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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I also thank my noble friend Lord Attlee for arranging this timely debate. He speaks with real and contemporary experience, and I hope that the Minister will also carefully note the many important points made this afternoon by other distinguished speakers from all
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sides of the House. I also pay tribute to the outstanding work that our reserve armed forces do. Those men and women are asked to sacrifice a great deal for their country. As honorary colonel of a TA unit, many of whose members have served in Iraq, I have first-hand knowledge of this. My experience is the same as that of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury: they are dedicated, well trained and highly professional.

The reserves perform a variety of different roles in the Armed Forces. Some, like doctors, nurses and linguists, have specialist skills. There is also a small but growing number of sponsored reserves, employees of defence-related companies contracted to maintain and repair equipment while deployed on operations. I also congratulate employers who willingly and unselfishly safeguard the employment of our reserves. My noble friend Lord Glenarthur spoke of the effective work that the National Employer Advisory Board carries out, and I pay tribute to my noble friend for the work that he does as chairman.

The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, mentioned the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985, introduced to prevent reservists losing their jobs because of deployments. Yet I understand that the maximum penalty for employers who breach the provisions on job security is just £1,000. Currently, 24 TA soldiers are involved in court action for compensation or reinstatement at their own expense. I am sure that my noble friend's board is looking closely at the issue of soldiers who are improperly dismissed by employers.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Garden, that we have heard a number of different statistics today. We find it difficult to get really accurate and informative figures on the issue. Will the Minister and his colleagues consider issuing regular Written Statements giving information on numbers, state of readiness and the use of deployable reserves to enable us to follow trends accurately?

Certainly, the strength of the TA is at its lowest level since it was founded in 1907, with resignations running at three times the level experienced prior to the beginning of the Iraqi deployment. My noble friend Lord Freeman pointed out that we should be careful to ensure that retention figures did not drop any further. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said that we could not afford to lose as many good soldiers as we are at the moment.

The situation is worse than the figures show, in that up to 20 per cent of those on the roll of reservists fail to perform their training requirement, disqualifying them from being called up. Numbers alone do not reveal the complete picture. Additional responsibilities have been given to the TA on top of its liability for service in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Post-9/11, the civil contingencies reserve force has been created to provide a vital capability for operations in the event of a terrorist attack or major disaster. What effects will there be on the CCRF, given that the TA is probably around 5,000 personnel short of the MoD's required strength? If there is a serious outbreak of avian flu, for example, will our Reserve Forces be able to provide
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cover while plugging gaps abroad? Over 1,500 reservists are currently mobilised in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and elsewhere. In Iraq alone since the start of Operation TELIC, as many noble Lords have said, more than 11,000 reservists have been deployed. Last Tuesday in another place, Adam Ingram announced a new order to commit Reserve Forces to operations in Iraq until 3 January 2007.

If TA soldiers are to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for six months, they need good, pre-mobilisation training to prepare them for the job. That is done in their spare time. In the weeks running up to a deployment, TA soldiers will want to spend time with their family. Many will work long hours to secure their finances and their job for when they return. There is a real danger of TA soldiers being deployed without having completed sufficient training, having been signed off as ready for operations by their commanding officers, who have allowed for difficulties in the provision of training.

My noble friend Lord Attlee mentioned recruiting and retention problems caused partly by the public's view of current operations in Iraq. We are aware that reservists returning from deployment to main employment sometimes face hostility from their work colleagues who are hostile to the military operation in Iraq and do not see why they should have to carry a share of the cost of conducting it.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Freeman on the work that he does with the Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. I welcome his priority to upgrade as many of their properties as possible. I was grateful last week to the Minister for his reply to my Written Questions about sea cadets. I am patron of a vibrant and active local sea cadet unit, but, as a charity separate from the MoD, the sea cadets need considerable support to continue their work. My noble friend Lord Freeman will not be surprised to hear that they were the only unit wearing military uniforms at the Remembrance Day service last year.

Students who join the university air squadrons are now denied flying training. Instead they are offered personal development and just 10 hours of flying. That is emphatically not the way to recruit and encourage potential pilots. The deplorable decision to change the role of the UASs was taken during the Recess, and Parliament was not given the opportunity to debate it. Considering that 60 per cent of RAF pilots come from the UASs, will the Minister therefore reconsider the decision? Will he also give assurances that students in University Royal Navy Units will not have their time at sea reduced in the same way?

My noble friend Lord De Mauley, who commanded the Royal Wessex Yeomanry, mentioned the short notice for mobilisation. My noble friend Lord Attlee mentioned medical support. Welfare treatment of TA soldiers injured on operations is not uniform with regular personnel. If a regular is injured, their care is managed by their regiment and the established casualty treatment process. That is with a view to getting the injured person back to their unit. But a TA
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soldier who is injured will receive care within the military system until the deployment is over. The individual would then have their care managed by the NHS, where they would go to the bottom of the waiting list. If the injuries are more severe, treatment will be given through the established casualty treatment process. The individual will not receive the same pastoral care from their unit, as they will all have returned to their normal job. My noble friend Lord Attlee pointed out that nearly everyone who was of use had been called up for operations. Does the Minister feel that there is a risk that the pool of eligible reservists will dry up if the current rate of deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq continues?

The SDR diminished the role of the TA post-Cold War and reduced its establishment. Should the Government now consider a fundamental reappraisal of the role of the TA and the other Reserve Forces? The Government must not carry on using the TA as a cheap standing army. As my noble friend Lord De Mauley said, employers are beginning to complain about another burden on business. Finally, I hope that the Government will rethink the way that they look after the people serving in the Reserve Forces.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, it is clear to me from the contributions that I have enjoyed listening to throughout this afternoon's debate that the thorough and informative review that we have heard emphasises the high esteem in which the Reserve Forces are held in the House. That is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly associate the Government.

It is equally clear, as is so often the case in the House, that many of the contributions are made with the authority that comes from direct experience of the matter in hand. In that respect, I pay particular tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, not only for securing the opportunity to have these matters discussed this afternoon but for the service that he has rendered to the Crown as a member of the Territorial Army.

Against that background, I pay particular heed to the misgivings that have been voiced about the current health of the reserves. In closing, I hope that I can assuage some of those concerns, although I was grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for his emphasis on the experience that he has seen in his unit. I am particularly grateful for the comments he made about the excellence of the kit. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, emphasised that the situation was overall a good story. That is a sentiment with which many of us would agree.

Let me turn directly to the foremost of the issues to which my attention has been drawn in the debate: the manning of the Reserve Forces and in particular of the Territorial Army. It has been pointed out to me, most clearly by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, and my noble friend Lady Dean, that the current strength is somewhat short of the establishment of the force. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked me for the specific numbers. I am happy to confirm that the
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establishment number is 41,610. I acknowledge that that is the situation. However, it is not a new phenomenon. That is not to belittle its importance, but to simply state that undermanning has been a historical reality in the Territorial Army. That is the case whether one looks at the period in 1999 prior to the restructuring of the force following the implementation of the Strategic Defence Review; at 1995, before the enactment of the Reserve Forces Act 1996; or indeed earlier.

Nevertheless, improving the situation is the department's top priority. It requires resources and management action to be directed towards the twin areas of recruitment and retention. To illustrate the moves being taken, the Army and the Navy are combining their regular and reserve recruiting operations under a single professional organisation. I commend to noble Lords the double-decker buses going down Whitehall bearing the advertising campaign, which shows that integration of approach. I was asked by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, in particular, for us to talk about one Army; that is exactly what the advertising campaign does. Furthermore, the TA recruitment budget was increased from £5 million in 2003–04 to £10.5 million in 2004–05. A number of other initiatives are aimed at making staying in the reserves a more attractive proposition.

As my noble friend Lord Truscott has highlighted, there is evidence to suggest that the downward trend in the strength of the TA is being arrested. I am happy to give the House figures. The fundamental strength within the total of 37,430 as at 1 December is greater than the figure for either April 2005—36,180—or even the figure for April 2004—37,210. Concentrating particularly on the operational elements of the TA, we can see that there is also a slight increase over the past few months, with the number having risen by 270 over that for April 2005, without having yet recovered to the level of April 2004. It would be dangerous to extrapolate too much from those figures, and I do not want to give the House the impression that we are doing that. We will not become complacent, but it is welcome to see those early signs that our strong efforts are having an effect.

There may be disquiet in some quarters about the wide scope of the activities that reservists are undertaking and the resultant scale and tempo of usage of the Reserve Forces. Such fears are misplaced. Reserves are there to be used. The Government are clear on that, and it has been explicitly stated in our document The Future Use of the UK's Reserve Forces, which has been laid before the House. The Reserve Forces are busy, but those commitments are not unmanageable. A culture of mobilisation is developing that reflects the aspiration in the Strategic Defence Review that the reserves should be a more flexible and usable component of defence capability.

I draw noble Lords' attention to a different set of figures, of which the Reserve Forces can be justifiably proud, which set out in numerical terms the tremendous contribution that our reserves have made to operations in recent years. The figures tell of
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the 12,565 mobilisations in support of Operation TELIC since 2003. The numbers show how reserves have consistently constituted over 10 per cent of personnel deployed on major operations. The figures show the output of the Reserve Forces in operational terms. That contribution is both valuable and valued and gives a positive picture of forces full of vigour. However, the numbers alone can never do full justice to the qualities of the individuals that they represent—be it Royal Marines Reserves stationed to protect the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, Royal Engineers preparing for the arrival of new NATO forces in Afghanistan, or instructors teaching cadets here in the United Kingdom. I pay tribute to them all.

Given the range of tasks on which they are engaged, usage of the Reserve Forces is being very carefully monitored to ensure that those forces remain able to meet current and future needs. That is achieved through forecasting future requirements and mobilising reserves only at a level that ensures that a continuous supply is available for subsequent years. The individual is protected by our policy, announced last year, through which we intend to limit mobilised service to a maximum of one year in five—subject, of course, to any over-riding operational imperative—and the use of intelligent selection to identify those willing to serve on particular operations.

It is therefore not the case that more pressure is being put on the Reserve Forces than they are able to bear. Indeed, in many quarters there is a thirst for the opportunity to go on operations. Such deployments also have the benefit of relieving pressure on the regular forces. It is quite appropriate for the military to look across the entire spectrum of forces to provide a given capability. It has been routine practice for many years for the reserves to deliver support to enduring operations.

As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and my noble friend Lord Truscott have said, the level being provided by reserves in Iraq—approximately 10 per cent of the force—is of similar proportions to that which has historically been the case in the Balkans. I assure the House, particularly the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, that that is not done at the expense of harming our reserve component. Following the peak of operations in Iraq we have throttled back on use of the reserves, ensuring that we do not overheat the system. At the peak of operations, in the first six months of 2003, over 7,000 reserves were mobilised for operations in Iraq. In the comparable period of 2004, that was reduced to 1,500 and to approximately 800 in 2005.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and my noble friend Lady Dean also mentioned issues related to notice of mobilisation. We accept that, especially during the early phases of Operation TELIC, mobilisation was, of necessity, often at short notice. That may even have occurred in the case of some soldiers in 2004, although advance notice of mobilisation has progressively improved since the start of the operation. Our intention is to give 28 days'
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notice. That was introduced in 2005 and is, generally, being complied with, although operational circumstances will occasionally dictate otherwise.

The integration of reserves into a whole-force concept, in planning for operational commitments, is mirrored in changes to the structure and management of the forces themselves. Those are designed to reinforce the relationship with the regular component in order to better enable the delivery of defence capability.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the rebalancing of the Territorial Army. The ongoing work on that is designed to ensure that the TA has the most appropriate structure to support the Regular Army operationally. It focuses the TA on providing support at the large scale of effort, while acknowledging that it will continue to provide forces below that large scale and emphasises a closer relationship between the TA and regular units. The final outcome of that exercise is due to be announced shortly. I shall answer directly the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and say that it will be within the next month or so.

We have already said that there should be little change to overall TA numbers or, indeed, the distribution of the estate as a result. I trust that that is clear enough for the noble Lord, Lord Garden. However, some change in units' roles will be necessary. I recognise that that may be an emotional issue for some but believe that the TA will remain more relevant as a result. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for voicing his support for the rebalancing exercise.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, raised the issue of training and ensuring that operational training had sufficient funding provided for it, particularly overseas. We fully recognise that challenging and exciting training, including overseas exercise, is a key element in encouraging retention. Cancellations occurred as a result of financial pressure some two years ago, but in the past 12 months reserves have participated in exercises in America, Cyprus, Germany and Poland. We are investigating opportunities for expanding that programme.

It is important that our policy on the use of reserves is well communicated and properly understood—by the reservists themselves, through their families, with information passed down the chain of command, and by the reservists' civilian employers, who play a vital role in supporting our Reserve Forces. That is why the SaBRE publicity and information campaign is so important. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, and the work of the National Employer Advisory Board, which he chairs. Indeed, only this morning they met officials from the department. I assure noble Lords that the advice that they give us is listened to and acted on carefully.

We believe that we can build successful relationships with employers because both sides stand to benefit, as a number of noble Lords have mentioned. The forces can draw a wide range of skilled and talented people from the civilian workforce, as was highlighted by the
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noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who asked why we did not have a list of the civilian capabilities of our people. That list is being put together as I speak. However, we must recognise that it is our policy to use people in the Reserve Forces not for the skills that they have in civilian life but for the skills for which they have been trained in the reserves. We know that skills and characteristics are in great demand, and the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has already reported that employer objections to the mobilisation of employees are at a low ebb. Most concerns are resolved informally between the employer and the services—indeed that has been so successful that the last case formally registered for an appeal hearing was in August 2004, and even that was subsequently withdrawn.

We recognise reservists' concerns that they are vulnerable to dismissal or discrimination, something that has been highlighted by a number of noble Lords. However, there is little evidence that such discrimination occurs. We are aware of only 28 registered cases appearing before a reinstatement committee out of over 13,000 mobilisations in the past 10 years.

As we ask our reserves to do more in operational terms, employer support is just one area where we will ensure that we deliver the required support. In order to maintain strong and healthy Reserve Forces, we must also recognise their essential differences from the regular forces and cater for them wherever possible. Last April, we introduced new regulations to make payments to reservists who are called out and to their employers. The regulations allow a reservist's pay on call out to match his civilian earnings up to a maximum ceiling of £200,000 per annum. It can go further than that, with special arrangements applying to certain medical officers. Employers can claim up to £40,000 per year to cover any additional costs arising from a reservist's absence.

I reassure the House and the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that mobilised reserves receive access to medical care on the same terms as their regular counterparts. They have the same operational welfare package and the same entitlements to pay and allowances. This year, the Government have also introduced the new Reserve Forces pension scheme and the Armed Forces compensation scheme. The latter is a significant enhancement of reservists' conditions of service because it takes into account a reservist's civilian as well as his military earnings, even when training. We are also developing better support to families back home when reservists are serving overseas. Special requirements are necessary because, unlike regulars, reservists do not live in close-knit communities. We are developing training opportunities that deliver full benefit and rigour but fit in with the reservist's pattern of service, availability and ability to undertake it.

I finish by reiterating the Government's debt of gratitude to the Reserve Forces of the Crown. Their quality is unsurpassed world-wide, and they are delivering more than ever before in operational output. We are committed to setting the conditions to
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enable them to continue to do so. The Government have a strong record in providing enhanced support for the reserves. We will not rest on our laurels, but nor shall we be reticent in defending our record of support to the Reserve Forces. Above all, I reassure noble Lords of our determination to ensure that we continue to deliver a reserve component that meets the needs of defence as a whole.

4.59 pm

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