Armed Forces: Reserve Forces — Question

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:41 pm on 1st November 2012.

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Photo of Lord Walker of Aldringham Lord Walker of Aldringham Crossbench 5:41 pm, 1st November 2012

My Lords, after many years of involvement with and command of the TA, I have always held our reserves in singularly high regard, but that regard is dosed with a good dollop of realism and an understanding of the art of the possible for Army volunteer units. I stress Army because I do not know the Royal Naval and Royal Air Force Reserves as well.

Against that background, I have a number of concerns about the proposals in the report, Future Reserves 2020. Of course, there is not time to discuss them all today, so I will confine myself to just two: recruiting and roles. These are self-evidently linked because if we do not recruit sufficient volunteers there will be gaps in the Army's order of battle and if the roles are not exacting, exciting or attractive enough then volunteers will not bother to join.

Recruiters for the Regular Army judge that about 20% of recruits are so-called "army barmy". In other words, these are people who have passionately wanted all their young lives to join the Army and have done so. Clearly, a number of territorial reserves feel the same. These are not the people I am talking about because they will probably join whatever the Government of the day do to reform the service. The fact is that there will never be enough in this category alone to fill the ranks of either the regular or the TA elements of the Army.

To my knowledge, since the 1980s the Territorial Army has never been recruited above 80% of its full established strength. Indeed, its current unreformed strength is well below that at around 50%. There is as yet little evidence to indicate that this phenomenon will be different whatever the size of the force. Indeed, the smaller the critical mass, the less likely it will be able to keep its strength up. Nor should we underestimate the extent of the disincentive from the rationalisation-in other words, the significant reduction-of the TA estate. I would compare the impact of that on recruiting to what would happen if coffee drinkers found that Starbucks reduced its number of coffee outlets. If a Starbucks is to hand, people will go and buy their coffee there. If they have to travel some 10 miles to get to the nearest Starbucks, they will go somewhere else. That is also the case for those who might join the TA but take proximity to one of its centres into account. It is particularly the case for those who live in rural areas and may have to travel 20, 30, 40 or more miles to attend an evening or weekend session.

There is then the paradox of why people join the TA. Some who join are used in their professional specialisation. Doctors, dentists and chaplains are classic examples and there are many others. But many join to have a complete change from their professional skill. Lawyers, teachers and bankers love being riflemen, gunners and engineers, for example. They genuinely do not want to be used in their professional capacity and would probably not join if they were forced to do so.

However, my experience has been that we have gained the most effective use of the territorials by employing them in uniform to use their specialist professional skills. In Bosnia, I had a TA infantry officer who was, in civilian life, a High Court judge. He was an absolute wizard at translating the small print of the Dayton agreement into practical instructions for the warring factions. In that capacity, he made a far greater contribution to the overall operation than he would have done in his capacity as an infantryman. In Iraq, several teachers and bankers were diverted from their primary roles to help develop schools and banking systems. Indeed, our experience on recent operations is that we need people who understand the media, construction, politics, law, economics and all manner of areas for which the Army is never the first port of call. Balancing this with those who aspire to be straightforward soldiers and the needs of the total force is a delicate task: get it wrong and the volunteers will vote with their feet, even more so than the regulars because for them it is by and large a secondary job.

We also need to look at the terms of service for these folk. The EU part-time workers directive makes it clear that a part-time worker must be treated no less favourably than a comparable full-timer. That means that unless employers can objectively justify exclusion, part-time employees have to be provided with access to pension schemes on a basis no less favourable than for their full-time counterparts. I have no doubt that the clever clogs in the MoD will find some objective justification to gain derogation from this and there is no mention of it in the report. But if it is to be an integrated Army, and on moral grounds, surely we should make volunteer service to the Armed Forces of our nation pensionable. Of course the smaller the Army, the more often its component parts are likely to be used. Employers, as we have heard, are generally good people and their track record in supporting the deployment of their workforces to operations is commendable, but we must ask ourselves whether, if such deployments become routine rather than in the event of national crisis, this willingness to be supportive will continue.

Finally, my purpose in identifying these issues is not to kick dust in the face of the reforms, for I very much hope that all comes good, but it would be wrong of me to say that I agree with the outcome of the latest defence review. I regard it as a dangerous dismantlement of our Armed Forces for short-term gain in the face of years of historical evidence and at a time when global instability is rife and there is a plethora of asymmetric risks to our national security. The report Future Reserves 2020 recognises that there is risk in the proposals it contains for our part-time force. My own experience tells me, sadly, that that risk is highly likely to materialise.