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Territorial Army

Volume 454: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

The number of new recruits into the Territorial Army remains relatively high, but we are not complacent and we continue to focus our efforts on improving TA manning, which is a key priority for the commander of regional forces. A number of key initiatives have been and are being introduced to improve recruitment and retention, including project one Army recruiting, which is designed to provide greater integration and coherence between the TA and the Regular Army recruiting offices and which will begin in April 2007; future marketing campaigns that specifically target the TA; and more fundamentally, the changes introduced to the TA structures, which are already having a positive impact on TA manning levels.

Does the Minister acknowledge that recruitment to the TA is increasingly hampered by the fact that employers are reluctant to take on TA soldiers, who may be called upon to undertake long tours of duty overseas? What steps are the Government taking to protect the employment prospects of those brave men and women, who are serving their country?

I recently met a group of east midlands employers at a reception in the Ministry of Defence and had a good talk to them about the various issues. They represented both the private and public sector, and all of them were very positive. Of course, it is very important that employers continue to support our reservists and TA, and we continue to be in dialogue with them. Very few people have a real problem with their future employment; but clearly, we monitor the issue regularly.

May I tell the Minister that, this weekend, I spent some time with the former Gurkhas who have come to live in Thurrock—and very welcome they are, too? They tell me that the prospect of their joining the TA after retiring as regulars has never been offered to them, and it occurs to me—I put it to the Minister—first, that Gurkhas should be so invited and, secondly, that there must be a big reservoir of former regulars who are not formally approached about rejoining through the TA. They could produce a cadre of well trained, highly professional and motivated skilled soldiers. I particularly commend the Gurkhas to him. We could have Gurkha territorial companies or have them in the mainstream Army.

I join my hon. Friend in praising the work, professionalism and courage of the Gurkhas in the British Army, in which, of course, they have a long history. He may be confused about the issue of nationality and when people become eligible, so I am happy to write to him to give him some more detail.

I remind the House of my interest. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 gives some protection to TA soldiers who are on mobilised service to go back to their jobs, but it does not give any guarantee of promotion. Some TA soldiers are now coming back from their second or third operational tour and facing a decision about sacrificing their primary career to continue with their secondary career. Given that fact, does not the Minister feel that the current level of TA mobilised service is simply unsustainable?

I obviously recognise the service that the hon. Gentleman has given and place that fact on record. Currently, about 1,300 reservists are mobilised—about 3.7 per cent. of the strength—but I recognise the important point that he makes. Last week, when I visited Germany, I talked to reservists about some of the employment issues that they may face. Of course, that is something that we continue to work on. As I told the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), most employers are very good and very supportive. Of course, when the reservists and TA go back, they take with them a lot of good skills and experience that can be used in the world of commerce and business, and so on. We should obviously praise that and highlight it. I obviously take account of what the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) says, and we continue to do such things when we are in dialogue with employers.

The TA in my constituency has, as my hon. Friend knows, provided front-line medical support to operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a wonderful credit not only to the TA but to its relationship with the national health service, from which many of those people come. Will my hon. Friend come to meet those people in Ellesmere Port? Many more people in the NHS could be persuaded to join the TA, and a visit from him could encourage them to do so.

The simple answer is yes. I place on record my praise and thanks for the work that those people have been doing.

Does the Minister accept that there would be less pressure on recruiting people to the Territorial Army if more was done to retain those already in the TA? What are the Government doing about that?

There are a lot of initiatives in terms of retention and recruitment. As of 1 September 2006, the strength of the TA was 1.6 per cent. higher than it had been; we have seen an increase of about 500 people in the TA in the last 12 months. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report from the National Audit Office which was produced earlier this year, he will find that there is quite a lot of enthusiasm for staying in the TA. Some of those people have decided to join the regulars.