Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Viscount Brookeborough Viscount Brookeborough Crossbench 9:00 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association Northern Ireland. My interest in these affairs comes from the fact that I was in the Regular Army and then served in Northern Ireland with part-time reservists. I am now involved with the Territorial Army.

My few short remarks refer to the Army reserves and to the target of 30,000 fully trained Army reservists that we have heard about. I ask the Minister where those 30,000 are going to come from because, at no time in the history of the Reserve Forces, has the full complement been fully trained. In our experience, 30,000 members does not refer to 30,000 fully trained; it is normally 75% or below.

In Northern Ireland the reserves were fully recruited—and even overrecruited—until the introduction of Capita, the new recruiting agency, into this process. The Province also had the highest percentage deployment rate per head of the population but recruitment is now going down. What has changed? It is not the availability of potential recruits. The conditions of service are improving; they are even better as time goes on. Only one thing has changed—the introduction of an agency and the breaking of that vital, personal contact during the initial stages of recruitment into the reserves. The Government may feel that this is moving with the times and noble Lords may compare it with modern banking and the increasing lack of personal contact with the branch managers and staff. We all have to bank somewhere, so we have to put up with that, but recruiting of potential reservists is different. They are probably employed, live within happy families and are looking for a new dimension to their lives with others from their local community. They do not have to join, nor deal with the faceless internet, and they do not want delay and hassle on top of their daily lives.

Northern Ireland was 100% recruited through traditional recruitment carried out by local sub-units, through schools, sporting and other clubs, and through friends who might have been current reservists. This new system has failed to be user-friendly at the first hurdle. The Government must also adapt their recruiting of reserves to the changing circumstances of today. Since the Iraq war, the reservists have joined up to go on operations, but now we are back to a training role, and there is no impending operation, for which we are all thankful. It may be a different type of person who will be required. Different support will be required for their families and even more enhanced support for their employers who may be less inclined in the long term to permit staff time off for training and topping up the numbers in the regular units. This might seem a thankless task to an employer. It is interesting that, towards the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, when we used so many part-time people, not only businesses but also government departments, such as those responsible for schools, roads and housing, were becoming more and more reluctant to allow their people to get away. Perhaps this does not have the long life that the Government would like to think.

I suggest that the Government have a much larger mountain to climb than they realise. I look forward to hearing the Minister say how they think they are going to do it. Time will tell.