HC Deb 29 July 1965 vol 717 cc694-702
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

With the permission of the House, I will make a statement about the Government's plans to reorganise the Reserve Army.

It has become clear that the tasks of the Reserve Army have changed so radically as to require a reorganisation no less comprehensive than that introduced by Lord Haldane nearly 60 years ago. It is no longer realistic to think in terms of the Territorial Army as a force for the defence of the United Kingdom itself or as providing a framework on which general preparations can be made for a major conventional war abroad. This leaves the rôle of aid to the civil Power after a nuclear attack as the sole remaining commitment for some 60 per cent. of Reserve Army manpower. The Government have decided, in the course of the current review of home defence, that this cannot of itself justify the retention of the Territorial Army in its present form.

The future rôle of the reserves will be to provide, first, some individuals and a few units to be called out at any time to reinforce the Regular Army; secondly, the reinforcements needed to support the Regular Army in limited war; and, thirdly, such reinforcements for N.A.T.O. as our commitments require.

To meet these requirements, the Government propose a force of about 50,000 volunteer reservists. It will incorporate both the Territorial Army and the Army Emergency Reserve; and it might be called the Territorial Reserve. Volunteers of the Territorial Army have served this country well in two world wars. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I pay tribute to what they and members of the Army Emergency Reserve have done in the past and hope that the same spirit of service can be maintained in the future.

Most of the units of the new Territorial Reserve will be based on areas of the country like the present Territorial Army units; and some, like the present Army Emergency Reserve, will be recruited, trained and administered by central headquarters. A substantial proportion of the force will consist of logistic units, as the Regular Army has the greatest need for reserves of this kind.

In order that the liability of the reorganised Reserve may be more closely related to the tasks to be performed, it must be similar to that of the present Army Emergency Reserve (Category I). This liability for service will be recognised by a bounty of £60 a year. Those volunteers who accept a T.A.E.R. "Ever-ready" type liability will receive a bounty of £150 a year. We foresee a need for about 8,500 of these volunteers, and we intend to give ex-Regular soldiers on the Reserve the opportunity of volunteering for the "Ever-ready" liability on the same terms as Territorial reservists. We also propose that Regulars enlisting in future should, when serving in the Regular Reserve, have call-out liabilities similar to those of the Territorial reservists. The higher state of readiness which we shall expect will be reflected in training and equipment.

It is estimated that this reorganisation will ultimately produce a saving of the order of £20 million a year.

Legislation will be needed to give effect to the changes we propose. Meanwhile, the Government hope that all existing Reserve Army units will continue to function. Training will continue in 1966–67 as planned and we have under consideration some interim increase in the rates of training bounty for next year. We shall now consult with representatives of the Council of Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Associations about the means by which our proposals should be given effect.

The reduction we shall be making in the size of the Reserve Army will mean that a much smaller number of Regular Army officers and men will be needed to help in its training and administration. Officers and soldiers who are required to retire prematurely will be given fair compensation.

The majority of the civilians employed by the Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Association and some Army Department employees will become redundant. So far as we can, we shall offer them alternative employment; but, failing this, the normal superannuation arrangements will apply to Ministry of Defence (Army Department) employees and compensation will be provided for T.A. Association employees.

It is the intention to publish details of our proposals in a White Paper in the late autumn, but I thought it important that the House should be told their main outline now.

Mr. Soames

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the comparison which he has made of the reforms that he has announced with those of Lord Haldane is totally false inasmuch as Lord Haldane created a Reserve Army and the right hon. Gentleman is destroying it? The reduction of the order which he announced spells effectively the end of the Territorial Army as we have known it and of the safeguards which it provides for the nation to meet any unforeseen eventuality. [HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we will wish to study the statement, with all its ramifications, and the White Paper which he mentioned? Meanwhile, may I ask him three questions?

First, how many of the 50,000 which he mentioned will be from the Territorial Army? Secondly, the present establishment of the Territorial Army is 86 infantry battalions, 20 armoured regiments and 45 gunnery regiments. How many of these will remain under his plan, and how many of the total 50,000 will be in these arms? Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman said that he was withdrawing from the Territorial Army the rôle of aid to the civil Power after a nuclear attack. Does this mean that the Government intend to abandon all further expenditure on civil defence?

Finally, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we deplore the fact that this decision, with all its far-reaching effects, should have been taken partly to relieve the economic pressure which has been created by the Government's policies and partly as a sop to the Left wing of his party, whose avowed desire is to reduce the country's defences?

Mr. Healey

I think that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will realise that those last remarks were totally unworthy of him in the responsible position which he now holds. He asked a number of questions, and I shall seek to answer them, although of necessity my answers may be as long as the questions which provoked them.

First, on the Lord Haldane analogy, the situation of Britain and of Britain's defence problems has changed very substantially in the last 60 years, as they changed in the 60 years preceding Lord Haldane's reforms. Any Government would be failing in their duty to the nation if they did not tailor their defence forces to the real needs of the present time.

The present Reserve Army system, for which the right hon. Gentleman is personally responsible—he introduced it in 1960—costs us £38 million a year and it wastes a lot of men and money on forces which we do not need and fails to provide forces which we do need. Two-thirds of the members of the Territorial Army are committed to a home defence rôle which is not justified and has little to do with what most of them volunteered for. The other one-third cannot easily be used for the purposes for which they are really needed and for which they joined because they have the wrong sort of liability and inadequate training and equipment. We are proposing, instead, a streamlined force specifically tailored to meet the real military needs of the nation. We shall also save the nation £20 million a year.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me how many of the 50,000 new reservists will come from the Territorial Army. I would estimate about 80 per cent. He asked me about the units and the proportion of teeth to tail in the new reserve. Half of the new reserve will be teeth arms, and, of those, half will be armoured units, artillery and infantry, and half engineers and signals. The other half of the total will be logistic units. Some of the units which we are proposing to keep in combatant teeth arms will be an armoured "recce" regiment, four artillery regiments, two S.A.S. battalions, one "para" battalion and 13 infantry battalions corresponding to the brigades of infantry in the Regular Army and not to the present county basis on which the Territorial Army is organised.

Finally, on the home defence rôle, it is certainly not the Government's intention that expenditure on home defence shall cease. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will be putting proposals in ibis field to the House in the near future. However, I must say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is quite clear, as a result of the studies which we have made, that there is no case for spending £20 million a year of the defence budget to provide support for the civil authorities in the post-nuclear phase of a nuclear war. In the first place, if we try to prepare for every single contingency, we will bankrupt ourselves. This is an unlikely contingency. Moreover, if it came about, conditions of unimaginable horror would supervene, and it is entirely speculative whether the Territorial Army would be of great value in such a situation.

What is clear as a result of the inquiries which we have made is that to provide an adequate force along these lines for civil defence in the post-nuclear phase would cost a great deal more than the £20 million at present allocated to this purpose by the previous Government.

Mr. Shinwell

Does my right hon. Friend realise that the decision which the Government have reached in no way detracts from the valuable services rendered by the Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Associations in the past, but that a drastic change is required in our reserve forces? Does he know that for several years past many high-ranking military officers and experts have advocated a substantial and drastic change in the reserve forces and that it has been argued effectively that our reserve forces, whatever name may be given to them and however they are designated, should be closely allied to the regular force of the Army? Further, is he aware that we welcome the decision which the Government have taken?

Mr. Healey

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend. I should like to pay a personal tribute to the service provided to the Territorial Army by many Members of the House, including, I think, the new Leader of the Opposition. But situations change, but what has not changed is the need for men of public spirit to serve in a volunteer capacity as a reserve in the country's forces. This opportunity is provided by the new structure which we have in mind. I hope and believe that the existing Territorial Army Associations and the Territorial Council will co-operate with us in working out the details of the scheme which will preserve in the new organisation which we propose as much as is humanly possible of the existing Territorial Army organisation and spirit.

Mr. Hugh Fraser

The House must be somewhat amazed by the dogmatism which the right hon. Gentleman has displayed about the likely future pattern of war. I hope that he has read what Lord Montgomery said, namely, that only one thing is certain about war and that is its uncertainty. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will look again at this question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] Will the right hon. Gentleman look again at the question of the need for a territorial basis for civil defence and help to the civil Powers? This seems to be entirely lacking as far as we can see.

Finally, when he comes to review home defence as a whole—and I agree that the cutting back of some aspects of civil defence would be quite right—would he consider whether there should be some form of home defence on a Territorial or Reserve Army basis, which is, I believe, essential to this country?

Mr. Healey

I am deeply aware that decisions in this respect are bound to be based on inadequate evidence and to require a large element of judgment. But the plain fact is that we cannot shirk our responsibility to the nation to use our judgment in taking the best decision which we believe possible on the evidence available. If we attempted to prepare for every conceivable contingency, we should be bankrupt. Moreover, we would fail to be properly prepared for contingencies which seem most likely. The Government have not taken this decision without the most careful thought about its implications and consequences.

On the other question which the right hon. Gentleman asked, as I said, the Home Secretary will be putting forward proposals for the reorganisation of home defence as a whole, taking account of the decision already taken by the Government that further expenditure on the Territorial Army in this rôle is not justified.

Mr. Paget

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, however strong our sentimental and emotional ties may be with the old units, I, at any rate, recognise that their rôle is wholly incredible in the modern context and that it is certainly not only from the Left wing of the party that my right hon. Friend can look for support in attempts to readjust our defences to the realities of our situation?

Mr. Healey

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. I would point out that nobody who knows the problems of the Territorial Army believes that it should and could continue as at present. The Territorial Army Council itself has put forward proposals which we considered before making up our minds. I think that the Bow Group also made proposals very much on the lines which I have put to the House this afternoon.

Sir Richard Glyn

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what, if any, organisation will take over the vital third echelon rôle hitherto carried out by the T.A., without which the civil defence could never cope with any emergency, should one arise? Who will be responsible for the defence of this country against invasion should a conventional enemy force ever reach the Channel ports? Are not the Government wagering the future safety of the country in the supposition and assumption that there will never again be a major war of any kind in Europe?

Mr. Healey

No, Sir. As I pointed out, one important rôle for the new Reserve Army will be to provide reinforcements to N.A.T.O., to which we are committed by our present obligations. We have to consider what contingencies are likely. We do not believe that it is likely that we shall have to meet a major land invasion of these islands by conventional forces or that this is a contingency which it is right for us to spend the taxpayers' money on preparing for. Even if we did think that, we certainly could not hope that the Territorial Army, in its present form, would meet that need.

Mr. Bellenger

It must be obvious to the House from the complexity of my right hon. Friend's statement, and the technical questions put to him from the Front Bench opposite, that the House needs an opportunity to examine the details of his statement and then debate it. Therefore, I have only one question to ask him and that is about the county associations. In all that he has explained to us, is it not essential that we should keep the county associations and try to bring the reserves within their orbit, because they are and have been for a long time in touch with the trade unions and the employers and are best able to recruit the volunteer reserve forces which we need?

Mr. Healey

Yes, Sir. First of all, the Territorial Associations will remain, carrying exactly their present responsibilities, until the reorganisation is complete, some time in 1968. We hope that they will remain after that, though, necessarily, their responsibilities will then be different, because we intend that the administration of the new Reserve Army shall be the responsibility of the Regular Army. But one of the matters on which we want the closest consultation with the Territorial Council and with the County Associations is on what is the most useful rôle which the Associations can play when the new Reserve Army is fully formed.

Mr. Hooson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there was an overwhelming case for the reorganisation of the Reserve Army, that this has to take place, and that any responsible Government would have to take this step unless the country were prepared to run at some time the risk of bankruptcy? This applies to all Government Departments. Bearing this in mind, would he say what he means, in this context, by saying that "ultimately" there will be a saving of £20 million per annum? In how many years can we look forward to this saving?

Mr. Healey

It is the Government's intention to introduce legislation next year, following the publication of the White Paper giving the details of our proposals. This will mean that the reorganisation can begin to take effect in 1967 and I hope that the physical side of the reorganisation will be completed by the end of 1968. The full saving of £20 million a year may not be achieved until 1969.

Mr. Goodhart

Is the Secretary of State aware that this cut, which apparently involves the elimination of 80 per cent. of the Territorial Army's present infantry strength, will mean that the Territorial Army will cease to operate in large areas, particularly in country districts? Will he bear in mind that the cut will also have a very serious effect on the Regular Army itself? Apart from the possible damage to recruiting, it is also true that this will affect the careers structures of every senior officer and, particularly, every senior N.C.O. Is he looking at this question?

Mr. Healey

I am fully aware that this decision will come as a bitter blow to many members of the Territorial Army. I regret this as much as they do, but I believe the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) was right to say that a Government who failed to take this step would have been irresponsible in their duty to the taxpayer and in their duty to provide the Regular forces with the sort of reserves which they need and can use.

On the question of some county areas being so sparse in volunteers that it will be impossible to form units there, this will, unfortunately, be true, though it will be possible, even in those areas, for men to volunteer for that part of the new reserve forces which consists primarily of individual reinforcements for Regular Army units.

On the other question, about the careers structure, a large number of officers and senior N.C.O.s will become surplus to the Reserve Army as a result of the reorganisation. If we attempted to reabsorb those men in the normal Regular Army there would be a total collapse of the careers structure and no promotion in many branches for many years. For that reason, we decided that it would be right to allow an equivalent number of officers and senior N.C.O.s to retire prematurely with suitable and fair compensation in order to preserve regular forces which have a careers structure sufficient to attract the necessary recruits.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this now.