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Reserve Forces: Future

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 1 April 1998

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2.41 p.m.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Milverton, who is unable to be here today, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the TA and other reserves will be protected against excessive reductions in size and support capacity.

My Lords, the future size and shape of the Reserve Forces is being considered as part of the Strategic Defence Review, together with all other elements of our force structure.

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Territorial Army, in particular, is such a strong recruiting base for the Regular Army—I understand that 10 per cent. of Army personnel are recruited from the Territorial Army—will the Government bear carefully in mind the need not to reduce the numbers of the Territorial Army more than is absolutely necessary?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that no final decisions have yet been taken in the course of the Strategic Defence Review in respect of the total size of the Territorial Army. In that review we are taking into account precisely the considerations that the noble Lord has offered us.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that producing 10 per cent. of the totality of the British troops in Bosnia from the Territorial reserves demonstrates how important a role they play? Can we be sure that, since they have a vital role to play, particularly in support and peacekeeping operations, every effort will be made to maintain their strength?

My Lords, I have no difficulty in accepting the first part of my noble friend's question. We are all very proud of the role of the Territorial Army in Bosnia. As to future force strengths, I am afraid that I have to crave your Lordships' patience for just a little while.

My Lords, I have to declare an interest as more than 30 years ago I commanded the No. 1 Northern General Hospital TA. In view of the fact that the present establishment of the regular defence medical services is so far below what it ought to be, does the Minister accept the crucial importance of maintaining the medical strength of the reserve army and the other support services which have played such an important role in the Gulf and in Bosnia?

My Lords, I am delighted to give the noble Lord the assurance that we are interested in sustaining the defence capabilities not only of the reserve forces but also of the regular forces, which, very unfortunately, have been allowed to run down drastically over the past few years.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that since the passing of the Reserve Forces Act our reserve forces have been very much complementary to our front-line troops and therefore should be reduced only after very careful consideration? Secondly, does he agree that the reserves and the TAVRs are immensely important in maintaining the link between the forces and the community throughout the country, and they, again, should not be reduced without very careful thought?

My Lords, will my noble friend convey to the Secretary of State, who is a Scotsman, that in Wales these proposals will be scrutinised very closely in view of the fact that there are only two battalions at the moment—one in the north and one in the south—and that if one were removed it would create a great deal of disturbance for the Government?

My Lords, I view my noble friend's admonitions with great trepidation. I will of course convey his comments and his compliments to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

My Lords, has the noble Lord read the letter that recently appeared in the London Times signed by the chairman of the Council of Territorial, Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Associations, General Sir Edward Jones, which sets out the problems that the Territorial Army will face if it is severely cut? If the Minister has not read that letter, will he assure the House that he will do so before he initials the Strategic Defence Review?

My Lords, I do not normally read the correspondence columns of any newspaper because of the "nutcases" who normally write into the most respectable broadsheets. But, having said that, I did read the letter in the name of General Sir Edward Jones. It was a very serious letter. I also read the reply sent to him by the Chief of the Defence Staff. I hope that General Jones accepts that he has had a very thoughtful reply. As to the noble Earl's last question, it is not for me to initial Strategic Defence Reviews.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in each of the two World Wars we would have been at a grave disadvantage if we had not had a large and well-trained Territorial Army? Is he further aware that in each of those wars we stood alone for several years without allies? Will the Government bear that in mind in planning for the future?

My Lords, one will certainly take into account all historical precedents and the lessons we can learn from them. However, I have to say to your Lordships that the principal consideration we bear in mind when undertaking a defence review is not to look back to the past but to prepare ourselves with modern strategic forces for the future.

My Lords, it is unreasonable to expect the noble Lord the Minister to say anything meaningful at this time when the Strategic Defence Review has left the Ministry of Defence and is, as we understand, with the Treasury or possibly with the Cabinet. But will he ask his right honourable friends in the Treasury to bear in mind the major part that the Territorial Army plays in the social life as well as in the defence life of the country and the dangers which would be achieved by a very small cut in the budget compared with a very large cut in the Territorial Army?

My Lords, I certainly take seriously the comments that the noble Lord makes about the social contribution of the Territorial Army to life in the country, particularly in certain small, outlying communities. Whether one can ever get a Treasury Minister interested in such considerations is another matter.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that for review purposes we should take into account not only the potential reserve power which the Territorial Army possesses but also its aid to the civil power when called on to provide it and the social benefits which come from membership of the Territorial Army?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we are taking all those considerations into account.

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-chairman of the Army Cadet Force. Is the noble Lord aware that a very large number of cadet forces have their premises within Territorial Army units? Any significant reduction therefore in TA headquarters units would have a disproportionately grave effect upon the cadet forces of our country.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely important point. We are very seized of the interaction between the territorials and the Army Cadet Force. I can assure him that this is one of the points that has been specifically considered in the course of the Strategic Defence Review.

My Lords, I had better declare an interest: over 50 years ago I was a senior subaltern on the supplementary reserve of officers. I am concerned about this matter. Can the noble Lord say that the views expressed on all sides of your Lordships' House will be seriously considered?

My Lords, I hope that I have conveyed to your Lordships that we have considered all these points very seriously. As the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, was good enough to recognise, there is little definite that I can say at this moment. No representation has been made this afternoon which has not been considered seriously by Ministers.