New Clause 6 - Publication of data on reserves

Defence Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 22nd October 2013.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State shall publish quarterly recruitment figures and trained strength numbers against adjusted quarterly targets.’.—(Mr Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This important new clause seeks to ensure that the Government are held to account on the progress of recruiting Reservists. We had a good debate in the Chamber last week on Reservists initiated by the Backbench Business Committee. I counted at least 10 blue-on-blue  attacks criticising the way the Reserve expansion is going. When the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) was Secretary of State for Defence, he made it clear that the reduction in Regulars would only take place once the Reserves came up to complement. This may not be an issue so much for the other two services, but it certainly is for the Army and the Government need to be held to account to ensure that these targets are met. The Opposition feel that the only way to do that is to ensure that information is in the public domain on a regular basis.

I do not want to give the Committee a history lesson but we started with the strategic defence review in 2010, when the Prime Minister announced that the Army would be reduced by 7,000. That obviously changed. The figure is now down to 82,000 Regular forces in the Army. What changed in that period? Clearly, the constraints that the Treasury has put on the Ministry of Defence, including the 9% decrease in budget, have meant that it has had to get rid of people. There are, unfortunately, only two ways in which defence can get instant cash: by getting rid of people or by getting rid of equipment. That has led, rightly, to a lot of cynicism among the Regular armed forces that the increase in Reserves is being used to plug that gap. I accept that that is not the intention of the hon. Member for Canterbury and others, but it concerns those in the Regulars. That came across loud and clear from Conservative Members’ contributions on Thursday. In order to hold the Government to account, we must ensure that recruitment figures are regularly reported to Parliament, as proposed in new clause 6.

We know that the ambitious targets for recruitment of Reservists, particularly to the Army, are a gamble. I was pleased to attend the Royal Engineers’ recruitment event last week, and I am not sure that there will be a real problem in those areas, because specialist traits are needed and people might see some benefit from joining the Army or the armed forces. I am more concerned about infantry numbers. Will that type of recruitment be given the same importance, and will the same effort be put into it?

The other issue that the MOD faces is that, at a time when we are making people redundant—in some cases compulsorily redundant—we also want to recruit people, not only to the Regulars but to the TA. That might create a mixed message in terms of the public understanding that recruitment doors are still open. There is a good reason for that policy. I know that some journalists have been asking why the MOD is still recruiting Regulars while making people compulsorily redundant, but it is doing so to avoid the chaos that the previous Conservative Government created in the 1990s under “Options for Change”. Even when I was in the Ministry of Defence, that chaos was still being felt, because there were manning gaps throughout the armed forces, which created problems. I recognise that recruitment needs to continue, but the language that is being used sends out the message that new people are not welcome in the Regulars, and that is having an effect on TA recruitment as well.

If that was not bad enough, the other problem is that the Government are doing things in a hurry. I do not know whether they are doing so because they think they will only get one shot at government, and therefore it is  better to do everything that they can and wreak complete havoc before the electorate decide otherwise in 2015. We have increasingly seen a number of initiatives across Government, from the green deal to universal credit, which are ill thought out and rushed, and which seem to have been put in place quickly and without much thought. There is a suspicion that the same is true of the defence reforms. They are very ambitious targets. With the green deal, for example, does it really matter if the targets are not met? No; the fact that somebody has not had a solar panel or a new boiler installed will not affect the nation’s defence. This initiative is different. We are talking about the nation’s capability to project power and defend itself.

There are clearly concerns at the senior level of the Army that the targets are too ambitious and may not be met. This is a difficult issue for some people to understand: the constraints were put forward because there is not enough money, but the Secretary of State for Defence announced a £1.8 billion surplus. I am not sure what his tactics are. In my dealings with the Treasury, in both central and local government, I never thought it was a good idea to tell the Treasury that I could not spend my budget because it always made it harder the following year to argue for an increase. I would love to be a fly on the wall when the Secretary of State argues with the Chancellor for an increase in subsequent defence budgets. My experience of local treasurers and the Treasury in Whitehall is that they are not exactly sympathetic with Departments that come in under spend.

The Minister may say that there are teething problems with the targets that have been put forward. However, in August, The Sunday Times reported that between April and June this year only 367 soldiers had enlisted in the Reserves—just a quarter of the overall target of 1,432—and an MOD source predicts that only 50% of the target of 6,383 will be recruited. Again, we must ask why. Partly, it is due to the eagerness of the Government to do new things and get things in place. Things used to be piloted to see whether they worked before resources and people’s time were committed to them.

I have been told that the use of Capita in recruitment offices is a reason why the targets are not being met. It must seem strange that at a time when we are trying to increase both Reserve and Regular recruits the number of Army recruitment centres is being cut. Some 62 have closed in England, seven out of 12 in Wales, and 14 out of 19 in Scotland. The Secretary of State said that we are going to regional geographical areas.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) made a good point in the debate on Thursday. He represents a large constituency, whose population is in one corner and at the top. He said that people in Reserve units will be expected to travel not only to recruitment centres but to what are now going to be called Reserve centres. They may have to travel 50 or 60 miles, which will be difficult for them. We must give some thought to how much of a barrier that will create. Realistically, after a long day’s work, will people be willing to travel 40 miles there and 40 miles back, if not further, to attend a TA centre? In the rush to save money—that is what it is; we cannot get away from that fact—barriers may be erected that turn people off.

There is another school of thought on this matter. I understand that, as part of the Capita contract, armed force personnel were to be taken out of recruitment  centres and redeployed. That has now been turned round and people have been put back in. I always thought that it was a strange decision, because the last person that a young man or woman wanting to join the British Army would want to see is someone from Capita with a clipboard and computer. They would rather speak to someone who has actually done the job. The same will be true for Reservists. They would want to meet and talk to individuals who know the opportunities that are there in order to make an informed decision on which part of the Reserves to join, but also to find out what some of the drawbacks are with regard to the work-life balance and the commitments that people are asked to make when they are in the Reserves.

There is another element. I am not sure whether this is the case or not, but I did refer earlier to resistance in the Regular Army, at some levels, to Reservists. I think that there has been anecdotal evidence that in some cases people in the Regular Army are not being as helpful as they could be in terms of ensuring that recruits to the Reserves—

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have a very good example of the last thing that he mentioned—it is a systemic example, not just an individual or anecdotal example. To this day, Army recruiting offices are open Monday to Friday from 9 to 5.30, which suits only those who want to join the Regular Army and the unemployed, instead of being open, say, Tuesday to Thursday from 9 am to 9 pm, so that part-time applicants who have civilian jobs can visit them.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There is a tendency to think that the new generation of people who want to join will do everything by means of websites, Twitter and so on, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that face-to-face contact—talking to people about their experiences—is key. I think that the MOD realises the problem that it has. Certainly The Daily Telegraph of 16 October gave some evidence of that in giving details of a leaked report. I know that as usual the Minister will say, “We don’t comment on leaked reports,” but we read that the memo says that

“‘disappointing’ recruitment to the new Army Reserve means that targets for a larger part-time force will not be reached.

The recruitment crisis means the Army faces ‘increased risk to its structure and operational capability’, according to the document, which has been seen by The Telegraph.”

It goes on to say:

“The Army is currently failing to attract and recruit sufficient Army Reserve personnel. Reserve info numbers in Quarter 1 are disappointing. If this continues the Army will miss its challenging inflow targets both this year and next’”.

There is another aspect that I think it is important to understand. It is not just about numbers. It is about how these people are integrated, not just in terms of training but in terms of what the objective is—a seamless joining up with the Regulars. If there are these delays or there is this missing of targets, that prompts the question of how we will get the training strength that we need in certain areas. It is not just about people going for their initial training—about ensuring that they get that initial assessment. It is about the ongoing training and the very close working that the new formation will involve. The formed units will work alongside and very closely  with Regular units. That is not just about ensuring that the unit is formed in the first place, but about ensuring that it works and trains with the Regular units.

I still think that this will be very challenging anyway, in terms of the task that the Army has set itself. I hear and have heard enthusiasm for this from senior members of the armed forces, including from General Wall when he spoke downstairs last week at the event involving the Royal Engineers. I do not doubt their commitment, but they have to do this because it is the only game in town owing to the budget constraints imposed on the MOD by the Chancellor. If formed units are not trained—and, more importantly, trained alongside Regular units—we could face the difficulty not only of not having the numbers but of not having enough trained individuals in formed units that can interact and work alongside members of the Regular armed forces.

There is a misnomer, as the Minister will understand. When Whitehall Departments ask the Army or any of the armed forces to do something, they sometimes expect—Prime Ministers fall into this error all the time, irrespective of political party—that the military can turn its capabilities on and off like a tap according to political necessity. However, the Minister understands, as do I and many members of this Committee, that it takes a lot of training and time to get that capability in place. One must work with individuals and ensure that people are retrained and refreshed on numerous occasions. As new equipment comes in—new Reserve members will be expected to have their own equipment—people will have to be trained in it, as well as training alongside Regulars. It is important that those targets are not missed.

Unless there is scrutiny and the figures are known on a quarterly basis, Parliament will not be able to judge whether the scheme is working, unless we have access to the leaked e-mails that seem to be issuing from the MOD like confetti at the moment. I am not suggesting that I condone that in any way, but people clearly have serious concerns. Those internal memos and documents raise concerns that might be embarrassing to Ministers, but it should be of concern to us all that something that this Government rushed into is not producing what it was aimed at producing. If it is the green deal, it does not matter, but this matters, because it concerns the defence of our country and our armed forces’ ability to deploy and protect the nation. That is their main reason for being, and we politicians sometimes take it for granted. It is no good taking it for granted if the numbers of people are not there to be deployed when we need them.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

May I express my pleasure at speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for the first time apart from in interventions? I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I have sympathy with some of what he said. I imagine that this is a probing new clause, although perhaps he will force a vote on the publishing of statistics. I will offer a few thoughts on the substance of the points that he made.

I said earlier today that the Bill will stand or fall depending on whether we end up with something integrated or something assimilated. Two examples of going in the right direction came up in the hon. Gentleman’s speech. One is our re-commitment to training to develop the capability to use formed sub-units and units. That is what makes it worth while for officers and NCOs to  make all the sacrifices involved in Reserve service. I would not have joined the TA so that, at the end of a hard-working week, I could simply augment the teeth of the Regular army for the last few years. That is a good example of moving from an assimilated to an integrated model.

The second thing that the hon. Gentleman mentioned as moving in the right direction was the pairing of units. Oddly enough, one of my great military heroes—the 19th-century Garnet Wolseley, Gilbert and Sullivan’s model of a modern major-general and the victor in so many wars abroad—was director of Reserve forces. The Reserve had a different title then; I am trying to remember its name. He introduced the pairing of Regular and Reserve units for the first time. This was long before Haldane, but a number of elite Reserve units, including the one I mentioned, the forerunners of my regiment, the Artists Rifles, were very much part of that pairing process. Indeed, his name appears seven times in our regimental history in his relatively short tenure in that job. So those are both good examples of getting back to formed bodies, the pairing of Regular and Reserve units and integration at work.

The main business of the hon. Gentleman’s new clause addresses recruiting where we have gone in exactly the opposite direction. In 2006 it was assimilated into Regular recruiting and it is becoming more and more assimilated in a way that is frankly unhelpful. If we are going to break out of this, I suggest—I will not go back to this morning’s debate—that we give an enhanced inspection role to the RFCA and put it on a statutory basis. The RFCA can really get at the detail of what is wrong. It exposed the point about the recruiting offices and a whole string of other issues.

Given that the hon. Gentleman has taken us down this important and interesting avenue, it is worth touching on the central point about recruiting. To make volunteer Reserve recruiting work involves something that is fairly easy to describe but quite difficult to make happen. I was a recruiting officer for a TA unit for two years. It is all about getting together an enthusiastic body: in those days it was young men; in these days in some units it would be young men and young women. We get a critical mass of them together every, say, three months. We put them through a weekend when they get wet and cold and miserable together which is a sort of selection. It is as much a mental selection as a physical one. Out of that comes the comradeship which then persuades them to start phase 1 training and then phase 2 training and so on.

That is the heart of it. In Australia, Canada, the National Guard or anywhere, they all have that approach. The assimilation of our recruiting and phase 1 training into Regular training has been a disaster. What happens is they go off and they are then told at the end of the weekend, “Well, we’ve got to do security checks on you now. That’s going to take six weeks so don’t come back for six weeks.” I will not go into the nonsense over medicals and a system which is frankly unworkable: taking a chit along to a local NHS doctor and expecting him to fill it in and send it off without any guidance and it being a breach of the Data Protection Act if the unit rang up and tried to help. Fortunately, that was sorted out by Ministers last year but it caused a terrible dent in recruiting.

There are problems with security checks. There is a struggle to deal with the computer program. It is nothing to do with Capita but the interface with Capita has made it even more complicated. It is a computer program that cannot be reached online. It can only be reached from certain designated terminals, some of which are in the recruiting offices, which are not open at a time when potential recruits to the Reserves who have civilian jobs can access them. I could go on. I do not want to bang on. I am conscious of the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister has worked enormously hard on this Bill. He has brought a great deal to it. I have huge admiration for him. He has already been extremely helpful on the important subject of senior appointments, which is being looked at. We will return to the RFCA issue on Report.

As the hon. Gentleman was setting out his concerns in this area, I thought it important to point out that these are not ambitious targets. The number is very small. Compared with any other English-speaking country, both as a proportion of working population and as a proportion of the total armed forces, it is right down at the bottom of the league. On both the measures, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland all have far more ambitious targets. The National Guard, astonishingly, at a time when most of the US regular armed forces were under strength, put out a press release to say that it had gone over strength. These things can be done. The problem is in the mechanism; it is not in the footfall or enthusiasm.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 4:00 pm, 22nd October 2013

I accept what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but this is a step change in what we accept Reservists do, so it might take longer for people to get up to speed. However, we cannot draw a comparison with the National Guard, because people join the National Guard in the United States—it is a long tradition and part of the constitution—and get access to certain medical and health-care benefits. That is a driver that we do not have in this country.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I entirely accept that, but as far as I know, the only English-speaking country that has integrated recruiting for Regulars and Reserves is Australia. The Australians saw a very significant drop in recruiting when they did so, and they stayed with the system but made it work by putting generous resourcing into it. It is not integrated in America, nor is it, I believe, in Canada, New Zealand or Ireland.

Before 2006, when recruitment was firmly separate and the RFCA controlled it, it worked a great deal better. I am not asking to go the whole way back to before 2006, but we need to go through all these detailed matters. One very simple principle underlies all this: to make the volunteer Reserves system work, essentially, people have to trust what the guy through the door says and do the checks afterwards. It really is just as simple as that. If the person can complete a run and a simple physical test, and if he says that he is fit, then we have to wait for the medical to come in later. If he says that he does not have a criminal record and he is told eyeball to eyeball that this is going to be carefully checked, and if he says, eyeball to eyeball, “No, I genuinely haven’t,” he should not be sent away for six weeks; he should be taken while the test is taking place. A bit of resource  and effort would be wasted on a few people who came in and lied, but that is how we get that essential critical mass, which has always traditionally been the way to get volunteer reserves.

As three or four different units have said to me again and again—all people I know and respect—it is heartbreaking to see those guys come in, and we drop them into this new hopper and they do not come out the other end. They turn up weeks later and the paperwork is still lost; or in one case that came up only last week, it finally surfaced after four or five months in the wrong unit, somewhere the other end of London. That is the reason for poor recruiting; it is nothing to do with it being an ambitious target.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury on the Committee has been really valuable—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—particularly in the context of this part. I had not appreciated, until he just told us, that he was a recruiting officer when he was serving, and he has given us a real insight, informing the Committee that the issue being raised in the press and in the outside world about the challenges in achieving the numbers is something that we have to address, but it is addressable. Some of the specifics that he referred to about improving the process are achievable and doable. We are working on that, and I share his confidence that we will be able to achieve the numbers that we have set out to achieve for 2018.

Taking us back to the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for North Durham, it is important that we have this debate. It follows on from the debate that took place on the Floor of the House last week, where some of these issues were raised. It is therefore perhaps rather more topical than much of the rest of our deliberations on the Bill. For that reason, it is important that we have the opportunity to discuss the matter, so I am grateful to him for his new clause.

Our Reserves have always made an essential contribution to national security, and that contribution is set to increase through our proposals. We believe that we are offering exciting opportunities, not only for individuals, but for the formed units that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury referred to—one of the attractions of our proposals. Reserves will be an integrated plan of the whole force required for all operations, both at home and abroad. To do that, we plan to grow our Reserves to 34,900 across all three services by 2018, and we are investing an additional £1.8 billion over 10 years. Our plan is to grow the Army Reserves from the current 19,230 to a trained strength of 30,000; the Royal Auxiliary Air Force from 1,335 to 1,800; and the Royal Navy Reserve, including the Marines, from 2,526 to 3,100. As the Secretary of State said last week, this is a challenging target, but one that we think is credible and that we are committed to achieving.

These requirements are challenging, but as we heard earlier today, they are well within the historic levels of Reservists. While my hon. Friend took us back pre-first world war to give some indication of the scale in which Reservists could be recruited in those days, we do not have to look quite so far back to have seen substantially higher numbers of trained strength in the Territorial Army. In 1997, it was over 50,000 strong. It was reduced to around 40,000 by 2000; and by 2009, it was down to just 26,000. As I have said today, we have just over 19,000 trained Reservists in the Army.

We should not be surprised if the growth that we want to achieve is neither uniform nor smooth. It will be somewhat jerky. Given the time taken to train Reservists, the trained strength improvement will lag behind recruitment.

Members of the Committee will no doubt be aware that, recognising the interest in the progress of Reserves recruitment, the Secretary of State made a commitment to the House on 16 July to publish quarterly Reserves recruitment figures. We intend to publish the figure for the quarter to 1 October next month. I am sure that everyone will agree that, with this commitment, there is no specific need to enact legislation as proposed in the new clause. In fact, by the time that the Bill receives Royal Assent, we will have had a further two or three iterations of this data release.

We are currently publishing trained and untrained strength data for each category of Reserves on a quarterly basis. The last figures were available in July 2013, released on 15 August, and this information goes back to 1 April 2012. So from the beginning of 2012 that was the figure for the first quarter. We have committed to publishing quarterly recruitment figures without any need for legislation. I recognise that the issue of targets was raised both in the debate last week and in the hon. Gentleman’s proposed new clause, and I can assure the Committee that the Ministry of Defence is considering carefully whether it is appropriate to publish recruitment targets as well as our achieved recruitment figures. We recognise that they may provide a fuller picture, but our fear is that the growth is unlikely to be uniform or smooth and therefore that individual targets for quarters may be as misleading and unhelpful as some hon. Members regard them as helpful.

This programme is still in its early stages. The hon. Gentleman said that I would use the expression “teething problems” and it is an appropriate expression to use as we roll out both the plans and the recruitment process. I accept that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said, most of the issues at the moment are in the administrative processing of the system that we are introducing. A combination of the change to the increase in the Reserves that we are planning and a change to the process in which we take on recruits is giving rise to the current year’s issues.

We are working with Capita, which is our delivery partner in this recruitment process, and the senior Army leadership actively to address these processing issues, and both Ministers with responsibility and the service chiefs—in particular, the Chief of the General Staff—believe that we can work through them. Temporary adjustments have been made to the application process to ensure that we can continue to process new recruits.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

I am listening carefully to the Minister. He speaks of the work being done to increase the number of new recruits, but does he share my disappointment that the TA centre at New Bilton is unfortunately about to be closed, which will make it more challenging to find new recruits in my constituency?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Clearly, in the small number of cases where assessment centres are closing, or the small number cases where TA facilities are closing—less than 10% of the total—there will be some dislocation, but the plan  was designed to allow recruits to find an accessible place not too far away. I am not sufficiently familiar with the geography of my hon. Friend’s constituency to alert him to the alternative centre, but I hope that his constituents will find somewhere to go without having to travel too large a distance in the future.

The recruitment campaigns, which we launched following on from the White Paper proposition, have only just started. The Army’s campaign began a month ago on 16 September. The Army is encouraging all its Regular and Reservist units to participate in the campaign of increased engagement.

The maritime Reserves have stabilised their numbers and are working both to ensure the retention of trained personnel already in the Reserve and to reduce wastage during the training programme by tailoring the training methods to suit the Reservist experience better. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North, who is going through the final stages of her Reservist training, is not here at this point to give us the benefit of her experience. She is, however, a member of the pilot cohort of Reservists who are going through changes to their training regime as a result of these proposals.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

I gather that the hon. Lady has gone off to a drill session, which is why she is not here.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing out that, even as we discuss the significance of recruiting and training our Reservists, one of our number is undergoing training.

Photo of Oliver Colvile Oliver Colvile Conservative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

The Minister makes a good point. From earlier on, we understand that a good 40% of Reservists come from student backgrounds and others like that. Does he therefore think that it would be a good idea to ensure a recruitment presence at universities at freshers fairs and similar events? I suspect that, in my constituency, Plymouth university would be interested in that.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Frankly, I am surprised to learn that there is not already a presence at freshers fairs at universities such as Plymouth from, in particular, the maritime Reserves. In fact, I think that my hon. Friend’s constituency neighbour will enlighten us further.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

If I may offer some enlightenment, that does happen. Indeed, the young man who was in charge of Labour’s students was also a Reservist and had been at freshers fairs.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful for that. If I may crave your indulgence for a second, Mr Owen, when I attended freshers week at my university, I signed up to join the university air squadron at that very event. That was, of course, some years ago now, so I admit that that may be ancient history, but I am fairly confident that my university’s freshers fair would continue to have a strong representation from all services to recruit students.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

At the risk of overstretching a theme, it is significant that university units—university officer training corps, air squadrons and university royal naval units—are the last part left of the old system where people can still go in and get the paperwork, medicals and the whole lot all fixed in one weekend. That is a model of how it should be. I am sorry to say that the Army recruiting group has struggled to bring them under their new system, although I gather that that has been headed off.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 4:15 pm, 22nd October 2013

I am again grateful to my hon. Friend. I will bring the Committee back, kicking and screaming, to the topic that I was on, which was the Maritime Reserve. From the most recently published figures for the quarter to 1 July, the Maritime Reserve trained strength had increased by 10 over the previous quarter. I am pleased to say that the untrained strength increased by 90 over the previous year. That is just an example of how recruitment in some of our services is going to plan.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister is obviously about to move on, but before he does will he comment on the joint cyber-Reserve and how it will work? There was an announcement yesterday by the Secretary of State, including that people with a criminal record for hacking may be taken on. How does the Minister envisage that the Reserve will fit in around the other Reserve forces?

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I anticipated that a member of the Committee might refer to the joint cyber-Reserve unit, and I am delighted that the hon. Lady is not disappointing us. We intend to draw on specialist expertise from industry and civilian life, and we do not preclude individuals who have a criminal record from joining our Reserve forces. Once their sentence has been served they should have the opportunity to serve in any of our services.

The Secretary of State was last night responding to a question from a television journalist about whether there would be a particular role in the cyber unit for those who have been convicted of hacking offences; and he quite properly sought not to discriminate against that category of individuals, who may well have something very specific to offer. We look forward to raising the cyber-Reserve unit, and will look for suitably qualified personnel from civilian life, as well as Regular Reservists who have developed experience through their service within the armed forces.

I want to move on to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which had also increased its trained strength by the end of July. It looks likely to meet its end-of-year ambitions for its strength, and is seeking authority to allocate extra resources to marketing, to improve its recruitment rate even further.

Recruiting activity itself is better co-ordinated now, across the services, than it has been in the past, and that should ensure a much more joined-up approach to recruiting. The recruiting campaigns are carried out at regional level, following planning and guidance from the national level. We are developing links with other Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, as has been touched on, and the Cabinet Office; and those are being exploited to help achieve the maximum effect for the recruitment campaigns.

We are working hard to deliver the message through internal communications across Government that the Reserves are recruiting, and to demonstrate that the civil service is taking the lead in the public sector in recruiting Reserves from among our own ranks.

The additional costs of recruitment associated with growth of the Reserves are all factored into the Future Reserves 2020 programme. Should recruitment be slower than planned, some funding earmarked for paying the personnel who are not, in fact, recruited could be switched to increase the recruitment effort through marketing or other means.

The recently announced redundancies are not new. They were announced initially in 2010, and again in 2012. Following last year’s redundancies, which were 84% voluntary, it was clear that there could be a fourth tranche; but no final decisions have been taken. The Army started a major recruitment campaign on 16 September, which it is confident will begin to deliver the required numbers of recruits to reach our target for 2018.

Using data from a period before publication of the Reserves plan and before the recruitment campaign is fully under way, as the hon. Member for North Durham—mentioned in a newspaper article—did the other day, does not give a credible picture of the growth in our Reserves.

Those who leave the Army through redundancy are being encouraged to consider a part-time military career in the Reserves. For the Army, ex-Regulars who enlist into the Army Reserve within three years of leaving Regular service can enjoy a number of incentives and benefits such as a reduced Army Reserve commitment and training requirement or, alternatively, a commitment bonus worth some £5,000, paid over four years. There is a comprehensive information campaign to ensure that all service leavers, not just redundees, are aware of the opportunities and benefits of joining the Reserves. It would be mathematically completely possible for our entire increase in Reserve requirements to be met from those leaving the forces, whether through voluntary redundancy or requirement, over the coming years. It is a logical pool from which to seek to fill those places. We believe that the 3 July announcement will have a positive effect on Reserve recruiting. Our Reserve forces have always attracted highly motivated individuals, and the assurance that the Reserves will play a more routine and assured role within the whole force concept will act to broaden appeal and encourage those looking for such an opportunity, and their employers.

Achieving the combined SDSR 2010 and the three-month exercise reductions is likely to require a further tranche for Army personnel at a later date, which may include a small number of medical and dental personnel from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as the outcome of the Defence Medical Services 2020 project is implemented. Aside from those planned reductions, we expect to move the Future Force 2020 ambition and plans for personnel growth on to a much more positive footing. Ending the negative talk and commentary on what is happening to recruitment will start to have a benign and positive effect on recruitment and retention in the armed forces, which is so important for the continued performance of our armed forces and the defence of the nation.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

This has been a good debate, as was Thursday’s debate in the main Chamber. I have to say that I am a little disappointed in the Minister’s final comments, which strike me as shooting the messenger. They seem to suggest that people pointing out that targets have not been met and that the Government’s decisions are putting the capability of our armed forces at risk are the reason why people are not joining. A huge part of the responsibility must be laid at the Government’s door for their handling of not only Reserve recruitment but the defence budget since 2010. I am slightly concerned that more redundancies may be coming down the track later this year or early next year, which will do nothing to reinforce the point.

It is wrong to blame others. The Government must take a lot of the blame for the way in which the message has been communicated, and for rushing to use what they term civilian partners in recruitment. As has been demonstrated this afternoon, that has not been tested and has clearly run into problems. Even the Defence Secretary has commented that this is a risky way forward, and I do not think it is acceptable to take such risks with the security of our nation. In Thursday afternoon’s debate, the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said that he wanted to stop the redundancies in Regulars until the TA strength had been built up.

I heard what the Minister said about the Defence Secretary’s commitment to publish the quarterly figures. I do not wish to doubt that commitment, but unless there is some change in the MOD or in the political settlement in this country, the right hon. Gentleman will not be the Defence Secretary for ever. That commitment needs to be in the Bill, so that the onus is not simply on him. The way in which he has dealt with the finances in the MOD suggests that his true calling is not in the MOD but in the Treasury. If he were to leave or if the Minister were to leave his post—not wishing to see that date, at least not until 2015. [Interruption.] Sorry, does the hon. Member for Bournemouth East want the job as well?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

No, I am saying that he will be there longer.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

Oh, that he will be there longer. The hon. Gentleman is more optimistic than many in his party.

The measure needs to be in the Bill. The Minister cannot give a commitment for future Defence Secretaries or in the case of a change of Government. Including such a provision in the Bill is the only way that we can be sure that this important change is not only embedded but continues in future. I have no faith that a future Defence Secretary or future Government will provide this information.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Is the hon. Gentleman willing to give a commitment in the event of a change of Government? If he or his colleagues took the position that I and my colleagues have taken today, whereby we are committed to publishing this material on a quarterly basis, would he make a similar commitment?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

That is an easy one, because in opposition, one can say anything. The Minister’s Government, when in opposition, promised a larger Army, more naval  ships and a bigger Air Force. The only problem is that they were all broken promises once they got the keys to the door. We got a smaller Army, smaller Navy and a contracting Air Force. I can make that commitment, but I think it is better for it to be in the Bill.

It is not just about changing the political nature of the Government; it is about future Defence Secretaries. Unless the Minister knows something that I do not, that the Secretary of State will be in that role for evermore, I do not think we can have that. The safest place to put such a commitment—to get the commitment that the Minister clearly needs and wants, following the events of 2015 and a change of Government—is in the Bill. For that reason, I will press the motion to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division number 5 Decision Time — New Clause 6 - Publication of data on reserves

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.