HC Deb 22 June 1998 vol 314 cc686-8
5. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

If he will make a statement on the future role of the Territorial Army. [45223]

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

The future role of the Territorial Army is being considered as part of the strategic defence review. No decisions have yet been taken, but I am confident that the review will result in a TA that is more usable and more relevant.

Mr. Bercow

I thank the Minister for that reply, but I must press him further. If the Government decide to close 172 TA centres—more than one third of the total— resulting in a reduction of up to 18,000 in the number of part-time soldiers, how does the Minister intend to preserve the link between civilian life and the armed forces, which many hon. Members on both sides of the House regard as vital?

Dr. Reid

I regard that link as very important as well, and did so when the Conservative party cut the Territorial Army by 30,000—not by the speculated 15,000 which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. There will be a number of stages to our examination of the TA, one of which will be to agree the principles on which the footprint—the geographical spread of estates and units—is discussed and decided. I am glad to say that those principles have been agreed between the Regular Army and the TA, and there is now the basis for us to examine in some detail in the coming months the questions raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

My hon. Friend has answered in part the questions that I was going to ask him, but I should like to press him further on the future of the TA. In the past, it has been necessary, on occasion, to deploy members of the TA as individuals. Will he assure the House that in any future major crisis, members of the TA will be deployed not as individuals but within existing serving units, and will serve in that way?

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In the past half century, in spite of the contribution of the TA—for which every hon. Member is eternally grateful—'TA members have never yet been called up in a formed unit. One of the ways in which we could place the TA more centrally in our defence thinking, make it more practically useful to our defence effort and increase its importance within our defence configuration is by considering calling up the Territorial Army in formed units in less than a full-scale war. I will give sympathetic consideration to that proposal, as it would make the TA more relevant in the future that it ever has been in the past.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

Does the Minister agree with the views of the Army's Director of Infantry as set out in his letter to the Commander-in-Chief, Land Command, published in yesterday's edition of The Sunday Telegraph, that cutting the TA to 40,000 would jeopardise recruitment and erode the foundations on which the Regular Army is built & impair the nation's ability to generate the manning required for unpredictable levels of fighting power, undermining the strategic defence of the country"?

Dr. Reid

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench for his first Question Time there, and his first lesson is never to quote out of context. I have the letter in front of me. Brigadier Monro—I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to his letter of 19 February—was asking for such contentions to be discussed openly, and for transparency in debating the issues which he raised. That, among other contributions, was taken seriously. Since then, we have had three debates in the House on those matters and I have answered several hundred letters and questions on them. No single subject has been given more scrutiny—as Brigadier Monro, others and I wanted—in the strategic defence review than the Territorial Army.

Secondly, as a result of those contributions, the figure which we are proposing for the TA—which will be announced in the not-too-distant future—is much greater than was initially proposed to me. Therefore, I agree entirely with the sentiments which have been expressed, which we have taken into account in our considerations.

Mr. Maples

The House will wait with bated breath for the long-overdue review and to see exactly what the Minister meant by that answer. I must add that I quoted accurately from Brigadier Monro's letter.

Is not the Secretary of State's problem that what started as a strategic defence review has become part of the comprehensive spending review? He has been told to find cuts, and the TA seems an easy victim. Is it also true—as we are told—that he rather naively offered £500 million of cuts as a pre-emptive concession? Predictably, the Treasury banked that £500 million and is looking for a little more. That is a rotten negotiating technique, and apparently the country's defences will suffer for it. Has the Director of Infantry not realised some of the consequences of the direction that Government policy is taking? When what is rapidly becoming the Treasury's defence review is published, will not the rest of the country realise those consequences too?

Dr. Reid

It is not the Secretary of State who is the problem, but the shadow Secretary of State—he knows all about Treasury-led defence reviews, as he was a Minister at the Treasury when, in the 10 years up to last year, the defence budget was cut by 30 per cent., the personnel in each of the armed forces was cut by 32 per cent. and the Territorial Army was cut by 30 per cent. None of us needs to take lectures on Treasury-led reviews from him.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Is the Minister for the Armed Forces not being rather dismissive about the letter? It was not any old letter, but one from the Director of Infantry to the Commander-in-Chief, Land Command—it was not from someone promoting a private or special interest. Brigadier Monro says that the future of the Territorial Army is inextricably linked to the long term health of the Regular Army", and that there is little point in reducing the TA £ to insignificance, whilst hoping to man an enhanced regular Infantry. Are those not serious and substantial criticisms of the Government's proposals, which need to be taken more seriously than the Minister has done today?

Dr. Reid

No. I have the letter in front of me; it is dated 19 February, which I think, even using my rude mathematics, was about four months ago. Since then, all the points that the brigadier correctly made have been fully met. He did not want an insignificant TA; I have trebled the figures that were then being considered, as the hon. and learned Gentleman would know if he had watched the documentary on the strategic defence review. He also asked for transparency; the House has had three debates on the Territorial Army. So seriously did I take the suggestions that I not only paid attention to the letter and put right the problems, but discussed the whole issue of the TA with, among other people, the brigadier's father—indeed, I have met all the family.