HC Deb 08 April 1998 vol 310 cc311-8 12.31 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

The number of right hon. and hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who have taken the trouble on the last day of term to be in their places demonstrates the strength of concern felt on this subject. I am grateful to the Minister for the Armed Forces, for whom I have the highest respect, who will respond to the debate.

The Territorial Army faces a double threat: on the one hand, a cut of more than half its combat elements; on the other, an insidious move to becoming a mere support organisation for the Regular Army. Such a move would destroy its ethos and its attractions to good-quality people. Ironically, it would also reduce its ability to provide the very reinforcements that the Regular Army needs in peacetime in places such as Bosnia.

What is at stake is no less than the purpose and capability of our defence forces as a whole. Infantry, armour, artillery and combat engineer units cannot be quickly rebuilt. Unlike doctors or technicians, they have no counterparts in civilian life.

I resigned as a parliamentary private secretary and signed up to a demand for a proper strategic defence review. I would have been the very first Member of Parliament to welcome such a review if it had been carried out in the same open-minded way in which others were carried out. Other countries have recognised that, with smaller professional forces, volunteer reserve units can replace capacity in a less costly fashion than their regular counterparts. The cost today of a volunteer reserve unit is typically around a fifth of its regular counterparts. That is why our English-speaking cousins, the other main non-conscript countries—America, Canada and Australia—have all chosen to keep a volunteer reserve force, excluding regular reservists, equal to or larger than their regular armies.

In America, in December, six of the 15 higher readiness National Guard brigades began forming two divisions deployable at just 90 days readiness. In Australia, the Seventh Field Force, one of many largely territorial brigades, is being prepared for overseas projection at just 90 days' readiness, with the extra resources that it will need for that. Yet in Britain, with our TA already down to less than half the strength of our Regular Army, further cuts are planned.

The second threat is equally insidious: a change of philosophy, transforming the TA from an army-in-waiting into an organisation with a mere augmentation and support role for the Regular Army. Such an organisation exists in the United States—the US Army Reserve, which works in parallel with the National Guard. Although the US National Guard, with its formed regiments and brigades, with its fighting spirit and local connections, has the lowest wastage in the English-speaking world—the Australians come a close second—the US Army Reserve, whose units have a support and augmentation philosophy, has the worst, at a miserable 37 per cent. That is what our planners seem to want over here.

We do not have to look across the Atlantic. The Navy has already emasculated the Royal Naval Reserve. There was a letter in The Times on Saturday from a regular naval officer, arrogantly putting down a letter from someone who was ex-RNR, and saying how pleased the new RNR should be to have no ships and simply fill berths in regular naval vessels. What he did not say was that the RNR is now the worst-recruited part of the reserve forces and is unable to match its pathetically small new target establishment. It is appropriate that the chiefs of staff should have selected an admiral to head the relevant tri-service working party.

Time and again, volunteer reserve units have proved their worth when we sorely needed them, from the Queen Victoria Rifles, whose heroic defence of Calais when the Army was withdrawing from Dunkirk won extremely rare praise from the German high command that they were fighting, to 1990, when the National Guard Artillery Brigade, which was located next to our division in the Gulf, was commented on by our own Brigadier Hammerbeck. He said, "My God. I shall never forget their first bombardment. The enemy commander told me he'd lost 90 per cent. of his forces in the first few minutes." The highest scoring allied forces armoured unit in that campaign was the 4th US Marine Reserve Tank Battalion, commanded by a volunteer reservist. These units cost the American taxpayer a fraction of the price of their regular counterparts, which releases money for vital equipment procurement.

British TA units, such as the splendid 5 PWRR in my constituency, could do it too, if they were given the modest extra resources to raise their readiness state; indeed, many of them did so in the last war.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Will the hon. Gentleman associate the Yorkshire and Humberside Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Association with his remarks concerning the unit in his constituency?

Mr. Brazier

I am delighted to do so, and to mention the proud record of Yorkshire, north-eastern regiments and regiments throughout the country, too.

Does the Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, really believe the message that he is being given by his officials in the Ministry of Defence: that British reservists are so inferior to their American and Australian counterparts that they are unable to provide proper fighting units and formations at sensible levels of readiness? He will be fully aware of how heavily infantry units in Bosnia rely on reservists. He must also be concerned that we face a further decline in the Army's profile in the wider community as the light of the last military presence winks out in areas throughout the country with the closure of territorial and cadet premises. However, those are not my main arguments. My concern is a strategic one.

Since 1815, defence planners have told Ministers that the next war would be over in a few weeks and would involve few casualties. From our own experience, in the Crimea through to the recent Russian experience in nearby Chechnya, defence planners have been proved wrong—frequently abruptly and surprisingly. The current configuration of our Regular Army, which has been reduced to just two divisions, allows us to deploy a single division in an expeditionary force. The ability to build that into a larger force depends on the combat elements of the TA.

Ministers should have asked how we can provide stronger forces within affordable budgets by harnessing the remarkable enthusiasm in the wider community. Why has no evaluation been done of the deployable reserve brigades that America and Australia are developing? In the struggle for resources, the truth is that regular officers have squeezed the TA out and bolted it on to the backside of its regular counterparts.

When our TA infantry and yeomanry regiments cost one fifth of their regular counterparts, how can it be cost-effective to consider reducing them to a rump? The short answer is: easily—if two conditions are met. First, there must be an all-regular higher command structure of the type unique to Britain. We do not have even one TA major general, whereas the Australians have three and the Americans have one for every state. I am proud of our professional Army; I am not so proud of the clique of regular staff officers in the Ministry of Defence. I look forward to meeting some of them at the Select Committee—if our Chairman so decides.

The second condition is that there must be a belief—our planners seem, once again, to entertain that belief—that we will not have to fight a major war for many years to come. The Falklands and the Gulf wars were both fought over open terrain in areas containing virtually no civilians, but we could get sucked into serious fighting, just as the Americans did in Vietnam and the Russians did in Afghanistan and Chechnya. It could happen in Iraq or in the Baltic region, if the latter catches fire. In that case, we will need a much larger Army, and very quickly.

We cannot be secure without a proper general reserve; it must be borne in mind that our fine Regular Army has just two divisions. In some past wars, we needed more than 80 divisions. Do the Government really want the British Army to lose its capacity to expand to fight real wars, and to become a mere peacekeeper?

12.40 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for allowing me to intervene briefly. The fact that there are so many Members here in the early afternoon is a warning to the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence that messing around with what is left of our reserves would be difficult and dangerous. The Defence Select Committee has already had two sessions on the reserves, and will certainly have more after the publication of the strategic defence review.

We are not defensive because of nostalgia or because of an attachment to the TA units that we all regularly visit. We support the TA because we feel there is still a great need for a competent reserve to supplement our armed forces. Warfare has not changed so greatly as to render our traditional reserves superfluous; nor are they there only to plug holes left in the MoD's budget.

I would ask the Minister to use his considerable influence to ensure that, when the SDR is published, there will still be a significant role for the reserves into the 21st century, the enormous financial restraints on the MOD notwithstanding. If we find that the reserves have been relegated to superfluity, I am convinced that there will be tremendous reaction throughout the country, reflected in the House. I very much hope that that can be avoided by careful planning in the MOD.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith.

12.42 pm
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on initiating the debate and engaging the support of the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who chairs the Select Committee. I speak as a relic of dad's army, who, after that service, joined the Army proper in 1942. One lesson that I learned from my father was that this country of ours never has an army large enough to withstand a major threat. That was why Lord Haldane, in the early part of the century, introduced reforms that brought the TA under the control of the Ministry of Defence.

Even today, in the absence of any major threat, the Army finds it necessary to use the services of skilled people in the TA. I find it, therefore, all the more astonishing that we should even begin to contemplate the dumbing-down of the TA and the reduction of its role in our armed forces.

There is another damaging element in play. The danger is that we will discount the voluntary spirit and the enthusiasm and ideals of people who wish to serve their country. All those virtues are well described in the publication "South-East TAVRA". We all urge the Government to spend more money on helping young people to make their lives more worth while by finding a mission or a goal with a public service spirit. By diminishing the value of our cadet forces and the TA, we may end up diminishing the value of public service itself—not to mention the effectiveness of our armed forces. That is a double whammy if ever there was one.

12.44 pm
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this important debate at such a crucial time. The Minister will have noticed that the debate is a combined operation—all the main parties are united in their support for the combat arms of the Territorial Army. The Royal Marines, in which I was privileged to serve, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force all have minimal reserves now, but, thank goodness, the TA can still deploy large formed units of battalion strength.

The TA's combat units buttress our county regiments, which are the envy of armies throughout the world. The 4th Battalion the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment has companies in Plymouth, Exeter and Dorchester, where they are a vital aid to recruitment and to our cadet service. Their combat role, however, is the most important of all.

Infantry soldiers exist ultimately for the purpose of combat. It is the team or unit that is so desperately important; at present, we still have those units. I hope that the strategic defence review will do nothing to undermine them.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I should perhaps tell the House that there seems to be some misunderstanding about the rules that apply to these half-hour Adjournment debates. They are essentially for the person raising the subject and for the Minister. By special permission both of the originator of the debate and of the Minister, others may also participate for a short time. That must be determined beforehand and notified to the Chair.

12.46 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)

I am sorry that so many hon. Members did not get a chance to speak in this short debate. I can only suggest that, if they want to congratulate the TA, they should stand up and shout out the names of their local units, which will then be recorded.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this timely debate. He is an experienced and doughty fighter for the Territorial Army, and if anyone was to be lucky enough to secure today's debate, it should have been him.

We are lucky indeed to be able to call on the hon. Gentleman's expertise and on that of other hon. Members present in the Chamber. I have listened carefully to what has been said not just this morning but throughout the past nine months.

The hon. Member for Canterbury was less than generous in his characterisation of the review. Not even the worst enemy of the Ministry could deny that this has been the most open and consultative exercise ever carried out by the MOD. It has included seminars, panels, written and oral submissions and discussions, in the Chamber and elsewhere. The TA has been involved in meetings and providing input; the hon. Gentleman has submitted papers to us as well. Only yesterday, I met yet another delegation from the TA—I am sure that it will not be the last.

I should not like anyone to gain the impression from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that the Territorial Army has not been well served. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman may wish, on reflection, to retract his implication—I am sure that he will—that there has been a conspiracy in the Navy or the Regular Army. I should like to thank all the services for the way they have approached the debate. They have not tried to defend the status quo or their own services or units. They have attempted genuinely to analyse current needs and then, irrespective of the effect on their own services, to work out a coherent configuration for our defence. That has been the purpose of the review and the starting point of our approach to the Territorial Army and all other units.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Reid

Yes; my hon. Friend can give us the name of the unit.

Mr. Rogers

I am an ex-Regular Army and ex-Territorial Army soldier. During the review, will my hon. Friend take into account the usefulness of the cadet forces in constituencies such as mine in the valley communities? They make an enormous social contribution and are a focus for community activity.

Dr. Reid

I shall indeed; my respect for and commitment to the cadet forces is well known. I do not understand how the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) has gained the impression that we are in any way diminishing the role of the cadets—we have supported them. I should like the resources that are given to them to be increased, but we must await the outcome of the review. We must not count our chickens before they are hatched, or set up straw men.

It is unfair to suggest that reservists have been excluded from work on the reserve forces. They have participated directly in the review, and, like all other service personnel, have been free to make submissions to the review team. They are freer than any other element of our armed forces to articulate their views and lobby for their cause publicly. Notwithstanding the odd major or two, many other elements of our armed forces do not have such freedom. While I appreciate the strength of hon. Members' feelings about the Territorial Army, we should not diminish the feelings of other sections of our armed forces about the traditions, expertise and capabilities that they bring to our defence output. We asked for and accepted submissions; we sought people's views, and I am grateful to those who responded.

I stress that, at this stage, no final decisions have been made on the reserves or on any other aspect of defence. Defence Ministers have drawn conclusions, based on a wide range of advice and many months' work inside and outside my Department, and with the Foreign Office, especially on security analysis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has submitted detailed proposals to the Prime Minister and other Cabinet colleagues for collective decision. I am confident that the outcome will be good for the reserve forces, as well as for the armed forces as a whole and for the nation.

I shall respond as best I can in the limited time to some of the points that the hon. Member for Canterbury and his colleagues have made, but I make it clear that, ultimately, our force structures must be shaped by our defence needs. No one has greater respect than I for the traditions and past of our armed forces, but the point of the strategic defence review is to ensure that those units and forces form a coherent, usable and relevant structure for today and for tomorrow, and do not merely reflect the past.

When we took office and I became Minister of State, we found our regular armed forces seriously undermanned, struggling under a heavy load of day-to-day commitments and desperately lacking in the unglamorous but essential areas of lift capacity, sustainability, defence medical services and a host of other elements that are equal to the reserves in our consideration of our ultimate fighting output. Our regular forces are coupled with a large but undernourished reserve, much of which is predicated on home defence roles that should have expired with the cold war and whose chief contribution is plugging gaps, which should not exist, in our regular forces.

I believe that we can improve the situation that we inherited, and that we owe it to the regulars and the reserves to do so. We have made it clear that we recognise that our reserve forces are an important part of our defence capability. Indeed, we have paid lavish tribute to the important work being carried out by members of the reserve forces who have been deployed on operations in Bosnia. I repeat that they have done a great job, of which they and hon. Members are justifiably proud.

We are committed to making better use of our reserve forces, and I aim to ensure that they are capable, usable and relevant to our overall defence needs and the modern strategic environment. I have no doubt that the results of the review will include an imaginative and exciting blueprint for the future of the reserve forces.

We have heard much today about the need for a strategic reserve, and we recognise that the reserves could serve as the basis for expanding our forces if a major threat emerged. I assure hon. Members that changes to our force structures that might come about as a result of the strategic defence review will enhance, rather than detract from, our operational capability.

It is essential to consider what our armed forces are likely to have to do in future.

Mr. Brazier

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Reid

I shall not give way, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

I have taken the point that we cannot predict exactly what is likely to happen. We cannot know everything about the future, but that does not mean that we should not make a sensible analysis of what might happen. Otherwise, we would need unlimited and unsustainable reserves to cover all contingencies. The hon. Gentleman supported a Government who cut defence resources by 32 per cent. during the 1990s, so he will know that we do not have unlimited resources.

An essential part of our work on the reserves has related to the impact of longer warning times and likely future missions. We may need to rebalance our forces between, for example, regular and reserve forces, or between combat units assigned to home defence and support units that are able to sustain expeditionary deployments abroad, which are likely to be a major feature of the strategic environment in which our forces have to operate. Our consideration of the balance of our forces arises from our current analysis, not from an undying respect for the past and an undying commitment not to change anything. We did not undertake the strategic defence review to create a monument to the past, but to create effective fighting capability for the future.

We recognise that the reserves have a wider role in society, other than a purely military one. I understand the points made by hon. Members in that regard, and I assure them that such factors have been taken into account.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the public become aware of the skill, efficiency and dedication of the Territorial Army through their close ties with it? For example, in May 1993, B company of the 3rd (Volunteer) Battalion, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was the first to respond to flooding in Llandudno, Llandudno Junction and Deganwy.

Dr. Reid

I agree entirely about the nature of the link with the military. Llandudno, among other areas, has been a beacon to the nation.

The hon. Member for Canterbury drew useful international comparisons, and that with the United States National Guard is a favourite of his which is not without merits. However, he must not assume that a common language and culture with the United States and with Australia means that we should have a common regular-reserve balance of forces. The balance between regulars and reserves is driven by what soldiers may be required to do. A high proportion of a country's forces must be regular if it has a high level of day-to-day commitments and believes that it may have to deploy a substantial force quickly, as we do. I should not have to make that point for an ex-soldier of the hon. Member's experience.

We have, of course, considered battle casualty replacements, to which the hon. Member for Canterbury and others referred. He asked how we would expand forces in a new period of tension. We would need new recruits, people to train them, buildings in which to train them and a structure around which to organise them. The reserves are not the only source, but we recognise that they are an important source.

The hon. Gentleman said that a great number of United States reserves were sent to the Gulf. I should point out that they were called out compulsorily, which is against the traditions of this country. That is one of the matters which we want to consider—whether we should assume that reserves should be called out only in the event of a major war. I know that the United States Marine Corps did well, but all officers in the reserve component must be ex-regular.

Mr. Brazier

That is untrue.

Dr. Reid

I understand it to be true, and the hon. Gentleman would not want it to obtain in this country.

As far as I can see, there is great interest in this matter, which has not been unanticipated here. I am sure that the future will reflect the glorious past of the TA.