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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): First, I thank the Minister for providing me with an advance copy of the statement. I join him in congratulating our armed forces on the magnificent job that it appears they have yet again carried out in Iraq, in the release of Mr. Norman Kember, which will be welcomed not only on both sides of the House but throughout the land and, I hope, throughout the whole free world. It follows the magnificent operation undertaken in September 2005 when British forces were instrumental in releasing two of our armed forces who were being held by the Iraqi police in Basra. As the Minister said, such operations illustrate the extraordinary professionalism of Her Majesty's armed forces, in which the whole House can take enormous pride.
I associate the Opposition with the tributes paid to the Territorial Army by the Minister. Members of the TA do an outstanding job and it is genuinely debatable whether the Government would have been able to carry out their operations in Iraq without the support given by members of the TAnot only in the specialist skills which they bring, but in their making up the shortfall in the Regular Army caused by the reduction in numbers under the Government.
As the Minister said, since we became involved in Iraq about 12,580 TA soldiers have been mobilised to plug the gaps. That number includes two extremely distinguished members of the reserve forces, my hon. and gallant Friends the Members for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who have certainly played their part in the support of their country.
I also think that we should pay tribute to the employers, without whose support and co-operation in releasing their employees for deployment the TA could not operate. In particular, we should acknowledge the special contribution of small businesses, which often have to make great sacrifices when members of their staff are deployed.
In a written answer of the 22 February, the Minister stated that, at 1 December 2005, the total strength of the TA was 37,430, against an establishment of 41,610. Yet that figure was misleading, as it included 5,750 members of the Officer Training Corps. The truth is that the actual number of TA personnel stands at around 31,680, making the actual shortfall in the establishment, leaving
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out the OTC, about 6,500. Furthermore, according to a recent report in The Heralda newspaper with which the Minister will be more than familiarit is alleged that only a third of the TA is ready for operations.
More than 13,500 men and women have left the TA since the invasion of Iraq in 2003over 6,000 have left in the past year alone. That translates to a rate of about 600 people a month leaving the TA. Previously, about 150 people a month left. The TA's manning levels are now at some of the lowest figures since it was formed in 1906, yet the rate of deployments is higher than at any time in recent years.
Across our armed forces, both regular and reserve personnel are being asked to do more with less. The Minister has presented the restructuring today as a means of increasing the TA's deployability and, of course, we welcome any increase in the utility of those forces. We particularly welcome the return to affiliating TA units to their regular counterpartssomething that is more than symbolic, as it will have practical operational consequences. We also welcome the creation of an Army Air Corps reserve regiment to support the Apache attack helicopter. The Army has been particularly adept in using air reserves.
Although we also welcome some of the additional units proposed by the Government, we cannot understand the proposal to reduce some of the specialist units, such as medical staff. In the annual report for last year, the Ministry of Defence stated that there were areas of "critical shortage", and the latest available figures indicate that, against an establishment of 6,880, there were only 4,080 medics. Furthermore, we fail to understand why the infantry is to lose 900 TA personnel.
May I pose a few specific questions to the Minister? First, there is no mention in the statement of the civil contingency reserves. What has the Minister to say about the TA's role in countering terrorism at home and being available to deal with other civil emergencies?
Secondly, what significance should we attach to the mobilisation of a new combat legal force, something that sounds distinctly menacing, the form of a military provost staff company? Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether part of its role will be to root out the likes of Mr. Phil Shiner and others who seek to undermine the work that is carried out by armed forces. If so, we would welcome that new legal battalion to act in support of our regular and TA forces.
Thirdly, what can the Minister tell us about the haemorrhaging of TA members that I describe and the need to recruit, particularly given the strain that that places on employers? He mentions the objective that TA personnel should not be called up for further duty within five years. Can he tell us whether he expects to able to live within that or whether he will rely on the three-year legal requirement.
Fourthly, can he tell us what proposals he has to maintain a TA presence in the Orkney and Shetland islands? People there are keen for that presence to be maintained, so I hope that he can give us something positive on that.
Although some welcome changes have been announced today, we should be under no illusion that the Government are relying too heavily on the TA as a
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substitute for an adequate standing army. Today's announcement illustrates that fundamental. Rather than a rebalancing, this looks like a further web of cuts.
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman's reply was like the curate's egg in that he welcomed some parts of the statement, but I appreciate his opening comments in which he echoed some of what I said. Like him, I pay tribute to the employerssmall businesses and otherswho perhaps take the greatest strain in all this if any of their employees are called up, and they willingly co-operate with us in the main.
A bit of history would not go amiss. Let us remember that the TA was halved in the 1990s.
Mr. Howarth: The cold war ended.
Mr. Ingram: Given the end of the cold war, we considered what the post-cold war structure should be, as part of the strategic defence review. Of course, this further rebalancing will take account of the new Army structures and infantry structures. We are mirroring the restructuring, which involves recognising where the pinch points and the critical shortfalls occur. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are re-roling about 3,000 Regular Army posts to try to make good that problem, and the same applies across the TA. That is why the rebalancing is taking place. It will give those forces greater usability and greater impact, and therefore greater influence over what we seek to do in defence of the national interest.
The civil contingency reaction force was not mentioned because it will remain unchanged. That role continues.
The hon. Gentleman asked about harmony, and I said that it was an aim, but a legal requirement is involved. I do not know how that will play out, because it depends on tempo and usage. We will seek, as best we can, to achieve the higher harmony guidelines, because we value our people, but my experience of the TA is that a lot of them want to serve anyway, and they want to do so frequently.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Orkney and Shetland. No change is planned on Orkney, but we are considering the possibility of closing the very small unit on Shetland. We are talking, from memory, about only 19 TA members, with three support staff. Although it does not quite fit the neat rebalancing, I decided that is appropriate to keep the Shetland unit. Over time, it will be re-roled to match the engineer unit on Orkney. We will deal sensitively with those who are currently in the TA. We have decided to retain the unit. I am conscious of the fact that we recently decided to close Saxa Vord on Shetland. If the unit had closed, it would have meant that there was a bit of the United Kingdom where the military was not flying the Union flag. I did not think that such a decision would be appropriate, given the remoteness of the island.
The hon. Gentleman asked about retention and recruitment. Of course, retention is clearly an issue. Some of the figures could be occasioned by the fact that, once people have completed their deployments and had their moment of contribution and excitement, some of them will probably leave, perhaps because they are under employment pressure. We need to get a better
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handle on all thata better understanding of itbut against a very significant decline in recruitment in the early post-SDR period, it is now increasing. That is encouraging, and we must seek to maintain all that.
As at 1 January 2006, there were 297 more recruits than in January 2005a 1 per cent. increase. As at 1 February 2006, there were 323 more recruits than at 1 February 2005again, a 1 per cent. increase. That looks like an upward trend, but we must maintain that. Again, I make the point that we have consulted extensively on that among the TA, and the rebalancing will give greater focus and an even higher level of commitment, if that is possible, in the way in which the TA conducts itself, because it will have all the new arrangements, with a more coherent structure.
On medical staff, there is no question that we have issues in relation to them. That is one of the critical points, and the NHS also suffers from it in trying to recruit. Our judgment is to get the numbers to a realistic size, but I mention history again: medical support to the Army was effectively undermined under the last Tory Administration.
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