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2.10 pm

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow the noble and gallant Lord, whom I had the pleasure of serving with in the Ministry of Defence when he was Chief of the Defence Staff. He speaks with great authority. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Freeman on initiating this debate and I join him in paying tribute to the contribution made by Her Majesty’s Reserve Forces over so many years. I also add my admiration for him for the time that he has served succeeding my predecessor, Lord Younger of Leckie, and for the valuable role that he plays in that post.

I am particularly interested in my noble friend’s reference to the traditions of the TA and the volunteer reserves. He mentioned the London Scottish as being the first regiment involved. If he goes to the London Scottish drill hall in Horseferry Road, he will see on the walls pictures of the first contingents of the London Scottish, showing their get up and go while commandeering double-decker London buses and driving them to Belgium to stem the German advance at the beginning of the 1914 war—a wonderful illustration of the flexibility and enthusiasm of the Territorial Army at that time. It is interesting how in a debate such as this one picks up facts that perhaps one had not previously known. In the First World War the Territorial Army raised 318 battalions. It was, as the noble and gallant Lord said, the resource of last resort. My goodness, it was needed at a time of real peril in the nation and how the Territorial Army and the other Reserve Forces contributed. In 1938, at a time of increasing threat and concern for the security of the world, the number in the TA stood at 200,000. Today, at a time when nobody would suggest it was an entirely peaceful world, we have a Territorial Army and volunteer reserve of 30,000. That might be adequate if the regular forces were fully equipped, fully manned and able to cope fully with the resources that they have. But as has been made clear by a number of noble

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Lords, the regular forces now depend on the Reserve Forces to be able to deploy effectively and full time.

I recognise that deployment may be essential. I had the privilege to be the Secretary of State in the first Gulf War and I was faced with a totally unexpected event. When I arrived in the Ministry of Defence in 1989, I was never briefed by anybody. Within a year we were deploying tanks in the desert—something we had not done for 45 years. Indeed, in anticipation of the lack of likelihood of that event, the Ministry of Defence had sold all its desert camouflage uniforms three years previously to the Iraqi army, which showed just how far military intelligence had fallen short. I recognised then the tremendous contribution made by the volunteer reserves. Many of us saw it as a one-off, a task that had to be met, the expulsion of an aggressor from a territory that he should not have been in—that is, Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait. None of us anticipated at that time that this would become a permanent feature of deployment and that the services of the volunteer reserves would be required on such an enduring basis shortly thereafter.

I have serious concern about the situation that we now face with our volunteer reserves. They are certainly being used in a way that was never seriously contemplated and they are no longer just reserves. They are essential to the deployment of our Regular Forces. Our Armed Forces are seriously overstretched, as is recognised in the Ministry of Defence’s spring report which has just come out about the challenges faced at present and the fact that the Ministry of Defence will not meet its targets for sustainability. That is the measure of the challenges that we face. The reality is that nobody knows how long we are going to be in Iraq or in Afghanistan. This report on progress to date—which, as I said to the Minister, should have been in the House if it had arrived in time—says:

I heard on the “Today” programme this morning that our troops are being deployed again in Basra city because of the need for the 14th Division of the Iraqi army to have extra support in the challenges it faces. So the situation is unpredictable in Basra and in Iraq generally. The situation in Afghanistan in Helmand Province when the moonlighting Taliban have come back from picking the poppy harvest is another concern for many of us.

It is against that background that I pick up a point made by the noble and gallant Lord. I used to spend time with my noble friend Lord Freeman going round the country, encouraging employers to release people to join and serve in the TA. I made the case, which I believe very strongly, that they ought to release some of their best executives. This was a wonderful career development for them and would give them leadership skills. We know that many companies now spend a lot of money on company courses and paintball exercises and various other artificial ways of trying to get people out of the office environment to get some real experience. I said there was nothing better for them than to join the TA and the volunteer reserves and to get that experience of leadership in an entirely different environment. But I was suggesting that their commitment would be a couple of weeks’ camp and a few weekends

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and drill nights and maybe the risk of something a bit more active. I never suggested to anyone, nor did anyone think, that I was encouraging them to send some of their key personnel—possibly the vital cogs in a small business—off for six months, with the risk that they might be asked to go back again thereafter. In the worst and most unfortunate of all circumstances, to which my noble friend Lord Freeman quite rightly paid tribute, there was the risk that they might not even come back. That poses a major problem.

I have been surprised at the way in which the volunteer reserves have held up as well as they have in the changed role that is now being demanded of them. Many people say to me that they love the excitement, the challenge and the completely different life. That up to a point is undoubtedly true and we know this from recruiting. Many people will do perhaps a three-year tour of service. The second time may be possible but the third time becomes much more difficult.

The figures are not entirely clear but they seem to be under considerable pressure at present, with the potential to fall quite significantly, which is a matter of great concern. So I welcome the announcement of the review called for by the all-party group last summer. I was interested to see that the Public Accounts Committee report said:

What a serious allegation that is—that changes have been made without having the information on which to ensure that those decisions are well based.

It is against that background that I look to this review because I believe profoundly in the importance of our Reserve Forces. Bluntly, we do not really have any at present. We are living in the expectation that we shall not face any more serious dangers. As we failed to predict the Falklands War, the first Gulf War or the new developments which now face us in Afghanistan and Iraq, the idea that we can be jolly sure we know exactly what the future will bring is a singularly dangerous philosophy to adopt.

The noble and gallant Lord will remember the publication of Options for Change, when it was announced that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, our Armed Forces would be reduced. However, we still kept a quarter of a million people in uniform. I was challenged by a BBC reporter who asked me, “What on earth are we keeping all these people for? Now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is no longer a threat, why do we need to keep so many people? What threat do you anticipate?” I replied that it was the threat of the unexpected. That was a lucky answer because three days later Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we saw what the unexpected could look like.

Against that background, no Government with proper stewardship of our nation’s defence and security can allow the country to continue without adequate and proper Reserve Forces. They have been an essential part of our framework and security in the past and we need to ensure that they continue on a strong and sustainable basis.

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2.21 pm

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, I join all other noble Lords who have spoken in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for introducing the debate and especially for the comprehensive way in which he covered not just the Reserve Forces but his role in the Army Cadet Force, which I shall mention later.

As a past serving member of the Territorial Army and one who served for many years in the Army Emergency Reserve, I am pleased to contribute to the debate. My long association with the Reserve Forces started when I was demobilised from the Royal Signals in 1952, following two years’ national service. At that time, national servicemen had to serve for three and a half years in a territorial unit following their demobilisation. I was very lucky as I was posted to the Army Phantom Signal Regiment in Hammersmith on demobilisation. I enjoyed my service there and signed on for four years. Any old soldier will tell you that you should never volunteer for anything but I became a volunteer. For many years after that I served in the Army Emergency Reserve. There were many benefits for those, like me, who were returning to their homes and jobs after two years away. The most obvious benefit was the continuation of the comradeship of the previous two years. I believe that friendships formed in the Army are very special indeed.

There were a number of benefits to being a member of the TA such as learning new skills, being trained in the use of modern weapons and keeping up to date with changes in training methods. The years that followed as a reservist in the Army Emergency Reserve had their moments. During the Suez crisis the Z reservists were called up. The net did not include Army Emergency Reserve members but we looked very carefully at the post every morning just in case the authorities decided that they needed heavy truck drivers. By that time I was in the Royal Army Service Corps, which later became the Royal Corps of Transport.

Today’s reservists face tremendous challenges. Their dedication and total commitment serve our nation well. They can be rightly proud of that. We, in turn, can be rightly proud of them. They face danger daily. We sometimes tend to forget that these people are away from their homes and jobs and face danger and conflict daily.

It is my understanding—the Minister might like to confirm this—that some TA units are being reroled: infantry regiments are being changed to Royal Engineers. This is a very important step that should be welcomed. To have reservists properly trained in the tasks that the Royal Engineers traditionally perform can, and probably will, be of benefit in times of national and international disasters.

As has been mentioned, a key factor in the whole question of Reserve Forces is the role of the employer. There have been stories of some employers making life difficult for volunteers when they return from their active service. I know that they are not typical. However, I should like to ask the Minister whether there are any new initiatives in the pipeline to encourage employers to make it easier for their employees to volunteer for TA service if that is the individual’s wish. The latest figures I read indicated that there are approximately

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34,000 serving members of the Territorial Army and that the target strength is for an establishment of 42,000. Can the Minister say whether that is the present situation?

As we are recognising the tremendous contribution of reservists over the past 100 years, I hope that I may add a few words about the Council of Reserve Forces and Cadets Association—RFCA—which is also celebrating its centenary this year. I realised only when the debate started that the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, is the president. I wish him well and thank him for the role he is playing in bringing the cadet forces together. The RFCA is responsible for managing the Reserve Forces estate and the Army Cadet Force. The recruitment of youngsters into school cadet units is something we should encourage.

It is reported that the Youth Justice Board currently spends about £260 million a year on custody, with the rehabilitation programme for young offenders costing between £550 and £650 per individual per day. An air cadet costs approximately £700 a year. In other words, the cost of youth custody for just one person for a year could fund an additional 280 cadets.

I cannot speak about the long-term benefits of former Army cadets but as regards air cadets—in which I have an interest as a trustee of the RAF Museum—there is evidence that the cost to the country in dealing with young offenders is even greater after the age of 18 when the young offender has a significantly greater chance of reoffending compared with an ex-cadet with the same background. That gives food for thought. I believe that a similar analysis of those who have been through the cadet force system in the Army would show similar results. I welcome the enthusiasm of my noble friend Lord Adonis—the Minister responsible for skills and education—in seeking to bring state and private school cadet forces together. That is an important move which needs to be encouraged. By encouraging youngsters to enter the world of proper training and to learn responsibility I am sure that many of them will become volunteers in our Reserve Forces in later life.

I conclude my remarks with a reference to what I said earlier about my own TA service. Will the Minister undertake inquiries on my behalf? In 1953, along with two others from the Army Phantom Signal Regiment, I was invited to take part in the coronation of Her Majesty the Queen. Suitably dressed in a dress uniform I marched with others to our post at Hyde Park Corner. Noble Lords can only guess how proud I was that day. My question to the Minister is to inquire whether I qualified for the Queen’s Coronation Medal. I know that Captain Lloyd from our unit received one, but, then again, I suppose that corporals were not seen in the same light as captains. However, one can only hope.

I wish the reservists of our forces, from whichever service they come, good fortune and I thank them for what they are doing for us all.

2.28 pm

Lord Fowler: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead. He recalled his national service days. I was a bit behind him in that but I too certainly remember Suez.

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I congratulate my noble friend Lord Freeman on the outstanding way in which he introduced the debate. He did a service to the whole House. I compliment the Minister even before she has said anything. Over the past two months I have taken part in three Thursday debates and this is the first time that a Minister will reply rather than an unfortunate Whip. I congratulate her on that as it is the way in which Parliament should be organised.

I wish to make two comments based on a trip I made to the British forces base in Basra last month. I wish to comment particularly on the position of medical reservists in the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. I imagine that the majority view in this country is that the British forces in Iraq have been entirely sidelined, that they have withdrawn to their base at the airport and that they watch what is happening from afar, probably in some safety. That is not remotely the impression that I received when I was there or an accurate portrayal of what has taken place over the past 10 or 11 months.

Since June 2007, more than 800 rockets and mortars have been fired into the base which is, in effect, a small town with a 23 kilometre perimeter that is difficult to defend. People have been killed and injured. The forces are not just carrying out a defensive role, they are training Iraqi troops in urban warfare, they are carrying out anti-smuggling operations from Iran, and they are detecting and disposing of roadside bombs. As my noble friend Lord King pointed out, it appears that they are being deployed once again in Basra city itself.

The Iraqis are now in the lead. That is not a matter of criticism. To take over responsibility there is exactly what we want. The British still have an important role. That has been illustrated in the past month in the push that the Iraqi forces themselves have made to control the militias in the city, the so-called Battle of Basra. It is well known that the push came as a surprise to the Americans and the British. Nevertheless, it has been very successful. One of the reasons is that when the Iraqi supplies ran dangerously low, they were replaced by British army supplies and British soldiers operating from their base. The other feature is that the fighting was fierce and the casualties among Iraqi troops were heavy. For 48 to 72 hours, the field hospital at the Basra base worked around the clock dealing not with British casualties but Iraqi casualties, at times transporting them in under some difficulties. The House needs to remember that this is an area where, once you leave the base, the Red Cross on the side of the armoured ambulance is taken down because it is used as a target, not something to be specifically avoided. By all accounts, the treatment at the field hospital itself was excellent. It is that combined effort which is so important.

Army medical services in Iraq have been crucially dependent on Army medical reservists: consultants, doctors and nurses. It is one of the lesser known facts of the whole conflict just how great their effort has been. Before I went there, I did not fully realise it myself. So far, almost 2,000 Army medical service reservists have been deployed in Iraq, volunteers, drawn predominantly from the health service in this country and also giving a guarantee of 12 months service in a

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five-year period. Working together with the regular RAMC, they have made a superb effort there. As a former Health Secretary, I observe that the field hospital at the Basra base is impeccable. It is built in a desert and the temperature outside may be more than 40 degrees, but inside there is an atmosphere of cool efficiency. If you are in need of urgent medical attention, that is the place to go. I doubt whether there is any prospect of MRSA there either.

Medical reservists are serving not just in Iraq. Six hundred medical reservists have been deployed in Afghanistan. As we speak, there are more reservists there than in Iraq. The excellent House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, under my old friend James Arbuthnot, points out that reserve personnel play a crucial role in the delivery of military healthcare. The Territorial Army has so far met around half of the Armed Forces medical commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan. My noble friend Lord Freeman said that we cannot operate without those reservists. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, made a similar point.

I speak as a total admirer of the RAMC regulars and reservists. Against that background I ask the Minister a number of questions. In the evidence that was given to the House of Commons Select Committee, the British Medical Association argued that, given the choice of two equal candidates for a consultant post, an employer is likely to appoint the candidate with no reserve liability. Similar problems were likely to exist in general practice. Reserve liability will often be considered a handicap and a disincentive to recruit. I do not know how accurate that comment from the BMA is, but that point was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle. Can the Minister assure the House that that is not the case? We all understand the problems the National Health Service has in meeting demand. But the reservists are men and women who are committed to the health service, and are also prepared to volunteer and make an additional and dangerous contribution to caring for wounded soldiers. Rather than this being a disadvantage in employment, I would hope that the health authorities would regard it as an extra commendation.

Perhaps the more fundamental question is whether we have become too dependent on reservists. With operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, are we becoming overstretched in this vital area? What is being done about the recruitment and retention of our Regular Forces? This is part of a much wider question. Nevertheless, it is a crucial one. We cannot take on commitment after commitment and hope that the system will take the strain. Our commitments must be in proportion to the sources that we are prepared to devote. Just like elsewhere, there are important issues of policy regarding medical services that we wrongly take for granted.

I agree strongly with the Commons Select Committee that the role of the medical reservists needs to be recognised more. It is largely unknown by the general public. It deserves far more than that and the Ministry of Defence might turn its mind to that. The reservists are doing a vital job in caring for casualties. They are

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often doing it under very great danger indeed. Those serving today and those who have served in the past deserve the most enormous credit and praise.

2.38 pm

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for the opportunity for this important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and I have some shared concerns. Noble Lords will hear some of the things that he has said repeated by me. They are none the worse for that. General Sir Michael Jackson said in a recent Dimbleby lecture:

I am indebted to the Royal British Legion for much of what I am about to say, particularly about the practical issues which need to be addressed if we are to support the reservists as well as celebrating their unique contribution to defence. There are 88,000 reservists in the Armed Forces. More than 12,000 were deployed in Iraq during the war-fighting phase. Even now, 4 per cent of those in Iraq are reservists, while in Afghanistan 9 per cent of the force are reservists. They are particularly vital in meeting pinch-points defined by the National Audit Office and by the admirable Armed Forces Pay Review Body, especially in the field of medicine. They will certainly be vital as regards civil contingency, which has been mentioned as a unique and rather new contribution to defence.

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