Territorial Army Rebalancing

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 18th April 2006.

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Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton 11:00 am, 18th April 2006

May I say at the outset of my contribution on the future of the Territorial Army within the Army structure what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair this morning, Mrs. Dean? I believe that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.

I am delighted to have secured this debate. It could not have come at a more appropriate time, bearing in mind the Minister's statement on 24 March concerning the rebalancing of the TA and, hot on its heels, the National Audit Office report of 31 March on reserve forces. I have been following the changing role of the TA for some time, not least because of its position at the base of the pyramid that will form the future Army structure.

One could describe the TA as the bedrock of the Government's policy. For several years, successive Ministers have clarified what is expected of it. It will play nothing less than a vital role in future operations and will be fully integrated with regular forces in all types of military and, in the case of the TA infantry, civil operations. There is nothing to criticise in that ambitious objective, as long as the limitations of the arrangement are fully and clearly understood.

The words "territorial" and "reserve" hardly seem appropriate these days, as the TA is operating as nothing less than infill. By its very definition, a reserve force is one that is held back from the line of battle to be used to assist where necessary, or that is called up in an emergency. I do not believe that the Government's present objective for the TA falls into either category, as the TA undertakes all the roles of the regulars without being on the permanent payroll.

The key difficulties in the Government's present strategy for UK armed forces personnel are to do with recruitment, retention, integration and, especially, maintaining morale. As the Minister knows, my initial interest in the infantry stemmed from the recent changes to my local regiment, the Cheshires, and from the strategic defence review, which proposed a 55 per cent. cut in infantry TA. We now face a further reduction of 900 personnel—or, to be accurate, 910. It is not clear whether they are to come from present strength or from establishment. If that further cut is to come from strength—this is based on figures from 1 April last year—the infantry will be the same size as the logistics, have the same establishment as the medical services and be not far ahead of the Royal Engineers. It is fair to say that the backbone of the Army, the infantry, which has the greatest experience of command in the British Army, is in terminal decline.

I did not understand the part of the recent statement that dealt with medical services, and the Minister's replies to questions did not make it any clearer. Have the Government given up trying to get strength up to establishment in that area? What is the meaning of combat medical staff? Surely all medical staff are combatants to some degree or other; if not, what do they do? For the Ministry of Defence not to know the time span between deployments of regular and TA medics to Iraq is just not good enough. I know one medic in the regulars who will shortly be going to Iraq for the third time.

It is also puzzling when the Ministry says that 13,450 personnel are available for deployment as at 1 June 2006 from all TA units, yet the Department cannot or refuses to give exact numbers of unit availability. Does the Department genuinely not know the number? If it does not, how did it arrive at the figure of 13,450? It has been stated that the figure excludes those who have exceeded the MOD's limit on mobilised service of a total of 12 months in every 60. However, most deployments in Iraq have been for around 10 months. Technically, with two months of obligatory service yet to be served, those soldiers could be counted as part of the force of 13,450. I also suspect that the personnel who are available are those such as officers and non-commissioned officers, who are not in particularly short supply, rather than privates, who are the soldiers most needed in such deployments and who operate under the most pressure.

What are the recruitment figures for individual TA centres? I suspect that those that have low recruitment have high retention, as recruits are told openly that, after completing basic training, they will be called up within a year for a 10 to 11-month deployment. Why does the Ministry not know the figures for those who have completed basic training? That is a vital piece of information for understanding what is happening on the ground in respect of recruitment and, thereafter, availability for deployment.

On the basis of information straight from the horse's mouth, I know that infantry privates are not only in great demand but are being put under considerable pressure. That was the subject of a written question that I tabled in January but to which I have not yet received a reply. I remind the Minister that my question asked which main areas of the TA were identified as undermanned and which required increased recruitment.

My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth recently mentioned that the present strength of the university Officer Training Corps stands at 5,750 and is 2,250 over establishment. Those personnel are, of course, non-deployable. The OTC is an excellent organisation for students and an extremely successful tool for future recruitment, but should not those figures be kept separate from figures for deployable troops? It seems dishonest to bulk up the overall figures with those who will not be available in an active sense for a considerable time.

From the figures that I have been given in response to written parliamentary questions, it appears that the TA consists of a hard core of as few as 17,000 to 20,000 personnel, which is far short of the establishment figure of 42,000. In 2003–04, the number of TA bounties paid for classification year 5 was 14,585. The figure was 2,288 for year 3 and only 2,098 for year 1. We need to know the latest figures, as it appears that there is high turnover. I cannot believe that the Ministry does not know how many have left the TA shortly after returning from deployment in Iraq. That is another crucial piece of information that is missing—at least, it is not in the public domain.

I suspect that some of the numbers in respect of the stated TA strength of 31,680, excluding the OTC, are what I call paper figures: the personnel do not exist in reality but are figments of creative number crunching. As the Minister knows, TA centres are under tremendous pressure to keep numbers up at all costs, and some are not efficient in clearing from the statistics those who have fallen by the wayside.

Many TA centres are fearful of being downgraded or closed down completely because of reducing numbers. It is a fact that a small number of units will be disbanded and a handful of underutilised TA centres will be closed. However, it is nothing but a joke to say that displaced personnel will have the chance to transfer to other units. Does anyone really imagine that they will make a round trip of some 50 miles to go to another unit? In that way, TA members' service will end involuntarily for logistical and practical reasons, yet we cannot afford to lose even one person, as numbers are so low at present.

Many civil servants who were told last June that their TA units would be downgraded and that further information would be given in October still do not know their fate. When will they be informed about their future prospects, and is this not a case of bad man management? Nothing erodes confidence and motivation as quickly as uncertainty.

Another concern is that the TA is required to contribute to the civil contingency reaction force, which is another creation of the European Union and part of its continuing regionalisation policy. If there were a long-term crisis in the future, the requirement of 12 out of 60 months' service for TA personnel would soon be used up for the simple reason that most would have already served between 10 and 11 months. Surely, therefore, more people would be excluded from long-term CCRF service. I find it extraordinary that the Department cannot respond to the query concerning how many personnel from each TA infantry regiment are signed up for CCRF duties. Does the Department know the answer or does it not?

That brings me to the terms of service: a legal requirement of one year in three, possibly extended to five, which translates into a six-month deployment. That can be compared favourably with the USA equivalent of a 12-month deployment in three years. It is true that the United States is running into difficulties with recruitment, retention and morale in the national guard. How can anyone have a successful civilian career when they may be required to disappear for such long stints, especially those in the specialised professions, whose expertise and career advancement may be adversely affected?

I know that the Minister appreciates the contribution of employers, especially those in smaller businesses. The work undertaken by SaBRE—Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers—is excellent, as are the holiday training packages offered to TA personnel after deployment. As the Minister knows, that requires a great sacrifice of both time and finance for those left at home holding the fort.

Let us not forget that those in the TA are, first and foremost, civilians, and although it may be true, as the Minister has stated on more than one occasion, that the TA cannot be distinguished from regulars on active duty, it has to be recognised that its members are in a totally different category without many of the services or the back-up available to members of the regular forces. I understand fully that the Government are trying to create a smaller, high-tech, medium-weight Army, backed up by a highly professional and well trained part-time force, but the integration process is nevertheless fraught with difficulties. Integration between territorial and regular forces is working well in the run-up to Operation Telic 8 because a well established system has developed, not least because the situation in Iraq has gone on for so long. It would be a different story should a war-fighting mission develop, and the difference in capability and experience would then become obvious.

I note the Minister's statement that recruitment has been changed to incorporate regulars and TA, although I doubt that the present financial commitment to recruitment can be maintained. That is the subject of another written question that has remained unanswered since January, when I asked the Secretary of State for Defence

"what spending has been allocated to Territorial Army recruitment for a) the last three quarters of 2005, b) the first quarter of 2006 and c) 2006–07?"

I also feel that the TA does better when undertaking its own recruitment. I welcome the commitment to allow TA volunteers to undergo short deployments that will give them tremendous experience when working with the regulars, but care must be taken not to produce a small mercenary force.

We must ensure that the new infantry TA battalions linked directly to their equivalent regular regiments work well in the integration process, but we must fully involve the local communities upon which they rely for recruitment. Sometimes those developments, which are part of the plan for the future Army structure, overlook the small details that create good morale and good working relationships. If recruitment can be maintained only by a massive level of funding and it falls when the foot is taken off the accelerator, we have to ask what is wrong with the conditions of service—the cause of the recruitment and retention problem. We know that there is a manning crisis because units go into deployment undermanned. Are falling numbers a direct result of long deployments? If the TA is continually expected to fill the gap, we should ask why people are not attracted to recruitment into the regulars. The differentials between pay and conditions play a part in that.

The TA is no longer seen as the reserve force to be called up in an emergency, but as a continual front-line force instead. However, whatever civilian skills the TA can bring to the Army, it is not the equivalent of the regulars. Its officers do not have the same in-depth training and experience, and it is a tragedy that so many Sandhurst TA places remain unfilled each year.

Although the TA does an excellent job, it should never be expected to be equal to the regulars. Instead, it should be considered a very capable back-up, trained to the highest degree, bearing in mind the limitations in the hours of service volunteered. When the TA is on deployment, including on second or further deployments, those involved are paid their equivalent civilian wage or salary, which is often far in excess of that of equivalent ranks in the regular forces. It has been drawn to my attention that some TA personnel working alongside regulars have bragged about the differentials in pay rates and remuneration. It has even been alleged that they have rigged their civilian wages in order to get higher pay, and a recent example of this happening in Belize was pointed out to me. I am sure that that situation could be checked out through cross-referencing with the Inland Revenue, but the point is that care should be taken when dealing with soldiers on two different pay scales—without which, I hasten to add, there would be no volunteers or recruits. The regulars should be informed about the pay procedures of the TA, and those in the TA should be briefed not to damage morale on deployment by flaunting superior pay rates.

The continuing problem of overstretch has been raised many times in debates and it is one of the reasons why the TA is in such demand. Understandably, regulars like to be deployed where there are varied tasks, which is one of the reasons why they signed up in the first place. I suspect that some of the more boring operational requirements are down to NATO and European Union commitments. I understand that the Gurkhas, who were recently in Bosnia, were deployed to check on illegal logging and undertook patrols without arms, which seems to me to be quite extraordinary for an infantry regiment. At present, the TA in some regiments is being deployed to a far greater extent than its regular cousins, which is another factor that can cause friction and which needs to be monitored.

I cannot stress enough the importance of good morale to the retention of our armed services personnel, who are undoubtedly respected and admired by the British people. With numbers in the regular forces shrinking, the TA is carrying out a greater variety of roles today, although numbers available for deployment are decreasing, as the Minister knows. With so much change taking place, the impetus is to consider the big picture, but it is important not to overlook the small details that, if forgotten, can quickly damage morale.

There are many serving in the Army today who feel resentful because their cap badges have been taken away—although obviously not from those in the Scottish regiments—and they have been forced into different regiments or re-roled into different functions. Will the Minister respond today to the written question I tabled in November 2004 about the progress of the re-roleing of the three regular infantry regiments that were being disbanded? The same situation is now occurring in the TA infantry.

One of the purposes of this debate is to emphasise that armed services personnel are people who, in this day and age, are not compelled to do what they do on behalf of us all. They should not just be pushed around. They need to have a strong inner conviction to be able to serve and they need to know what this country stands for and what it expects of them. We are immensely proud of their achievements, but it has to be recognised that when an army is downsized it is difficult to manage that downward spiral and it is essential that morale is maintained, often by attending to the small details that can make such a difference. We must listen to those who serve at the base of the military pyramid, and I hope that the debate will highlight some of the issues that most concern them.

We live in times of great political and military change, do we not? The Government are walking a tightrope with a huge future financial and technical commitment to the field of defence. The whole package has to be delivered if it is to be successful. As financial constraints kick in, as they surely will, the choice will be between cutting the number of personnel, obtaining new, up-to-date and expensive equipment, or pushing back further the dates of implementation. Quite honestly, it is a frightening scenario for the Government who will be in office between 2010 and 2020.

Although no one will admit it, I believe that the UK is heading quietly and stealthily towards participation in a fully integrated European Union force. The Minister will, however, be relieved to learn that that is not a subject to pursue this morning, although I intend to return to it.

I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's contribution and to others who catch your eye, Mrs Dean. I am grateful to the Minister for listening so carefully to what I have had to say.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead 11:21 am, 18th April 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ann Winterton on securing this debate. Having served with the infantry in the Guards and, during the latter part of my military career, in the Royal Army Medical Corps, I wish to discuss the two key areas highlighted by my hon. Friend as being severely overstretched.

The integration of the Territorial Army with the regular forces has changed beyond belief in the past 20 years. In the 1970s when I served with the infantry in the Guards, the TA was, to be frank, a laughing stock among the regular forces. The two never worked together or integrated, and they rarely trained together, apart from an annual two-week exercise in Germany—and we usually ran out of fuel, bullets and everything else, because we were so badly funded.

I congratulate the Government, because in the past 10 years, the integration and training of the TA have worked fantastically. Thank goodness they have. The armed forces are now so small that without the TA—which comprises civilians who, as my hon. Friend said, work with the armed forces—how would the infantry and the Royal Army Medical Corps cope when serving this country so brilliantly throughout the world?

I have two concerns about the way in which the Government propose to deal with the cuts in the TA, and they are cuts; there is no argument about what is happening. We can put as much spin on it as we like, but they are cuts, especially to the infantry and to the medical corps.

First, I fear that we shall use and abuse the TA even more. I have raised that issue many times with the Secretary of State and the Minister on the Floor of the House. There is no shortage of volunteers, but each time they are the same volunteers—guys and girls—who are keen to serve their country and gain experience. They are not the people who are leaving in their droves. In my constituency, TA recruitment is suffering. One reason is that TA centres locally have been closed and there is a huge distance to travel between centres.

Another reason is the pressure on married serving TA members as well as regulars. People want to be with their families, and such people tend to have the experience in that they have served in the armed forces and now serve with the TA. They want to serve and to be deployed but they do not want to go back time and again. The people who tend to volunteer time and again are single and without the experience and training that are desperately needed.

By deploying so often, there is a massive problem with training. One reason why there are so many problems with the bounty is that people can be deployed with the TA to Iraq, but when they return, they are not guaranteed the bounty, because they have not done the training. At first, I thought that that was wrong, but the jobs that TA members undertake on deployment do not form part of the training needed for deployment elsewhere. TA members undertake not only long deployments, but further training on their return. That puts even more pressure on their relationships, job prospects and careers. That is why so many people are leaving.

I am not surprised that the Government have not answered the questions tabled by my hon. Friend, because I think that they are embarrassed about the problems with recruitment and retention levels in the armed forces as a whole.

For my sins, I am taking part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme this year by serving with the Army. I know that I am getting a bit long in the tooth to be wearing uniform, but having been around some units, I have been shocked at the age of some of our NCOs and their lack of experience. Everybody needs to be made up and given responsibility. I was lucky: I joined the Army as a junior guardsman and just about made guardsman, so I have no experience of promotion in the armed forces. However, the people who commanded tended quite rightly to have the experience and, within the regiment or battalion, the necessary kudos to lead. I have been to Iraq twice and seen the training regiments and some of the people who are training our armed forces. They are very young and they have limited experience, partly because we are losing so many experienced people.

My second concern is about pay and morale. My hon. Friend highlighted an interesting point when she said that there are two types of unit: those made up of regular soldiers, whose pay is better than it was when I served, although we would all accept that it is still not great; and, often embedded with the regulars, those made up of the TA personnel who match their civilian salary.

There is a third category, however, about which I was surprised to learn. I have raised this matter before with the Secretary of State and the Minister. Agency staff are brought in to supplement units in Iraq, especially the Royal Army Medical Corps field ambulance units. The regulars are on their set pay, the TA units are on theirs, and then agency staff are brought in to fill the gaps in the TA medical units. When I was in al-Amara in Iraq just before the election, I witnessed that situation and its damaging effect on morale within the armed forces.

I compliment the bravery of agency people who have gone in to such environments as untrained civilians. However, the effect on the morale of the armed forces is phenomenal. Without high morale, we do not have armed forces. We cannot deploy them throughout the world and ask them to do what we ask, week in, week out, if morale is low. Morale is low in certain parts of the Army, and particularly in the infantry, partly because of the reorganisation and abolition of regiments, and partly because of the sheer size of the deployment. That issue must be addressed.

I cannot see that the shortfall in the Royal Army Medical Corps will be addressed by cutting back the TA medical services. It seems illogical. If the Government have admitted defeat in their attempts to recruit people to the medical services, perhaps we need to consider how other countries have recruited successfully. The Americans have an excellent system. Their medical services are some of the best in the world, because they encourage people to undertake commitments as part of their civilian and military career structure. If one moves on in the US civil guard medical services, one moves on in one's civilian career. It is a twin-track approach, and perhaps it is something that we need to consider.

We have a fantastic Territorial Army. Without it, we should never have been able to do any of the things that we have done in the past 20 years throughout the world, from the Falklands, through the two Gulf wars, to Afghanistan and so on. We must not use and abuse TA personnel. We must not assume that those people will volunteer every single time. They are young and enthusiastic, but sometimes common sense must prevail. I hope that we can consider that issue, and I look forward to the Minister's answers to the debate.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence) 11:28 am, 18th April 2006

I congratulate Ann Winterton on securing the debate and on the research that she has put into preparing her speech. I congratulate also Mike Penning, because he brought to the debate not only a sense of what is happening today, through his participation in the parliamentary armed forces scheme, but his experience as a soldier in times past. The most important aspect of his contribution was his reference to the way in which the Territorial Army has changed in the past 20 years. The change is positive rather than negative, because it used to be said unfairly of the TA that its members were the SAS—the Saturday and Sunday soldiers. If it were ever true, and I doubt that it was, it is certainly not true today. I place on record my appreciation of all the reserve forces and, as it is the subject of today's debate, the TA in particular.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the professionalism of our TA and reserve forces. However, would he not agree that we have perhaps been over-reliant on them? In the future, that subject must be addressed by the Government of the day or else we will not be able to deploy the troops that we need for the roles that we undertake throughout the world.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

I was going to come on to that, but the hon. Lady has made the point well in both her speech and her intervention that we must not become over-reliant on our reserve forces, the Territorial Army. The situation has changed. The reference to it being used as an infill to perform all the duties of the regular forces should be taken as a compliment rather than a criticism. That is exactly as it should be.

I was a member of the Armed Forces Bill Committee, and we visited Iraq only a month or so ago. Some time into a conversation with a group of four young soldiers, we realised that they were from the Territorial Army. Indeed, their immediate officer was a university student who was taking a year out. Spending two back-to-back tours in Iraq must be the most interesting gap year experience ever. We were so proud of and impressed by those young men, who were serving their country. They had been called up, but it was clear that they had volunteered for that. There is a system in the Territorial Army, which we need not go into, whereby its members are not necessarily pressed into service in Iraq but they let it be known that they are content to be called up.

Yes, the Territorial Army should be rebalanced, and its role is changing, but we should be proud of the fact that its soldiers are performing duties along with the regulars. However, I take on board the point that we should not become over-reliant on them. The Government need to address the point that both our regular and reserve forces must be of a size sufficient to deal with the commitment that the Government of the day wish them to perform.

Not for the first time, the Minister will have heard the phrase "under-strength and over-stretched". That is certainly the case for the regulars and, in many cases, it could also be said of the TA. Many of those young men and women—I want to stress the increasing numbers of young ladies in the regular forces and the Territorials—provide a large part of that strength in Iraq or wherever they are asked to serve. Without them, we would be in even more of a difficult state. We should also place on record our appreciation of the increasing number of young ladies in the forces.

The footprint of an Army presence in the United Kingdom is important. I can say that with some degree of detachment, because I represent one of the four super-garrisons and the Army is there from day to day. Not only do we have a strong TA unit, the Royal Signals, but the rebalancing means that Colchester will get two more TA detachments, one at the military corrective training centre and the other for medics. I take on board the hon. Lady's point and ask the Government seriously to consider the matter. The footprint of TA bases, as well as Navy and Air Force bases where relevant, is for many people the only visible presence of the Army in the United Kingdom. That is an important part of recruitment into the regulars as well as the TA, and can be a route into the forces in the same way as the Army cadets.

I was also impressed in Iraq with the brigade commander in Basra, who told us that he had written personally to the employer of every TA soldier who he had serving to thank them and inform them of the excellent job that their employee or employees were doing. I know that the Government, and previous Governments, have shown appreciation to employers. Perhaps we should collectively do more. Many employers take the view that having one or more of their staff serving in the reserve forces is of benefit to their company, because of the managerial skills, team leadership and participation required. The employer also benefits.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The point that I sought to make, which is important and valid, was that medium to large companies—certainly big companies—can afford to have one of their key personnel away for lengths of time because they can cover what that person does. However, it is a tremendous loss to smaller businesses, especially if the person goes on a second deployment fairly quickly. In such cases, it is absolutely critical. I commend the commanding officer who wrote to the employers. That is an instance of the small detail that is extremely welcome.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Obviously, the smaller the firm, the greater the impact will be if a member of staff is deployed, or is not at work for whatever reason. Members of the House have, of course, been called up to serve in Iraq. Far be it from me to say whether the House suffered from their absence, but it is fair to say that the House is the richer for those hon. Members, on their return, informing us of their experiences. That is something that we should also show appreciation of.

It has been said that the establishment figure for the Territorial Army is 42,000. It is not unreasonable for the Government to say what the shortage is, if any, within that 42,000 establishment. It should not be too difficult for the Ministry of Defence to ascertain the number of recruits, the number of people who leave, the length of time that recruits stay in the Territorial Army and their reasons for departure. I assume that, as a good employer, albeit of a volunteer force, the Government and the Ministry of Defence would seek to establish such figures so that they could learn why there are shortfalls and why recruitment is not going as well as it might, as well as what can be done to encourage retention. The same questions also need to be addressed for the regular Army.

I ask the Government to up the praise of the Territorial Army. I am sure that they praise it at every opportunity, but sometimes one has to keep saying it so that people appreciate it. Employers need to be encouraged and be shown the appreciation of the nation for allowing members of their work force to be called up. The Government also need to look seriously at whether they expect too much of our reserve forces. I know that the young people we met in Iraq were keen volunteers, but I question whether, if they are asked to return there next year or the year after, that enthusiasm will wane. That also goes for members of the regular Army.

Ministers need to ask whether they have cut the regular Army too much, whether the rebalancing and reconfiguration of the Territorial Army has struck the right balance, and whether there is a case to encourage the voluntary ethos by seeking to retain as many TA centres across the country as possible. Indeed, they should consider population shifts to see whether there are some places where the establishment of a new TA centre might be in everybody's best interests.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence) 11:39 am, 18th April 2006

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Ann Winterton for securing this worthwhile debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mike Penning for bringing to the House his experience both on the ground and as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Finally, I pay tribute to Bob Russell for bringing to the debate his knowledge as a constituency Member for a garrison town—one that will be more prominent with Territorial Army personnel—and his interest in the subject generally.

One of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton ably made related to the change that the Government have brought about in the role of the Territorial Army, which they have moved from being a reserve to being a much more regularly mobilised force. That has some advantages, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead drew attention to the training and the better integration between the reserve and regular forces. Those developments are welcome, but there is concern that the Army is being asked to do more and more with less and less, as full-time regular forces are reduced, and that the reserves are taking some of the strain.

The recent National Audit Office report on the reserve forces said:

"In the future, the Territorial Army will primarily be used to augment the Regular Army for a large-scale operation. For smaller operations, the Department is planning on the basis that a fully-manned, restructured Regular Army should be able to provide most of the necessary capability on its own, supplemented by a small number of specialist Territorial Army units. The Territorial Army will continue to be mobilised for small and medium-scale operations, including enduring operations" this is the key point—

"when Defence Planning Assumptions are exceeded, as they are at present."

One risk highlighted by the National Audit Office is that exceeding defence planning assumptions for the foreseeable future might put too much of a burden on the reserve forces, and those assumptions have been exceeded in every year but one since 1999. Given the state of the world, with the continuing challenges that we face in Afghanistan and Iraq—who knows what might happen there?—and the pressures on humanitarian forces in Africa, our defence planning assumptions are likely to be exceeded, thus putting pressure on our regular and reserve forces. The time might have come for the Ministry of Defence to revisit those assumptions and reset them for the world in which we live.

The National Audit Office report highlighted one further risk, which is worthy of comment from the Minister. It relates to the effect that the regular deployment of reserve forces has on the number of forces available for deployment. If the Ministry wants to keep to its guidelines and deploy such forces only once every five years, it must realise that the more we deploy reserves on operations other than big war-fighting operations, the fewer will be available to be deployed. If we also take into account the fact that new reserve forces are not yet trained, we see that a shrinking percentage of the available forces is available for deployment. If we needed reserve forces for a war-fighting operation or a civil contingency, they might simply not be there, or the Ministry might have to resort to the legal position under which it can call such forces out once every three years.

Let me touch on the civil contingency aspect of the reserve forces. The new chapter of the strategic defence review, which was written post-9/11, stated that the reserve forces would be part of the civil contingency reaction forces if something happened at home. Sadly, as we know from the events of last year, such things do happen at home and need to be responded to. In 2001, the then Secretary of State for Defence, who is now Leader of the House, said:

"The role of the Reserves could be crucial, as we do not want to be committing significant numbers of our Regular Forces that might be required overseas".

In other words, regular forces might be required for overseas operations, as they have been, and the reserves would have a significant role to play in being available for reaction forces at home.

As to the resources that that might require, the new chapter of the SDR states that a reaction force would, on average, contain 500 volunteer reserves in each region. In principle, that would give about 6,000 volunteer reserves nationwide. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said when she discussed the actual and paper numbers available, those 6,000 reserves represent half the Territorial Army strength available for deployment. I have significant concerns that if, God forbid, something happened in the United Kingdom requiring those reaction forces to be called out in significant numbers, we simply would not have the numbers available to react, which would leave us significantly weakened at home. It would be helpful if the Minister said how many members of the Territorial Army have volunteered for civil contingency reaction duties as part of their Territorial Army role, because they regularly have to do so.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Does my hon. Friend not believe that what he says about reserve forces at home being called up—he mentioned the numbers involved—flies in the face of the current policy, which has been to ensure that integration works well? Indeed, although I highlighted the difficulties, that policy is working well, but does this change not go against what is being undertaken?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a balance to be struck in these things. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead made some good points about the advantages of better training and better integration between the reserves and the regular forces. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Colchester said, the Territorial Army has played a critical role in supporting our regular forces on deployments overseas. However, we can have too much of a good thing and take such deployments too far, and if we do, we miss out on the benefit of having reserve forces. There is supposed to be something in reserve to cope with unexpected situations; indeed, a key issue in defence is that threats often come from unexpected quarters, and few people would have predicted some of the challenges that we now face.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Territorial Army still operates as a stand-alone unit and that it integrates only when it is called up? For example, the young soldiers whom I mentioned are all members of the West Midlands Regiment. They operate as a self-contained Territorial Army regiment in this country and join and integrate into the Regular Army only when they are called up or volunteer. Are those not already stand-alone units, which integrate as the circumstances require?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The point that I was making is about the availability of forces—although it might be obviated somewhat by the extent to which members of the reserve forces volunteer—and the data in the National Audit Office report. Given the number of reserves being used on operations, the turnover among such forces, which I shall discuss in a minute, and the number of those who are not yet trained, the strength of the Territorial Army is little more than 30,000, and only about a third of that number are available for deployment. If we keep deploying reserve forces regularly on operations, we may be lucky, and members of the Territorial Army might volunteer for further operations, but, legally, the Government will not be able to call them up. That might leave us short of resources if we needed them in an emergency.

A second, related point involves the personal pressure that we put on those in the reserve forces and on their employers. If we regularly use reserves for operations and then need them for something unexpected, we will put a considerable burden on them and their employers, which might have an impact on the time that some are willing to serve.

I turn to the motivation of those who serve in the Territorial Army. Like those who have spoken so far, I am proud of the role that the Territorial Army plays and of its professionalism. The fact that people who are in the reserves, and are not therefore full-time soldiers, can go on operational deployment and be indistinguishable from their full-time colleagues is a tribute to those involved, to the training that they receive and to the armed forces generally. However, there is one issue that we must consider. If we increase pressures on them—one reason cited by those leaving the Territorial Army is its effect on their relationships and personal life, as well as the lack of support that they receive—we will risk increasing the rate at which people leave. That is the conclusion of the National Audit Office.

The Government, in their report "Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future", note that the risk of using reserves solely to plug shortfalls will increasingly affect recruitment. The annual outflow of personnel from the Territorial Army is about 10,000 a year, or a third of the force. That has two impacts. First, we are losing all the skills and training that were so hard won, which will have to be regained at a cost in time and money. Secondly, even if the numbers on board remain the same, the high turnover will reduce the number of deployable people. Although there will be an inflow of new volunteers, the fact that those troops cannot be deployed until they are properly trained reduces by a significant margin the number available for deployment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, if we put the Territorial Army under too much pressure, we will increase the rate of departure, increase training needs and reduce the number available for deployment. We return to the central problem that the Territorial Army is being asked to do more than it can with current manning levels.

I turn next to medics. The subject has already been drawn to our attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, who served in the Army medical corps.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

I apologise to my hon. Friend. The subject was drawn to our attention also in a recent statement by the Minister of State on Territorial Army rebalancing. The volunteer reserves, especially the Territorial Army, have been used to supply the Regular Army with a significant number of specialists, particularly medics. The specialist Territorial Army units, such as Army Medical Services, have a shortfall of more than 40 per cent., which was drawn to our attention by the National Audit Office report. Reserves will continue to be crucial in providing deployed medical capability, and we see how valuable they are when we realise that 88 medical specialists were deployed more than once in the past five years. That demonstrates our need for them.

The problem is that there are significant pinch-points with medical personnel. Indeed, the requirement for medical consultants is stated to be 110, but manning can be as low as 10. In a statement on Territorial Army rebalancing, the Minister of State said:

"As fewer volunteers will be required as signallers, logisticians and combat medical staff, there will also be reductions in a number of other arms and services."—[Hansard, 23 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 427–28.]

That did not seem to stack up with the shortage of medical personnel. Indeed, the Minister of State was pressed on that point by my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth and by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Nick Harvey, but he did not satisfactorily answer them. He said that one difficulty in recruiting medical personnel for regular and reserve forces is increased recruitment to the national health service.

This is not banter, but a serious question: given the changes in the health service and the consequent redeployment of personnel and resources, would it not be sensible for the Ministry of Defence to consider whether some of those being let go from the NHS would like a role in the armed forces—or, if they are changing career, whether they would be interested in joining the Territorial Army?

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead made a very good point about integrating career structures. Medical personnel in the United States are employed in the private sector, but they can better integrate their career progression in the private sector with being in the armed forces; that gives the forces better retention. In this country, where medical personnel are employed primarily by the NHS, joined-up government would mean that we could much better integrate career progression in the NHS and in the armed forces, and thus enable more of our medics to serve in our reserve forces.

I return to what I said at the start. It is clear why we use the reserves. It is probably good that people should join the Territorial Army in the expectation that they will be mobilised at least once, and it is right that we should use the Territorial Army to support our regular forces. However, a balance has to be struck. If we push that balance too far and put too much pressure on the Territorial Army, it will not be able to support our armed forces and we will not be able to use it at home.

I conclude on that note. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for initiating the debate and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to the wide-ranging questions that have been asked.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 11:55 am, 18th April 2006

As this is the first opportunity that a Defence Minister has had to appear before the House since the break, I hope that you, Mr. Caton, will think it appropriate for me to pay tribute to Lieutenant Richard Palmer of the Royal Scots Guards, who was killed in Iraq on 15 April. I am sure that all who have read the comments in the press over the past few days will know that this young man was committed to his job. He was greatly loved by his family and he will be sorely missed. I am sure that our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family at this time. I doubt whether any of the 600-odd Members of Parliament could think of a better epitaph than the one that appeared in the Daily Express today, which said that this young man was trying to make lives better for others. He demonstrated a hugely moral and wonderful commitment. I have no doubt that his loss will be greatly felt by his family and his colleagues.

I take the opportunity to congratulate Ann Winterton on securing this debate. I am in regular correspondence with Mr. Howarth on the Armed Forces Bill; indeed, when we have finished with that Bill, there will be a huge gap in his life and mine. If the day comes when the hon. Lady stops sending me questions about reservists, there will be a similar gap in our lives. She is certainly assiduous in pursuing such matters.

I have no doubt that the hon. Lady understands the nature of the changes to the Territorial Army that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is responsible for the armed forces, referred to in his statement of 23 March. I apologise again for his absence; he is abroad at present. The changes that he spoke of are essential to maintaining a British Army that works as well in this century as it did in the previous one.

The job that our soldiers do today is every bit as important as the job that their predecessors did during the first and second world wars. However, the challenges that they face are, as we all know, very different. Today's soldier must not only engage in combat, but must play the part of peacekeeper and sometimes peace enforcer. The modern British soldier may be fighting to overthrow a dictator one day, keeping peace the next, and rebuilding schools, bridges or power stations the day after. Those are all potentially hostile environments, and they often work under the auspices of different organisations such as NATO or the United Nations.

A British soldier's job is not easy. He or she must be capable of changing not only what they do but the way in which they react to particular situations. They are dedicated, brave and committed men and women, and I have no doubt that all hon. Members are justly proud of their commitment and service. This constantly developing role, which reflects not only the changing nature of warfare but the changing world in which we live, demands British forces who are even more responsive and effective while maintaining their reputation for professionalism and fairness—points made earlier in the debate. That is why changes are being made to the Army.

Today's debate is about the Territorial Army, but I emphasise that the TA is an integral part of the British Army, part of the "one Army" concept to which most hon. Members referred. The Territorial Army was set up almost 100 years ago. Since then, TA volunteers have time and again proved their mettle and their worth, from the battlefields of the first and second world wars to Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, said that our forces are busy—they all are—but that our commitments are not unmanageable. He said that

"the Reserves have always delivered everything we have asked of them".

He said that he was confident that they would continue to do so.

It is fair to say that there are few places in which the British Army has operated in the past decades where it has not had some TA colleagues alongside. The House does not need to be reminded that they are volunteers—a point made by Opposition Members—who give up their time for small reward to serve their country. They are serving right now, in the UK and around the world. Although they are called upon to serve less often than their regular counterparts, in some ways, the job is even more difficult—as colleagues fully understand. When they are deployed, they must be as professional and well disciplined as their regular counterparts.

Last year, the Government announced changes to the Regular Army that will help to prepare us for new challenges. We live in a world in which challenges to democracy, fundamental rights and freedoms, and the rule of law are more prevalent than ever. We cannot choose to ignore those global challenges in a global world. They require a different British Army to deal with them. The Regular Army is now far enough down the road of those changes for us confidently to say that we must now tackle the shaping of the Territorial Army in order that it can best support and be integrated with the Regular Army.

We are confident that we have found the right solutions not just because we have carefully analysed our future defence needs, but because we have consulted widely with members of the Territorial Army and others. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State paid tribute to Mr. Brazier in the debate on the Floor of the House on 23 March, when he said that he had had a good meeting with the hon. Gentleman and that he was grateful to him for asking a range of questions that he put to his officials, thus helping him to be better informed when taking ministerial decisions. We have consulted on the need to adjust for the future and the manner of that adjustment. Only after careful consideration of all the relevant factors did we come to the right solution.

I do not want to spend too much time repeating what my right hon. Friend told the House less than a month ago, because the details are well known to colleagues. The changes are good for the TA, the Army and Britain. As colleagues know, the size of the TA will remain unchanged, with a current liability of 38,500, excluding the 3,500 in the Officer Training Corps. We will, however, deploy our men and women and their equipment more effectively.

At this stage, I should make a point about the proportion of the TA that is currently deployable for operations. That issue was touched on by Opposition Members. There have been several reports of late about manning shortages in the TA, and I would like to provide some context, which might help colleagues. About 13,000 TA soldiers are classed as being available for deployment, whereas our current requirement is about 1,200 a year—about 10 per cent. of those available for deployment. A similar number are classed as being unavailable due to the Army's intention that soldiers should not be mobilised more than once every five years. If we were to work to the less rigid provisions of the Reserve Forces Act 1996, which states that TA soldiers may not be mobilised more than once every three years, the number of soldiers available for mobilisation would be about 17,000. I accept the points made by the hon. Members for Congleton and for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) about the numbers available for deployment, but the current requirement is about 10 per cent. of the number who are available.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister is quite right, but the whole point of reserves is that they are available for unexpected situations. For example, when we were involved in the heaviest part of the Iraq conflict, more than 8,000 reservists were called out, which would be half the number available. There is supposed to be a large number of reservists available for deployment, but not necessarily used. It would be appalling if we were using the number who are available at all times. There is supposed to be a gap: it is an insurance policy against unexpected events.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In a moment, I will respond to the hon. Lady's comments; she made an important point about morale. We must all be careful about what we say, although I do not suggest that anyone has said anything in this debate that would badly affect morale. There is sometimes a perception that the number of forces available is close to the numbers that we need at present; I was simply trying to get across the point that we currently need to deploy about 10 per cent. of the force that is available, and that the situation does not merit the extreme concern that some people have expressed in the media.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

There is some confusion, not least among Opposition Members, as to where those figures are from. It would be helpful for both the morale of the armed forces and the knowledge of Back Benchers if a breakdown of those figures could be placed in the Library today, so that we can see exactly where the Minister's figures are from, as they are completely different from those that have appeared in the press.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

Yes; I will certainly do that. Indeed, I am going to make one or two offers to the hon. Lady in my comments.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

If the Minister's figures are just so, will he answer my question about civil contingency reaction force duties and my unanswered question about which people are signed up for which TA infantry units?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I have made a note of the hon. Lady's questions, and will, if she will permit me, come to them when I respond to her remarks.

New specialisations are being created to reflect the changing demands placed on the Army as a whole. A new custodial capability will help to ensure that we continue to treat any prisoners we take with due respect and dignity. A new unit will be trained to support the Apache attack helicopter in the field, and a new military intelligence battalion will be formed to enable intelligence staff to focus more on specific areas of their specialisation. More opportunities are also being created through expansion in areas such as engineering and armour.

All that means a Territorial Army that is structured to be more relevant across a full range of operational requirements. The Royal Armoured Corps, the Royal Engineers, the Royal Military Police, the Intelligence Corps and the Army Air Corps will all increase in size, but in order to achieve those enhancements within the existing liability, reductions will have to be made elsewhere.

Let me stress that this is not simply a matter of balancing the books. If we had thought it necessary, we would have considered increasing the establishment of the Territorial Army, but it is not. We are aligning TA structures with those of the Regular Army so that the regulars have the support that they need when and where they need it. We are doing that by ensuring that the Territorials are available in the right numbers and with the right specialisations and the best and most appropriate training. We have reduced the infantry by one battalion, bringing the TA infantry structure into alignment with the Regular Army infantry structure, with most battalions adopting the new regimental names of their regular counterparts.

As well as new units being created, some units will change roles—from infantry to engineers, for example—and others will change their specialism within their branch, such as a Royal Artillery air defence unit changing to the 105 mm light gun. A small number of small and poorly recruited units will disband completely. Three centres will lose their TA presence, but will remain open to accommodate their existing cadet detachments.

Every soldier who finds himself or herself displaced by their unit being disbanded or re-roled will be offered a post in another unit as close as possible to their home or in a nationally recruited unit. However, I take the point that was raised by hon. Members that that there can be a problem with distance. I emphasise that no TA soldier's service will be compulsorily terminated as a result of the rebalancing exercise.

There will also be a reduction, on paper, in the size of Army Medical Services, which several colleagues mentioned in their speeches. The reduction must be understood in the wider context. First, changes to the regulars announced last year mean that regular medical units have about an extra 380 personnel, making them better structured and positioned to deal with operational demands. Secondly, for many years, the TA has had difficulty in recruiting the numbers of medical personnel required to fill all the established posts. As part of the integrated, "one Army" approach, we have chosen not to chase an impossible target by holding several hundred posts open with little chance of filling them. It is better to make expectations more realistic, but only after the enhancements to regular medical units announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. That will not only enable better operational planning, but will allow us easily to increase the number of established posts in other specialisations with a greater chance of actually filling them.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister said that the number of medical personnel in the regular forces was being increased. In the Ministry of Defence's own annual report and accounts for 2004–05, the medical area was deemed to be one of critical shortage. We touched on that during the Minister of State's statement about TA rebalancing and did not get a satisfactory answer. Will the Under-Secretary be clear about the number of medical personnel required in both the regular forces and the reserves, and the number that we currently have available?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

It might be helpful if we were a little more open in the way we tackle the recruitment issues. If I may, I shall refer to that later on, because it is important. We all have a role to play, because we all passionately believe in the success of our forces, and the TA in particular. Colleagues in all parts of the House could play a role that would be beneficial to our forces. I take on board the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

The changes to which I have referred not only enable better operational planning, but allow us easily to increase the number of established posts in other specialisations with a greater chance of actually filling them. The reality, therefore, is that while there is no reduction in the operational requirement for the TA medical services or in the numbers employed, enhancements are under way to the regular medical services.

Earlier I mentioned that the TA faces a constant challenge in maintaining a level of training that enables it to operate effectively alongside its regular counterparts. That is why we must do our utmost to ensure that the training it receives makes the best use of the available time and other resources. Our aim is for TA soldiers, when mobilised, to be fully prepared for even the most difficult of environments. Rebalancing will pair TA units with regular counterparts, forming strong links between the units and, whenever possible, allowing TA soldiers to train alongside the regulars. Where limited, high-value equipment is involved, and if it is appropriate and realistic, regular units will make such equipment available for TA soldiers to train on. Such measures will enhance the training of TA soldiers. I assure colleagues that every TA soldier, whichever branch they are in, will be given the support and training needed so that he or she can continue to serve our country.

Hon. Members will be aware that much has been said in recent months about the TA losing "500 soldiers a month" and about recruitment being in decline. While those figures concentrate only on the numbers leaving and make no mention of the numbers recruited, it is fair to say that recruitment and retention, to which the hon. Member for Congleton referred, have been giving us cause for concern. That impacts on the other issue that she mentioned: morale. TA strength has stabilised in recent months, but we are not out of the woods yet, and we remain committed to concentrating our efforts in order further to improve manning and retention in the TA.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

If we are losing soldiers and gaining recruits, we are not gaining the experience. It will take a long time to get the catch-up required for those troops to be operational to the standards of the ones lost. If they are deployed so often, how is the training being done? I have spoken to TA soldiers who have returned. When they come back, they need some rest and recuperation and some TLC from their loved ones. The last thing that they want to do then is to go off again to training. If people are coming in and coming back, there will be a shortfall in the trained operational troops who can go anywhere in the world. That is where I think the figure that was mentioned is coming from; the pinch point will be in the experienced soldiers, not in the new recruits.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point. We cannot afford to lose experienced people. From his personal background, he knows the important contribution that they make. We need continuity, so that we get the quality of training and the continued recruitment.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister says that the numbers in the TA have stabilised. What is the approved strength? What is the actual strength?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

Currently, including our OTC, our establishment is about 42,000 and we are about 6,600 below that at the moment.

Since the 1990s, when the TA moved away from its cold war role towards a more flexible, mobilisation culture, members of that historic service have been increasingly asked to serve our country overseas. They have come to expect to be mobilised and deployed on a range of operations in support of our defence policies overseas. Indeed, the most frequent reason for joining given by new recruits to the TA is to be mobilised and serve on operations. About 12,000 reserves have deployed in Iraq alone since 2003. They have adapted, in just a few years, to the changing and very demanding circumstances of this new century, and the House has frequently acknowledged their courage and service, as I do again today.

Currently there are 495 Territorials serving in Iraq, 47 in Afghanistan, 23 in the Balkans and two in Sierra Leone. My right hon. Friend's announcement to the House last month on TA restructuring ensures that we give those brave men and women the training, opportunities and structures they need best to do their jobs.

I will refer to some of the points made by colleagues during the debate. I return to three important words used at the beginning by the hon. Member for Congleton: "recruitment", "retention" and "morale". They are all linked. I have tried to demonstrate that we believe that recruitment and retention are vital and that failure in those areas can have an adverse impact on morale. I parted company with her when she said that she thought that the numbers were in terminal decline; I note that in the debate in the House on 17 November she talked of "meltdown". I do not agree that that is occurring. Following remarks that I shall make in a moment, I hope that she might be persuaded that it is not taking place.

The hon. Lady went on to praise SaBRE—Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers. I have the highest regard for its work, which makes a considerable difference. It helps our reservists, and ensures that they can deploy when we need them. She also said that uncertainty is a bad thing, and I agree with that. There is no doubt that there are always lessons to be learned. Leaving people in a vacuum in which they are unsure where they will be and what will happen is bad for morale, and that affects recruitment and retention. We return to that important triangle.

I shall examine the comments that the hon. Lady has made further when I get my copy of Hansard tomorrow. She has been properly persistent in asking questions. If she is willing and would like to come to the Department, perhaps I might arrange a briefing, during which we might get to the answers to some of the things that still concern her. I shall telephone her this afternoon on the issue.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

That is the best offer I have had for some time.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

And you heard it here first. I shall telephone the hon. Lady this afternoon about the questions that she says have not been answered. Such a situation concerns me, because it is the responsibility of Government to answer questions when they are properly put. I shall look into her questions as quickly as possible.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I should be grateful to receive the answers to those questions. I am not pestering the Minister. I believe, like he does, that the answers should be in the public domain.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I accept that. I made the point earlier that being more transparent about these matters helps everyone to understand the difficulties that we face and allows people to contribute. They could put forward solutions that might help, just as the hon. Member for Canterbury did in his meeting with my right hon. Friend, the Minister of State.

The hon. Member for Congleton asked which were the main areas of undermanning and the targets for recruitment. Medics, logistics and the Intelligence Corps are all areas where we have had difficulties and where we are seeking to put things right. She asked whether the Government have given up recruiting to establishment; we have not. As I said, we had the opportunity to change the establishment, but we did not feel it necessary at present. I have no doubt that more of these points will come out if she accepts my offer and comes to the MOD for a briefing.

The hon. Lady also asked why we did not know the figures for the time between deployments. The information is not held, as the key figure is about the total service in any one period, in accordance with the Reserve Forces Act 1996. Again, I would be happy to explain that in more detail if she were to come to the Department. My doing so would give her a better understanding of the situation. She also asked why we did not know how many members of the TA have left following service in Iraq. That information is held at unit level, but we are considering conducting exit surveys, which are a useful way of getting this information, so that we can have a better picture of what influences people.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Is the Minister seriously saying that the Ministry of Defence has not been asking people why they are leaving the Territorial Army?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

We have extensive surveys about all aspects of the operation of our forces. The point I am making, in response to remarks by the hon. Lady, is that we are looking at exit surveys to try to get a better and more accurate understanding of this matter. We have a lot of anecdotal information, and other bits of information are fed in, but if we were specifically to target the group that causes concern—people who are leaving, for whatever reason, following deployment—that would give us the information we seek.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

If the figures for those leaving the TA after being deployed in Iraq are known at unit level, surely the Department can easily obtain them?

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

I have no doubt that, when I meet the hon. Lady, she will press me strongly on that point. I expect to be able to respond positively, because it is important that we get that information out to colleagues.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

We now see the blank expressions.

Photo of Don Touhig Don Touhig Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Veterans), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans)

Pained expressions are pained expressions, but we as a Government have a duty to be as open as possible about these matters. I strongly believe that—as, I know, does the Secretary of State. There are difficulties, which I have explained, but we will examine what we can do to ensure that this information can be provided to colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman brought to his comments the experience of having served in the forces. He welcomed the integration of the TA with the Regular Army, and I thank him for that. However, he was concerned about the TA being deployed too often, and he talked about morale and issues to do with pay. I think I have answered some of his points, but I will look further into that when I refer to Hansard tomorrow, and if there is a need to respond in more detail, I will do so.

Bob Russell can also speak with considerable authority because of his background: he represents a large garrison town, so he knows a lot about some of the key issues. He talked about the TA footprint being important in recruitment. I strongly agree; where we have that strong footprint, recruitment is good. That is clearly an important message for all of us to take on board.

I also welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the employers who support the TA. The hon. Lady also mentioned that. Without the support of many employers, it would be difficult for people who have a life outside the forces to give the commitment and service that we often ask of them. I wish to take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who last year held an event for employers at Highgrove. I met a number of employers there—not the large ones that we often think of, but those who employ two, three or four people, and who have somebody who is in the TA and on deployment. I understand the difficulties that they face as a result. They make a huge contribution by giving their support to our reserve forces. We cannot thank them enough for what they do.

Mr. Harper made some important points. He talked about our defence planning assumptions. They are, of course, kept under constant review. All Governments do that, and it is right and proper for them to do so. He also referred to the National Audit Office report on deployment. I tried to cover that when I explained that approximately 13,000 people in our force are available for deployment and our current need is about 1,200.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the close links between the MOD and the NHS. That is an important point that we need to explore. Those two organisations must be brought together even more closely, as there would be huge benefits in doing so. When I visited Selly Oak last year, I saw evidence of the benefits of the close collaboration between our Army Medical Services and the national health service.

During the century of service that TA volunteers have given our country, they have proved their adaptability in meeting the requirements of national security in all its guises. They, like their regular colleagues, continue to be a force for good in dealing with the challenges of this new century, and they are a more integral part of our land forces than ever. They do a tremendous job for our country. We are hugely in their debt.

I have no doubt that the comments made by all colleagues were intended to reinforce the understanding that we value, appreciate and cherish the work that they do, and the service and commitment they give. It is up to all of us—Government, Opposition and all Members—to do everything that we can to ensure that they know that they are valued, and to make sure they have all the resources and everything else they need to carry out the tasks we set them.

From the tone of the debate, I have no doubt that there is a willingness on both sides of the House to ensure that our reserve forces know that they have the complete backing of Members, and that we will do everything we can to ensure that they continue to carry out their job effectively. I feel certain that that message will go back to our forces as a result of the comments made in this debate.

Sitting suspended.