HC Deb 21 February 1991 vol 186 cc541-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

10.48 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Let me say how pleased I am that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is replying to the debate—accompanied by his parliamentary private secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman). Many hon. Members are interested in this subject, however—including, I believe, your good self, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I number among those who are present my hon. Friends the Members for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot), for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), for Croydon, South (Sir W. Clark), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), for Winchester (Mr. Browne), for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves), for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), for Medway (Dame P. Fenner), for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) and for Romford (Sir M. Neubert).

The gravity of the situation in the Gulf has again highlighted the need for the United Kingdom to retain an adequate military capability. The response to recent events has illustrated the Army's ability to meet the challenge of the unexpected in a magnificent manner while it continues to fulfil its roles in Northern Ireland, Belize, Hong Kong, Gibraltar and many other parts of the globe.

However, to meet this new demand our forces in north-west Europe and in the United Kingdom have been stripped both of men and of material. But for the lessening of tension in Europe, I doubt whether we should have been able to respond. Even so, we have had to recall individual reservists and have enlisted nearly 1,000 territorial soldiers in support of Operation Granby. This includes those who have had to volunteer for service on a regular engagement in order to ensure that they could take part.

There is a large element of the Territorial Army general hospital deployed to the Gulf—namely, 205 General Hospital from Glasgow, along with individuals from many regiments and corps. Of course, they would all have preferred to be deployed as part of their own units, but, because the TA has not been embodied, many have volunteered as individuals.

The House will also be interested to know that in addition to those TA soldiers who have enlisted their services in support of operations in the Gulf, many have been employed during their normal training periods in this country in various roles directly in support of those operations. A number of TA personnel have been instructing regular service men in a variety of special skills prior to their deployment.

The House will be aware that regular reservists are ex-regular soldiers who have a statutory liability to serve, while the territorials are all volunteers. Many members of the Territorial Army are clearly disappointed that they have not been called upon to contribute to the operation in view of what in recent years has been referred to as the "one Army" concept.

Here I should mention that those reservists who have responded and have been successful in going have been supported magnificently by their employers in every case. I think that we should acknowledge that, and I hope that the Department will in due course write individually to those employers expressing thanks.

The disappointment of territorial soldiers is increased by the knowledge that so many of the regular Army units serving in the Gulf have had to be brought up to strength from other units and individual reservists. Nevertheless, it is heartening to know that our volunteers who have in the past so often come to the defence of our country still feel that same sense of loyalty.

We have rightly hoped for a peace dividend with the advent of glasnost and it was with this in mind that the Secretary of State announced in the House on 25 July 1990 his intention to conduct studies into "Options for Change" for defence. In his statement, he said: volunteer reserves will continue to play a key role, and we wish to consider the appropriate numbers for the future, having regard to our needs and realistic levels of recruitment and retention."—[Official Report, 25 July 1990; Vol. 177, c.472.] His more recent statement on 22 January indicated that the studies on "Options for Change" would take account of the changes in eastern Europe and the Gulf operations. The House may not be aware that, despite those statements, an exercise continues within the Ministry of Defence aimed at drastic reductions in the TA. The feeling among many of those concerned is that the cuts proposed are such that they could in the long term mean the demise of the Territorial Army as we know it today.

That would seem unbelievable when comparing the relative costs of the territorial and regular forces. In the plans for the support of NATO, the TA provided one third of the Army at only 6 per cent. of its total cost. The cost of a volunteer is about one seventh of that of a regular soldier.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the need for a reduction in the services after the Gulf war, terrorism will not go away and, therefore, the need for the Territorial Army to be available at stations and airports will grow, and that it would be folly for this exercise within the Ministry to continue?

Mr. Thorne

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate for making that important point; it is one which we must consider seriously.

If we are to recruit, train and retain an adequate number of volunteer soldiers, they must feel that they belong to a worthwhile organisation. That will not be the case if we reduce their units to skeleton strength and split them up in war among previously unknown commanders. Nor shall we encourage a healthy community spirit if we organise them on a central rather than a territorial basis, with a lesser training commitment. That has already been demonstrated by the difficulty experienced in recruiting for the home service force, which had that lesser commitment. If we take that course, we shall lose many of our volunteers and find it difficult to attract the quality of recruits required.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I have recently returned from a drill night with a home service force unit, at which we were told that the number of man training days next year is to be reduced by a quarter.

Mr. Thorne

I hope that that is only a temporary measure, as the importance of proper training for the TA is vital.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

The community feature of the Territorial Army is especially important the further away from London one is. There is a loyalty to the unit and the cap badge, and to the community. Does my hon. Friend agree that if that loyalty were lost, many would not bother to join the TA in the first place?

Mr. Thorne

My hon. Friend anticipates my remarks.

While military operations will remain the prime role of the Territorial Army, I see tremendous scope for employment in support of the civil community, especially in the event of national disasters such as the Lockerbie air and Clapham rail tragedies. The House will be aware that Territorial Army volunteers played a valuable part at Lockerbie and were some of the first on the scene of the accident.

The present spread of Territorial Army units across the country provides, at little cost, a framework in the community to maintain an awareness of our defence responsibilities. It provides a source for utilising the energies of young people who wish to serve their country, but would not necessarily wish to be part of the regular forces. Many of those who join to get a taste of military life later transfer to the regular forces.

The large network of TA units plays a valuable part in any community and, along with our cadet forces, instils a sense of discipline and civic responsibility in our young men and women.

I am concerned that the Ministry of Defence, faced with inadequate resources for its regular forces, will take decisions about the Territorial Army, as it did in 1967, that might be justified against the precise military needs of today, but which are contrary to the wider and longer- term interests of the nation and which once implemented would be almost impossible to reverse.

As we pull forces out of Germany, there will be great difficulties in providing accommodation and training areas for an adequate regular army, quite apart from the pressures on defence spending. That is all the more reason for retaining a strong TA. These citizen soldiers are high calibre, well-motivated people whose training standards can be quickly improved in time of tension—and we can expect more warning time now that the Warsaw pact has crumbled.

The success of the United States in mobilising many members of the National Guard and reserves, and the political backing that this has received, helps to prove that reserves can make a most valuable contribution in a variety of circumstances.

The nationwide spread of the TA is an important element in its continuing effectiveness. The benefits to those who train in the TA help to make up for the lack of national service in bringing the benefits of military training to many more of our young people than could ever join the regular forces. Indeed, the TA provides a valuable link between the military and the community as a whole and promotes an awareness of defence requirements.

However, if the figures said to be under consideration are true—a reduction from an establishment of 86,000 to a possible 51,000—the TA might not be sustainable. The reduction of an infantry battalion to cadre size, while retaining cap badges, for example, does not provide either the challenge or the esprit de corps that will attract the volunteer.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

My hon. Friend's active support of the TA is well known. Does he agree that the TA offers flexibility of manning as well as of spending for the Army, both of which are extremely important? If we use the TA, we can spend more on the essential battlefield oxygen of logistics. We are learning how important that is in the Gulf, in a modern high-intensity battlefield. Does my hon. Friend agree that the legislation surrounding Queen's order No. 2 is too inflexible and that the Government are not able to use the TA to best advantage?

Mr. Thorne

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. This is a matter which ought to be looked into. In my view, there will be an increasing role for the TA. Unless we explore all avenues, we shall not get the maximum benefit.

The argument that the recruited strength of the Territorial Army is only 71,000 and that, therefore, the reduction would not be serious is incorrect, in that a reduction to 51,000 would lead to a reduction in the actual strength of about 40,000. It is, of course, essential that the strength of senior officers and non-commissioned officers be maintained so that in times of emergency there is a firm base on which to build.

How does the proposed reduction in the Territorial Army, together with the reductions that have already taken place in the funding of training, square with the statement of the Secretary of State on 25 July that greater use is to be made of the reserves? Can the House be assured that the Government accept that an effective TA recruited widely across the country is of vital importance to the life of the nation, that no proposals for the reduction of the Territorial Army have been agreed by the Army Board and, moreover, that any decisions on its future size and shape will be delayed until after the conclusion of operations in the Gulf when the lessons of that conflict have been analysed?

11.1 pm

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on obtaining this debate. The fuure of the TA is, I know, a matter of great interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

This country has a long history, spanning centuries, of part-time volunteer soldiering. When the present Territorial Army was formed in the early years of this century, many units had their origins in the infantry and yeomanry that had been raised in Napoleonic times. The Territorials have fought with distinction in two world wars, and the TA is making a significant contribution to the current operation in the Gulf—a contribution to which my hon. Friend alluded. All those members of the TA serving in the Gulf volunteered to do so, and I know that the House will wish to join me in thanking them for their selfless contribution to the effort to liberate Kuwait.

The Territorial Army has changed much since its inception as the territorial force in 1908. In the years following the second world war, it retained a peacetime organisation based on complete reserve divisions, but with the end of conscription in the 1960s it became clear that this organisation was no longer appropriate and the divisions were disbanded in 1967.

In the following years a major reorganisation was accomplished to form the basis of the TA that we know today. Both teeth arms and support units became integrated into the command structure alongside the regular Army and asssumed key roles in major NATO and home defence commitments. Standards of training and equipment were raised, and the TA was moulded into a force with professional standards of which they and we can be justly proud.

It is worth recalling that the Territorial Army has a number of distinct elements. The great majority—over 75 per cent.—are members of independent units. These units are based in their own TA centres, usually in the cities or town, where they train, and they recruit locally. They are supported by their own permanent staff, who include regular personnel, in training and administration.

About 15 per cent. of the TA are members of specialist units. These units are trained and administered by a central volunteer headquarters of their own arm or service, which will be regular headquarters. These volunteers are recruited on a countrywide basis, and usually have a civilian occupation similar or identical to their military occupation.

The home service force to which my hon. Friend referred, is the most recent part of the TA. It was first raised as a pilot scheme in September 1982. That scheme involving four HSF companies and fewer than 400 volunteers, was so successful that it was expanded to 47 companies. These units are recruited locally from those with previous service experience, like my hon. Friend, and I am pleased to say that recruiting over the past year has gone very well, with more than 500 new members.

The Government have always been conscious of the important part that the volunteer reserves play in the defence of the country and we have therefore been committed to building on those improvements. We believe that high standards play a vital role in maintaining the essential public support for the TA.

I remind the House that some 10 years ago when the situation in eastern Europe was far different from what we see today, this Government took steps to increase the size of the volunteer reserves. The TA grew in strength by some 20 per cent. in the early 1980s and throughout that decade the Territorial Army stood ready, on mobilisation, to provide a quarter of the Army's mobilised strength. More than 70 per cent. of the TA has had a NATO role. Formed units of the TA have provided more than 50 per cent. of the Army's infantry and medical support, and more than 60 per cent. of logistic support in the reinforcement of NATO. The remaining TA, including the home service force, has important home defence roles, guarding installations, reconnaissance duties and providing communications. Over this period, the visible strength and effectiveness of the TA made an important contribution to the maintenance of deterrence and the preservation of peace and stability in Europe.

During the 1980s, the TA was re-equipped with much of the most modern fighting equipment used by the regular Army. Its role was also expanded with the creation of a TA helicopter squadron. Another change of significance during this period has been the growth in numbers of female volunteers for the TA, reflecting the much better career possibilities that are now available to women throughout the regular and reserve forces. We will continue to encourage that trend in the future.

I also remind the House that the Government initiated the national employers' liaison committee which, under the leadership of Mr. Tommy Macpherson, has had great success in encouraging major employers to support those members of their staff who wish to serve in the volunteer reserves.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

No Conservative Member doubts the support that my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government have given to the TA and my hon. Friend the Minister has given an adequate account of what has happened. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), who spoke so eloquently, referred to the present. He said that he was extremely concerned about a movement afoot in the Ministry of Defence to indulge in an inquiry that would weaken the TA. That is why there are so many Conservative Members in the Chamber tonight. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure us about that.

Mr. Hamilton

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) that I will refer to that point later. I am sorry if he thinks that I am trying to duck the issue; I am not.

This initiative has now reached the point where well over half the country's work force have employers who have pledged their support and the process has not ended. Emphasis is now being given to this work continuing at regional level where the smaller employers, perhaps, have an even greater appreciation of how they can gain from the military training that the volunteer reservist receives. Teamwork, self-discipline, self-reliance and clear communication are all of real value in the civilian workplace and provide living proof of the fact that there is a genuine partnership between the reserves and civilian employers. I also express my thanks and appreciation to employers who have shown full understanding of our need to call out their staff for the Gulf operations and this includes not only the volunteer reserves, but those ex-regulars whose engagements include a reserve liability.

Retention is, of course, a key issue in the maintenance of a reasonably experienced and skilled volunteer reserve force, particularly one that seeks to meet the challenges posed by the complex roles and tasks required of it by the modern British Army. At present some 75 per cent. of TA recruits leave within three years of joining, 30 per cent. within their first year. Clearly, this is not satisfactory. We are already seeing signs that the liaison committee's activities are helping in this area, but it is also vital that the TA itself is made as attractive as possible to the individual volunteer. Pay and bounty arrangements are obviously important, and we have introduced several initiatives aimed particularly at helping those who found that, perhaps temporarily, they have not been able to offer the full commitment to the reserves which the training schedules demand. We continue to explore what further improvements are possible and we are about to look, with the help of TA officers who are management consultants in their business lives, at how we can increase the efficiency of our training in the hope that we can both reduce the annual commitment and make the training more fulfilling and enjoyable.

The Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Associations—the TAVRAs—are the regional organisations which have very important functions in administering the volunteer reserves and in advising the Ministry of Defence. Their committees are composed of individuals with long experience of the TA who willingly give up much of their time in the interests of the reserve forces. I assure the House that their contribution is valued and listened to closely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South mentioned the role of the TA in the current operation. Some 570 TA personnel have volunteered to be called out for service during the Gulf emergency. The vast majority are medical specialists, manning 205 general hospital in Saudi Arabia—a vital element in our casualty treatment arrangements in the Gulf. Some hon. Members will probably be surprised that. more TA members have not been called out—my hon. Friend mentioned this—and I know that there would have been many more volunteers ready to serve if asked, but the regular Army has been able to meet the vast majority of our manpower requirements for the operation and it is only right that we should look to them first before calling on the reserves.

In opening this debate, my hon. Friend looked to the future of the TA. As one who has served in the TA and has always taken an interest in its fortunes, he will recall that emphasis has been given in recent years to the "one Army" concept, which seeks to underline the fact that the regulars and the TA are not separate armies, but come together and are integrated into one structure at a time of mobilisation. He will also recall that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was able to make a statement to the House last summer—again, he mentioned this—which announced that, in the light of the very fundamental changes which had been taking place in eastern Europe, he was setting in train studies on "Options for Change' for defence. It follows from the "one Army" approach that any examination of the size, role and structure of the regular Army must also look at the contribution to be made by the Territorial Army. However, as we have made clear, the conflict in the Gulf has implications for the options work and it would be quite inappropriate to take final decisions on the size and shape of the Army's front-line forces or the reserves until the lessons of the conflict are clearer—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, Hear."] My hon. Friends would not expect me to rule out change in the TA, but I give an assurance that, despite rumours to the contrary, no final decisions have been taken.

However, we are clear that the TA will continue to play a crucial part in meeting our defence needs and that it will retain a prominent role within the Army. We are also confident that the TA will be able to keep abreast of the challenges of developing battlefield technology and to apply its accustomed dedication and enthusiasm in its training. As ever, the size of the volunteer pool will be an important factor in the future of the organisation.

In determining the future roles, account must be taken of the limitations of part-time service offered by the volunteer, but, at the same time, the role must be challenging to the individual. The volunteer's motivation and sense of purpose must be sustained. We are well aware that there are other pressures on the spare time of a volunteer. He must take into account the impact of his civilian employment and the needs of his family. We must understand that the volunteer may wish to pursue other interests in his spare time. We must not, therefore, seek over-commitment to the TA and we must use some ingenuity in balancing the time that we can reasonably expect of a volunteer, seek to use that time usefully, efficiently and imaginatively, and produce the required level of preparedness.

The TA of the future must reflect its name and be truly territorial. There are already many TA centres—over 500 in all—whch give a sizeable presence in every county. We must take account of the existing spread of assets in deciding our future deployment. We must also look at population trends and listen carefully to the advice of the TAVRAs in determining the most propitious recruiting areas.

We believe it to be important that there must be more effective co-operation between the regular Army and the TA. We will be looking to the possibility of developing closer links between regular and TA units which would help the status of the TA.

The support of the nation is fundamental to the maintenance of a viable and well-recruited TA. I have already mentioned the invaluable part played by the national employer liaison committee, which we have decided will run on after the initial five-year period that we agreed in 1988. But it is not only the support of employers that is required. The volunteer ethos must be encouraged and nourished and we must also continue to gain and retain the support of families and peer groups.

I hope that what I have said will show the House that the Government have a high regard for the Territorial Army. I know that some hon. Members who have served in the TA or who have taken particular interest in their local units may on occasion wish us to do more.

While it is too early to say what the future holds, I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to listen carefully to the many friends of the TA who express their views—as we have heard this evening—with force and clarity. Indeed, I assure the House that we attach the greatest value to the role of the TA as an efficient force, a truly territorial force, and one that plays and will continue to play an essential element in our national defence.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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