[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair] — Reserve Forces

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 17th November 2015.

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Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 9:30 am, 17th November 2015

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of the reserve forces.

May I say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger? May I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate? I have called it because the defence of the realm is the most important duty of Her Majesty’s Government, and the reserve forces are an ever more important part of that. The recruitment and retention of reserves is an important issue for the House, and this is a good opportunity to hold the Minister to account for the way in which the Ministry of Defence is tackling it. Progress has been made, but I am sure the Minister will admit that more can and must be made. What better way to hold any Minister of the Crown to account than on the Floor of the House?

My understanding is that Her Majesty’s Government intend the armed forces to comprise the following numbers of servicemen and women by 2020: 29,000 in the Royal Navy, 31,500 in the RAF and 82,000 in the Army. They are to be supported by 30,000 Army reservists and 5,000 Royal Navy and RAF reservists. As of 1 October, the trained strength of the tri-service volunteer reserve stood at 25,970—an 11% increase on the year before. However, the target of Her Majesty’s Government is for the tri-service reserve to total 35,060 by 1 April 2019. Maths was never my strong point, but I reckon we have 9,000 reservists to go to get to that target—a 35% increase on where we are now. Broken down by force, the target would be 30,100 reservists in the Army, 3,100 in the Royal Navy and 1,860 in the RAF. That would seem to be a tough challenge for Her Majesty’s Government to meet, and I look forward to the Minister giving us the confidence that they are on track to do so.

The reserves are an important part of our defence. I know a little about the subject because in a previous life I served, in a humble capacity, as a member of the Territorial Army for eight and a half years. During the cold war, Trooper Hollobone was prepared to stand in a trench to hold back the Russian hordes advancing over the north German plain. I am pleased that that never came to pass, because I am not sure that I and my few pals would have been able to do very much in the face of the Russian onslaught, although we would have done our best.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I should point out that my long-standing friendship with Trooper Hollobone goes back to my university days. However, my only military experience with him on the front line consisted of the very nice lunches we had at the Honourable Artillery Company—which, I should point out, he paid for.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I was delighted to be able to entertain my long-standing friend for lunch at the Honourable Artillery Company—the oldest serving regiment in the British Army.

In my brief military career, I had three cap badges. Whatever colour beret I wore, I was always proud to serve. However, there are those present who are far more qualified than I am to talk about military matters, because of their Regular Army experience or their experience in the Government, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

It is important to remember that the Territorial Army, as it was called—the reserve, as it is now—is not a Dad’s Army. Now, there is nothing wrong with a Dad’s Army, and we have all enjoyed the television series. Of course, many reservists are in their 50s, and they provide valuable service to the Crown. However, there are also lots of very young men and women in our reserves, and we should remember that the make-up of our reserve forces is very different from that portrayed in the television programme.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

Is not one of the areas where reservists can particularly excel, no matter what their age, the specialist services dealing with cyber-defence? Given that the Chancellor announced yesterday that £2 billion will be going to extend our cyber-capability, should we not be looking to recruit into the reserves from our IT and technology companies?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I welcome that helpful contribution. The hon. Lady is known throughout the House for her experience in military affairs. She is in charge of the all-party group on reserve forces and cadets, and she is a distinguished serving member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. In other words, she is a lady who knows what she is talking about, and she gives the Chamber very wise counsel. There are many very good things about Her Majesty’s armed forces, but one of the bad things is that they can be too rigid in applying themselves to future challenges. The threat of cyber-warfare is a big unknown, and we have to be flexible and adaptable, and to think outside the box in meeting that challenge. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: we need to get people on board who understand cyber and IT. If we have to change our recruitment and retention processes to make sure that such people are contributing to Britain’s defence, we should do that, and we should do it quickly. The announcement of the extra expenditure suggests that the door of Her Majesty’s Government is open to such thinking. I very much hope the Minister will pass the hon. Lady’s wise words on to the Treasury, No. 10 and all the others who make these big, important decisions.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I would like to echo the words of Mrs Moon.It is very positive that the Government have recognised the great danger of cyber-attacks not only in the military sphere, but in the commercial sphere. Given that the Bank of England has been so robust about the importance of resilience and the potential gaps in that respect in the commercial sphere, does my hon. Friend agree that Ministers should look again at having a reinsurance package in the cyber area, rather like what Pool Re provides in the terrorist area?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. He represents the City of London, and we need to tap into the pool of talent that exists in our capital city in insurance and IT. We need to do whatever it takes to get the computer experts from the big international banks in the City of London, if necessary, to work in the interests of Britain’s defence. I know my right hon. Friend will be leading the charge to make sure that the Government are aware not only of the threat of cyber-warfare, but of the opportunities offered by the pool of talent in our great city to meet that challenge.

Some 330 reservists are currently mobilised around the world. They can be found in Afghanistan and Cyprus and in global counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations. Reservists formed the core of the infantry training team recently sent to Ukraine. We also have reservists deployed in Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, as part of the counter-ISIS effort.

I am pleased that many reservists also serve as part of formed bodies and teams, not just as individuals. A platoon from 6 SCOTS, which is based in Glasgow, is in Afghanistan. The 2nd Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, based in Lisburn, has two platoons deployed to Cyprus. I understand that a reserve unit will be the Cyprus lead from April 2018, that formed reserve bodies will also be deploying in some 23 overseas exercises this year and that the 4th Battalion Parachute Regiment will mobilise and deploy as a formed sub-unit to the Falklands in June next year.

When I was involved, in a humble way, during the cold war, my understanding was that we could not be deployed under Queen’s regulations. There would have to be an extreme national emergency for that to happen. I understand that Queen’s regulations have been changed since the mid-1980s, and there is now more flexibility about how reservists can be deployed, and I think that is a good thing. Of course, reservists engaged in hot contact with the enemy are serving with distinction. A serving reservist in the Artists Rifles was recently awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for his endeavours on the front line. Reservists are serving with distinction and doing the country proud. Everyone present for the debate would, I think, agree that Her Majesty’s armed forces represent Britain at its best. They are the best individuals, serving with the best of motives in the very best way.

As well as the front-line soldiers who have been awarded gallantry decorations, I want to mention youngsters in cadet forces. I was proud to see at Remembrance Day services in the borough of Kettering how smart and proud the Army, RAF and Royal Navy cadets were on parade. A lot of effort had gone into displaying the pride of their units and representing their areas. If we can instil such a sense of loyalty to the Crown, self-respect, discipline and motivation into youngsters in the cadet forces, that must be a good thing.

I have drawn for inspiration in my brief remarks on an interesting document entitled “The United Kingdom Reserve Forces External Scrutiny Team Annual Report”. The team is looking at the way in which Her Majesty’s Government are developing the concept of Future Reserves 2020. I am sure that the Minister will have gone through all its recommendations and that it is required reading for anyone with an interest in how our reserve forces are to develop. It is worth emphasising some of the key recommendations, one of which is:

“The success of FR20 depends first…upon increasing the size of the Reserve. Each Service has challenging manning targets to meet, with heavy emphasis on recruiting and initial training. This year the Services appear to have turned the corner on growing numbers, after poor achievement over the first two years.”

However:

“Notwithstanding some excellent workarounds on in-flow, we are not convinced that they are sustainable into the medium term, suggesting that systemic problems with the recruitment process still need to be rooted out. Medical screening sits prominently as an area of concern.”

The report goes on:

“The sustained health of the Reserves is highly dependent upon the quality and quantity of officers available at unit level, in order to plan and lead the challenging training on which the Reserves thrive. Progress in attracting and recruiting young volunteer Reserve officers needs attention.”

The Minister will be acutely aware of those recommendations and will have been working hard to address those concerns. The good news is that the current recruitment marketing campaign has resulted in higher levels of advertising recall than UK recognition norms, and that resonance is increasing among 18 to 35-year-olds. However, understanding of the Army Reserve especially remains low and messaging needs to be adjusted to reinforce some key things: adventure, excitement and personal development. Potential recruits are worried about the possible extent of the commitment, and there is also fear of injury.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Scottish National Party, West Dunbartonshire

This is an important debate. Since the last strategic defence and security review, there have been personnel reductions of 5,000 in the Royal Navy, 5,000 in the RAF and 7,000 in the Army, followed by an additional 12,000 reduction to the Army. What is proposed for the forces 2020 vision is that part of the recruitment process will involve those leaving the services—regulars who are leaving. Given that they have been made redundant, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it will be extremely problematic to fill that gap?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has identified a real issue, and hope that the Minister will respond to those figures. We want to ensure that ex-regulars join the reserves. We also need to retain the reservists who are recruited. Retention is a key issue. All too often we focus on how well recruitment is going, and do not spend enough time on retaining reservists.

I am pleased that the Government have an employer recognition scheme. It was launched by the Prime Minister in July 2014 and is intended to recognise employers through a scheme with bronze, silver and gold tiers. I understand that 10 employers received gold awards last year.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that the original plan was to hold the regular forces and not let sizeable numbers go until there was clear evidence that the plans for the reserves were working? That original plan changed because of financial considerations, which is the reason for the present large capability gaps. Perhaps it is also the reason for the problem with recruitment.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

It would not be a proper debate on Her Majesty’s reserve forces without a contribution from my hon. Friend, and I am glad that he has highlighted his concern, which I know many other hon. Members share, about the gap between the growth in size of the reserve forces and the decline in the number of regular personnel. I started my speech by quoting the fact that the Government wanted the Army to be 82,000-strong by 2020. My understanding is that it has fewer personnel than that now, so there appears to be a gap. That is why we must get the reservist part of the plan right. I am not sure that we are there yet, as the external scrutiny report said.

On the matter of retention, the report explains:

“The Reserves’ age profile is currently too heavily skewed towards older reservists who are closer to the end, rather than the start, of their service and therefore outflow will be relatively high for the next few years as they leave due to natural factors. Consequently equal attention needs to be paid to retention during earlier stages of the Reserve service spectrum. In the main retention should be significantly enhanced by the provision of challenging individual and collective training, at every phase of service. Such provision cannot rely solely on opportunities structured around the Regular ecosystem; bespoke, Reservist-friendly development and training needs also to be available.”

As an example, many reservists who want to improve their reservist career are sent on regulars’ courses during the week, but many cannot do that sort of training during the week. We need more flexibility about providing it at the weekend. Also, there is a lot of interest in weekend sport among regulars, but reservists who give up their weekends do not want to play sport; they want to fire weapons. However, a lot of the weapons training is not available at weekends. We need to think more flexibly and adaptably about what reservists want to do. A reservist who feels bored and fed up, and that they are not being challenged enough, will leave. Then all the effort that has been put into recruitment is wasted.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

A further £2 billion for the special forces was announced yesterday by the Prime Minister. We have had tragic incidents in Brecon, where reservists were seeking to join the special forces. I would not want people to be put off joining the special forces because of those incidents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree we need to be very clear that reservists are welcome in our special forces, though we have to accept that the training is arduous and the commitment is heavy?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Having completed that course myself, I know that it is a very challenging experience. The deaths of the applicants were tragic. The publicity around the horrendous circumstances of that incident will, funnily enough, encourage others to come forward, in a perverse way, because they will have seen how difficult it is to get into the special forces. My understanding is that the exercise in question was not actually run by the special forces, and I would imagine there is quite a lot of concern among the special forces that the tragedy has been branded as their responsibility. My clear understanding is that it was not run by the special forces. Part of the challenge and the attractiveness of the special forces to potential recruits is the very difficult nature of the task presented to them, and we must not dilute that in any way.

One thing I am sure we can all agree on is that pro rata, we have the best armed forces in the world and the best special forces in the world. We have centuries of experience in developing our military capability; we know what makes people tick and we know how hard we can push people. Sometimes, tragically, it goes wrong, but those are a minority of occasions. The bulk of the training that both regular forces and special forces receive is some of the very best in the world, and we should be very proud of that.

Like the hon. Lady, I welcome the announcement of extra spending on special forces, as well as extra spending on cyber-warfare. In providing the capability for both, the reserve has a golden opportunity to contribute. We will not tackle these issues just through regular personnel; we have to attract reservists with specialist skills.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

On a budgetary point, while the commitment to additional spending within what we might call the defence budget is obviously welcome, does my hon. Friend share my view that we need to be a little cannier about the way in which we utilise the soft power that comes with the 0.7% in the Department for International Development budget for a whole range of areas, such as community cohesion in foreign lands? We can utilise elements of that budget for precisely this sort of element of the reservist side. Even if we cannot commit ourselves, as many of us would like to, to a 2% or even higher percentage of GDP for defence, at least elements of what would traditionally be the defence budget can come through the important soft power of DFID.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I am all for maximising the military component—that is a clumsy phrase—of our defence spending. Using our soft power budget legitimately to enhance our hard power capability is fine. I am all for, for example, sending armed forces personnel on aid programmes in other countries to become familiar with the language, culture and how those countries work, because that will help our hard power defence effort.

I am pleased that the Government are committed to spending 2% of our GDP on defence. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government will not enshrine that in law, because if we have enshrined the defence spending into law, enshrining the 2% commitment in law should be no issue. I am confident that a majority of this House would support doing just that, if the Minister were so minded.

As I understand it—the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—there is an issue regarding medical reservists, who will make up something like 50% of Defence Medical Services by 2020, with some specialties such as neurology and urology being provided entirely by the reserve forces. There is, understandably, concern about the approach some NHS trusts are taking on medical reservists—the NHS is hard pressed, and we need all the doctors we can get—but there are benefits for crossover expertise between doctors working in the NHS and doctors working with our reservists. Some years ago, I had the privilege of visiting our front-line A&E facility in Afghanistan, which I think is the most advanced A&E facility in the world. It is manned by NHS doctors, who can bring their expertise back to the UK. There are lots of crossover benefits, but there is considerable range of practice within the NHS regarding the ease with which reserve doctors are allowed to leave their NHS posts to fulfil their reserve training commitments.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

On that specific point, my hon. Friend will be aware that in the past few years the reserves have provided the framework unit for half of all the rotations in Helmand. There is indeed a range of practice, but we are working hard with the NHS, and many of the award-winning employers are in fact NHS trusts.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I am pleased that my hon. Friend is on the case; I can think of no better man for the job. My understanding is that there is a range of different practices in the way in which different trusts handle their medical reservists. It strikes me that there is an opportunity for the Government to streamline the process for the benefit of the reservists, the reserve and the NHS trusts themselves.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

My hon. Friend is being very generous in allowing interventions. He talked about the reserves having specialist skills. In areas such as the cyber-sphere, there are people who perhaps would not be attracted to joining the full-time military but who have just the sort of capabilities and skills the military needs. The reserves could be a great opportunity to allow a mix between being a civilian in the day and also being in the military. Does he agree?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I am most grateful for that intervention, which is extremely helpful. My hon. Friend is spot on: to meet the cyber threat, we will have to be more flexible and more adaptable in how we attract such skills for the benefit of the defence of the realm. I hope the Minister heard what my hon. Friend said and will feed that back.

I am going to sit down because I have spoken for far too long and there are people far more qualified than me who want to contribute to this debate, but I want to highlight the last paragraph of the external scrutiny report, which says:

“Our assessment is that FR20 remains on or near track for delivery. The main 2014/15 objectives have been met and Reserve manning levels appear to have turned the corner. That said, it is a long corner before the home straight and successive annual inflow targets are typically far more challenging. Although not within the reporting period we feel obliged to point to an emergent potential risk to the programme. We are acutely aware of the current tautness the Defence budget, with significant risk in many programmes. Any further budgetary pressure resulting from the 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review, if realised, is likely to have a direct bearing on the Services’ ability to deliver FR20—whether as a consequence of direct cuts to the programme or indirectly though reductions in activity which exacerbate recruiting and retention risk.”

It is my contention that a key element of the extra money announced for cyber-warfare and special forces needs to be directed towards the reserves, because that is where the skills and capability can be best provided to meet the challenges this country faces in future.

Several hon. Members rose

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Before we proceed, I have two things to say. First, I should have placed on the record that Mrs Moon has indicated to me that she has to be elsewhere in the House, as is sadly so often the case when we try to do two things at once. That is a matter of record, as is her presence. Secondly, I was asked earlier if I would have to impose a time limit. At that time, I said no, but Mr Hollobone has been very generous in giving way; I imply no criticism whatever, but it does mean that we now face the need for a time limit. If hon. Members confine their remarks to seven minutes, we shall be able to accommodate all those seeking to speak.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife 9:59 am, 17th November 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank Mr Hollobone for bringing this important debate to the House.

I will start with how we recruit to, and encourage people to remain in, the reserves. Deployment and the value that we place on people who join the reserves are of crucial importance. The ability to allow people to put into practice what they have been trained for, whether at home or abroad, is a really important aspect of maintaining a professional reserve force.

My first question to the Minister is: how strong is the link between the regular forces and the reserves? I know there has been a lot of work recently to strengthen that link, but surely the reserve force can never be treated exactly the same as the regulars. Some roles may be interchangeable, and there may be an element of flexibility, but reserve training, which takes place primarily on evenings or at weekends, can never really reach the same standard as what we would expect for a full-time soldier, airwoman or seaman.

Does the Minister agree that we need more specialism for the reserves—the hon. Member for Kettering touched on this point—so that they can bring their professional expertise to bear? For example, in the recent tragic events in Paris, security, policing and intelligence skills were to the fore; it would supplement the work that goes on 24/7 in those areas, and support the greater good, if reserves used the talents that they already have from their professional lives. Likewise, Mrs Moon made a good point about cybercrime. The hon. Member for Kettering raised the issue of the NHS, and some of the gaps in specialist medical skills and nursing. I ask the Minister, is there anything further that the Government can do to extent the number of reserves we can take from our NHS?

A common complaint that I often hear concerns reserve officers. The average age for a reservist is 37; for an officer it is 44. It has been related to me that people serving in the reserves feel that is too high. Reserve officers are still on civvy street, obviously; the careers of many may be peaking at that age, and their families are probably at their most complex and busiest. Do they have the time and energy to take on a demanding reservist role as well as their normal day-to-day career? My question for the Minister, then, is: how do we encourage younger people, from all backgrounds and all sections of society, into the reserves and give them increased opportunities to access officer training much earlier?

On recruitment, the 35,000 figure is a tall order in anyone’s book. The Secretary of State suggested that the target was “stretching away”; that was in TheDaily Telegraph, which is a fairly pro-Government newspaper, if I can put it that way, and not at all critical. The Major Projects Authority described the target as “unachievable”, and the project was downgraded from amber/red to red.

We are currently 10,000 shy of the target, so at what stage will that become red and flashing? Reservist capability and numbers are crucial to forward planning for the military as a whole.

The hon. Member for Kettering also mentioned retention. Over recent years the Government have spent millions on recruiting reserves, but there is no point in recruiting all these people and training them to a very high standard only to see them haemorrhage out the other end. Many reservist units see that as a major problem, and many who lead those units see retention as far more important than recruitment, in many respects. As Members have suggested, many regulars have been made redundant in recent years; we might have thought that more effort would be made to ensure that people who leave the services get the chance to take up a reserve position if they want to—they would jump at it. Transfer from the regulars to the reserves is pathetically low. The Minister should have another look at that.

In Scotland, the activities of the Ministry of Defence can be summed up in one word: cuts. In 2012, there were 12,200 full-time regular service people in Scotland; we were promised that that number would be roughly maintained, or would rise to 12,500, in future years. The Minister will be more than well aware that that figure is now around 9,300. In Scotland, there is a big gap to fill in mainstream activity. Not a single Royal Navy surface ship is based in Scotland. Our coastline is equivalent to that of India, and we have assets such as fisheries, oil, gas and renewables to protect. Where is the Royal Navy in Scotland? Under this Government, in Scotland the Royal Navy surface fleet could be said to be absent without leave. There are 28 Air Force bases in the UK, but following the closure of Leuchars, Scotland is down to one. That barely rated a mention in any of the MOD literature put out before the referendum last year.

Recruitment rates for the reserves are appallingly low in Scotland, with barely 50% of the target figure met. That lack of take-up among reservists is because of a lack of confidence in the MOD to defend our shores and airspace in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world. The target will not be met in Scotland against a background of cuts and a reducing MOD footprint.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 10:07 am, 17th November 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I apologise to the shadow Minister and the Minister; two of us have another meeting at half-past 10, which we are duty-bound to go to, so I will have to leave. I mean no disrespect to either hon. Gentleman; it is simply that business presses in other places.

I congratulate Mr Hollobone on bringing this important issue to the House and setting the scene well and in great detail. I declare an interest as a member of the Defence Committee—as are others here—and as a former part-time soldier, with three years in the Ulster Defence Regiment and 11 and a half years as a Territorial Army soldier in the Royal Artillery. I never achieved officer status; I drove a 4-tonne lorry—someone had to drive the lorries—and I achieved the very high rank of lance bombardier. I was an ordinary soldier, and so bring some knowledge to the debate.

We have a proud history as a military nation, and are always at the forefront of defending justice, democracy and the vulnerable. That has never been more important, in the light of the attacks on Paris last weekend. We are living in tough economic times, but must ensure that we do not retreat from the world stage. We cannot become isolationist. We are Great Britain—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and are bigger and better than that. Our role is on the global stage, as a strong extrovert international voice. We have been a force for good in the past, and can be in the future. We cannot put that at risk by making huge decisions about our armed forces and our reserve forces without taking into account the changing global environment.

The tragic events of Friday are a stark reminder of the global nature of the threats that we, as a civilisation, face today, so we must think more carefully than ever about the implications of cuts to any aspect of our armed services. I know times are tough and we are being asked to tighten our belts, but the goalposts have moved. The global security environment has changed. The world has changed, and is changing again, and we need to be aware of that. Our armed forces and reserve forces are there if we need them, and we do not want to have a depleted armed forces when they are most needed.

I understand that we have to have 82,000 full-time service personnel; on the present figures, we have about 79,500, so we have not even met the figures for full-time personnel. If we are having problems filling the uniforms in our full-time Navy, Air Force and Army, the issues for reserve forces are even more acute. Perhaps the Minister can tell us that the figures have changed and that, in the last few months, we have recruited about 2,500. That would be marvellous news, but let us make sure that when we talk about reserve forces, we do not unknowingly disregard our full-time forces.

I welcome the recruitment drive to increase the reserve forces to 35,000 in strength by 2018, but I reiterate that it is imperative that our armed forces’ effectiveness as a whole is not adversely affected as a result. The Minister and the hon. Member for Kettering, in his introduction, have set the scene relating to our reserve force capacity. It is obvious that we are not yet achieving our aim, but we cannot keep depleting our full-time forces if the reserve forces do not fill the gap—and, to be fair to our reserve forces, they should do so in a way that allows them to compete, and to add to what is already there. With proper training and the appropriate services and amenities, I am sure that we can have the future reserves that we are talking about, whom we can depend on when needed, but we have to make sure that that happens. We cannot have a situation where we replace lost service personnel with reservists who need to be fully trained, because the ultimate consequences of that would be simply too much to bear.

Many of the people who sign up to reserve forces, and are first in line for call-up, work in small businesses; that is probably more the case in Northern Ireland than on the mainland. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how to make sure that there is an employer-employee relationship that ensures that the reservist can give their commitment, and the small business employing 10 or a dozen people can operate. That small business might even employ fewer people than that. If it employs five people and one is taken out, it has a 20% reduction in its workforce. We need to address those issues for the employer as well.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am avoiding making interventions because time is so short and so many people want to speak, but I shall, given that the hon. Gentleman has to leave. We have not only expanded the provision for employers in general when people are mobilised, but have introduced a supplementary £500 per month per individual mobilised for small and medium-sized enterprises. However, I welcome his point.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

It is obvious that the Government are responding to the situation, but I am conscious of the mechanics of how that works in a small business. I appreciate the Minister’s response, however.

In Northern Ireland, we are already almost at our capacity for reserve forces. Our numbers are very clear. I have said in the past, and I say it again for the record, that if there is room to take more reservists, and I believe there is, it is important to make up at least some of those numbers in Northern Ireland. We can expand recruitment capacity in the Province to help meet the required number of reserves, as the Province has a long history of serving. Indeed, it provides more service personnel proportionally than any other British region.

The British Medical Association is concerned about undermanning in the Defence Medical Services and the effect that will have on morale, motivation and retention. The 253 (North Irish) Medical Regiment has an important role to play in the future of any Army action, wherever that may be in the world. The reservists’ role in that is so important. The DMS says that although many who are willing to serve Queen and country get the very best, which is no less than they deserve, there are concerns about how the numbers will be made up, so there needs to be a strong recruitment drive. Constituents of mine who are doctors, and other personnel and staff from hospitals, are involved in that. Some specialities, such as neurology or urology, will be provided entirely by the reserve forces, as I understand it, and perhaps the Minister will comment on that. According to the BMA, there is a shortfall of approximately 68% in the Defence Medical Services. We need to deal with some of those issues.

Time is going by, so I will finish. We need to focus on where the shortfalls are in the Defence Medical Services, and to ensure that employers have a role and can let their personnel be part of that. I conclude by saying that we should offer our strongest condolences to those affected by the Paris attacks. I urge Members to learn from those events, and to be mindful, when deciding the future of our armed forces, that evil forces such as Daesh or ISIS are exactly why we must maintain a strong, influential and quality armed services. Our reserves are very much part of that.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay 10:15 am, 17th November 2015

I thank my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone for securing the debate. When he was serving in his trench in Germany in the 1980s, I was even further east during the cold war, in Berlin, surrounded by the enemy. We were always told that quality would see us through, but some of us also knew that quantity has a quality all of its own, and that we stood very little chance. Our job was just to slow the progress of the advancing forces in time for when they met my hon. Friend, who would obviously put a stop to them.

I start by making the obvious point: the plan to replace 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists was born out of financial pressures, not strategic logic—let us be absolutely clear about that. As was described to me and others by the then Secretary of State for Defence, the financial logic was very simple. In peacetime, reservists cost a fraction of regular forces; they are easier to maintain on the Ministry of Defence budget, but when the balloon goes up and they need to be deployed, the cost of deployment, which is far higher for reservists than it is for regulars, gets transferred to the Treasury. It was an accounting exercise designed to save money. There were no strategic grand designs with this plan. That is not to say that there are not advantages from having a more flexible reservist force available to hand, or that one does not have a deep regard for the Territorial, now reservist, forces—I served with them myself in Berlin, Germany, Cyprus and Northern Ireland back in the 1980s—but the bottom line is that the plan was born out of financial pressure, not strategic design.

The plan was criticised by some of us at the time. The criticism manifested itself most starkly when we tabled amendments to the Defence Reform Bill, later the 2014 Act, in the last Parliament. I managed to secure the support of the official Opposition and the Scottish National party for an amendment, but unfortunately I could not carry quite enough Members from my side, although I am very thankful to those who did support me in that amendment, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering.

For us, the problem was that replacing 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reservists would create capability gaps and false economies in the longer term. The original plan was to hold those 20,000 regulars in situ until we had clear evidence that the reservist plan would work—in other words, until we had geared up on the reservists’ recruitment. There were clear indications that we could plug that gap—that, by the way, was confirmed by the previous Defence Secretary, who stood up during the debate on the amendment to the Defence Reform Bill and said that that was the case and that was the original plan. However, in addition to the cack-handed plan of replacing 20,000 regulars with 30,000 reserves, simply on the grounds of financial pressure, we then compounded the problem by saying, “We’ll let the regulars walk out the door, and no doubt we won’t have any problem with reserve recruitment.” What madness that turned out to be. We let the regulars out the door and the Army is now, I think—no doubt the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—below 82,000 on our regular strength, and meanwhile we are struggling to recruit the reservists, as my hon. Friend has clearly outlined.

The problem is not just numbers. My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that we are perhaps 9,000 or 10,000 reservists short, but, as has been alluded to in this debate, it is not just the numbers that are the problem; it is the age profile of the existing reservists. Answers to written questions more than a year ago highlighted that the average age of an infantryman in the reserve forces was in the mid-30s, and that going up the ranks, whether senior NCOs or officers, it was heading into the 40s.

We all loved “Dad’s Army”—great series—and there is a place for a home reserve, but Dad’s Army was not on the Normandy beaches. In addition to the numbers being recruited into the reserve, we need to look at the age profile of the existing reservists. The figures I quoted are for infantrymen, not the other arms of the reserve. Infantrymen have to be of a certain age to be at their peak capability on deployment.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. and gallant Friend is generous in giving way. Dad’s Army was not on the Normandy beaches as it was a home defence force, but the Territorial Army most certainly was there. A division helped to hold the line at Dunkirk and, indeed, a national guard division on its own took Omaha beach.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

I do not deny all that, and the Minister will not be able to deny that the Government have made it clear that they intend to deploy reservists much more frequently in overseas operations. He gives us only half the truth. If the plan is to deploy reservists much more regularly, not only will that be more costly than deploying regular forces, but we will have to address the demographic issue within existing reservists and the TA.

In the time remaining, let me return to false economies. No one can deny that capability gaps have occurred as a result of the change in plan, but the Minister must address the false economies resulting from that. Letting regulars go prematurely and the problems with reservist recruitment highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering has resulted in extra spending. It is not just the IT fiasco, which cost £10 million, but the extra spending on incentives for both employers and employees —£500—pension equalisation and advertising.

I have asked parliamentary questions about whether the Government can quantify those extra expenses, which were not foreseen when the original plans were put in place. We have not had answers. We keep being told that there is £1.8 billion, which should cover those expenses, but that £1.8 billion is over 10 years. We need detailed answers from the Government on what those unforeseen extra costs have been. When will we have those answers? Either the Government do not know the answers, which would be worrying, or they do know and will not disclose them. That would be equally worrying and may suggest to some that they are trying to hide something.

I look forward to answers from the Minister when he responds and if he does not have time to provide them today, perhaps he will write to me and others who have raised the issue and say what the extra costs are. Our two central concerns are capability gaps in the short term and false economies in the longer term. At the moment, the reservist plans seem to have both problems.

Photo of Steven Paterson Steven Paterson Scottish National Party, Stirling 10:23 am, 17th November 2015

First, I thank Mr Hollobone for securing this debate. I am delighted to speak in it as the Member for Stirling, which has a long and proud tradition of association with the armed forces.

During the 1990s, when I was at university in Aberdeen, I was a member of the Royal Naval Reserve. The unit was part of the university and was designed to expand and increase understanding of the armed forces generally and the Navy in particular. I am pleased that I had that experience, which has carried me forward to today. It is probably fair to say that the word “humble” is relative in the light of some hon. Members’ contributions, but I mention it to show that I have a little experience of the Royal Naval Reserve which has held me in good stead.

I will make a rather obvious statement: our armed forces reserve plays a crucial part in its contribution to the armed forces as a whole. The White Paper published by the Ministry of Defence in 2013 proposed significant changes, many of which have been discussed, but this is a good opportunity to consider one or two. Many of the proposals made sense in terms of modernising how the reserves operate—for example, updating and expanding the range of tasks the reserve can be called on to do, and reconfiguring the way reservists operate and complement regular forces. The strategic defence and security review will include a lot on that and I hope that the Minister will say a little about it today. I hope that more flexibility and broadened opportunities will help to increase the number of people in the reserve forces; many hon. Members have called for that this morning and I agree with them.

I have been told anecdotally of reservists hiding their military service from their employers, and that some use their annual leave for exercises. If there is any truth in that, we have work more closely with employers and reservists to solve that problem, because that should not be happening. People are entitled to make a contribution and to enjoy their work with breaks and holidays. Reservists develop a range of skills through their military service and bring a huge benefit to employers, but we must recognise that their commitment may have a serious impact on businesses. I welcome the Minister’s comments about contributions to employers. Perhaps we should investigate that avenue further as a way of expanding the numbers and reaching the targets.

Hon. Members mentioned enabling additional payments and the necessity of the reserve being more flexible and adaptable, which in many respects they are compared with the regular forces. That is an advantage. The reserve is more affordable, which may be partly why we are moving in this direction. It is good if it allows our forces to become more flexible.

Stirling is home to an assault pioneer platoon, part of Delta company of 7 SCOTS, whose job includes a range of things, including the construction of tools for infantry soldiers to cross natural and man-made obstacles, breaching enemy fortifications, supervising the construction of field defensive works, such as bunkers, support weapon firing positions and so on. Those are important skills and they make an important contribution. I am pleased to have the platoon in my constituency. I take this opportunity to recognise each and every reservist in the Stirling area and thank them for their dedicated service and hard work. As we have discussed, those reservists, due to the Future Force 2020 plan that the Government have set out, are becoming vital to our armed forces.

Looking to the future, the Government have set out an ambitious target of 35,000 trained reservists, 30,000 of whom are in the Army, by 2018. However, the National Audit Office has warned that that target is unlikely to be met before 2025. The point has been made previously and I know that the Minister will address it.

The external security team annual report suggests that, although there has been a significant increase in recruiting reservists, there is likely to be a high outflow due to the age profile being heavily skewed towards older reservists. That is a real problem and one that we must tackle. Working closer with employers to generate flexibility may be a way of creating the opportunities we seek to solve the problem.

The problems of recruitment in my constituency have been mentioned. Stirling has a long association with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who were, sadly, subsumed into the Royal Regiment of Scotland before being downgraded to a ceremonial battalion. That, combined with the closure of the Army recruitment office in Stirling, has caused problems for recruitment. Perhaps we should think again about how we approach that to ensure that people have the chance to benefit from the real opportunities and advantages in reserve service.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans) 10:29 am, 17th November 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate Mr Hollobone on securing the debate; it is vital that we have these discussions. I found today’s speeches, particularly from those who have served in the forces, very interesting. It is clear that there is a commitment in this Chamber to our reserve forces, and many vital points have been made about that, but we must ensure that our forces and our reserves are fit for purpose, that we are willing to stand up for them, and that these are not just words.

People who serve in our reserve forces deserve our commitment and support. It is vital that we understand the impact that their service has on their day-to-day lives. As we have heard, the conclusion of an independent commission was that previously our reserve forces were neglected, under-exploited and in decline. We welcome that being acknowledged and the commitment to a new relationship with reservists, families, employers and society, but it was interesting to hear the concern raised by Mr Baron that the current plan for our regular and reserve force numbers was an accounting exercise, not a strategic decision. I echo his request for answers on the costs that that bad planning has led to.

We heard from the hon. Member for Kettering about the deployment of reservists who are currently on patrol, and the importance of deploying troops while recognising the threats that we face. Jim Shannon said that the world has changed and the goalposts have moved—and clearly they have. He noted that in that context, we have problems filling our full-time forces, and the issues that face our reserves are even more acute.

Our need to fill the reserve posts is clearly a key issue for our national security—I have noted that Trooper Hollobone agrees with me. As I said, it is vital to consider the impact on the lives of the people who serve in our reserve forces, because that has a direct impact on people deciding to enter the forces. We also need to consider the impact on their families and the longer-term impact on them, which we have not discussed much today.

We need to think about the interrelationship between our veterans and our regular forces, as my hon. Friend Douglas Chapman stated. There is no doubt about the great work that both groups do, and they do it with huge determination and courage. That is appreciated hugely by all of us, I am sure, but as my hon. Friend said, in Scotland we see cuts and we have serious concerns regarding numbers. In September 2015, the number of military personnel in Scotland stood at a historic low. It is down 9.5% from the previous year. That is serious cause for concern. Undoubtedly, Scotland has served proudly. We were told very clearly last year, during the independence referendum campaign, that our defence capabilities would be delivered by a force that included 35,000 reservists. That will now be a stretch, and the figure will not be reached until 2020, if indeed at all. As the hon. Member for Kettering said, we have 9,000 to go and it is a tough challenge.

In June this year, the Major Projects Authority in Whitehall rated the Future Reserves 2020 project as red. As my hon. Friend Martin John Docherty said, that means that it is unlikely to be achievable. The Defence Secretary himself has admitted that it is a challenge, and I certainly agree. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife highlighted, it would be particularly good to hear more from the Minister on that to get some clarity. We are clear that we need to prioritise having the air and naval capability to monitor and secure our country. We need to ensure that our oil and gas, fisheries and coastal waters are safeguarded. That needs resource in the shape of equipment, but also personnel, yet the UK Government persist in planning to spend £167 billion on nuclear weapons of mass destruction, which deter no one. Those vital funds could be spent better on our forces, including our reserves, and on ensuring that we are appropriately resourced to meet both regular and reserve requirements. The hon. Member for Kettering quoted the report as saying that budgetary issues cause a real risk to delivery. I agree and I question those spending priorities.

We heard from a number of hon. Members about the age profile, particularly of officers. This issue is crucial. We must take action to diversify the officer age profile and better to link service leavers with reserve opportunities. I echo the sentiment that the reserves forces are not a Dad’s Army. We must recognise the huge and diverse contribution that they make, and the increasing contribution that they could make if we recruit wisely. Mrs Moon made very important points about the vital and diverse skills that our reserves bring to the table. Having worked for many years in recruitment and retention, I urge the Minister to be cognisant of the issues in that respect, because as we go forward they will become more pressing and could cause difficulties in terms of our overall military footprint.

My hon. Friend Steven Paterson made very important points about the reserve forces and the relationship between them and employers. I welcome the fact that funds are available for employers, and I urge the Minister to consider how we go further down the road of making it possible for people to live the double life that reserves must live.

It is very important that we consider the welfare of our reserve forces. It is a very difficult line that we expect them to tread, and we must ensure that proper support mechanisms are available for them. Clearly, reservists who require medical treatment must be able to expect that process to work in all the different NHS board areas, and all the different countries of the United Kingdom. In Scotland, our NHS meets the health needs of our reserve forces. It is vital that that can be relied on. Our Scottish Government and NHS have worked together very well to ensure that proper support is provided to our veterans.

I am very pleased that in Scotland we have raised the profile of the needs of our service personnel and veterans. We have NHS armed forces champions in every NHS board area in Scotland. That has allowed a real joined-up approach to effective joint working. Similarly, in our local authorities, our armed forces champions are making a real difference; they include two reservists. In my area, Jane Duncan, the East Renfrewshire Council veterans champion, is, with her team, making a significant difference to people’s lives in practical ways. Our reservists, service personnel and veterans deserve that kind of back-up from all of us.

To conclude, it is vital that we recognise our defence responsibilities, the interrelationship between reserve forces and regular forces, and our responsibilities to veterans—to people while they serve and after their service. We rely on them to do the hardest and most dangerous job there is, and we must support them in doing it.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:37 am, 17th November 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate Mr Hollobone on securing the debate. I start by paying tribute to the contribution of both our regular forces and our reserve forces. As a former Defence Minister, I have seen at first hand the contribution of both, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, the contribution that reservists made, not just in medical services but on the frontline, was sometimes overlooked. We ought to pay tribute to them.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of ensuring that we monitor the Army 2020 process. He welcomed the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday of an extra £2 billion for special forces, but I ask him to look closely at the details, because as usual what the Treasury announces is not what it seems. If it includes the £1.5 billion that was already announced in the Budget, and if the extra equipment for the SAS is coming out of the 1% that has already been announced, it does not appear that there is any new money at all, so I ask that the hon. Gentleman looks more carefully at that.

Importantly, Jim Shannon highlighted, as he always does, the contribution made not only to the regular forces but to the reserve forces by people from his part of the world—Northern Ireland. We also had contributions from the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), and for Stirling (Steven Paterson); the latter highlighted the important role of the reserves and the contribution that his constituency makes to recruitment to the reserve forces.

I was sad to see the Scottish National party then revert to its usual victim mentality; it argued that Scotland was not getting a fair share of its resources. As for the idea that the Royal Navy is not present in Scotland, I was the Minister who oversaw the relocation of the submarine force to Scotland, and I think that it has a large footprint in, and makes a large contribution to, Scotland.

Kirsten Oswald argued that the non-replacement of the nuclear deterrent would free up resources. That is a myth, and she needs to explain to her constituents and voters in Scotland the economic black hole that would occur in the defence budget and the economic contribution to Scotland if that decision was taken. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stirling is chuntering from a sedentary position, but unfortunately the Scottish National party does not want to address the real issue of the contribution that defence already makes, not only to Scotland but to the entire UK.

Mr Baron has been consistent in his criticism of Army 2020. He put his finger on the problem with Army 2020, which is that it was not conceived from strategic need and thought; budgetary considerations and the Treasury were in the driving seat. In 2010, the strategic defence review argued for a reduction in the Army from 102,000 to 95,000. To meet budgetary restrictions, it was announced in July 2011 that the Army would be reduced to 82,000, with an increase in the number of reservists from 19,000 to 30,000. As the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay has highlighted, the then Defence Secretary, Mr Hammond, said that the reduction in the regular Army would take place only if reservists filled that gap, but that has not been the case.

It is clear from the National Audit Office report of 2014 that the future size of the Army was determined not by strategic needs but by financial savings. The comments by General Sir Peter Wall, the former Chief of the General Staff, were quite revealing:

“I remember the genesis very clearly. It was a financially driven plan. We had to design a new structure that included the run-down of the 102,000 Regular Army to 82,000, which is pretty well advanced now, to follow a funding line that was driven by the austerity with which everybody is very familiar...It triggered the complete redesign of the Army”.

As he has told the Defence Committee on several occasions, the head of the Army was informed by the permanent secretary at the MOD what the future size of the Army would be. The former Defence Secretary made the point that the cost envelope was the driving force behind the proposal, not any strategic needs, and I believe that is the problem.

I do not in any way criticise the Minister for his determination or his enthusiasm for reservists, but we come back to the fundamental question of where the 82,000 figure came from. Unfortunately, it is being reinforced in the present defence and security review, and the fact that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force will have to take the bulk of the cuts seems to have been overlooked. There is an opportunity now to review not only Army 2020 but the entire strategic defence review process. Unfortunately, the Conservative party, having nailed the figure of 82,000 to the mast with its other electoral colours during the general election, will find it difficult to withdraw from that, but that fundamental review needs to take place.

Despite the valiant efforts of the Minister and those who are working hard in the MOD, there are still serious problems, as highlighted by the NAO. One of the most damning points highlighted in the report is the fact that recruitment targets are not underpinned by robust planning. Likewise, the IT fiasco has wasted some £70 million. I accept that some of those problems have been resolved, but it does not fill people with a great deal of confidence that the process will result in the targets outlined in today’s debate being met.

Another telling point comes from the MOD’s continuous attitude survey, which shows that among personnel who have been made redundant or left the forces, there is little appetite for joining the reserves; the figure was less than 17%. The hon. Members for Kettering, and for Basildon and Billericay, both made the point that the important thing is not numbers, but what we have in our reserve. If this is simply made into a numbers game, it will not necessarily translate into the capabilities that we need in the infantry, or tackle the severe shortages in Defence Medical Services that have been mentioned. I know from my time in the Ministry of Defence that those skills were vital to our deployment in Afghanistan. We need to think about not just numbers but the kinds of individuals that we are recruiting.

An important point was made about the retention of reservists once they have been recruited. The hon. Members for Basildon and Billericay, and for Kettering, made the good point that if people do not feel challenged and do not feel as though they are making a contribution, they will not necessarily stay in and continue to contribute to the reserves. It is a waste of the resources put into the training and recruitment of those individuals if we retain them for only a short time, and that is not cost-effective for the taxpayer.

There is an opportunity in the security and defence review to look at the 82,000 figure and ask whether the reserve recruitment targets—realistically, they are not going to be achieved—should be revisited. The Navy and RAF numbers will come under pressure, because for some unexplained reason the Conservative party in its election manifesto set the figure of 82,000 on a tablet of stone, not to be changed. That needs revisiting. Events over the weekend show that the threats we face change quickly, and that some of the skills that we need—in cyber, intelligence and other capabilities—must be procured in the regular forces, but the reserve forces can also make a contribution.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 10:47 am, 17th November 2015

What a pleasure it is to respond to the debate under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone on securing the debate and on his remarkable, predictably thoroughly researched and self-effacing speech. The debate takes place as we remember the first world war, in which the then Territorial Force won 71 Victoria Crosses, and the Battle of Britain, in which two of the three highest-scoring squadrons were from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

I will try to pick up as many points as I can in the short time available. My hon. Friend and Mrs Moon, who had to leave to attend the Defence Committee, know that I am not allowed to respond to the points they made about special forces, beyond saying that my heart goes out, as I know theirs do, to the families of the three young men. I share my hon. Friend’s pride in the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross he referred to, which is the latest in a series of decorations won by the unit we both served in.

The expansion of the reserve forces is critical to our ability to deliver defence on a sustainable financial basis and to maintain the Clausewitzian trinity of the armed forces, the Government and the people. It will enable us to ensure that the armed forces are structured and resourced to meet the challenges of the 21st century. After many years of neglect, the Government are restructuring and revitalising our reserve forces and investing in new equipment and support.

The programme is not—my hon. Friend Mr Baron and I have debated this many times—about swapping regular personnel for reserves. In 2010 we did, indeed, make some very painful decisions right across Government. After that, the commission on which I served looked at the issue of the balance and recommended changing the way that we delivered defence to make the best use of our resources, to better harness the talents of the wider UK society and, above all, to help to restore links and understanding between the armed forces and the communities that they serve. The sombre events in Paris remind us of the importance of those close links. We should be in no doubt at all that, whatever the size of our armed forces, we must always have reserves.

Now, Mr Jones knows that he is not going to tempt me into anticipating the strategic defence and security review, but I can say that I am pleased to be part of a Government that are genuinely committed to 2% for defence spending, although I know I will not satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering on the legal point. Nevertheless, we are committed to it.

Our programme to grow the reserves is making good progress but, as my hon. Friend said, there is no room for complacency. In the year to 1 October, more than 8,500 people joined the volunteer reserves, an increase of more than 65% on the previous 12 months, taking their total strength to more than 33,000. Most notably, 6,500 people joined the Army Reserve, an increase of 73% on the previous period. All three services are ahead of their trained strength targets, but that certainly does not mean that we can relax. We must continue to make further progress to meet our commitment of creating a force of around 35,000 trained volunteer reserves by April 2019, and to deliver the usable, motivated and capable reserve forces that the country needs. My hon. Friend is right that that means another 9,000 trained personnel in three and a half years’ time. Given that we have grown by 1,300 trained personnel in just the past six months, that seems challenging but not unattainable.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—a number of other Members referred to this—that the biggest challenge is building the officer base. The internal study set up by the Chief of the General Staff and headed by a reserve brigadier has recommended considerable restructuring, including a marketing post manned by a volunteer reserve officer with huge marketing experience, who is now installed in Sandhurst. The numbers are going up. For example, just outside the constituency of Steven Paterson is 71 Engineer Regiment, which I visited recently. It now has six young officers under 30—a transformation from even a couple of years ago. The same thing has happened with my local reserve unit.

A number of Members made a point about the need to get the age structure down. In fact, the largest concentration in the age structure of the Army Reserve is in the 25 to 29 category. We are working hard on it, but the averages are pulled up by the fact that we want older people—those in their 40s and even 50s—in areas such as intelligence and for some of the medical skills. A number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, mentioned transfers from the regulars. Those are running above our target. In fact, it is the one part of reserve recruiting that has been consistently above target, and we are offering substantial financial incentives to those who transfer.

We are offering reservists today more challenging opportunities than before. New call-out powers enshrined in the Defence Reform Act 2014 have allowed us to use reservists in the same way as regulars, and reservists have taken up the challenge. We would only have compulsory call-out in an emergency, but people join the reserves because they want to be used. In the past 12 months, they have been deployed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, in formed groups to Afghanistan and Cyprus. They have provided specialist help to deal with the Ebola crisis in west Africa, and maritime reserves have taken part in counter-terrorist and counter-piracy operations alongside their regular counterparts. As my hon. Friend said, next summer a company from 4 Para will provide the framework company for the Falkland Islands.

We are offering reserves more and better training opportunities. In the current training year, the services have planned more than 50 overseas exercises involving reserves, including a series of Army exercises in Kenya with integrated companies of regulars and reserves. A number of Members referred to the crucial importance of the specialist courses in what we call phase 2 and 3 training and to the difficulties of tailoring those to reservists in civilian employment. The fact that Chatham has managed that for an area such as bomb disposal shows that this is possible more widely across the Army.

Several people, including the hon. Member for Bridgend and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, referred to the importance of cyber. For quite a long time, the only cyber-unit in the armed forces was a reservist one in the then Territorial Army. Today, reserves play an important role in cyber in all three services.

We have invested in new equipment. We have given reservists access to the regular pension scheme and a paid annual leave entitlement. We are giving them full access to Defence-provided medical care and physiotherapy, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering will remember, was an issue when he and I served. We have improved civilian accreditation for training. Employers are vital and we are immensely grateful for the commitment some of them make.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

No one in this Chamber doubts the dedication, hard work and enthusiasm that the Minister is putting into the task of increasing the reserve forces, but he must also accept that key questions remain unresolved, including the age profile of the infantry. We all accept the age profile when it comes to reservists and specialisms such as cyber, but the age profile of the infantry is still far too high—mid-30s and early 40s. May I return the Minister to the central issue of extra costs? There have been extra unforeseen costs with these plans, which, despite frequent requests to the Government, the Minister and the Government are unable or unwilling to disclose. Does he intend—if not here today, then perhaps in the immediate future—to put that right?

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I have written to my hon. Friend and I will write to him again. The ongoing costs of the recruiting process have shown some significant savings, but it is difficult to separate regulars and reserves because they are in the same contract. If he is referring to the contingency costs of deploying reserves on operations, there is a cost associated, but it is a cost that is paid for only when there are large-scale operations. The point about reservists—as Kirsten Oswald said, if I heard her correctly—is that it is very much cheaper most of the time to have part of the forces in reserves.

We have established the defence relationship management service, to which 42 of the 100 FTSE companies are now signed up. I have already mentioned the extra benefits for small and medium-sized enterprises. Crucially, we have set up an annual employer notification process, so that employers know a long way in advance when reservists are being called. That is crucial for retention, which so many Members referred to.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering set out the progress we have already made on the employer recognition scheme, which includes many NHS trusts. We are not in a position to dictate this, although I pay tribute to the Scottish Government, who run a more unified system and are able to dictate. Many hospital trusts have won employer awards. The Cabinet Secretary has the 1% challenge; we now have 1,250 civil servants serving in the reserves. These are at the heart of the retention issues. I cannot give the exact figures for medical reserve recruiting at the moment, but I can say that over the past 12 months the Army medical services, which are the bulk, have seen a considerable surge in numbers. I will write to my hon. Friend and to the other Members who raised that issue with some more detailed figures.

We have overcome a number of challenges that were affecting Army Reserve recruitment. We are making more imaginative use of advertising media, and we have hugely reduced the delays in the pipeline under the new system and provided better mentoring and support in units for those enlisting.

I thank all Members who took part in the debate and the many other Members who support their local units. Our reserves are stronger and better equipped than they have been for years. Despite the neglect, over the past 10 years, 70 reservists won decorations for gallantry in Afghanistan and Iraq, and 31 gave their lives. There is a great deal that we can be proud of in our reserve forces. We are making the reserves proposition that we set out in the 2013 White Paper a reality.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 10:59 am, 17th November 2015

All of us who have taken part in the debate want the Government’s reforms to our reserves to work. All of us recognise that this is a huge challenge.

I am confident that the Minister is the right man in the right place at the right time, and I look forward to him fulfilling the challenging task that he faces.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).