HC Deb 19 November 1993 vol 233 cc182-90

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister is suffering from a severe earache and is partially deaf, so I shall try to improve on my customary whisper.

In the modern world, there are only two ways in which a country can provide modern armed forces with up-to-date equipment within limited resources. One is by keeping conscription going, as our continental partners have; the other is to do what all our major English-speaking allies do —that is, have a reserve army broadly comparable in size to its regular army.

For that reason, I find it incredible that we can even contemplate further cuts in our Territorial Army, which is already so far out of line with comparable countries in being barely half the strength of its regular counterparts.

It is not part of my brief today to argue that our present TA is in good shape. I believe that we have badly designed units, under a regular command structure which, in many cases, is very unresponsive to their needs. Their problems are compounded by a failure to use them properly in the Gulf.

It is deeply sad to note that, even before "Options for Change", Britain had a 30 per cent. wastage level. In Australia, the figure is only 21 per cent., and in some states in the USA, in the National Guard it is as low as 16 per cent. The reason is, of course, that the National Guard and the Australian reserve army are taken seriously in peacetime and during intermediate conflicts.

In the Gulf war, the National Guard sent 60 battalion or greater-sized formed units into action. In a recent article, Brigadier Hammerbeck, commander of our own 4th Army brigade, said: From the US Army, we got the National Guard 142nd Artillery Brigade. By God they were good … It was a sight I shall remember the rest of my days … Talking to an Iraqi artillery commander after the war he told me that 90 per cent. of his crews … had been killed or wounded in the initial bombardment.

I wonder if a British TA could have achieved the same —herded, as they now are, into an arbitrary number of five drill halls per unit, besieged with paperwork and frequently commanded by regular formation commanders who have never done a single posting in a TA unit. I believe that some of them might have been able to do it, but they were not given the chance to try. We did not call out any TA units for the Gulf; we simply called on a relatively small number of individual volunteers.

This is reflected in our day-to-day approach as well. Whereas the National Guard and the Australian reserve army are called out regularly in a range of peacetime activities, from disaster relief to drug interdiction, nothing like that scale happens here. I was pleased, however, to note an allusion to that in the consultation document.

The main purpose of our reserve forces must be to fight in wars and lesser conflicts. We can see what the TA used to be able to do. Two of the three Greenjacket battalions in the heroic defence of Calais, which saved tens of thousands of British service men, were territorial.

The little sapper unit that went back and destroyed all the oil installations from Brest to Spitzbergen was a Kentish Territorial Army unit. The last time that we sent formed TA units into action was in Aden. A unit that I was subsequently privileged to serve in was engaged in fighting with terrorists there and had an officer decorated for gallantry.

It is terribly sad that, despite the step forward of considering the use of territorials in peacetime, our ideas are so desperately modest. We are talking about pools of individuals in a higher readiness reserve pool. Australia, with a much smaller population than us, is forming up a similar brigade of 4,500—two thirds of whom are territorials—available at 90 days' notice. Indeed, Australia already has four battalion-sized units available at 30 days' notice which are composed entirely of territorials.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I do not wish to hinder the hon. Gentleman in his excellent presentation of the vital cause of an effective Territorial Army. Does he agree that, under new Ministry of Defence proposals, we are in danger of reducing our reserve services to an elite club which provides fun weekends and paid adventure training opportunities without requiring any commitment from its members ever to volunteer when required for active service?

Mr. Brazier

I am conscious of the point that has been raised by the hon. Gentleman. A number of commanding officers have made the point to me, most recently in a letter I received this morning, that it is profoundly wrong to have the divisive concept of a pool of people who want to put their names in a ring to be called out from their units if a good opportunity happens to come up.

I believe that every territorial has volunteered. The National Guard and the Australian reserve army are right to stress unit integrity against what they call the cherry picking of individuals. We need three things to make the system work. First, proper compensation is needed for employers if people are called out; that important subject is discussed in the document. Secondly, we have to bite the bullet on discipline. In America, if a soldier fails to turn out for an important training period—this returns to the point made by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis)—he will be arrested and disciplined. Thirdly, and most important, we must have units of a viable size. I look to the Minister and the Secretary of State to reverse the disastrous decision that was taken two years ago to try to maintain the shop window by reducing the size of units, instead of the number.

What we need are smaller numbers of larger units so that they are viable for operations. Again, the National Guard is right on that subject. The kind of approach outlined in the readiness reserve concepts may work for a few elite units—for example the Paras and other special forces—rather in the way in which it works already for the Royal Marine Reserves. However, for an ordinary TA unit whose loyalty is to its own drill hall and its own local community it is death.

I am conscious that the excellent Territorial Army unit in my constituency—the 5th battalion of the Princess of Wales Regiment, which had more than 500 men at camp last year—is to be reduced in size.

My last point is that I believe that it is profoundly important that—as in America, Australia and even Canada —we should have a reservist in charge of our reserve forces who should be based in the Ministry of Defence's main building as the focus of advice for Ministers on reserve forces matters.

Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, at a time when there is uncertainty about the future shape and size of the regular forces, it is all the more important to have a properly integrated study for reserve forces to match their capabilities to their commitments? Does he also agree that recruitment to the reserve forces represents one example of people offering voluntary service, and that that concept, which is so valuable to our society, is likely to be undermined if measures to hinder recruitment are put into action?

Mr. Brazier

I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. I fully accept that Ministers have inherited a situation from their predecessors that it is difficult for them to reverse, but feel that I must draw attention to the contrast between America, where the debates take place between senior regular commanders and senior reservist commanders, and this country, where senior regular officers talk to senior regular officers following some phoney consultation process with the territorials.

Let me summarise. First, at half the size of our regular Army, our Territorial Army is already absurdly small. We are quite out of line with other countries in that sense. We should be thinking about expanding our TA, not reducing it. Secondly, we need to make use of territorials in peace time, but the American and Australian experience has shown that it is essential that there should be formed units so that the employment and discipline consequences are dealt with, and to tackle the problem of unit size in respect of which my hon. Friend the Minister has, alas, inherited a terrible problem. Thirdly, we must have a reservist director. Only when Ministers look to a reservist who is both eminent in civilian life and experienced in his service in uniform will we have a proper shape for our future TA.

I hope that my hon. Friends and I were not entirely responsible for the Minister's earache. He will have heard from a number of us that we are deeply concerned that we should formulate a new defence policy for the future. I was certainly encouraged to hear the ideas on evolving defence policies that formed such a prominent part of the Queen's Speech. I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister, however, that if we discover that the TA is to be cut again—and, worse still, that the process is once again to be led by a regular structure following some sort of consultation process with the territorials instead of being driven by territorials—it will make it all the harder for us to support him in the Lobbies in future defence debates.

2.42 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for giving me a minute to intervene. Today's Adjournment debate must be read in conjunction with the debate on foreign affairs and defence that we have just had on the Loyal Address. I shall endeavour not to repeat anything that has already been said about the reserve forces.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is having another look at the structure and form of our reserve forces. That is important. But we must not be obsessed with structure, as we tend to be. The Territorial Army is based on units rather than individuals and, for that reason, we should regard it as the first line of reserve rather than the last.

In his closing remarks in our earlier debate, the Secretary of State for Defence referred to disappointment that territorials from the United Kingdom were not deployed to the Gulf to the same extent as their counterparts from other countries. There was a very good reason for that, as I know from experience. I was a regular soldier at the time of Suez. To make up the number of battalions going out to the Mediterranean, we received in vast numbers of what were then called Z reservists—regulars who had completed their service and were on the regular reserve. It was an extremely difficult business. I am talking not so much about training as such—in those days, being a soldier was comparatively simple—as about the political implications.

When a Government reach the stage of having to call up reserves, they have usually undergone a lengthy political debate about whether their country should intervene. As a result, people come back out of civvy street resenting being called up—and, in the case of Suez, thoroughly indoctrinated by the trade unions, which were taking the Opposition's view of our involvement in the Suez operation. That made training them for extremely difficult military operations doubly difficult. Although it is not public knowledge, because many of them did not reach the newspapers, there were mutinies in the Army at that time.

There is a considerable antipathy among regular soldiers to any development of the TA role. Regulars regard the building up of the TA as the signature of their death warrant as regular soldiers. If any review of our reserves is conducted, there must be an important TA input. The one-Army concept is important: if we are to have a single Army with serving soldiers and reserve soldiers, it is important that the TA should be given a higher status than it has at present.

Lastly, I remind my hon. Friend the Minister, who will be winding-up, that it is often said that the Church of England is the Tory party at prayer, but it is also said that the Territorial Army is the Tory party at war. I think that the Territorial Army would like to be given the chance either to go to war or at least enter active service to prevent war.

2.44 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on his good fortune in having obtained this debate and am grateful for his kind words. Yes, I burst an eardrum yesterday, but he has not burst the drum that he has been banging today. Indeed, he has added to the debate on the reserves and I am grateful for the way that he has expressed the views that are shared by many. I hope that I can help today to redress the imbalance that he may feel exists, by paying a genuine tribute to the reservists, to all those people in the Territorial Army and the reserves who serve the nation so well.

This is an issue to which my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury and for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) hold with great importance. The Government also hold to it with great importance. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury on his long and varied career in the TA and his continued commitment to the reserves as a member of the Regular Army Reserve of Officers. He is truly an honourable and gallant Friend.

Our reserve forces are an integral part of our national defence forces. The volunteer reserves have been a central component of our armed forces since the early years of this century and undertook a major role in both world wars. Over the years, the reserves have successfully adapted, to new commitments and patterns of warfare and the need to become expert in a wide range of skills and specialisms. Members of the reserve forces, most finding time for the reserves while doing full-time jobs, have met the challenge of an ever-increasing requirement for professionalism and dedication.

The progress of units adapting to new and more challenging tasks has, I believe, exceeded expectations. Many regular soldiers have noted with pleasure the particular headway made by volunteer units recently re-roling to Ptarmigan communications, FH 70 artillery, amphibious bridging, armoured reconnaissance and the new DROPS system for fast resupply of ammunition and stores. In the past year, TA units have rendered invaluable assistance to civl authorities facing serious floods.

In January, elements of 71 Engineer Regiment and 153 Artillery Support Regiment responded at very short notice to the floods in the Tayforth area of Scotland. Similarly, in June, men of the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, helped save life and property during the serious flooding in Wales near Llandudno. The House would also wish to pay tribute to those members of the reserve forces who are currently serving in support of our humanitarian tasks in the former Yugoslavia—mostly here, but some there.

I take this opportunity to make a special mention of the TA in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who intervened during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, also plays an important role in holding up the excellent reputation of the TA in Northern Ireland. It does not have a role in security operations in the Province, but Northern Ireland is one of the best recruitment areas for the TA in the United Kingdom, and the TA's unflagging enthusiasm is a continued source of admiration. I especially commend the way in which it continues to be able to attract widespread support across the whole of the community.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced earlier this year, the time has come to make arrangements for the greater use of reserves in operational roles in peacetime. As the House knows, we are currently looking at the feasibility of attaching a composite TA infantry company composed of volunteers to regular units on UN operations. Such opportunities will help to ensure that the reservists are given more relevant, more important and, I believe, more fulfilling jobs to do, thereby strengthening the link between them and the regular Army. Indeed, they have welcomed it.

Mr. Brazier

The point on which my hon. Friend the Minister has just touched runs to the very heart of the debate as it is perceived both in America and this country. Let us take the infantry as an example. If an infantry battalion has a strength nominally of 495, which is a fairly standard strength now, and three companies, and one takes that composite company out of one battalion, inevitably one will get the best and most enthusiastic attenders. For the six or nine months that they are away, the rest of the battalion will simply die because they are no longer viable. Alternatively, if we take a cross section against units, we break up unit integrity. To make the concept work, we must return to viable sized units or we will do more harm than good. That is the lesson from America as well as from here.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend has called for larger unit sizes on many occasions. I believe that the key building block in the TA is at company level. More major units with fewer companies is a better framework for expansion and it can provide better national coverage. I do not believe that my hon. Friend has any evidence that larger units lead to lower turnover or less effectiveness.

Mr. Brazier

I should be happy to send my hon. Friend written material about that; this debate is central to the discussions in the United States national guard at the moment. I had a conversation with the Secretary to the Reserve Forces Council, the senior National Guardsman in the United States of America, only five or six weeks ago. The Americans have concluded categorically that they will opt for smaller numbers of units to maintain unit size rather than the other way round. Bearing in mind that the average wastage rate in America is only two thirds of our wastage rate and that the Louisiana national guard, which I was privileged to visit and which particularly emphasises unit integrity, has a turnover rate only half our rate, we should be learning a lesson from the Americans. They have far more experience of unit deployment, most recently on a large scale in the Gulf, than we have.

Mr. Hanley

I have listened to my hon. Friend and I will read again what he said earlier in this debate. However, I do not believe that he necessarily has the evidence to prove what he says. He has merely recounted the experience that he has discovered in certain circumstances. I believe that the way in which we are progressing matches our need for forces in the reserves. The building blocks that I have mentioned are the most practical and sensible. However, let us look at that again. I hope that my hon. Friend will resist intervening again at this stage.

On 17 June, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence described to the House our proposals for the future of naval and RAF reserves. Following a period of full consultation with interested parties, on 18 October he confirmed those proposals. Regrettably, it was decided that two Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment units and the Royal Naval Auxiliary Service should be disbanded as no practicable military role was found for them.

However, there will be additional roles for naval and air force volunteer reserves who will become even more closely integrated with their regular counterparts. For example, service in Royal Navy ships is at the heart of the Royal Naval Reserve. We have therefore decided that, in order to preserve a specific RNR seagoing role and further to integrate the RNR into the infrastructure of the Royal Navy, a dedicated seagoing branch of some 500 personnel will be generated. They will train in all types of Royal Navy ships, not just on mine counter-measure vessels. They will be employed at sea as an integral part of the fleet and they have welcomed that. In the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, our plans for auxiliaries to fill about half the established posts in two Rapier-equipped squadrons are being developed in full consultation with the reserves.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has also said that we are undertaking a study of the operational requirement of the Army's reserves and that a further announcement will be made as soon as our proposals have been formulated. I know that the results of that study are keenly awaited. It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury, although no doubt it will still be a disappointment, to learn that I will not be setting out our proposals today. We are still at the examination stage. It is far more important to reach the right decision than an early decision and I shall have to appeal to the House for patience on that matter.

As the House will know, work has been continuing in the Ministry of Defence on the policy and legislation which might govern the future use of reserve forces. On 18 October, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence commended to the House the consultation document entitled "Britain's Reserve Forces: A Framework for the Future." That document sets out in detail our concept for the future use of reserve forces. The proposals provide a basis for consultation and comments and views from all those with an interest are welcome, including from all hon. Members who have spoken today.

The main points of the proposals bear repeating quickly. First, we propose to extend and rationalise the call-out liabilities set out in the Reserve Forces Act 1980. That Act was a consolidation measure which drew together provisions from 34 previous Acts including one from 1662. The current liabilities do not apply equally to all reserves and do not meet the needs of current or future operations. The proposed extended call-out liabilities, which would cover non-warlike as well as warlike operations, will not apply to reservists already serving at the time the legislation came into effect unless they agreed to take them on.

Secondly, in order to allow them to be used more flexibly, reservists would be given the opportunity to register their willingness to be deployed in or in support of operations that are not in response to a direct threat to the United Kingdom. That would be managed through a ready reserve list.

Thirdly, we proposed two new categories of reserve: a number of high readiness reserves, to whom reference has been made, who would possess essential skills and who would voluntarily assume the increased call-out liability; and a sponsored reserve, which would consist of individuals working for contractors in support of the armed services and those who had voluntarily accepted a reserve liability. Those categories would involve only a small part of our reserves.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

I am sure that many hon. Members welcome the new category of sponsored reserve, which seems to be directed at people working in the defence contractors industry. I find it extraordinary that in the consultation document there is no reference to medical manpower, which seems to be particularly well suited to a reservist role. Willi my hon. Friend consider extending or at least promoting the idea of sponsored reserves within the national health service?

Mr. Hanley

That is a most interesting idea. My hon. and gallant Friend has his views on the matter and I would welcome them if he has not already communicated them to me.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

I am working on it.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend has only until Tuesday next. I assure him that if it takes a little longer to put together his thoughts on that matter, I would welcome extending the deadline for him.

I was also asked for a radical study of reserves. I cannot agree to that request. I cannot agree to yet another study of the role of the reserves. The regular and reserve forces mixed study was a radical study, and ideas such as the high readiness reserve and the sponsored reserve, which has been welcomed, originated in that study, so there is no need for a further study. I am entirely satisfied that we will have examined the full range of possibilities when our current work on the voluntary reserve forces is completed.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

To clarify the record, what I urged was integration between the review of the regular and reserve commitments.

Mr. Hanley

I understand my hon. Friend's point.

My right hon. and learned Friend's document considers the impact of all the proposals on the tripartite relationship between the Government, the reservist and his or her employer. Existing provisions for the financial protection of reservists will be looked at carefully to ensure that robust arrangements are in place. Current job protection arrangements will also be considered in preparation for the proposed legislation.

I must pay tribute to the role of the employers. The continuing support of employers is essential to the success of our proposals, and the document puts forward some ideas which might help. I am grateful for the way in which employers have contributed to the current debate. There are also some financial schemes——

Mr. Maginnis

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hanley

I have a little more to say; I have not said much so far.

Mr. Maginnis

Will the Minister consider the difficulty that will be caused by the obligation to volunteer twice? Will he consider my point about statutory obligations?

Mr. Hanley

I am aware of that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned it in the defence debate in the middle of October, and we are studying it.

A number of schemes have been mentioned to help to compensate employers when reservists are called out. The flat-rate scheme, the actual costs scheme and the banding formula are all discussed in the document. We have yet to come to conclusions.

The way ahead depends crucially on the response to the consultation process. Copies of the document have been sent to a wide range of interested parties—about 5,000 to 6,000 copies, I believe—and we have had more than 220 responses so far. There is still a little time. I am grateful to those who have given their time, and I shall regard this debate as part of the consultation.

The new reserve forces measure would continue to apply, irrespective of any increase or decrease in the number of the reserves made in response to operational needs in the years to come. The proposals are thus consistent with, but do not depend on, the developing plans for the size and structure of the armed forces.

We are fortunate in this country to have in the volunteer reserve forces a body of men and women prepared to devote a large proportion of their leisure hours to the service of their country. The reserves are an important link between the armed forces and the population at large, most of whom, since the end of conscription, have no other personal experience of military service. They render valuable assistance, and I assure the House that, in our continuing work on the future of the Territorial Army, the requirement to ensure that it is well trained and well equipped to provide an effective war-fighting capability is, and will remain, central to our deliberations.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.