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Iraq (Reservists)

5. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): How many reservists are deployed in Iraq. [44072]

The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): Around 700 reservists are deployed in Iraq. That figure comprises more than 650 Army reserves, 28 Royal Air Force reserves, and 20 Royal Marine reserves.
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Richard Ottaway: The Secretary of State will be aware that a similar number of reservists have been deployed in Iraq for several years, which is making the decision to cut the regulars by four regiments look somewhat absurd and short-sighted. Is he aware, however, that many reservists also have a home-based role in the civil contingency reaction forces? Given the substantial numbers of reservists deployed in Iraq, does he agree that as many are double-hatted—in a civil and military role—that is having a serious effect on the civil contingency role back in the UK?

John Reid: I do not accept the second point. As for the first, which concerned the increased role for reservists and, in particular, for the Territorial Army, and their integration into regular combat and operational configurations, that is exactly what was envisaged in the 1997–98 strategic defence review. It has resulted in great challenges for the TA and other reservists, but it has also resulted in great benefits. Anyone who speaks to regular forces now will know that the esteem in which our reserve forces are held and the plaudits that they receive from the regular forces are higher than ever, precisely because of their deep involvement in operational matters.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend know whether the more vociferous opponents of what we did in Iraq have congratulated all those in that country on the huge turnout—more than 70 per cent.—for the recent elections? Would it not now be appropriate to consider at what stage it would be right for British troops to leave, as our armed presence in Iraq was obviously never intended to be indefinite?

John Reid: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Notwithstanding the cries of the pessimists, not only have the Iraqi people shown by their turnout—despite all the threats of terrorism, death and destruction—just how much they value the chance of democracy, they have turned out in ever-increasing numbers. The turnout for the January elections was about 60 per cent., the turnout for the referendum was just under 65 per cent., and the turnout for the most recent elections was 70 per cent. Our troops and our people can be proud of the opportunity that we have extended to the Iraqi people.

Simultaneously we have been building up the Iraqi security forces. There are now 223,000; when I first came to the Dispatch Box, there were around 80,000. That represents a considerable advance. We are making steady progress towards the conditions that will allow us to hand over to the Iraqis the protection of their own democracy, and then to withdraw to barracks and, eventually, from Iraq.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Has the Secretary of State engaged in any discussions on the gradual replacement of British troops from Muslim countries?

John Reid: I have not done so directly, although I have had discussions recently—for instance, this morning—with the chief of staff of the Omani armed forces, previously in Bahrain with a range of Gulf states, twice in Saudi Arabia and with other Arab and Muslim
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nations about the possibility of their playing a greater role as the Iraqi people take their security and sovereignty into their own hands. The beginnings of that unity will be in Iraq itself. I welcome indications from the largest party in Iraq, mainly Shia-based, that it intends to explore the possibilities of a Government of national unity. That would represent a major step forward in Iraq.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that we owe a particular debt of gratitude to the reservists who played such an important role in Operation Telic, contributing not just military skills but, in some cases, skills gained in civilian life which have proved useful in Iraq? Does it worry him, though, that the percentage of reservists from the public as opposed to the private sector is currently so high? Will he urge private-sector companies around the country actively to encourage their staff to consider becoming reservists? They might bring back from the armed forces skills that would prove valuable in their civilian lives.

John Reid: I have no hesitation—I am sure that, on this occasion, I speak on behalf of those in all parts of the House—in congratulating our reserve forces on their contribution, not just in Iraq, but specifically in Iraq at the moment.

I will undertake to examine the figures in the light of my hon. Friend's question, but my impression is that employers across a range of public and private sectors have been very supportive in allowing the reserve forces to play the enhanced role that they are currently playing. I thank all who are doing so, because I realise that it often involves some diminution of their own business prospects. It is a contribution that they make to the country as well as to their employers, and I am very grateful for it.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): The Secretary of State's praise for the TA and the reservists is well deserved and echoed across the House, but what impact are the scale and frequency of deployment having on recruitment into the TA and, in particular, on retention of non-commissioned officers, where there seems to be a growing problem?

John Reid: First, the House will want to understand that, under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, there is a limit on the number of times that someone can be called up in a given period. That limit cannot be breached. We have some recruitment problems in the TA, which is about 7,100 under strength out of 38,000—about 18 per cent. In fact, whatever establishment figure we have traditionally had for the TA, we always seem to have been about 18 per cent. short. I do not know whether that is governed by some immutable law. High employment and a range of other factors may be contributing to that shortfall, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I and my two ministerial colleagues take recruitment and retention in the armed forces, whether reservists, TA or Army, very seriously. I will not pretend to the House that everything is as it should be or we would like it to be, but we are making strenuous efforts to get there.
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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The bravery, determination and tenacity of the reservists in Iraq is second to none and of course comparable with that of the regular forces, but from time to time coverage in the regional press suggests that morale is not all it could be among reservists who are deployed in Iraq. That is a major factor in terms of recruitment and retention. Can the Secretary of State say a little about that concern?

John Reid: Morale is actually very good among our armed forces. On Friday, for example, I was at Headley Court to see some of our very brave servicemen who had been seriously injured in Iraq and elsewhere. I said then to the press, although my comments were not widely reported, that I never cease to be astounded and indeed bowled over by the courage, determination and endurance of our soldiers even after very serious injuries. I also said that I wished that some of the critics of our interventions abroad could show the same commitment to this country and the optimism to see things through as our servicemen and women.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): TA strength has fallen by a fifth in the past five years and one in 10 of those available for deployment are already mobilised. Are not the Government simply exploiting our volunteer reserves to make up for the holes in our Regular Army?

John Reid: First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench, which illustrates that, in all institutions, when vacancies arise and recruitment and retention is difficult, there are always people who will step into the breach. It is no different with our reserve forces. As to whether the TA and other reserve forces have been used primarily or exclusively because of shortages in the regular forces, I say to him honestly that that is not the case. I commend to him the strategic defence review that was written in 1997–98—

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): You wrote it.

John Reid: Yes, I did. When I wrote that, I defended, as several Opposition Members will know, a much higher level of TA and reserve forces than some of the regulars wanted, but I made it plain at the time that the quid pro quo was that reserve forces had to get away from the characterisation of being weekend warriors and get involved regularly in operations, which I argued would be good for them as well as for the regulars. That is the primary reason that our reserve forces are playing a more important role than ever. That does not mean to say that there is not a problem with recruitment and retention both among regulars and the TA; there is, and we will try to do everything that we can to overcome it.

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