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Several Members mentioned the level of deployment and the impact on our serving personnel when they return from operations. The right hon. Member for Islwyn and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East both referred to the medical care of reservists, whose challenges are greater than they are for our Regular forces, because the reservists return to their civilian life. They are neither with their unit nor with their military colleagues. The right hon. Member for Islwyn described in detail the mental health factor,
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and the Conservatives welcome the introduction of the reservist mental health programme, which the Minister outlined some time ago. However, more must be done, particularly for reservists.

We must consider whether there can be more proactive and sensitive work to ensure that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, personnel do not feel abandoned when they return to society. We must ensure that they are aware of the services that are available, including those provided directly by the MOD, and indirectly by organisations such as Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and its caseworkers, and SSAFA—Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—Forces Help. A range of organisations take the lead on that issue.

We have seen in the past week that many people who served in the Falklands campaign 25 years ago still have mental health issues arising from that service. We do not just need to think about the issue today. We need to think about all those people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly given the new challenges that they have faced, such as the threat from suicide bombers, and the way in which that will impact on their mental health not just this year and next, but for decades to come. We must think about how to ensure that those services are properly resourced and accessible to them.

Talking about the health care of regular and reservist service personnel, I was fortunate last week to visit Selly Oak hospital and the regular and reservist personnel there who have been wounded on operations. I was very impressed by the medical care that they receive. We had an open visit, we were able to talk to everybody there and the medical care was of high quality.

As the Department is involved in the private finance initiative-rebuild of the new hospital, I urge on the Minister a point that I brought back from that visit. I know that some moves have been made in the redesign of the current ward, with its new nurses’ station, but the point was reinforced to us that a dedicated unit would be an absolutely key area. It would be valued not only by those who work at Selly Oak hospital, but by our regular and reservist armed forces. I know that negotiations are ongoing, but I shall reinforce the message. The medical care that they receive is very good, but a dedicated facility would improve it and reduce the problems that have been experienced.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to yesterday’s announcement about the expansion of the medical assessment programme. It would have been nice if the parliamentary written statement had been issued on the same day as the announcement was made to the press, but at least there is to be an announcement to the House today. We welcome that move, but I am not sure that it addresses the scale of the problem to which several hon. Members referred in the House.

One of the report’s specific recommendations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned, was about drivers’ hours and the way in which other European Union regulations impact on our reservists. The Department for Transport made a statement about it yesterday, and the MOD is dealing with it, but it highlights a lesson: throughout Government, regulations may be introduced that impact on reservists and people serving in the
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Territorial Army in particular, because of the dual nature of their work. They are civilian employees who serve in the armed forces. It is a lesson for the MOD. Rather than having to apply for a derogation after the event—after the problems have been raised—the MOD must ensure that its monitoring organisation, which considers legislation from throughout the Government for its impact on the armed forces, works more proactively. I know that the organisation exists. Instead of having to fix problems in retrospect, it would be better to catch them before they occur. The Government are dealing with the issue, but I ask them to do so as urgently as possible, because there have been practical problems.

Several Members mentioned the thanks that we owe not only to people who serve in our reserve forces and the Territorial Army, but to the employers large and small who support them. Employers are very impressed by the skills that those who serve in the Territorial Army gain while deployed and in training. The MOD should also ensure that the skills that they gain in civilian employment are properly recognised when they undertake their military service. Having spoken to a number of people who have served on operations, I discovered that some of the skills that they used in operations and in theatre were gained in civilian employment.

The strain on small companies in particular caused by the way in which we are actively deploying the Territorial Army and other reservists has been mentioned. We must recognise that however much companies want to support their employees who serve, it becomes difficult if they are deployed frequently. We must think about our support not only for the employer, but for the employee, and the way in which they are encouraged to manage their careers around their military service. Given the number of people employed in smaller companies, which is growing as a percentage of the work force, we must ensure that they can join the Territorial Army and our other territorial organisations, otherwise we will find it difficult to recruit them in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire made a point about the civil contingencies operation. When we had a similar debate last year, I asked the Government about the TA’s civil contingencies role in “The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter”, which said:

My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that, with a significant number of our Territorial Army personnel deployed, it is not clear that they will be available in the event of a civil contingency. We have seen some illustrations of that, such as when a strike was threatened by the fire service. On that occasion, the Ministry of Defence made it clear that it would not be able to provide cover, as it simply did not have the resources, whether from the regulars or the reserves, because of our operational tempo. That issue needs to be thought about. If, God forbid, there was an event of such a scale, I am sure that members of the reserve forces would be prepared to serve regardless of their legal status. However, if they were needed in an event of lesser severity, we might have a significant problem in using the right number of personnel.

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Another issue that I want to raise with the Minister—I know he will be aware of it, since his office is copied in on such correspondence—concerns a copy of a memo from the office of the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), who is Minister for the armed forces, that refers to some savings that the Government made during the defence programme 2007 by reducing Territorial Army funding by £2.5 million in 2007-08 and 2008-09. I note from the memo that the Minister for the armed forces has received a minute from the Land Forces Secretariat advising him of the significant impact of the cuts, particularly on officer recruitment and Operation Executive Stretch. That operation has offered companies and business people a valuable insight into all the volunteer reserve forces and given them a good example of the transferable skills that their employees would get out of serving in the armed forces. The Minister for the armed forces has noted the significance of that impact and instructed people in the Department to come back to Ministers with potential alternatives by 22 May. I therefore hope that the Minister can update the Chamber on the progress on those cuts and on what has been done to reverse them.

The debate has highlighted many positive aspects of the Territorial Army and our reserve forces, and the key role that they play on our operational deployments. However, we can also see that they are under strength and that they face a number of challenges. The all-party group’s report contains 18 recommendations and I hope that the Minister will say a little about how the Government propose to respond to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering referred to the recommendation on gap year commissions and the role of the officer training corps. I understand that gap year commissions are being done away with, which is a retrograde step, so perhaps the Minister can comment on that in light of the all-party group’s report.

In conclusion, it is clear from the Territorial Army’s contribution to the Army that it is a key part of our armed forces. The all-party group’s report makes us all grateful for the work that everyone serving in the Territorial Army does for our country. We owe it to them to ensure that we look after the Territorial Army in a way that is in keeping with the service that they give to our Queen and country.

12.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on securing this important debate and on his speech. I accept, of course, that a number of issues worry him, but I thank him for his kind words about the MOD and about what we have been doing to support the TA and improve the situation. I pay tribute to his long service in the TA and to other Opposition Members who have served in the reserves and the TA, too. I am aware of the support that he has given over some considerable time to reserve forces issues. I also pay tribute, of course, to all those who serve in the TA and the reserve forces, for
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the tremendous work that they do, not least on operations, but also back here in the UK and elsewhere.

The Duke of Westminster did a tremendous job, through his enthusiasm, his dedication and his real love of the TA. He did a fantastic job and is sadly missed. I worked with him for only a short time, but I know that his successor will do an equally good job, and I am looking forward to working with him. Although the main subject of this debate is the Territorial Army, I am conscious in my job of how important it is to stress the work that the other three reserve forces do individually, too.

Throughout the Territorial Army’s existence, its volunteers have proved their ability and worth time and again, from the battlefields of the first and second world wars to the modern conflict zones of Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, in the past few decades the British Army has operated in very few places without the support of its Territorial Army colleagues. Let us not forget that, as hon. Members have said, TA personnel are volunteers—men and women who give up their time, and in some cases life and limb, for small reward to serve their country. Although they are called upon to serve less often than their regular counterparts, in some ways their job is more demanding. When TA volunteers are deployed, they are required to face the same dangers as their Regular Army colleagues and are expected to be as well disciplined, professional and effective.

The Territorial Army has undergone considerable changes in the past decade, as have all our reserve forces. Those changes have been essential to maintain the Territorial Army’s relevance in a changing world and ensure that it has a robust and healthy future. The greatest challenge to the Territorial Army in recent years has been the move away from its cold war role towards a culture of mobilisation for operations that suits today’s operational demands. Members of the Territorial Army now expect to be mobilised and deployed on a range of operations in support of our defence policy overseas. The role against which the majority of the TA is structured is to support a large-scale deliberate intervention of divisional level size, but it is adapted to support the Regular Army on enduring operations, too.

During Telic 1, a total of 3,787 TA personnel were deployed. Since then, a significant number of personnel continue to provide vital support. Over the past year, approximately 1,000 personnel have been mobilised at any one time, either on operations, preparing for operations or returning from operations. Overall, we have mobilised around 13,000 volunteers on overseas operations since January 2003, which is the equivalent of about 20 battalions-worth of soldiers or more than 100 sub-units.

The Territorial Army has truly earned its spurs in Iraq, and continues to do so there, as well as in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Those conflicts have shown that the threats that we now face are more complex than ever before. Today’s TA must be a force that is capable, adaptable and responsive to those threats—a professional military force for the 21st century. Conflicts are no longer fought on front lines. The end of the cold war changed all that. Today, warfare is by and large asymmetric. An asymmetric threat calls for a
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different Army, different skills, different training, different tactics, different procedures and different organisation.

The Government have responded to the changing world. In December 2004, the then Secretary of State for Defence announced the new future Army structures, which are changes that mean a more deployable, agile and flexible Army. The Territorial Army is an integral part of that force. Our policies reflect the need to strengthen the role of the Territorial Army, not diminish it. The Territorial Army is no longer purely for home defence or a national emergency. For almost a decade, it has been an integral support arm of the Regular Army—a deployable force in keeping with the changing nature of our military engagement across the world.

Recent operational experience gained from extensive use of the Territorial Army has allowed us to apply the lessons learned to maximise its effectiveness. On 23 March 2006, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the armed forces announced a series of measures aimed at rebalancing the Territorial Army in the light of those experiences and the wider changes taking place within the Army under the FAS. For example, the regimental headquarters for the new TA intelligence battalion has been established in Colby Newham, with the establishment of the battalion itself scheduled for the beginning of the next financial year. The introduction of a new TA intelligence capability will offer new opportunities for TA soldiers and provide significant support to the Regular Army.

Crucially, we are also strengthening the affiliation of Territorial Army units to the Regular Army units with which they will operate, thus improving their mutual understanding and operating capability. Territorial Army units are now paired with one or more Regular Army units, with which they will train and often be deployed alongside. Closer affiliation for training purposes will increase joint territorial and regular training, and thereby deliver more enjoyable, relevant and challenging training to territorial volunteers, while also building up a good relationship between regulars and members of the TA.

That is already happening. For example, members of the 3rd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment—a TA unit—have mobilised and deployed to Afghanistan alongside their regular counterpart, the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment. Some members of the 3rd battalion were also able to participate in the collective training undertaken by the 1st battalion before deployment. That is most effective in cementing ties and mutual understanding between the regular and TA soldiers, and greatly increases the operational effectiveness and preparation of the TA.

We are confident that the changes to which I have referred mean that the Territorial Army is becoming even better placed to fulfil its primary roles: to augment our regular forces and provide additional capability for large-scale operations and specialist skills and capabilities.

The Government also recognise the exemplary service of such individuals to our country. We are not just rebalancing the Territorial Army so that it serves our country well; we are also maintaining and improving the support to, and conditions for, Territorial Army soldiers.

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Mr. Brazier: I should like to make a point before the Minister moves on from discussing the future Army structure. The macro-reorganisation that he described—the new intelligence battalion and the pairing with regular units—is fine. However, he has not addressed the problem at the level of the individual company and yeomanry squadron. We can call a structure that consists of a single rifle platoon and a huge support weapons set-up at each TA centre a company, but it will not have a critical mass for the worthwhile training of officers.

If a group goes off with its regular-service counterparts to Afghanistan or Iraq—there will not be another deployment of that sort to Iraq—but never as a formed company, no TA officer will get an opportunity to command in the field. If TA officers are stripped of opportunities to train properly at home and command abroad, it is difficult to see how the desperate shortages of such officers will not worsen.

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman’s important point pre-empts my speech; I shall come to it a little later.

I turn to the care and medical support for our reservists. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and the hon. Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned Selly Oak and the issue of care for our service personnel. I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean about Selly Oak; anyone reading the press during the past six to eight months must wonder what has been going on there. As the hon. Gentleman has confirmed, what has been going on is top-quality treatment for our wounded armed forces personnel. That has been brought about only because of excellent support and partnership working with our NHS colleagues at Selly Oak. Working with our military medical personnel, they have provided outstanding surgery and nursing. That has come in addition to the care provided by welfare support, liaison officers and now psychiatric support on the wards as well. I welcome the hon. Gentlemen’s comments about Selly Oak.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East said that patients had been abused at Selly Oak. I can say only that I have asked for such allegations to be investigated, but no one has been able to come up with any evidence that that took place. The fact remains that people get top-quality care at Selly Oak. We have also improved security there. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean mentioned, we intend to make further improvements. We will also consider how to take forward the new ward at the new hospital; clearly, the view of the chiefs of staff will be important in that. Like regulars, reservists are treated in Selly Oak, and they get world-class treatment from both armed forces and NHS personnel.

Having said that, it is important to get a few things about what is happening for reservists on the record. As has been mentioned, a number of measures have recently been taken, and I particularly make the point that our Territorial Army soldiers are entitled to exactly the same medical treatment and care as regular soldiers. I am particularly proud of our provision of fast-track diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for those who have suffered physical injuries, and of our improved mental health support for all reservists
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returning from deployment. Those are among the recent measures that the Government have introduced.

I want to give a bit more detail about the improved mental health support. Last year a King’s college study into the health of service personnel on operations in Iraq, funded by the MOD, noted a slightly increased effect on the mental health of the reserve forces compared with that of the regulars. We responded. As has been mentioned in this debate, last year I announced the highly comprehensive reservists’ mental health programme, which is an excellent package. Under the programme, we liaise with the reservists’ GPs and offer a mental health assessment at the reserves training and mobilisation centre in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire.

If someone is diagnosed with a mental health condition related to service on recent operations, we offer out-patient treatment at one of the MOD’s 15 departments of community health. In more acute cases, the defence medical service will assist access to NHS in-patient treatment. We work closely with Combat Stress, which we fund to the tune of £2.9 million. As I said, we are in negotiations with the organisation and will significantly increase its resources once those negotiations are complete. We shall make an announcement on that in the near future.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about what more we can do. In the coming weeks and months, we will make announcements on the pilot schemes on setting up a system in which we work with the NHS and Combat Stress to develop advice and support for the NHS, so that those who suffer mental health problems as a result of their time in the armed forces can be better treated and understood. Yesterday, I announced that the new assessment programme will be extended back to include those who served from 1982. A significant amount of work is taking place that also deals with how we ensure support for reservists, who often go back to a community as individuals—not among mates, as regulars would. We continue to seek to improve that. A few weeks ago, we had a welfare conference to consider how better to support the more vulnerable members of our armed forces—particularly those who are injured or ill as a result of their service. We shall make further progress on that in the coming months.

I want to refer to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury that come from the report of the all-party group on reserve forces. The report says that, whenever possible, members of the TA should deploy as formed sub-units, rather than individual augmentees. It expresses a wish for TA officers to have greater opportunities for command on operational deployments.

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