I start by paying tribute to the men and women of the armed forces around the world, whether or not they are reservists. Their courage and dedication to duty in the most difficult and trying conditions is paramount in our minds.
I had the privilege of serving in the Royal Naval Reserve for more than a decade and, other than the annual training deployment, I was not mobilised. Today, young men and women in the reserves expect to be called up regularly for a substantial period, of which my hon. Friend Mr. Swayne is an excellent example. It is critical that policymakers do not forget that although those people are volunteers, we should acknowledge the disruption to their lives and the consequences of their mobilisation.
In 1996, the previous Government recognised the changing pattern in maximising the effectiveness of the reserve forces, and they started to allow them to engage more freely in the operations of the regular forces. In 1998, the incoming Government acknowledged their manifesto pledge to conduct a strategic defence review of the armed forces and the Territorial Army was restructured away from its original cold war role to support the armed forces in rapid deployment missions abroad. It has become involved in the type of peace-keeping operations that characterised the post-cold war period: for example, the RNR lost its minesweeping role.
Although there was little change to the size of the RNR and the reserve Air Force, there was a significant reduction in manpower in the Territorial Army—from 57,000 to about 40,000—which, with hindsight, was possibly a mistake. The defence White Paper in 2003 did not announce major changes to the reserves, but it acknowledged their growing importance and made several recommendations regarding support and financial assistance for reservists and employers. One purpose of the debate is to explore whether that has gone far enough and has adequate vigour.
There is no doubt that the retention of the reserves gives a number of distinct advantages: a reservist is cost-effective and costs about 20 per cent. of his regular counterpart. Equally important, with the decline of national service and conscription, is the fact that the reserves provide a link between the armed forces and the wider community. In the aftermath of 9/11, a further role with responsibilities in civil defence contingencies was added.
It was a good decision to use the reserve forces as civil contingency units; 9/11 changed the world as we know it for ever. There are, however, questions whether those units are properly equipped and have all the resources they need. There is also the question whether some personnel could be double-hatted. To be fair, the Ministry of Defence has vigorously rejected those concerns, but they still exist and it would be helpful if the Minister told us the position.
Last December, I had a golden opportunity to visit Iraq with the Select Committee on Defence. It was obvious straight away that the reserve forces play a major role there, providing 15 per cent. of the forces. The very efficient female private driving my car told me that only a year earlier she had been a beautician in Belfast. She joined the TA for a bit of variety and now finds herself in the middle of the Iraqi desert. That example was commonplace; reservists have a wide range of responsibilities and make a first-class contribution. They are fully engaged in activities well over and above their expectations.
Will my hon. Friend recognise the outstanding role played by the Royal Auxiliary Air Force as well as those of the Territorial Army and the Royal Naval Reserve, to which he belonged? Is it not notable that No. 600 (City of London) Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force, from Northolt in my constituency, sent a range of different specialists to fill gaps and provide essential skills, without which the service could not have functioned effectively?
I do recognise their contribution. To pick up on my hon. Friend's point, I realise that whole operations may not be able to take place without the contribution of the reservists. When talking about the reserves it is easy to think primarily of the TA, but it is essential to include the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. That is why I use the word reservists as much as possible.
Since 1999, 30 per cent. of the TA's total strength has been mobilised for operations in support of the Regular Army. The majority of them have served in Iraq, but a large number have been mobilised voluntarily as individuals to serve in theatres of operations from Afghanistan to the Balkans. The mobilisation culture has transformed the TA post-cold war. Once seen as the weekend warriors, the TA and other reservists are now largely accepted as an integral part of the armed forces by regular servicemen.
When I was in the Gulf, I visited HMS Marlborough and met key Royal Naval Reserve personnel serving on board. They were playing a full part in the operation of that ship and in protecting the oil platforms essential to the survival of the Iraqi economy. The phrase "one Army"—and, dare one say it, "one Navy"—has been coined and is much used by the Ministry of Defence; that is supported by the announcement that each regular infantry regiment will have a TA infantry battalion attached.
All that is illustrated in the excellent publication by the directorate of reserve forces and cadets entitled "Future use of the UK's Reserve Forces", which also starkly points out that everyone who joins the reserves should expect to be mobilised at least once—a far cry from yesteryear. The crunch lies in the section entitled "Frequency of mobilisation", from which I shall read as it puts the case far more succinctly than I possibly could:
"The Volunteer Reserve Forces are not an infinite resource. Their availability to fulfil the roles set out above depends upon their levels of recruitment and training and upon their availability for mobilisation. The attitude of Reservists, and of potential Reservists, will in turn be influenced by the attitudes of both their families and of their current and potential employers."
It could not be better put. It goes on to say that, of late, mobilisations have resulted in
"a maximum cumulative total of one year out of three", but that it believes that to be unsustainable, so it is now considering an aggregate of 12 months over five years, which it considers far more reasonable. I am sure that everybody will agree. It is important that the director of reserve forces and cadets recognises the difficulties.
All that prompts several questions. Are we treating reservists properly? Are we rewarding them properly? Could we operate without them? As the answer to the latter question is increasingly likely to be no, the first two questions deserve serious scrutiny. A clue to the answers lies in the recruitment and retention of reservists. In his appearance before the Defence Committee, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Michael Jackson, acknowledged that the reserves are below their establishment level of 42,500. The latest figures indicate that TA numbers are at 38,320, including the non-deployable university officers training corps of 4,800, leaving the TA with a deployable 33,530—way below the required number. General Jackson acknowledged that he has concerns about TA recruiting. With the greater use of reservists in the front line, up to 20 per cent. of the Army could be reservists in future wars. We have a serious problem that has to be addressed.
As the director of reserve forces and cadets recognised, the attitudes of families and employers are critical. I, like others, was concerned to read reports of TA veterans of the Iraq war being sacked by their employers in Britain while on active duty. That is a worrying development and could severely undermine morale in the reserves. It is one thing for them to risk their necks, quite another to risk their jobs. An employer cannot refuse to allow a reservist to go when called up and it is a statutory offence to sack the reservist if that happens. However, that is only a right and the Government have left it to the individuals to pursue their cases. One of the problems is that reservists have to take legal action on their own without any financial or legal support from the Ministry of Defence. Cases of reservists using up all their savings are not unknown. Will the Minister set out what plans he has to give greater support to reservists who have lost their jobs?
There is also the problem of reservists injured on duty. In one particularly high-profile case, Mr. David Corrigan damaged his knee while on active service as a paramedic with the Parachute Regiment. He has had a number of operations and incurred considerable personal expense. He has had to leave the TA and give up his job with the ambulance service. Because he was no longer on active service, the Army stopped paying for his treatment. Mr. Corrigan has been shocked at the difference in treatment between TA soldiers and their full-time colleagues.
Mr. Corrigan's Member of Parliament, who happens to be the Prime Minister, has written to the Secretary of State for Defence calling for TA members who served in wartime to be treated as regular soldiers. The Prime Minister's agent said that Mr. Corrigan had been
"treated very badly. His case has raised the whole issue of how TA members are treated when they return from serving in wartime."
I welcome the Prime Minister's intervention to try to remedy a medical wrong. It would perhaps be described in some quarters as opportunistic, and this case illustrates what a childish response that is to addressing today's problems. At least Mr. Corrigan will be able to recover 50 per cent. of his expenses under a future Conservative Government. Given the high profile nature of the Prime Minister's intervention, will the Minister tell us whether medical treatment can be made available to reservists who suffer injury when on active service?
The important point is that if reservists are to be treated like regulars and the principle is established, they should have the same rights and protection. The irony is of course that reservists have had the greater disruption to their lives and have a greater need of the services than some existing servicemen. That is not only the case in health and employment protection. Questions are being raised about military pensions. A long-serving TA major who launched a High Court battle for the right to a military pension after 1,100 days of active service has had to reject the unbelievable contention by the MOD that he was casual labour. Will the Minister assure us that that defence will no longer be used and give us an insight into his thinking on the issue?
Employment rights, health care and pension rights are all important issues for the men and women who serve the country in the reserve forces. They know what danger is all about. The question is, do their Government recognise that? I said at the beginning that the reserve forces are a cost-effective option for the Government, but with their numbers down and difficulties with recruitment, the MOD has to take a hard look at its approach. All that goes to strategic commitment.
In the recently published report on future capabilities by the Defence Committee it was perfectly clear that financial constraints are behind the tensions and stretch now being experienced in the armed forces. The reservists in Iraq are a sharp reminder of that. If there are cuts in ships and aircraft, and reductions in infantry, sooner or later something will have to give, and there will be gaps in capability. That will create a risk that need not have been taken if there had been more careful planning. As the First Sea Lord said, we have now got into the business of coping with risk upon risk. The cuts have been caused by the high costs of new equipment, which is being introduced in a haphazard and poorly planned way. These gaps will have to be filled by men and women who must be supported at all costs. The reserves will play an integral part in doing that, and we ignore them at our peril.
I congratulate Richard Ottaway on securing this debate. I am interested in the topic under discussion, although I have no personal experience of serving in the military or the Territorial Army. However, I have the privilege of representing Monmouth, and I think that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that he was recently on board HMS Monmouth. Am I right?
I apologise for my mistake, but if the hon. Gentleman were to have the opportunity to go on board HMS Monmouth, I would encourage him to do so. I have been on board the ship several times.
I have an interest in the debate: Monmouth is the regimental headquarters of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers, which is the senior reserve regiment in the British Army. Mr. Gray always disputes that; however, although it is not the oldest regiment in the Army reserve, it is the senior one, and it is the only regiment in the British Army that has two "Royals" in its name. There is not sufficient time now to go into the history of the regiment, but if any Members want to visit the regimental museum in Monmouth, they will find it very interesting.
When we had the strategic defence review, many Members wanted to save their local TA regiment. The Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers was not only saved, but its role was enhanced, although there was a minor reduction in one of its bases in the midlands. Good representation, and the case that it makes for its important role in serving the Army and in having engineering expertise, helped to protect it.
The regiment provided the largest reserve force deployment in Iraq. About 40 of its members were deployed in Operation Telic 1, and about 140 in Operation Telic 2. I had the great privilege of attending its medal ceremony a few months ago, when His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester presented medals to all those who had served in Iraq. Their role there was largely threefold. First, they contributed to the post-conflict infrastructure: they were involved in developing new water and sewerage systems, and in establishing electricity supply and restoring power in general, and they helped in the reconstruction of what became known as Aldershot bridge. Secondly, they performed a humanitarian role: in the post-conflict situation in Iraq, they supported communities in the Basra area. However, that role was curtailed by the need for force protection, and the regiment was also greatly involved in that.
The hon. Member for Croydon, South has made some important points about support from employers for the TA. I would have been appalled if any employer had discriminated against someone who had served in the reserve forces and had been deployed abroad. However, there is a concern about that. It is my understanding that reservists cannot be deployed more than once in three years, that the norm is about once in five years, and that the general feeling is that that norm should be adhered to. Many of the families of those who serve in the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers are worried that, as members of the regiment served in Iraq more than a year ago, they might be deployed again next year. If the Minister can give an assurance that that is not the case, I am sure that they would welcome that. Members of the regiment are aware of the responsibilities that they take on when they join, and they want to use their skills to the best effect.
It is important just to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that a cumulative period of 12 months in five years is what is being proposed, and that that could result in more than one deployment in that period.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that. If that were to increase the pressures on people and the chances of them being deployed in difficult situations such as those in Iraq, the representation to which I have just referred would need to be seriously listened to.
Brigadier Ian Cholerton, who heads the Army in Wales, gave a briefing at Westminster a couple of days ago to Welsh Members of Parliament. I asked him to give that briefing after I heard a similar one that he gave at the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers' headquarters in Monmouth only a few weeks ago. He gave a very good briefing to the Secretary of State for Defence, and I asked if he could give a similar one to Welsh Members of Parliament on Monday.
Unfortunately, not many hon. Members from Wales could attend, but the brigadier talked about the future structure of the Army in Wales and the central role that the Territorial Army will have. It has the expertise, especially in engineering, and it is a great honour to be the Member of Parliament for the constituency in which the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers is based. I am an honorary associate of the regiment, and I am happy to do anything that I can to represent its interests and those of its families.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests as a serving officer in the Territorial Army.
I was fortunate to be granted an Adjournment debate by the Speaker about a year ago, shortly after I returned from Iraq and when that experience was fresh in my mind. By and large, I have said what I have to say, and that is on the record. That brief was not dissimilar from the one that I gave to the Chief of the General Staff conference on
Undoubtedly, the measure of the effectiveness of the Territorial Army is that its soldiers—the reservists—should be indistinguishable when compared and serving with their regular counterparts. I am broadly satisfied that they are, which is a credit to them and to the regulars with whom they serve.
I did, and do, have a reservation about the extent to which we are using reserves in medium-sized operations of low intensity. The ordinary citizen—the taxpayer—is entitled to ask how we can do with a smaller Regular Army and fewer infantry, but expect to call out reservists more often. By and large, however, it is undoubtedly true that the reservists welcome the opportunity to serve and enjoy doing so. That is largely why they join.
Many of us will have participated in debates on the reserve forces. My hon. Friend Mr. Brazier called for the much greater use of the reservists, and argued for ways in which we should make them more useable. We have done so, and we are using them, so it is difficult to complain on that account.
If members of the reserve forces were in any doubt about the commitment that they were making when they joined—if they believed, perhaps, that they were joining the boy scouts—they will have been disabused of that belief by now. Members of the reserve force now know exactly what their membership entails, so there should be no particular problem on that account. There will, however, be a considerable problem when it comes to employers and careers.
When I joined the reserve forces, we did not have to worry about our jobs, because we would be mobilised only when there was the danger of the first Russian shock army advancing across the north German plain. We did not have to worry too much about returning to our jobs, because we would be packing our bergens when our wives were reading the Home Office leaflet about how to build a nuclear shelter under the stairs.
I always wondered how many people would leave their wives in those circumstances, packing their nuclear, biological and chemical warfare gear into their bergens and leaving their families exposed in city centres. Mercifully, we were never faced with the reality of finding what would have happened in those circumstances.
We now have the new policy of show and tell, if I might paraphrase it in that way. Reservists must now inform their employer and authorise their military unit to communicate with their employer about their reserve liability. Undoubtedly, that will be a disincentive for employers to employ members of the reserve forces due to the consequences of that liability. For the mobilisations that we had with Operation Telic, it worked tremendously well, and by and large, employers have been supportive. However, we have yet to see how that will roll forward in future, and whether they will continue to be as supportive.
The burden can be shared by a larger reserve force. The larger the reserve force, the more the burden of mobilisation can be spread, and the less frequently the same individuals will be called. At the moment, my fear is that we are dipping into a pretty small pool, and the water is getting muddier. We must be particularly aware of and concerned about that. It is all very well asking for larger reserve forces, but when they are as under-recruited as they are at present, that prompts the question of how we shall achieve that.
When I joined the Territorial Army, I did it for the money. It was fun, but when I joined the officer training corps at university, I think it was £13 for a weekend, which was money well worth having in the mid-1970s. I am not so sure that in today's society, with relatively high employment and wages, that is the incentive or the attraction that it was, and we must start to look for more innovative ways of recruiting and retaining reservists. There are opportunities, but I wonder about the extent to which the training available, and the qualifications that reservists—and any military personnel—can acquire through courses, can be encouraged to be recognised in civilian life. For example, modules for certain courses could be, by arrangement with certain business schools, made eligible as part of the modules for a master of business administration. More technical and vocational training could be recognised as a contribution to a corresponding civilian qualification. That would provide an incentive for personnel to go into the military and to stay there; at the same time it might also provide a more tangible benefit for employers. That is worth investigating; I know that the Ministry has been considering that, and I hope that that continues and gingers up.
My principal concern is that of tour length. The policy when I was in the Gulf was that reservists were mobilised specifically to serve with a particular formation, and their tour length would be that of the formation. If the formation was going out for a four-month tour, reservists did a four-month tour. The general policy for augmentees, such as staff officers who were mobilised and sent out to a headquarters formation, was that they would do six months. Generally, the tour lengths were four or six months: four with the regular formation going into a roulement or six months for augmentees. Can the Minister tell me, either in his summing-up or by correspondence, whether that policy has changed?
My concern is that if one moves beyond that six-month barrier, and extends tour lengths beyond six months—I know that the liability that one signs up for is one year in any three at present, although there are proposals to change that to one year in any five—that makes it more difficult for employees to return to their careers and to pick up the threads of a civilian life. My advice to the Minister is to stick as close to the six months for the maximum tour length as he can get away with.
I was interested in the point that my hon. Friend Richard Ottaway raised in respect of providing some legal back-up to the statutory rights of personnel. It is all very well to give someone a statutory right, but to tell them, when they come back and find that they have lost their job, "Sorry, mate, you're on your own," is not a proper response. The point about legal back-up is worth considering. It will be interesting to see how my employers react to my mobilised service at the first opportunity that they will have to do so on
I congratulate Richard Ottaway on securing the debate. Although we suffer a little from few Members being present, we all appreciate the way in which he has brought this matter to the attention of the House. There is very little in what he said with which we do not all agree. We have benefited considerably from the broad experience and knowledge of Mr. Swayne, who provided even more support for the humane, reasonable and sensible suggestions that have been brought to the Minister's attention.
At this point, I am uncertain whether this may be the swan-song in office of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Caplin—an office that he has held during an interesting and perhaps difficult period for the Ministry of Defence. I wish him all the very best. We have met regularly in the Committees considering the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004 and other legislation, and although he was probably working under the considerable constraints of the Treasury and others, I often felt that he sympathised with our views, even if he ultimately did not agree with us. Perhaps on this occasion, at the twenty-third hour and fifty-ninth minute of his ministerial career, he might give some indication that he has sympathy with some of the things that we are saying.
I was trying to resist, but could do so no longer. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I thought that he was going to talk about a compensation scheme because he, among others, argued in Committee that we should make the armed forces a special case. He will have noticed from various recent announcements, and will see in the written statement that I will make tomorrow, that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agreed that, provided the personnel in question stay within the armed forces, compensation payments in the new scheme should be tax free.
I am delighted by that confirmation. No one would say that that is not a good thing. However, many of us think that opportunities in respect of certain aspects of the compensation arrangements were missed during our consideration of the Act, which will come into force from
It is right to pay proper tribute to the courage, commitment and professionalism of our armed forces and particularly, in this debate, to our reserve forces. I pay a warm tribute to the reserve forces for all that they do. I sometimes think that their role is not well publicised in the media. They are so interchangeable with the full-time personnel that that they are sometimes indistinguishable and therefore do not receive additional recognition. As has been said, however, they are a vital part of the UK's armed forces. The reserve forces consist of men and women who give considerable amounts of their time, and in some cases even their lives, on behalf of their country. The operation in Iraq has involved the largest call-up of reservists since the Suez crisis in 1956. Since January 2003, some 11,000 reservists have been mobilised to support the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and considerable numbers remain there today.
Regrettably, the violence in Iraq persists—we see that on our television screens fairly regularly—and more countries are considering withdrawing their troops or are doing so. Future operations, especially in peacekeeping, peace enforcement and reconstruction support, will be manpower intensive. The work cannot be done by the vast quantities of technological equipment that we now have; it requires men and women to do it. It is clear to me and to all hon. Members that the pressures on our reserve forces will increase. That will have serious implications, not least for training periods, recruitment and the treatment of reservists when they return home in terms of employment and job security, as has been amply demonstrated.
There are increasing demands on all our armed forces. The current manning levels have resulted in a growing dependence on the use of reservists to meet our commitments abroad, which in turn places greater pressure on them, and then we see that they are not up to full strength either. At the beginning of the year, the Under-Secretary renewed the compulsory call-out of reservists to support operations in Iraq. At that time, we were told in the House that some 2,350 reservists were called out in the previous year. The decision to use the TA and reservists to an increasing extent on the front line raises the question of the extent to which the Ministry of Defence is compensating for a basic lack of manpower in the British Regular Army.
The Government's decision to cut manpower in the Army has been questioned on a number of occasions. As we have said repeatedly—I firmly believe this—our troops are the best piece of kit in the British armed forces and we must ensure that they are properly trained, highly motivated and well equipped. The pressure on reserve forces was highlighted a couple of years ago, when the members at an armed forces reservist field hospital were told that they would have to stay in Iraq while the personnel from both regular field hospitals came home.
As has been mentioned, the length of operations and the time between them for reservists should be carefully considered, because any additional pressure will have a detrimental effect on the morale of the TA and on recruitment. I was struck by what the hon. Member for New Forest, West said about the periods for which people are away. I, too, think that six months should be the maximum. When we think of how businesses operate today and the speed with which they move when it comes to their customer base, technology, systems, mergers, acquisitions and so on, we see that even six months can be quite a long time to be away from one's post. When people return, they have to assimilate into that company or business again. There may be new personnel and new systems to deal with as well as all the other issues, not the least of which is the experience of spending six months in a place such as Iraq.
The standard of training for our reserve forces is very important. This month, a newspaper report instigated an investigation of a case in which British troops were sent on guard duty in Iraq without bullets because they were not fully weapons trained. I am sure that that was a relatively isolated incident, but it showed that there is pressure to put people into posts for which they might not be fully trained. They might be required to undertake the last part of their training on deployment.
It is, however, clear that there are continuing problems with training and equipping our forces in Iraq. We want no corners to be cut in training because it is so vital to the expertise that we deploy and the safety of those who undertake such work. We must also ensure that reservists are treated in a similar fashion to regular soldiers in the British Army, not only because that is right, but because they cannot be seen to be indistinguishable when they are required to undertake the same job and might face even greater pressures because they have to return to civilian life. Those men and women deserve to have the same rights as soldiers in the Army, if not better.
A month ago, a case went to the High Court concerning the right to a military pension. There were times during the passage of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act when pensions for reservists were highlighted. Mr. Brazier was particularly exercised about the subject and cited a significant number of examples. We will see more such examples if the Government continue to rely more on reservists to fulfil certain functions. More claims will be made for a military pension and it is something that should have been tackled under the Act.
The case in the High Court could be a landmark case; its outcome will certainly affect many TA members. The major who took his case to court had been a member of the TA for more than 34 years. He claimed that, under European Union law, he should be treated no less favourably than full-time members of the armed forces, who have pension rights. Although he was a part-time soldier, he was not—in his words—"casual labour". I am sure that we support that argument.
In the Prime Minister's constituency, we have the high-profile case of David Corrigan. When I read that the Prime Minister was writing to the Secretary of State for Defence saying that TA soldiers should be treated the same as regular soldiers, I thought it strange that he could send those people to war, but could not decide whether they should be treated the same as regular soldiers. I am not certain how that works, but if the Prime Minister felt that the case was proven and he wished to support it, it should not have been difficult for the Secretary of State to answer in the affirmative. Can the Minister say how that case is being considered now?
The increasing pressure on reserves to participate in ongoing military operations in Iraq will have an effect on the retention and recruitment of reservists. Let us consider the relationship between businesses and their employees who are members of the reserves. Many years ago, people would have proudly put the fact that they were TA reservists on their CV. It would have been positive information for an employer to consider when men or women applied for jobs. It would have provided a real character reference, but I wonder whether people would include that information on their CV today. It might be difficult for the employer to assimilate. We must accept that businesses are under much pressure—I do not mean usual business competitive pressures, but pressures in respect of their employees. We are all aware of the terms of maternity leave and paternity leave, and now reservist staff must be taken into account. Businesses today tend to function with the staffing required for the job in hand—there is very little slack. More and more companies take on contract staff, preferring not to employ the staff themselves but to use an agency to provide the number of staff required at any one time. The opportunities for what I might call the ordinary business to employ people in the usual way are becoming fewer.
If more businesses are being required to consider such leave patterns, it will change their view of whether they want to employ people in the reserve forces; it will become more and more difficult. The Government have to recognise that they cannot continue to pile additional pressures on businesses without there being a reaction. The Minister might like to give us some idea of how the Ministry of Defence is approaching the problem, which will not go away. Businesses are not suddenly going to say, "We will be only too pleased to see many of our staff disappear for six months at a time." If we are going to rely more upon reserve forces, a lot more work will have to be done with employers.
Finally—I think that this is the undercurrent of what has been said so far—the Government have made a positive decision to create a reserve force that will be deployed far more than was thought possible some years ago. It will become an integral part of our forces and we will make much greater use of our reservists. That will require the Government to take a different approach and to consider those men and women in a different light. We did not see much of that in the legislation on paying compensation, but I hope that such debates as this will begin to change the MOD's mind about how it treats those whom we want to attract to the reserve forces, because in the years to come they will become more necessary and we will be more reliant on them.
I, too, congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend Richard Ottaway on bringing the subject to the attention of the House. Not only did he serve in the senior service, but he is a now member of the Defence Committee. He brings a lot of experience and thought to our debate. He raised the subject in a non-confrontational way in an attempt to mark out not only the role of our reservists—many of whom, as we speak, are serving in the line of fire—but some of the problems that they will face in future.
I add to the comments of Mr. Breed, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, by saying that this is notionally the Minister's last appearance at the Dispatch Box. I genuinely wish him all the best. We have not always agreed, but he has worked hard in his post, and his work for veterans and veteran organisations is much appreciated.
I do not know what the Minister will do when he eventually stands down. I believe that Mrs. Liddell has been promised the post of high commissioner in Australia—assuming that the Labour party returns to government—and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Mr. Boateng, has a promissory note for South Africa. Governor of Gibraltar might have been the kind of largesse that an old Labour Government or an old Conservative Government might have bestowed. However, we wish the Minister all the best.
My hon. Friends and others have attempted to put the core of our debate, the service of reserve forces in Iraq and the challenges and problems that they face, in some sort of historical context. You would expect me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as someone who started his working life as a military historian, to appreciate what has been the traditional view for more than 100 years, and especially in the Regular Army, of reserve forces and particularly of the Territorial Army. My hon. Friend Mr. Wilkinson, who is no longer in the Chamber, rightly noted that the reserves are also drawn from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, but the bulk today come from the TA, and the regulars often regarded the TA as a bit of a joke.
At the beginning of the first world war, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener disparaged the TA as a town clerks army, but they contributed more than 50 per cent. of the soldiers who served in the first world war, and more people served in the TA than in the Regular Army or Kitchener's Army. I would hazard a guess that the situation was nearly the same in the second world war, too. So, that town clerks army provided a massive amount of manpower, which was used physically to defend the United Kingdom and on many operations.
It always used to be thought in the Regular Army that an attachment to the TA was the kiss of death, and becoming adjutant of a TA battalion was the equivalent of being appointed a junior Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions: it was not necessarily the most exciting appointment. Of course, General Mike Jackson is living proof that that is not true. He was posted to outer Siberia, as it were, when he became adjutant of the 10th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment in Scotland—if he could survive that, he could survive anything. As we know, he ultimately became Chief of the General Staff.
The Regular Army has always had an ambivalent attitude to its reserves, and I suspect that the same is true in the Navy and the Air Force. That ambivalence comes down to two things. In the past, reservists were part-time soldiers; the reserves were seen as a drinking club or something that people joined for money. It was thought that reservists wanted to wear the uniform and that they sashayed around, but did not do real service. Their medal ribbons were thought to be for 25 years' undetected crime, rather than for real service. Secondly, whatever limited money the regular armed forces had, it sometimes had to go to the reserve forces, and the regulars always felt that they could use the money better.
There is no doubt that a major change has come about in the past 10 years. That is because the old wartime generation has gone, and the cold war generation is on its way out. It is also because of the nature of the operations in which we are now involved, as well as the basic line taken by the strategic defence review and, more recently, by a whole series of add-ons to that review, culminating in the defence White Paper.
I am not saying this as a purely partisan point, but it is fair to say that the Government are having to claw back from the strategic defence review in many respects. Colleagues on both sides of the House felt that the territorial and reserve forces had been cut too much. The basic line, certainly as far as the Army was concerned, was that if push came to shove, and it was a choice between money for the regulars and money for the TA, the TA would have to take the cuts. We now recognise that those cuts went too far, not least because of the need, during so-called peacetime, to deploy the reserve forces on a scale never before seen in our history, as several colleagues have mentioned.
The deployment of our reservists in Iraq, whether in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, points to a major sea change in our attitude towards reserve forces. Potentially, reserve forces can now serve three times over; it used to be said that they were twice a citizen, but they are now at least three times a citizen. First, they may be mobilised to take a direct role in operational, active service, in formed units or as individuals. Secondly, they are likely to be deployed as back filling—to use old terminology—allowing regulars to be deployed on operations. Finally, we should not forget that some are now organised in the civil contingency reaction forces—engaged in what used to be called home defence—and they will play a major role in the unfortunate event of a serious major terrorist incident in the United Kingdom. Those three roles overlap—sometimes literally. In some cases, TA soldiers have been told that they form part of a civil contingency reaction force, and they have been mobilised to serve overseas. Our reserve forces experience overstretch as well.
In thinking about the role that our reserve forces play, we should also bear in mind the fact that, traditionally, they have been a recruiting ground for our regular armed forces, just as the Army Cadet Force and the university cadets have been. A significant number of reservists who have served with the regular armed forces have transferred across. That pool of what I might call generically manpower—so, womanpower as well—is spread pretty thinly. We call upon those people to fulfil a number of functions. Hon. Friends and other hon. Members have rightly pointed out that many members of the reserve forces are proud to serve alongside members of the regular armed forces, integrated with them. Many of them also enjoy being deployed on operational active service—that is one of the reasons why they joined the reserve forces—and not only because of the excitement; they like the physical recognition in the form of a medal that proves that they are not just Saturday night soldiers.
Given the momentum of operations, even if those in Iraq eventually wind down, and given that the defence White Paper has made the assumption that expeditionary warfare will continue on the current scale, the situation cannot continue indefinitely; we will require our reservists.
Drawing together the points that my hon. Friends have made, the Ministry of Defence faces a number of challenges, to use the awful Sir Humphrey, civil service terminology. Let me rehearse them. First, as my hon. and gallant Friend Mr. Swayne said, there is a feeling that, ironically, if the regular armed forces are overstretched and are having to be supplemented by the reservists, ultimately the reservists will be overstretched as well. He and others posed the interesting question: if we reach the stage at which we almost run out of deployable reservists—if operations continue in Iraq or elsewhere—how will we man our reserve forces?
Historically, in peacetime the armed forces have always been undermanned and overstretched. A number of tools are used to get round that problem in relation to overseas operations such as Iraq. The first is to employ people who are not British citizens. We have done that frequently and we are doing it now. The second is to offer higher pay and rewards of various kinds, not only to recruit people but to retain them. The third is the use of honours, awards and recognition. I shall come back to that. Finally, one can substitute mechanical means for people. I suspect that the MOD has considered the full range of options for our reserve forces.
The problem is that the kind of operations in which we are now involved are, as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, manpower intensive for the Army. In such circumstances, far from needing fewer men we need more. For various reasons, we have not reached the same stage as the United States, where the national guard is undermanned by 42 per cent. It is having incredible difficulty recruiting people, largely because of what is called the mother factor. Mothers do not want their sons and daughters to go to Iraq, where the large scale of the casualties—fortunately, we have not experienced this—does not balance the financial rewards for serving in the national guard. I am not referring simply to money; joining the national guard is frequently a way to receive education on the cheap. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, one way to recruit and retain members of the reserves is by ensuring that the training and skills that they receive through serving in the armed forces can be recognised in civil life, as is the case with the regular armed forces.
I conclude by bringing together a number of points relating to the future rather than to the past. As I said at the beginning of my speech, the nature of reservists' integration with the regulars means that they have a higher status than ever before. Is that status recognised by the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces? The most senior rank for any reservist is a two-star rank, as is currently held by Major-General His Grace the Duke of Westminster. What a marvellously 19th-century ring that has about it: cool Britannia and new Labour appoint Major-General His Grace the Duke of Westminster as the first two-star reservist officer. Life is full of contradictions. That rank is a central staff administrative appointment. Does the Minister know the highest rank or command position that a TA or reservist officer holds in Iraq outside an administrative unit—in a combat arm unit? I suspect that it is difficult to get much beyond the equivalent of lieutenant-colonel in all three services. One way to encourage reservists with the necessary qualifications and experience is by giving them the opportunity to hold high field command or staff positions beyond administrative ones. There are arguments against that, but it is an important idea.
The MOD has made good progress, but the training and resources given to the TA and other reserve forces should be absolutely comparable to the regulars, particularly if we wish to deploy them on overseas operations. I salute the progress made by the Government, but all hon. Members present have made the point that if we expect reserve forces to continue to be used on such a scale, we cannot afford to have any anomalies in their pay, allowances, pensions or the medical treatment that they receive if they are wounded while serving on overseas operations.
The role played by the reservists over the past five years has been outstanding, and they are a credit to our country. We should also praise employers who not only allow reservists to leave their jobs, albeit under legal constraints, but are prepared to employ members of the reserve forces in the first place. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall pointed out, many employers employ only about six to eight people in an integrated team. If one man or woman is taken out for six months from such a company, as opposed to Tesco or Marks and Spencer, it is hard to bear. Reservists are a credit to us all, and this debate has shown our appreciation.
I congratulate Richard Ottaway on securing this debate and welcome the contributions of Mr. Swayne and my hon. Friend Mr. Edwards, who I know takes a close interest in such matters. I fully endorse the praise that has been given to our forces in this debate.
I hope that the Chamber will understand, however, if I begin with a rather more sombre reflection. I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the late Baroness Strange, who sadly died earlier this month. She had been president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain since 1990. She pursued her agenda vigorously, but also with charm and persuasive argument. Over the years she helped to secure a wide range of benefits for our war widows. Most recently, during the passage of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004, she helped to ensure that widows whose spouses had died before 1973 did not lose their war pension on remarriage. Baroness Strange was a larger than life person, and was held in great respect and affection in both Houses. Her absence will be a sad loss for us in Parliament and for the War Widows Association of Great Britain. All our thoughts are with her husband Humphrey and the family at this difficult time.
I am grateful to the Minister for making those comments. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that Baroness Strange was a quite outstanding lady. Those of us in the corridors of power who were gripped by her knew exactly what she wanted, and frequently she got it.
The mobilisation of reservists in January 2003 to support United Kingdom operations in Iraq was the largest call-out of the reserve forces since the 1950s, as has been said. The initial phase saw 5,200 reservists mobilised in sufficient time to participate in the war-fighting phase of the operation. They served in formed reserve units and sub-units, and as individual reservists in both regular and reserve units. The latter use—to bring units from peace to war-fighting complement—has always been a traditional role of the reserve forces.
Reservists performed many varied and essential roles, from cooks and drivers, to intelligence analysts, amphibious engineers, infantry men and some unique to the reserves. In all, they constituted more than 10 per cent. of the UK ground forces deployed in Iraq. Many were called out at short notice, and it is to their credit, and that of their families and employers—I share that view with Mr. Simpson—that they met that challenge. The contribution of the reserve forces to that stage of the operation cannot be overemphasised. Without the support of those forces, we would not have been able to achieve the success that we did.
Since the war-fighting phase of Operation Telic has drawn to a close, the reserves have had a continuing role in supporting British forces in Iraq. The United Kingdom is committed to Iraq for as long as the Iraqi Government judge that the coalition is required to provide security and assist the Iraqi security forces. Therefore, just as reservists were mobilised during the war-fighting phase of the operation to fill a variety of roles, now they fill important roles in intelligence, and as linguists, medics and members of the civil and military co-operation group, which specialises in reconstruction tasks.
Reservists from the RAF have filled many roles, including as meteorological officers, medics, aircraft ground crew and force protection personnel. The RAF's No. 2 Force Protection Wing has been deployed to Iraq and includes reservists from two Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons. The wing's role is varied, but one of its key functions has been to train around 250 Iraqi policemen. With nearly 3,000 local employees and contractors passing through the airport's vehicle checkpoint each day, it is vital that those people see Iraqis running their own security. The senior Iraqi police officer, Colonel Imad Abass, who is commander for the directorate of border enforcement at Basra international airport, recently said:
"It is very good for local people to see Iraqi police occupying the entrance of the airport, organising and controlling things by themselves. It is very good for us and the Iraqi people."
The Royal Naval Reserve has provided logisticians, intelligence analysts, medics, linguists, and mine and amphibian warfare specialists, and RNR sponsored reservists crewed the strategic sealift ro-ro vessels that took so much of our heavy equipment to the Gulf. In particular, we were able to draw on the expertise of one RN reservist who in civilian life worked in Arabian oilfields, and who provided invaluable advice on the pitfalls and possible booby-traps in Iraqi oilfields. Another, a manager of a UK port, was able to set up the new port facilities at Umm Qasr. That demonstrates the invaluable contribution that reservists make.
The process by which individuals are identified and selected to be mobilised has evolved since Operation Telic 1. For that stage of the operation, the numbers required and the time scale in which we needed them resulted in us exercising less discrimination in our choice of who to mobilise than we do now. The attitude of the individual and his employer towards mobilisation could be given less weight in a large-scale compulsory call-out.
In short, intelligent mobilisation is the process of identifying willing and available individuals for specific appointments through dialogue between an individual, his or her employer and the unit, and then up through the chain of command. I accept that during Operation Telic 1 that process was less intelligent, but it has become progressively more so. I can confirm to the House that all reservists being called out for Operation Telic 6 have said that they are willing to be mobilised.
In continuation of the policy of using reservists to augment the regular forces in Iraq, I announced on
The skill and dedication that the reserves have shown while carrying out their duties in south-east Iraq is reflected in the success that we have achieved in that region. In recognition of the reserve forces' contribution, a number of personnel have been recognised in the operational honours lists; the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred to that. They included Kingsman Michael Davison from the King's and Cheshire Regiment, who won a military cross, and Staff Sergeant Anthony Wyles from the Corps of Royal Engineers, who won the Queen's gallantry medal. Only last week it was announced that reservists were to be awarded an MBE and a military cross for services in Iraq, and a George medal is to be awarded to an individual serving in the Congo. Such men and women exemplify the spirit and quality of Britain's reserve forces.
Sadly, we have suffered some deaths in action, namely those of Private Smith of the 52nd Lowland Regiment; Corporal Pritchard of 116 Provost company; Fusilier Beeston, also of the Lowland Regiment; Sergeant Nightingale of 150 Transport company, which was attached to the 27th, Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, in Iraq; and Private Kitulagoda of the Royal Rifle Volunteers in Afghanistan. We are indebted to all of them and to their families for the efforts that they made on behalf of the United Kingdom here and abroad.
I want to deal with some of the issues in relation to the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985, which was mentioned by all Members here. Reservists who are called out into permanent service benefit from employment protection under the legislation, which, unless history is playing tricks on me, was passed under a Conservative Government, as was the Reserve Forces Act 1996. Under section 1, an employer is required to take back into employment former employees who have completed their call-out service. Should an employer fail to reinstate a reservist in accordance with the Act, reservists may apply to a reinstatement committee, which will hear the case. The committee can order the employer to reinstate the reservist, pay compensation or both. Failure to comply with an order of the committee is a criminal offence, and the employer may be fined on summary conviction. I am afraid that the Act confers no powers on the Ministry of Defence to take measures against employers who fail to reinstate a reservist.
We also provide advice to our reservists when they return. On demobilisation, as the major will know, reservists receive a briefing about returning to civilian employment. I do not intend to comment on whether he will need a reinstatement committee later this year or next year.
Each reservist is also provided with a copy of joint service publication 532, headed "Guidance for Reservists Returning to Civilian Employment: Procedures to Secure Reinstatement". In co-operation with the regional reserve forces and cadets associations, we have also introduced the regional directors of the supporting Britain's reservists and employers campaign to provide advice and guidance to employers and reservists on reinstatement issues. We also have unit employer support officers to boost our capability further in this area. The MOD's SaBRE campaign team also has a helpline.
I believe, and hope, that the House will recognise that we are doing the very best that we can when our forces return from mobilised service.
Can I persuade the Minister to go a step further? What people need is advocacy support. I welcome what he just said about the package of support, but these people need someone to represent them. We are not talking about large numbers. It cannot be a significant sum. The Minister has legal departments at his disposal. It would be good if he went the extra step and provided advocacy support.
I entirely recognise the hon. Gentleman's point, but we must reflect on the fact that a member of the armed forces returns to their civilian employment once we have demobilised them. Their employment with the MOD ceases. SaBRE and the unit officers that we have put in place do offer the sort of advocacy that he suggests. I suggest that he visit the local SaBRE director in south London or in the London region who might be able to explain SaBRE's advocacy role better.
I said that I would deal with the numbers for which Mr. Breed asked. I must begin by rejecting the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Croydon, South that large numbers of reservists have had to apply to the reinstatement committee to get their jobs back. That is simply not true.
More than 10,900 reservists have been mobilised to support Operation Telic. Since February 2003, a total of only 24 applications have been made under the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act, eight of which have been referred to a reinstatement committee. The reservists won four of those cases and lost three, and one case is outstanding. Those are not huge figures in the context of almost 11,000 mobilised members of the reserve forces, but I accept that there is more work to do. I intend to talk later about some of the measures that we are introducing to deal with these issues.
Questions were also asked about pensions. All members of the reserve forces have access to the pension scheme when they are on mobilised service—I thought that that was well understood—which includes the reserve forces pension scheme. Reservists may well have their own occupational scheme, so they are free to continue to contribute to that if they want to do so.
I cannot comment on the case cited, but let me make two brief points. Any reference to casual labour, which the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall mentioned, has a technical meaning in employment law. Those who have studied the matter will be able to explain that in greater detail than I can. Casual labour means intermittent employment, so it is certainly not meant to indicate unprofessional behaviour or a lack of respect for reservists. Appropriate pension provision is in place for such service, which would include contracting into the state second pension scheme, should that be required.
Iraq is not the only place where reservists have been deployed. They continue to support operations in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The reserves have consistently provided between 10 and 18 per cent. of United Kingdom manpower in the former Yugoslavia since NATO operations commenced there in 1995. I had the pleasure of meeting a significant number of reserve forces during my visit last week to Kosovo and Bosnia.
All the deployments reflect the Government's policy on the use of reserves as outlined in the 1998 strategic defence review: having a more capable, usable, integrated and relevant reserve force to support their regular counterparts in operations overseas. That policy has implications for reservists and the Government beyond the bounds of military planning and operational commitments: it has a fundamental impact on our people. For reservists, it requires a mindset that views mobilised service as a likely consequence or at least a very real possibility of his service, rather than as a theoretical commitment relevant only in a dire emergency. The reserves community already recognises that and has continued to adapt to it over the past decade.
The Government, too, recognise that we have a duty to support reservists at home and abroad and we must acknowledge the impact that operational deployments can have on those affected—the individual, the family and those around them, their employer, of course, and the reserve forces as a whole. The effect on each of them must be managed in a way that is fair and which will preserve the reserves as a sustainable military resource in the long term.
Unsurprisingly, operations in Iraq have taught us some important lessons. The mass mobilisation prior to the war-fighting phase showed that the system could generate a large number of personnel in a short time, but highlighted the practical problems that arose. It was a military necessity that the action was taken but we would in future wish to give 28 days' notice of mobilisation whenever possible. It will not be possible in every case, but the policy is a significant step forward in minimising the disruption associated with mobilisation.
The hon. Member for Croydon, South asked about welfare medical support, which is important. When mobilised and deployed, reservists are treated in the same way as regular personnel. We continue to examine and refine the aftercare which reservists can access when they return. As with regulars, the mental stresses that can arise from deployments are more widely recognised and better understood. All personnel are briefed on post-traumatic stress reactions and sources of support are made known to them. A reservists welfare study has recently been concluded and several recommendations covering support to reserves at home and abroad are about to be implemented.
I want to deal briefly with the case of Corporal David Corrigan, which was raised by the hon. Gentleman. I apologise for Corporal Corrigan's treatment, which fell far short of the usual standards that we expect. We accept that owing to initially incorrect advice, Corporal Corrigan did not receive his entitlements and we are keeping in regular contact with him to put the matter right. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was representing his constituent in the letter to the Secretary of State.
The new armed forces compensation scheme comes into effect on
A number of reservists who are deployed in Iraq have suffered financially when their civilian earnings exceed their military pay. The system currently in place to make a financial award to a soldier is far from straightforward. It places an additional burden on what can already be a difficult time for soldiers and their families. The values of the awards have been fixed since the system was first introduced, and have gradually eroded over time. The system was outdated and needed an overhaul. I am glad to be able to announce that the new regulations will be laid before Parliament this afternoon.
The new awards are much more advantageous to the reservists, from a practical and a financial point of view. We have abolished the complex and invasive reservists hardship award, and the system of tiered payments according to rank. Instead, there will be a single award, applicable to all ranks from private to general, and capped at £200,000. The system of awards to employers has also been reformed; it makes it simpler for them to claim, and it allows them to do so for the full additional cost of replacing a mobilised reservist, up to a cap of £40,000. I hope that the House will join me in welcoming the introduction of these new arrangements, which significantly enhance the financial support on offer.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that recruitment to the reserve forces has been a problem, and does he feel that that the new pay, allowances and compensation will help to rectify it?
I very much hope so. We consulted properly on them, and they will be the subject of annual review.
Our proposals demonstrate the Government's commitment to supporting the reserve forces, and back up the words about minimising concerns that arise over mobilisation with actions. However, no amount of support—practical, financial, or in any other form—can eradicate the disruption that mobilisation causes to our reservists' personal lives. They continue to volunteer for service in such circumstances; that is at the heart of the volunteering ethos that sustains the reserve forces. I recognise the sacrifices that our reservists make, and we must not take them for granted. Mobilisation at the maximum frequency allowed by the Reserve Forces Act 1996 is not a sustainable demand.
That is why we recently published the "Future Use of the UK's Reserve Forces", which introduced a provision to mobilise people for not more than one year in five, unless there is no viable alternative, as the hon. Member for Croydon, South mentioned. I hope that Members have the chance to read that document. It summarises the effect on our people of our policy on the use of reserve forces. It also demonstrates the steps we have taken as a result of recent deployments, including in Iraq, to refine and improve our arrangements to support them.
The structure of the reserve forces must also be designed to support the demands of future operations. The principles of having usable, integrated and relevant reserve forces were developed in the 2003 White Paper, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk acknowledged. It stated that we will continue to use the reserves, not only for large-scale operations, but to reinforce some specialist capabilities, such as medical and logistic support to smaller-scale deployments. That will require ever-closer integration between the regular and reserve elements of the services. Generating genuine readiness, and being properly prepared in the right time scale, are the keys to this integration.
Most reservist units are held at low states of readiness at present. Better to meet the demands of future operations, some sub-units and individuals now remain at higher states of readiness than parts of the regular forces. That applies in particular to certain logistic, medical and other specialists, reflecting the need for them to be able to respond rapidly, as their services will be among those most likely to be required.
Such has been the contribution of reservists to operations that we intend to integrate them even further into force structures. For example, while the TA will remain broadly the same size as it is today, there will be some adjustments to its capabilities to meet new requirements and to best support the Regular Army on operations.
The final structure will be validated, in close consultation with the reserves community, over the coming months. However, rebalancing or restructuring should not be taken as an indication that reservists will be mobilised more frequently. Although we plan to continue to use reservists to support operations, we do not expect routinely to mobilise the high numbers of the start of Operation Telic in 2003; that was an exceptional situation. The frequency of mobilisation is also limited by law in the Reserve Forces Act, as well as by the one year in five policy, which I have outlined this afternoon. The outcome of restructuring is simply that the reserve forces are better structured to support their regular counterparts.
I want to conclude by making two points. It would be remiss of me not to thank the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk and for South-East Cornwall for their kind words on my personal future. More importantly, I restate my praise for the job that our reservist soldiers, sailors and airmen are doing in Iraq; conditions may be tough, but they are more than equal to the task. I know that the whole House will join me in offering them our thanks for the manner in which they are doing their job in the service of our country.