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Territorial Army

Volume 498: debated on Monday 26 October 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Watts.)

I would like to be able to say that it is a pleasure to have this Adjournment debate, but I cannot do so. The matter under discussion is very serious. [Interruption.] The Government have proposed cuts to the Territorial Army. That is of concern in all parts of the House, and I hope the Minister will note—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for delaying the hon. Gentleman, but this is an extremely important Adjournment debate and Members who are leaving the Chamber should do so quickly and quietly so that the hon. Gentleman can be heard.

I simply ask the Minister to take note of how many hon. Members have decided to remain for this Adjournment debate.

I start by declaring my interest: I am a serving member of the Territorial Army. Indeed, I am very proud to have served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan for this Government, and I would be delighted to do so again, but I ask, both for myself and other members of the Territorial Army, simply to be given the training to be able to do that.

Let me begin by saying that it is absolutely clear that this decision is a grave mistake. The sum that the Government are proposing to cut is not only £20 million; this is the second cut of the year, so the figure is £43 million in one financial year. That represents 30 per cent. of the Territorial Army’s budget, or 50 per cent. of the TA budget for the last six months of the year to come. It is ill-conceived, and the timing is appalling. What sort of organisation, six months through the financial year, suddenly announces that it is going to cut all funding? Who is responsible for this? Who is going to get sacked? Who is going to be held to account for this decision?

The communication of this decision was equally appalling, as I appreciate that the Minister accepts. For members of the Territorial Army—volunteers—to find out on a Saturday morning via the BBC, rather than their chain of command, that they might have no more training is absolutely appalling. I hope that if nothing else the Minister will apologise to members of the Territorial Army for the manner in which they found out.

The Minister may think he had a problem with the Gurkhas; I fear, however, this will be an even bigger issue for him. Some 37,000 members of the Territorial Army will all be voting at the next general election, so I hope the Minister will find some more concessions. I have been in the TA for nearly 19 years, and I have never known morale so low, given the manner in which this cut has been announced and the way in which the Government have fumbled around for the past two weeks trying to explain exactly what it is going to be.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on focusing the House on this important issue today. I want to reinforce the case that he is making to the Minister for just how important the TA is. I also want to reinforce the case for the vital role that the TA plays not only in the front line, but in linking the military to the civilian community in many parts of the country where there is no other military footprint.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and it is a subject that I will return to.

Less than six months ago, we had the strategic review of reserves, which finally gave a clear direction on how the Territorial Army would support the regular Army on operations. This is a fundamental point that shows how short-sighted the Government’s decision is. The Minister will argue that members of the TA who continue to be mobilised on operations will have the training that they need. That may be the case in the short term—I will argue against that view in a moment—but the Minister must remember that operational tours in Afghanistan are just six months long. By stopping all training now for the next six months, the current Operation Herrick might not suffer, but future operations will. That will remove the TA’s ability to regenerate and to undertake the core basic training that is then built up during pre-deployment training. So in the short term we may just get away with this if the Government are very lucky—although I doubt it—but in the long term this will have a damaging strategic impact on the Territorial Army.

I am pleased to say that the Minister has given some concessions today—a very small step in the right direction. I am hoping, however, that he will recognise that more steps are required and that we will hear more concessions tonight.

The ethos and culture of the TA revolves around drill nights. The Minister has announced today that we can have one training night per month, but not having weekly drill nights will fundamentally undermine the TA’s ability to operate in the long term. Having regular training on a Tuesday night is absolutely vital. The Territorial Army is just that—territorial. Linking back to the point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), it is how the community keeps together. Commanding officers have told me that, although they welcome one drill night per month, they need more and are very concerned. For soldiers returning from Afghanistan, that is absolutely imperative. Unlike regular Army soldiers, who have links to their regular unit, the only link that TA soldiers have when they come back is going in on a drill night. If commanding officers cannot regularly see their soldiers returning from Afghanistan, they are simply unable to monitor them for potential stress-related problems and ensure their welfare.

If TA centres such as the one in Green lane, Scarborough, are used only once a month, might that not be just the excuse the Government are waiting for to start selling off these units up and down the country?

I certainly hope that that is not the case, but perhaps the Minister will address that point when he winds up.

Drill nights are absolutely vital for the reasons that I have stated, and unless we can get them back I fear for the TA, which cannot simply be mothballed and reopened in six months. Once we lose the culture of attending a drill night on a Tuesday or Wednesday, pretty soon that slot will be filled with something else. People will start going to the cinema with their wives, and it will be almost impossible to get them back in on a Tuesday night. We should not forget that a TA soldier will be paid just one quarter of a day’s pay for a drill night. They may receive two or two-and-a-half days’ pay for a weekend, so they can do three months of training on drill nights for the equivalent. That is why the concession is so minor. I believe that the Minister said today that giving one drill night back would cost £2.5 million, but that is relatively small beer in the MOD budget. That is why this is such a penny-pinching move, why it will ultimately be so damaging to the Territorial Army and why I call on him to think again, give greater concessions and allow more drill nights.

Much of the debate has focused on training, and the Minister has made it clear that he is convinced that all soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan will receive the appropriate pre-deployment training. Let us be clear that regular units—formed units—may undergo some 18 months of pre-deployment training before they are deployed on operations. At best, a TA soldier can currently expect to be mobilised some three months before being deployed to Afghanistan, the process culminating in two weeks’ testing at the reserve training and mobilisation centre at Chilwell. That is not always the case; colleagues of mine have been mobilised at just three days’ notice and have gone straight to the RTMC to be tested.

The proposal is to have a system where the RTMC will no longer be testing soldiers—it will be training them. Already soldiers are being deployed to Afghanistan at risk. The Minister said in the statement that no TA soldier will be deployed at risk, but that was wrong. This is a technical point, but I am concerned that if we are no longer simply testing at RTMC, but training there too, we will be deploying even more soldiers at greater risk. That is fundamentally unacceptable.

The TA contains specialists—I am a bomb disposal officer, although I am not currently in that role. Is the Minister really expecting specialists such as me—a bomb disposal officer—to be able to maintain their skills and potentially be deployed to Afghanistan having had no training for six months? That is ridiculous. I heard what was said by my colleagues at the meeting that the Minister attended this afternoon, so I know that he is beginning to realise the strength of the feeling in all parts of the House—it is being shown in this debate tonight—that this is a fundamentally flawed decision.

My hon. Friend has referred persuasively to specialists’ training, but does he agree that this is also about the training of junior leaders and officers in the TA? If they do not have interaction or training over a period of months leading up to deployment, they have no capacity to do their job and lead men in the field.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, on a subject that I was going to discuss: the officer training corps at universities. One of the key shortages in the TA at the moment is of junior officers—there are simply not enough of them in units. One of the key sources of junior officers used to be the officer training corps, but they are now not going to receive any training at all. We are cutting off that inflow of junior officers, so I would be fascinated to know how the Minister intends to replace it.

I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity also to explain to the House exactly how the bounty system will work for the end of this financial year. As many hon. Members realise, not only do TA soldiers get paid a daily rate but, providing they meet their minimum requirements in days and in their military training tests, they receive a bounty. That is a tax-free amount and, depending on how long one has served, it can be up to £2,000—or just under that sum. Having had their training cut off, how are members of the TA going to achieve their bounty requirements?

It appears that commanding officers might have the ability simply to wipe off days and say, “There is no need to fulfil your man training days for the year,” and that soldiers will only have to pass their basic military annual training tests. Those tests have already been reduced this year simply to passing a first aid test, doing one’s personal fitness assessment, which consists of doing a mile-and-a-half run, press ups and sit ups, and a weapon handling test. Is that really going to be the minimum requirement for a TA soldier to get their bounty? Are we going to have TA soldiers who pass a weapon handling test, yet the first time they will get an opportunity to fire a weapon is when they finally go to the RTMC, perhaps days before they get deployed to Afghanistan? Is the Minister really suggesting that that is adequate pre-deployment training? I cannot believe for one second that he is.

I want to focus on the one Army concept, too. We have made major advances in recent years in bringing the two parts of the Army—the TA and the regular Army—together. Now, when one goes on operations, as I am sure the Minister has seen for himself, one cannot tell who is in the regular Army and who is in the TA. That is a fabulous achievement for the TA over a number of years. We run the risk of pulling the two sides of the Army apart as a result of this decision.

After the reserve review, we formed some hybrid regiments. For example, my former regiment, 101 Engineer Regiment, will now have a regular headquarters, two TA squadrons and two regular squadrons. With this decision, the Ministry is basically saying to the commanding officer, “We realise that you have one regiment, but you now have two very different halves to it. You can train this half, but you cannot train that half. This half can go adventurous training, but that half cannot.” How does that underpin the one Army concept? What will it do to morale in the Territorial Army when they see their regular counterparts able to train when they cannot? Does the Minister not even begin to understand what this decision is doing to separate the one Army concept?

Let me say a couple of words on the cadets. They play a vital role in supporting future recruitment to the regular Army and Territorial Army. Only last year, the Prime Minister wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence to ask him to increase the size of the cadet force. How does this decision to reduce all funding for the cadet force underline the Prime Minister’s request?

I want to end on the most important point, which is the programme review for 2010. At the moment, TA soldiers face a six-month cut in their training. All they ask is for some reassurance that this cut will not continue into the next financial year. We are asking TA soldiers not to train for six months, but we might not learn until as late as 31 March whether the cut will continue into the next year. I understand from my sources in the MOD that many options are being run up, whereby these cuts will continue into the next financial year. I am not suggesting that the Minister would ever not be honest in this House, but can we have a degree of honesty when he replies about whether such cuts are being considered for next year? At the very least, will he undertake to announce before December that next year’s funding for the TA will come in? That will underline to members of the Territorial Army that he values the TA and that it has a future.

Finally, will the Minister spare me and my colleagues in the TA the platitudes about how much he values the TA? Rather than telling me how much he values the TA and the role that we play in supporting the regular Army, will he give us some actions and decisions through which he will reverse this damaging and short-sighted announcement?

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and of the Minister?

It is the normal course for the Member concerned to seek the agreement of the sponsoring member, the Minister and the Chair. If the Minister is content for the hon. Gentleman briefly to contribute, I will allow him to do so.

I put in a proposal for an hour-and-a-half debate, which would have meant less time pressure, but, unfortunately, we have managed only to secure a half-hour debate.

It is important that we take heed of what has been said. However, may I take the Minister a little further? The Government have moved a little on this decision, but they need to reverse the whole decision and find another £20 million to replace this budget cut. Do we really understand the damage? We have touched on the subject of keeping skills at a high standard, whether someone is working in 101 Engineer Regiment or serving on the bomb disposal squad. The same applies to medics, whose skills cannot be turned off and on to suit the whim of the Government. Those skills must be honed week in, week out, ready for deployment. We do not know how many people we will need to back up. We can envisage the role that is required, but in the end we do not have the exact numbers.

The other thing is that many regiments are re-roling—

What a strange lady.

If the main regiments are re-roling, the TA, which backs up those regiments, should also be doing the training. Unless we are to be left with a great void, I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to go to the Prime Minister, find that £20 million and reverse the decision.

I start by genuinely congratulating the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing the debate, and thank him for providing me with the opportunity to address the House on what I know is an important issue of concern. I also genuinely—not platitudinously—offer my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for his own long service as a member of the Territorial Army, which I know included service on operations overseas.

The TA and the UK reserve forces make a vital contribution to keeping our country safe—to defending our citizens, territory, interests and national security. As we set out in the strategic defence review, members of the TA are no longer held in the role that they served in during the cold war—that of direct territorial defence. They now expect to be mobilised and deployed on a range of operations in support of our defence policy overseas. Like our regular forces, they demonstrate the skills and values that place our armed forces in the top rank—supreme physical courage, commitment, excellence, application, leadership, judgment and selfless duty.

That duty has led to the deployment of 15,000 members of the TA on operations since 2003. More than 540 members of the TA are currently serving in Afghanistan. Like our regular forces, members of the TA stand ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. Tragically, 14 Territorials have died on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I pay tribute to their heroic efforts. We will not forget the price that has been paid.

When we have forces on the front line, both regular and reserve, putting their lives on the line for us, they have to be the priority. That is why Afghanistan comes first for defence. It is our main effort. It rightly gets first call on equipment, and first call on training and support. We are spending increasing sums from the Treasury reserve and the direct defence budget to do this. Additional spending on operations in Afghanistan has risen from £700 million three years ago to more than £3 billion this year. That is over and above the defence budget.

We have approved more than £3.2 billion-worth of urgent operational requirements specifically for Afghanistan. That additional spending has allowed us to more than double helicopter capacity compared with 2006, to quadruple the numbers of mine-protected Mastiff and Ridgback vehicles compared with six months ago, to increase specialised troops and equipment to target improvised explosive devices networks, and crucially, to deploy around 1,000 more troops in a little over six months, and to budget for a further increase if the conditions that we have set out are met.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the other vital role of the Territorials is that they bring to the ordinary workplace an understanding of what our front-line troops are experiencing? They bring an understanding of the training needs, the equipment that is used, and the problems that they face. To destroy that connection is extremely damaging.

I emphatically understand the importance of that organic connection with the community. It is certainly not our intention to undermine or destroy it.

I return to the point that I was making. Making every effort to support and resource our operations in Afghanistan is not only a matter of drawing on the Treasury reserve. Many parts of the core defence budget, such as recruitment and basic training, contribute as well, so we need to re-prioritise the core defence budget too. Whatever way people argue, that inevitably means that tough choices will need to be made.

It is a very positive sign for the future that recruitment to the Army has experienced a significant boost this year—9,450 recruits are expected to complete training this year, more than 1,000 up on last year and 1,500 more than the year before that. Bringing the Army towards full manning is part of what the main effort is all about. It will also help us to meet the harmony guidelines for our regular forces and relieve pressures brought about by Afghanistan operations. But those new recruits will cost money to pay, train and equip—extra money that cannot be drawn from the Treasury reserve for that purpose. It has to be found within existing budgets, so there is a hard choice to make.

We have asked each area of defence to look at uncommitted budgets in this year and to prioritise in the context of Afghanistan. The Chief of the General Staff came forward with proposals from the Army to help to bring the budget into balance in the light of that recent recruitment boost. After discussion, the Secretary of State endorsed that advice from the military. He did so, being clear that we will not allow any risk to the Afghanistan campaign in the future to materialise. That is at the heart of what it means for Afghanistan to be the main effort, and we make no apologies for moving resources in that direction.

No, I have to make some progress.

I shall now set out those measures as they affect the Territorial Army, as the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes has asked me to. The Army has proposed, as part of its contribution to bringing budgets towards balance this year and as a contribution to the main efforts, that it will reduce the amount spent on the Territorial Army this year which is not directly related to Afghanistan. That initial proposal was to suspend the remainder of this financial year’s TA activity that was not directly supporting operations, contributing £20 million to a total saving of £43 million in the TA budget this year.

In saying that, let me be crystal clear: no individual deploying to Afghanistan does so without the required training; no TA soldier will be deployed on operations unless the Army is satisfied that he is properly trained and prepared; and there is emphatically not a cut to pre-deployment training. The training needs of TA personnel deploying to Afghanistan will continue to be individually assessed, and each will receive the training that they need before they begin the pre-deployment training that is specific to the operation upon which they embark. For reserves, that training is then validated at the reserves training and mobilisation centre and by the Permanent Joint Headquarters, before individuals are mobilised to join a formed unit for an extended period of collective training ahead of operations.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have listened to the comments and representations that hon. Members have made in recent days. Although we have always been clear during the debate that those deploying to Afghanistan will get all the training that they need, we do understand the concerns that have been expressed about the effect on those who are not due to deploy in the foreseeable future. I of course understand why people might be concerned about the longer-term effect on capability if the current situation continues indefinitely.

In the short term, the Army is clear that the measures can be managed without impact on support for current operations. But, we are all clear that we will not allow any longer-term risks to materialise. We recognise that in some quarters there are genuine concerns that, if the habit of TA activity is lost for a few months, some of our volunteers may drift away and never return; and we understand that the TA is more likely to come through this difficult period in good order if its members are encouraged to come together regularly, even if not as frequently as in the past.

We will therefore ensure some degree of continuity for those who are not deploying to Afghanistan in the next few months. Taking all that into account, we announced today—I did so earlier today in the Chamber—a small adjustment to the measures that we proposed. We are reducing the saving by £2.5 million to fund one training evening per month for all TA personnel from now until April 2010. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome that change, because it is one that he called for.

The Minister just said that he will introduce one TA drill night for all TA personnel, so that includes specialist units as well, does it?

It is for everyone concerned. As I said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the measure, because I know it is one that he called for. How individual TA units arrange it will be a decision for their chain of command.

Let me also say to the hon. Gentleman, as he has raised this point, that we do not propose to close any TA centres. However, I must emphasise that the remainder of the savings measures are unavoidably necessary in these challenging times and to focus spending on Afghanistan. Resources are tight, and I am sure the House agrees that we have to ensure that our mission in Afghanistan gets all the support it needs.

As I have said, the precise training that is affected is being determined locally, depending on local circumstances and priorities, and commanding officers have some flexibility in the implementation of savings measures. All new recruits to the TA will continue to receive phase 1 training. TA personnel who have not yet qualified for their annual training bounty will have the opportunity to undertake training to enable them to qualify. The hon. Gentleman’s cursory description of the training that will be available to get that bounty did not bear any relationship to what we propose.

I sympathise entirely if those restrictions cause local TA units to review commitments that they have made to public events. I am told that many units are deciding to honour, without payment, commitments such as providing support for remembrance activities, and they are to be applauded for doing so. I hope that as many TA bands as possible will feel able to continue supporting local remembrance events.

We are still working on the full details of the savings measures, but at this stage we do not anticipate that any TA centres will close as a result. We are very keen to maintain links with the employers whose invaluable support is so crucial to the TA. Liaison with current and prospective employers will continue via regional reserve forces, cadet associations and the Government’s Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers initiatives. Some regional TA activities will be cancelled, but that will have little, if any, effect on relations with employers. I realise that reductions in normal activity are disappointing for TA members. However, I hope and believe that the majority will understand the reasons behind those reductions and the exceptional circumstances in which they are being applied.

On communication, I repeat the regret that I expressed earlier today that members of the TA found out about changes through the press, rather than through the chain of command. There has been an historic practice in the armed forces, under successive Governments, that such changes are communicated and cascaded through the chain of command. In this day and age—in the media environment in which we operate, with the 24/7 media—I do not think that is good enough. We need to reflect on that issue and to make improvements. I also repeat the commitment that I gave earlier today that the changes will be kept under active review.

Let me conclude by giving a commitment. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman has said about reassurance for the future, and I think it is incumbent on us in the Ministry of Defence to reach conclusions on the budget for 2010 as quickly as possible in order to give that reassurance. The TA is doing an incredibly good job on behalf of all of us, and we should support that. I hope that the change that I have announced today will be welcomed right across the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.