The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Vernon Coaker Headshot

We Can't Take Risks With Britain's Defence - Our Armed Forces Deserve Better Than This

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

One of the first things I said as shadow defence secretary was that Labour will work with the government when we think it is doing the right thing. We want to do what is best for Britain and for the future of our country and its armed forces.

So, we have been reasonable and constructive during every stage of the Defence Reform Bill, which is being debated in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

But we have a duty to voice our concerns, shared by MPs from all parties, that ministers are gambling with Britain's defence and security and the ability of our armed forces to protect our country. The government's defence reforms are a mess, and David Cameron and his defence secretary have nobody to blame but themselves.

I want to be clear. Labour supports an enhanced and more heavily integrated role for the reserves. That's why we're putting forward an amendment that would change the law to allow employees time off for reserve duties, in a way that is fair to employers. We've set a threshold that means it will only apply to firms with more than 50 workers to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses aren't adversely affected. It's a clear statement that the work done by our reserves, and the service they give our country, should be supported and valued by everyone.

And it's because we support and value our armed forces - regular and reserve - that we worry about pressing ahead with a reduction to the number in the regular Army without an adequate uplift in the number of reserves. The defence secretary has said he wants to recruit 10,000 new reservists by 2018 to make up for the 20,000 fewer soldiers in the regular Army. But it's clear that the government is not on course to meet this target, and it seems to me that they aren't doing anything about it when figures released by the government show the untrained strength of the Army Reserve has declined in the past year. It doesn't bode well for the government's plans.

There are serious concerns about the government's refusal to publish detailed reserve recruitment figures - despite ministers promising they would - because we have no way of knowing whether the government is on course to meet its own targets. A previous report showed that the figures fell far short. The failure to provide transparency on its own numbers can only lead to the conclusion that the defence secretary has something to hide.

That's why we're supporting an amendment tomorrow that would make the government provide a report detailing the viability and cost-effectiveness of the plans set out in the White Paper on reserves. It would mean that both Houses must approve the report and the secretary of state's subsequent recommendation in order for the implementation of the reforms to reserve forces to continue.

We're forcing the defence secretary to take responsibility. He needs to give us the figures, prove they are cost-effective, and provide assurances that he can meet the five-year timeframe and the targets he's set himself.

Labour is proud of our armed forces and we support the principle of integrating the reserves to play a larger role. But we're clear that reductions to the regular Army must only take place at a pace that allows adequate uplift in the reserves to meet the shortfall. Otherwise we are taking risks with our country's defence and security. And that's not an option.

Around the Web

Defence Reform Bill 2013-14 — UK Parliament

Defence reforms spark rebellion

Tory MPs risk damaging Army reserves, warns Philip Hammond

UK plan to outsource arms buying hit

Fisa court order that allowed NSA surveillance is revealed for first time