Armed Forces: Reserves
Lord King of Bridgwater (Conservative)
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 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:
"In Basra City, 14th Division proved able to deal effectively and efficiently with isolated incidences of violence".
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 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:
"Significant parts of the Reserve Forces are being restructured and undergoing other changes but the Department is making decisions on these changes in the absence of reliable management information about the cost and capability of Reserve Forces".
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.