HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc671-3
1. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

What is the current strength of the Territorial Army. [96122]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

On the basis of the most recently available data, the strength of the Territorial Army was some 45,000 on 1 September this year.

Mrs. Bottomley

Will the right hon. Gentleman congratulate A company of the third battalion of The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment? In my constituency, it really took to heart what was said a year ago—that it should contribute to a "heavyweight role" rather than being simply "weekend warriors". It has 11 officers serving overseas, which includes Bosnia and Kosovo. It is, however, deeply disturbed by the lack of resources to train them. The resources and commitment that featured in the rhetoric simply have not been delivered in practice.

What response does the right hon. Gentleman intend to make, especially in the light of the Defence Committee report published today? According to that report, the Ministry of Defence will have to work very hard to demonstrate that the smaller TA truly is better trained than in the past, and better suited for its role in supporting the regular Army.

Mr. Hoon

I certainly congratulate the Territorial Army in the right hon. Lady's constituency, and I am confident that the proposals in the strategic defence review will contribute to its attempts to become part of an effective contribution to the regular armed forces. I have not had an opportunity to read the Select Committee report in any great detail, but I will do so and will give the right hon. Lady and the House a more detailed response in due course.

I note that the report is thoroughly well-balanced. The Committee recognises the need to monitor the level of overstretch in our armed forces. It concludes that it is too early to judge the overall health of the Territorial Army and the other reserve forces, but makes specific reference to the new reserves training and mobilisation centre at Chilwell—a place that I know very well, because it is close to my constituency. The report says that it should be regarded as having been a success so far, and that it is a valuable asset.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is dismay in Wales not only at the cut in numbers, but at the potential lowering of the quality of the TA's activities? Is he aware that earlier undertakings to maintain ancillary staff such as caretakers and others involved in the locations where they train have been reneged on, and that redundancies are now being made which make it difficult to keep the weaponry and stocks in those centres? Will the right hon. Gentleman now undertake to look at the figures, and to ensure that there is no reduction in quality, over and above the reduction in quantity?

Mr. Hoon

I shall examine the figures and the concerns raised by the right hon. Gentleman, but let me make it clear that the whole point of restructuring the TA is to make it more relevant and more usable, and thus to enhance the quality of its contribution to our regular forces.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

May I be the first to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, from the Opposition Dispatch Box, on his recent appointment? We know that he must have one of the very best jobs in the Government.

Will the right hon. Gentleman reverse the damage to the TA that has occurred since the strategic defence review? It has been cut by 18,000. We were told that there would be no compulsory call-up, but the Government have changed their mind. We were told that TA members would no longer be trained as formed units, but we now hear that they are to be deployed as formed units. Given that the number of TA members volunteering to serve with the regulars has apparently halved in the past six months, and given that employers are becoming reluctant to take on TA members, will the right hon. Gentleman accept the unanimous advice of the Defence Committee report, which was published this morning, suspend further reductions in the TA, and reconsider its post-SDR establishment size?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes, although I am not so sure about the rest of his comments. I shall not repeat the points that I have already made about the basis of the SDR in relation to the TA, but I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's point about compulsory mobilisation.

A Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a strong supporter and, no doubt, proud to be a member, encouraged the passing of the Reserve Forces Act 1996. That Act allowed for the compulsory mobilisation of members of the Territorial Army—something that members of the TA have broadly welcomed, recognising that it gives them the opportunity to participate effectively in active service. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not make the same criticism again. It is clear to me that compulsory mobilisation adds to the quality of our reserve forces, and allows them to make a much more effective contribution in the real world than they may have been able to make in the past.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his kind remarks about the Chilwell mobilisation base in my constituency, whose opening I attended. Is he aware that enthusiasm for the new task is extremely high in the base, and that those to whom I have spoken are somewhat baffled by the Conservatives' idea that it is possible to have a reserve force that turns up or does not turn up when called on, according to individual whim?

Mr. Hoon

I live close to the Chilwell base, and I know a number of people who work from there. It is my strong impression that those people welcome the changes that the Government promoted in the SDR, and want the TA to play an effective role alongside the regular forces.

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