Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:26 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Lord Glenarthur Lord Glenarthur Conservative 8:26 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, I strongly share the concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. The professionalism, resilience and indeed the sacrifices, as the right reverend Prelate has just said, of service men and women are plain for all to see.

Senior, highly trained and experienced military officers in or within recent direct experience of very responsible national and international positions know what they are talking about, so I was simply astonished 10 days ago to read that the Secretary of State had described as “nonsense” the statements made by a senior officer on retirement about his concerns for the present and future capability of the Armed Forces, most especially the Royal Navy but also about manning in general and the reserves in particular. Those views may be politically inconvenient but they are very widely held and articulated. The House of Commons report Future Army 2020 hardly provides a ringing endorsement of government policy, even if the economic factors the country faces are very real. Nonsense those comments certainly are not.

Reserve service men and women must be trained to a high standard and to be fit for deployment—there is not much argument about that. One imperative is to provide the right incentive for them, often known as the proposition. Unless opportunities for training, provision of equipment and direct comparability are provided in almost every way with the regulars, that proposition will be very difficult to deliver. In any case, it will not necessarily be a cheaper option.

Of course, recent operations could not have been successfully prosecuted without extensive use of reservists. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, the target of 30,000 deployable reservists by 2018 is a tall order. The programme to recruit them has got off to a shaky start because of the errors apparently made within the Ministry of Defence and a contract with Capita. The final figure may not be achieved or ultimately sustainable. Attracting redundant or other former ex-regulars to the reserves appears to be proving difficult, and I hope that my noble friend will be able to give us figures for that.

I spent many years as chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board for the reserves and so have a long-standing interest in how, in what is proposed, their future is going to develop. I would love to know how confident the Government are in the employer aspects of reservists, especially in the need to ensure that leave for training time can be made available at no detriment to employer or employee. Reservists must be as thoroughly trained as, and interchangeable with, their regular counterparts. What are the up-to-date figures for recruiting and sustaining reservists against the targets that have been set? What are the same figures for the regular services, particularly the Army? What are the current rates of premature voluntary release of service men and women? I hope my noble friend can give answers to these questions, some of which I have been able to give him notice of.

Concerns remain about the entire Middle East and the rise in Islamic fundamentalism. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, we have recently seen disturbing destabilisation on the eastern fringes of Europe. Our foreign policy towards Russia, with its recent acquisitive and bellicose ambitions and substantial military muscle, understandably dwells on economic and even personal sanctions. However, no foreign policy can be fully effective if not reinforced by the capability of credible military response—the underpinning to which the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, referred—in keeping with our international obligations, should that ghastly prospect prove necessary. That seems to be very much the burden of the noble Lord’s question.

Defence capability is a form of insurance. I am afraid that we seem to have got pretty close to our policy documents becoming invalid.