Previous Section Index Home Page

12 Jun 2007 : Column 215WH—continued

As with the national guard, TA soldiers should, as far as possible, be deployed together and, usually, as a formed sub-unit, thus giving their commanders the
12 Jun 2007 : Column 216WH
crucial opportunity to lead their men. However, as Regular commanders press for soldiers to fill their ranks and the operational work load makes it harder to get substantial groups of territorials to leave their civilian jobs again, there is a tendency towards deployment by individual reinforcement or so-called cohort. That often provides individuals in junior ranks, such as corporals and privates, with an excellent experience, but the danger is that such an approach will predominate, with officers having no opportunity to command in the field. It is no wonder that it is becoming so hard to recruit and retain junior officers as the demands of civilian life continue to grow.

One positive step, on which I congratulate the Government, was the introduction of a two-star, part-time general in the MOD in 2004. The general has access to Ministers and the Chiefs of Staff to ensure that the volunteer reservist voice is heard in the corridors of power, and the all-party group applauds the Government on that.

Nevertheless, there is considerable concern that last year’s reorganisation of the TA, which was based on the future army strategy, threw up some serious problems. There are two dimensions to the strategy. The first related to the macro aspects, such as deciding the locations at which individual units would be based and the cap badges that they would wear. I have no problem with that, and things are, indeed, starting to settle down nicely. The big problem was with the other dimension, which related to the decision to design the TA structure on the basis of very occasional, large-scale, deliberate interventions—large-scale wars in which most of the TA would be called out, happening perhaps once in a generation—rather than of supporting enduring operations, which is what the TA actually does.

The problem was most acute in two areas: the infantry and yeomanry. The substructure of each company and yeomanry squadron, which determines what happens at each individual location, was rewritten in an unfortunate way, and that has seriously diminished TA infantry and yeomanry regiments’ ability to train and develop officers and fulfil the operational requirements on them. To focus on the infantry, there is now only one rifle platoon in each company, plus an enormous support weapons set-up, which means that companies do not have the critical mass to provide interesting training. Providing an interesting exercise requires several sub-units, usually from many miles apart, to be consolidated through a mix-and-match approach, but that is no way to develop team spirit. Therefore, the most rewarding part of being a TA officer or NCO in peace time—taking one’s troops through their paces—is, in effect, being denied to company and platoon commanders in the infantry and yeomanry. If the young professionals and managers who regularly give of their precious free time at the end of a hard working week are denied the most rewarding aspect of their job, they will soon vote with their feet, as will the men and women under them.

The macro side of the future army strategy must be allowed to settle in. I am not suggesting that a single location is reorganised, but the crucial substructure of the individual infantry company and yeomanry squadron must be rebalanced. In the case of the infantry, that means that there must be a big cut in the
12 Jun 2007 : Column 217WH
number of support weapons to provide enough rifle platoons, given that riflemen are the overwhelming requirement for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The all-party group’s report ends with 18 recommendations, most of which are based on the factors that I have set out. Just as we went to print, the Department for Transport announced an initiative on one of them—the problem of drivers’ hours, which affects a small yet significant number of territorials. I hope that the MOD will look hard at the other 17 recommendations.

In summary, if bright young men and women are to be attracted to the TA, it must never become a mere adjunct to the regular Army. It should integrate with the Regular Army only in so far as that is compatible with the grain of civilian life. The TA is a precious, priceless asset to this country, but it will be so only as long as it attracts good-quality men and women into its ranks. To do that, each TA unit must remain part of its local community—that is, it must remain territorial.

11.19 am

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on the quality of the report that he and his group have produced and on securing this Adjournment debate.

Birmingham, Yardley has a Territorial Army base in Sheldon, but Birmingham has others, and it is important, in such a diverse city, that we understand what is necessary for the citizen soldier.

I do not want to reiterate everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I think that it is crucial that if someone is balancing their family and work life—which is challenging enough at times—as well as the TA, it is no good running things for the convenience of the Ministry of Defence. It is necessary to take into account the needs of the individual citizen soldiers—officers and NCOs, as well as those in the ranks—as otherwise they will vote with their feet.

There has been much discussion about encouraging members of the ethnic minority communities to join the armed forces. The Territorial Army, being territorial, obviously recruits from the local area. It was perhaps a mistake, therefore, to aim to close down inner-city branches of the TA. Although there may be concerns affecting recruitment because of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, inner-city areas are the places from which ethnic minority members could be recruited, because there are often more ethnic minority people living in them. It is crucial that the MOD does not just treat the TA as something to fill in the gaps—a convenience. It must be treated as a territorial Army in itself.

It is also necessary to be aware of employers. There are employers who are sympathetic to the idea of staff being reservists, but some certainty is needed. Again, what is done should take into account the needs of the citizen soldier and the employer; it should not be a question of saying, “Let’s move all these people where we need them, now, because it is a bit of a hassle for us to do things another way.” If their needs are taken into account, and if respect is given to the citizen soldier, recruitment will grow.

12 Jun 2007 : Column 218WH

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. The TA is a crucial part of British cohesion and the British armed forces. If the attitude of the Ministry of Defence improves, recruitment to the TA should grow.

11.22 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It had not been my intention to contribute substantively to the debate, but as the opportunity has opened out I should like to take advantage of the Minister’s presence by raising a specific point about what happens to members of the Territorial Army when they come back from their tours of duty.

The theme that we can expect to hear a great deal of in speeches on this subject is that, although the people who are volunteer reservists may be part-time in terms of their commitment of time, the dangers that they face and the standards that they reach make them entirely comparable with the most battle-hardened, seasoned, long-time Regular. However, there is one grave difference and great disadvantage that they face at the end of their tour of duty. Having experienced all the pressures and indeed horrors of conflict, when they come back to this country they do not have the support and infrastructure of their units permanently around them, to help them to adjust to the aftermath of their experience.

We all know from history the trauma that the civilians who became warriors in world war two went through when they had to readjust to ordinary life, particularly when they were moving back into communities that had little idea of the reality of what they had experienced. In a couple of atrocious cases recently, to which I hope the Minister will refer, although they did not necessarily involve reservists, people who were wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan were abused while recovering in hospital on civilian wards. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to send out a message that, however strongly people may disagree with a particular campaign, they should realise that abuse of our servicemen and women—particularly those who are wounded, and recovering in hospital—will not be tolerated.

A serious comparison can be made between the difficulties of servicemen and women who are recovering from physical wounds in hospital and those faced by people who must recover from the emotional trauma of seeing their comrades maimed or even killed in battle alongside them, and who are returning to civil society among people with little idea of what they went through. We owe a special duty to those people who volunteer, as reservists, to put themselves in harm’s way; we have a duty to ensure that they have maximum support when they come back from ever-lengthening tours of duty and have to come to terms with their experience without the support of a regular unit of professional comrades around them.

I hope that the Minister—to whom I apologise, because I shall not be able to be present for his concluding remarks—will deal with that issue and say what extra support the Government are giving specifically to reservists, to help them to cope with something that is a greater task and heavier burden for them than for their regular comrades in the Army, and indeed all three services.

12 Jun 2007 : Column 219WH
11.26 am

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, had not intended to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing it and on the excellent work that the all-party group on reserve forces has done in preparing its report. I am motivated to speak partly by the remarks of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis): I entirely agree with his point that many people who have served in our reserve forces come out and feel that they have been abandoned, with no one around them to give help, support and encouragement.

My second motivation for speaking is my horrendous rail journey from Wales yesterday with the railway company known as First Great Western, although I call it Late Western, because that is what it is, most of the time; it took me more than four hours to get to London. In the train I got into conversation with a young man who had served for six years in the Regular Army. He was very bright and felt that he owed everything to the armed forces, which had given him great opportunities. However, he had been injured, and I am sorry to relate that the story he told me of the lack of support available to him when he left the services was pretty horrendous. The hon. Gentleman alluded to one or two recent stories, and it seems to me that such cases are becoming more the norm than they should be. Those who have served in the reserve forces, in particular, need extra help.

I welcome the announcement that my hon. Friend the Minister made in November last year, offering continued support for people who have served in the reserve forces, who might now have psychological problems and so on. I welcome his announcement at St. Thomas’ hospital yesterday, which I am sure he will mention, about extending our support and care to those who served in the forces, going back to 1982. However, it seems to me that some basic things could be done to support people who have left the reserve forces.

I spent a day as a fly on the wall with a volunteer from Combat Stress, meeting people whose lives are ruined, and who have huge difficulty in coming to terms with life since leaving the forces, perhaps having had some awful experience in combat. I was hugely impressed by Combat Stress and its work. In particular, when I sat in with a case worker and a couple of the guys I met that day, I was impressed by how subtly they introduced the ways in which Combat Stress could help, conversationally drawing out the client. The organisation does a fantastic job, but too many people do not know that it exists. The young man I talked to yesterday had not heard of Combat Stress.

All too often what we might call the obvious does not happen. For instance, let us consider what happens when someone goes to see a general practitioner. Yesterday’s press statement by the Department referred to the fact that people suffering from a prolonged medical condition could go initially to their GP and then be directed to the appropriate MOD medical assessment process to get help, a diagnosis and so on. However, all too often, the GP does not understand or respond.

As an aside, I should mention a good group in my constituency called Shades, which comprises a group of
12 Jun 2007 : Column 220WH
ladies who suffer from depression. They have got together in a self-help group. One of them told me that when she was first ill, her doctor said, “There’s nothing wrong with you, love. Go home and get your husband to buy you a new dress.” The problems experienced by people, particularly those who have served in the forces, are too often not understood.

I cannot understand why GPs do not act as signposts. When someone has a problem, why do GPs not simply ask whether they have ever served in the armed forces, because if the answer is yes, they should be told that Combat Stress and the Veterans Agency provide support? So many people just do not know where to turn. When I was doing the job that the Minister is doing, it was my ambition—I am sure that he carries this on—to promote the work of the Veterans Agency as a first point of contact.

As the hon. Gentleman said, so many people are simply at a loss when they leave the services, and the reserve forces in particular. When there are difficulties, they do not know where to turn. The young man I met yesterday shared an idea with me. He asked why there is no system to ensure that, when somebody leaves the forces, a skills audit is done to help to place them in work. Many people find it difficult losing the family feel that they get from serving in the forces, and adjusting to civilian life. We need to think outside the box in terms of how we demonstrate how much we value the people who have served in our armed forces.

I spent 27 years in newspapers and publishing before becoming an MP. Although salaries are important to people, my experience as a manager showed me that people valued more the fact that they were valued: that management looked after them and did things to support them. We could do much more for those who have served in the reserve forces.

I pay tribute to the large and small companies across the country that give every help and encouragement to people who serve in the reserve forces. Such companies ensure that people get the time off, that their jobs are secure, that everything is right when they return, and so on. Many of the guys bring new value to their jobs when they come back, because of their experiences in the forces. Without the encouragement of employers, it would be difficult to sustain the Territorial Army in its current form.

As the hon. Member for Canterbury highlighted, we have to meet a huge challenge to increase recruitment, involvement and so on. We must be careful to ensure that the structures we create do not work against that and against making things as effective as they should be. A debate such as this gives us a chance to air some of our concerns and to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope that the all-party group on reserve forces will continue to produce work such as this report. The report is as valuable as any produced by a Select Committee, because it shows that we still need to address certain issues. The fact that that has been done in this cross-party way shows the House at its best, because all of us, regardless of our political differences, have seen that an issue needs to be addressed, and we have addressed it collectively for the benefit of those who serve in the reserve forces and of our country.

12 Jun 2007 : Column 221WH
11.33 am

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I, too, did not necessarily intend to take part in this debate, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so and to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who did such an outstanding job as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence for a long time. I served opposite him at one stage as a shadow Minister. If I were to say that the Ministry of Defence was a poorer place as a result of his retirement, it would be a discourtesy to his successors, so I would not go that far, but he graced his office for a long time, and we are grateful for his doing so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on having the initiative to call for this debate. It comes as not the conclusion—that will be in many years’ time—but the climax of 20 or 30 years of his speaking up for the Territorial Army and the reserve forces in Parliament. He does an outstanding job of that, and if there were a debate on the armed services in which he did not participate, we would be very surprised.

I should declare a minor, non-pecuniary interest: I have the honour to wear the tie of the Honourable Artillery Company, which is the oldest regiment in the British Army. That makes it the oldest regiment in the world, with the possible exception of the Swiss Guard in Rome. However, a strange quirk of history makes it the second most senior regiment in the Territorial Army, because the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers registered first when the TA was set up in 1906. Incidentally, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers is interesting for another reason: it is the only regiment in the British Army whose name includes the word “Royal” twice. I challenge anyone to come up with an alternative to that.

We in the Honourable Artillery Company are proud of our record in serving the nation for about 400 to 500 years—from the time that King Henry VIII set us up. We served with huge distinction in the London contingent in the Boer war and suffered among the heaviest casualties of any regiment in the first world war, in which we served as a regiment. As a result, we were deployed in the second world war as an officer-producing unit. We produced tens of thousands of officers, many of whom were casualties. I am glad to say that we have served as a formed unit—I believe this was as a result of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which was one of the last Acts of the previous Conservative Government—on two separate occasions in Iraq. We currently have soldiers deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere, carrying out a variety of highly specialist and dangerous tasks. We are proud of our regiment’s service to the nation and believe that our regiment has an enormous amount to offer.

I do not just raise the matter of the Honourable Artillery Company because I am a sensibly proud member of it. I should mention that my service—seven years of serving the Queen—was probably the least distinguished military career in the history of the British Army: I was seven years a private soldier. I claim no greater military distinction than that I was particularly good news in the bar. None the less, my regimental colleagues have done fantastic work.

I am proud of the HAC not simply because of regimental pride. Should there be the triple postings
12 Jun 2007 : Column 222WH
that were described earlier, we would risk losing the regimental pride that the HAC and so many other TA regiments have. If the boys are deployed as a regiment, or at least as a formed unit from the regiment, they serve with their mates and as a regiment, they have that 500 years of history behind them, they are proud to wear the cap badge of the HAC and they serve better than they would as an individual soldier posted elsewhere.

I raised the issue of my pride in the HAC not only because of understandable personal pride in my own regiment, but because even in debates such as this, and in other discussions that we have had in recent months and years about the deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, we give occasional compliments to the Territorial Army but do not pay sufficient respect to the real contribution that it makes to our overall war effort. I do not have the figures to hand, but my memory of them is that about 25 per cent. of all soldiers deployed in Iraq came from either the TA or the reserve forces—those two are different, but similar in some respects. I stand to be corrected on that figure, but the number is of that order.

Significant numbers of the TA and reservists have been deployed in Iraq and, more recently, in Afghanistan. In other words, it would not have been possible to have done what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan—I leave aside the question of whether one believes the former action to be a good or bad thing—without the support of the TA. That stands in sharp distinction to what happened in the Falklands, where I believe that few TA soldiers were deployed. In the Falklands, the Regular Army did it, whereas in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the TA did it. That is fantastic.

I congratulate the TA on the outstanding commitment and the contribution that it has made to British successes across the world. I know that it will continue to make such a contribution. I have set out the background, but we face a particularly worrying future. I recall that the strategic defence review cut the number of TA soldiers to 44,000. Recently, the number was as high as 100,000, and I would not be in the least bit surprised to discover that the TA numbered 200,000 to 300,000 in the 1950s and 1960s, so the current number is very small. The strategic defence review concluded that the right thing to do was to cut it to 44,000. Discoveries about the way in which the TA has been deployed since the SDR have confirmed my opinion, in retrospect, that that was a mistake. However, I shall leave that to one side; I am not certain that even my own party was that forward in pointing it out then—we rather welcomed the SDR and its change of emphasis.

Nevertheless, there are big problems with regard to numbers, some of which we have already touched on. First, we know about the problems with recruitment, and particularly the problem of officer recruitment that was mentioned by my hon. Friend. That is a real difficulty, and if some of the situations that he described continue, there is a strong likelihood that officer recruitment will fall further, which would be a real worry.

Next Section Index Home Page