Bob Ainsworth speech on New Clause 3 during debate on Defence Reform Bill

Mr Ainsworth: I offer profound congratulations to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), not just for the concession he has achieved today but for the formidable way he has pursued this issue over the years. He harassed me when I was in office—I perhaps remember that with a fondness I never felt at the time—and has continued to harass his own Government and the defence establishment on the issue of the Reserves and the role they can play in the country’s defence. No matter who wants to claim credit for some of the changes now being brought about, he can feel real satisfaction at something very few Back Benchers can say they have been able to do: profoundly to change a significant area of Government policy. He has most certainly done that through his work on the Reserves over the years.

I totally support the hon. Gentleman’s new clause 1 and am enormously pleased that the Secretary of State has accepted it. I also support new clause 3, and I have to say that I believe the Secretary of State is being a little heavy-handed in suggesting that to support it is somehow to sabotage the direction of the Army or to play politics with the defence of the realm. I say that as a former Secretary of State who had to put up with allegations by the then loyal Opposition that I had deliberately delayed life-saving vehicles getting to our troops in Afghanistan. It is enormously important—particularly in the field of defence, where there is such a degree of cross-party support—that the Government’s own defence of their policies is somewhat measured, but I am not at all sure it has been in this regard. We can all read: we can see what new clause 3 says and does not say. As I say, my respect for the hon. Member for Canterbury is about as high as an Opposition Member’s can be for a Government Member, and I have not heard from him, or from anybody else here today, anything to suggest that the new clause does all the terrible things it is said to bring about.

New clause 3 calls for a report within a particular time frame after the Bill has been enacted, and a pause if Parliament does not accept it. It does no more than that. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) may have an agenda that is not mine—I do not know—because I support the general direction of policy in this area wholeheartedly. This development could, potentially, bring about huge improvements in capability. I see nothing to justify the counter-argument that is being made.

Mr Brazier: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous treatment of me, as leader of the all-party group for the Reserve forces and cadets, which made the campaigning possible. The effect of this would be to send a message to those Regular officers, many of them serving, who have rubbished this proposal for the past year and a half to the press off the record—they are a minority within the Regular Army but a significant one, some of whom the right hon. Gentleman will know—that if this can be kept down for just a little bit longer, they may get some Regular manpower back instead.

Mr Ainsworth: The effect can and should be that this House is enormously interested in the development of the Reserves and wants to see their capability properly developed and scrutinised—and no more than that. That should be the message, and I do not think there is anybody in the House who is responsible for another message that I know of, other than the defence being offered by Government Front Benchers in the overreaction, as I see it, to new clause 3.

Martin Horwood: I am very grateful to the former Minister for giving way—[Hon. Members: “Secretary of State.”] Former Secretary of State; I beg the right hon. Gentleman’s pardon. He obviously has great knowledge of these issues, but on one he is quite wrong. He says that new clause 3 calls only for a report, but it does not. It is quite explicit: it calls for “Further implementation of the plans” to be “halted”. Why does the Labour party appear to be supporting the interruption of access to better pension provision and explicitly interrupting access to paid leave for training? Surely, that is not what he intends.

Mr Ainsworth: The new clause calls for a pause in certain circumstances, if the House has not been persuaded. To me, it gives time scales that are perfectly achievable, so I reject what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Let us be clear: we are not talking about any conflict or preference for Reserves or Regulars; we are talking about numbers, competency and capability for the defence of the realm. What we need to be assured of—but which this House, largely, is not confident we have—is that the Government’s plans will provide us with the necessary numbers, competency and capability. That is what the pause is about. It is not a throwing away of the plan: it is a pause.

Mr Ainsworth: The growth of the Reserve element in all the services has huge potential benefits, such as a connection with the population at large that the small Regular armed forces that we inevitably have today and will have tomorrow can never achieve on its own. Equally, as other Members have said, it brings skills into the armed forces that cannot be kept up to date within the Regulars themselves. So there are those potential improvements.

Government Members have talked about a potential gap of three years, but it is not just a question of that: I am worried about the potential ongoing downgrading of capability if we do not get this right. In order to get into the Reserves the calibre of people that will be absolutely necessary for the kind of operations we have unfortunately had to carry out in recent years, and will undoubtedly have to carry out in future, the skills required by every rank must not only remain at their current level, but must improve. That is for the obvious and simple reason, which everybody knows, that the huge reputational damage to such operations, to our armed forces and to our nation, of errors in such operations can be profound. We must therefore ensure, given the cut-backs that are inevitably taking place, that we maintain within the Regulars the quality of not only the original recruits but of the training given to them, in order to lift capability. We are blessed with armed forces with a capability level that, in some ways, is higher than that in any other nation on earth, in my opinion, but it will need to be higher still.

Mr Ellwood: I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman and the experience he gained as Secretary of State, but I genuinely worry that he is fighting the last war. The conduct of warfare has changed. I hope he would agree that we will not be doing “boots on the ground” in the manner in which we have done so badly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The size of armed forces concertinas—it has done so over the past 400 years. I hope he would agree that withdrawal from Afghanistan will have a huge impact on the size of the standing Army, both Regular and Territorial, and batting for the old numbers that we had five years ago is out of touch.

Mr Ainsworth: I totally accept that. I like to study history and I know that after conflicts, the services—generally the Army more than the other services, but those, too—have generally been decimated in times of peace, only to have to be regenerated in times of danger thereafter. So I am not trying to fight the last war. I am saying that as we struggle with these enormous economic challenges and the cuts that are almost inevitable, we have to do everything we can to maintain the quality of our personnel. That applies to the Regular forces as it applies to the Reserves. Even at a time of downsizing, we can surely do that—we have to try to do it because of the reputational damage that inevitably flows from our failure to do so. There is nothing “yesterday” or “last war” about that approach; this is about the kind of operations we could be involved in tomorrow, of whatever scale, and the need for quality personnel.

New clause 3 calls for a level of scrutiny that is wholly justified by the importance of the decisions, and the changes of direction and structure, that we are implementing and that the hon. Member for Canterbury has fought for so valiantly and successfully for so long. That is why I support it, even if he does not.

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