Orders of the Day — Reserve Forces Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 20th March 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Armed Services) 6:48 pm, 20th March 1996

With the leave of the House, Madam Speaker. I listened with great interest to the extremely well-informed points made during a knowledgeable debate unusually marked by a sense of common purpose—something we could use more of in such debates. I shall try to answer some of the questions raised, and will deal with others in writing or in Committee.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) paid a warm tribute to the reserve forces. As to concerns about administrative support, that is carefully judged to maximise the time that volunteers can spend training—which is obviously their highest priority. I shall study the hon. Gentleman's figures in Hansard, but I have to say that I do not recognise them. I agree that all such schemes depend on effective and efficient reimbursement patterns, and I accept that they have not always been effective in the past. I warmly endorse the hon. Gentleman's sentiments about the Territorial Army, and about the splendid service given by the Welsh, and the many Territorial soldiers, sailors and airmen in Wales.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) made a typically splendid and well-informed contribution in his capacity as an Honorary Air Commodore and Honorary Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. He made an extremely interesting speech and offered an informed history of the RAAF. I agreed with all his points and noted particularly his remarks about the frustration felt by auxiliaries at the time of the Gulf war. As my right hon. Friend knows, not only the auxiliaries were frustrated. I agree that it is extremely important to show employers that all the time, care and attention that they devote in allowing employees time off to take part in the reservists scheme is reflected at a time of national crisis and emergency, so that individuals whose skills they have carefully nurtured will be allowed on the field of honour, or as close to it as they are able to get. Employers should be able to see that the employees whom they help can exercise their skills. I was delighted to hear that the auxiliaries are doing so well. I warmly and unreservedly praise, admire and pay tribute to their splendid contribution—as does the whole House.

I was grateful to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson)—who informed me that he would have to leave before the end of the debate—for highlighting the extraordinary care taken in consulting on the Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) was also good enough to acknowledge. That consultation is a model for future practice, and other Departments could follow Ministry of Defence practice in this case, as in so many others. I hope that future legislation will be the subject of detailed consultation, so that it reaches the House after extensive pre-consideration.

The hon. Members for Swansea, East and for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and many other hon. Members mentioned the medical reserves, and that it is difficult to fill some places. As the hon. Member for Warley, West said, health service trusts are struggling because there are serious shortages in some specialties. We need to keep a close eye on that aspect, and I am sure that we shall return to it in Committee.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) in relation to the nine-month call-out. That was a matter of contention in the other place and was thoroughly debated. I believe that the consensus that it reached on a nine-month engagement was right. I was grateful also for the broad endorsement that the House gave that arrangement this evening. I agree with my right hon. Friend, in his capacity as colonel of a Territorial regiment and from his personal knowledge as a soldier, that all training should be as exciting as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) made the point that simulation allows formed units to do so much more training together, and I hope that the TA will be able to take advantage of it. Last weekend, I visited a company in the Mid-Sussex constituency that makes extraordinarily advanced simulation systems that will completely recast artillery training—I hope greatly to the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). The TA will be able to book training of a kind that it has never had the opportunity to undergo before.

The one-army concept is extremely important, and all who have care of or an interest in the reserves will know that the Ministry of Defence minds very much that it should become reality. I personally take on board all reservations expressed, as requiring extra effort on our part to ensure that the one-army concept becomes reality.

I listened carefully to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton and others about Territorial Army senior appointments. We are aware of the benefit to be gained from additional senior appointments for reservists. I announced to the House last year that two additional one-star posts would be open to volunteers. My right hon. and hon. Friends forcefully expressed their well-informed views on additional officers at two-star level, and I assure them that the matter is always under consideration. I hope that we shall be able to make an announcement shortly.

The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) made an extremely well-informed speech, as usual, and I share his view that the Bill represents an exciting departure. Morale in the reserves depends on where one is and what one is doing. I have seen morale sky high in some places, and in others I have seen people unsure of the future. The Bill will be an important addition and a new departure for the reserves, who bring a remarkable, important and irreplaceable speciality to the field of operations. I noted the hon. and learned Gentleman's points about the high-readiness reserves, medical reserves and health service trusts, which were made also by other hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood is extremely well informed on the subject. I accept the importance of using formed units whenever possible, and noted with care my hon. Friend's remarks about using the sponsored reserves in flight training operations as uniformed personnel. I shall carefully consider that good point. If I may be indiscreet, I hope that my hon. Friend will not fret too much about the Royal Marine Reserve.

I acknowledge the remarks of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley). I met members of the Prince of Wales Own formed sub-unit detached to Split, who are doing a splendid job and are in great heart. I endorse everything said by the hon. Member for York, who made a positive and well-informed contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) also made an extremely well-informed speech, as one would expect, on medical reserves and two-star appointments. In view of my hon. Friend's single-service predilection for the Royal Air Force—for which we all make allowances, given his service—I was grateful for his support for the sponsored reserves. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) made a brief but well-informed speech and I am grateful for his warm welcome to the Bill.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon for his kind words. I am glad to say that he will not have to go through the trauma that he described again on re-enlistment—next time, I shall personally supervise his call-up. I thank and praise him for his splendid service. I noted his points about Overseas Development Administration, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence liaison and about training. I should be grateful if he discussed them further with me.

We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury for all his support for the services on Salisbury plain. As my hon. Friend knows, lord-lieutenants are great and noble beasts and they deserve a declaratory clause. Quite what it is for, I do not know—but I shall let my hon. Friend know later. He paid tribute to my noble Friend Lord Margadale, than whom there was no greater servant of this House and for whom we all have huge respect. I share my hon. Friend's respect for the Bill team and for all who have made an important contribution to the debate. I thank them all, and I commend the Bill to the House.