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12 Jun 2007 : Column 222WH—continued

There is also some hidden loss in the Territorial Army, for one very good reason, which is that TA members are paid their tax-free bounty at a certain stage in the year. On the spur of the moment I have forgotten the amount of the bounty, although one of
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my hon. Friends might enlighten me. It is several thousand pounds that is paid, tax free, if one completes a year in the Territorial Army and carries out one’s basic weapons test, fitness test and a couple of other tests, such as a first aid test. That means that there is a very good reason for not leaving; if one is ready to leave one might as well stay on for six months or even a year in order to collect the bounty.

I hesitate to say so, but it might even be that one or two people carry on and do the minimum necessary to obtain the bounty. I do not remember the exact figures, but there are minimum requirements for days served per year and for the tests, and if those are fulfilled one collects one’s bounty relatively easily without being fully committed to life with the regiment, and certainly without being ready for deployment. I suspect that the Territorial Army numbers are therefore significantly misleading, because in any TA regiment there are a number of such people—slackers would be too strong a word to describe them, but they are definitely not as committed to the nation as perhaps they ought to be. The true figures are therefore lower than they appear.

Let me explain why there are worries also with regard to whether the numbers will fall further. Had I been called up when I joined the Territorial Army, I would have served. It would have been difficult, because at the time I had a job in the City of London running a shipping company. Most of the people in my own regiment are also employed in the City of London, and most TA soldiers elsewhere have good jobs in civilian life.

Under some conditions one might give up six months to serve the Crown, in which case most employers, leaving aside a few, would be happy to give their support. However, when one is asked to go back and serve a second six months, things become significantly more difficult—both for oneself and for one’s employers, and also for one’s wife and family. They ask why it is that one is going off to spend a second six months in Iraq as a private soldier or as someone’s driver, or doing something else of the kind in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it becomes much harder to explain.

It is particularly difficult for people who are self-employed and who work on their own, for whom giving up their jobs for six months is a real problem. People might do it, but giving up a job for two periods of six months is almost impossible, and nine months or a year are virtually out of the question. There are certain regiments—one thinks of the Port and Maritime Regiment, which has one TA and one Regular unit—that are on virtually full-time deployment. Some of its soldiers are having great difficulties in maintaining their civilian jobs under those circumstances.

Until recently, there was a further difficulty with regard to pay and conditions, whereby one’s pay on deployment as a Territorial Army soldier might have been significantly lower than one’s pay in civilian life. That applied particularly in the case of medics. Some of the very specialist surgeons who were paid enormously high salaries in civilian life were often paid rather less as a major in, say, the Royal Army Medical Corps.

I believe that I am right in saying that that has now been corrected, and that there is now a system in which
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one’s civilian pay is reflected in one’s TA pay when under compulsory mobilisation. That is fine, but it means that there might then be two people of identical rank doing identical jobs but being paid very different sums. I shall not boast, but I was paid a reasonable salary in the City. Had I been deployed as a private soldier in the TA, which was perfectly possible, I would probably have been the highest-paid such soldier in the British Army, which might have caused some difficulties.

There are problems with pay and conditions, therefore. Some of them have been addressed in recent years, but others might need further attention in years to come. If we are to be able to deploy people in the way that we have asked them, and if we are to rely so heavily on the TA—as we have for the past four or five years—it is vital to find a way to ensure that their pay and conditions and their terms of employment are as good during deployment as when they are at home.

There are other aspects of the Territorial Army’s life that might need consideration. One matter that faces us currently is the huge problem of homeland defence. The very name “Territorial Army” exists because the TA was originally set up to defend the homeland; that was its purpose. That original purpose is entirely outdated and I certainly would not advance the argument that we should return to it; if we said to today’s TA members that their job was to defend the UK in the event of an invasion, I fear that people would leave. They do not want to do that job; they want to be involved in war fighting or at least to be ready for such fighting. They want to be deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq and they are proud when that happens.

There is none the less a significant need for some form of force to look after the homeland, to deal with all sorts of homeland defence issues, and to be ready for deployment to pick up the aftermath of any significant incidents on the mainland—let us hope that none happen. Some time ago, the Government set up a group of 500 TA people per region who, it was said, would be deployed in the event of some national onshore emergency. A significant number of those people have been deployed overseas, however, so that they are not available for deployment in the UK. In any event, the patchwork for deployment around the UK is unequal; some parts of the country do not have anyone available, and the likelihood of deployment at short notice in the event of a major national catastrophe—again, let us hope that that does not happen—is frankly small.

It seems to me that the Government should therefore reconsider whether something could be done by way of some form of adjunct to the TA, such as existed until recently in the form of the Home Service Force, whose job it was to look after the homeland rather than to be deployed overseas. The Government should look at some way of reorganising some parts of the TA so that there is a body that is ready both to defend the nation against the unlikely event of overseas aggression and, more particularly, to be deployed to help the civilian powers in the event of a national catastrophe.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The problem, of course, is that the regional civil contingency reaction forces, as I believe they are called,
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are based around the local TA infantry battalion headquarters, which are far too small and which have none of the right structures. There have been some exercises, but only very few.

That is in huge contrast with the national guard, which played a major role on 9/11 and was able to do so because it had the right structures and had undertaken a big exercise a few months previously. The crisis management headquarters on 9/11 was in one of the twin towers and was destroyed, so the national guard was needed even more than would otherwise have been the case. The TA could perform that role, but not, as my hon. Friend says, with its current structure and resources.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. At one stage, we were talking about the footprint of the TA in Britain today, but I think that “toehold” might be the right expression. The TA simply does not have a footprint across the nation, and were there to be, for example, three of four separate incidents at the same time in London, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, which is one of the big worries that face us, we would not have TA soldiers ready to take up the slack. The nation would face a significant problem were that to happen, so in considering the future of the Territorial Army the Government should consider whether some form of organisation could be re-established to deal specifically with homeland defence and with the aftermath of any such catastrophe.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Government on one or two things that they have done with regard to the TA. I was glad when, for the first time, they appointed a two-star general to run it: Major-General the Duke of Westminster. My old friend Major-General Simon Lalor, who I am glad to say is a member of the Honourable Artillery Company, is doing a first-class job more recently. The job is not a part-time one, although I have to say that I think that in theory it is. The experience of Simon Lalor and indeed of the Duke of Westminster, however, is that it is pretty much a full-time job, and I thank them for their commitment to it and welcome the efforts that they made. That appointment was a useful step in the right direction, but the Government could and ought to do more.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent report produced by the all-party group. It is the first time that there has been such a statement of what the Territorial Army does and what we should look for from Government so as to improve what it does. The report is first-class, and I know that the Government will have read it carefully. I hope that they will be ready to act on some of its recommendations, of which I believe there are 16—and I hope that in answering the debate the Minister might be ready to address himself to at least some of them.

11.50 am

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for introducing this debate and leading us off so ably.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on his speech. He may not be
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aware that he and I have at least three things in common. First, our birthdays are on 7 November. Secondly, we have both been members of the Honourable Artillery Company. Thirdly, in a later part of my brief Territorial Army career, I spent a lot of time jumping out of planes that took off from RAF Lyneham, which is in his constituency.

I served for eight and a half years in the Territorial Army. I started in an officer training corps for three years, and joined the Honourable Artillery Company when I started work. Thereafter, I served with the Artists Rifles based at the Duke of York’s barracks where, among other things, I had the opportunity to earn my wings, of which I am extremely proud. The Territorial Army is a terrific organisation, and in recent years Governments of both colours have not paid it the attention that it deserves.

I believe unashamedly in national service, but not as it used to be. I believe that our young people should be encouraged to be involved in some sort of community activity—preferably military, but giving some sort of service to the local community. I would like that to be a requirement for young people today. The Territorial Army and other reserve forces would have an important role in that, and I believe that there would be far less trouble on our country’s streets if we instilled in our young people the idea that they are required to serve their country in some way in their early years. I joined the Territorial Army as a believer in national service. Originally I hoped to serve for three years, but I ended up staying for the best part of nine years. It was one of my best experiences.

Professor Richard Holmes provided a foreword to the excellent report produced by the all-party reserve forces group in which he said:

I agree with every word, particularly that the TA is a great leveller. In the units in which I had the privilege to serve, background did not matter. People might be highly paid executives, postmen and so on, but work background did not matter and it was up to each and every person to get over the assault course and to jump out of an aircraft with a parachute. Whatever people’s background, they were all brought to the same level, but unfortunately in society today there are too few organisations where that spirit exists.

It is important to use the opportunity of this debate to pay tribute to all the cadet forces around the country, which provide a huge amount of training for our young people, many of whom go on to serve in the Territorial Army. For example, in Kettering the army and naval cadet forces and the local air squadrons have an important role in providing uniform training for local young people. However, the Territorial Army presence in Northamptonshire is way below what it should be. There should be many more TA units around the country, and if I had the opportunity I would hugely expand the Territorial Army. It is extremely cost effective, provides excellent training, and, as we have heard throughout this debate, it is now a vital part of our armed forces in projecting our power overseas. As a country, we are far too unambitious in setting objectives for the Territorial Army.

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I want to highlight just six of the recommendations that have perhaps not received enough attention in this debate so far. It would be wrong if the Government pursued their objective of changing the name of the Territorial Army to the army reserve. Everyone understands what the Territorial Army is about and now is not the time to engage in some sort of rebranding exercise.

We should establish a central system for those who leave their university officer training corps to put them in touch with local TA units when they enter the world of work. I did that off my own back, but I was not aware of any system to encourage me to do so.

The scheduling of officer training courses should be arranged to encourage students to carry out all the extended courses for that training, including special-to-arm courses, during their university vacations without compromising the opportunity for others to apply. There should also be a more radical approach to attract students to take part in the TA during their gap year, giving them full TA training and perhaps an enhanced student loan in return for four years’ service with the TA after graduating.

The absurd ban that prevents medical students who enjoy cadetships from the Regular medical services from serving in the volunteer reserves should be lifted immediately. We have heard about the TA’s vital role in providing medical services to our front-line troops, and that absurd red tape should be got rid of immediately.

It has been wonderful to praise all those who put so much effort into the Territorial Army at a time when, after 100 years’ service to this country, it has its lowest ever number of personnel, and our armed forces are increasingly overstretched. I hope that the Minister will rise to the challenge of the 18 recommendations in this superb report. He has a real opportunity to enhance the Territorial Army’s role, which it thoroughly deserves.

11.57 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Miss Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this debate and leading it so ably. I pay tribute to the all-party reserve forces group under whose auspices this excellent report was published.

I thank all those who serve in the Territorial Army and the other reserve organisations that ably serve our country. It is worth reminding the Chamber that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has served in the Territorial Army, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) served in the Royal Naval Reserve, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who saw action in Operation Telic 2 in Iraq. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) was a distinguished holder of the office currently held by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). I also thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for his remarks. Having
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contributions from all parties is in keeping with the all-party nature of the report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering alluded to the fact that 1 April next year will be the 100th anniversary of the formation of the territorial force. I know that the Ministry of Defence will make a written statement on that very subject today.

Many hon. Members have said that the Territorial Army plays two vital roles in the armed forces. The first is in operations, providing extra support to our Regular forces. We all know that TA personnel have played a key part in operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly in the past few years. The best information that we have is that more than 13,000 Territorial Army personnel have served in Iraq. I do not think the Ministry of Defence keeps all that data centrally, so it is difficult to dig it out, but those personnel have made a huge contribution. Several hon. Members have made the point that if we had not had the reserve service, we would have been in great difficulty in carrying out those operations.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the quotation from Professor Richard Holmes in the foreword to the all-party group report. Professor Homes makes a point that I wish to echo about the important role that the Territorial Army has in maintaining the link between the armed forces and wider society. As time goes on, increasingly fewer people have a direct link either themselves or through their family members or friends with the armed forces, and it is imperative that we retain that link as widely as we can in society.

If we continue to deploy our armed forces at the current tempo, it is important in part that the public understand what our service personnel do, the pressures that they are under and the challenges that they face when they finish their service. They must be properly supported. The Territorial Army plays a key role in that respect.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the important role that the services’ cadet forces play. I have had the opportunity to visit some of them in my constituency, and I know what a valuable role they play. Notwithstanding the all-party nature of the report, it is worth pointing out that the Territorial Army is well below the strength that the Ministry of Defence would like. The TA is about 10,000 people below strength. I should be interested in the Minister’s response to that point. It would be helpful if he outlined the Ministry’s and the Government’s view of their ability to increase the size of the Territorial Army to the desired level.

The Territorial Army’s use as a key part of operations also has an impact when we operate above our defence planning assumptions, as we have done for the past few years. If it continues, the Territorial Army will continue to play a key role in operations.

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