HC Deb 24 March 2004 vol 419 cc249-72WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

9.30 am
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

May I begin by congratulating the Minister on his announcement earlier this year of the appointment of the Duke of Westminster as assistant chief of the general staff with responsibility for reserves? We welcome that appointment unreservedly; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has long argued for such an appointment. It will have a great beneficial effect on the reserves, and we thank the Minister for the action that he has taken.

When I was mobilised last June, there was a spate of articles in some of the quality broadsheets that seemed to imply that the mobilisation of so many reservists for Operation Telic had been little short of a disaster—no kit, no pay and the regulars pushed off early leaving the Territorial Army with disproportionately longer tours in the theatre of operations. Nothing is quite as it appears in the newspapers. My experience at the reserve training and mobilisation centre at Chilwell was that it was a slick process. I would be pushed to think of any improvements that could have been made to the organisation, and I said so when I wrote to the Secretary of State at the time.

That is not to say that there were not significant teething problems with what I presume was the first large-scale mobilisation of reservists since Suez or the Korean war. Undoubtedly, there were several problems, and we should have sympathy for those who were at the rough end of them. A great deal has been said about kit, for example. The issue for us in the reserves was whether we were disproportionately affected by problems that arose with the kit. I do not believe that we were, or that there was any question of discrimination. By the time that I arrived in Iraq in early July, there were no shortages of kit.

On the question of pay, those people who found that they were not being paid properly must have felt enormous anxiety, which we should not underestimate. We should ask whether the overwhelming of the system could have been predicted. That problem was solved virtually overnight by allowing the reserve training and mobilisation centre at Chilwell to create pay accounts, but I would like the Minister to address the outstanding issue of the reserve standard allowance. My understanding in the Army was that a decision had been taken to remove the rank-imposed ceilings on the reserve standard allowance. When I questioned Ministers about that, they were rather less than categorical about whether a decision had been taken. What is the current state of play? Such a decision would, at a stroke, remove the most significant grievance that reservists have when they are mobilised and find that the pay that they can secure from the reserve standard allowance is less than their civilian pay because of a rank-imposed constraint that is inappropriate for modern civilian life.

On the question of lengths of tours, I do not think that there was any intended discrimination; there was simply the lack of a policy on how long reservists should serve. Now, there is a UK land-imposed policy. The policy is that a person mobilised as an augmentee will serve six months, and a person who goes out in a unit will serve and come home with that unit. That gives reservists what is so important to them: an indicative end-of-tour date, which is vital for those who have jobs and civilian careers.

There were many teething problems, but the key lesson that we have learned is that the system worked. It delivered the number of reservists required at a time when there were a million people protesting on our streets against the mission, and it did so at an administratively acceptable rate—certainly for the Territorial Army—of 1.5 call-outs for every reservist mobilised. That is significantly different from the rates for the regular Army reserve, which were some eight call-outs for every mobilisation. The Select Committee looked into that issue a couple of years ago, and Ministers need to revisit it. In fact, the system performed better than expected at the strategic defence review; it was able to deliver formed infantry companies, and that was never the expectation.

How did the reserves do? I do not think that they could have done better. They performed magnificently. Although I was based in Nasiriyah, largely with Italian forces, I made a point of visiting as many units as I could every time that I was in Basra. The measure of reservists is that one cannot tell the difference between them and regulars in any unit that one visits. That was my experience, and what I would have expected.

There was clear evidence of creative use by commanders of the skill sets held by reservists; those skill sets were used very effectively, although undoubtedly there were examples when that was not the case. It is alleged that the new FORGE software will give commanders an even better understanding of the skills of the reservists that they will command, so that they can make even better use of them.

I have always been somewhat sceptical about software solutions, and I urge Ministers to consider a rather more important issue: whether reservists should train much more frequently with the regular formations with which they are likely to be mobilised. That would ensure a much better use of reservists when they come to be mobilised.

Undoubtedly, there are jobs that are less desirable in any theatre of military operations. Some people will find themselves on static guard duty or manning permanent vehicle checkpoints. People coming back will have different experiences. They may go into their local pub and tell friends, "Yes, it was great; I really enjoyed my experience", or may complain that they spent six months stagging on and stagging off in a ghastly climate with pretty poor food. However, the difference between those two reactions is often not so much a measure of the jobs that the soldiers were doing as of the men themselves and the units that they were in. It is difficult to change human nature, and people respond to situations differently. To come back to the coverage afforded by the newspapers, a spate of articles in late August seemed to imply that the large-scale mobilisation of our reservists amounted to conscription on a scale not seen since the Korean war. That is nonsense. I do not believe that, when any reservist is attested, takes the oath and signs up to the commitment, they believe that they are joining the boy scouts or the girl guides. Furthermore, I do not believe that anyone joins either the reserve or the regular forces without some hope of seeing operations at some time during their service.

It is said that there is at least one operational tour to be had from every reservist, and certainly from every member of the Territorial Army, but often the limitations of our careers and family circumstances prevent us from volunteering for a tour of full-time reserve service, for example. Therefore, compulsory mobilisation can be something of a liberation. A couple of years ago, about this time of year, I had been serving for three years as an assessor at the Territorial Army Commissioning Board in Westbury, watching candidates come through who wanted to secure a Territorial Army commission. I received a rather snooty letter from records in Glasgow, pointing out that I was coming to the end of my appointment at the Territorial Commissioning Board and that, as I was above the normal retirement age for my rank, I would be unlikely to secure another appointment in the Territorial Army.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)


Mr. Swayne:

I thank my hon. Friend. The letter was saying, "Thank you very much, but push off." I was prepared to accept that, but a number of colleagues insisted that I should struggle to stay in, so I wrote to the Duke of Westminster. He wrote back and explained that there was a pool of watch keepers and liaison officers at Woolwich. He suggested that I applied there. I did, I was interviewed and I secured a place there. I understand that I can remain there until I am 55.

After one training weekend, a brown envelope arrived on my breakfast table containing a compulsory call-out notice. That is what my wife thinks and, more important, that is what the Opposition Chief Whip thinks. The reality is that we have a system of intelligent mobilisation, and about four weeks before I had received a yellow piece of paper in a brown envelope headed, "This is not a compulsory call-out notice". However, it asked me whether my employer would be likely to appeal if I received one. I eagerly ticked both boxes in the "no" column and awaited my call-out notice expectantly. I was delighted to receive it. A compulsory call-out notice for a reservist who is eager to serve can be a liberating experience. Of course, I had to feign complete surprise and horror when the real thing arrived on the breakfast table and my wife saw it for the first time: "Gosh! What will we do?"

I said that the system worked. It delivered the number of reservists that were required at the time required. Employers have been very understanding, and I know that Ministers have been aware of that. The Ministry of Defence, in conducting employer appeals, has been very understanding, allowing the greater proportion of them. The system worked, but I urge Ministers to be cautious. I would like to quote from the essays that supported the recent White Paper. Paragraph 3.3 of essay No. 3 on developing reserves states: This policy sees the Reserves providing an integrated, ready and capable component of Defence, capable of being mobilised for any type and scale of operation. I am nervous about that. I make no bones about it; I was in favour of compulsory mobilisation for Afghanistan and the campaign in Iraq. One ought not to be in the Territorial Army if one does not accept or even welcome the chance of being called up. Conversely, I do not think that the reserves should be called up on a regular basis for continuing low-intensity operations. To do so runs the risk of destroying the reserves, not least by giving employers the impression that they are being taken for a ride and that it is defence on the cheap.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

I apologise to my hon. Friend that I cannot stay for the whole of the debate. Does he agree, despite his earlier remarks, that a large number of reservists join the Territorials, the Royal Naval Reserve or the Air Force Reserve to defend the homeland? That is implicit in the term "territorial". A small but significant number of them have some difficulty in being just an arm of the Government's foreign policy.

Mr. Swayne:

That is right, and there is room for both. The Government have formed civil contingency reaction forces, which would specifically accommodate those who wish to serve in the way that my hon. Friend describes. A significant number of the troops allocated to those reaction forces have actually been mobilised for service in Afghanistan and elsewhere overseas. That raises the question of what would have happened if such an emergency had occurred here during the height of the mobilisation that took place for Operation Telic.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Is he suggesting—I would not be critical if he were—that there should be two kinds of reservist? Some should be dedicated and trained specifically for home defence—dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, for example—and some should have a role in the overseas theatre. Does he agree that, if that were the case, it would not only deal with the problem raised by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) but would give more intense training in either type of operation so that those used on the home front were a more deployable force?

Mr. Swayne:

I do not want to be tempted into making a policy statement from the Back Benches, but I think that there is sense in what the hon. Gentleman said. That was how matters were configured when I joined the Territorial Army. There were units with roles in the British Army of the Rhine and there were units with home defence roles. There was no distinction in terms of the quality of training and readiness required, but they had distinct and clear roles. It was possible to move between the two; nevertheless there were different roles.

Dr. Murrison:

My hon. Friend is very generous. Does he recall the Royal Observer Corps, which was, in many ways, similar to the civil contingency reaction forces that Ministers are considering? Their role was purely in the homeland and they were not part of the Territorial Army or other reserve forces.

Mr. Swayne:

I am sure that there is a role for such a model. Indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) made proposals about the use of volunteer reserves.

Brigadier Richard Holmes once said that the Territorial Army should be kept safe for married men with jobs. Those are the folk who will happily go to Iraq and Afghanistan, putting their civilian identities on the backburner because their country needs them. If we keep putting the bucket into the same well, the water is likely to become very muddy and we will run the risk of having a reserve composed largely of folk without proper jobs who are happy to go on operations whenever they get the chance. A proportion of those are, of course, necessary and welcome. However, it would be a great shame if membership of the reserves became a badge of unemployment.

I believe that it was folly to cut the Territorial Army in the strategic defence review. A bigger Territorial Army would have provided a deeper mobilisation well. I do not believe that, at their current size, the reserves can sustain recent levels of mobilisation for long. We must beware of the suggestion that peace in Northern Ireland, or the advance of "networked-enabled capability"—which is the buzzword for the introduction of new technology that will do away with attrition warfare and enable us to get by with what the jargon says is "fewer platforms", whatever those platforms may be—allows us to get by with fewer infantry.

If we couple together the continuing reduction in the number of soldiers with the continued high-tempo use of reservists, we have a recipe for disaster. The public simply will not understand how we can afford to have fewer regular soldiers and yet need to call up reservists more regularly. As Brigadier Holmes said to me last November, the reserves are a reserve for use but not for overuse. Things that are overused, such as fast cars and fine shotguns, wear out even if they are made by Mercedes or Purdy.

9.49 am
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

I am delighted to have been called somewhat earlier than anticipated.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mislaid his glasses.

Mr. Keetch:

I am grateful for that advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not think that the hon. Member for Canterbury ever mislaid anything, and I am sure that he will be back to make a contribution.

I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on what he said. He is a man of great gallantry and has a remarkable position in the House. He speaks with great passion on many subjects, especially on defence and his deployment to Iraq. Whatever the concerns in all political parties about the Iraq war, there is no doubt that Her Majesty's forces performed incredibly well. The role that the Territorial Army played was significant. I visited Iraq shortly after the conflict. I did not see the hon. Gentleman, but I did see Earl Attlee, who had also been called up and was doing a fantastic job in Basra.

I pay tribute to everyone in both Houses and in the Territorial Army who were called up for the Iraq war and for other operations. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that when our forces are deployed—in the Balkans, Iraq or wherever—no distinction is made between reservists or regulars. At first sight, it is not possible to tell which they are, and that should be the case.

The reservists in Afghanistan are, perhaps, forgotten. Perhaps the conflict in which they serve is a forgotten war. The hon. Gentleman referred just once to that country. A significant number of forces, including special forces, are still in Afghanistan, as I know from my constituency work. Territorial Army units are also there.

I pay tribute in particular to the members of the Hereford reconnaissance troop of light infantry TA, who were recently deployed to Afghanistan. I met them when they returned and they felt that because of the understandable weight of publicity and the spotlight on Iraq, the valuable work done by regular and reserve forces in Afghanistan was being forgotten. We should record our continued contribution in that campaign, which was broadly supported by all political parties for good reasons.

Those young men brought an issue to my attention that the hon. Gentleman did riot raise council tax rebates. What are the Minister's thoughts on that? Members of our reserve forces are deployed for months on end—six months is not unusual. As the hon. Gentleman said, they may well be redeployed relatively quickly after returning. It is extremely unfair of local authorities to continue to charge them a full council tax rate.

I understand that some councils would have a problem with that because of the large number of people deployed, and I am always careful about making any spending commitment. However, relatively few people from Herefordshire were deployed, and my local council could have made an exception, as some other councils do. The Government may want to consider whether a more nationally unified form of support could be given.

The hon. Gentleman made some important points, several of which I want to highlight. The most important was the way in which the formed units worked incredibly well. He rightly said that it was never the idea that TA units should be part of that. They were supposed to support and top up regular units. However, the formed units that have worked, including the reconnaissance troop that I mentioned, have done extremely well.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about members of the reserve forces not wanting to be called up or being reluctant to serve. The suggestion that there was conscription is frankly ridiculous. We know from our armed forces—both the regulars and the reservists—that they all understand that they may be called on to be deployed on active duty. As the hon. Gentleman said, many of them relish that opportunity; it is one reason why they joined the armed forces, either as regulars or reservists. It is a sad but chilling fact that there has been, I think, only one year since the end of the second world war in which a member of our armed forces has not been killed on active duty. It would therefore be disingenuous for any member of the regular or reservist forces to say that they did not want or expect to go to war. I have never heard any of them say that and think that such statements have been put into their mouths by others. However, although our reserve forces are prepared, ready and often eager to be called up, they did not expect to be called up on a regular basis. That was never envisaged. We need to consider that carefully to establish whether the practice is right.

I share some of the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the TA being reduced from around 55,000 to 40,000 at the time of the strategic defence review. Looking back, even the Government would probably accept that that was not wise. We could all say that with hindsight. However, we know that events have moved on significantly from the SDR, which was broadly supported by all parties in the House in 1998. We must look at some of the lessons that have been learned.

Reservists have been under intense pressure as a result of the increased demands of the operations in Iraq. There are serious concerns about the recruitment and retention of some reservists, especially the more specialist reservists, such as medics. Can the Minister confirm the fact reported by theThe Daily Telegraph that 27 medics are leaving the Territorial Army following demobilisation? I hope that that is not so because Defence Medical Services relies heavily on reserve forces and is under extreme pressure.

I have tabled a number of questions—most recently on 15 March—on the reasons why people are leaving the Territorial Army and how many are doing so. I was amazed to be told by the Minister in a written answer that Reliable inflow and outflow data for the TA are not currently available and for the same reason it is not possible to provide reasons for departure."—[Official Report, 15 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 49W.] In an environment in which we rely more and more on our reserve forces, surely we all accept that a situation in which we do not know why people leave needs to be improved. We rely on our reserve forces. I would have hoped that we had a much better understanding of who they are, why they leave and how we can stop others leaving. There is a growing trend for people to leave as soon as they have been demobilised, which is why we need the information.

Lessons can be learned from the Iraq operation. For example, the hon. Gentleman referred to the divergent pay rates for TA and regular medics. We need to consider that and be aware that some TA soldiers have returned and lost their jobs. The Ministry of Defence should rightly be concerned about that.

The TA has had an active defence role in many theatres, not just in Iraq. Specialist units have been deployed to theatres in the Balkans and Afghanistan, where other regular Army units have been deployed. For example, TA infantry personnel have played a significant role in the Balkans, for which approximately 4,000 soldiers have been mobilised for duty since 1995. Undoubtedly, since the emergence of the new threat of international terrorism directed at UK territory, it is important to continue to explore and reconsider how the reserve forces might contribute to security at home. As my exchange with the hon. Gentleman demonstrated, we could benefit from some of the reserve forces being dedicated to homeland security and defence—call it what you like, Mr. Deputy Speaker—trained for that, and being aware that that is their role. Of course, they would not be trained any less than those units that might be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, but they might be trained and equipped differently and be ready for a different role or job.

I think that all hon. Members from all parties support the excellent role that our armed forces have played. It is not for them to decide whether they should be deployed on active service; that is for the Government. However, when they are deployed on active service, they perform with great heroism and bravery and do credit to our country. We should support them. I have often said that the best piece of equipment or kit that the armed forces possess is the men and women who serve in them. That is as true of the reserve forces as it is of the regular forces. I join the hon. Gentleman in supporting that unit.

9.59 am
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

I meant no discourtesy to the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) by being absent for most of his speech. I left my glasses on my desk and the blurriness in front of me was not the result of a convivial evening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), on securing the debate and, more important, on the way in which he has encapsulated the views of many Territorials. He based that especially on his recent six-month deployment to Iraq on Operation Telic. I should like to echo many of the things that he said, but I shall spare hon. Members a repetition of the points that he has already made.

I shall briefly consider three areas: first, the mobilisation process, in which there are some strong positives, but also one or two negatives; secondly, the principles behind the use of reserves; thirdly, I want to spend a large proportion of my time on the present size and peacetime structure of the combat elements of the TA.

On mobilisation, one generalisation says it all, but, like all generalisations, this does not apply to every case. Most of the aspects of mobilisation that had to be handled by the individual reservist when their units, employers and families were involved—and, credit where it is due, when Chilwell was involved—were well handled. Chilwell came through very strongly on that. Most of the things that went wrong were in areas in which the personnel staff in the Ministry of Defence were involved.

The medical screening went well. As the Defence Select Committee observed, the gaps that showed up did so precisely because the medical screening was done well. There were paperwork problems in one or two areas, such as pay, but they were on a much smaller scale than they were, for example, during the first Balkans deployment. Again, that is a good reflection on Chilwell. Above all, the vast majority of recruits felt that the assessment and training at Chilwell were well done and was adequate. The Select Committee made that clear. Therefore, Chilwell has come out very strongly. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, the reserves came through extremely well and the feedback on them has invariably been good.

I do not want to dwell on the negative details because the system is changing, and rightly so. However, it is clear from some of the remarks in the Select Committee report, from comments made to me by Territorials and from the tetchiness of the some of the exchanges with the personnel staff in the Select Committee hearings—the main one in particular—that all did not go well with the central staff in the Ministry of Defence. The failure to give adequate notice is excusable up to a point when there is a war to fight, but we had a lot of notice on this occasion. The disgraceful mailshotting—like a travel company—of individual mobilisation instructions sent direct from the centre to individuals completely bypassed the TA chain of command in exactly the way that the Defence Select Committee objected to over the Balkans deployments. It is extraordinary that nothing had been learned; it was worse this time than it was the previous time.

All that convinces me that the Government are right to take such responsibilities away from the personnel staff in the MOD—who, I am sure, are hard-working and overstretched—and to give them to a directorate headed by a part-time reservist, himself a civilian, and reporting direct to the vice-chief of defence staff. That is better than using an organisation that is not used to dealing with people such as employers and where the focus of its attentions is bound to be principally the regular forces.

On the issue of the philosophy behind the employment of reserves, my hon. Friend put it so well that I do not want to repeat his points in detail. However, a macro-point and a micro-point must be made. The micro-point applies to each soldier, and the macro-point applies to policy as a whole.

People joined with an understanding of serving in action and a desire to do so. My great regret from the 13 years that I spent in the Territorial Army is that I never did an operational deployment. Some of us were particularly angry in 1982. We were in an airborne unit, which we were continually told was old-fashioned because we kept on parachuting on to Scottish islands. The Falklands war happened, but we were not called up. A willingness to give up one's weekends and evenings to work and train hard during peacetime, and the enthusiasm to get stuck in when there is a war or a national crisis does not equate, as my hon. Friend said, to repeated, compulsory deployments after the immediate crisis is over simply to ease regular overstretch. However, there will always be Territorials and reservists who welcome the opportunity to do that bit extra during peacetime.

At the macro level, the fundamental strategic point is that a reserve, by definition, is not normally used but is available when a crisis strikes. If reserves are used so heavily that units are pillaged of their best people because they are all off on deployment somewhere, there is no reserve for when things really go wrong and there is a major conflict. We are coming dangerously close to that. That brings me to the peacetime structure and the size of reserves. In our English-speaking counterpart countries that do not have conscription, the general rule is that their reserve land forces are broadly comparable in size to the regular army. In Canada it is about three quarters; in Australia it is a little smaller; in America the two volunteer organisations—the US army reserve and, more importantly, the national guard—are, together, one and one third times the size of its regular army. In Britain, our Territorial Army is only one third the size of the regular Army and that disproportion is a great mistake. The wider community is playing a much smaller role and those in the volunteer reserve are sometimes severely overstretched. Above all, we do not have much to rely on when things go wrong.

Moving from size to structure, it is clear to almost everyone I speak to in combat units in the Territorial Army that the present structure is not working, particularly in the infantry. One of the most often quoted and widely accepted defence assumptions is that units can go from high-intensity warfare training to effective low-intensity deployment, but the reverse is impossible. Units that have been trained only for low-intensity work cannot do high-intensity work. There is a parallel with the reserve forces. Units that have been trained to work well together as units and have understood what it is to be part of a company and a battalion and to operate within an all-arms brigade can provide highly effective individual reinforcement, but people who have done only individual training cannot be deployed effectively in units or sub-units, nor in the long term are they much use as individual replacements, even at a level as lowly as a corporal commanding a section, let alone a platoon or company commander.

It is a fact that training must take place within a unit structure. Our present infantry battalion structure does not offer that and I shall illustrate why with two examples. First, it is simply too small. For a battalion headquarters to function, it must have an intelligence function. Information must come in to enable a battalion commander to make decisions and so on. In the recent add back and get well package, a very small welcome addition was made to infantry battalions and the post of intelligence officer was re-created, but he has been given no staff and the man clearly cannot stay awake 24 hours a day in an operational situation. He cannot work on his own. Infantry battalion headquarters cannot function properly even to provide a proper training aid for company commanders, individuals, sub-units, officers and NCOs, and so on, let alone to command the new rapid reaction force unit that is envisaged in the Government's White Papers.

My other example is the structure within the companies themselves. A proper rifle company should have three rifle platoons in it. Many people argue that it should have four such platoons. Three platoons are needed to have a good exercise. If there are three, and there are some people away training recruits, some people abroad on deployment and so on, two platoons can probably be cobbled together on a weekend exercise. Under the present structure, there are only two platoons in a rifle company. There is usually also a specialist platoon, but it is obviously not part of company rifle infantry training. It has other jobs to do. Another set of problems is raised by the fact that allocations across the infantry battalions are perverse when it comes to training purposes, but I will not go into that now.

On paper, the company commander has two rifle platoons. He has no establishment for training recruits, and no establishment for recruits at all, beyond one NCO. The NCO needs two or three helpers to train recruits. The recruits that he has got are on the books of those two platoons, so they cannot go on a company exercise with the company. Effectively, by the time the recruits, the people training them and anyone who is away on deployment is taken out of the equation, we are left with barely one platoon's worth of people in a company. That is not a meaningful structure in which to provide an interesting exercise. As one commanding officer put it to me the other day, it simply means that he knows that his company commanders, company sergeant majors and even his platoon commanders themselves are not being properly trained. That will show through in a fall in quality in the long run.

Let us consider the issue in its recent historical context. Ministers rightly responded to the desperate concern around the country about the footprint. There was a requirement to keep sub-units—TA locations normally involve sub-units—in as many locations as possible. The result was to achieve a reasonable-sized footprint within a terribly small total TA size. The size of the sub-units was reduced and they are simply no longer big enough to train people properly. That will gradually show through in declining standards, although every commanding officer, company commander and member of the permanent staff is struggling to prevent that.

The Secretary of State made some very positive remarks a few months ago. He said that he regretted the size of the reductions. I was sorry to see that the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Personnel) appeared directly to contradict those remarks, but that is another story. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West that we need larger reserve forces. The crying need that has to be met to make the forces that we have got work is not for extra units but for extra posts within the units and sub-units so that they have a meaningful structure and that real training can be carried out.

I end where I began—by congratulating my hon. Friend. He has brought his valuable experience to the House. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to what he said about the overuse of reserves. The TA, and its counterparts the Royal Naval Reserve, the Royal Marine Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, did this country proud in Operation Telic. It is essential that we consider the issues o I structure, size and mobilisation arrangements if we are to do them proud and if they are going to be able to do us equally well in the future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Before I call the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), I want to thank the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) for allowing me to call him early. It helped us out of a hole.

10.14 am
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on securing a debate that is timely not only in terms of the discussion of the reserve forces, but because of its implications for the defence White Paper, which will be rolled out over the next few months.

As other hon. Members have said, we are conscious of the service of—and sacrifices made by—members of the reserve forces who are currently serving in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and other overseas postings. Given the fact that, in my previous existence, I was a military historian, I am conscious of the role of the reserve forces in two world wars, for example. We tend to forget that, in the first world war, more than 50 per cent. of Field Marshall Haig's Army were Territorials. Many of the young pilots in fighter command, bomber command and those in the ground forces who supported them were from the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and hundreds of men and women served in the wavy navy in the second world war on escort duties, and many of them were killed or injured.

There is a long, voluntary tradition in our armed forces. Recent figures speak for themselves. Since NATO operations in the former Yugoslav republic began in December 1995, reserves have consistently provided between 10 per cent. and 14 per cent. of the United Kingdom manpower. Operation Telic involved the largest compulsory call-out of reserve forces since the 1956 Suez crisis. It is safe to say that, had the reserve forces involved in the United Kingdom contribution not been there, our contribution would have been—to say the least—seriously constrained. They were not just an add-on option.

The defence White Paper published in December 2003 emphasised that the Government had planned and structured the United Kingdom armed forces on the basis that any major war-fighting operation would draw on the support of the reserve forces. Furthermore, it says that the utility of Reserves will be used to evolve further to meet the need for compressed planning and preparation time-scales and more rapid transition to expeditionary war fighting. In future, Reserve forces may be required for a greater number of more frequent, short notice operations". The issues that have been flagged up must be taken seriously. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the contributions to the debate have been made constructively. There may have been some criticisms, but they are more in terms of lessons learned and what we must do in the future. We must bear in mind what the defence White Paper has argued and, in particular, the speeches that the Prime Minister has rightly made about the threat of international terrorism, the role of our armed forces in proactively attempting to deter terrorists worldwide, the role of the reserve forces and home security.

Since the strategic defence review in 1998, the changing role of the reservists raises several important matters. We know that the number of reservists was over-cut under the SDR to provide funds for the necessary changes in organisation and the equipment of the regulars. Such action was not new. Previous Governments have tended to rob the small amount of money that was allocated to the reservists to provide front-line regulars. It is interesting that those days have gone and, in a strange way, I suspect that the funding and equipment of the reservists will have to be better in the future because they are now so tightly integrated into the regulars. Thank goodness that the days of the old method used by Ministers and senior regular officers, when faced with cutting the TA and reducing its equipment, have gone.

The Secretary of State has acknowledged that the planned cuts of the TA and the SDR were wrong. On 20 February 2002, in an interview inThe Daily Telegraph, he said that he was glad that the TA had not been fully cut from the previous strength of 56,000 to 41,000 set by the defence review . . . if its recommendations had been put into effect, TA numbers would have been so low that reservists would be unable to fulfil the tasks envisaged for them in the defence of the homeland". I believe that such recognition was good.

The reserve forces are no longer the old-fashioned, second-line Saturday night soldiers—as they were often contemptuously referred to by some regulars and much of the media. They are now an integral part of the modern armed forces, and they are frequently used worldwide. Without the reserve forces, the regular forces would be unable to meet many of the Government's commitments.

Ministers will have to examine carefully the organisation and structure of the reservists, how they are recruited and retained, and whether we will need to dedicate certain reservists just to home defence and others only to operations overseas. I am merely an amateur in this, but my gut reaction is that I would be against that. We must have built-in flexibility. My friends in the military always say to me that soldiers, sailors and airmen have to be trained for full war-fighting capability and for being deployed anywhere.

Servicemen and women who have taken part in operations in Afghanistan or Iraq might subsequently, because of their age for example, serve in a civil contingency unit. They would bring considerable experience to such units, but we can debate that matter later.

Mr. Brazier:

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One way of squaring the circle and meeting some of the points that have been made would be to reintroduce the home service force—a company of older soldiers listed on to each TA unit. That would provide a low-cost supplement for domestic use only.

Mr. Simpson:

More details can be fleshed out as the debate continues and as we discuss the defence White Paper and the interesting matter of the allocation of resources.

The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) made a point that the Minister will not want to address in detail. Our special forces have undertaken important roles in the past as they do at present and, according to the defence White Paper, they will play an increasingly important role in the future. Our regular special forces would be unable to operate on their current scale without the full and active involvement of the TA and reserve element; that is crucial. The critical mass is in danger of being stretched very thin; I do not expect the Minister to comment on that. We should bear it in mind that our special forces, unlike those of other countries, are not elite units whose members are recruited straight from civilian life. They are drawn across the board from our regular armed forces and there comes a point when, if the size of those regular forces are reduced below a certain critical mass, the quality and quantity of the people who can get into our special forces will be affected.

Mr. Keetch


Mr. Simpson:

I think that the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.

Mr. Keetch:

I certainly do. We do not expect the Minister to comment directly on the special forces issues, but there is another key matter, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of. Increasing numbers of private security companies now exist; they are used in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a huge temptation for former members of the special forces to go and earn considerable sums working for such private companies rather than stay on or move into the Territorial special forces. We must recognise that that is an additional draw on former special forces personnel. That is why the hon. Gentleman's comments about ensuring that the regular Army and the Marines are large enough to bring forward special forces people is doubly important.

Mr. Simpson:

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As the Minister knows, the expansion of the Home Office budget to deal with home security has led to many chief constables trying to recruit experienced men and women from both the regular and reserve forces to fulfil certain roles. That is an issue for the Government as a whole to address.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West and others mentioned that some reserve forces effectively play a dual role. I have mentioned that people have been earmarked to serve in the civil contingency reaction forces but have ended up having to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the Minister discuss the organisation, training and preparation of the civil contingency reaction forces? Are they in formed units? Have they received adequate training? In the event of a large-scale incident in the United Kingdom, could they act quickly and effectively?

As my hon. Friend said, the increased activity and service of the reserve forces cause real problems for certain reservists and their families as well as for their employers. He graphically described the situation, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison). The MOD says in its report, "Operations in Iraq—Lessons for the Future", that it is addressing the problem. The matter was also taken up in the Defence Committee's report, "Lessons of Iraq". As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said, and as my former colleague and old friend Brigadier Richard Holmes intimated, we face the danger of running out of reserves if the Government maintain the tempo of operations, some of which are concurrent. Does the Minister agree with that? Ministers may be confident that such is not the case, but, if operations continue at the present tempo, I fear that some employers may look with reluctance upon people seeking employment with them who have a reserve liability. For example, most businesses in my constituency employ fewer than eight people. A large business that employs 250 or 300 people can take a hit of two or three people serving as reservists. It is different if one or possibly two reservists leave a business that employs only five or six people. However patriotic one is, such a business may decide that that is a liability too far.

Like other hon. Members, I warmly welcome the MOD's strengthening of the higher management of the reservists and the appointment of His Grace the Duke of Westminster, who also works in civil life as the director of reserve forces and cadets. He is to come directly under the vice-chief of the defence staff. That is a powerful initiative for putting the reserve forces at the centre of MOD planning. However, will it result in an allocation of extra resources and reserve forces being strengthened in every possible way?

Will people in the regular armed forces no longer think that serving with the reserve forces is a potential career blockage? It was always the case in the past that someone who was sent to serve as adjutant of a TA unit or to command a TA battalion was considered a member of the second eleven. The current Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, would say that he is a living example of that not being so, having experience as a young captain as adjutant to a Scottish TA para-battalion, which, unfortunately, ruined his liver—at least, that is what he claims. However, in the past, an association with the reservists was not considered a good career move. I am sure that the Minister will say that that is no longer so, and I would like to think that, with reservists so integrated into the regular forces, appointments to the reserve forces will be considered a very good career move.

The second issue is the impression that reserve forces are given cast-off, virtually obsolete kit and equipment from the regular forces, primarily because of pressures on the defence budget. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West said that reservists who were integrated into regular units had exactly the same equipment and kit as the regulars. It is more an issue for the formed reserve units that were sent out. There were criticisms that they did not have the best kit and equipment and that there were shortages. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that.

Over the past year many hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised questions about pay, allowances and the pensions of reservists and the security of civilian employment. All were touched on by the Select Committee report, and the MOD is undertaking a review of those matters. The Minister has approached the issue constructively but, as a matter of urgency, I ask him to make a statement in the House about how far the Ministry of Defence has got with addressing the problems.

I was particularly interested to see the MOD announcement on 3 February, about administrative changes to the recruitment and re-engagement procedures for volunteer reserve forces, which touches on an issue that I raised earlier. The Select Committee noted that from 1 April new recruits from the volunteer reserve forces and applicants for re-engagement will be required to agree to their unit contacting their employer about their membership. The MOD says that the changes will enable employers to be in a better position to plan for the absence of employees who are reservists and also to be better informed about their rights and obligations. The Select Committee said that it was concerned that those changes seemed to have been announced ahead of the findings of the MOD's own study on employer support, and that there seems to have been no prior consultation with members of the reserves. Will the Minister comment on that?

The debate has been short but, due to the contribution of my colleagues, it has been very constructive. I pay tribute once again to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West and other hon. Members and members of the House staff, who in the past two or three years have served in the reserve forces and been, as they used to say, twice a citizen.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Before I call the Minister, I shall just reflect on the fact that only last month I paid my last ever mess bill.

10.33 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin)

I will not ask how large the mess bill was, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

It was £42.36.

Mr. Caplin:

I want to begin on a sombre note by paying tribute to Brigadier Lord Vivian, the Conservative party's defence spokesman in the House of Lords, who passed away on 28 February. He had a distinguished military career before entering the House of Lords in 1991, where, if I may say to Opposition Members, he was among the most active peers in the Conservative party. He wrote me a very nice note on my appointment to this position in June last year, to which I responded. It is also worth saying, in light of today's debate, that Lord Vivian was an honorary colonel to 306 Field Hospital in the Territorial Army. I pay the respects of the whole House to his family at this difficult time.

I also want to pay tribute to the five reservists who have lost their lives in action in the past year. Private Smith of the 52 Lowland Regiment; Corporal Pritchard, 116 Provost company; Fusilier Beeston, also of 52 Lowland Regiment; Sergeant Nightingale of 150 Transport company attached to the 27th Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps; and Private Kitulagoda of the Royal Rifle Volunteers. We are indebted to all of them and their families for the efforts that they made on behalf of the United Kingdom here and abroad.

I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on securing the debate. I was expecting a few more of his hon. Friends to be here and, indeed, some of mine, but that is how it sometimes happens early on a Wednesday morning. I have been reflecting on how constructive the debate has been and contemplating one of my previous roles as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the then the Leader of the House—she is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—in the 1997 to 2001 Parliament at which time Westminster Hall debates were created. The view was that we could have consensual constructive debates about the issues of the day, and today has shown the benefit of this debating Chamber even though there has been only a small attendance.

Everyone knows that the hon. Member for New Forest, West is a major in the Territorial Army. During the passage of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill, he insisted on not being referred to as a galloping major. One Conservative Member tried to refer to him as such, quite unfairly from the Government's point of view. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his story "From Westminster to Iraq" in the in-house magazine for the Ministry of Defence, which was published recently, and about his experiences of being in active service and working as a liaison officer to the Italian joint taskforce in Nasiriyah in Iraq for six months. We are pleased to see him back.

The Government hold the reserve forces in the highest possible esteem, and I fully endorse all the praise and accolades that have been bestowed on them this morning. We agree that the reserves form a key part of the United Kingdom armed forces. The reason for the appointment of the Duke of Westminster to the position of assistant chief of the defence staff, reserves and cadets was to demonstrate publicly that we regard the reserves as an important and integral part of what we do. I was delighted to be at Chilwell last month to announce his appointment. He will report directly to the vice-chief of defence staff, and, as hon. Members know, I take a direct interest in all reserve matters and talk regularly to the vice-chief and others in the organisation.

I am not sure what the Chief Whip will make of today's debate when he reads tomorrow morning about the secrets that the hon. Member for New Forest, West has given away. Mrs. Swayne, too, might have something to say when she sees tomorrow'sHansard.

Mr. Swayne:

The Minister will know the truism that any speech made in Parliament is likely to remain a secret.

Mr. Caplin:

That is probably true. After making announcements on defence issues, I have asked people, "Did you know that we were going to do this or that?" They say, "No. Where did you announce that?" I say, "Only in the House of Commons."

Until a few years ago, call-out for reservists seemed only a remote possibility. In the past 10 years, there has been a major strategic evolution, and I accept, as the Secretary of State made clear, that that started with the 1998 strategic defence review. We have moved from a large and little-used reserve force to a smaller, more effective one that is constantly in use. That has been a tremendous challenge for our reservists, and the Ministry of Defence has good reason to be grateful for the positive response from both the reservists and their employers. I shall try to deal with all the issues raised this morning, but I am more than happy to take interventions if I do not answer all the questions; we have plenty of time after all. In line with the tenet of the strategic defence review, the Government plan and structure the armed forces on the basis that any major war-fighting operation would draw on support from the reserve forces. Namely, we have more usable, integrated and relevant reserve forces that support their regular counterparts in operations at home and overseas. That is a prudent approach that allows the maintenance of full-time armed forces in no greater strength than is needed for normal peacetime activity, and that can meet a limited range of contingencies. In addition, the more flexible use of reservists gives the Government the opportunity to harness skills appropriate for operations, which are not needed regularly or frequently in peacetime and therefore not readily found in the regular armed forces. Although we have a lot of time this morning, the defence medical service would probably take up the whole of the rest of my speech, so perhaps hon. Members would like to return to that matter on a separate occasion.

As the hon. Member for New Forest, West told us, and as the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) who was called out shortly afterwards knows, the call-out is the use of a legal power to bring reservists into permanent service—in effect, to mobilise them. It is authorised by the making of an order under the Reserve Forces Act 1996. The call-out order for Operation Telic was made under section 54 of that Act by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on 7 January 2003. We renewed that order on 6 January 2004 to enable reservists to continue to support operations in Iraq and also in Afghanistan and the Balkans. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) rightly said, more than 10 per cent. of those in the Balkans are reservists.

In broad terms, Operation Telic required about 5,600 reservists—about 3,600 from the Territorial Army, 1,500 from the RAF and 500 from the Royal Navy and Royal Marine reserves. That was the largest call-out of members of the reserve forces since 1956. In determining the number of people who would be sent call-out notices, allowance was made for possible wastage rates resulting from those who would not meet medical or dental standards. Medical failures and applications for exemption or deferment from reservists or their employers were also taken into consideration where possible.

I do not intend to respond directly to the Select Committee report, if for no other reason than that I think it right and proper that the Ministry of Defence should give a proper, considered response to all parts of the report to the House in the usual way.

In the event, more than 8,000 reservists were called out and more than 5,000 taken into service in sufficient time to be deployed and participate in the war-fighting phase of the operation at this time last year. The majority were drawn from the volunteer reserve forces. A smaller number came from the Army and RAF ex-regular reserve forces. Members of the sponsored reserves were also called out. Once war-fighting operations were over, there was—and is—a continuing role for reservists in the reconstruction of Iraq. To date, more than 9,300 reserve forces have supported, or are supporting, operations in Iraq.

At this stage, perhaps I should tell the House about my recent visit to the Gulf and to Basra. Two things were interesting and significant. First, I spent part of an evening with the London TA, which is out there at present. We did a question-and-answer session for the members of the unit. One of the young soldiers asked me whether the members of the TA could be referred to as part-time soldiers. I have heard that phrase a number of times. My response, which I am pretty sure is not only right but important, was that I did not consider him a part-time soldier, particularly when he is on an operation in a dangerous theatre such as Basra in southern Iraq. I said to him, "For all intents and purposes, you are a soldier not a part-time soldier". Over the coming months, it is imperative that we get that message across, and I hope that we will do so.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West referred to intelligent mobilisation, which is the other interesting thing. It is an important way forward for the Territorial Army and reserve forces in the future. When I was in Al Amarah, I came across a unit commander who is a chief inspector of police in the UK. He had been redeployed from his normal TA duties to mentor the new chief of police in that town. That is having a direct impact on an area where we have had problems over the last 12 months. That area is much calmer now and part of the reason for that is the mentoring process that that Iraqi police force is undertaking. That is also an area of policy that we want to consider.

There is a continuing need for us to use reservists and to call them out in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas. I made the most recent call-out order on 1 March 2004, which will allow the continued support of operations in Sierra Leone and the Congo. I assure hon. Members that the new order was routine, and will allow reservists to be called out should we need them.

Mr. Keetch: Given the Minister's experience with the chief inspector that he met in Iraq, is it not the case—as it has always been—that the skills that members of the reserve forces have in their civilian occupations can often add enormously to the contribution that they give in training and active service? Has some thought been given to identifying particular individuals who may provide huge additional benefits to deployed regular forces in a peace-building situation or reconstruction phase? That might be a constructive way of getting the most out of those who have served in our reserve forces.

Mr. Caplin:

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Perhaps I can respond to it by quoting Peter Morgan, a business unit leader at GlaxoSmithKline. He said on the SaBRE—Supporting Britain's Reservists and Employers—website in November 2003: After visiting Kabul in July, I now fully understand why the Reserve Forces are such a vital part of the UK's overall Armed Services strategy. I am in complete support of employees who join the Territorial Army. There is no doubt that the TA benefits individuals, particularly when skills learned in the military can be transferred to civilian jobs. I fully concur with that view and I am grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman.

It is important to say in response to the points made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk that we do not, will not and cannot take the support of employers for granted. That would be the wrong thing to do. As hon. Members will know, SaBRE was set up about 18 months ago to bring about greater focus on employer issues and to work with employers during call-outs. SaBRE has been a success. That does not mean that there is nothing more that it can do, or that there is no more work to do, but given the period of time since it was set up and what it had to face during that period, it has been successful.

We are constantly thanking employers. I have been to three regional receptions, and attended one in London at which the Secretary of State and the Chief of the Defence Staff publicly thanked the national employers for their support during the past 12 months. It is also important to recognise that the chain of command has been very supportive in delivering employers' support where necessary. I pay tribute to the National Employer Advisory Board, chaired by the Conservative peer Lord Glenarthur, which plays a crucial role in advising the Ministry of Defence on employer issues.

Perhaps I can talk a little about the announcement that I made to the House on 3 February on employer notification. After our earlier exchange about secrets, I am grateful that so many hon. Members are aware of that notification. It was rather an achievement to be recognised in that way in a Select Committee report. The subject was the topic of much debate both in the Ministry of Defence and with reservists and employers before I arrived at the Ministry in June 2003. Surveys undertaken by the MOD have shown that a large majority of reservists have already told their employers that they are members of the volunteer reserve. In addition, when reservists are mobilised, their employers are automatically informed of their membership of the reserve forces. We do not expect that routine employer notification to have a significant impact on employers' support. I believe that that is an important step forward.

I decided that we should tell the House as soon as we took that decision rather than wait for further periods of consultation because it has been talked about for so long. It is an important step forward for the long-term strategic future of the reserve forces and the employers who support us. I should place on record the Ministry of Defence's thanks to employers from both the public and private sectors for the outstanding support that they have provided to our armed forces in the past 18 months. In the past, it has been suggested that we have had difficulties with employers. That is not my experience from going around the United Kingdom talking to them; by far the majority of reservists' employers have been tremendously supportive. What the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said is right; operations would not have been as successful as they were if employers had not offered that level of support.

Questions were asked about reinstatement and other issues, and I shall deal with some of them. Under the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985, an employer is required to take back former employees who have completed call-out service. The Act also deals with the terms and conditions of reservists when they are reinstated to civilian employment. If an employer fails to take reservists back into his employment or infringes any of his rights under the 1985 Act, the reservist may apply to a reinstatement committee, which will decide on the matter. That committee has the power to require employment to be made available to the reservist or to order the employer to pay compensation, or both. I mentioned that there were more than 9,000 call-outs. However, since 1 January 2003, we know of only 19 applications to reinstatement committees. That shows that the legislation is working well and the level of support that there is between employers and their reservists.

The MOD does not provide legal advice or representation to reservists seeking reinstatement to their civilian employment under the terms of that Act. However, it provides advice to reservists on their legal right to reclaim their civilian employment and on how to seek reinstatement. Each reservist receives a copy of JSP 532; I am sure that the major—the hon. Member for New Forest, West—is aware of that document which is entitled "Guidance for reservists returning to civilian employment following a period of mobilised service". The campaign team of SaBRE provides a helpline and a website that give additional information and advice. Each of the reserve forces and cadet associations in all of the regions has an employer support executive, which can offer advice and assistance to reservists who are experiencing problems returning to their civilian employment. We are also introducing unit employer support officers who will be able to assist reservists with employer issues. The Secretary of State made it clear that we will look again at those issues during the course of the White Paper debate, which will start on Thursday in the main Chamber.

There has also been discussion about financial assistance for reservists. It is right that I inform the House about that this morning so as to bring hon. Members up to date on this, rather than make yet another statement that no one sees. There has been some criticism of the financial package that is in place for reservists. The current banded rates that we use came into effect in 1997 and, as they currently stand, they do not reflect the increase in civilian earnings since that time. That does not necessarily mean that reservists lose out. They are entitled to make a hardship claim if their standard award does not match their civilian earnings. Nevertheless, we recognise that this situation is not ideal. As we announced in the White Paper, work is in hand to produce new regulations governing the award of both the reservist standard award and the reservist hardship award.

The new regulations will take into account the lessons arising from the mobilisation into Iraq. While that work is being undertaken as a priority, it is not yet possible to state what the finalised proposals will be. However, once we have completed our deliberations, we plan to publish a consultation document to seek the views of interested parties prior to the final regulations.

Mr. Swayne:

I am grateful for the Minister's undertaking to consult on that. He will be aware that, in a flexible modern economy such as ours, a scaffolder may earn considerably more than a Member of Parliament. However, when mobilised, the scaffolder may be a corporal, and the Member of Parliament a major, so significant hardship would be imposed on the corporal under existing rank constraints.

Mr. Caplin:

I accept the hon. Gentleman's points, and others have made them, too. I shall conclude my update on the issue by telling the Chamber that the aim is to bring the matter before Parliament in the autumn. We will then have an opportunity to debate the subject.

Mr. Brazier:

The Minister has given us the welcome prospect of future announcements. Could he come back to issues of unit structure, perhaps in correspondence? Inevitably, the bulk of today's debate has been on the mobilisation process. There is a real worry in the command structure of the Territorial Army that the present unit structures, particularly within combat units, are simply not delivering the training needed to continue the effort needed.

Mr. Caplin:

I certainly can come back on that issue. I was going to make a few points about training in the last couple of minutes available, but if that does not satisfy the hon. Gentleman, I will, as always, be more than happy to write to him on the matter.

I want to reflect a little on Chilwell and Grantham, because the hon. Member for New Forest, West mentioned them today and in his letter to the Secretary of State in June. I welcome the support that he and others have given to the people who run Chilwell and Grantham. As hon. Members will know, last month I spent a day with the assistant chief of the defence staff, as he is now known. Chilwell and Grantham show how we have moved forward training for those reservists who go through that process. I certainly had the opportunity to discuss with many of the people being mobilised the training that they were about to undertake. That was very good, and I was pleased to see the progress made there.

I come to the point on council tax, which is a perennial for the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). He must have a chip that makes him say, "I must mention council tax in every speech, whenever I can get it in." I do not mind him doing that. As he will know, council tax concessions are a matter for local authorities rather than the Ministry of Defence. All regular and reserve service personnel who own or rent private property remain liable to pay council tax while they are absent from that property, as that normally remains their sole or main residence. Members of the armed forces stationed in the United Kingdom or overseas are treated in the same way as any civilian who is required to live and work away from home. That is a consistent approach.

I want to update the House on the civil contingency reaction forces, which I am pleased to say have now achieved full operating capability, in accordance with the timetable set out in the new chapter of the strategic defence review. The House will be aware that they have been designed to enhance our ability to support the civil police and other civil authorities. Some 14 CCRFs will be available for deployment at short notice to support the civil authorities at the scene of an incident—whether it be a terrorist attack, a major accident or a natural disaster—should they request it.

Currently, 852 members of the CCRFs are mobilised overseas or are on active service in the UK, but that does not affect the operational capability of those forces Steps have been taken, where necessary, to fill those temporary vacancies. I know that training is ongoing because I discussed the training programme with one of the commanding officers when I was in Cardiff recently.

I conclude by welcoming today's debate, and joining all Members of the Chamber in paying the right and fulsome tribute to the work of all our reserve forces, wherever they are deployed. They have done, and will continue to do, a first-class job as part of the United Kingdom armed forces.

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