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I start by paying tribute to the TA. It does an outstanding job and the Government would not have been able to carry out operations in Iraq without its supportnot only in the specialist skills that it brings but in making up the shortfall in the Regular Army caused by the reductions under this Government. I also pay tribute to the employers, without whose support the TA could not operate. In particular, we should acknowledge the contribution of small businesses, which often have to make great sacrifices when members of their staff are deployed.
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I declare an interest as an honorary colonel of a Royal Engineer TA regiment. The Royal Engineers are an important part of the Statement. I have not picked up any murmurs of dissent, which suggests that the Ministry of Defence is on the right path, certainly relating to the Royal Engineers. I, and they, especially welcome the changes to reinstate and rationalise the geographical location of Royal Engineer units.
We on these Benches welcome the increases in the numbers of TA Yeomanry and the affiliation of TA units with those regular units with whom they are likely to operate. We agree that that will improve mutual understanding and operational capability. We also welcome the TA provost staff company initiative. It is clearly vital to define, follow and monitor the best practice in custody matters. Will the Minister say whether those with civil experience who serve in this company will support the special investigation units? We welcome the formation of a new TA Army Air Corps Regiment. Will pilots have full access to training to ensure that they are readily available to support the Regular Army Apache attack helicopter regiments? We welcome the increase in permanent staff of 240. They are the backbone of the TA, and it is imperative that they are suitably qualified and trained to provide continuous support and training.
The manning levels of the TA are now at some of the lowest levels since the TA was founded in 1906. Yet the rate of deployment is higher than at any time in recent years. More than 13,500 men and women have left the Territorial Army since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more than 6,000 have left in the past year alone. This translates to a rate of around 600 a month leaving the TA. Previously, about 150 left the TA every month, which kept TA levels relatively stable. Although we welcome the additional units proposed by the Government, we cannot understand the proposal to reduce some of the specialist units, such as medical staff. Last year's annual report specifically noted that this was an area of critical shortage.
Regular units rely heavily on TA medical staff while on operations, so is it realistic that fewer medical volunteers are needed with increasing commitments? Furthermore, we fail to understand why the infantry are to lose 900 TA posts. Does this mean that 900 personnel will be looking for new units, or is this figure of 900 plucked from the shortfall, in which case we are not missing what we have never had? If it is the former, we do not accept the principle that we need fewer infantry. The Statement mentions that there will be reductions in a number of other arms and services. Can the Minister be more specific about these cuts? Finally, may we have a similar Statement on Naval and Air Force reserves before too long?
Lord Garden: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating this important Statement on Territorial Army rebalancing. He says that it will be no surprise to TA units. Indeed not; it will be a relief. Uncertainty has been affecting morale for some months, and it has now ended. We on these Benches support the aims that are outlined in the Statement. It is obviously sensible
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to align the structure of the TA to the tasks of today rather than to those of the past. The Ministry of Defence now has a wealth of experience of recent operations to draw on to take sensible decisions about the TA.
The TA has become more than just a reserve for emergency use; it is now an essential part of expeditionary operations. We, too, share the widespread admiration for the dedication of the TA and other Reserve Forces. However, it must involve extra expenditure. We are talking about re-roling to more expensive tasks, and we are talking about more complex tasks that will continuously involve extra manned training days. What are the extra capital costs and extra running costs involved in these proposals?
The rebalancing exercise does not address some key issues. What assumptions is the Minister making about future manning levels of the TA? It is fine to say we will keep them at 42,000 but, as I said in your Lordships' House on 12 January, the strength of the TA at that time was only 36,940, and by the time non-operational units are taken out of the equation, the figure is closer to 32,000. The Minister rightly says that there should be a manning margin for training and mobilisation. I am astonished that this is a new concept. Perhaps the Minister could tell us why it has not been used in the past. This is not part of the Future Army Structure. We also welcome, albeit slightly guardedly, the assurances that the Government will try to limit compulsory deployments to one year in every five. I take note of the careful caveat that once in every three years remains possible. Will the Minister undertake to keep the House informed, perhaps annually, of how that target for compulsorily sending people on detachments is progressing?
In sum, therefore, we have a Territorial Army that is to be kept the same size but is well under establishment, with an increased allowance for manning and training margins, and with an aim of less frequent deployments. This must mean that fewer people are available each year for deployment. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many operational TA people he thinks he will have in a steady state in the future.
The outline of the main organisational changes also gives rise to some questions, and I greatly welcome the focus on specialisations because they are so over-tasked in both the Territorial Army and the Regular forces. This is particularly true for engineers. A new TA engineer regiment and five new engineer squadrons will make a difference. But how long does the Minister believe it will take to be able to generate that sort of operational capability? Engineers are specialists, and they will need both aptitude and training. What analysis has been done to give confidence that these units can be formed? If that is true for Sappers, how much more true is it for the Army Air Corps Regiment and Apache helicopter pilots? We know that the AAC units often struggle with support for such a high-technology weapons system. Where are the skilled personnel to be drawn from to form this new regiment?
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We particularly welcome the military provost staff company formation, knowing of the overstretch in the military police which your Lordships have often discussed in the recent past. Will the Minister undertake to examine whether this unit might be enlarged if it proves to be successful on what is actually a small scale at company level?
Members on these Benches feel particularly concerned about combat medical staff, to which the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, drew attention. Last month's Armed Forces Pay Review Body report showed that there is a 50 per cent shortfall in Army nurses and significant shortages in Army combat medical technicians. I spoke recently to a local Liberal Democrat councillor, not very far from your Lordships' House, who had just returned from a tour in Iraq as a TA nurse. I know the good work that they are doing out there. I would have expected medical staff to be the key area that we would focus on in any restructuring of the TA. I listened to the exchange in the other place when the Statement was made, and medical staff were a focus for concern on both sides of the House. I simply do not understand how there can be any logic to reducing the staff that we have, even if we do not have enough of them. We really must know that our troops have adequate medical support when we send them into danger.
Finally, will the Minister say how the reductions in infantry will be handled? Will it be done by natural wastage, or will there be compulsory terminations of service where transfer to new specialisations simply is not possible because of the individuals involved or because they do not want to transfer? The handling of these 900 posts will be very important for morale and hence for recruitment and retention. Perhaps the Minister can assure us that the very welcome 240 new permanent staff will receive guidance and training on how they can handle this change sensitively.
Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lords for their clear support in welcoming this Statement and for their comments about the tremendous contribution which our Reserve Forces make to our defence. In that spirit, I appreciate the way in which they have rightly focused on questions about the specifics, and I am happy to answer those general points as clearly as I can.
I note the noble Lords' astonishment at the slight innovation in the way in which this has been done. I think it reflects the level of innovation in the Ministry of Defence these days. We are learning lessons from the past and we are implementing them.
The changes announced today will be cost-neutral because of the way in which we will be better able to integrate what the Reserve Forces do with the regular forces. We think that there will be appreciable savings and efficiency. It will also improve the quality and scope of the training that Reserve Forces will be able to undertake. The noble Lord raised a specific point on
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Apache helicopters. We will not recruit Apache pilots. These personnel will be engaged to support armouring and refuelling the Apache in the Army Air Corps.
The noble Lords are right to focus on matters relating to medical combat personnel. This reflects the challenges in today's environment with the significant growth taking place within the NHS, for example, and the real challenge in recruiting personnel into this field. The rebalancing reflects a statement of recognition of that reality. It does not suggest that there is any diminution; it is a clear look at the specific needs of the TA as an integrated part of the one-Army concept, making sure that the rebalancing takes place within that structure. I note the positive comments on the provost company. I promise to look at how that goes. The noble Lord asked whether it will be acting in support of the SIB. Yes, that will be one of the functions of the provost company.
I want to make absolutely clear to the House that there will not be any compulsory redundancies as a result of this rebalancing exercise. These changes will be made over a period of time. As noble Lords have said, they have been done in full consultation. We believe that there is recognition of the current operational environment. For example, skills are now required within the logistics tail of operations that more closely reflect the skills that infantrymen in the front-line forces require. We therefore believe that it will be possible for people to transition from the infantry to support roles. That reflects the reality of the operational needs we see at this time.
I promise to keep the House informed on progress. We have set out our aspirations in terms of harmony. Noble Lords have asked me to come back to the House on a regular basisperhaps annuallyand I will do that. We believe that we can do this, but we will keep the House informed.
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