Yesterday, MPs voted by a margin of 91-0 calling on the Government to halt their reductions in the size of the regular army until there was sufficient uplift in the numbers of reservists. It was an embarrassing defeat for an out-of-touch Government, who have failed to understand the widespread concern and anger towards their army reforms.
We are immensely proud of the vital contribution that reservists have made to our nation’s security. They have served in all of the major conflicts of recent years and, of course, stepped into the breach to provide security during the 2012 Olympics. So we support the Government’s proposal for an enhanced, more integrated role for the reserves to better project the UK’s force and influence globally.
However, we share the concerns of senior figures in the military and the MoD, as well as MPs from all parties, that the Government is uplifting the reserves—not to compliment the regular forces—but to make up for the shortfall in army numbers.
In yesterday’s debate the minister did not even bother trying to answer members’ questions about why cuts to the regular army are happening regardless of the success of any increase in the size of the reserves. We hope that the chorus of concern expressed yesterday will make them pause, think again, and put further redundancies on hold until reserves recruitment picks up sufficiently.
The Government took a gamble in outsourcing recruitment, which has so far not been vindicated. The contractor has been plagued by IT problems, whilst over half of the UK’s recruitment centres have been closed down.
All of this comes as ministers are desperate to improve recruitment rates. It is no wonder that between April and June this year only 367 soldiers enlisted in the reserves, one quarter of the MoD’s target. The army is on course to recruit only 50% of its 2013-14 target. With the success of Army 2020 depending on doubling the size of the reserves by 2018, time will soon start to run out for ministers.
The Government has put the cart before the horse, dishing out P45s to forces personnel without waiting to see if the size of the reserves can be expanded sufficiently. And now they preside over a recruitment crisis, with our forces and UK security interests paying the price for their incompetence.
We want to see the creation of a larger, more integrated reserve force, but it is clear that this Government has gone about this in the wrong way. That is why Labour has tabled a number of sensible amendments to the Defence Reform Bill that would improve the recruitment of reservists as well as offering better support for those suffering from mental ill health, an even bigger problem when it comes to reservists.
This is the Government that gave us aircraft carriers without aircraft. And now these are the ministers that want to increase recruitment with fewer recruitment centres.
Philip Hammond may not have been in the Commons to listen to the debate, but I hope he has heard what was said loudly and clearly by MPs from all parties. His prioritisation of savings over strategy may be winning him brownie points with the Treasury, but it will certainly not endear him to the armed forces community or to those who value the UK’s security.
Kevan Jones is the Shadow Armed Forces Minister