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Reserve Service Personnel

Volume 565: debated on Thursday 27 June 2013

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

I think that everybody in the House, particularly MPs, and indeed everybody in the country, is very aware of the work undertaken and the sacrifices made by those who serve in our reserve forces. In many cases, the job of the reservists is no different from that of the regular forces. Their family life is disrupted in the same way and they suffer the same strains and stresses. They go out and fulfil the same role.

There are two military bases in my constituency: Chicksands, the Army intelligence base, and RAF Henlow. Many of the staff who serve on those bases, as well as the soldiers and RAF personnel, send their children to school in Bedfordshire and, because they are there for quite a while, I am in the fortunate position of having many of them stay in the constituency and become reservists. A number of cases involving those reservists have come to my attention over the past few months.

I am often intrigued by the way we honour our armed forces and our soldiers, who do a fantastic job. The Royal Anglian Regiment is based as Chicksands. I will always remember a story I was told—I think the Minister was with me at the time—when the Royal Anglians came back from Iraq and presented to us on the work they had undertaken there. Some of the soldiers who were there that day are now living in Bedfordshire and serving as reservists. They were telling us about the respect the public show them when they come back from a tour of duty. They had just come back from Washington DC, where they had been making a similar presentation. They had stopped at an American diner to eat. When the soldier—the one who presented to us that day—went up to pay for the meal, the young girl at the checkout said, “You don’t need to pay, Sir. Your meal has already been paid for.” When he asked who had paid for it, she nodded to the window. Reversing out of a lorry bay was a lorry driver. She explained to our soldiers that the driver had just wanted to say thank you for the sacrifice they make on their behalf. I was incredibly touched by that story, particularly as I was told it by soldiers in our own regiment in Bedfordshire.

It is a huge honour the way UK citizens will wait for returning soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. They stand in the rain and the cold to honour those returning soldiers. It is therefore hugely dismaying for me to hear from reservists in my surgery who sit and give examples of employers who perhaps do not pay them the respect they deserve for the sacrifice they make.

I know that the military go a huge way towards providing for reservists all the assistance and benefits that regular soldiers in the Army receive. However, I have heard examples of things that have happened over the past year, the most recent of which made me call this debate. When reservists who served at the Olympics last year got back to their full-time employment, they discovered that they had lost their holiday entitlement and holiday pay. Some might say, “Well, they were only at the Olympics—it wasn’t a tour of Afghanistan”, but they were still protecting our safety and looking after us. If there had been a terrorist attack, they would have been in the front line and their lives would have been at risk. I found that attitude quite depressing.

We have legislation that enables employers to make allowances should they employ those who wish to risk their lives on our behalf, for our freedom and our safety, in order that they do not suffer as a result of doing so. I recently heard about the case of a soldier who had been on a tour of Afghanistan and on his return went straight back to work. Again, I heard the same story: he had lost his holiday pay and holiday entitlement. The legislation says that when reserve forces personnel return from a deployment they must be taken back

“on terms and conditions not less favourable to him than those which would have been applicable to him in that occupation had he not entered on such service.”

I know that the Minister is going to say that a White Paper is coming up shortly. That is indeed the reason I called this debate. I wanted to use it to highlight the position in which reservists who have been in the regular forces, and who have settled in Mid Bedfordshire and are now my constituents, find themselves. I do not believe that their situation is unique as it is probably occurring with employers not only in Mid Bedfordshire but nationwide. I would like the Minister to be aware of this problem, so I highlight it at time when he will be preparing the White Paper. The wording of the legislation needs to be tightened and secured to provide reservists with much greater protections than they have now. He will probably say that it is already quite tight, and I agree that one would think that there were no loopholes that employers could use, but I am afraid that they are doing that, and that is what we need to protect against.

There needs to be an effective means of challenging decisions made by employers should a reservist feel that he is being unfairly treated when he comes back from a tour of duty, whatever or wherever it may have been. At the moment, it is a situation that arises between the reservist and his employer. We need to widen that out and find a mechanism for an appeals process through which a reservist can challenge his employer without fear of losing his job.

At the moment, non-British companies operating in the UK are free from our law. The White Paper needs to explore how to find a way of ensuring that non-British companies comply with the legislation that we have to protect our reservists. It appears that non-British companies may be the worst offenders. We need to find a means by which we can name and shame companies that do not do their best for our forces or treat them in the way that we would like them to be treated. There is a huge gap between the respect shown towards our serving personnel by the lorry driver in the States and the way that some companies treat them in the UK.

A few people have said to me, “How do you expect a small business to be able to cope with taking on a reservist who may be going to disappear for a few months at a time?” There is provision to enable employers to do that without being inconvenienced in any great way. That provision enables the reservist to go and fight for his country. Surely the employer should be grateful that that person is fighting for the freedom of businesses to operate in the UK. It is therefore a double-edged sword. The employer should show the same respect that the lorry driver showed.

The last Government left a huge, multi-billion-pound black hole in the finances of the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State and his Ministers, while fending off demands from the Treasury for ever more spending cuts, have done their bit to recognise the contribution of reserve forces and personnel. Indeed, they will be relying on them more, because one of the realities of the cutbacks is that the reserve forces will increasingly be called to the front line and into more dangerous situations. That is one of the main reasons why the legislation needs to be tightened. The difference between serving in the reserve forces and the regular forces is becoming narrower as we rely more on our reserves.

I know that the Minister has been a reservist. He has told me some fascinating stories about his time as a reservist, none of which I can repeat here today, unfortunately. I wish I could, but they would be struck from Hansard in a flash. This is not blackmail, I hasten to add. I am not saying that I have something over the Minister. However, I hope that he will hear the plea from my constituents and all reservists across the country; that he will consider in the White Paper how the employment rights of British nationals who are employed in the UK by foreign companies can be protected and secured; and that he will consider tightening the wording in the legislation so that our reservists are not disadvantaged once they have completed a tour of duty. That is fundamental.

The White Paper is coming, so the Minister has a fantastic opportunity to do his best for his colleagues who do the job that he once did. I know that he will take up this challenge enthusiastically and do his best.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing this debate on the terms of employment for reserve service personnel. It is timely in two respects. First, it relates to the White Paper that we will publish shortly. Secondly, we are in the run-up to Armed Forces day 2013 this Saturday, when the country will rightly pay tribute to our personnel, regular and reserve, the families who support them and our veterans.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend in her place. To draw a military analogy, she got slightly waylaid on a jungle training exercise, but I am pleased to say that she has successfully rejoined her unit. I would like to make some general points about our reserve forces before addressing at least some of the issues that she raised in relation to her constituent.

Before I go any further, I should declare an interest or, given the circumstances, confirm one. I served in the Territorial Army as an infantry officer in the 1980s. I was a Royal Anglian—a regiment that proudly recruits from Bedfordshire as well as from my county of Essex. It is therefore quite possible that some of her constituents serve in its ranks. I served in the cold war, when we planned, in essence, for world war three. Fortunately, that nightmare never came to pass, so I was never mobilised for operations, I was never shot at with live ammunition, other than in training, and I bear no medals. However, I still proudly carry the Queen’s commission, which hangs on my wall at home. I have worn the uniform and I understand the ethos.

In truth, however, the role of the reserves has changed markedly since I served among them. Since 2003, there have been more than 25,000 reservist mobilisations for operations to fight alongside their regular counterparts, and 30 have paid the ultimate price for their country. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the tremendous contribution our reserves make to the defence and security of our nation, echoing the exact sentiments of my hon. Friend. Reserves have always played an essential role in our armed forces, and their dedication, professionalism and contribution have been vital to achieving success.

My hon. Friend will be familiar with the background to our new policy for reserves. The 2010 strategic defence and security review described the role of the reserve forces as part of our future, highly capable armed forces. As an integral part of this future force, we are growing the reserves to provide additional capacity, as well providing certain specialists—for example, medical personnel or cyber experts—whom it would not be practical or cost-effective to maintain as part of our regular capability. Seeing the very close relationship between my hon. Friend and her BlackBerry, she is indeed a cyber expert.

The changes we are making are substantial. They are about delivering defence differently from in the past. We are taking an approach that envisages military capability being delivered through a whole force comprising regulars, reservists, contractors and civil servants. This is already happening in Afghanistan today. For example, the Army is reorganising into an integrated force of 112,000 trained regulars and reservists that is able to meet the security challenges of the future. This construct, mirrored by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, allows us better to harness the talent the country has to offer. This approach will deliver the Ministry of Defence’s contribution to national security in a cost-effective way that makes the best use of the resources available.

We need to develop the reserve component of the force. The 2011 independent commission on the reserve forces found at that time that the reserves were in decline, particularly in the Army, and needed to be brought up to date to meet the challenges of the new security environment. The key recommendations of the independent commission’s report were to stabilise the reserve numbers and increase the trained reserve strength; to provide the reserve forces with better and defined roles; to offer the right mix of interesting and challenging activities, with appropriate recognition and reward to attract and retain individuals in the reserve forces; to provide greater ease of mobilisation, better employee protection and greater recognition of employers; and to increase investment in the reserve forces.

In responding to the report last July, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced a £1.8 billion investment programme in the reserves over the next 10 years. That is significant. There have been reviews of the reserves in the recent past that have led to comparatively little change. This review is different: it will deliver. It is supported by additional funding, by the requirement to deliver that is created by dependence of the Future Force on the reserves, and by the will, throughout Defence, to ensure that it succeeds. The commitment to deliver was reinforced by the publication in November last year of the Green Paper, “Future Reserves 2020: Delivering the Nation’s Security Together”. This set out our proposals to enable Defence to build and sustain over time the changes recommended in the independent commission’s report, and to ensure that we are able to deliver a reserve force that will meet the needs of the future whole force concept.

Following the publication of the Green Paper, we launched a consultation exercise, which has proved invaluable. We received more than 2,500 responses from reservists, employers, employer organisations, regulars and members of the public. In addition, some 50 consultation events were held with employers, reservists and their families. These responses were generally supportive of our proposals for the future of the reserves, and recognised that the future proposition requires the development of new relationships between Defence and reservists—and their families and employers—that will be crucial to achieving our goals. As someone who has commanded TA soldiers, albeit in the last century, may I just say that the relationship with families is also very important? There is an old saying in the Army, “Recruit the soldier, retain the family.” We need to ensure that families are supportive of our reservists, too. In order to retain the support of families, we need to get greater support from employers and, indeed, from society as a whole. They also serve who sit at home and wait.

The Minister makes a fantastic point. It is the families who suffer when employers take away the holiday entitlement from reservists when they return. The children suffer as they do not get to spend time with their father or mother when they return from this very stressful situation. The stress factor is involved here, because when someone is returning from a tour of duty, they need that time off and that down time with their families to re-stabilise themselves—to step away from where they have been and back into the real world. So removing their holiday entitlement has another effect, as it prevents that process from taking place.

My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point. Holiday is important to the families as well as to the servicemen themselves. Of course, it is important to the children, where that is applicable. The ability to have leave, particularly when returning from operations, is very important. We understand that in the Ministry of Defence, and I hope, at least in general terms, to address that point as it relates to her constituent in a moment or two.

Given all the things I have been talking about, we have done considerable work with employers, and much of the consultation focused on them. We recognise that reserve service will affect different employers in different ways, according to their size and sector. We seek to develop relationships that are tailored to reflect that— relationships that are open, practicable and based on mutual benefit. I have had productive discussions with the British Chambers of Commerce, the Business Services Association, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors to try to ensure that we achieve that. I hope that the fruits of some of those discussions will be reflected shortly in the White Paper.

Given all that, I was concerned to hear about the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, and I shall explain the MOD’s policy as I believe it would apply in a case such as this. I understand that her constituent was mobilised into service as part of the deployment for Operation Olympics. I, too, pay tribute to all those service personnel, both regular and reserve, who, in many cases at very short notice, were mobilised to ensure the security of those wonderfully successful games. At the end of that service, a reservist would be entitled to a period of paid leave. For each month that they are mobilised they get about two or just over two days’ paid leave. In this particular case, her constituent might have been entitled to about eight days’ paid leave from the Ministry of Defence in view of having been mobilised for several months—it was both before and after the games. So the normal procedure would be for the leave to be taken at the end of the operation—in effect, it would be post-operation tour leave, to be paid for by the MOD.

In this case, without being familiar with all the detail, it sounds like my hon. Friend’s constituent took that post-operation tour leave of about eight days, and the employer then decided in effect to “net that off” and take it off her constituent’s leave from the company. It might be that the employer went slightly beyond that—we would need to know more details—but the reservist would still have had broadly the same amount of leave. One could take the view, however, that perhaps the employer should have been more generous, given the service that had been rendered, and should not have “netted off” the additional holiday. As I understand it, nothing in current legislation prevents the employer from doing that, but one could take the view that the employer should have been slightly more generous.

Notwithstanding that issue, we need to re-set the relationships between reservists, and employers and society as a whole, and we aim to do that via the White Paper. Greater reliance on reserves is more cost-effective for the nation, but requires a greater willingness by society to support and encourage reserve service. Our reservists make a contribution to society over and above most others. We recognise and value this and we must offer them attractive challenges, fair rewards and incentives, and we must undertake to provide them and their families with appropriate support, recognising the contribution they make. The White Paper, which we shall publish soon, will set out our plans in much greater detail and will set the agenda for a very significant change in the future of our reserve forces. This is tremendously exciting and I look forward to our reserves playing an even greater role in the defence and security of our nation.

When I served, there were 75,000 trained men and women in the Territorial Army. Our target now is to get to 30,000 by 2018. I have to believe that if we got to 75,000 then, with a smaller population, we can get to 30,000 within four and a bit years with a larger population. In order to succeed, however, we must have the support of employers and the right relationship between them and their reservist employees. We need mutual respect, and that is what we seek to engender via the White Paper. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the issue at this time—as I said, the debate was timely—and I believe that she has done her constituent a good service.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.