Minutes of the All Party Group for Reserve Forces and Cadets Meeting on 18th July 2011
General Sir Nicholas Houghton KCB CBE ADC Gen – Chairman of the Future Reserves 2020 Commission and Vice Chief of the Defence Staff
Julian Brazier MP - Chairman
Madeleine Moon MP - Vice-Chairman
Ian Liddell-Grainger MP
Jack Lopresti MP
Col (Retd) Hugh Purcell - Honorary Clerk
Maj Gen Greg Smith - ACDS Reserves & Cadets
The Chairman stated that it was a huge pleasure to have General Sir Nick Houghton back again. There had been more than twenty Parliamentarians at the last session when everything was hanging in the balance, a large turnout for such a Parliamentary Group, and he apologised for there being a rather slim number this evening (owing to other Parliamentary business).
General Houghton thanked the Chairman for the introduction and said that he was delighted to have the opportunity to come back to brief the Group on the conclusions of the Commission. He was speaking as the Head of the Commission and not as Vice Chief, and he stressed that the Commission’s findings and recommendations were independent of the MoD. However, it had been important to draw on its advice, as it would have been pointless for the Report to come up with recommendations that were wholly impractical. They had not produced a detailed blueprint for immediate action in respect of roles, structures, numbers and costs, but a strategic assessment of three issues:
1. The condition of the Reserve Forces;
2. The strategic context in which they sit;
3. An outline for a strategic direction of travel (recommended as the result of analysis of the first two issues).
It would be a more conditional and deliberate direction of travel than indicated in some of the early Press commentary over the weekend.
Regarding the condition of the Reserves the Report had highlighted four things:
1. They were in decline and this was the case by historic comparison, international comparator and in respect of any form of sustainable proposition.
2. The Purpose had not been modernised and the TA were still fixed somewhere between the Cold War and a large scale intervention, but practice had moved to the areas of individual augmentation and specialisation and a new structure built around the purpose was needed.
3. Their potential and talent, the volunteer ethos in society and the potential for a more cost-effective manpower balance with the ability to sustain and enhance links to society were not being exploited.
4. They were not being used efficiently in terms of estate, training, partnering, force generation and this needed an overhaul.
The Commission had looked at where the Reserve sat within the strategic context: Security, Societal and Financial. The main aspect regarding the security situation was the degree to which it had moved on. There was now no existential threat to the country in defence terms, rather threats borne of security issues that related to resources, terrorism, demography, economics and climate. The Commission felt some risk could be taken and that elements of capability and readiness could be put into the Reserve. We also need to better exploit specialist skills and the Commission’s recommendations foresaw a far stronger role in civil resilience.
There were many societal aspects, the Armed Forces were becoming more remote from society, they had society’s sympathy but not its empathy and as the links declined, he did not think the role of the Reservists was being fully recognised.
On the financial side, particularly in respect of the Army, the cost of Regular manpower was not sustainable at the current level but at the same time there was a need to make the delivery of reserves more efficient. As a result of this the Commission had proposed a three phased strategic direction of travel:
Phase 1 would involve investment in stabilisation and ‘betterment’ to ensure that the Reserve did not collapse on this Government’s watch. This would also involve redefining roles and improving their sense of self-value.
Phase 2 would run concurrently with Phase 1 and was about enablement. This would involve putting in place the conditionality under which a significantly larger Reserve could be sustained and there was potential for alterations to a wide range of policy issues in areas such as legislation, employer support, employment protection, marketing, recruiting and training.
Phase 3 would follow Phases 1 and 2 and would be about realising the potential – consciously moving to a different force balance within the Armed Forces in order to realise the security, societal and financial benefits.
In summary, the aim was to achieve a re-balanced force in the timeframe 2015 - 2025 that would be confirmed in the next SDSR and that would offer a more cost-effective, better Armed Force, with better links to society and structured more appropriately to relevant roles.
The Chairman thanked General Sir Nick, noting that a couple of his excellent themes had been reflected in the Secretary of State’s statement to the House earlier that afternoon, in particular: connecting to society, the importance of resilience and the need to reinvest in the Reserve after years of neglect.
Ian Liddell-Grainger MP noted that there had been a gradual decline in regiments across the TA and a move away from formed units. He asked General Houghton if he foresaw over the next five years any increase in the regimental structure, back to the way regiments used to operate, and where he saw their role heading.
General Houghton replied it was most important to arrest the decline in the patient and, in the case of the TA, to worry less about new structures and more about recruiting, marketing and getting manpower up to a viable level. This would buy time for the structural work to click in and for the National Security Council (NSC) to agree new roles. It had already taken a ‘straw man’ version of the recommendations and welcomed the requirement for a more viable Reserve, recognising that as part of the proposition, TA units should have practical structures that allowed them to train at sub-unit and unit level with the possibility of going on operations as a sub-unit and, potentially, as a unit. The NSC also recognised that the specialist skills of the Reserves could become even more diverse, e.g., in the areas of Cyber and Stabilisation. While the Reserve needed the ability to regenerate armed forces in the round against the potential re-emergence of state-on-state conflict, if the NSC agreed, a big issue was to look seriously at homeland security and domestic civil resilience. This was not advocating a third force, but there were areas, such as maritime coastal security, where there was a role. Japan had had tsunamis and nuclear accidents and the UK had had floods in Cumbria, so why shouldn’t the Reserve be used as a cohort of second responders in circumstances where the first responders might be overwhelmed?
Regarding structures, he thought an Army of about 120,000 with a 70/30 split, made up of some 84,000 Regular and 36,000 TA would need training with the training margin providing ample headroom for more viable Reserve units. One could probably move whole units from the Regular to the Reserve component but this was detailed work for the MoD to take forward.
Ian Liddell-Grainger MP thanked him for his reply before Madeleine Moon MP took up two issues that her TA group had raised. The first was whether the practicality of initial training would be looked at, as the course took 15 days to complete, but an unemployed recruit lost benefits and therefore income after 14 days. This meant that some had to rejoin and go through the whole benefits process again and put off many who may well have lost their jobs but had skills that would be extremely useful in the Reserve. Equally, the Reserve could give people skills that would ultimately passport them into work.
Secondly, she asked if the process to qualify as a member of the TA would be looked at to make it more welcoming, supportive and less amateurish and chaotic. Many people were lost because the pipeline was broken and potential recruits got frustrated with the process. Apparently, the fastest route took 8 months although it was more common to take 14 - 18 months due to the need for medicals, etcetera.
General Houghton reassured her on both counts, saying they too had found the bureaucracy around recruiting challenging, even more so for an ex-Regular to move directly into the Reserve and that Graeme Lamb had been the Commission’s conscience on this throughout. It was a tragedy that the MoD had failed to continue using and exploiting the investment it had made in the Regulars and this was out of kilter with international partners.
Madeleine Moon MP asked if it was correct that if one did not join the Reserves within two years, all ones skill sets were discounted.
General Houghton replied that this was correct. It was difficult, although not impossible, to retain rank on transfer, but regardless of whether or not it was possible within the terms and conditions of service, it was very difficult in practice. Both as Head of the Commission and the Vice Chief he would ensure the procedures were streamlined and taken forward, but as he only became aware of the 14/15 day benefit problem late in the day, it had not been captured in the report. He agreed it was ridiculous to have to forgo benefits to complete the TA training and then have to re-qualify.
Madeleine Moon MP added that her local TA was a Transport Regiment. However, there were drivers who could not join the TA because of rules restricting the number of hours they could drive; they could not exceed the limit on their tachograph. MoD needed to look at people with HGV licences who were being prevented from volunteering because of other legislation.
General Houghton said he would not formally respond to this, but when the social history of the late 20th and early 21st century was written, this Reserve study would be a case history of the degree to which the military had succumbed to process. Without wanting to sound political, petty legislation had cast us all in gloom and Defence had become intimidated by everything from Health and Safety through to Euro legislation. The amount of precious time the Reservists spent on the administrative process was a large part of the overhead in a military unit and it kept them from training and getting ready for what they had joined up to do.
Jack Lopresti MP said it was excellent that there was a possibility of whole units being deployed and added that it was appalling that it could take 6-9 months for a new recruit’s pay to start coming through. He hoped the Review, by beefing up the Reserve and increasing its training and funding, would enhance the ‘One Army’ con-cept.
General Houghton replied that a central theme of the Report was the concept of the Whole Force. Rather than seeing the armed forces through the optic of a single human component, one should look at the human capability of defence through its uniformed element, Regular and Reserve; its civilian element, the civil servant and contractor, and what was wanted was the most cost-effective mix of all four types. This would not necessarily be fixed in time, but would become dynamic over time and the right terms and conditions of service were needed to allow a certain amount of flexibility of movement between types, so that someone who started as a Regular could become a Reservist and vice-versa. There was a need to create a whole force where the movement of individuals was more fluid.
Jack Lopresti MP said that concerning sub-unit deployments the feedback from Reservists who had been mobilised, and from colleagues and peers, was that Reservists tended to get jobs such as force protection that meant staying in camp. Whereas, when backfilling, they were slotted into a role where there was no difference between a Reservist and a Regular colleague. He hoped that the increase in funding would go some way to removing the discrepancy.
General Houghton said the Forces were conditioned by the training requirements of Helmand and in particular the virulent nature of the environment. One needed to look beyond this to get the training levels right. If one could get the partnering right between Regular and Reserve units and if the force generation cycle of sub-units within Reserve units made them available for a high readiness year, more routine mobilisation of Reserves would be possible. This would probably, but not necessarily, be at sub-unit level and if Cyprus went to two unaccompanied six-month tours in the Sovereign Base areas, he did not see why infantry units could not do it; it could be similar in UFOR in Bosnia.
Julian Brazier MP pointed out that 3 Royal Anglian, a TA Battalion, was in Cyprus and two units who had had the opportunity to exercise in the Falklands had said that it too would be popular and provide a great opportunity.
Madeleine Moon MP wondered that if there was going to be a new role and focus for Reserves, whether a new relationship with GPs and local health services had been looked at to ensure that the Reservist was flagged up and an eye kept on them in particular for post traumatic stress disorder. This would ensure that matters that linked back to service could be picked up at an early stage.
General Houghton replied that this specific issue had not been flagged up, but that it had been in terms of giving Reservists the same access to medical and dental preparation.
Madeleine Moon MP said that in matters such as excessive drinking, small early indicators might help one to pick something up before it became a problem. This sort of thing needed serious consideration and it could become an exemplar for the Regulars.
Keith Mans said that from an NHS meeting in Hampshire he understood that GPs had to include veterans, which included Reserves, in their records. However, he believed that they were behind in updating medical records after people left the Forces, but were beginning to do so because they had contacted the PCTs about it. He then asked if the money mentioned by the Secretary of State that ‘the Government would proceed with a £1.5 million investment package over the next ten years, with £400 million in this Parliament, to enhance the capability of the reserves and consequently increase their trained strength’, had been earmarked.
General Houghton said Annex B to the Report showed what the money was allocated against, but with an important footnote that about £192M of the PR11 measures targeted against the Reserve had been bought out. They had looked at a range of other things, such as Special Forces and matters to do with recruiting, marketing, training levels, and improving the Proposition. There were also good ideas, such as using a Field Hospital for humanitarian operations. He would not say absolutely the best way for the MoD to spend this money and strong independent governance would be needed to make certain it went to the Reserves and was not highjacked for something else.
Keith Mans thought this followed on well from the Levene Report, giving more autonomy over finance to the three Service Chiefs.
General Houghton agreed that that this should work through delegated empowerment of the Service Chiefs, but that he was mindful that there remained the chance that they might spend new money on the Regulars. That was why the Commission had proposed a system of governance involving refreshed direction to the RFCAs across the breadth of their Reserves’ responsibilities; this was in addition to their providing independent advice to the Defence Council and Ministers on Reserve matters. In addition to revised external governance arrangements, the strategic internal system needed to be transformed and the Commission had recommended the establishment of a Reserves Executive Committee within the MoD, chaired by the Vice Chief.
Marc Francois MP welcomed these recommendations and then Julian Radcliffe asked how to make certain in future that political intervention would not be needed to rectify the MoD’s own decision-making process, which he thought had gone wrong in the area of the RFCAs. They were supposed to provide that national counterweight but no longer had the national influence to be able to do this.
General Houghton replied that under governance the Report reinforced the role of the RFCAs to lay before Government every year a statement on the state of the Reserves and it had recommended that an executive committee of the Reserves be established to report to the new Defence Board. It would be a more robust governance mechanism, both externally and internally, which would be linked to a 5-yearly Defence Review and the recommendations of the report would permit the enabling conditions to be put in place to allow for a greater rebalancing between Regulars and Reserves. For the foreseeable future he was confident that this matter would be of sufficient prominence and importance and that the report put sufficient weight and profile on the issue of governance that it should not happen again by default.
Julian Brazier MP asked General Greg Smith, Secretary to the Commission and Assistant Chief of Defence Staff, Reserves and Cadets, if there was anything he wished to add,
Gen Greg Smith said he did not think there was much he could add, other than it had been quite a journey over the nine months since the Commission was established by the Prime Minister. As a Reservist, he was sure there would be thousands of others up and down the line looking at the Report with relief, as there was now a charted course out into the future.
Julian Brazier MP finished with a huge thank you to General Sir Nick for the staggering amount of time he had put into the Commission, given the Chief of the Defence Staff’s early comment ‘you do realise you’re taking a lot of time out of the busiest diary in the whole of this building’. He noted that the process had not always been a bed of roses; there had been occasions when there had been differing opinions and different views but he had remained the model of good humour throughout. The Commission was very lucky to have had General Sir Nick Houghton to lead it and as a result a first class document had been produced. He also thanked General Greg and the team in the MOD who had played a big role.
Col (Retd.) Hugh Purcell OBE DL, Honorary Clerk to the APGRF&C.