AN attempt by Tory rebels to give Parliament the power to scrutinise plans to replace regular Army soldiers with reservists failed tonight.
An amendment tabled by Tory rebel John Baron, which would have delayed plans to expand the reserve force in place of full-time soldiers until it had been approved by MPs and peers, was defeated by 306 votes to 252, with a Government majority of 54.
Under the proposals put forward by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, the number of Army reserves will be increased to 30,000 while the regular force will be cut by 20,000 within seven years.
Mr Baron (Basildon and Billericay) had said MPs should have been given the chance to “re-examine the logic” of the plans. When it was listed on the order paper his amendment was supported by 26 MPs, including 22 Tories.
But in a bid to stop a large-scale rebellion, Mr Hammond agreed to an amendment tabled by the Tory backbencher Julian Brazier (Canterbury), which will require annual external reports to Parliament on the recruitment of Army reserves.
Mr Hammond told MPs any delay implementing the legislation would send a “negative signal” to reservists.
He said: “The Government has set out its plan. We are legislating to deliver it. The Army has embraced it wholeheartedly.
“For Parliament to introduce additional trip wires at this stage would create uncertainty, undermine the message about rollout of improved terms and conditions and cast doubt about our intention to spend the sizeable sum of money - the £1.8 billion - that we have available to support this agenda.
“In short, it would make the whole agenda into a political football.”
His comments came after Mr Baron said it would be “not unwise” to look at the proposals again. He said the programme was in such a state the Army reserve Territorial Army courses scheduled for January and February next year have been cancelled due to a lack of recruits.
He told the Commons: “The plan was not to wind down the regulars to a certain degree without first making sure we had the reservists to take their place.
“Now the plan has changed. It’s a question of national priorities as to whether more money should be committed to defence, which is the first priority of any government.”
Labour former defence secretary Bob Ainsworth backed Mr Baron’s amendment.
He said: “I believe that the growth of the reserve element of defence in all services has huge benefits... my worries are that we will not (have a gap), my worries are the potential on-going downgrading of capability if we do not get this right.”
Tory MP Peter Bone (Wellingborough) said he was also unhappy about the Government’s idea.
He said: “I am very concerned because if the Government is saying it thinks it has real problems with this and it can’t carry Parliament, the executive is trying to implement something that Parliament doesn’t approve. That is totally unacceptable.”
But Mr Brazier warned Mr Baron’s amendment would have sent a “devastating message” to the reserve forces if it had been passed.
He said: “I would dearly love to see more money spent on defence... but the reality is that the money isn’t there. The effect of his clause will be to devastate our attempts to rebuild our reserve forces by putting them all on hold.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron accused Labour of “naked opportunism” after it said it would support Mr Baron’s amendment.
But shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker said the amendment would have given Mr Hammond time to fix the problems in recruiting reservists and prove the plan was cost-effective.
Mr Coaker said: “We are supporting the amendment because we want the Defence Secretary to take more responsibility for these reforms.
“We consider it better to have a pause until the MoD has managed to get recruitment back on track and has a plan accepted by Parliament than be forced to ditch the entire reform a few years down the line when it’s clear that it isn’t working.
“A pause before progressing with the current reforms would give you time to fix the problems, to provide us with the figures, to prove your plan is cost-effective and to show that you can meet the time frame you have set yourself.”
Ministry of Defence plans to increase the size of the Army Reserve from 19,000 to 30,000, as the regular Army is cut from 102,000 to 82,000, have faced significant opposition on the Conservative benches. The reforms are known as creating Army 2020.