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Armed Forces: Reserve Forces

Volume 740: debated on Monday 12 November 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what provisions exist within the public sector, and especially the National Health Service, to allow staff the necessary time to serve in the Territorial Army and other Reserve Forces.

My Lords, the Government are committed to taking the lead as an employer of reservists. The Ministry of Defence works closely within the public sector to establish best practice; this includes providing standardised special paid leave for training, providing visible leadership, promoting the benefits of reserve service and also monitoring reservist employee numbers. In collaboration with the Defence Medical Services, the Department of Health traditionally provides a major part of the military medical manpower and has provisions in place to allow its staff to serve in the reserves.

My Lords, since the Army will increasingly continue to rely on territorial forces, in particular to man its medical services, is it not incumbent on the National Health Service to ensure its staff are able to take time off to attend to those duties? Is there anecdotal evidence that hospitals are being—understandably—difficult in that regard?

My Lords, in Scotland the NHS boards have implemented a national HR policy covering training and mobilisation of reservists in which staff are allowed a minimum of 10 days of special paid leave and so on. Outside Scotland the HR policy is devolved to individual trusts and boards. It would appear that there is no centralised policy, so many organisations have no idea if they employ reservists and do not always record whether an employee is in the reserves. There is evidence to suggest that if leave is requested it is recorded as special leave, similar to jury duty, and so we are not entirely aware of the exact position.

I must declare an interest. When I was demobilised from the Royal Army Medical Corps on emergency commission in 1948 I joined the Territorial Army and served for 16 years, eventually commanding the 1 Northern General Hospital TA. At that time there was an agreement that the TA would never be called out except in the event of a world war. Of course, the situation has changed beyond all recognition and members of the successor unit to mine, the 201 Field Hospital, have served with great distinction in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. They found that experience to be invaluable, professionally and in many other respects. However, does the Minister agree that there is now growing concern that, under new plans, the Reserve Forces may be called out more frequently, that their employing authorities may be reluctant to give them the leave of absence that is necessary, and that such frequent recalls would have an adverse effect on their career progression within the NHS?

I commend the noble Lord for his service, and will add that we also have evidence that medical reserves develop additional skills, which they bring back to the NHS at the end of their deployment. For instance, the National Institute for Health Research has brought both military and civilian trauma surgeons and scientists together to share innovation and research. This has also been to the benefit of civilian trauma patients. I hear what the noble Lord says about the concerns within the service. We hope that the consultation that is about to take place will allay some of those fears.

My Lords, I have seen the Defence Medical Services—many of whom are reservists—in action at Camp Bastion in the past year. Will there be a commensurate increase in the medical services when the Reserve Forces are increased?

That is an interesting question. Obviously there will be a need for medical services, which will have to be provided either by regular troops or reservists. On how the balance will pan out, again, we need to wait to see what the need is and then make sure that the need is met.

My Lords, in the Minister’s previous answer she made reference to the contribution that people who have served in our Reserve Forces bring back to their companies. Many companies across the country will testify that when their reservist staff return, they have had new experiences and gained new skills, and add value. Can we make sure that those good stories are spread throughout the public sector as well so that people can see that there is a huge value in allowing their staff time to serve in the Reserve Forces?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord that a great deal is brought back. Of course, we have to balance that against the disadvantage that employers see in having their people away for set periods of time. Under the proposals of the new consultation that should be more manageable—employers should have more notice of when it is going to happen—and we hope that all the good stories that the noble Lord has highlighted will be evidence that having reserves in your employment is a good thing.

My Lords, on Friday 9 November, my noble friend Lord Astor reported that 75 members of the Reserve Forces had been called out in the year to date under Section 56, which allows continued permanent service. He also reported that 530 reservists are currently deployed in Afghanistan. Can my noble friend Lady Garden say how many of these are currently employed in the NHS, and what positions they hold?

My noble friend picks up an interesting point. We do not currently keep statistics about Reserve Forces membership. It is not asked for and nor is it necessarily supplied, so it is not possible to give an accurate figure. We have an estimated figure of 2,400 clinical staff in the reserves, but this excludes auxiliary staff who may serve in other, non-medical reserve units.

My Lords, I had not intended to ask a question but I was rather shocked by the response to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. It seems from what the Minister said that we do not quite know how we are going to provide these people from within the National Health Service; that we have no knowledge of exactly how many people are part of the Reserve Forces anyway; and that there is no central ability to monitor any of this. Can the Minister reassure me that we have got a grip on this and that we are not stepping into the unknown?

I think that the noble Lord somewhat misunderstood me; perhaps I was not clear. I said that individual trusts do not necessarily have a note of which of their people are reservists when they are away. However, the overall tally of reservists is monitored for numbers and a note is kept of the numbers we have and how many we will need. We hope that the consultation paper will clarify how we can keep a record of that.

My Lords, the use of the reserves is absolutely crucial to achieving military objectives. Can we be more specific on the matter of policy? Command 8475, Future Reserves to 2020, envisages a kitemark with graduated levels from basic to top level, and in Appendix C it envisages an employers’ charter for reservists. Can the Minister assure me that all parts of the public service will achieve the top level in the kitemark and will sign up to the charter?

These matters will be discussed in the consultation paper that has been issued. However, it is not intended that this will be imposed on all employers. We must talk with employers to ensure that the reservists they have on their staff also fit in with their employment needs. Of course, we hope that the kind of employers mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, will see all the advantages and will wish to sign up to the highest levels.