HC Deb 03 March 1982 vol 19 cc273-82 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Nott)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about our Reserve Forces.

In the White Paper in June setting out the conclusions of my defence review, I said that the Government were determined to give greater emphasis to the Reserve Forces, and that we intended to expand the strength of the Territorial Army steadily from 70,000 to 86,000 men and women.

Our first priority must be to improve the operational efficiency, equipment, accommodation and structure of the present Territorial Army. As the House knows, in the coming financial year we are providing for an increase in the average number of man training days to 42 for independent units, and if this increase is used effectively it will enable the Territorial Army to achieve a higher standard of training overall. We shall also be allowing selected units to recruit up to a total of 3,500 men and women above their establishment—to "overbear" as it is called—where they can make good use of the extra numbers.

We shall be raising new units. These will include the equivalent of two new regiments of Royal Engineers for home defence tasks—that is six squadrons in all. One extra company each will be raised for the Royal Irish Rangers, the 51st Highland Volunteers and the Royal Regiment of Wales. Reconnaissance platoons will be formed for 15 of the infantry battalions with a NATO role and signals rear link detachments will be provided to those NATO battalions which require them.

In addition, better use will be made of existing units through reorganisation. The infantry division based in Britain which will reinforce BAOR on mobilisation will include two brigades formed largely from Territorial Army combat units. This division will also rely for its logistic support on a regiment's worth of Territorial Army logistic units based in Scotland and the North of England. For home defence, the pressing need for improved reconnaissance will be met by re-roling three Yeomanry regiments.

The expanded Territorial Army must have suitable accommodation and equipment for its very demanding task. Twelve new Territorial Army centres will be started this year and existing accommodation will be modernised and improved. Issues of Milan anti-tank weapons and Clansman radios are proceeding well and that of the eight-tonne truck has just started. The LAW anti-armour weapon and the new small arms for the 1980s will be issued early to Territorial Army units assigned to BAOR.

I would also like to announce the creation of a new home service force which we plan to start by early September as a pilot scheme. It will be linked to the Territorial Army and will consist largely of men with considerable Service experience. The force will provide assistance to the regular forces in time of tension and war, particularly in the guarding of vital United Kingdom installations. A total of four trial companies will be raised in Scotland and Eastern, Western and South-Eastern districts. If the scheme is successful, I envisage that the strength of the force could reach 4,500.

We must be able to mobilise our reservists rapidly. The new computer-based individual reinforcement plan halves the time needed to mobilise our regular reservists. In last year's exercise over 90 per cent. of reservists reported and we shall build on this major success so that the scheme will eventually cover more than 50,000 men and women.

We shall go ahead with re-equipping the Royal Naval Reserve. Two of its three highly effective mine hunters have already undergone major refits and the third is currently doing so. We aim to replace the RNR's minesweepers by new vessels—Fleet minesweepers—at the earliest opportunity; and I can confirm to the House that we are now taking fresh tender action and that orders for the first batch of four will be placed this year.

In the case of the Royal Air Force, the House will be aware that three Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment squadrons for the ground defence of operational airfields were set up on a trial basis in July 1979 at Honington, Lossiemouth and Scampton. I intend to form further squadrons at St. Mawgan, Brize Norton and Marham in the course of the next two years.

Finally, there are the Cadet Forces, which have an important role in youth community service and as a source of recruiting to the Regular Services. We plan to provide some additional support for them in 1982–83, including an increase in expenditure on essential work services and new huts.

The significance of Reserve Service lies not just in the extra military capability which it gives, vital though this is. Just as important is the demonstration which it provides of the British people's commitment to their own security. The defence of our nation must be seen to depend not only on the quality of our elite professional Armed Services but also on a widespread popular commitment to our national defence. Most important here are our young people, who have little opportunity to come into contact with our Regular Armed Services—a high proportion of whom serve in Her Majesty's ships or abroad.

Due to the very low numbers leaving the Armed Services at present and the consequential reduction in recruit intakes, there is currently some spare capacity in the training establishments of all three Services. I have, therefore, examined a number of possibilities for temporarily filling our excess capacity and have decided on the following scheme. My intention is to offer up to 7,000 young people a short two or three week period with each of the Armed Services, starting from the middle of April this year.

The courses and all travelling will be free. Young men and women would apply through recruiting offices and would undertake courses with Service instructors covering a range of activities of the kind made available now on Outward Bound courses. Applicants from the Cadet Forces will have priority. The courses will be short, but I hope that a period of mixing with Service instructors will give the young people concerned an insight into Service life, leading on to the possibility of interesting them in joining the Reserves.

The expansion of the TA and the RAF Reserves, the creation of a pilot scheme for a new home service force, the continuing success of the Royal Naval and Royal Marine Reserves which are fully up to strength, and the more rapid system for the assembly of our Regular Reservists will combine, I believe, to form a useful strengthening of our defences. The modest, wholly voluntary, scheme that I have announced for young people will, I hope, prove to be a success.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

The Secretary of State ends his statement with the words: The modest, wholly voluntary, scheme that I have announced for young people will, I hope, prove to be a success. It is not quite as ambitious a scheme as we were given to understand from the leaks in the press. Indeed, it is a very small scheme, involving 7,000 young people for two or three weeks.

We have had a Reserve Forces statement about a programme that is not very revolutionary and not very large. It is surprising to note that the statement has been made by the Secretary of State for Defence and not by one of his junior Ministers. Presumably the reason for that—[Interruption.] We have heard a very long statement and it is customary for the Opposition to reply to a statement and to ask questions afterwards. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces has been in the House long enough to know that.

I believe that the statement follows the realisation that on each side of the House there is alarm, fear and worry about the cost of the Trident programme and the effect upon the conventional defence of this island. This "modest" scheme for Reserve Forces would have come in any event. It is designed to cover up the deficiency in our conventional Forces. Is it not a fact that the Secretary of State's press release of 25 February 1982—only about 10 days ago—showed that total recruitment for the Armed Forces was down by 54 per cent. in the last half of 1980? compared with the last half of 1980? Is it not a fact that the number of Royal Naval officers has decreased by 50 per cent. in the same period, and that Royal Naval ratings have decreased by 87 per cent.? Is it not a fact that the Army is down by 55 per cent. and that the Royal Air Force is down by 25 per cent.?

In the light of all that, is it not true that this statement is merely a smokescreen to try to prevent the House from understanding what is being done to our conventional Forces?

Mr. Nott

I decided to make the statement myself because in the defence White Paper which we published last June—just before the right hon. Gentleman took his present post—I laid considerable emphasis on the need to expand our Reserve Forces. It was an essential part of the defence White Paper, and I regard it as being of the greatest importance to our defences, as I said last summer.

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the scheme for young people is not as ambitious as some newspapers predicted, I am not quite sure whether he wants it to be more ambitious or less ambitious. He did not make that clear. At one time I hoped that we might have a more ambitious scheme. One of the ideas that we considered—using it as part of the youth employment arrangements—was opposed by the Manpower Services Commission, so we did not proceed with that more ambitious scheme.

In answer to what the right hon. Gentleman said about numbers, I can only tell him that the Services now have greater numbers than they did when his Government left office. The strength of the Armed Services is far greater now than it was when he was a member of the last Labour Government.

On recruitment, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right when he says that the last quarterly figures show that the outflow from the Services—the number leaving the Services—is lower than at any time since conscription. We should be pleased about that, because it shows that we have highly trained professional Services. Because the outflow from the Services is so low, recruiting this year will be about 23,000 for all three Services, instead of the higher figure that we would expect if retentions had not been so high. So our conventional Forces are overwhelmingly stronger than they were when the right hon. Gentleman's Government left office, and that is the way that it will remain.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

I regret that we have not been able to press ahead with the more ambitious schemes to which my right hon. Friend referred, but I congratulate him on his statement today. Has he any intention to increase the number of regular officers and NCOs who are attached to Territorial Army units to increase operational efficiency?

Mr. Nott

My hon. Friend was most interested and worked hard on this issue when he was with me in the Ministry of Defence, and I am grateful to him for all the work that he did. We are following the recommendations of the Shapland report. We are creating specialist training teams and recruiting teams which will be composed of regular soldiers, NCOs and officers in an endeavour to improve the training, recruitment and efficiency of the existing TA.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow questions on the statement to run until 4.10 pm. If questions are to the point, I should be able to call everyone who wishes to speak.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

We welcome the strengthening of the Territorial Army. Can the Secretary of State say more about the reconnaissance platoons that are to be attached to the NATO-linked TA units? On the youth scheme, which can only be described as an adventure holiday scheme, is he aware that there is nothing in the scheme to which anyone can take exception, were it not for the fact that the Government are unable to tackle the major problem of 3 million unemployed people?

Mr. Nott

I described the scheme as a modest one. I make no huge claims for it. If it is popular among young people and they experience Service life, it will prove useful; I put it no higher than that. I believe that it will be popular, and I hope that young people gain something from it.

The reconnaissance platoons will be three Yeomanry regiments which will be re-roled—they will be given a different task. They will be involved in home defence tasks, not in BAOR reinforcement tasks. The idea is to make them more mobile, so that the Commander-in-Chief United Kingdom Land Forces has mobile units to move around the country to meet emergencies.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

As a former member of the Auxiliary Air Force, may I tell my right hon. Friend how delighted all auxiliaries will be about their expanding role in the defence of the country? In view of the great success of the auxiliary squadrons in the last war, is there any hope of a flying role for auxiliaries in the future?

Mr. Nott

We do not have a scheme of that kind at present. As my hon. Friend knows, we are still short of pilots. One of our greatest problems in the regular RAF is finding sufficient pilots. We are doing our best to recruit more, and the numbers are increasing. At present there is no plan to use the Auxiliary Air Force in a flying role, but I take note of my hon. Friend's wishes.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Since at least 50 per cent. of the combat Forces that are available to Allied Command Europe in a time of conflict will come from Reserves, is it not imperative that Britain's contribution to those Reserves should be credible? Will the Secretary of State therefore answer the following three questions? First, will he say a word about the retention rate in the second year of the Territorial Army? Secondly, is he satisfied with the quality of the current training and equipment of the Volunteer Reserves, both of which are crucial to a properly motivated Volunteer Reserve Force? Lastly, is there not a danger of being complacent about the effect that the individual reinforcement plan will have on a requisite rate of readiness?

Mr. Nott

Exercise "Crusader" which, as the hon. Member knows, involved many thousands of our Reservists for the reinforcement of our regular divisions on the Rhine, was an enormous success. It was thought by all our NATO allies to have gone remarkably well, and it greatly increased the confidence of NATO to reinforce and reinforce rapidly. The retention rate in the Territorial Army is not satisfactory in many units. The wastage rate in many of our TA units is too high, and we are anxious that the new specialist training teams should help to improve the motivation and retention rate of some of the existing TA units. They vary widely from one unit to another, but I agree that there is much room for improvement.

I did not understand the hon. Gentleman's question about the reinforcement plan, so I am afraid that I cannot comment on it.

Mr. D. A. Trippier (Rossendale)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Has he any plans to increase the establishment of the Royal Marines Reserve?

Mr. Nott

The Royal Marines are fully up to strength and are highly successful. Recruiting is going very well, and much as I should like to increase the Royal Marines strength at present there are no plans to do so.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, West)

I was a serving member of the Army and a member of the Army Reserve. Are not the short courses for young people a measure of the complete bankruptcy of the Government's policies—that they must run round the streets picking up people to fill vacancies in establishments of Her Majesty's Armed Forces? As to the Territorial Army, which has an important part to play in Britain's defence, and the home service force being linked to the Territorial Army, why does not the Secretary of State think about spending some money on the recommendations in the Shapland report to improve the efficiency of the Territorial Army?

Mr. Nott

On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, that is exactly what we are doing. We shall be spending an additional £12 million on the Territorial Army in 1983–84 above what had originally been intended. During the next three or four years we shall increase expenditure on the Territorial Army by about £50 million. We have made a relative switch from the total Army budget into the Territorial Army. We are following the broad thrust of the Shapland report and many of its details are being implemented.

We must see whether young people are interested in the scheme. If they are, the bankruptcy of the hon. Gentleman's approach to the matter will be proved by the scheme's success. If youngsters are keen to spend a fortnight or three weeks with the Services, both they and I will be content, and the hon. Gentleman's comments will prove to have been bankrupt.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those who try to give sensible, non-partisan attention to defence matters will welcome what he has said today? What progress is being made in expanding the Territorial Army in the way envisaged, apart from his statement today about the future? How is the home service force to be commanded, and what will be its structure? Similarly, how will the Royal Naval Reserve and the young persons' scheme work? Will he confirm that the latter scheme is welcomed by the Armed Forces, and will he tell us how it is to be operated on the ground?

Mr. Nott

The time scale for the build-up of the Territorial Army must depend upon our progress in recruiting. The speed at which we can build it up depends on the number of people coming forward to the new units. I hope that, within the next two or three years, if our plans are successful, about 15,000 more people will have joined the Territorial Army since we took office. The expansion is going well.

The easy way to get the home service force off the ground on a trial basis is to link it initially to the Territorial Army. That is the plan. The pay and bounty arrangements, which we must settle finally, will be linked to the Territorial Army. The Royal Naval Reserve is up to strength. Our overwhelming need in the Royal Naval Reserve is to receive four new trawlers, orders for which we hope to place this year. The Reserve has 11 vessels at present. It is up to strength and doing well.

I do not recall my hon. and learned Friend's question about the scheme for young people.

Mr. Buck


Mr. Speaker

Order. With all respect, I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman has had a good run.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Why is the Ministry of Defence spending money on the youth scheme if it will get nothing out of it? Is it out of the goodness of its heart, or is it because this is a prelude to compulsory national service for the unemployed?

Mr. Nott

It has nothing to do with national service or conscription. It is a voluntary scheme. No one needs to apply for it unless he is interested in it. It is likely to generate considerable interest, especially in the part of Britain from where the hon. Gentleman comes. I am sure that youngsters will note his rather lukewarm views on the scheme. We are spending money on young people because we believe that they are worth it.

Because of the present high retentions in the Services and our belief that recruiting will be lower as a result of that, we have some temporary spare capacity in our training establishments. We may as well use it in a useful way. In addition, if some of the youngsters enjoy the scheme and are interested in it, they become potential recruits to the Territorial Army, the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Air Force Reserve, which will be beneficial to our defences.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

As a reserve soldier in my last few weeks of 30 years of voluntary service, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether the overbearing for Territorial Army units will include overbearing in every rank, because it is important that there should be opportunities for promotion if recruiting is to be at the maximum? Also, bearing in mind the exceptional service of the Reserve Forces in time of war, will my right hon. Friend consider carefully the names of the units to be resuscitated, because some famous names should be encouraged and will lead to a much greater emphasis on recruitment?

Mr. Nott

Naturally, the idea of creating or resurrecting some of the famous cap badge names greatly appeals to me, as it does to my hon. Friend. However, as we must have a steady and well-ordered expansion of the Territorial Army, we believe that it would be more sensible to create new units and add them to existing regiments and battalions for the time being. We do not intend to create any new cap badge units or to resurrect old ones at present.

We wish the overbearing to be relatively flexible. It must be a controlled arrangement. I intend that units that are recruiting well should not be restricted to the extent that they have in the recent past. There should be room for successful units to recruit more people. However, I take note of my hon. Friend's remarks about all ranks, and I shall ensure that they are properly studied.

Mr. Richard Crawshaw (Liverpool, Toxteth)

Does the Secretary of State agree that our Reserve Forces provide the best value for money of all our Services? Will he also bear in mind that, during the past 20 years, we have blown hot and cold in calling for volunteers and then axeing units shortly afterwards? That is the reason for the wastage of Territorial soldiers. Will the right hon. Gentleman try to maintain some continuity at least in the next few years? The three weeks training at defence establishments is a step in the right direction, but will the Secretary of State also consider that some of our Service apprenticeship schools are undermanned because of defence cuts? Is there any possibility of training young people not for the Armed Services but for industry?

Mr. Nott

The Ministry of Defence is by far the largest recruiter and employer of apprentices in Britain. I wish to expand that. We put schemes to the Manpower Services Commission to enable us to recruit more apprentices through MSC arrangements, but that did not find favour with the MSC for reasons that I do not criticise. It is expensive to recruit an apprentice compared with other sorts of training. I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman that we wish to have stability and continuity in the Territorial Army. Some of the things that have happened to it—blowing hot and cold, as the hon. Gentleman said—have not helped. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the scheme for young people, which I hope will go well.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

Most people who are interested in defence, the Cadet Forces and young people will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. As a serving officer in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, I endorse what my right hon. Friend said. Will he consider the experience of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force in the training of pilots to see whether any lessons can be learnt from it? Will he also confirm that serving members of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, who travel long distances to their units, will in future not be out of pocket as a result of travelling to those units?

Mr. Nott

I shall look into that important question. I am conscious of the point made about the need for some flying opportunities for the RAF auxiliary. I have examined the American practice, which my hon. Friend knows all about. I should like to see whether we could develop in that direction, but it would require more assets. At present, all our money is going into the re-equipment of the regular RAF. It would be an expensive route to move down at present. However, I am broadly in favour of my hon. Friend's ideas and we shall continue to discuss them within the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing public awareness of the social value of some form of national service? Does he agree that perhaps the time has come for the Government to set up an inquiry into a national service that offers the choice of civilian or military service?

Mr. Nott

That is a wider question than the one to which my statement was devoted. We have chosen voluntary service rather than conscription for our Armed Forces in the last few years. We can recruit the volunteers we need for our professional Armed Forces, and in that way we keep Service men for longer periods. It means that they are highly trained. Indeed, they need to be to use the highly sophisticated weapons of today. We have gone down the voluntary route rather than the conscription route. The wider scheme mentioned by my hon. Friend will continue to be debated publicly, but, as he knows, compulsory service in the Armed Forces does not find a great deal of favour within my Department.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

What is the financial cost of this scheme? Will it be additional to the existing £12 billion expenditure on defence? Is not the high retention in the Services due to the fact that we have 3 million unemployed? As well as giving youngsters an opportunity of military service, why not give them an opportunity of undertaking voluntary service overseas?

Mr. Nott

There is nothing to prevent young people from serving overseas. I hope that they do. I am providing them with another option—a two-week or three-week Outward Bound-type course with the Services. I am greatly in favour of young people serving overseas for a time, and there are facilities to enable them to do so.

We should be pleased about the high retention in the Services. It means that our Armed Services are better trained, because the experienced people are remaining longer. That seems to be worthwhile.

The cost of the young peoples' scheme will not be very great because we shall be using capacity that must remain in use anyhow. The costs relate mainly to travelling to the places where these activities will take place and to food. We estimate that the extra cost will be about £1½million. We think that that is useful expenditure, both for the young people and because it may interest people in the reserve service.

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

As a serving member of the Territorial Army, may I tell my right hon. Friend that his statement will be welcomed, particularly the increase in manned training days on which much of the continued viability of the TA depends? Is he aware that the viability—indeed, the credibility—of the TA depends upon its equipment? What are his plans, and the time schedule for them, for equipping the TA with Clansman radios and Milan anti-tank weapons? As an ex-airborne soldier, may I ask whether he will consider the reactivation of a Territorial airborne brigade?

Mr. Nott

I am afraid that at the moment I cannot act on my hon. Friend's last point. The Milan and Clansman deliveries are now coming forward well. We are setting the number of manned training days at 42. It will probably take time to move up to 42; it will not happen overnight. If we are successful in building it up to 42, we intend to move it up to 44 days. We are perfectly happy to do so, but there is no point in doing so until the 42-day period is successful and we have made it stick.

Apart from equipment, the TA has buildings in which it can operate. This year we shall start new centres in 12 locations—Bangor, Bedford, Sutton Coldfield, Telford, York, Colby Newham, Walsall, Colchester, Bath, Widnes, Aintree and Alnwick.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will not the total cost of this extension of the home service and the youth scheme be several million pounds? Is it not remarkable that the Minister has said that he and the Government are concerned about young people when they are cutting student grants as well as higher, further and secondary education? The right hon. Gentleman does not fool the House by cynical manipulation of the unemployed. Will he confirm that the youth scheme is designed as a public relations exercise because he is green with envy at the enormous success of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament among young people and wants to show that the massive expenditure so uselessly devoted to the Armed Services is doing some good?

Mr. Nott

I wish that the hon. Gentleman had gone on the youth adventure scheme; I think that it would have done him a lot of good. I only regret that the age limit is too low. I think that compulsory service for some hon. Members would be valuable for the country, but I am not in favour of it as a general principle.

Mr. Robert Atkins (Preston, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all Conservative Members. warmly congratulate him on his statement and the terms in which it has been made? What about the fuel shortages that are currently experienced by Territorial units? Will the new units to be set up get a further allocation of fuel, and will my right hon. Friend make more fuel available across the board for TA exercises?

Mr. Nott

We hope that the fuel restrictions will be less severe in the next financial year than many of the problems that all three Services have suffered this year. I am anxious that that should be the case. I speak from memory, but I think that Ministry of Defence purchases of oil amount to about £800 million a year. If the price of oil falls, that will ease our position and will be welcome. I understand from the newspapers that it is not welcome to all Departments, but as a customer spending £800 million a year on fuel I welcome it for the help that it will give.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that among people who walk and climb in the countryside there is considerable concern about the attitudes demonstrated by some military instructors who see the countryside merely as a physical obstacle course and have little concern about it? Will he ensure that in these courses there is a fair balance between teaching physical skills and a concern and interest not only about the countryside but about human dignity and human life? Is it not absurd to be cutting many local authority outdoor pursuit centres while at the same time introducing this scheme?

Mr. Nott

The qualities described by the hon. Gentleman as being desirable are the very qualities that we wish to develop in a short scheme of this sort. Respect for the countryside and all the other things that he described will, I hope, be part of the central objectives of the scheme. In fact, as one of the largest landowners in the country, the Ministry of Defence places conservation at the top of its objectives and has always done so. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that this is a valuable role.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

As another Army Reservist, I ask my right hon. Friend to recall that the bulk of the TA was axed by the Labour Government in 1967. Is he aware that his statement goes a very long way to redressing the balance and that there will be hopes that the regimental battalions will in due course be restored?

Mr. Nott

I am very well aware of that, and I am glad that my hon. Friend noted it.

I hope that the House heard the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) say from a sedentary position that he thought it very good that the Labour Government had axed the TA. I put that on the record as being indicative of the attitudes that exist in the new Labour Party.

Mr. John Silkin

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) asked the right hon. Gentleman a question which he dodged. Will the right hon. Gentleman come clean with the House? What are the costs of these proposals? Why does he not tell us what they are?

Mr. Nott

I have already given that information several times. I have said that the extra cost for the Territorial Army expansion will be about £12 million in 1983–84. I have said that the youth scheme that I have announced will probably cost about £1,500,000 a year. As for the trawlers for the Royal Naval Reserve, the order for a batch of four which we will place this year will cost about £10 to £12 million throughout the building period. I thought I had answered those questions. What other questions does the right hon. Gentleman want me to answer?