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Territorial Army: Disaster Relief

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 February 1999

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3.22 p.m.

Whether they will support an enhanced role for the Territorial Army in rapid relief response to natural and man-made disasters.

My Lords, our Armed Forces play an important part in disaster relief in support of the appropriate civil agencies. The Territorial Army makes a significant contribution to this. Natural and man-made disasters always require a very rapid response. Reservists have civilian jobs and may be less readily available at short notice than regular personnel. In the first instance, therefore, we tend to deploy regulars to help with emergencies. Where we can make use of the TA, we certainly do so.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that positive and encouraging reply which I totally endorse. Is he aware of a recent report published by the Fontmell Group entitled Overseas Disaster Relief: Nobody's Baby, which is critical of the Government's perceived lack of commitment to disaster relief and is also concerned about lack of co-ordination on the ground, which has caused loss of life and a waste of resources? Will he therefore consider sympathetically one of the recommendations in that report that the Territorial Army reserve forces may be used more effectively by utilising their very real expertise, commitment and eagerness to support NGOs at critical stages of disaster response?

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness. Yes, I am aware of the report. In fact, I have a copy on the Dispatch Box in front of me. The Government accept several of its suggestions but not all of them. We certainly agree that there is a need for the response to emergencies to be better co-ordinated. We are making a good deal of progress in that direction. It is fair to say that, with the setting up of DfID, we had some initial problems. We are getting those out of the way. Co-ordination between the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and DfID is now extremely good. The report referred to the Government's commitment to these matters. I think the whole House would wish to be aware that, whenever we deploy the West Indies guard ship, the personnel have special training in disaster relief before they go out. They go out with special supplies on board and they have a Royal Fleet Auxiliary equipped with special supplies in case there are catastrophes in that part of the world. At the moment, HMS "Westminster" is on humanitarian patrol off Sierra Leone.

My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest as a former director of Oxfam and a continuing member of the Oxfam Association. I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to support for NGOs. Can the Government assure the House that, in taking forward this interesting idea, if it is to be taken forward, either with regulars or territorials, it is most important to do so in close consultation with those NGOs that have been bearing the brunt of the immediate front-line response to disasters of this kind; and, if I am allowed to say so, often doing it very well?

My Lords, I would certainly endorse what my noble friend said about the role of NGOs and their invaluable contribution in these situations. Of course Her Majesty's Government would be happy to discuss these matters with them. But I do not want to raise any hopes that the Government are thinking of setting up a special disaster relief organisation within the Armed Forces with that exclusive responsibility. There are all kinds of problems, as I am sure the noble Baroness and the noble Lord understand, that stand in the way of that suggestion.

My Lords, bearing in mind that early last year the Government declared an intention to reduce the size of the Territorial Army but made it clear last night that they were not going to do so, can the noble Lord give your Lordships specific figures as to what the Government envisage will be the size of the Territorial Army in the few months ahead?

My Lords, it would be rather difficult for me to give the noble Lord precise figures for the few months ahead. We started off with a nominal strength of about 60,000, which was never met. If the noble Lord has studied the several debates we have had on the subject, he will recall that we based our study on operational requirements which gave a figure of 25,000 for the Territorial Army; and as a result of a series of ministerial decisions we increased that to the order of 41,000.

My Lords, before one considers an enhanced role for the Territorial Army, or for that matter for the Regular Army, it is necessary to review very carefully our training facilities within the United Kingdom. Does the noble Lord agree that those facilities are under pressure at the moment due to certain maldisposals of Army land? Will he take steps to ensure that the training facilities in this country as well as in Canada, because we are now going that far, are adequate to perform these duties?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to say that we train in Canada. In fact, various elements of Her Majesty's forces have for many years trained from time to time in areas far more remote from this country than Canada. I am not quite sure what the noble Lord is alluding to in respect of the disposal of Ministry of Defence land. If he would write to me about any case he has in mind, I should be happy to try to respond to him.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree with those NGOs which say that, repeatedly, what has been absent is a unit at the site of the emergency to co-ordinate the activities going on there, unless, they say, the French happen to be present? Does my noble friend agree that that could be achieved quite simply with a single battalion headquarters?

I am not sure that I follow all my noble and learned friend's points. The essence of emergency relief is that it must be rapid. Rapid response is most easily made available through the regular forces of this country.