I am delighted to have secured the debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss the report “Recognising the Opportunity”, which was recently published by the new all-party group on reserve forces. I should start by passing on the apologies of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who has had to pull out of the debate at the last moment because of another defence engagement of which the Minister will be well aware.
In the course of putting the report together, we took testimony from sources ranging from the commander of regional forces, Lieutenant General John McColl, to some Toms in 4 Para. I thank the Ministry of Defence and most particularly the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), for all the help and support that we received from the MOD and, indeed, individual units. We were delighted to have the Minister of State address the group and that we had such a frank discussion with him.
We also took evidence from Richard Holmes, the first reservist to be director of reserves and cadets, from the chairman and chief executive of the reserve forces and cadets associations, and from Lord Glenarthur, the chairman of SaBRE—Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers. Our visits to 4 Para and 256 field hospital, both of which are excellent units, provided valuable insights. Members of the group keep in touch with many units up and down the country on an individual basis.
Much has changed in the 10 years since the Government came to office and carried out the strategic defence review. On the downside, there has been a huge cut in establishment numbers—proportionately it is much larger than that for the Regular Army. On the positive side, the group welcomes the way in which reserve forces have been used on active duty. Starting with the Kosovo war, substantial numbers of troops from the Territorial Army and its sister bodies have been deployed to war zones, and they have performed admirably. In Kosovo, almost 10 per cent. of those deployed were from the reserve forces, and reservists made up one fifth of the Army in Iraq and one eighth in Afghanistan at the peak in 2004. Lieutenant General McColl told us that the situation has now stabilised with about 1,200 being called up each year for duties in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a very large continuing commitment for a very small force—barely 30,000 troops are deployable—with full-time civilian jobs.
Praise has come from all quarters. One REME—Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers—commanding officer from the Kosovo campaign commented:
“Thank goodness for the Territorial Army!”
The CO went on to say that TA personnel
“have been quite excellent. To a man, they are enthusiastic, cheerful and willing…the additional skills some of them have brought from their civilian occupations have already been an extra bonus.”
That ability to provide value added has been seen in our more recent conflicts. We report on the experiences in relation to Iraq of Major Andrew Alderson, a former director of the merchant bank Lazard and a long-serving TA officer. He was appointed at very short notice to take charge for a year of the entire economic planning and development brief for all four provinces of the British sector. I have been encouraged by reports that I have received from units that have sent soldiers—including, in April, from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in Canterbury—about how quickly reservists were able to reach Regular standards. The reservist mobilisation centre at Chilwell played a pivotal role in that.
4 Para, which the group visited, has had two highly successful deployments. One involved sending a formed company to Iraq and the other, more recently, involved sending a large group of individual reinforcements to Afghanistan. Next year, despite the fact that almost all its trained soldiers have been on one deployment or more, it will once again manage to send a formed company to Helmand province, where I am sure that 4 Para will distinguish itself again. We were told on our visit to 256 field hospital that from next year TA medical reserves will be running our medical effort in Afghanistan, sending out two TA field hospitals at a time on three-month rotations for the whole year—a remarkable challenge.
However, that success story hides a deeply worrying fact: the TA is becoming smaller. In all but one of the past six years, recruitment numbers have fallen below those for resignation and retirement. The reserves are considerably below their official establishment; the TA is almost a quarter down on what it should be. The problem is even more acute in respect of junior officers, although the figures for them are masked by a tendency to promote much older people to fill the gaps. Without good officers and non-commissioned officers, the whole operation is in danger. They are needed to provide leadership for the men and women under their command.
The problem can be tackled, but to do so the TA needs to focus on a way of doing things that takes account of its inherent strengths and recognises the inherent difficulties in volunteer service. Throughout the report, we stress the advantage—the key factor—of the TA being local. That is its greatest strength. Indeed, at a time when fewer and fewer people have any uniformed experience, the TA and the cadet forces with which it works so closely are now the only active link to the Army in many parts of the country.
The advantages of the TA’s diffused structure and links into the community are many. The reserve forces and cadets associations know best where to advertise and which employers are positive, which can make a huge difference to recruiting. That is why the group was concerned to hear that Regular brigade headquarters has just taken charge of recruiting. Such a move took place in Australia 10 years ago, when regular and reserve recruiting were regionalised and integrated. The recruitment rate of reservists halved almost overnight, and a Senate inquiry was set up, but the numbers have never recovered there.
The new system can be made to work, but only if brigade HQs work closely with the RFCAs and, crucially, with the units themselves. The signs so far are not encouraging. Let me take Kent as an example. The Kent county committee of the RFCAs meets in Maidstone in an office very close to the offices of the Kent Messenger Group—one of its longest-serving reporters, who still works with the group, was also a long-serving TA officer—and the studios of Meridian Television, with which it has links. Its membership has good links with local employers, but its recruiting task and budget have been moved to 2 Brigade headquarters and to 145 Brigade, which is on the other side. However, let us focus on the eastern side.
2 Brigade is based in Dover, and there is already a feeling in TA circles that the recruiting effort has gone off the boil and is now focused almost entirely on the Regular Army. Who can blame Regular recruiting teams, given the problems in the Regular Army, for focusing on the Regular Army? However, even if that were not the case, it is very difficult to see how a group of people who change posts every couple of years and are based in Dover, which is far away from all the media and centres of power, can possibly do as good a job as the local team.
I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s comparison between the Regular Army and the Territorial Army and the treatment that they receive. Does he share my concern about the way in which the joint personnel administration scheme has been rolled out to the Territorial Army? That appears to be somewhat to its disadvantage; it has disadvantaged a number of Territorial soldiers, which, of course, is likely to annoy and upset them and cause them to leave. If we want a professional Territorial service, inevitably people will start relying on some of that income. In contradistinction to the weekend warrior, part-timer ethos that used to apply, the service is now very much professional. In turn, it requires professional services from the Regular Army, including the JPA, but that does not appear to be happening.
Yes, I share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend, who, of course, has been a distinguished serving reservist in the past two years in Iraq with the Royal Naval Reserve, which the group hopes to consider in its next report. It is interesting that the measures that have been most successful in preparing reservists for operational service are those whereby they are handled separately. I am thinking particularly of the situation at Chilwell. The scheme to which my hon. Friend refers appears to be throwing up various problems because there is an attempt to consider reservists simply as part-time regulars.
That brings me neatly to the nature of a volunteer reservist. Unlike a Regular soldier, who has, of course, also volunteered, a member of the TA will have volunteered on top of his full-time civilian career. Like those who work in charities, youth groups, sports clubs and even, dare I say it, political parties, TA volunteers have full-time jobs and, in most cases, families, which take priority in their lives, except when they are mobilised. Given their outside interests and experiences, TA volunteers bring a huge amount to the services at a very low cost, but they are also prone to leave the TA if the service ceases to be challenging and fun. That is why some things work best for the TA when they are designed with the citizen soldier in mind—I have just mentioned Chilwell.
The challenge of TA officer recruitment can be addressed, although it is not so much of a local issue in an era when such a high proportion of potential officers go to university outside their own area. Many serve in university officer training corps, which train personnel to a high standard, and setting up a central system to contact those people a year or so after they have left university and settled into their civilian jobs would make an enormous difference and would cost almost nothing. Similarly, like the Americans and Australians, we should co-ordinate officer development courses and university vocations so that students who are short of money but keen on officer training can accelerate their training programmes and do their special-to-arms training during their time at university. That would enable them to become first-class troop and platoon leaders when they leave.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and leading it so ably. I served in the Oxford university officer training corps and joined a unit near my place of work when I left university. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Ministry of Defence should also look at encouraging students to join a TA unit on a dedicated scheme during their gap year before going to university, perhaps in return for an enhanced student loan while they are studying?
Yes. My hon. Friend points to one of the—dare I say it—rather imaginative proposals that the all-party group included in its list of recommendations. Of course, his suggestion would have a small cost attached to it, whereas the two things that I mentioned earlier would be virtually free—they are just a question of getting organised. None the less, such a proposal would provide an excellent return, as well as providing officers for the Regular Army, and I thank my hon. Friend for raising it.
The TA must be treated as an army that supports the Regular Army as a junior partner. It must always be more than an army reserve that is just there to fill the gaps when the regulars are short of numbers. It is interesting that the United States has two volunteer reserve armies—the national guard and the US army reserve. Their structure, in terms of units, and their pay and conditions are identical, but their philosophies are totally different. The reserve is used mainly as a pool for individuals to backfill the active army, while the guard has a distinct, local identity and is usually deployed as formed units. The difference in recruitment and wastage is startling. The wastage rate in the national guard is well below two thirds of that in the army reserve, and despite the fact that the guard has suffered heavy losses in Iraq—16 people from the Louisiana brigade, which I know well, were killed during its deployment there, which, coincidentally, happened at the same time as hurricane Katrina—its website proudly proclaimed last month that it had recruited fully up to strength. The active army and the army reserve are some way from that.
As with the national guard, TA soldiers should, as far as possible, be deployed together and, usually, as a formed sub-unit, thus giving their commanders the crucial opportunity to lead their men. However, as Regular commanders press for soldiers to fill their ranks and the operational work load makes it harder to get substantial groups of territorials to leave their civilian jobs again, there is a tendency towards deployment by individual reinforcement or so-called cohort. That often provides individuals in junior ranks, such as corporals and privates, with an excellent experience, but the danger is that such an approach will predominate, with officers having no opportunity to command in the field. It is no wonder that it is becoming so hard to recruit and retain junior officers as the demands of civilian life continue to grow.
One positive step, on which I congratulate the Government, was the introduction of a two-star, part-time general in the MOD in 2004. The general has access to Ministers and the Chiefs of Staff to ensure that the volunteer reservist voice is heard in the corridors of power, and the all-party group applauds the Government on that.
Nevertheless, there is considerable concern that last year’s reorganisation of the TA, which was based on the future army strategy, threw up some serious problems. There are two dimensions to the strategy. The first related to the macro aspects, such as deciding the locations at which individual units would be based and the cap badges that they would wear. I have no problem with that, and things are, indeed, starting to settle down nicely. The big problem was with the other dimension, which related to the decision to design the TA structure on the basis of very occasional, large-scale, deliberate interventions—large-scale wars in which most of the TA would be called out, happening perhaps once in a generation—rather than of supporting enduring operations, which is what the TA actually does.
The problem was most acute in two areas: the infantry and yeomanry. The substructure of each company and yeomanry squadron, which determines what happens at each individual location, was rewritten in an unfortunate way, and that has seriously diminished TA infantry and yeomanry regiments’ ability to train and develop officers and fulfil the operational requirements on them. To focus on the infantry, there is now only one rifle platoon in each company, plus an enormous support weapons set-up, which means that companies do not have the critical mass to provide interesting training. Providing an interesting exercise requires several sub-units, usually from many miles apart, to be consolidated through a mix-and-match approach, but that is no way to develop team spirit. Therefore, the most rewarding part of being a TA officer or NCO in peace time—taking one’s troops through their paces—is, in effect, being denied to company and platoon commanders in the infantry and yeomanry. If the young professionals and managers who regularly give of their precious free time at the end of a hard working week are denied the most rewarding aspect of their job, they will soon vote with their feet, as will the men and women under them.
The macro side of the future army strategy must be allowed to settle in. I am not suggesting that a single location is reorganised, but the crucial substructure of the individual infantry company and yeomanry squadron must be rebalanced. In the case of the infantry, that means that there must be a big cut in the number of support weapons to provide enough rifle platoons, given that riflemen are the overwhelming requirement for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The all-party group’s report ends with 18 recommendations, most of which are based on the factors that I have set out. Just as we went to print, the Department for Transport announced an initiative on one of them—the problem of drivers’ hours, which affects a small yet significant number of territorials. I hope that the MOD will look hard at the other 17 recommendations.
In summary, if bright young men and women are to be attracted to the TA, it must never become a mere adjunct to the regular Army. It should integrate with the Regular Army only in so far as that is compatible with the grain of civilian life. The TA is a precious, priceless asset to this country, but it will be so only as long as it attracts good-quality men and women into its ranks. To do that, each TA unit must remain part of its local community—that is, it must remain territorial.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on the quality of the report that he and his group have produced and on securing this Adjournment debate.
Birmingham, Yardley has a Territorial Army base in Sheldon, but Birmingham has others, and it is important, in such a diverse city, that we understand what is necessary for the citizen soldier.
I do not want to reiterate everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I think that it is crucial that if someone is balancing their family and work life—which is challenging enough at times—as well as the TA, it is no good running things for the convenience of the Ministry of Defence. It is necessary to take into account the needs of the individual citizen soldiers—officers and NCOs, as well as those in the ranks—as otherwise they will vote with their feet.
There has been much discussion about encouraging members of the ethnic minority communities to join the armed forces. The Territorial Army, being territorial, obviously recruits from the local area. It was perhaps a mistake, therefore, to aim to close down inner-city branches of the TA. Although there may be concerns affecting recruitment because of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, inner-city areas are the places from which ethnic minority members could be recruited, because there are often more ethnic minority people living in them. It is crucial that the MOD does not just treat the TA as something to fill in the gaps—a convenience. It must be treated as a territorial Army in itself.
It is also necessary to be aware of employers. There are employers who are sympathetic to the idea of staff being reservists, but some certainty is needed. Again, what is done should take into account the needs of the citizen soldier and the employer; it should not be a question of saying, “Let’s move all these people where we need them, now, because it is a bit of a hassle for us to do things another way.” If their needs are taken into account, and if respect is given to the citizen soldier, recruitment will grow.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. The TA is a crucial part of British cohesion and the British armed forces. If the attitude of the Ministry of Defence improves, recruitment to the TA should grow.
It had not been my intention to contribute substantively to the debate, but as the opportunity has opened out I should like to take advantage of the Minister’s presence by raising a specific point about what happens to members of the Territorial Army when they come back from their tours of duty.
The theme that we can expect to hear a great deal of in speeches on this subject is that, although the people who are volunteer reservists may be part-time in terms of their commitment of time, the dangers that they face and the standards that they reach make them entirely comparable with the most battle-hardened, seasoned, long-time Regular. However, there is one grave difference and great disadvantage that they face at the end of their tour of duty. Having experienced all the pressures and indeed horrors of conflict, when they come back to this country they do not have the support and infrastructure of their units permanently around them, to help them to adjust to the aftermath of their experience.
We all know from history the trauma that the civilians who became warriors in world war two went through when they had to readjust to ordinary life, particularly when they were moving back into communities that had little idea of the reality of what they had experienced. In a couple of atrocious cases recently, to which I hope the Minister will refer, although they did not necessarily involve reservists, people who were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan were abused while recovering in hospital on civilian wards. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to send out a message that, however strongly people may disagree with a particular campaign, they should realise that abuse of our servicemen and women—particularly those who are wounded, and recovering in hospital—will not be tolerated.
A serious comparison can be made between the difficulties of servicemen and women who are recovering from physical wounds in hospital and those faced by people who must recover from the emotional trauma of seeing their comrades maimed or even killed in battle alongside them, and who are returning to civil society among people with little idea of what they went through. We owe a special duty to those people who volunteer, as reservists, to put themselves in harm’s way; we have a duty to ensure that they have maximum support when they come back from ever-lengthening tours of duty and have to come to terms with their experience without the support of a regular unit of professional comrades around them.
I hope that the Minister—to whom I apologise, because I shall not be able to be present for his concluding remarks—will deal with that issue and say what extra support the Government are giving specifically to reservists, to help them to cope with something that is a greater task and heavier burden for them than for their regular comrades in the Army, and indeed all three services.
I, too, had not intended to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing it and on the excellent work that the all-party group on reserve forces has done in preparing its report. I am motivated to speak partly by the remarks of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis): I entirely agree with his point that many people who have served in our reserve forces come out and feel that they have been abandoned, with no one around them to give help, support and encouragement.
My second motivation for speaking is my horrendous rail journey from Wales yesterday with the railway company known as First Great Western, although I call it Late Western, because that is what it is, most of the time; it took me more than four hours to get to London. In the train I got into conversation with a young man who had served for six years in the Regular Army. He was very bright and felt that he owed everything to the armed forces, which had given him great opportunities. However, he had been injured, and I am sorry to relate that the story he told me of the lack of support available to him when he left the services was pretty horrendous. The hon. Gentleman alluded to one or two recent stories, and it seems to me that such cases are becoming more the norm than they should be. Those who have served in the reserve forces, in particular, need extra help.
I welcome the announcement that my hon. Friend the Minister made in November last year, offering continued support for people who have served in the reserve forces, who might now have psychological problems and so on. I welcome his announcement at St. Thomas’ hospital yesterday, which I am sure he will mention, about extending our support and care to those who served in the forces, going back to 1982. However, it seems to me that some basic things could be done to support people who have left the reserve forces.
I spent a day as a fly on the wall with a volunteer from Combat Stress, meeting people whose lives are ruined, and who have huge difficulty in coming to terms with life since leaving the forces, perhaps having had some awful experience in combat. I was hugely impressed by Combat Stress and its work. In particular, when I sat in with a case worker and a couple of the guys I met that day, I was impressed by how subtly they introduced the ways in which Combat Stress could help, conversationally drawing out the client. The organisation does a fantastic job, but too many people do not know that it exists. The young man I talked to yesterday had not heard of Combat Stress.
All too often what we might call the obvious does not happen. For instance, let us consider what happens when someone goes to see a general practitioner. Yesterday’s press statement by the Department referred to the fact that people suffering from a prolonged medical condition could go initially to their GP and then be directed to the appropriate MOD medical assessment process to get help, a diagnosis and so on. However, all too often, the GP does not understand or respond.
As an aside, I should mention a good group in my constituency called Shades, which comprises a group of ladies who suffer from depression. They have got together in a self-help group. One of them told me that when she was first ill, her doctor said, “There’s nothing wrong with you, love. Go home and get your husband to buy you a new dress.” The problems experienced by people, particularly those who have served in the forces, are too often not understood.
I cannot understand why GPs do not act as signposts. When someone has a problem, why do GPs not simply ask whether they have ever served in the armed forces, because if the answer is yes, they should be told that Combat Stress and the Veterans Agency provide support? So many people just do not know where to turn. When I was doing the job that the Minister is doing, it was my ambition—I am sure that he carries this on—to promote the work of the Veterans Agency as a first point of contact.
As the hon. Gentleman said, so many people are simply at a loss when they leave the services, and the reserve forces in particular. When there are difficulties, they do not know where to turn. The young man I met yesterday shared an idea with me. He asked why there is no system to ensure that, when somebody leaves the forces, a skills audit is done to help to place them in work. Many people find it difficult losing the family feel that they get from serving in the forces, and adjusting to civilian life. We need to think outside the box in terms of how we demonstrate how much we value the people who have served in our armed forces.
I spent 27 years in newspapers and publishing before becoming an MP. Although salaries are important to people, my experience as a manager showed me that people valued more the fact that they were valued: that management looked after them and did things to support them. We could do much more for those who have served in the reserve forces.
I pay tribute to the large and small companies across the country that give every help and encouragement to people who serve in the reserve forces. Such companies ensure that people get the time off, that their jobs are secure, that everything is right when they return, and so on. Many of the guys bring new value to their jobs when they come back, because of their experiences in the forces. Without the encouragement of employers, it would be difficult to sustain the Territorial Army in its current form.
As the hon. Member for Canterbury highlighted, we have to meet a huge challenge to increase recruitment, involvement and so on. We must be careful to ensure that the structures we create do not work against that and against making things as effective as they should be. A debate such as this gives us a chance to air some of our concerns and to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope that the all-party group on reserve forces will continue to produce work such as this report. The report is as valuable as any produced by a Select Committee, because it shows that we still need to address certain issues. The fact that that has been done in this cross-party way shows the House at its best, because all of us, regardless of our political differences, have seen that an issue needs to be addressed, and we have addressed it collectively for the benefit of those who serve in the reserve forces and of our country.
I, too, did not necessarily intend to take part in this debate, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so and to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who did such an outstanding job as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence for a long time. I served opposite him at one stage as a shadow Minister. If I were to say that the Ministry of Defence was a poorer place as a result of his retirement, it would be a discourtesy to his successors, so I would not go that far, but he graced his office for a long time, and we are grateful for his doing so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on having the initiative to call for this debate. It comes as not the conclusion—that will be in many years’ time—but the climax of 20 or 30 years of his speaking up for the Territorial Army and the reserve forces in Parliament. He does an outstanding job of that, and if there were a debate on the armed services in which he did not participate, we would be very surprised.
I should declare a minor, non-pecuniary interest: I have the honour to wear the tie of the Honourable Artillery Company, which is the oldest regiment in the British Army. That makes it the oldest regiment in the world, with the possible exception of the Swiss Guard in Rome. However, a strange quirk of history makes it the second most senior regiment in the Territorial Army, because the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers registered first when the TA was set up in 1906. Incidentally, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers is interesting for another reason: it is the only regiment in the British Army whose name includes the word “Royal” twice. I challenge anyone to come up with an alternative to that.
We in the Honourable Artillery Company are proud of our record in serving the nation for about 400 to 500 years—from the time that King Henry VIII set us up. We served with huge distinction in the London contingent in the Boer war and suffered among the heaviest casualties of any regiment in the first world war, in which we served as a regiment. As a result, we were deployed in the second world war as an officer-producing unit. We produced tens of thousands of officers, many of whom were casualties. I am glad to say that we have served as a formed unit—I believe this was as a result of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which was one of the last Acts of the previous Conservative Government—on two separate occasions in Iraq. We currently have soldiers deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere, carrying out a variety of highly specialist and dangerous tasks. We are proud of our regiment’s service to the nation and believe that our regiment has an enormous amount to offer.
I do not just raise the matter of the Honourable Artillery Company because I am a sensibly proud member of it. I should mention that my service—seven years of serving the Queen—was probably the least distinguished military career in the history of the British Army: I was seven years a private soldier. I claim no greater military distinction than that I was particularly good news in the bar. None the less, my regimental colleagues have done fantastic work.
I am proud of the HAC not simply because of regimental pride. Should there be the triple postings that were described earlier, we would risk losing the regimental pride that the HAC and so many other TA regiments have. If the boys are deployed as a regiment, or at least as a formed unit from the regiment, they serve with their mates and as a regiment, they have that 500 years of history behind them, they are proud to wear the cap badge of the HAC and they serve better than they would as an individual soldier posted elsewhere.
I raised the issue of my pride in the HAC not only because of understandable personal pride in my own regiment, but because even in debates such as this, and in other discussions that we have had in recent months and years about the deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, we give occasional compliments to the Territorial Army but do not pay sufficient respect to the real contribution that it makes to our overall war effort. I do not have the figures to hand, but my memory of them is that about 25 per cent. of all soldiers deployed in Iraq came from either the TA or the reserve forces—those two are different, but similar in some respects. I stand to be corrected on that figure, but the number is of that order.
Significant numbers of the TA and reservists have been deployed in Iraq and, more recently, in Afghanistan. In other words, it would not have been possible to have done what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan—I leave aside the question of whether one believes the former action to be a good or bad thing—without the support of the TA. That stands in sharp distinction to what happened in the Falklands, where I believe that few TA soldiers were deployed. In the Falklands, the Regular Army did it, whereas in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the TA did it. That is fantastic.
I congratulate the TA on the outstanding commitment and the contribution that it has made to British successes across the world. I know that it will continue to make such a contribution. I have set out the background, but we face a particularly worrying future. I recall that the strategic defence review cut the number of TA soldiers to 44,000. Recently, the number was as high as 100,000, and I would not be in the least bit surprised to discover that the TA numbered 200,000 to 300,000 in the 1950s and 1960s, so the current number is very small. The strategic defence review concluded that the right thing to do was to cut it to 44,000. Discoveries about the way in which the TA has been deployed since the SDR have confirmed my opinion, in retrospect, that that was a mistake. However, I shall leave that to one side; I am not certain that even my own party was that forward in pointing it out then—we rather welcomed the SDR and its change of emphasis.
Nevertheless, there are big problems with regard to numbers, some of which we have already touched on. First, we know about the problems with recruitment, and particularly the problem of officer recruitment that was mentioned by my hon. Friend. That is a real difficulty, and if some of the situations that he described continue, there is a strong likelihood that officer recruitment will fall further, which would be a real worry.
There is also some hidden loss in the Territorial Army, for one very good reason, which is that TA members are paid their tax-free bounty at a certain stage in the year. On the spur of the moment I have forgotten the amount of the bounty, although one of my hon. Friends might enlighten me. It is several thousand pounds that is paid, tax free, if one completes a year in the Territorial Army and carries out one’s basic weapons test, fitness test and a couple of other tests, such as a first aid test. That means that there is a very good reason for not leaving; if one is ready to leave one might as well stay on for six months or even a year in order to collect the bounty.
I hesitate to say so, but it might even be that one or two people carry on and do the minimum necessary to obtain the bounty. I do not remember the exact figures, but there are minimum requirements for days served per year and for the tests, and if those are fulfilled one collects one’s bounty relatively easily without being fully committed to life with the regiment, and certainly without being ready for deployment. I suspect that the Territorial Army numbers are therefore significantly misleading, because in any TA regiment there are a number of such people—slackers would be too strong a word to describe them, but they are definitely not as committed to the nation as perhaps they ought to be. The true figures are therefore lower than they appear.
Let me explain why there are worries also with regard to whether the numbers will fall further. Had I been called up when I joined the Territorial Army, I would have served. It would have been difficult, because at the time I had a job in the City of London running a shipping company. Most of the people in my own regiment are also employed in the City of London, and most TA soldiers elsewhere have good jobs in civilian life.
Under some conditions one might give up six months to serve the Crown, in which case most employers, leaving aside a few, would be happy to give their support. However, when one is asked to go back and serve a second six months, things become significantly more difficult—both for oneself and for one’s employers, and also for one’s wife and family. They ask why it is that one is going off to spend a second six months in Iraq as a private soldier or as someone’s driver, or doing something else of the kind in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it becomes much harder to explain.
It is particularly difficult for people who are self-employed and who work on their own, for whom giving up their jobs for six months is a real problem. People might do it, but giving up a job for two periods of six months is almost impossible, and nine months or a year are virtually out of the question. There are certain regiments—one thinks of the Port and Maritime Regiment, which has one TA and one Regular unit—that are on virtually full-time deployment. Some of its soldiers are having great difficulties in maintaining their civilian jobs under those circumstances.
Until recently, there was a further difficulty with regard to pay and conditions, whereby one’s pay on deployment as a Territorial Army soldier might have been significantly lower than one’s pay in civilian life. That applied particularly in the case of medics. Some of the very specialist surgeons who were paid enormously high salaries in civilian life were often paid rather less as a major in, say, the Royal Army Medical Corps.
I believe that I am right in saying that that has now been corrected, and that there is now a system in which one’s civilian pay is reflected in one’s TA pay when under compulsory mobilisation. That is fine, but it means that there might then be two people of identical rank doing identical jobs but being paid very different sums. I shall not boast, but I was paid a reasonable salary in the City. Had I been deployed as a private soldier in the TA, which was perfectly possible, I would probably have been the highest-paid such soldier in the British Army, which might have caused some difficulties.
There are problems with pay and conditions, therefore. Some of them have been addressed in recent years, but others might need further attention in years to come. If we are to be able to deploy people in the way that we have asked them, and if we are to rely so heavily on the TA—as we have for the past four or five years—it is vital to find a way to ensure that their pay and conditions and their terms of employment are as good during deployment as when they are at home.
There are other aspects of the Territorial Army’s life that might need consideration. One matter that faces us currently is the huge problem of homeland defence. The very name “Territorial Army” exists because the TA was originally set up to defend the homeland; that was its purpose. That original purpose is entirely outdated and I certainly would not advance the argument that we should return to it; if we said to today’s TA members that their job was to defend the UK in the event of an invasion, I fear that people would leave. They do not want to do that job; they want to be involved in war fighting or at least to be ready for such fighting. They want to be deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and they are proud when that happens.
There is none the less a significant need for some form of force to look after the homeland, to deal with all sorts of homeland defence issues, and to be ready for deployment to pick up the aftermath of any significant incidents on the mainland—let us hope that none happen. Some time ago, the Government set up a group of 500 TA people per region who, it was said, would be deployed in the event of some national onshore emergency. A significant number of those people have been deployed overseas, however, so that they are not available for deployment in the UK. In any event, the patchwork for deployment around the UK is unequal; some parts of the country do not have anyone available, and the likelihood of deployment at short notice in the event of a major national catastrophe—again, let us hope that that does not happen—is frankly small.
It seems to me that the Government should therefore reconsider whether something could be done by way of some form of adjunct to the TA, such as existed until recently in the form of the Home Service Force, whose job it was to look after the homeland rather than to be deployed overseas. The Government should look at some way of reorganising some parts of the TA so that there is a body that is ready both to defend the nation against the unlikely event of overseas aggression and, more particularly, to be deployed to help the civilian powers in the event of a national catastrophe.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The problem, of course, is that the regional civil contingency reaction forces, as I believe they are called, are based around the local TA infantry battalion headquarters, which are far too small and which have none of the right structures. There have been some exercises, but only very few.
That is in huge contrast with the national guard, which played a major role on 9/11 and was able to do so because it had the right structures and had undertaken a big exercise a few months previously. The crisis management headquarters on 9/11 was in one of the twin towers and was destroyed, so the national guard was needed even more than would otherwise have been the case. The TA could perform that role, but not, as my hon. Friend says, with its current structure and resources.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. At one stage, we were talking about the footprint of the TA in Britain today, but I think that “toehold” might be the right expression. The TA simply does not have a footprint across the nation, and were there to be, for example, three of four separate incidents at the same time in London, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, which is one of the big worries that face us, we would not have TA soldiers ready to take up the slack. The nation would face a significant problem were that to happen, so in considering the future of the Territorial Army the Government should consider whether some form of organisation could be re-established to deal specifically with homeland defence and with the aftermath of any such catastrophe.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Government on one or two things that they have done with regard to the TA. I was glad when, for the first time, they appointed a two-star general to run it: Major-General the Duke of Westminster. My old friend Major-General Simon Lalor, who I am glad to say is a member of the Honourable Artillery Company, is doing a first-class job more recently. The job is not a part-time one, although I have to say that I think that in theory it is. The experience of Simon Lalor and indeed of the Duke of Westminster, however, is that it is pretty much a full-time job, and I thank them for their commitment to it and welcome the efforts that they made. That appointment was a useful step in the right direction, but the Government could and ought to do more.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent report produced by the all-party group. It is the first time that there has been such a statement of what the Territorial Army does and what we should look for from Government so as to improve what it does. The report is first-class, and I know that the Government will have read it carefully. I hope that they will be ready to act on some of its recommendations, of which I believe there are 16—and I hope that in answering the debate the Minister might be ready to address himself to at least some of them.
I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for introducing this debate and leading us off so ably.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his speech. He may not be aware that he and I have at least three things in common. First, our birthdays are on 7 November. Secondly, we have both been members of the Honourable Artillery Company. Thirdly, in a later part of my brief Territorial Army career, I spent a lot of time jumping out of planes that took off from RAF Lyneham, which is in his constituency.
I served for eight and a half years in the Territorial Army. I started in an officer training corps for three years, and joined the Honourable Artillery Company when I started work. Thereafter, I served with the Artists Rifles based at the Duke of York’s barracks where, among other things, I had the opportunity to earn my wings, of which I am extremely proud. The Territorial Army is a terrific organisation, and in recent years Governments of both colours have not paid it the attention that it deserves.
I believe unashamedly in national service, but not as it used to be. I believe that our young people should be encouraged to be involved in some sort of community activity—preferably military, but giving some sort of service to the local community. I would like that to be a requirement for young people today. The Territorial Army and other reserve forces would have an important role in that, and I believe that there would be far less trouble on our country’s streets if we instilled in our young people the idea that they are required to serve their country in some way in their early years. I joined the Territorial Army as a believer in national service. Originally I hoped to serve for three years, but I ended up staying for the best part of nine years. It was one of my best experiences.
Professor Richard Holmes provided a foreword to the excellent report produced by the all-party reserve forces group in which he said:
“The TA is more than simply an army reserve. It is a vital link connecting the army to society, a superb leveller and mixer and a way of making men and women—so often left directionless by social pressures—both feel valued and become valuable.”
I agree with every word, particularly that the TA is a great leveller. In the units in which I had the privilege to serve, background did not matter. People might be highly paid executives, postmen and so on, but work background did not matter and it was up to each and every person to get over the assault course and to jump out of an aircraft with a parachute. Whatever people’s background, they were all brought to the same level, but unfortunately in society today there are too few organisations where that spirit exists.
It is important to use the opportunity of this debate to pay tribute to all the cadet forces around the country, which provide a huge amount of training for our young people, many of whom go on to serve in the Territorial Army. For example, in Kettering the army and naval cadet forces and the local air squadrons have an important role in providing uniform training for local young people. However, the Territorial Army presence in Northamptonshire is way below what it should be. There should be many more TA units around the country, and if I had the opportunity I would hugely expand the Territorial Army. It is extremely cost effective, provides excellent training, and, as we have heard throughout this debate, it is now a vital part of our armed forces in projecting our power overseas. As a country, we are far too unambitious in setting objectives for the Territorial Army.
I want to highlight just six of the recommendations that have perhaps not received enough attention in this debate so far. It would be wrong if the Government pursued their objective of changing the name of the Territorial Army to the army reserve. Everyone understands what the Territorial Army is about and now is not the time to engage in some sort of rebranding exercise.
We should establish a central system for those who leave their university officer training corps to put them in touch with local TA units when they enter the world of work. I did that off my own back, but I was not aware of any system to encourage me to do so.
The scheduling of officer training courses should be arranged to encourage students to carry out all the extended courses for that training, including special-to-arm courses, during their university vacations without compromising the opportunity for others to apply. There should also be a more radical approach to attract students to take part in the TA during their gap year, giving them full TA training and perhaps an enhanced student loan in return for four years’ service with the TA after graduating.
The absurd ban that prevents medical students who enjoy cadetships from the Regular medical services from serving in the volunteer reserves should be lifted immediately. We have heard about the TA’s vital role in providing medical services to our front-line troops, and that absurd red tape should be got rid of immediately.
It has been wonderful to praise all those who put so much effort into the Territorial Army at a time when, after 100 years’ service to this country, it has its lowest ever number of personnel, and our armed forces are increasingly overstretched. I hope that the Minister will rise to the challenge of the 18 recommendations in this superb report. He has a real opportunity to enhance the Territorial Army’s role, which it thoroughly deserves.
Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Miss Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this debate and leading it so ably. I pay tribute to the all-party reserve forces group under whose auspices this excellent report was published.
I thank all those who serve in the Territorial Army and the other reserve organisations that ably serve our country. It is worth reminding the Chamber that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has served in the Territorial Army, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) served in the Royal Naval Reserve, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who saw action in Operation Telic 2 in Iraq. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) was a distinguished holder of the office currently held by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). I also thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for his remarks. Having contributions from all parties is in keeping with the all-party nature of the report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering alluded to the fact that 1 April next year will be the 100th anniversary of the formation of the territorial force. I know that the Ministry of Defence will make a written statement on that very subject today.
Many hon. Members have said that the Territorial Army plays two vital roles in the armed forces. The first is in operations, providing extra support to our Regular forces. We all know that TA personnel have played a key part in operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly in the past few years. The best information that we have is that more than 13,000 Territorial Army personnel have served in Iraq. I do not think the Ministry of Defence keeps all that data centrally, so it is difficult to dig it out, but those personnel have made a huge contribution. Several hon. Members have made the point that if we had not had the reserve service, we would have been in great difficulty in carrying out those operations.
My hon. Friend drew attention to the quotation from Professor Richard Holmes in the foreword to the all-party group report. Professor Homes makes a point that I wish to echo about the important role that the Territorial Army has in maintaining the link between the armed forces and wider society. As time goes on, increasingly fewer people have a direct link either themselves or through their family members or friends with the armed forces, and it is imperative that we retain that link as widely as we can in society.
If we continue to deploy our armed forces at the current tempo, it is important in part that the public understand what our service personnel do, the pressures that they are under and the challenges that they face when they finish their service. They must be properly supported. The Territorial Army plays a key role in that respect.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the important role that the services’ cadet forces play. I have had the opportunity to visit some of them in my constituency, and I know what a valuable role they play. Notwithstanding the all-party nature of the report, it is worth pointing out that the Territorial Army is well below the strength that the Ministry of Defence would like. The TA is about 10,000 people below strength. I should be interested in the Minister’s response to that point. It would be helpful if he outlined the Ministry’s and the Government’s view of their ability to increase the size of the Territorial Army to the desired level.
The Territorial Army’s use as a key part of operations also has an impact when we operate above our defence planning assumptions, as we have done for the past few years. If it continues, the Territorial Army will continue to play a key role in operations.
Several Members mentioned the level of deployment and the impact on our serving personnel when they return from operations. The right hon. Member for Islwyn and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East both referred to the medical care of reservists, whose challenges are greater than they are for our Regular forces, because the reservists return to their civilian life. They are neither with their unit nor with their military colleagues. The right hon. Member for Islwyn described in detail the mental health factor, and the Conservatives welcome the introduction of the reservist mental health programme, which the Minister outlined some time ago. However, more must be done, particularly for reservists.
We must consider whether there can be more proactive and sensitive work to ensure that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, personnel do not feel abandoned when they return to society. We must ensure that they are aware of the services that are available, including those provided directly by the MOD, and indirectly by organisations such as Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and its caseworkers, and SSAFA—Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—Forces Help. A range of organisations take the lead on that issue.
We have seen in the past week that many people who served in the Falklands campaign 25 years ago still have mental health issues arising from that service. We do not just need to think about the issue today. We need to think about all those people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly given the new challenges that they have faced, such as the threat from suicide bombers, and the way in which that will impact on their mental health not just this year and next, but for decades to come. We must think about how to ensure that those services are properly resourced and accessible to them.
Talking about the health care of regular and reservist service personnel, I was fortunate last week to visit Selly Oak hospital and the regular and reservist personnel there who have been wounded on operations. I was very impressed by the medical care that they receive. We had an open visit, we were able to talk to everybody there and the medical care was of high quality.
As the Department is involved in the private finance initiative-rebuild of the new hospital, I urge on the Minister a point that I brought back from that visit. I know that some moves have been made in the redesign of the current ward, with its new nurses’ station, but the point was reinforced to us that a dedicated unit would be an absolutely key area. It would be valued not only by those who work at Selly Oak hospital, but by our regular and reservist armed forces. I know that negotiations are ongoing, but I shall reinforce the message. The medical care that they receive is very good, but a dedicated facility would improve it and reduce the problems that have been experienced.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to yesterday’s announcement about the expansion of the medical assessment programme. It would have been nice if the parliamentary written statement had been issued on the same day as the announcement was made to the press, but at least there is to be an announcement to the House today. We welcome that move, but I am not sure that it addresses the scale of the problem to which several hon. Members referred in the House.
One of the report’s specific recommendations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned, was about drivers’ hours and the way in which other European Union regulations impact on our reservists. The Department for Transport made a statement about it yesterday, and the MOD is dealing with it, but it highlights a lesson: throughout Government, regulations may be introduced that impact on reservists and people serving in the Territorial Army in particular, because of the dual nature of their work. They are civilian employees who serve in the armed forces. It is a lesson for the MOD. Rather than having to apply for a derogation after the event—after the problems have been raised—the MOD must ensure that its monitoring organisation, which considers legislation from throughout the Government for its impact on the armed forces, works more proactively. I know that the organisation exists. Instead of having to fix problems in retrospect, it would be better to catch them before they occur. The Government are dealing with the issue, but I ask them to do so as urgently as possible, because there have been practical problems.
Several Members mentioned the thanks that we owe not only to people who serve in our reserve forces and the Territorial Army, but to the employers large and small who support them. Employers are very impressed by the skills that those who serve in the Territorial Army gain while deployed and in training. The MOD should also ensure that the skills that they gain in civilian employment are properly recognised when they undertake their military service. Having spoken to a number of people who have served on operations, I discovered that some of the skills that they used in operations and in theatre were gained in civilian employment.
The strain on small companies in particular caused by the way in which we are actively deploying the Territorial Army and other reservists has been mentioned. We must recognise that however much companies want to support their employees who serve, it becomes difficult if they are deployed frequently. We must think about our support not only for the employer, but for the employee, and the way in which they are encouraged to manage their careers around their military service. Given the number of people employed in smaller companies, which is growing as a percentage of the work force, we must ensure that they can join the Territorial Army and our other territorial organisations, otherwise we will find it difficult to recruit them in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire made a point about the civil contingencies operation. When we had a similar debate last year, I asked the Government about the TA’s civil contingencies role in “The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter”, which said:
“A reaction force of, on average, some 500 volunteer reserves would be established in each region…giving a total of some 6,000…nation-wide.”
My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that, with a significant number of our Territorial Army personnel deployed, it is not clear that they will be available in the event of a civil contingency. We have seen some illustrations of that, such as when a strike was threatened by the fire service. On that occasion, the Ministry of Defence made it clear that it would not be able to provide cover, as it simply did not have the resources, whether from the regulars or the reserves, because of our operational tempo. That issue needs to be thought about. If, God forbid, there was an event of such a scale, I am sure that members of the reserve forces would be prepared to serve regardless of their legal status. However, if they were needed in an event of lesser severity, we might have a significant problem in using the right number of personnel.
Another issue that I want to raise with the Minister—I know he will be aware of it, since his office is copied in on such correspondence—concerns a copy of a memo from the office of the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), who is Minister for the armed forces, that refers to some savings that the Government made during the defence programme 2007 by reducing Territorial Army funding by £2.5 million in 2007-08 and 2008-09. I note from the memo that the Minister for the armed forces has received a minute from the Land Forces Secretariat advising him of the significant impact of the cuts, particularly on officer recruitment and Operation Executive Stretch. That operation has offered companies and business people a valuable insight into all the volunteer reserve forces and given them a good example of the transferable skills that their employees would get out of serving in the armed forces. The Minister for the armed forces has noted the significance of that impact and instructed people in the Department to come back to Ministers with potential alternatives by 22 May. I therefore hope that the Minister can update the Chamber on the progress on those cuts and on what has been done to reverse them.
The debate has highlighted many positive aspects of the Territorial Army and our reserve forces, and the key role that they play on our operational deployments. However, we can also see that they are under strength and that they face a number of challenges. The all-party group’s report contains 18 recommendations and I hope that the Minister will say a little about how the Government propose to respond to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering referred to the recommendation on gap year commissions and the role of the officer training corps. I understand that gap year commissions are being done away with, which is a retrograde step, so perhaps the Minister can comment on that in light of the all-party group’s report.
In conclusion, it is clear from the Territorial Army’s contribution to the Army that it is a key part of our armed forces. The all-party group’s report makes us all grateful for the work that everyone serving in the Territorial Army does for our country. We owe it to them to ensure that we look after the Territorial Army in a way that is in keeping with the service that they give to our Queen and country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this important debate and on his speech. I accept, of course, that a number of issues worry him, but I thank him for his kind words about the MOD and about what we have been doing to support the TA and improve the situation. I pay tribute to his long service in the TA and to other Opposition Members who have served in the reserves and the TA, too. I am aware of the support that he has given over some considerable time to reserve forces issues. I also pay tribute, of course, to all those who serve in the TA and the reserve forces, for the tremendous work that they do, not least on operations, but also back here in the UK and elsewhere.
The Duke of Westminster did a tremendous job, through his enthusiasm, his dedication and his real love of the TA. He did a fantastic job and is sadly missed. I worked with him for only a short time, but I know that his successor will do an equally good job, and I am looking forward to working with him. Although the main subject of this debate is the Territorial Army, I am conscious in my job of how important it is to stress the work that the other three reserve forces do individually, too.
Throughout the Territorial Army’s existence, its volunteers have proved their ability and worth time and again, from the battlefields of the first and second world wars to the modern conflict zones of Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, in the past few decades the British Army has operated in very few places without the support of its Territorial Army colleagues. Let us not forget that, as hon. Members have said, TA personnel are volunteers—men and women who give up their time, and in some cases life and limb, for small reward to serve their country. Although they are called upon to serve less often than their regular counterparts, in some ways their job is more demanding. When TA volunteers are deployed, they are required to face the same dangers as their Regular Army colleagues and are expected to be as well disciplined, professional and effective.
The Territorial Army has undergone considerable changes in the past decade, as have all our reserve forces. Those changes have been essential to maintain the Territorial Army’s relevance in a changing world and ensure that it has a robust and healthy future. The greatest challenge to the Territorial Army in recent years has been the move away from its cold war role towards a culture of mobilisation for operations that suits today’s operational demands. Members of the Territorial Army now expect to be mobilised and deployed on a range of operations in support of our defence policy overseas. The role against which the majority of the TA is structured is to support a large-scale deliberate intervention of divisional level size, but it is adapted to support the Regular Army on enduring operations, too.
During Telic 1, a total of 3,787 TA personnel were deployed. Since then, a significant number of personnel continue to provide vital support. Over the past year, approximately 1,000 personnel have been mobilised at any one time, either on operations, preparing for operations or returning from operations. Overall, we have mobilised around 13,000 volunteers on overseas operations since January 2003, which is the equivalent of about 20 battalions-worth of soldiers or more than 100 sub-units.
The Territorial Army has truly earned its spurs in Iraq, and continues to do so there, as well as in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Those conflicts have shown that the threats that we now face are more complex than ever before. Today’s TA must be a force that is capable, adaptable and responsive to those threats—a professional military force for the 21st century. Conflicts are no longer fought on front lines. The end of the cold war changed all that. Today, warfare is by and large asymmetric. An asymmetric threat calls for a different Army, different skills, different training, different tactics, different procedures and different organisation.
The Government have responded to the changing world. In December 2004, the then Secretary of State for Defence announced the new future Army structures, which are changes that mean a more deployable, agile and flexible Army. The Territorial Army is an integral part of that force. Our policies reflect the need to strengthen the role of the Territorial Army, not diminish it. The Territorial Army is no longer purely for home defence or a national emergency. For almost a decade, it has been an integral support arm of the Regular Army—a deployable force in keeping with the changing nature of our military engagement across the world.
Recent operational experience gained from extensive use of the Territorial Army has allowed us to apply the lessons learned to maximise its effectiveness. On 23 March 2006, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the armed forces announced a series of measures aimed at rebalancing the Territorial Army in the light of those experiences and the wider changes taking place within the Army under the FAS. For example, the regimental headquarters for the new TA intelligence battalion has been established in Colby Newham, with the establishment of the battalion itself scheduled for the beginning of the next financial year. The introduction of a new TA intelligence capability will offer new opportunities for TA soldiers and provide significant support to the Regular Army.
Crucially, we are also strengthening the affiliation of Territorial Army units to the Regular Army units with which they will operate, thus improving their mutual understanding and operating capability. Territorial Army units are now paired with one or more Regular Army units, with which they will train and often be deployed alongside. Closer affiliation for training purposes will increase joint territorial and regular training, and thereby deliver more enjoyable, relevant and challenging training to territorial volunteers, while also building up a good relationship between regulars and members of the TA.
That is already happening. For example, members of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment—a TA unit—have mobilised and deployed to Afghanistan alongside their regular counterpart, the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment. Some members of the 3rd battalion were also able to participate in the collective training undertaken by the 1st battalion before deployment. That is most effective in cementing ties and mutual understanding between the regular and TA soldiers, and greatly increases the operational effectiveness and preparation of the TA.
We are confident that the changes to which I have referred mean that the Territorial Army is becoming even better placed to fulfil its primary roles: to augment our regular forces and provide additional capability for large-scale operations and specialist skills and capabilities.
The Government also recognise the exemplary service of such individuals to our country. We are not just rebalancing the Territorial Army so that it serves our country well; we are also maintaining and improving the support to, and conditions for, Territorial Army soldiers.
I should like to make a point before the Minister moves on from discussing the future Army structure. The macro-reorganisation that he described—the new intelligence battalion and the pairing with regular units—is fine. However, he has not addressed the problem at the level of the individual company and yeomanry squadron. We can call a structure that consists of a single rifle platoon and a huge support weapons set-up at each TA centre a company, but it will not have a critical mass for the worthwhile training of officers.
If a group goes off with its regular-service counterparts to Afghanistan or Iraq—there will not be another deployment of that sort to Iraq—but never as a formed company, no TA officer will get an opportunity to command in the field. If TA officers are stripped of opportunities to train properly at home and command abroad, it is difficult to see how the desperate shortages of such officers will not worsen.
The hon. Gentleman’s important point pre-empts my speech; I shall come to it a little later.
I turn to the care and medical support for our reservists. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and the hon. Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned Selly Oak and the issue of care for our service personnel. I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean about Selly Oak; anyone reading the press during the past six to eight months must wonder what has been going on there. As the hon. Gentleman has confirmed, what has been going on is top-quality treatment for our wounded armed forces personnel. That has been brought about only because of excellent support and partnership working with our NHS colleagues at Selly Oak. Working with our military medical personnel, they have provided outstanding surgery and nursing. That has come in addition to the care provided by welfare support, liaison officers and now psychiatric support on the wards as well. I welcome the hon. Gentlemen’s comments about Selly Oak.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East said that patients had been abused at Selly Oak. I can say only that I have asked for such allegations to be investigated, but no one has been able to come up with any evidence that that took place. The fact remains that people get top-quality care at Selly Oak. We have also improved security there. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned, we intend to make further improvements. We will also consider how to take forward the new ward at the new hospital; clearly, the view of the chiefs of staff will be important in that. Like regulars, reservists are treated in Selly Oak, and they get world-class treatment from both armed forces and NHS personnel.
Having said that, it is important to get a few things about what is happening for reservists on the record. As has been mentioned, a number of measures have recently been taken, and I particularly make the point that our Territorial Army soldiers are entitled to exactly the same medical treatment and care as regular soldiers. I am particularly proud of our provision of fast-track diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for those who have suffered physical injuries, and of our improved mental health support for all reservists returning from deployment. Those are among the recent measures that the Government have introduced.
I want to give a bit more detail about the improved mental health support. Last year a King’s college study into the health of service personnel on operations in Iraq, funded by the MOD, noted a slightly increased effect on the mental health of the reserve forces compared with that of the regulars. We responded. As has been mentioned in this debate, last year I announced the highly comprehensive reservists’ mental health programme, which is an excellent package. Under the programme, we liaise with the reservists’ GPs and offer a mental health assessment at the reserves training and mobilisation centre in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire.
If someone is diagnosed with a mental health condition related to service on recent operations, we offer out-patient treatment at one of the MOD’s 15 departments of community health. In more acute cases, the defence medical service will assist access to NHS in-patient treatment. We work closely with Combat Stress, which we fund to the tune of £2.9 million. As I said, we are in negotiations with the organisation and will significantly increase its resources once those negotiations are complete. We shall make an announcement on that in the near future.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about what more we can do. In the coming weeks and months, we will make announcements on the pilot schemes on setting up a system in which we work with the NHS and Combat Stress to develop advice and support for the NHS, so that those who suffer mental health problems as a result of their time in the armed forces can be better treated and understood. Yesterday, I announced that the new assessment programme will be extended back to include those who served from 1982. A significant amount of work is taking place that also deals with how we ensure support for reservists, who often go back to a community as individuals—not among mates, as regulars would. We continue to seek to improve that. A few weeks ago, we had a welfare conference to consider how better to support the more vulnerable members of our armed forces—particularly those who are injured or ill as a result of their service. We shall make further progress on that in the coming months.
I want to refer to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury that come from the report of the all-party group on reserve forces. The report says that, whenever possible, members of the TA should deploy as formed sub-units, rather than individual augmentees. It expresses a wish for TA officers to have greater opportunities for command on operational deployments.
The benefits of deploying formed cohorts, and sub-units when that is practical, are acknowledged. Indeed, the latest operational commitments plot reflects that, with TA units being tasked to deliver cohorts or sub-units to specific operations. Longer warnings to units about providing that requirement, together with the benefits that the cohorts will bring to unit camaraderie and cohesion, will provide significant benefits. However, given the individual circumstances of many TA members, many will still volunteer to deploy as individuals, and be happy to do so. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and hope that I have given him some reassurance.
Similarly, opportunities for TA officers to command do exist, at platoon and group level as well as at sub-unit or company squadron level, and in our in-theatre headquarters as staff officers. Of course, we must not forget that command is often about more than operations—TA officers remain critical to ensuring that their men and women are well trained and administered when not deployed.
We assess that the TA can sustain its support to operations at current levels for the foreseeable future, but we will continue to keep that under review. We have recognised that we have used some groups on enduring operations more than others. We carefully monitor their use to ensure that that is sustainable in the long term.
We have planned our TA requirement on operations to involve approximately 1,200 TA members each year—on occasions, more than that. We use intelligent selection to ensure that we choose the most appropriate individuals. That takes account of factors such as previous service already undertaken and family and employment circumstances.
The concern highlighted by the all-party group about the practical maximum for call-out is encapsulated in the “Defence Intent for Reserves”, which acknowledges the one-year-in-five maximum for practical deployment. However, individuals can volunteer for operational service within that period too.
TA post-operational reports do not reflect a problem among those who have been deployed; most find the experience positive. I found that when I talked to many reservists and TA members in Afghanistan and Iraq; that was often why they had volunteered to join in the first place. It is important to make that point. The experience is often positive; such reservists welcome having a clear operational role and want the opportunity to exercise it. That has also been confirmed by the National Audit Office in its report on the reserve forces, published in March 2006.
Post-operational reports also indicate that members of the TA are happy to operate either as formed units or as individual augmentees. We have been working to ensure that the roles that they undertake on operations are both worth while and suited to their personal experience and skill sets, an issue that has been mentioned.
Concerns were raised about the suggestion that we revisit the restructuring of the TA infantry companies and yeomanry squadrons, primarily because of the current demands on the TA as it supports enduring operations and the need to provide a critical mass for training that is challenging at all levels. If the hon. Gentleman gives examples of where in particular he feels the structure needs revisiting, we can investigate his concerns.
As I said earlier, we remain confident about the rationale behind the restructuring of the Territorial Army. The changes that we introduced under the future Army structure have released more regular infantry troops for deployment, who will in due course reduce the requirement for the TA infantry to deploy in support of current operations.