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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con):
I add my contribution, as the chairman of the all-party Army group, to the very many magnificent speeches that we have heard, from all parts of the House, praising the
fantastic work that the Territorial Army has done and will do, not only on deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq but here at home. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who most recently did precisely that. His regiment, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers, has the distinction of being the only regiment in the British Army to have "Royal" in its name twice. That is very unusual. It claims to be the senior regiment in the Territorial Army-outdone, of course, only by my regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, which is many hundreds of years older than his.
David T.C. Davies: My hon. Friend will know that the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers is a militia, and the militia usually takes precedence over the volunteers. Of course, my father served in his regiment, so I have no axe to grind either way.
Mr. Gray: The whole House will have the opportunity to thank the Territorial Army soldiers who are currently deployed in Afghanistan, when the all-party Army group next welcomes the brigade returning from that country. That is on Monday 30 November, at 3.30 pm, when soldiers will march once again through Carriage Gates, by kind permission of Mr. Speaker. I very much hope that hon. Members will join me there to thank those soldiers for all that they have done.
However, the important point is that many soldiers in that body of 120 people, or thereabouts, will be Territorial Army soldiers. I strongly support the concept of one Army and the fact that one cannot tell the difference between a regular soldier and a TA soldier. I differ slightly from my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), who said that the TA should be deployed only as formed units. The one-Army concept means that most of the 20,000 TA soldiers who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have been trickle-deployed, not deployed as formed units. Nowadays, it is much better that our TA soldiers should be ready to be deployed individually in regular units rather than necessarily as formed units.
Mr. Brazier: That is not the view taken by the vast majority of TA officers. In practice, it means that lance corporals and privates get creamed off, and most places that are available to officers do not involve command and are of a fairly lowly nature.
Mr. Gray: My own experience of the TA and the contacts I have with TA personnel very much confirm what my hon. Friend says. It is of course true that soldiers of all kinds, whether regular or territorial, would much prefer to be deployed with their mates-with their battalion or unit, or whatever it may be. However, most of the brigades currently deployed in Afghanistan are very mixed, hybrid brigades-there is almost no regular battalion that will be deployed as a formed unit with nobody else attached to it. I am afraid that the days are long gone when we would like to think of our TA units as battalions marching out of the front gates of the drill hall, marching into battle, and coming back. I am not sure that that is a correct part of modern warfare.
There is an aspect of the debate with which I am a little uneasy. There has been almost a feeling of collective relief at the astonishing U-turn that the Government have performed in recent days, with praise for Ministers
for being so wise as to undertake it. There has been lots of talk about how it is a cross-party matter, and how it was really to do with the Army: "It was those funny generals-they did it. We Ministers went along with it for a bit, but now we have seen through it, and because we are wise Ministers we have reversed it and said, 'Please don't do that again, you naughty generals, because we're clever Labour Ministers and we're going to reverse it.'" I am sorry to bring an element of party political disagreement into the debate, but the fact is that this was done by a Labour Government.
Only two days ago, the Minister for the Armed Forces came along to the all-party group on reserve forces and told us how important it was that these cuts should go ahead. Then, under pressure, he said: "Well, all right, I'll tell you what we'll do. We won't cut this £20 million out of the TA budget, we won't close the TA down-we'll allow the boys to get together one Wednesday a month. Won't that help you? That will cost us £2.5 million. Aren't I being a nice Minister?" These cuts were made by the Government. If the Minister did not know about them, he jolly well should have done, and he must take responsibility for them. It was he and his colleagues who decided that the TA would effectively be closed down for six months from today. The notion that people could come back after that and go through their pre-deployment training, as the Minister kept saying, is absolutely nonsensical. The TA would effectively have been destroyed by the action that this Government took.
It is only because the Conservative party called today's debate and tabled this motion that the Government Whips, no doubt correctly, told their bosses that they were going to lose. They knew that there were plenty of Labour Back Benchers who would either vote with us or abstain, with the Liberal Democrats and the minor parties voting with us too. The Chief Whip got in touch with the Prime Minister and said, "You are going to lose a vote on Wednesday. You are going to be humiliated over this ridiculous decision you've taken about the TA, just as you were humiliated over the ridiculous decision you took about the Gurkha pensions. You, Mr. Prime Minister, are going to lose, and therefore we've got to find an extra £20 million. We're going to turn this round, not because we think it's the right thing to do but because we're yet again afraid of being humiliated in the House of Commons." That is a disgrace. This Government chose effectively to close down the TA for six months, and then, under pressure, they came back and said, "We're worried about this. We've suddenly realised that an awful lot of TA people will complain about it, so we'll give you one night a month back for training."
The decision was taken completely against the advice of the two-star generals and other senior people in the TA who advise the Government on this matter. They did not like it at all, but none the less went along with it. A two-star general, Major-General Simon Lalor-a first-class general he is too-came along to the all-party group on Tuesday and was not permitted to speak by the Minister, who insisted that he should speak, that it was a political matter, and that he should take the decision. The generals and others who were at that meeting were not allowed to speak. It was interesting to see that they were totally opposed to the decision. This
Government decided to do this. They gave in very briefly with their one-night-a-month concept; now they have been forced, through straightforward political realities, to reverse their disgraceful decision.
I hope that when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, he will not palm us off with platitudes about how wonderful the Territorial Army is or say that he is somehow all in favour of it. I hope that he will apologise for the ridiculous decision that was taken and for being humiliated and having to turn it around.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity in the final stages of this debate to make a modest contribution about some aspects of the TA that have not been covered in depth. I should perhaps declare that as a schoolboy I was a cadet in the school cadet force, and at university I was a member of the air squadron reserve. I am told that had there been a war in the 15 years after I left the air squadron, I would have had a military role of air taxi to senior VIPs such as Government Ministers or generals. I am sure that that is not the only reason why people are hugely relieved that we did not have to go to war.
I wish to touch on aspects of the TA's functions that seem to have fallen out of the equation. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) mentioned in her excellent contribution that the TA's role in support of the regular forces under the one-Army notion takes place not just in active theatre but in other operations beyond UK territory. For example, I understand that the commitment of British forces in Operation Tosca, the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, is now entirely staffed by a TA company. Its strength varies according to circumstances, but up to 100 members of the TA are on duty in Cyprus at any time, more or less unsupported by regular forces. There are TA contributions to Operation Fingal, continuing contributions in Kosovo, and the much more commented-on contributions in Afghanistan and, in recent years, Iraq.
Had the cut in training gone through as proposed, the Government indicated that there would not be any shortfall in training for deployment into active theatre. However, it was not made at all clear whether it would affect deployment to other theatres and peacekeeping missions internationally. That aspect had been forgotten.
Secondly, I wish to mention the role that the TA plays in supporting the civilian powers. The green goddesses are no longer in commission, but the TA has a clear and distinct role in supporting the civilian powers' response to emergencies. That cannot be done without a degree of training. It is all very well to have bodies of men and women called up to provide support in an emergency, but they will be of no use whatever unless it is quite clear what their function will be. Providing clear instruction and direction during an emergency obviously requires training.
In recent times, the TA has been on stand-by and at the Government's disposal, although it has not been called up, to respond to flooding incidents all round the country. In 2007 in my own area, it was on stand-by to assist during the flooding in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire.
The Government have had to contend with significant animal health challenges and emergencies in recent years, such as foot and mouth and the threats posed by
bluetongue, which thankfully has not materialised, and H1N1. On all those occasions, the Government had the resources of the TA at their disposal. The Royal Irish Regiment, which is based in Tern Hill in Shropshire, in my constituency, was tasked with a bluetongue response a very short time after coming back from active duty in Afghanistan. That may or may not have been an appropriate military decision, but with a fully functioning TA the Government had the option of using alternative forces had an emergency arisen. The idea that the TA would still have been available to help with civil contingencies if it had lost the ability to train for the period that was intended is simply not right.
The third aspect of the TA's role that I do not think has been properly expressed hitherto this evening is the link between the Army and civil society. The TA plays a considerable role in representing the Army and the other armed services in engagement with the public. Colleagues have discussed the role that it will play at Remembrance services over the next couple of weeks, but there is a continuous programme of education, and visits to schools, clubs and sports clubs for recruitment purposes. Many of us will have seen vans turning up in shopping centres and high streets in our constituencies on Saturdays. The people manning them and banging the recruitment drum are typically TA volunteers.
Regular units recruit from the TA, as a direct consequence of the exposure to the Army that the TA provides. In my own area, the Mercian Regiment has a current strength of 80, out of which, in the past 12 months alone, three officers and 11 soldiers were recruited directly into the regular forces. That is a very cost-effective recruitment method for the regular forces, and it simply would not happen if the TA did not meet regularly, and if TA members did not have the spirit, bonhomie and cadre that they get from their regular training.
The considerable anxiety that was expressed across the House by Members who have TA units within their constituencies was to do with that corps esprit. If there was no regular weekend connection between units in the TA, as appropriate each month, there would simply be no rationale to continue to turn up. The idea that the training tap can be switched on and off, as the Government seemed to indicate, was so far removed from the reality of what was happening on the ground as to stretch belief that the Government have any idea what the TA does on training nights.
In my area, there was a suggestion that people were thinking about their futures. Their families will already have had considerable concerns about the degree to which individuals commit themselves to the TA, which they do for very little monetary reward. If people were asked to volunteer for no reward at all, without any contribution to travel costs, or without confidence that anything would actually be happening if they turned up at the drill hall, another pressure would be brought to bear on them not to bother any longer and to go off and do their volunteering where it would be properly valued. That is another social factor that the Government completely failed to grasp.
I encourage the Minister to step forward to the Dispatch Box in a different spirit from that which he has had to have in the last 48 hours. He has had the most hapless task. During the excellent Adjournment debate on Monday evening, he listened to a very thoughtful contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for
North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who speaks with considerable knowledge given his experiences on active duty with the TA, but was unable to offer any kind of defence for the Government proposals. He then had to spend Tuesday being berated-I presume with senior colleagues-by Labour Back Benchers, and by all accounts, generals. Later, he had to front up to the Prime Minister and tell him that he must change his mind. I suspect that that is not a task that any junior Minister relishes in the dying days of this Government. However, he is now in a position, in his response to the debate, to make a positive statement of the Government's commitment to the TA, which I sincerely hope he does.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): We have had an extremely good debate, with 10 speeches from Back Benchers. Most of them have been concise and to the point, and we must be grateful for that brevity. It was a debate of high quality-one speaker from the Democratic Unionist party, two Labour and seven Conservative speakers, but no Liberal Democrat Back Benchers.
I declare my interest, as entered in the register, as a medical officer in the Royal Naval Reserve. I also wish to express some sadness that so much grief could have been caused by an attempt to squeeze just £17.5 million from the Territorial Army. Ministers enthuse over the so-called one Army concept, and we have heard a lot about that this evening, as well as talk of reservists being twice citizens. Words are cheap, and I fear that Ministers' rhetoric has not necessarily been matched by their actions over the past two weeks.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) wondered how the Secretary of State had got himself into such a mess. The hon. Gentleman was also uncharacteristically churlish about our motion, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and I hastily crafted late last night when the Minister effected his U-turn. I did not see the Liberal Democrats in the Table Office, and it would of course have been open to them to have tabled an amendment.
As a regular and a reservist, I have seen just how easy it is to plunder the territorial, whether that be the TA, the special constabulary or the retained fire service. There is an almost institutional tendency for the top brass to recommend savings from reservists or part-timers. Territorials are caught in a sort of pincer movement between the generals and the accountants, with the budgeteers knowing full well that cuts to the TA produce immediate savings, while cuts to the regulars do not. I fear that Ministers have been badly advised throughout this, and it is a pity that they took the advice that they were being offered.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) was typically eloquent, but he is not in his place, so I shall not spend too much time praising him. He is a veteran of five parliamentary tours of Afghanistan and spoke passionately in support of the reserves and in favour of the one Army concept. He saw the paw prints of accountants over the past couple of weeks and he said, rightly, that those who know the price of everything often know the value of nothing. He doubted that there would be victory in Afghanistan, and by that I think that he meant victory in the classic sense. He thought
that more resources should be given to our military and, in particular, to our reserve forces, and that accountants should be put in their place. There are plenty of accountants in this House who would probably disagree.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) is an ex-Territorial. He spoke extremely well about training and operating as one Army, and in favour of formed units, which come up in debate a lot in connection with the TA. We appreciate their importance, and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has been especially strenuous in his support for them and for command opportunities for people in the TA. We are grateful to him for that, and he is, of course, absolutely right.
It is difficult to serve in a formed unit if those involved do not train together, as I know full well. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater feared that the events of the past few days would cause lasting damage, and I think that we are all agreed, to a varying degree, that there will be a residue from how this has played out over the past four weeks or so.
In a typically impassioned contribution, the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) talked about the lessons of the past not being learned, and if that is the case it is a great pity-although the circumstances of today are very different to those that applied in the 1990s. He also talked about the one Army concept being badly dented by the past few days and hoped that Ministers would do what they can to restore the confidence that the Territorials have in his Government, which has been so seriously damaged.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) raised the important point about employers, who will have looked at what has happened over the past few days and wondered whether they were right to be helpful to those employees who are Territorials or reservists. Employers will reason, "Well, if the Government do not hold reservists in the esteem that they should, why should we go to the effort of sparing them and sustaining real cost in many cases?" That is an important point to make, and I hope that Ministers will send out the clear message to employers who might be tempted to think along those lines that, in fact, Territorials are an essential part of our military capability. I also hope that they will do what they can to repair any damage that might have been done by what has happened over the past fortnight or so.
My hon. Friend also talked about reservists' mental health. It is important to reflect that Territorials in particular are at risk from mental health problems attributable to service. The reasons are very complex and have a great deal to do with the fact that regulars come back and are still part of a unit, whereas very often Territorials-in particular, augmentees-are not, and so are especially at risk. It is important that we look after them. He also pointed out rather poignantly that on Remembrance Sunday we will be remembering reservists and regulars equally. Again, he used that comment to demonstrate the importance of the one Army concept applying in reality. I should add that there is a naval equivalent-the concept of being all of one company.
The hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) commended the Government on reversing their position. I think that he was very generous in his remarks. He
pointed out what is obviously right-that the reversal of the Government's position was the result of pressure from all directions. He also emphasised the importance of the one Army concept and talked about the damage to morale that the threat to funding causes, with particular reference to military bands and the unique circumstances and contribution of the men and women of Northern Ireland.
The offending in-year savings measures emerged in a Headquarters Land Forces letter dated 12 October. We should bear in mind that despite the largesse that emerged last night, the leaked cuts to the officer training corps, cadet forces, Army recruiting, capital work on soldiers' accommodation and service schools endure. I hope that the Minister will touch on those matters when he responds.
On 14 October, the Prime Minister, when questioned on the TA cuts contained in the 12 October briefing note, gave every appearance of not having a clue what was going on. On Monday, we were then treated to a grudging one-night-a-month concession costing £2.5 million before the final climbdown on the TA, but not on the rest of the leaked cuts, including-this is the context of today's debate-those to the OTC and Army cadets. That deeply worrying episode suggests two things. The first is that the Government simply did not understand the impact that the cuts might have had on the TA, and the second is that all rational thought has gone from the MOD ministerial corridor in the last days of this Administration.
The October Public Accounts Committee report on support to high-intensity operations noted that training for regulars for contingent operations was entering what was referred to as "hibernation" to fund deployment-related training-"hibernation" is a horrible term, but it appears to have crept into the military lexicography in recent years. The PAC expressed the fear that we would not be
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