Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:40 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Lord Freeman Lord Freeman Conservative 8:40 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, I join many of your Lordships—in fact, all of your Lordships—in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for initiating this debate. May I offer him some support? I think I speak for a number of my colleagues in saying that, if he is able to persuade the usual channels for us to have a full debate on defence in your Lordships’ House, then he can count on me to be one of his foot-runners on this particular issue.

I want to concentrate on the issue of the Reserves, the planned total size of which is 30,000. Perhaps I may say that my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, for whom I used to work as a junior Minister in the Ministry of Defence, will echo my recollection that if you go back 10 or 15 years what was then the Territorial Army had a trained force of over 50,000. To get to 30,000 therefore does not seem to me to be either impractical or impossible. I want to explain why I think it is of some significance and importance that we stick to that target.

My own experience, as president of the Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations for 10 years, was that there were some very important advantages in having what was then called the Territorial Army and is now the Reserve Forces drawn from large and small employers spread throughout the country. That is the first point: it would be quite wrong to ditch the target of 30,000 or reduce it in any way at all, because the reserves have a footprint across the whole of the country. With the Regular Army in particular withdrawing into a number of very large garrisons around the country, the footprint of the armed services could be reduced to our great disadvantage unless we maintain our target of 30,000. Even to speculate at this stage about reducing those numbers would send entirely the wrong signal about the efforts being made by employers. I am sure that my noble friend, who was responsible for liaison between large employers and the Armed Forces, will echo my point that it would send a confusing signal at this stage, when so much effort is being made.

I must tell your Lordships that the recent figures for recruitment into the Reserve Forces have begun to improve. If you go back three or four months there were some serious difficulties, but now the indications are that recruitment is better. We must maintain the national footprint of the Reserve Forces for political reasons—political with a small “p”, not party political—to make sure that we have the support and encouragement of our population for our Armed Forces.

The 30,000 target will include many specialists, and the nature of the Reserve Forces has changed over the previous 10 or 20 years. We are recruiting people with skills, whether in the medical profession or in construction, who can complement our Regular Forces so effectively and successfully. We have a five-year campaign running, and I am quite confident that we will reach the target. I am not in favour of sending the signal at this stage of reducing the target for our Reserve Forces to compensate for the need, it is argued, to increase our Regular Forces. We ought to stick to our guns—that may be an inappropriate comment, but I think it is true. We can reach 30,000 by 2018.

I look forward to working with the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, to secure a full day’s debate in your Lordships’ House.