Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:54 pm on 15th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Freeman Lord Freeman Conservative 7:54 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, I shall speak briefly about a rather narrow but important issue: the expansion of our Reserve Forces. There was reference in the gracious Speech to this, but, so far, the response from not only colleagues in both Houses of Parliament but also in the press has been rather muted. I can assure my noble friend on the Front Bench that I am not expecting any reply this evening; I seek simply to place on record my strong support and admiration for what the Minister has achieved already in supporting the Reserve Forces.

My very modest qualification for contributing to this debate is having been the Minister responsible for the Reserve Forces in the United Kingdom and recently, during the past decade, president of the Reserve Forces Association. I commence by paying tribute to the 29 Territorial Army soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent years.

The Government have a very ambitious target—the gracious Speech referred very briefly to this—of increasing the number of the Reserve Forces to 30,000 by 2018 from a current base of about half that, and half that, frankly, is not as well trained as would have been the case 10, 20 or 30 years ago. The challenge is significant and represents the most radical reform over the past 50 years.

The advantage of recruiting men and women into our Reserve Forces is that they often have very special skills; for example, as engineers, doctors, linguists et cetera. There is also greater geographical cover and therefore a relationship between our Armed Forces and the community which is now becoming either limited or non-existent as our Regular Forces fall in number and are concentrated in fewer bases.

According to exchanges that I have had with the Ministry of Defence, a White Paper on precisely how we are going to recruit 30,000 reserves is due very soon. It will set out the challenges. In my judgment, a sensible notice period has to be given to employers, particularly small employers, about when a reservist is likely to be called up. That has been one of the biggest problems that the Territorial Army has faced during the past 20 or 30 years. We also need to increase employer awareness of the requirements. This is particularly important for small firms. If you employ only five or six people, it is extremely important that you know how long the notice period will be before someone is called up, how long they will be away and when they will be back. There must be an opportunity for young men and women who join the reserves as officers to command. During the past 10 or 20 years when we have sent troops to Afghanistan and other theatres of conflict, we have sent regular soldiers and reservist soldiers but not the young officers who need to get experience in command. We need to deploy units of the Reserve Forces together with the Regular Forces so that they can train together in this country and serve together.

A distinguished previous Black Rod in this House and I worked on post-traumatic stress, which is extremely important as other Ministers who have served in the Ministry of Defence know. It affects far too many of our returning regular soldiers. We have to make sure that services are available also for our reservists. It is a hidden and very worrying problem for many in civilian society.

To double the size of our Reserve Forces from about 15,000—I would not claim that all of them were properly or fully trained—to 30,000 by 2018 is a bold objective, but I congratulate not only the Minister but the Ministry of Defence and the senior military staff there on making sure that we are going to meet that challenge. I am sure that it will be in the interests of service to the country, and I hope that we will see and debate the White Paper very soon.