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Post Office Closures (Knaresborough)

10.3 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I have pleasure in presenting a petition signed by the mayor of Knaresborough and 3,140 local residents, who are dismayed and angered that their local sub-post office in Aspin lane, Knaresborough is faced with closure when it is well used by a wide section of the local community, and it provides vital services, especially to the elderly and less mobile. If it closes, only one sub-post office would serve the whole of Knaresborough and the surrounding district, which has a population in excess of 15,000 people. It is therefore vital that the Post Office sees reason and ensures that Knaresborough retains two sub-post offices.

The petition states:

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Post Office Closures (Teesside)

10.4 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I have a petition to present on behalf of my constituents in the Oxbridge and Parkfield area of my constituency. It has been signed by more than 3,000 local people in 10 working days. They perceive their post office as the heart of their community and wish that the Post Office management would think again and leave operational a successful business—the Oxbridge Lane post office.

The petition states:


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Territorial Army

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Michael Foster.]

10.4 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Today marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Territorial Army—an organisation in which many hon. Members have been proud to serve over the years. It is therefore a fitting time and place to pay tribute, and give thanks for their dedication and service, to all those men and women who have served as members of the Territorial Army in the past 100 years.

The modern Territorial Army was formed on 1 April 1908, thanks mainly to the efforts of the then Secretary of State for War, Richard Burton Haldane. He ultimately combined for the first time militia and volunteers—both reserve forces, but organisations with different characters and traditions. However, the origins of today’s TA stretch back long before 1908 and there remains an essential continuity, which links today’s Territorials with those of the past. As both a Member of Parliament and a member of the TA, I need look no further than the plaques in the Chamber to be reminded of the ultimate sacrifice that my predecessors made. However, what links generations of Territorials more than anything else is the concept of being volunteer—a role that is part hobby, part job, but crucially a mindset of public service and being prepared to serve Queen and country.

We are celebrating the achievements of those men and women—those volunteers—today, but we must also learn the lessons of the past. Looking back at the challenges that faced Haldane in 1908 when the modern TA was formed, the parallels with today, when yet again we find our reserve forces subject to review, are striking. Today, it is easy to forget that, as an island nation, historically our biggest fear has always been invasion. Although there is still great debate about the origins of the first auxiliary forces, many point to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, where all able-bodied freemen built fortifications, repaired bridges and undertook military service in the fyrd—the old English word for “army.” The principle of freemen bearing arms in defence of the community was enshrined in successive mediaeval statutes, followed by the first so-called militia statutes in 1558.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the mother and father of all Territorial Army regiments, the Honourable Artillery Company—whose commanding officer, Major-General Simon Lalor, is, I am delighted to say, now the commander of all Territorial reserve forces—as the inheritor of all that the middle ages did for our Territorial services?

Mr. Lancaster: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, I pay tribute to the Honourable Artillery Company, although I would debate with him whether it is the senior regiment. I shall deal with that shortly. Indeed, there is much debate in the TA about the oldest regiment.

The militia was always an institution of state and implied a distinct element of compulsion for at least a section of society. Indeed, Professor Richard Holmes describes the militia as

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With the creation of the new militia after 1757, militia service was, in effect, a tax on manpower, with each county raising a quota of men, found by compulsory ballot on the basis of its total male population. If balloted, a man would serve for three years on average and undertake several days’ training each year. Apart from the ballot and lack of “volunteering”, the similarities with today’s TA are obvious. Indeed, while strictly volunteers, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia), currently commanded by Lt Colonel Alistair Cooper, remains the senior unit in the modern Territorial Army.

During times of war, the militia was used for permanent service, as happened during the American war of independence, and the Napoleonic and Crimean wars—a practice that continues today and is made somewhat easier following the Reserve Forces Act 1996. Let us consider, for example, 100 Field Squadron from the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia), which mobilised during the second Gulf war, or, indeed, the three formed units currently on active service in Afghanistan and Iraq. That history of “mobilising” formed units of men in times of national crisis has formed much of the reserve force ethos—the concept of training and fighting together that runs deep through any regular or TA soldier’s psyche.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way in his excellent speech. He mentioned the three formed units in Afghanistan. Does he agree that, although we all welcome the reserve forces study that is being conducted and has excellent terms of reference, there is a concern about the one document that came out separately, which said that almost all Territorials who have been called up recently were individual augmentees? Formed units are important in the thinking of those who join the Territorial Army.

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend make a valuable point, which is also why so many in the TA are concerned about the increasing trend towards the mobilisation of individuals to fill gaps in Regular units. Although there is a general acceptance that individual replacements will always be required to support the Regular Army, equally there is unease at the prospect of an end to the mobilisation of formed units, to which my hon. Friend rightly referred, leaving the TA as little more than a militia. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind when he ponders the results of the review, which are due later this year.

True volunteer forces, as opposed to militia, first appeared in the 1650s. They continued to be raised at times of great emergency, being composed mainly of volunteer infantry and mounted volunteer units known as the yeomanry. Those forces attracted men with a stake in society, prepared to do their bit in a national emergency but less eager to imperil careers unless they were sure that such an emergency existed. It is perhaps those volunteers who have the strongest direct link to the ethos of the modern TA, not only in spirit, but in practice.

Let us take E Company, 7th Battalion the Rifles, formerly the Rifle Volunteers, which is based in my constituency and that of my hon. and gallant Friend
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the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who continues to hold a commission in the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry. I continue to feel that the TA is a broad church, containing both those who are happy to volunteer for the odd operational tour and those who are content to accept mobilisation when necessary, but feel that the Regular Army should be able to cope with its day-to-day demands without them. As Professor Holmes rightly says in his introduction to “Territorials”, the book by Ian Beckett published today as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations:

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the TA provides important intangible benefits by acting as a bridge between the armed services and the civilian population, which has very little knowledge of the armed services, and by adding vital skills to many employers up and down our country?

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly valid point, which I intend to discuss shortly.

Those older, longer-serving members of units are the elements that give the TA its strongest links with civil society. Although I have met nobody who has suggested that a soldier who is not prepared to be mobilised should stay in the TA, it would be equally wrong to regard the TA simply as a ready reserve of individual replacements. To do so would be a return to the militia tradition and—in the opinion of many, including me—a grave mistake.

The TA has a powerful role to play, with its link to civil society. The greatest challenge posed to the Army at the beginning of this century is not military defeat, but being fundamentally misunderstood by the society upon whose support it ultimately relies. That is precisely why it is essential that, as fewer and fewer members of society have any military connection, the geographical footprint of the TA be maintained.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Is my hon. Friend delighted that Mr. Speaker himself is here for this debate, recognising the role of the Scottish TA? “Recognising the Opportunity”, the useful report by the all-party reserve forces group, spells out—Richard Holmes himself says this—that the Territorial Army is a reserve for use, not simply for show.

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and he is absolutely right.

Unlike today, at the turn of the 19th century it was military failure—in the South African war—that provided the catalyst for the reforms that led to the creation of the territorial force that we know today. At the time Britain’s was the most powerful empire in the world and there was little expectation that the potential reserve of military experience represented by the militia, yeomanry and volunteers would be called upon. However, after three successive defeats in the “black week” of December 1899, many were called upon. The eventual British defeat by the Boers in 1902
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was blamed in part on the poor quality of reserve forces thrown into battle, ill equipped and under-trained. That simply underlined the desperate need for a review not only of the Regular Army, but of the organisation and training standards of the reserves.

The subsequent royal commission, which was set up to review the minimum standards of efficiency required of militia and volunteers, met considerable resistance, not least from Opposition MPs who were also volunteers. However, in 1906 a new Government took office and Haldane was appointed Secretary of State for War. Driven by a desire to make Britain ready for the continental war that many foresaw, regulars and auxiliaries alike were reshaped to produce an expeditionary force that could be sustained in the field. I fear that history is repeating itself, as behind it all remained the Treasury demand for greater military economy and the placing of a ceiling on military expenditure.

At that time, referring to Haldane’s explanation of the scheme to the House, Leo Amery, an Opposition politician, remarked that

Call me cynic if you will, Mr. Speaker, but having sat through our latest armed forces review, that all sounds painfully familiar. When the Minister responds, as well as rightly praising the role of our reserve forces, he may like to spend a few moments outlining the terms of reference for the latest review and, perhaps crucially, confirming that unlike Haldane 100 years ago, the drive for military economy is not his principal concern.

None the less, Haldane had a wider encompassing vision: he wanted to create out of the auxiliaries a real national Army formed by the people who would weld a new unity of Army and society—an aspiration as valid today as it was in 1908. I hope that that aspiration will be at the forefront of the mind of Major-General Nick Cottam, the officer charged with the latest reserve forces review, which—I am sure this is no coincidence—starts today.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recall that General Dannatt has said that we now have one Army, which encompasses the Territorial Army and the regulars, so does he agree that if there is one Army, TA recruits should be treated the same as the regulars—for example, as far as insurance protection while on active duty is concerned? At the moment, TA members have to pay a third more than regulars and receive a third less benefits. Surely they should have equal treatment?

Mr. Lancaster: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Speaking as someone who has been mobilised on three occasions, I firmly believe in the one Army concept. I am unsure about the details of my hon. Friend’s point, but if that is indeed the case, it sounds as though it needs to be sorted out, as it is simply unacceptable. The relationship between the Regular Army and the Territorial Army has been a problem for many years. It goes back to the first world war, which I was about to come on to before she intervened.

More than 100 years ago, despite limited opposition and with a few compromises, the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act was finally passed in 1907, but its
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real test was seen at the outbreak of the first world war. The initial establishment was to be 314,000, but that proved to be highly optimistic. The combined hostility of elements of the Regular Army and employers and unions alike meant that by 1914, at the outbreak of war, the Territorials had fallen a long way short of Haldane’s original vision.

Alas, as the years have passed, that appears to have been a common theme. Whenever a review of the TA has been carried out—be it as a result of the strategic defence review of the late 1990s, when the TA failed to get up to its establishment of 44,000, or, indeed, as recently as last year, when the National Audit Office reported that the TA was operating at some 16 per cent. below the new lower establishment of 36,000—the TA always ends up under strength. That is a lesson that we must learn; I hope that the current review will not fall into the same trap yet again by planning to cut TA numbers to a level that, as a result of over-weeding, we are destined to fail to achieve.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the importance of the Territorial Army. In looking at those numbers, does he agree that it would be wrong to include the officer training corps in the TA numbers, even though it is part of that empire? Will he pay tribute to the works of the officer training corps? I certainly would not have joined the Regular Army had I not gone through the OTC, which establishes an important bridge between those who may not go into the armed forces, but go into employment and then find employees under them who want to participate and go away for a period with the TA?

Mr. Lancaster: Absolutely. As a former member of both Cambridge and Oxford officer training corps, I know how important a part it played in my training. Although the OTC plays a very important role, it would be wrong to suggest that many of these officers, being group B officers, can be deployed on operations.

One area where lessons definitely have been learned from those early years is improved relations with employers. In recent times, the organisation Supporting Britain’s Reserves and Employers—otherwise known as SaBRE—has done much to engage employers and promote the benefits of employees belonging to the reserves and acquiring transferable skills such as leadership, self-confidence and initiative.

Throughout the 100-year history of the modern Territorial Army, whenever they have been asked to do so, the men and women of the TA have stepped up to the mark. In August 1914, at the start of the great war, the British, having been distracted by the Irish home rule crisis, had the least time to react of any of the participants in that war. The assumption that no Territorial unit would proceed overseas until after six months’ training was scrapped almost instantly. Despite the prejudices and distrust of the “amateur” soldiers by some, not least Kitchener himself, it was Territorials who were deployed to “fill the gap” on the western front, with the first unit to be sent to France, the 1/14th London Scottish, being dispatched on 16 September 1914.

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