Armed Forces: Reserves
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Deputy Leader, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I rise with some hesitation in this debate, having no direct contact with our Reserve Forces. I was just reflecting, as the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, was speaking, that my father served in a Territorial Army battalion some 90 years ago; namely, the 4thBattalion the Gordon Highlanders. He was briefly seconded as a sergeant to the London Scottish at one rather desperate point in the spring of 1918 but that is in the distant past.
What we have seen, particularly since the end of the Cold War, has been a transformation in the role of our reserves and a continuing reduction in both the numbers and the facilities. We have seen sites sold off so that further expansion can take place. If we wished to reverse the decline, it would be difficult. We have seen a parallel run-down since the end of the Cold War in civil defence reserves, resources and facilities.
I want to talk particularly on the role of the Reserve Forces in encouraging local participation and on their civil contingencies capability and in the links they provide between our full-time Armed Forces and the wider national community. We are all conscious—post-9/11 and post-7/7—that homeland security is an issue which has not entirely gone away. After the recent problems with foot and mouth and after a number of extreme weather incidents—the storms that have led to two hurricanes in the past 15 years and also the extensive flooding—we are all conscious that we require an effective civil contingencies capability across the country. It also helps if it is locally and regionally based. What we have found in recent civil emergencies is that we depend more and more on central control and assistance and that there is less and less room for local volunteering.
In other aspects of this government agenda there are a range of parallel issues being debated such as the citizenship agenda. How do you get people to feel that they are part of our national community, particularly people whose parents were born outside Britain? There is the whole question of how we provide broader national support and recognition for our Armed Forces, about which the Prime Minister has been speaking. One of his arguments for expanding the role of Army cadet forces in schools would be to provide a greater recognition of the links between the Armed Forces and the wider local and national community. There is also the new Labour dimension of empowerment and citizen engagement which some of us on these Benches feel has focused too much on providing citizenship choice and not enough on providing citizenship participation.
The local and regional dimension of Reserve Forces used to be extremely important. They were aspects of local pride, they were clearly rooted in local communities and they provided—certainly for the counties outside the home counties—a sense of local engagement, local participation and local autonomy. We have lost a good deal of that as the Reserve Forces have declined. We have also lost the parallel civilian community service with the run-down of civil defence.
If one is going to go down the route of citizenship agenda, there are large questions about what Army cadets and others should feed into when they leave school and how we provide greater opportunities for service in the local and regional communities. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, said in his opening speech that the civil contingencies role may well require special training. I ask the Government to consider whether we need a rather fuller inquiry into what sorts of civil contingency capabilities we need in our towns and cities outside London to deal with the sort of problems we had, for example, with the floods last summer.
We recognise furthermore that the question of filling the gaps in the services has other dimensions. At a time of falling recruitment and of adverse demographic trends—the number of young men reaching 18 is declining—we have an increasing dependence by our full-time Armed Forces on recruitment from abroad. I think we are now into several thousand Fijians and a large number of people from the Caribbean and elsewhere. I question whether the settled preference of the service chiefs for 12-year or even 22-year terms of engagement is what we still want to stick to. I have spoken to a number of people involved with the Reserve Forces who told me that one of the reasons for the their churn at present was that young men join and like the excitement of serving abroad once—but after that, they have done it. They do not want to carry on in the reserves. If that is the case, and if the people going out and serving are demonstrably proving to be worthwhile soldiers, the Army ought to consider whether two-year or three-year service for a larger number of young people could be part of how one fills the gap, as well as sending a larger number of people through our armed services, thus making them less of a small elite and more something that is rooted in the community.
I note the American experience of professional armed services in which the army is used partly as a means of providing education and skills training for people who have fallen through the school system. I note the very different Nordic experience—I have had a number of students from Finland, Norway and Sweden—in which short-term training in the army then provides a basis on which people can volunteer to take part in UN peacekeeping operations abroad for up to a year. Those are both models that we ought to take into account.
There is the larger issue of what future tasks our Armed Forces are most likely to face as we slowly withdraw from Iraq and cope with what has turned into a much tougher peacemaking operation in Afghanistan than we had expected. Conflict prevention, peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction are all tasks that we expect our Armed Forces to be engaged in for the foreseeable future. The UNFICYP deployment of reserves to Cyprus is a good example of the sort of operation that our forces are likely to be engaged in. Civilian skills for post-conflict reconstruction are, after all, extremely helpful.
I suggest to the Government that, in looking at the future role of Reserve Forces and the capabilities we need, our current model of long-term service first and a small number of reserves may not be the one that we need, and that if we want to root our armed services much more clearly in our broader national community, as well as providing the local civilian contingencies that we are clearly going to need, we should think again.