by Jim Murphy
Yesterday, the government announced a public consultation on the future of reservists. We support an enhanced role for reserve forces as we know they can make a bigger contribution to regular forces and our country’s ability to project force around the world to achieve national ambitions.
In recent years reservists have operated in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya. 29 have lost their lives. We pay tribute to their courage, which is a pertinent sentiment in this week of all weeks, remembrance week.
Labour welcomes much of the content of today’s announcement as we recognise that reservists need to modernise. We support considering a symbolic name change from “territorial army” to “army reserve”, for example, to reflect their contemporary composition.
This government has announced extreme cuts in regular forces. 30,000 will be made redundant, with 20,000 from the Army and 5,000 from both Navy and RAF. Reserve numbers will be doubled to compensate. Reserve numbers, however, are going up by 15,000, a figure far smaller than those being lost so there is a capability shortfall in manpower the government have yet to adequately explain.
Furthermore, we have already heard from the consultation’s co-author, Julian Brazier MP, that there is a backlog of applicants who cannot sign up because the bureaucracy in place is inadequate.
In light of this, does it really make sense to cut in regulars regardless of whether the target for reserves is met or not? Given that it is this government’s policy to rely on reservists to meet their defence ambitions, wouldn’t it make more sense to make the cut in regulars contingent upon growth in reserves’ capability?
An expansion in reservists will only be a success if there is increased support for employers. We are keen on the proposed “kite mark”, which would recognise those companies who encourage their employees to participate in the reserves. We would suggest, however, that this be extended to identify companies which employ veterans and military spouses, which would be a clear signal from government that we want business to help reintegrate service-leavers and families.
Unfortunately, we got little further detail from the defence secretary today on how they plan to support employers. We do not know whether those who already employ reserves will be rewarded and we are unclear about the future of anti-discrimination legislation to ensure that whether in the workplace or in an interview panel being a Reservist is not a barrier.
Employers receive huge benefits from employing those with military experience, whether in vocational, management or logistical skills, and we are enthusiastic that there is a public campaign to raise awareness of the mutual benefits of employing reservists.
Training is another vital issue, since an enhanced frontline role must be matched by a proportionate improvement. There is much talk of an “integrated concept” between reserves and regulars, and this should not be limited to operations but extend to preparation also. We therefore want to see reservists training alongside regulars with, wherever possible, the advanced kit and equipment they would use on the frontline.
Today’s announcement comes at a time when medical analysis shows us that reservists are more susceptible than regulars to post-deployment mental health problems and PTSD. Reservists return to civilian life without decompression with those with shared experiences and do not have access to military medical services. We must see post-deployment care improve, for example with education for employers or greater access to military medical services. We will be asking more of reserves and should give more back to prevent the spread of invisible injury.
Reservists can be a bridge between military and civilian communities. One manifestation of this is reservists being able to use their expert civilian skills, whether in cyber security, engineering or handling chemical weapons, in uniform and we want to see the use of niche civilian skills expanded in military contexts.
Today the government revealed that they have a policy without a clear plan. There are insufficient details as to how an expansion of the reserves is going to be achieved. Rather than a strategy, today we have a series of unanswered questions. Our national security will depend on the government’s policy, and our reservists’ professionalism. We all hope they get it right.
Jim Murphy is the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for defence