Armed Forces Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 31st March 2021.
“(1) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament reports on infantry battalion soldier strength, including the percentage of combat-ready soldiers per infantry battalion.
(2) The first report must be laid no later than 3 months after the day on which this Act is passed.
(3) A further report under this section must be laid no later than three months after the previous such report.”—
This new clause will place a duty on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament quarterly on infantry battalion soldier strength, including the percentage of battle-ready soldiers per infantry battalion.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause is designed to provide greater transparency on the strength of our fighting forces, following the Government’s broken promises on armed forces cuts. It would place a responsibility on the Secretary of State to report to Parliament each quarter on the fighting strength of our armed forces, including on the number of battle-ready soldiers per infantry battalion.
As the Committee knows, the Prime Minister promised to end the era of retreat, and that no further cuts would be made to the Army. Instead, he has further eroded our fighting strength: 45,000 personnel have been cut since 2010, and the forces were 10,000 below target strength. Now the integrated review and the Command Paper have confirmed that the Army will be further reduced to just 72,500 by 2025—smaller than at any time since the 1700s. That has been compounded by a leaked MOD report suggesting that 32 to 33 infantry battalions are short of battle-ready personnel.
The Chief of the Defence Staff said in 2015 that the ability to yield a single war-fighting division was
“the standard whereby a credible army is judged”.
Recently retired British generals have said that further cuts to the Army would mean that the UK is no longer taken seriously as a military power and would damage our relationship with the US and our position in NATO. The Royal United Services Institute recently reinforced that point, suggesting that the cuts mean that the UK can no longer be considered a tier 1 or full-spectrum military power.
These sweeping changes to our armed forces represent a huge gamble with our national security. Although the battlefield is undeniably changing, it remains to be seen whether the investments made in cyber, space and electronic warfare will be enough to keep us competitive on the world stage.
Government cuts to the conventional strength of our forces today, with the promise of jam tomorrow in the form of pioneering technology, are nothing new. Tory Ministers promised the same in the 2010 and 2015 reviews, but they failed to deliver. In 2010 they promised a future force by 2020, and in 2015 they promised a war-fighting division with a strike force by 2025. It is now being promised in 2030. A recent Defence Committee report on the Army’s armoured vehicle capability says that the division will be “hopelessly under-equipped” and overmatched by adversaries.
While we wait to see whether the Government finally deliver a coherent strategy for our national security, it is vital that we have a clear understanding of our fighting strength. Successive Conservative Governments have talked up their commitment to our armed forces, but they have broken their promises at every turn. Our adversaries will exploit continuing holes in our capability, and Labour is determined to ensure that our country can protect itself properly now and in the future.
I rise to support this new clause because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South has outlined, promises have been broken not just by this Government but since 2010. In the run-up to the 2010 general election, the Conservative party argued for a larger defence budget, an increase in numbers, more equipment, and a commitment to the armed forces of our country. Since then, we have not just seen the size of the Army reduced; we have seen cuts in numbers in the Royal Navy, including the Royal Marines, and in the Royal Air Force. Under the coalition, we had the terrible situation where brave members of our armed forces were made compulsorily redundant—again, something that was never promised in 2010. Certainly, if a Labour Government had implemented that policy, Members on the Tory Benches would have opposed it and would have been highly critical of the Government for doing so.
The overall size of our armed forces does matter, not only in terms of the Army being able to deploy individuals but to ensure that, for example, the Royal Navy has enough personnel to put ships to sea. We can have as much equipment as we want, but if we do not have the individual servicemen and servicewomen to support that equipment, it is useless. In the past few years, we have seen naval ships tied up because of a lack of trained strength, so it is important that we have this report annually and also that it talks about trained strength, because the Government do play fast and loose with the numbers.
It is not just a matter of the overall size, but what the overall capability is and how many members of the armed forces can actually deploy. There has been a decade of decline in the UK’s armed forces, and although the Minister and others champion the idea that they are supporting members of the armed forces, they have been part of a Government that have not only cut pay—as we have already spoken about this morning—but cut the actual numbers of the armed forces.
Another aspect I would like to raise is the lack of opportunity this will mean for many young people in constituencies such as mine, who proudly join the armed services to not only serve their country, but ensure they can have a career that they can be proud of and take those skills back into civilian life. The cuts will have an impact in constituencies across the country that provide men and women for the armed forces, because there will be a lack of opportunities. A lot of negative things are said about service in the armed forces, but I see service as a positive thing, where the people joining not only contribute to the safety that we all take for granted but, more importantly, get great career opportunities and opportunities that they would never have in civilian life. Once they leave, that expertise helps those individuals, and also helps local communities such as mine in North Durham. These cuts will limit the opportunities for those people, which saddens me, and is something we should bear in mind.
I want to say a few words in support of this new clause. Again, it should be really straightforward. I cannot see any reason why the Government would oppose it; it simply asks for a report on numbers.
Both Members who have already spoken to this new clause have talked about the impact of reduced numbers. We must be clear that despite moves towards cyber-warfare and different types of platform, ultimately reduced numbers threatens our capability. When we are looking at operating in very difficult circumstances, the Government should take seriously any threat to our capability.
We must also think about the impact on the remaining personnel, because the burden on them increases as the numbers decrease, with fewer personnel having to do more. That has an impact on their lives, including their family life and interactions with those outside the military. It can also threaten their ability to take leave; it will be a serious issue if they have leave entitlement but are not able to take leave because there are insufficient personnel to cover. People cannot continue like that; perhaps they can for short periods, but not over months and certainly not over years or indeed their entire service. We need to think carefully about this.
To make a general point, I am concerned that we are in a Bill Committee and we are supposed to be discussing new clauses and amendments, with the Government looking at adopting those that are considered reasonable, but it seems to me at the moment that they have not taken on board a single one. That calls into question what we are all doing on a Wednesday morning participating in such a Committee. So I seek some advice on this from the Chair: surely the Government should seriously consider new clauses and amendments, particularly where there is consensus.
I agree with some of the fine words from my friend and neighbour Mr Jones, but it is incumbent upon those proposing changes or proposing more service personnel to explain how we would achieve that and what other programmes they would like to see cut or what taxes they would like to see rise in order to pay for it—if you will the ends, you’ve got to will the means to the ends.
Not at this moment, no; I am making a very brief point.
I know what happened just after 2010, after the right hon. Member for North Durham left the MOD: a huge amount of programmes were massively over-budget and had to be axed at the last minute, at the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds in some cases.
Not at this stage, thank you.
We must be realistic, especially as we are looking at totally new threats from across the globe; our adversaries are operating in the grey zone, and we need to look at ways to counter them. If Opposition Members are going to propose different things, they need to explain how we can achieve them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but say to him that that did not stop the Conservative party in 2009 and the 2010 general election, when it proposed a larger Army and an increase in the Defence budget. Yet the first thing they did was cut it. The hon. Gentleman should practise what he preaches. I do not know whether he was an adviser in 2010, but statements on the record and in the manifesto were completely turned over when the Conservatives entered the coalition Government; the first thing they did was cut the size of the armed forces and make people compulsorily redundant.
I thank the right hon. Member for his comments, but, as he will know, immediately after the general election there was that lovely note left on the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s desk by the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying that there was no money left. He will also know that a lot of the programmes that had to be axed following the 2010 general election had gone massively over-budget, which was only discovered in later years, due to obfuscation by members of the outgoing Labour Government about the actual state of the programmes. So I just say that it would be particularly helpful if, rather than trying to put more and more on the never-never as the last Labour Government did and the Opposition are proposing today, they were honest, straightforward and realistic with the British people about the choices that have to be taken.
Before I call the Minister, does any other Member wish to come in?
I just wanted to make a point. The hon. Member for North West Durham seemed to suggest that we were asking for numbers to be increased. It is quite important that there is clarification on that point; we are actually asking for numbers to be maintained. That is different. This Government are looking to cut numbers.
I am happy to give way to the hon. Member, although he would not give way to me.
I would just like to make the point that if we are not going to reduce numbers, we have to reduce capability in other areas. I would be very interested to know from the SNP spokesperson whether she wants to maintain the status quo, which means not responding to changing threats around the world. What is her party’s proposal?
I do not think this is a Bill Committee to discuss the SNP’s manifesto, but we have been quite bit clear throughout that funding has to be found. If hon. Members want to discuss the SNP’s manifesto, we can get rid of Trident, which is an enormous and expensive vanity project, which, frankly, we cannot afford.
I really welcome the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham. He is right about the absolute disaster zone we were left with in 2010. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham obviously likes to remind us regularly of his experiences in the MOD, but the key would be to look at them in detail and to be more honest about them. Ultimately, people watching this do not really care what happened 10, 15 or 20 years ago. What they care about is sorting out these issues now and that is what this Government are looking to do.
We have to meet the threat as it is presented in the integrated review. We have had a good defence White Paper that looks at the new and emerging threats, and the way we want to change our integrated operating concept. It is a good review. I think that members of our armed forces would like to see people get behind that, rather than talking about issues that are quite significantly out of date.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth South seeks to place an obligation on the Defence Secretary to
“report to Parliament quarterly on infantry battalion soldier strength, including the percentage of battle-ready soldiers per infantry battalion.”
The Government already publish on gov.uk quarterly service personnel statistics, containing detailed information on the strength, intake, outflow and gains to trained strength for the UK armed forces overall and specifically for each of the three services, including the Army. Providing a further breakdown of those figures to include infantry battalion soldier strength and the percentage of battle-ready soldiers per infantry battalion would be highly likely to prejudice the security of the armed forces for three clear reasons.
First, it would expose any extant or potential vulnerabilities and capability gaps within the force structure—a threat that will be exacerbated over the next four years as the Army reconfigures and readjusts in line with the outcomes of the integrated reviewed. Secondly, it would risk exposing any nascent and emerging capability plan. Thirdly, it could reveal the size and strength of sensitive capabilities to our adversaries.
As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South will understand, the safety and security of our service personnel and the effectiveness of our force are among my highest priorities. He will therefore understand that I am not willing to put the security of our personnel at risk in this manner. There is also a real concern that focusing Parliament’s attention disproportionately on infantry strength would serve only to undermine the guiding principle of our nation’s future security.
As the Secretary of State wrote in his introduction to the defence Command Paper, it is essential that our future armed forces are
“integrated across all domains, joining up our people, equipment and information to increase their outputs and effectiveness.”
It goes without saying that providing quarterly updates on infantry strength alone would place an uncontextualised and unhelpful emphasis on one part of a large and integrated whole force that we value highly. That is why our current reporting, which is made available to all, covers that whole force.
In the light of these very real concerns, I hope that the hon. Member will agree to withdraw the new clause.
National security is the first duty of any Government. Following the publication of the integrated review and Command Paper, it is clear that this Government have not only broken their promises on fighting strength, but taken a significant gamble with our national security in the medium term. I will withdraw this clause for now, but reserve the right to return to it on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.