Territorial Army: Rebalancing

– in the House of Lords at 1:38 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 1:38 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

"With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the Territorial Army. However, before I do so, I would like to mention the situation regarding Mr Kember. I am very pleased to confirm the involvement of British forces in the multinational rescue operation of Norman Kember. The rescue was the result of weeks of careful work and preparation, and I pay tribute to the professionalism played by British Armed Forces. To ensure that we do not compromise future operations I am not prepared to go into any details about the operation or to confirm the troops involved. However, I would like to stress how proud I am of the achievement of all of those involved in the rescue. I understand that Norman Kember is well and is presently being cared for by staff at the British Embassy in Baghdad.

"For many months, the TA has been consulted widely over the changes we should make to better integrate it into the Future Army Structures—or FAS—which, I remind the House, we announced in November 2004. As a result, much of what I have to say will be of no surprise to TA units. Their views, at all levels, have been sought and their input has helped to define the review outcomes. I am grateful for their comprehensive engagement in this process.

"I also inform the House that I have written today to all honourable Members whose constituency TA units are affected by this rebalancing with details of the changes to those units. I am also placing details of all the changes in the Library of the House.

"The size of the Territorial Army will not be changed. It will remain at an authorised strength of 42,000, including a University Officer Training Corps of 3,500. Within that unaltered total, the changes that we introduce will reflect the modern-day role of the TA as an integral part of our defence posture.

"The great change in the TA, which came about as a result of the reforms of the late 1990s, was to move it away from its Cold War role. In its place, a mobilisation culture was introduced, such that it would expect in future to be mobilised and deployed on a range of operations in support of our defence policy overseas, rather than be held in reserve for defence against an attack on western Europe.

"Since then the reserves generally, and in particular the Territorial Army, have made a major contribution to operations overseas. For example, in Iraq we have deployed some 12,000 soldiers since 2003. They have in a real sense earned their spurs—once again. I pay tribute to their ability to adapt, in just a few years, to the changing and very demanding circumstances of the new century, and I publicly acknowledge their appreciable skills and courage.

"The operational experience gained from extensive use of the TA has allowed us to apply lessons learnt in respect of its most effective employment. First, we are assigning to the TA its proper role in the more demanding contingencies for which it might be required to deploy. Each TA unit will be given a clear role to augment the regular order of battle for large-scale operations—that is, operations on a similar scale to the Gulf campaign in 1990 and in Iraq in 2003. That is the role for which they will train.

"Secondly, although we will structure the TA for larger-scale operations, we will continue to support individual members of the TA who wish to volunteer for tours on operations of a lesser scale. Many soldiers indicate that they are very keen to deploy on such operations, and the experience that they gain is invaluable. At the same time, we need to regulate the use of the TA so that unnecessary strains are not put on individual volunteers, their families or their employers. So we will aim to limit the use of reserves on operations to one year in every five, unless individuals volunteer for more. Although that will be our aim, the legal position is that they can be called out once in every three years.

"Thirdly, in designing our TA units, we will take account of the realities of TA service. There will always be some volunteers who are still going through their basic training and others who, for very good reasons, are not available for mobilisation when a particular crisis occurs. We have therefore made allowance in unit structures for both a training margin and a mobilisation margin, so that the TA units are more robustly structured to deliver the trained manpower needed for operations.

"Fourthly, we will strengthen the affiliation of TA units to those regular units with whom they are likely to operate, thus improving mutual understanding and operational capability. Closer affiliation with regular units for training purposes will also increase joint TA and Regular training and so deliver more enjoyable, relevant and challenging training to the Territorial Army.

"Finally, we will strengthen the support that we give to TA units, with approximately 240 permanent staff recruited to provide administration, welfare, training and employer support.

"The organisational changes of TA rebalancing will include strengthening of the Royal Engineer element of the TA, the establishment of which will increase by some 1,600, as well as increases to the TA Yeomanry—or Royal Armoured Corps—and the Army Air Corps.

"The following new TA units will be formed. There will be an Army Air Corps Regiment to support the Apache attack helicopter regiments in the Regular Army, to be based in Bury St Edmunds. A new Royal Engineer Regiment—72 Engineer Regiment Volunteers—will have its headquarters in Gateshead, with a re-roled Parachute Engineer Squadron in Wakefield, taking under command squadrons in Newcastle and Sheffield.

"In addition, five new engineer squadrons will be raised in Kinloss, Cumbernauld, Failsworth, Northampton and Northern Ireland, as well as a new TA military intelligence battalion which will have five companies based across England and Scotland.

"A military provost staff company will be formed in Colchester. That will be a new capability for the TA and will provide a deployable expertise to assist and advise in the custody of detainees. A complete new Transport Regiment will be raised in the south-west, based in Plymouth with squadrons in Truro, Dorchester and Poole.

"As we have already announced, the TA infantry will be reduced by some 900 posts and reorganised to form 14 TA infantry battalions as an integral part of the Future Infantry Structure. We will now revert to the practice of naming TA battalions after the regular regiments of which they will form a part, rather than after the regions in which they are based. As a result of fewer volunteers being required as signallers, logisticians and combat medical staff, there will also be reductions in a number of other arms and services.

"The changes that I have outlined will not happen overnight, but over a number of years. For many volunteers, little will change at all. Those whose units are likely to change will of course be given every opportunity to discuss, understand and make an informed decision on their future. The vast majority will, I am sure, continue to be active members of the TA.

"Territorial Army volunteers have shown over the past century that they are extremely adaptable to the requirements of national security. The changes I have announced today will ensure that the TA continues to be a force for good in dealing with the challenges of the next century, as an integral part of our land forces. I commend them to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Defence, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development 1:48 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for letting me have an advance copy of it.

I start by paying tribute to the TA. It does an outstanding job and the Government would not have been able to carry out operations in Iraq without its support—not only in the specialist skills that it brings but in making up the shortfall in the Regular Army caused by the reductions under this Government. I also pay tribute to the employers, without whose support the TA could not operate. In particular, we should acknowledge the contribution of small businesses, which often have to make great sacrifices when members of their staff are deployed.

I declare an interest as an honorary colonel of a Royal Engineer TA regiment. The Royal Engineers are an important part of the Statement. I have not picked up any murmurs of dissent, which suggests that the Ministry of Defence is on the right path, certainly relating to the Royal Engineers. I, and they, especially welcome the changes to reinstate and rationalise the geographical location of Royal Engineer units.

We on these Benches welcome the increases in the numbers of TA Yeomanry and the affiliation of TA units with those regular units with whom they are likely to operate. We agree that that will improve mutual understanding and operational capability. We also welcome the TA provost staff company initiative. It is clearly vital to define, follow and monitor the best practice in custody matters. Will the Minister say whether those with civil experience who serve in this company will support the special investigation units? We welcome the formation of a new TA Army Air Corps Regiment. Will pilots have full access to training to ensure that they are readily available to support the Regular Army Apache attack helicopter regiments? We welcome the increase in permanent staff of 240. They are the backbone of the TA, and it is imperative that they are suitably qualified and trained to provide continuous support and training.

The manning levels of the TA are now at some of the lowest levels since the TA was founded in 1906. Yet the rate of deployment is higher than at any time in recent years. More than 13,500 men and women have left the Territorial Army since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and more than 6,000 have left in the past year alone. This translates to a rate of around 600 a month leaving the TA. Previously, about 150 left the TA every month, which kept TA levels relatively stable. Although we welcome the additional units proposed by the Government, we cannot understand the proposal to reduce some of the specialist units, such as medical staff. Last year's annual report specifically noted that this was an area of critical shortage.

Regular units rely heavily on TA medical staff while on operations, so is it realistic that fewer medical volunteers are needed with increasing commitments? Furthermore, we fail to understand why the infantry are to lose 900 TA posts. Does this mean that 900 personnel will be looking for new units, or is this figure of 900 plucked from the shortfall, in which case we are not missing what we have never had? If it is the former, we do not accept the principle that we need fewer infantry. The Statement mentions that there will be reductions in a number of other arms and services. Can the Minister be more specific about these cuts? Finally, may we have a similar Statement on Naval and Air Force reserves before too long?

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence 1:53 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating this important Statement on Territorial Army rebalancing. He says that it will be no surprise to TA units. Indeed not; it will be a relief. Uncertainty has been affecting morale for some months, and it has now ended. We on these Benches support the aims that are outlined in the Statement. It is obviously sensible to align the structure of the TA to the tasks of today rather than to those of the past. The Ministry of Defence now has a wealth of experience of recent operations to draw on to take sensible decisions about the TA.

The TA has become more than just a reserve for emergency use; it is now an essential part of expeditionary operations. We, too, share the widespread admiration for the dedication of the TA and other Reserve Forces. However, it must involve extra expenditure. We are talking about re-roling to more expensive tasks, and we are talking about more complex tasks that will continuously involve extra manned training days. What are the extra capital costs and extra running costs involved in these proposals?

The rebalancing exercise does not address some key issues. What assumptions is the Minister making about future manning levels of the TA? It is fine to say we will keep them at 42,000 but, as I said in your Lordships' House on 12 January, the strength of the TA at that time was only 36,940, and by the time non-operational units are taken out of the equation, the figure is closer to 32,000. The Minister rightly says that there should be a manning margin for training and mobilisation. I am astonished that this is a new concept. Perhaps the Minister could tell us why it has not been used in the past. This is not part of the Future Army Structure. We also welcome, albeit slightly guardedly, the assurances that the Government will try to limit compulsory deployments to one year in every five. I take note of the careful caveat that once in every three years remains possible. Will the Minister undertake to keep the House informed, perhaps annually, of how that target for compulsorily sending people on detachments is progressing?

In sum, therefore, we have a Territorial Army that is to be kept the same size but is well under establishment, with an increased allowance for manning and training margins, and with an aim of less frequent deployments. This must mean that fewer people are available each year for deployment. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how many operational TA people he thinks he will have in a steady state in the future.

The outline of the main organisational changes also gives rise to some questions, and I greatly welcome the focus on specialisations because they are so over-tasked in both the Territorial Army and the Regular forces. This is particularly true for engineers. A new TA engineer regiment and five new engineer squadrons will make a difference. But how long does the Minister believe it will take to be able to generate that sort of operational capability? Engineers are specialists, and they will need both aptitude and training. What analysis has been done to give confidence that these units can be formed? If that is true for Sappers, how much more true is it for the Army Air Corps Regiment and Apache helicopter pilots? We know that the AAC units often struggle with support for such a high-technology weapons system. Where are the skilled personnel to be drawn from to form this new regiment?

We particularly welcome the military provost staff company formation, knowing of the overstretch in the military police which your Lordships have often discussed in the recent past. Will the Minister undertake to examine whether this unit might be enlarged if it proves to be successful on what is actually a small scale at company level?

Members on these Benches feel particularly concerned about combat medical staff, to which the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, drew attention. Last month's Armed Forces Pay Review Body report showed that there is a 50 per cent shortfall in Army nurses and significant shortages in Army combat medical technicians. I spoke recently to a local Liberal Democrat councillor, not very far from your Lordships' House, who had just returned from a tour in Iraq as a TA nurse. I know the good work that they are doing out there. I would have expected medical staff to be the key area that we would focus on in any restructuring of the TA. I listened to the exchange in the other place when the Statement was made, and medical staff were a focus for concern on both sides of the House. I simply do not understand how there can be any logic to reducing the staff that we have, even if we do not have enough of them. We really must know that our troops have adequate medical support when we send them into danger.

Finally, will the Minister say how the reductions in infantry will be handled? Will it be done by natural wastage, or will there be compulsory terminations of service where transfer to new specialisations simply is not possible because of the individuals involved or because they do not want to transfer? The handling of these 900 posts will be very important for morale and hence for recruitment and retention. Perhaps the Minister can assure us that the very welcome 240 new permanent staff will receive guidance and training on how they can handle this change sensitively.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 1:59 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lords for their clear support in welcoming this Statement and for their comments about the tremendous contribution which our Reserve Forces make to our defence. In that spirit, I appreciate the way in which they have rightly focused on questions about the specifics, and I am happy to answer those general points as clearly as I can.

I note the noble Lords' astonishment at the slight innovation in the way in which this has been done. I think it reflects the level of innovation in the Ministry of Defence these days. We are learning lessons from the past and we are implementing them.

The changes announced today will be cost-neutral because of the way in which we will be better able to integrate what the Reserve Forces do with the regular forces. We think that there will be appreciable savings and efficiency. It will also improve the quality and scope of the training that Reserve Forces will be able to undertake. The noble Lord raised a specific point on Apache helicopters. We will not recruit Apache pilots. These personnel will be engaged to support armouring and refuelling the Apache in the Army Air Corps.

The noble Lords are right to focus on matters relating to medical combat personnel. This reflects the challenges in today's environment with the significant growth taking place within the NHS, for example, and the real challenge in recruiting personnel into this field. The rebalancing reflects a statement of recognition of that reality. It does not suggest that there is any diminution; it is a clear look at the specific needs of the TA as an integrated part of the one-Army concept, making sure that the rebalancing takes place within that structure. I note the positive comments on the provost company. I promise to look at how that goes. The noble Lord asked whether it will be acting in support of the SIB. Yes, that will be one of the functions of the provost company.

I want to make absolutely clear to the House that there will not be any compulsory redundancies as a result of this rebalancing exercise. These changes will be made over a period of time. As noble Lords have said, they have been done in full consultation. We believe that there is recognition of the current operational environment. For example, skills are now required within the logistics tail of operations that more closely reflect the skills that infantrymen in the front-line forces require. We therefore believe that it will be possible for people to transition from the infantry to support roles. That reflects the reality of the operational needs we see at this time.

I promise to keep the House informed on progress. We have set out our aspirations in terms of harmony. Noble Lords have asked me to come back to the House on a regular basis—perhaps annually—and I will do that. We believe that we can do this, but we will keep the House informed.

Photo of Lord Bramall Lord Bramall Crossbench 2:02 pm, 23rd March 2006

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. On the whole, I gratefully welcome it as focusing interest on this most important part of our defence forces. It was good to hear of the recognition given in the Statement to their once again winning their spurs with no fewer than 12,000 deployed in Iraq. Of course, the one-Army concept, which the Minister has mentioned, is nothing new. When I was Commander in Chief of UK land forces 30 years ago, I struggled to make that excellent concept work. But it is good to know that there is firm political support for it now.

In a perfect world, on the infantry side, for example, a regular battalion ought to have four companies for the job that it has to do, but for manpower limitation reasons has only three. It should be able, therefore, under certain circumstances to call on that fourth company from the territorial battalions which are now closely affiliated and integrated with the regulars, and bear the same name and cap badge. It is good to know that each TA unit will be given a definite role in large-scale operations and that, realistically and hopefully, the use of Reserves is limited to one year in five, or is it three? But it is important that a limitation like that is taken into consideration.

It is also good to know that the established strength will be kept at 42,000, plus the important officer training corps of 3,500. But the Government must do all in their power to see that the manning is not allowed to fall much below that which it is at the moment. The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, has pointed out some of the dangers in that respect. The Government must ensure that money is provided properly to train the force and to equip it.

In addition, it is good to know that within the manpower it will be possible to raise an aviation regiment of some form—a very good idea. I am rather sad that there is no opportunity to get civilian helicopter pilots into this—they might be useful and prepared in an emergency, as would engineers. I was always brought up to believe that you never had enough sappers. The Military Police and transport are of course very important.

I do not know what is meant in the Statement by:

"We have therefore made allowance . . . for both a training margin and a mobilisation margin".

Perhaps the Minister could be slightly more explicit. I hope that it does not mean that a TA company commander cannot, for some reason, train his complete company on training or even, under certain circumstances, on operations. Altogether, it is a positive Statement, which focuses attention on this vital part of our defence forces. I, for one, on the whole, greatly welcome it.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who, in his wide and deep experience, is fully cognisant of the challenges which we face in modernising our Reserve Forces and in making sure that the one-Army concept, as he described, really works well. I note his comments in support of the way in which we have gone about this. I want to make two points on manning, which other noble Lords also raised. We are committed to making sure that we address recruitment and retention. In the first two months of this year, we had a 1 per cent increase in manning levels, which shows that we are making progress and that the one-Army advertising campaign for regulars and the TA has been successful.

On the size of the force in the context of the regular Army, the current Chief of the Defence Staff made the point to me yesterday that the British Army is approximately the same size as it was at the Battle of Waterloo. Therefore, the changes which we have seen over the past 100 years or so reflect the environment as it has changed through two world wars. Despite today's challenging situation and the tempo of operations, we believe that we have a British Army fit to meet those operations because we have been innovative and prepared to make the reforms necessary.

Photo of Lord Freeman Lord Freeman Conservative

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the United Kingdom Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Both the uniformed and the civilian members of the TA will implement this rebalancing—it is not a reduction exercise—with every effort. Will the Minister please reflect to the general staff that we still have a great problem in officer recruitment and retention? In this rebalancing exercise, one way in which that will be ameliorated is if units that train together—officers, NCOs and soldiers—go to war together. We do not want trickle posting to be routine. We would like sub-units, or formed units, to go on active service abroad. If the Minister would convey that, I would be grateful.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments on training and fighting together, which I will pass back to the command structure. I will provide an answer to him.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. I, too, from this side, pay tribute to the loyalty, dedication and enthusiasm of the Territorial Army. I am concerned about medical units, an issue which has already been raised. In particular, I am concerned about the unit based at Chorley Barracks in Lancashire, which has already seen service in Iraq. Can my noble friend assure me that the future of that unit is being safeguarded and that it will remain at Chorley?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his support. I do not know the specific situation relating to the Chorley unit. I will write to him.

Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative

My Lords, the Minister mentioned two Scottish engineering companies. Will he confirm what else is to happen in Scotland? Are all the current TA headquarters and centres to remain? Secondly—and here I declare an interest as former Inspector General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force—has the Minister any plans to change the format or numbers of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in the foreseeable future?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, my understanding is that we do not expect to make any changes in Scotland. We intend to maintain units in Orkney and Shetland, an issue raised recently. With regard to changes to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, we are looking at reforms across our services. I am not aware of any specific reforms planned for the near future. I will write to the noble Lord if there is anything I feel should be brought to his attention.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, could the Minister clarify the following point? The noble Lord, Lord Garden, pointed out that, increasingly, the TA and reservists are seen as a central part of our expeditionary forces. Consider that, historically, the TA was seen as an essential part of this country's Armed Forces and the defence of this country. Ministers from the Ministry of Defence, myself included, used to tour the country, encouraging employers to make the best people they had available in a public-spirited way. People who have important jobs simply cannot take on in any continuing way a central role in expeditionary forces. The noble Lord, Lord Freeman, refers to the problem of recruiting and retaining officers and the sort of leaders we are looking for in the TA. However, most of those people will, almost by definition, have significant jobs in civilian life and are simply not available.

I am sorry for cutting into this general atmosphere of "what a wonderful Statement," but I have been deeply worried about the TA for some time. I think the Government's expectation that the TA should be a regular and available resource for expeditionary forces, supplementing gaps that exist because of difficulties of recruitment and retention in the regular forces, is, in the long run, disastrous for the retention of a strong and resilient TA, available, ultimately, to defend our country. I hope Ministers appreciate that situation and understand that if they take on these commitments, they must principally and significantly be met by the volunteers who make up our country's regular forces. The TA must not be seen as a resource that is totally available at all times for expeditionary activities.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I accept a number of the points the noble Lord makes, drawing on his deep experience in this area. This reflects the realities of the modern world. The noble Lord highlights the difficulty of people being able to deploy on operations being consistent with their civilian duties. That is the case. However, we have concluded, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, mentioned earlier, that having a one-army approach, where Reserves are deployed as an integral part of the regular army, such that, on operations, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between a reservist and a regular soldier, is absolutely the way to go. Therefore, we also have to manage these issues, which are also of concern to us. Retention, particularly of experienced officers, is something we must manage better. We are specifically looking at those issues in order to meet the conflict between the two areas.

Today we do not face the problem of having insufficient personnel for operations. The feedback I have received, and my own experience of talking to people in the Reserve Forces, show no shortage of volunteers to go on operations. Quite the opposite: there is a certain sense of being "well up for" the challenge. We are not facing challenges as regards the capacity required to mobilise, even given the tempo of operations we face. We recognise the issue we must manage in the long term. Ministers are aware of it and we are on the case.