Our plans ensure that we have forces of appropriately high readiness, including the infantry, in place to meet urgent contingent operations.
The soldiers serving in the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment have just returned from a deployment in Iraq during which they distinguished themselves. Can the Minister assure me that, when the 2nd Battalion deploys to Afghanistan in the spring, they will not face the same "significant weaknesses" that the Public Accounts Committee identified in the monitoring systems for urgent operational requirements? Is not this a time for the Government to be strengthening our front-line forces—
I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a defence debate coming up on Thursday. If he wants to return to his questions then, I will be happy to answer them.
The issue of urgent operational requirements is important, but I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism. Overall, the way in which we assess and then provide for UORs is very good and meets what is required. In the event of a shortfall, we quickly identify where lessons need to be learned and put in place mitigating approaches for the next time round. If there have been significant and measurable shortfalls in respect of the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, as the hon. Gentleman suggests—I echo the tributes that he paid to it—they will be identified and corrected.
Will the Minister confirm the report in today's edition of The Guardian that the Territorial Army is haemorrhaging severely in numbers, with its numbers being the lowest since it was founded? Is that because it has been used to cover for the shortages in the Regular Army? What is the Minister going to do to ensure that we have a strong TA that is maintained and retained for future deployment needs?
I am glad to have found a Guardian reader; I certainly do not pay much attention to it.
Since March 2005, the trend in TA manning has been reversed, with inflow exceeding outflow. TA manning strength has increased from 31,493 to 31,680. The number of new recruits to the TA remains relatively high, averaging 400 to 600 a month. We are doing a lot to recruit, we are getting a good response and we will continue to do more.
The Minister will know that, in the vast majority of urgent deployments, British infantry troops will fight alongside allies from other countries, not only the United States of America but France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and even Romania. Yet the British troops serving in Bosnia, for instance, will not get medals although the servicemen of all the other countries will. Does he think that that is fair?
My hon. Friend knows that I do not have direct responsibility for the matter, so perhaps it would be best to write to him about the detail. However, I understand that we are examining the matter. We recognise its importance and it is right that people who serve with distinction should be properly recognised. I take his point on board and will ensure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary communicates with him.
I draw hon. Members' attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests in that I continue to serve in the Territorial Army. Let me take the Minister back to his earlier answer about the TA. Numbers may be increasing but does he accept that the number of people in the TA who are fit for role, and can thus be deployed on operations, continues to fall?
I am not so sure about that. It is easy to make such an allegation, but we must then examine the basis of the charge. If people are unfit for role, we would have to tackle that. We would have to locate the shortfall, determine the reason for that and consider how to change the focus. We are sometimes criticised for using the TA in operations. It has been used significantly and to great effect in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. When we consider the use that is made of TA members and the way in which they deliver, it tends to contradict the perception that may exist. There may be an element of truth in the hon. Gentleman's remarks—that needs to be analysed and corrected if necessary. However, I have not met anyone in the TA who is unfit for role. Indeed, the opposite is true. One cannot tell the difference between TA soldiers and regular soldiers when they are on operations.
The Minister has suggested that there will be a permanent garrison of 5,000 troops in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, from time to time, there is an additional need for urgent deployments. Is the Secretary of State prepared to consider supplementing that garrison, whichever regiment serves, with two to three companies of Royal Irish Regiment soldiers who wish to stay in the Army after the regiment is disbanded? Does the Minister acknowledge that that would add continuity, local knowledge and flexibility?
I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. I recently visited Northern Ireland and met a good number of the Royal Irish Regiment on home service. We will examine the matter but the best advisers will be those who are responsible for advising Ministers on the structure and eventual utilisation of, in this case, the Army. We must consider how best to structure things and whether the hon. Gentleman's suggestion has a utility. The current indications are that that is not the favoured approach. However, everything has to be considered and we must examine the matter. He and his party have raised the point and we will rule nothing out until it has been properly examined.
The Minister kindly commented on the 1st Royal Anglian, which has done a fantastic job in Iraq. However, the second battalion is under strength. Will he undertake that none of the 1st Battalion will be augmented into the 2nd Battalion when it is deployed? The 1st Battalion needs to stay here and have the leave and training that it so desperately needs.
That is the principle on which we would act. I recollect visiting Umm Qasr after the end of the conflict in Iraq, when some young soldiers from the Royal Anglians, who had not been posted there, wanted to see me. I asked why and when I saw them, I knew the answer. They had asked to be posted from Afghanistan to Iraq and I had met them in Afghanistan only a few months previously. We know that there are many willing horses and people who want to serve in the way in which those young soldiers did. They made a tremendous contribution. Some soldiers may volunteer—as the hon. Gentleman knows, some like to take on those roles. However, we must be careful that we do not impose too much on individuals who come forward willingly in that way. We would not work on that principle, but some key enablers are at the genuine pinch points and we are trying to deal with the demand placed on them through the future Army structure.