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Territorial Army

Volume 407: debated on Monday 23 June 2003

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How many Territorial Army soldiers were deployed on Operation Telic; and how many are still in Iraq. [120546]

A total of 4,592 Territorial Army personnel have been deployed on Operation Telic, both at home bases in the United Kingdom and in the Gulf region. Currently 1,400 TA personnel remain in the Gulf region.

I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the outstanding contribution that the Territorial Army made to Operation Telic—a contribution that can only be enhanced by the arrival of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who was called out today.

When I was in the region last week, one brigade commander told me that during Operation Telic 14 per cent. of his troops had been TA troops. That level has now risen to 25 per cent., which must be evidence for the fact that TA soldiers are being kept out there for longer than their regular counterparts. The Secretary of State will know that, under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, if a TA soldier has been called up for six months or longer, he may not be called up again for a further three years. Given that that is the case, what will he do if he requires those soldiers' skills again before 2006?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generous and appropriate tribute to members of the TA, who made an outstanding contribution in Iraq and continue to do so. We anticipated that contribution in the strategic defence review and it has fully vindicated the policy that it set out.

As to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that TA personnel were remaining in theatre for longer than their regular counterparts, with one or two notable exceptions, that is simply not the case. The exceptions are largely in the medical field. When regular forces have returned to the United Kingdom, the associated TA soldiers have done so as well. As to the future, we obviously did not call out all members of the TA for the operation. Should there be a requirement for a major operation in future, we will obviously have plenty of people to call upon should it be necessary to do so.

I have a constituent who was called up by the TA on 21 January and is currently serving in the Gulf. He has yet to receive his £1,200 annual bounty and neither he nor apparently any of his regiment have received their £150-a-month separation allowance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an unacceptable way of treating our troops, and that it is bringing undue financial pressure on their families? I have passed on the individual details and I hope that he will investigate the matter urgently, but can he inform the House whether it is a general problem?

I am not aware that it is a general problem, but if my hon. Friend lets me have the particular details, I shall ensure that they are investigated as a matter of urgency.

In praising my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who is on his way to the Gulf, I should declare an interest to the House, as I shall be eating a dinner on his behalf in October.

Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne), does the Secretary of State accept that the best way of ensuring healthy reserve forces is for the Ministry of Defence to deal with the units concerned in organising its call-out arrangements, rather than sending out central memorandums like some sort of credit agency? Does he accept that, in organising those arrangements, there is a huge difference in standards between different parts of the Army and the other two forces? For example, the Royal Marines and Royal Engineers get it right, while the infantry directorate is arguably the worst.

I am certainly willing to consider those arrangements. If the hon. Gentleman has specific details about where he believes there were problems, they will be investigated as part of the process that we are undertaking to learn lessons from this deployment. In preparing for the conflict in the Gulf, I had the opportunity to visit Chilwell, the centre for call-out. In speaking to a great number of people from the Territorial Army and the reservists, I did not come across the sort of complaints that he mentions. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by Chilwell on behalf of the TA and reservists. I look to the future and to ensuring that, if there are problems with the arrangements, we get them right.

Will the Secretary of State consider sending some of the Territorials to look at the mobile labs in the form of two trailers in northern Iraq? A report in The Observer on 15 June said that the system was originally sold by a British company, Marconi, as a command and control system. If any Territorials investigated the trailers, would they find a "Made in Britain" stamp on them? If this is a smoking gun in terms of weapons of mass destruction, why did we apparently sell them?

I do not think that anyone suggested that this was an example of a smoking gun. It has rightly been suggested that this was a gun and that the mobile laboratories were wholly consistent with the description of mobile laboratories given by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his evidence to the United Nations Security Council. That remains the position as far as coalition forces are concerned.

May I warmly endorse the words of the Secretary of State and my hon. Friends about the distinguished and admirable service of which the TA have yet again proved themselves capable in the Gulf? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that however good the TA and the rest of our soldiers are, unless there is a very significant improvement in the internal security situation in Iraq, all the hopes we have for the improvement of the lives of ordinary people living in Iraq will come to naught? Must we not reassess whether there are enough troops on the ground; whether we need to put some more troops into Baghdad; and whether we should call Lord Ashdown back from Bosnia and ask him to sit alongside Paul Bremer to see what he can do to help?

As I understand it, Lord Ashdown is to meet Paul Bremer in due course, and no doubt they will have some interesting conversations about the similarities between the situation in the early days in Bosnia and the current situation in Iraq. I counsel the hon. Gentleman against assuming that the isolated incidents in certain parts of the suburbs of Baghdad mean that there is widespread disorder right across Iraq. That is simply not the case. There are obviously elements who are continuing to resist coalition forces, and they are being dealt with, but it is by no means a generalised problem across Iraq. Indeed, the security situation in Iraq is largely good and improving.

How many members of the Territorial Army are engaged in the search for weapons of mass destruction? If it is the Government's case that those weapons have been hidden, have they engaged in any estimate of the number and type of vehicles necessary to transport such massive armaments?

I do not have the figures on whether any members of the Territorial Army a re currently engaged in the search for weapons of mass destruction, but if so they will be very small in number. Nevertheless, it is important that we continue that search.

I would counsel my hon. Friend against the suggestion that we are necessarily looking for a massive stock of, for example, chemical or biological weapons. A very small quantity of a biological agent could easily destroy the population of a major city. We are searching not for a large weapon, but for an enormously dangerous one. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that.

I join in the tributes paid to the Territorial Army, especially to the TA call-out centre at Chilwell. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that there were many problems with the call-out, and that he will wish to address them rather than to dismiss them.

Last week, a TA commanding officer told me that one third of his battalion would remain fully mobilised for the foreseeable future. That perhaps reflects the comments by Major General Freddie Viggers—the senior officer serving in the US military command headquarters in Baghdad—who said that British forces would be in Iraq for at least another four years. Given that, and the increased demands on the TA for security measures at home, has not the Government's decision to cut the TA by 18,000 soldiers in 1998 turned out to be reckless, short-sighted and irresponsible, as we warned at the time?

Not only did I not dismiss the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) earlier: I said that I would consider them. It is important to get it right. As for the suggestion that British forces will be there for as long as four years, various people have made various estimates, but the Government's ambition is to be able to remove British forces from Iraq as soon as the security situation allows it and as soon as the Iraqi people can take responsibility for their own affairs. I paid my tribute to the TA, and I want an expanding TA to continue to provide that kind of contribution to our regular forces.