD to ensure that at least some of the business, financial, project management and HR skills might be met from within existing staff? After all, I remind your Lordships that it was highly paid private sector skills, brought in to address the undoubted problems of procurement, which led to a GOCO solution. There were reservations about the implication of such outsourcing, as noble Lords have already set out—and, as we now know, the model held little appeal for industry and has been put on hold. But neither GOCO nor DE&S-plus is proof against decisions taken at ministerial level for the broader good of the country. It is unreasonable to chastise the MoD when equipment is commissioned or adapted for non-operational reasons and to lay blame for mismanagement solely at its door.

I turn to Part 3 and the reserves. Two weeks ago this Chamber was filled with cadets in uniform from all around the UK who, along with veterans, were debating the legacy of the First World War. Their debating skills were immensely impressive; speaking thoughtfully and clearly, and keeping to time, they were a credit to your Lordships’ House. The contributions from the veterans were moving in demonstrating their personal struggles and achievements. We also heard of the inspiring work of military charities and volunteers. It was equally impressive in conversation to hear of these young people’s commitment to the Armed Forces, whether they were intending to join up or not. Among them are the service men and women, and the reserves, of the future. These are the people who can demonstrate to employers that they have personal and professional skills which are enhanced by military service, and which can be of immense benefit in civilian life, too.

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force face changes to their Reserve Forces but the main focus of the Bill is the effect on the Army, where, as we have heard, the reduction in the Regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000 is set to be balanced by an increase in the Army Reserve from 19,000 to 30,000. In managing this increase, a civilian contract company can do only so much. For these numbers to be achieved, champions are needed from within the services. Ex-regulars should be actively encouraged to engage. Cadets and veterans provide great role models for those considering joining the reserves. Their own enthusiasm encourages others to meet the challenges of service to their country. What support is being given to ensure that career advice and guidance sets out the very wide range of opportunities within regulars and reserves? I recognise there are sensitivities in this that must be observed with regard to recruitment, but we must face up to them if we are to achieve this timely change.

In the 21st century, warfare is seldom conventional. Reshaping our military will enable the services to operate more flexibly and cost-effectively. The additional demands on the Army Reserve Forces will require access to, and the use of, the same equipment and vehicles as regulars. As their training commitments increase to 40 days a year, so they will be paired with regulars for training and deployment purposes. This must be managed and monitored and I, too, welcome the amendment about the annual external scrutiny.

Employer engagement is key to the success of this initiative. Many larger employers need little convincing of the benefits that those with military training can bring to the business world. The military is trained to think around and through problems, to respond to fast-changing situations, to communicate with those around it, to work as a team and to show leadership. For large employers and, even more importantly, for small and medium-sized enterprises, it is important that the Government make clear the support on offer to ensure that business needs continue to be met, even when staff are called away for up to 12 months at a time. Noble Lords have already raised the concerns that this situation will bring.

For the reserves themselves, we shall seek assurances that their employment rights will be protected and that every consideration will be given to their physical and mental health. The Minister made reference to this in his opening remarks, but I note that a 2012 study from the King’s Centre for Military Health Research highlights the fact that reservists have more difficulty than regular soldiers with post-deployment social functioning, fitting back into family and civilian life and coping with stress, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Liberal Democrats have discussed this and propose that Army reserves should be regionalised to district areas, with regular commanders taking responsibility for all reservists in their area. Links to their families, to the Royal British Legion and to other military welfare organisations could play a role as a regular/reservist and veteran hub. Such an organisation could play a very welcome part in the community and help to alleviate some of the problems specific to reserves. Any increase in reserve numbers will call for comparable increases in medical and other support services to ensure that the duty of care, as set out in the military covenant, extends to both regulars and reserves.

The country quite rightly continues to express pride and admiration for our Armed Forces. With the right structures and safeguards in place, Part 3 will enable them to be reshaped in a way which fits them for service in the 21st century. We on these Benches look forward to scrutinising the Bill in Committee to ensure the best possible future for the indomitable men and women of the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. They deserve our attention to get this Bill right.