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The experts in our own Foreign Office whom we pay to know the middle east better than the Ministers in Downing street told us in leaked documentscarefully leaked, no doubt, for the historical recordthat we would be placing ourselves in greater danger if we did this. So there was nothing unpredictable about this morning's attack. Despicable, yes; but not unpredictable. It was entirely predictable and, I predict, it will not be the last.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Madam Deputy Speaker, thank youI thinkfor calling me to speak after the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway). I sense that, in the circumstances, I should make an early declaration that I continue to serve as a bomb disposal officer in the Territorial Army. Perhaps I can attempt to defuse this situation, although I should probably steer clear of commenting on many of his remarks.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman's observation that today's events were tragic and despicable. That was brought home to me today when I received a phone call from my wife. She left our house in King's Cross at 8.50 this morning and went down to the tube platform, only to leave it again to go and buy herself a pair of tights. Had she not done so, I believe that she would have been on the train that the bomb was on. From that point of view at least, I am grateful that she bought her tights today.
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I would like to pick up on some of the comments made by other hon. Members about the veterans' days coming up this weekend. I play an active part in our Royal British Legion in Olney and I hope the House will forgive me for giving a shameless plug for its events on Sunday. Comments were made about the Trafalgar day celebrations last Tuesday. I thought they were excellent, not least the fireworks displaybut I would say that, as the family firm put it on.
I have been told that an author's first book tends to be based on personal experience, so as this is my first speech in a Defence debate, I shall concentrate on what I know. To that end, I shall explore two main topics: the overstretch of the armed forces and the balance between our commitments and capabilities and, specifically, its impact on our reserve forces. I am sorry that the Secretary of State made no mention of our reserve forces in his opening remarks, although I realise that he was pressed for time. I shall consider in some detail the ongoing TA future army structure review.
It is blindingly obvious that our armed forces are working under those conditions. The two accepted measures for dealing with overstretch are to increase recruitment and retention and/or to reduce overseas commitments. Instead, the Government's defence policy includes cutting existing numbers, freezing recruitment and increasing our commitments, be it in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor or elsewhere.
Our armed forces also have UK commitments, such as the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, flooding or Operation Fresco, the reaction to the firefighters strike. Although our armed forces have always risen to those challenges with the professionalism for which they are renowned, they highlight in no uncertain terms the pressures under which our armed services are working.
The imbalance between commitments and capabilities has led to an unfair over-reliance on reservists. The Defence White Paper in 2003 examined in one of its supporting essays, "developing the reserves". In that paper, the Government claim that they look to reservists to provide
"forces (for both contingent and enduring operations) which cannot always be justified as full-time parts of the Regular establishment on grounds of cost or the need for specialised transferable skills".
We have already seen that operations in theatres such as Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq could not have been undertaken without the use of reserve forces. About 8,500 personnel are currently deployed in Iraq, down from 46,000 at the peak of the fighting phase. About 6,170 TA personnel were mobilised on Operation Telic. I accept that that may seem only a small percentage of the total TA force, but we must remember that only TA soldiers deemed fit for role can be mobilisedthose who have been trained in their proper profession and who are suitable for the job that they are
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being held against. As there is a high turnover of TA personnelit can be up to 25 per cent. in any one unit in any one yearthe pool of TA servicemen who can be called on at any one time for operational service is much smaller than the overall figure that is given.
I have recently left a bomb disposal regiment and I know that the soldiers available to fill the slots required in Iraq are very few indeed. The same people are called again and again. I have been mobilised for operational service twice in the past four years. The TA is a shotgun that can be fired, but I am not convinced that the Secretary of State is fully addressing the regeneration issues caused by the constant mobilisation of the same personnel.
With that in mind, it is perhaps unfortunate that, last December, the Government announced plans to increase the total number of part-time servicemen deployed in Iraq to 1,000 by May 2005. According to the MOD, under the SDR, TA personnel will be considered for service in Iraq for as long as that conflict continues. The Iraq war has created a few problems for TA members. Many did not receive any pay in the first weeks after mobilisation. It was appalling that, while they were at war, they had to arrange finance to cover loans and mortgages, adding unnecessary work and anxiety, and that £40 million in additional retention bounties due to be paid out March 2004 was retained by the MOD because of computer problems. There are also concerns about insurance, especially as many reservists had little notice of their mobilisation.
A survey of TA personnel sent to the Gulf found that 80 per cent. did not expect their employer to support any future development, 63 per cent. of medical and technical staff said that they were thinking of resigning from the TA, 73 per cent. said that the NHS would lose vital skills because of deployments and 39 per cent. were worried about the effect on their job security.
That said, on a positive note, I am encouraged that much has been learned from the experience of Operation Telic and the attitude surveys of soldiers returning from deployed operations. That has led to a progressive overhaul of, and gradual improvements to, TA conditions of service and employer and welfare support. The MOD's support for reservists is improvingI give credit to the Government for thatand includes providing demobilising reservists with information regarding their legal rights. Another step in the right direction is the SaBREsupporting Britain's reservists and employerscampaign. However, more needs to be done, as two independent reports commissioned by the Government show that employers' awareness of SaBRE in the first year of its existence was very low.
Although reservists are given statutory protection under the provisions of the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985, some reservists have problems in retaining their jobs while serving in the armed forces. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 states that, if a reservist loses their job, they can take their employer to an industrial tribunal, but crucially the MOD does not act on their behalf. Also, although that Act rightly gives reservists safeguard of employment, it does not give safeguard of promotion.
From a practical point of view, many employers now look at returning reservists and say, "Under the current climate you may well be mobilised again, and while I
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have to give your job back, I am not necessarily going to promote you." That is a vital element that the Government must consider. Reservists are being mobilised once, coming back, realising that they must give priority to their primary career, not to the Territorial Army, and resigning. That is putting even greater pressure on current members of the reserve forces because the pool from which people can be drawn is getting smaller and smaller.
I think that under the circumstances I have probably gone on for too long. Since other Members want to speak, I will not proceed to my second point. I merely ask the Secretary of State to look beyond what is currently happening to the Territorial Army, because the undue pressure that the imbalance between commitments and capabilities is putting on the TA and other reserve forces is almost at breaking point.
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