The establishment of the Back Bench Business Committee was an excellent innovation, enabling MPs to hold debates on topics party leaders chose not to cover in their Parliamentary time. The Thursday debates are a great success, and have raised a wide range of issues important to our constituents.
It is unfortunate, however, that the Government does not pay more heed to their resolutions – the recent debate on the Government’s defence reforms being a case in point.
The central argument of the motion was that the MoD should halt the axing of 20,000 regular troops at least until it is clear the corresponding plan to recruit 30,000 reservists to replace them is viable and cost-effective. There are good grounds for concern.
It is increasingly evident that the recruitment drive is on the rocks. Territorial Army numbers are at a low ebb; recruitment targets are being badly missed; delays and disorganisation at recruitment centres are putting off potential recruits before they are even through the door. Most critically, costs are rising – given these defence reforms are driven by the need for cost savings, this alone should be enough to sound the klaxons.
The Government’s defence reforms are predicated on the rapid recruitment of extra reservists as a counterweight to the loss in manpower and capability resulting from the loss of 20,000 well-trained regular soldiers. If the 30,000 figure proves unattainable, Britain may be left dangerously exposed, especially in a world where many other states are increasing their military expenditure.
The MoD itself is alive to this predicament, and in July 2011 the then Secretary of State for Defence made clear that regular soldiers would not be laid off until the requisite reservists were recruited. In the debate I and others asked when and why this policy changed, but tellingly received no answer.
In any case, even if the total number of reservists were recruited, the MoD’s own figures indicate the TA has a mobilisation rate of 40%. For every 100 reservists, only 40 are deemed eligible for deployment – this would suggest 50,000, not 30,000, reservists are required. In a recent letter, the Secretary of State for Defence indicated that the mobilisation figure will be boosted to 80%, but gave no indication how this vast improvement was to be engineered.
Costs are also amassing in areas other than recruitment. On a per capita basis, training reservists costs more than their regular counterparts: with an increasing proportion of reservists, this figure is going to increase steadily.
Furthermore, incentive payments to ex-regular reservists will total £5,000 for each recruit, and there are unanswered questions about the ‘Reservist Award’ – the MoD’s commitment to match a reservist’s civilian pay upon deployment. Taken together, there is a real risk the Government’s cost-cutting plans will turn out to be false economies.
Government reforms are already having a distorting effect on our defence capability and morale. Well-recruited and perfectly serviceable regular battalions – such as 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers – face imminent disbandment. Meanwhile, more poorly-recruited – and therefore more expensive – battalions are being preserved. Such a policy merely reinforces failure.
The Back Bench debate proved to be an ideal forum for Members from all sides of the House to air their thoughts and concerns. Speeches were universally well-researched and of high quality, posing a number of pertinent questions. Sadly, not a single question I raised was answered.
The fact the motion was carried 92-0 indicates others were similarly disappointed. Parliament has clearly expressed its view: the Government should not keep ignoring these concerns.