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Territorial Army

Volume 498: debated on Monday 2 November 2009

Before I answer that question, I am sure the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, who died over the weekend in Afghanistan. He was a man of great courage and dedication, and the thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with his family and friends.

The Territorial Army has made a vital contribution to operations in Afghanistan since 2001. It has worked with, and supported, our regular forces in a wide variety of roles, such as acting as medics and trainers, and providing force protection and combat support.

May I join the Secretary of State in paying my respects, and will he join me in paying tribute to the London Regiment, which has served with great distinction in Afghanistan in 2007, and is due to go out again next year? Does he agree that the TA has come into its own in recent years because of the knowledge, experience and maturity that it brings to sensitive operations? Did he take that into account in reaching his sensible decision last week to continue full-scale training of the TA?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the contribution that has been made by the TA over time, and about the skills—niche skills—and maturity that members of the TA can bring to our operational theatres. As he says, the London brigade is the lead cohort for infantry for Herrick 12 next year. Altogether, 130 men will be mobilised on 16 November. I thank that brigade for the part it will play in organising that deployment.

Now that the “one Army” concept has been, at the very least, severely damaged by the decisions of the regular generals last week, how does the Secretary of State believe it will feed through to retention rates within the TA? Has he considered another blow to morale—to all those small employers who have supported so generously their personnel going off on active duty?

I hear what the hon. Lady says about the attitude of the regulars towards the reserves, but I do not think that it is fair at all. There were tough choices to be made, and in-year savings had to be found. They were not in any way easy to find, and they certainly were not easy to find among the regulars. It would be wrong for us to attempt to increase any feelings that there might be between the territorials and the regulars.

In considering the role of the TA as well as the regular Army in Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that armies understand—they do not necessarily have to agree—precisely what their role is? Does he also agree that there is now considerable ambiguity in Afghanistan, especially following the withdrawal of Abdullah Abdullah from the presidential election, and that there is a need for the international community to build a new consensus on the way forward, which should include all the regional power groups in Afghanistan?

I agree that the politics need to advance a long way in Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah’s decision to withdraw, and the decision taken this morning by the electoral commission to accept that there is therefore no need for a second round, point up the difficulties we have in this area, but they are also welcome, because there was no point in a second round when the decision had effectively been taken.

I must say to my hon. Friend that I have talked to troops in theatre, and they know that they are not the answer in Afghanistan—there has to be a political answer—but they clearly know what their role is. They know that they are a force for good, and they know the work they are doing, and they do not allow themselves to be distracted from it by the political problems that they see and understand.

The overall strategic direction of the reserve forces was set by the strategic review of the reserves, a copy of which was placed in the Library of the House on 28 April 2009. This overall direction, and the Government’s commitment to the reserve forces, including the TA, remains unchanged.

As the Secretary of State has just confirmed, the Government’s strategic review of Britain’s reserve forces was published barely six months ago. What part of it recommended cutting 30 per cent. of the TA’s budget?

I cannot recall to what degree the hon. Gentleman engaged with the discussions that we had at the time that we published that review, but it was a strategic review that laid a framework for the future of our reserve forces. It acknowledged the funding issues that would have to be dealt with separately. Just because there were and are resource constraints, it does not mean that we should stop people doing the necessary thinking that needs to take place about the strategic direction of the reserve. Yes, some of the implementation will have to wait until resources are available and will have to stand in line for resources, along with the Department’s other priorities.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the common-sense decision to reverse the cut. Can we now look to the future, and will he use his good offices to rebuild the trust between the TA and Land Forces, and ensure that we never see any future cuts of that sort?

I will seek to do what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that Defence faces tough choices. As I said the other week and repeat again today, in the present circumstances I am unashamed about the fact that Afghanistan is my top priority. If that means that we have to push more resources in that direction, we will seek to do so. Inevitably, that means that other things will have to be brought forward to pay for that increased priority.

Last week’s U-turn leaves unfinished business, which the Secretary of State ducked during Wednesday’s debate about the TA. His silence on in-year cuts to the Army cadets and the Officer Training Corps, leaked in his Department’s 12 October memo, was deafening. Does he not recognise that penny-pinching in relation to the cadets puts high-quality TA and regular recruitment at risk? What effect does he think that that will have downstream on our ability to support current and future operations?

Where is the clarity about the decisions that would have to be taken by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues? They criticise everything that is done, but are not prepared or able to say what they would do. Tough choices need to be taken, and if people are trying to present themselves as capable of governing, they have to be prepared—as the shadow Chancellor knows—to take those choices. It is clear that the shadow Defence team are not.