HC Deb 20 April 1993 vol 223 cc169-71
5. Mr. Brazier

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the future of the volunteer reserve forces.

Mr. Rifkind

The volunteer reserves will continue to provide a highly valued contribution to our defence capability. I am sure the House will join me in expressing admiration for the dedication and enthusiasm of all who serve in them. Work is continuing on the future role of the reserves, and proposals will be announced to the House later in the year.

Mr. Brazier

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, when we are planning the smallest Regular Army since the Napoleonic era in a very dangerous world, this is profoundly the wrong time to consider a second possible round of cuts in our already very full defence programme? Can I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that the real debate should be about enhancing the quality of our reserves and that that should start from the top by appointing a reservist to direct the reserves, as is the case in every other major English-speaking country?

Mr. Rifkind

I note my hon. Friend's interesting latter suggestion, which may indeed be worthy of consideration. It clearly is important to ensure not only that we have the number of reserves that is thought to be suitable to our requirements, but that we continue to look at the role of the reserves, because in a changed international strategic situation it would clearly be unwise and, I think, contrary to the interests of the reserves themselves, to assume that somehow their role, which might have been suitable during the cold war, would necessarily be the most appropriate in the circumstances of today. It may be that there will be a need, for example, for changed legislation to enable the reserves to be used more ably and flexibly for a multiplicity of roles, which would have been difficult, if not impossible, in the past.

Mr. Wigley

Will the Secretary of State address himself to the fact that a number of his Department's premises in Wales are now becoming vacant? Could they be used in the context of the training of the volunteer reserves to help to provide sustenance for the local economy, which has been so devastated by certain cuts in his Department?

Mr. Rifkind

We shall naturally be willing to consider any proposal that is put to us by the hon. Gentleman or by any other hon. Member about the use of surplus assets, either for the reserves or, indeed, for any other relevant and useful role.

Sir Anthony Grant

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the fact that not only has the Territorial Army contributed massively and valiantly this century to the defence of the nation in two world wars, but that it also has a most valuable social contribution to make? Will he therefore resist any Treasury blandishments to cut it further and do all he can to urge young people in particular to join the Territorial Army, since we shall all be the better for it?

Mr. Rifkind

I am sure that my hon. Friend's assessment is correct. I think the best contribution that we can make, both to the morale of the reserves and to the ability of the reserves to attract suitable people to their ranks is to ensure that they have a role in our defence thinking which is clearly relevant and appropriate to the needs of the 1990s.

Dr. Reid

I know that the Secretary of State remains alert, even during recesses. Did he therefore have the opportunity to read the report in The Sunday Times of 4 April, which affirmed that the Government were some £4 billion out in their three-year costing and that, as a result, they were considering further cuts, which included 12 battalions of the Territorial Army—9,600 men, bringing the number down to 52,000—and another round of compulsory redundancies, as well as five frigates? Will he therefore take this opportunity to deny that any of these are under consideration by the Government at present?

Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Gentleman had read not only that report in The Sunday Times but the article that I wrote which The Sunday Times was good enough to publish a couple of days ago, he would have seen that I said in that article that, whenever proposals were put to Ministers, they were considered not only for their financial implications but as to whether they produced a coherent and sensible defence policy and that if they were not justified on defence grounds, the proposals would not be accepted. Therefore, these are the criteria which we shall apply not only to the reserves but to any other proposals affecting the defence programme at the present time.

Mr. Bill Walker

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many active volunteer reservists will be delighted that today he said that we are looking at and giving consideration to changing the law with regard to calling up reservists? That, I believe, was one of the lessons that we learned from the Gulf. Does he also recognise that another lesson from the Gulf was how effective it was to call up individual volunteer reservists in individual categories, who were able to make such an important impact on activities during that operation?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I think that there is no doubt that the current regulations and legislation governing the use of reserves are unnecessarily bureaucratic and complicated. For example, some weeks ago, when we wished to send one individual reservist who was fluent in Serb-Croat to Bosnia and that reservist was keen to go, it was nevertheless necessary to go through a complicated procedure, including a special report tabled before the House, before the legal power existed to carry out that relatively minor act with the volunteer who was anxious to be of service. I think that that illustrates the need for early reform in this area.