Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Howarth: Ten years ago.

Mr. Ingram: Well, it is 10 years on, and we are recovering very significantly from the legacy that we inherited. We are growing the regular support and the number of the TA medical staff that we can recruit and retain is based on a much more realistic assessment of what the market can bear.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister is right to refer to the professionalism, adaptability, courage and tenacity of the TA, but recruitment and retention is still a key concern and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is right to pay tribute to the tolerance of small businesses, in particular, in that regard. Those who leave the TA refer to three key things. First, they feel that they are not sufficiently valued. That is not true in the House, but it is certainly true elsewhere. Secondly, they do not always get access to the health care that they need when returning from foreign assignments. It is good news that the Minister has announced that they will be vulnerable to that only one year in five. The third problem is that many of them find that they have been sacked while they have been abroad. Is there anything more that he can do, among the welcome list of initiatives that he announced today, to reduce the chances of that happening so that those people are not deterred from serving their country in Iraq and elsewhere, where I understand that they have carried 10 per cent. of the load in the past three years?

Mr. Ingram: That is an issue. My hon. Friend is aware of the extensive support mechanisms that we have put in place to assist those in the TA. I am not making any announcements on that today, but I hope that a message comes out of the statement about the way in which we will take things forward and the important element of the additional staff who will be employed to work alongside our own people on welfare and administration and also employers, which will allow them to create a greater awareness of the vitality and importance of the TA. If employers are considering their business
23 Mar 2006 : Column 432
continuity needs, they will see that if there was a disaster in their area, the CCRF and the TA could well turn out, alongside the civil authorities. There could well be occasions when their own employees turned out to save the very businesses on which they depend. We can put over strong messages on this issue. Assistance from Members would be greatly appreciated—I know that my hon. Friend provides that—to get the message over about the importance, vitality and necessity of the TA.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome the liberation of Norman Kember and his associates and pay tribute to the professionalism and skill of those whose actions led to that. I thank the Minister for his statement, which should be welcomed as a broadly sensible measure to bring about the restructuring of the TA in line with the future Army structure plans. There was an implicit recognition by the Minister, at least of stretch—even if not of overstretch—on the part of the TA. It is right that the House should pay tribute to the work of the TA, particularly in light of the additional burden that it has carried in recent years.

We have already had exchanges about the recruitment and, in particular, retention difficulties in the TA during the past couple of years, when the duties on them have been much more onerous. Is the Minister confident that it will be possible to preserve the current levels in the TA, as he said today is his intention, or will further over-tasking make the problems even worse? Can the changes that he has talked about be achieved, given the recruitment and retention problems? What action is being taken to tackle the shortfall, which, however one calculates it, must, at the very least, be 4,000 or so?

It is welcome that the statement says that reserves will be deployed only one year in every five, or more if they volunteer. The Minister reminds us that the legal situation is that they can be called up one year in every three. Will he undertake to make regular reports to the House about the regularity of deployment so that we can monitor that?

I did not quite follow the Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) about medical staff. We all understand that there has been a shortage of medical staff, but the Minister's statement and his reply seemed to suggest that fewer staff would be required in the future. I do not quite understand how that can be.

Finally, on the military footprint—the geographical spread of the TA units—I noted with interest where the new units will be based. I have to confess that I have struggled fully to assimilate the significance of the tables because they seem to be colour-coded, but were faxed in black and white. In the fullness of time, no doubt we will get a better impression. It is essential that there remains the widest possible military footprint from the TA so that as many parts of the country as possible are supporting and engaged in the work of the armed forces.

Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He probably has a faxed copy of the tables, which is why it is black and white. He will have been written to with a colour-coded copy. If he has a colour fax—

Nick Harvey: I have.

Mr. Ingram: He has. Obviously in the Ministry of Defence, we are in a cost-cutting mood and we cannot
23 Mar 2006 : Column 433
quite match that. If the hon. Gentleman has anything spare in his parliamentary allowance, perhaps he could help. I apologise for what happened. The letter will include a colour-coded copy, which will assist him.

The core of the key points that the hon. Gentleman raised was about whether we were certain, or satisfied to some degree, that what we announced would be delivered. If we did not restructure or rebalance, we would have a problem, because there would be an incoherence in relation to what we are now demanding in terms of the future infantry structure and Army structure, and the TA would feel somehow second class. Over recent years, it has become obvious that that mood—if it ever existed in parts of our forces—does not exist any more. On my visits, it constantly strikes me, that, very early on in operational theatres, people stop asking others whether they are TA because it is impossible to tell. They are very much an integrated part—and even more so with the rebalancing.

I gave the improvement in recruitment. We have got to make sure that that is continued. There can be no guarantee on that. We are competing in a very difficult environment, because of high employment and other opportunities, and we will continue to do so. However, there is the fact that we are bringing the TA more into the Regular Army structure and that there will be single command at the top end in relation to how we recruit both for the Regular Army and the TA. Someone who expresses an interest in joining the forces, but may not want to join the regulars would immediately be notified of their opportunities in the TA and vice versa. That co-ordinated approach should help recruitment.

I was not saying that there was less need for medical staff. I was saying that medical support—the Defence Medical Services—was dramatically cut during the last Tory Administration. We are recovering from that legacy. It takes time to build things up. We are dealing with a massive increase in employment in the NHS, which relates to people going into the medical services. The size of the medical corps in the TA will match the real position. There is no point in having a large establishment that we will not need in a realistic assessment. Increasingly, there is a demand, but increasingly it will be met from the regulars, supplemented by the TA. I am talking about balancing those resources.

On stretch and overstretch, we have never hidden the fact that some areas are under pressure. We are going through the future Army structure rebalancing and carrying out the TA rebalancing to meet those demands and to ensure that we have better balance.

I am advised that there are colour copies of the tables in the Vote Office now. If anyone wants to leave and not ask me a question, I will understand.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I say to those hon. Members who are remaining to put questions to the Minister that if we have brief questions and answers, more of them may well be satisfied?

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the statement and especially the announcement on the
23 Mar 2006 : Column 434
new Royal Engineer regiment that will be based in Gateshead in the north-east. Members of the Armed Forces Bill Committee who were in Basra two weeks ago were impressed by the professionalism, dedication and enthusiasm of the TA soldiers whom we met. I have met TA soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan who were working closely with CIMIC—civil-military co-operation—teams that were doing vital reconstruction work. Has any thought been given to how the array of talents, experience and skills of TA soldiers can be brought to the vital role of reconstruction in Afghanistan and other parts of the world?

Next Section IndexHome Page