Territorial Army: Rebalancing

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:53 pm on 23rd March 2006.

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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.