Army Reserve rebellion in prospect among Tory MPs

Reservists from the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment training in Croatia under the supervision of regulars from the 2nd Battalion Some Tories fear there will not be enough reservists to fill gaps left by cuts

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The government faces a rebellion later by some Tory MPs over plans to expand the Army Reserve to 30,000 to offset cuts of 20,000 regular troops.

More than 20 Tory MPs have signed an amendment to a coalition defence bill, aimed at delaying the plan until its further impact has been discussed.

With Labour planning to support the amendment, the vote could be close.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond urged his MPs to reconsider, saying it would "cause confusion" in the Army.

As a compromise, Mr Hammond has offered to hold an annual debate in parliament to review progress in recruiting reservists.

BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said there had been no attempt to hide the serious concerns at the Ministry of Defence about the prospect of a vote that could delay its plans to increase the size and expertise of the Army Reserve from about 19,000 to 30,000.

Tories behind the amendment to the Defence Reform Bill fear there will not be enough reservists to fill the gaps left by substantial cuts in regular army units - due to come in by 2020 - and they are urging the government to publish up-to-date reservist recruitment numbers.

Graphic There are currently 19,000 trained reservists

The rebel amendment would force the government to assess the "viability and cost-effectiveness" of the proposals and delay any reforms until the report had been supported by both MPs and peers.

But Mr Hammond said the cuts to the regular forces could not be reversed and any delays to the Army Reserve recruitment process could cause chaos.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The Army has set out a course. It is executing its plan. To halt that or to seek to reverse it at this stage would simply cause confusion in the ranks."

'Wrong signal'

The defence secretary said he was confident that the Army Reserve could recruit enough numbers to hit the 30,000 target, saying the "conventional wisdom" that employers did not like their staff taking time off to take part was simply not true.

"We are beginning to see already the dividend of a big recruitment campaign which started just few weeks ago and what the army managers who are running this thing would say is 'give us a chance to show what we can do, give us a chance to demonstrate the effect of the initiatives we have been taking as we start to see that feed through first into more applications, then more raw recruits and finally into increased numbers of trained reservists'."

Start Quote

Let's be clear - some of the accusations against this amendment have bordered on almost hysteria”

End Quote John Baron Conservative MP

He said the Army Reserve, formerly known as the Territorial Army, had been "run down, ignored, underfunded and marginalised" over the past 20 years, both by politicians and the regular army, and he was determined to put it "centre stage" as part of creating a more "agile" armed forces fit for the 21st Century

Mr Hammond has written to Tory MPs urging them not to back the rebel amendment, tabled by former soldier John Baron, saying it would send the wrong signal to those hoping to join the reserves and give "a significant fillip" to Labour.

Compromise

But Mr Baron said the defence secretary had over-reacted.

"Let's be clear - some of the accusations against this amendment have bordered on almost hysteria," he told Today.

"I mean, we've been told that they're wrecking amendments, we've been told that we're trying to reverse the Army Reserve plans. We're told we want Victorian-age armies. No, none of that is true.

"All we're saying is, delay the implementation of the reservist plans until Parliament has had time to scrutinise their viability and cost-effectiveness."

Mr Hammond is expected to offer to hold an annual debate in Parliament on reservists in an effort to win over Conservative critics of army restructuring.

The BBC understands Mr Hammond will agree to accept an amendment from one of his Tory critics, Julian Brazier, calling for an annual review of progress in recruiting reservists.

Bob Stewart, the ex-soldier turned Tory MP, said ministers should not be getting rid of full-time soldiers "before we have the people due to replace them in position".

But the Chief of the General Staff, Gen Sir Peter Wall, said the changes taking place would "provide a coherent, integrated force of regulars and reserves that will deliver the capability the government requires of us".

"We are well on our way to implementing this plan," he added. "To reverse course at this stage would be destabilising and damaging. Increasing and rebuilding the Army Reserve is crucial to delivering the fighting force of the future.

"To do otherwise would leave a gap in our capability and deprive talented young people of an opportunity to benefit from military service."

Labour said it was not calling for changes to the regular army to be reversed but it was worried whether the reserves could be built to adequate strength.

"There are serious concerns about the government's failure to publish detailed reserve recruitment figures despite ministers promising they would," shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said. "We have no way of knowing whether the government is on course to meet its own targets."

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