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Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry

Volume 567: debated on Tuesday 10 September 2013

It is great to see you in the Chair, Ms Clark. Congratulations—I had not realised that you were chairing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about the contribution that the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry makes to my constituency in Dudley. I will begin by paying tribute to all the men and women who serve in the armed forces. It is very important that debates such as this one are held, so that we can express our gratitude for the service they give, the risks they face and the bravery they show on behalf of the rest of us.

The people of Dudley make an enormous contribution to the armed forces through the Territorial Army. Until recently, that was done through the RMLY—and still is—a TA regiment with a squadron at Vicar street in Dudley. The regiment has a history in the region dating back to 1794, and A squadron has had a base on Vicar street for more than 20 years. I thank all the members of A squadron for the work that they do in Dudley and further afield, and for the warm welcome that they always give me when I visit their base. They are a credit to the Army, their regiment and their community. They do a brilliant job, not only in Dudley but overseas, serving their country.

The squadron attracts recruits from across the black country. It has recently taken on 47 trainees and it is processing another 60 at the moment. Two dozen volunteers recently returned from active service in Afghanistan. It is a popular and expanding squadron in a popular and expanding regiment, with deep roots in the local community and the wider region. In fact, the regiment is the best recruited yeomanry regiment in the whole of the TA. The Minister will be pleased to hear that it is making exactly the sort of contribution that he and his colleagues are asking for as they seek to double the size of the TA in the next few years.

Under plans announced in July, however, the regiment will be disbanded to make way for a new Scottish yeomanry regiment. A squadron in Dudley is being merged with B squadron in Telford, with the former Telford squadron being run as a detachment. Telford will cease to function as a regional TA headquarters, with staff being asked to move to Edinburgh to set up the new Scottish yeomanry. A squadron at Dudley itself will now be part of the Royal Yeomanry Regiment, whose headquarters will be in Croydon. From its Croydon headquarters, the Royal Yeomanry Regiment will now have to support recruiting bases in Fulham, Dudley, Nottingham and Croydon itself, while being paired with a Welsh misplaced regular armoured reconnaissance regiment, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards in Norfolk, which is a traditional regular affiliate of the RMLY. Together with other changes to squadrons in the midlands, that means that the RMLY will be disbanded, despite its history and the contribution that people in Dudley and the wider black country make to it. Thankfully we have retained the Vicar street base in Dudley, without which TA soldiers who have done a full day’s work in Dudley would have to travel 30 or 40 miles to train and to fulfil their other responsibilities in Telford.

The Dudley squadron is a central part of the community and it is at the heart of events that unify people in the town such as Remembrance day and St George’s day parades. The Minister will be delighted to hear that the RMLY received the freedom of Dudley last summer. Although I am disappointed that the regiment will be disbanded, I am very pleased that the squadron will continue to play a role in Dudley. That could not have happened without the hard work of Hannah Bragg and other wives of reservists at the TA centre. Hannah set up a petition against disbandment, gaining huge support and more than 1,300 signatures.

However, I have serious concerns about the risks to the Dudley and Telford bases. I am worried that they could be at risk in the long term because local reserve squadrons are best managed locally, not from a headquarters 150 miles or so away. TA sub-units are hard to manage, especially when problems occur. There are examples such as 37 Signals Regiment, which has its HQ in Redditch, in a constituency neighbouring my own. The regiment has had management issues at one of its squadrons in Colchester, 160 miles away. In the recent TA review, the Colchester squadron has been moved, to come under command and administration from a more local Royal Signals TA Regiment in the south-east to ease that problem.

The success of the RMLY Regiment was down to its local laydown, with its regimental HQ at Telford and squadrons at Telford, Dudley, Chester and Wigan. I am concerned that it will be more difficult for the Dudley squadron to develop an esprit de corps with other squadrons in Nottingham and Fulham, and new headquarters 150 miles or so away in Croydon. Similarly, the rest of the RMLY will be lost to the Queen’s Own Yeomanry, which has its HQ at Newcastle upon Tyne. That will end 217 years of regimental unity and shared history. This is not just about the RMLY; it is about local TA regiments.

It is only because the RMLY is local that it has been the best recruited yeomanry regiment and the third best recruiting TA regiment nationwide, and it has had more soldiers on operations than any other yeomanry regiment. Reserve regiments will now receive regimental recruiting teams from the regular Army. Under the former local Telford, Dudley, Chester and Wigan laydown, those teams would have had less travelling to do and would have been more effective than they will be under the non-local laydown of Croydon, Dudley, Fulham and Nottingham.

I have a few concerns about that. First, if a sub-unit faces problems with training, equipment or staff, the distances between bases could become an issue when it comes to fixing the problem. Secondly, joint training between squadrons is important to yeomanry regiments, but it will be more difficult to deliver because of the distances involved. Thirdly, TA employer support issues are handled locally by the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. During deployments, regimental TA liaison officers are mobilised, but their interface with soldiers’ families and employers will be more difficult without local laydown, because of the greater distances involved.

Those changes mean that there will be no yeomanry regiment in the west midlands and very few “teeth arm” reserve jobs in the west midlands, which are the jobs that reservists like. More reserves will be support troops, logistics and signals staff, but those positions are less well recruited because, as I understand it, they are less popular with reservist soldiers.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the 47 new recruits to A squadron and the 60 new leads that are currently being processed? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of contribution he wants local communities to make if he is going to hit Government targets? Will he not only listen to what campaigners are saying, or to what I am saying, but seek the advice of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), who is a former commanding officer of A squadron in Dudley? I am sure that the Minister has already discussed this issue with him. Will he visit Dudley? He once promised to do so—it was before the last election, so he might have forgotten—and it would be great if he came to see for himself the brilliant work of the RLMY at Vicar street.

In conclusion, the people of Britain show huge respect and support for the work of our armed forces. Nowhere is that truer than in Dudley, where our local squadron and the wider regiment are at the heart of the community and have the freedom of the borough. It is hugely important that the TA is not reorganised in a way that puts that in jeopardy.

Ms Clark, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; I think that this is the first occasion on which I have had that pleasure.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing this debate on an issue that I know is important to many Members of the House. Indeed, I should put on the record the fact that he has already raised this issue with me, both informally and on the Floor of the House, and that he has very much stood up for the Territorial Army in Dudley. However, the issue is also important to many of the individuals who are affected by the important changes that we are making as a result of the wider reserves structure and basing announcement of 3 July.

Any discussion about the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry has to be set in the context of the large-scale and necessary structural changes that are under way to transform our Army—both regular and reserve—so that it can face the challenge of the future. Our reasons for changing the structure of the Army, including placing a greater reliance on the reserves, are well known.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, our reasons for changing the Army’s structure, including a greater reliance on the reserves, are well known. Much detailed and complex work has been done by the Army in support of the complex task of restructuring the regulars and the reserves into what will be a fully integrated, flexible and credible force by 2018. Many difficult decisions have had to be taken in support of that work, but I believe the end product will justify the means.

The hon. Member for Dudley North will already be aware that the principle of greater integration was established in the report published by the independent commission to review the United Kingdom’s reserve forces, which was published in July 2011. In delivering the Future Reserves 2020 proposition, and Army 2020, we are committed to expanding the volunteer Army Reserve to a trained strength of 30,000 and to integrating it fully into the structure of the Army as a whole. Achieving that has already involved hard choices on the regular side to ensure that the Army plays its part in allowing the Ministry of Defence to continue to live within its means while maintaining an Army that can operate across the full spectrum of operational capability and offer its reserve members fulfilment and challenge.

We do not underestimate the challenge of growing the reserve to 30,000. However, as I have said in the past, the target of a trained reserve of 30,000 is well within historic norms. In 1997, the Territorial Army was over 50,000 strong, and it had already been reduced to about 40,000 by 2000. By 2009, it had declined in size to just over 26,000. That shows that the current initiative to increase its trained strength to 30,000, while challenging, is perfectly achievable. However, given its importance to our nation, that will require support and encouragement from all of us, which is why it is valuable that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue.

We recognise, of course, that while previously the Territorial Army was essentially designed to augment the regular Army, it will in future be a vital part of an integrated Army, ready and able to deploy routinely at sub-unit level, and in some cases as formed units. Having said that, I should not overlook the contribution to operations already made by reservists, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. In the past 10 years, almost 30,000 members of the TA have deployed on operations overseas. Since 2003, more than 70 members of the TA have received operational honours, while 21, sadly, have died on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. I know that those present today will want to join me in saluting their sacrifice.

We are investing heavily in the reserves to ensure that they will be trained, equipped and supported accordingly for the new role they will be expected to play. We plan that, over time, reservists will have access to the same training equipment currently used by regulars. In exchange, we expect them to commit to specific amounts of training time and, for the Army in most cases, to accept liability for a maximum deployment of up to six months plus pre-deployment training in a five-year period, dependent on operational demand. There will be opportunities for shorter periods of deployed service commitment for those in some specialist roles. Reserves will also routinely fulfil roles that were historically the preserve of the regulars, and officers and soldiers will have command opportunities that have not always been available in the recent past.

The changes will provide career prospects that have not necessarily been available hitherto for reservists. Similarly, the skills and experience gained by reservists will be of considerable value to their civilian employers, making the proposition all the more attractive. Alongside the improvements and changes being made to the offer, we are overhauling the structure of the Army reserves to align with the regular structure, which is what will allow the Army to become a single entity.

On the specific circumstances of the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry and the changes we will be implementing, I understand that there has been some concern among those serving in the regiment and in the local community. I assure those people that the locations currently used by squadrons of the regiment will remain in use, and it is intended that the squadrons will continue to bear the historic names handed down over time.

The RMLY was formed in 1992 and is the youngest of today’s four yeomanry regiments. It was established following the amalgamation of the Queen’s Own Mercian Yeomanry and the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry as part of the “Options for Change” programme initiated to redesign our defence forces following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. The antecedent regiments of the RMLY, the oldest of which was raised in 1794, are steeped in a rich and distinguished military history, having served with distinction in South Africa and seen action during the world wars in many theatres in roles as diverse as cavalry, artillery and signals. That heritage will of course be preserved for future generations. Since we have time, I will digress in a way that I was told not to: one of the regiment’s squadrons, based on the Cheshire Yeomanry, was involved in the Peterloo massacre, but it was a long time ago, so we need not argue about that now.

Under the new structure, the overall number of yeomanry regiments will remain the same, although the number of squadrons will be reduced. Three of the regiments will be in the adaptable force, paired with regular light cavalry regiments, while the Royal Wessex Yeomanry will provide support to the reaction force. The changes have been designed to allow better regular-reserve unit pairing with all the associated benefits that that brings: improved access to training facilities and equipment, better use of full-time manpower and increased opportunities for recruitment.

As the Defence Secretary said on 3 July, it will be necessary to merge or close some units and raise some other new ones so that they can more easily be paired with regular counterparts. The Army will also consolidate some small detachments, most of which have been poorly recruited over recent years, to enable better pairing arrangements.

The pairing arrangements have meant that the current regimental headquarters of the RMLY in Telford is not well placed to pair with any of the regular light cavalry regiments, all of which are many hundreds of miles away in Leuchars, Catterick and Swanton Morley. Other yeomanry regiments already in the north-east and south-east are well placed to pair with Catterick and Swanton Morley respectively, but the distance between Telford and Leuchars is thought to be too great to enable an effective pairing relationship. Therefore, the decision has been taken to leave RMLY squadrons in situ by resubordinating them to the nearest of the two other yeomanry regiments, and to move the regimental headquarters to Scotland where it will take command of the existing yeomanry squadrons in Belfast, Ayrshire and Fife and be very well placed to pair with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in Leuchars. The RHQ is largely, although not exclusively, composed of regular staff and instructors. I particularly congratulate the RMLY on the recruiting successes mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Subject to the necessary endorsement, the regiment in Scotland will be renamed the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. As I mentioned, the locations currently occupied by RMLY squadrons will remain in use, and it is planned that, subject to endorsement, the squadrons themselves will retain their titles, although their command will be transferred to other yeomanry regiments. That means that there will be little disruption for the people attending the units. They can continue to serve, as before, as yeomen.

I recognise the strong feelings that exist on this subject on both sides of the House, particularly among those who have first-hand experience of Army service and those whose constituencies will be directly affected. I am confident, however, that we have grasped the proverbial nettle and taken the necessary difficult decisions to deliver a single, credible future Army fit for the challenges of the 21st century. In closing, we value enormously our regular and reserve forces, especially today. I thank the members of the RMLY for all the work that they have done in the service of our country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.