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20 May 1996 : Column 25

3.45 pm

Mr. Mans: I very much support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). I genuinely feel that the reserve and Regular forces are moving into a new era, in which reservists will be more important to the defence of this country. That needs to be recognised in a way that will enhance the reserve forces, encourage recruitment and ensure that they can play a more worthwhile part in Britain's defence.

I strongly believe that the new clause in no way threatens the way in which the Regular forces operate. It is absolutely right that we must ensure that our armed forces speak with one voice. The new clause will not affect the Regular armed forces--notably the chief of the general staff--being able to speak for everybody, reservists and Regulars. Without the enhancement of the status of reservists, we will find it difficult to continue to recruit the calibre of men and women that we need.

We will also find it difficult to ensure that the particular needs and problems that reservists have in filling two roles will be appreciated at the top. Above all, whatever the outcome of this debate, it is important that the voice of reservists is heard fully and at the top of Whitehall. If we can achieve that, regardless of whether the new clause is accepted, the debate will have been worth while.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): I am grateful for the chance to speak briefly in support of the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and to support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans). I am enthusiastic about the clause for the reason that has just been given--it will help to enhance the work of our reserves and our cadets. I speak with experience, as someone who spent a total of 24 years either with the reserves or with the cadets.

It must be right to spend more time debating this subject. After all, we are talking about young people and people who want to serve their country--a positive achievement. We spend far too much time in the House talking about complex regulations that are not understood by people outside. In this case, however, we are talking about the way in which people can volunteer to serve this country with the reserves or the cadets. We are also talking about people who give up their time to volunteer to be officers in the reserves and leaders of the cadets. This is not a party-political matter, but it is a pity that we do not spend more time talking about such people and their achievements. This country would be far better if we saw more in the newspapers and elsewhere about the achievements of our reserves.

I want to make two other remarks before I sit down. First, the new clause states that the senior reservist who is to become the director general of reserve forces and cadets will


and will take a particular interest in recruiting. I very strongly support that.

My last remark is that it is not just a matter of any military benefit that may come from the reserves or from the cadets--the benefit goes much wider than that. That is why the appointment of the director general is so important. The morale of our country is bound up with cadet force and reserve activity. I see in my constituency

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how much good is being done by young people through cadet activities. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is listening, and he will agree that this is not just a military matter. It does not matter what the top brass say, as they may be interested only in the military benefits. This is a national issue. We want more young people involved, not fewer. For all those reasons--and for many others that the House will not thank me for speaking on at length--I am delighted to support the new clause.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside): I am delighted to offer my support for the new clause, and that will come as no surprise to my colleagues on the Front Bench. I believe that we must understand the difficulties of being an auxiliary or a reservist. One faces problems at work and difficulties with one's family when one is required to enter into and accept commitments that impinge on family activities and family life. It is because of that that the House must debate fully and adequately the importance of leadership.

I have no complaints about the quality of the senior air staff officers who have held the post of the officer commanding the Air Cadets. We have been fortunate, as we have had some superb people in these posts. In addition, the director general of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force is a Member of the House--my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who has active experience and has served in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. It is the combination of those things and experiences that brings together the people who provide leadership and, more importantly, the understanding of what it means to an individual to be a member of the Territorials, the reserves or the auxiliary forces. That is why we must consider carefully what the Bill does.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows of my concerns about discrimination, which we debated at some length in Committee. He will therefore understand that paragraphs (3)(a) to (e) of new clause 1 are important because they address some of those concerns. I accept that they will not put into statute exactly what I was trying to achieve in Committee, but they at least begin to address my anxieties. I hope that he will carefully consider new clause 1 and respond in a manner that will convince the House and the country that the Government understand that unless we have the right people in the key posts, it is possible that we will not have the number of reservists and auxiliaries that we need to augment our substantially reduced Regular military capability.

Many Conservative Members feel that we are cutting things rather fine with our current forces numbers. We welcome the improvement in equipment and believe that our Regular forces are best equipped if their numbers are smaller. However, the Regulars will be effective during hostilities only if they can call on the necessary number of reserves to augment them, or back them up in key posts, when they are sent off to a conflict. It was especially important that we addressed the problems facing the medical profession in Committee. New clause 1 deals with that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) said, this debate is important because it affects the whole country. It is important for the reserve forces but also for the cadet forces. There has been some concern in the air cadets about proposed changes in the command structures and to the position of the air officer commanding. I believe that the top man, whatever the

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field, should be a hands-on man with whom reservists can have regular contact and exchange ideas and whom they can approach easily. That is not in any way to diminish the necessary military environment, which is essential. When we are dealing with volunteers, it is important that they can see that such two-way communication is working. Before we change the structures, especially command structures, it is important to take that aspect into consideration.

Another vital aspect is often overlooked. While the Ministry of Defence, and therefore the public purse, picks up the bulk of the costs of our cadet forces, the cadets, by virtue of the way in which they operate, are required to raise substantial sums in their own right. That is why they are registered as charities. We should not in any way put at risk that charitable status because it is the mechanism through which the bulk of their extra funding comes.

We had a good and constructive debate in Committee and I believe that members of the auxiliaries and the reserves feel that the Committee and the House cares. I make that as a cross-party point, not a partisan one.

If we get the structure and the leadership right, we shall have served the country well. If we do not get it right in the current Bill, it will be a long time before we consider another one. Experience as a reservist has taught me that if one does not take the opportunity to make changes, it can often take nearly a lifetime to bring them about later, as it did in my case. Therefore, we need to get it right this time. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Minister understands that and I hope that when he replies to the debate he will have something positive to say about the new clause.

4 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Having made one's maiden speech on the subject, it is gratifying to find the ethos and motivation of that speech coming to fruition some 26 years later in that we are establishing a legislative framework which will enable Britain fully to utilise the potential of the reserve forces of all three services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has done the House a great service by tabling new clause 1, which is the summation of all we have been seeking to achieve. My hon. Friend is infinitely more experienced than I am in these matters and he holds the Territorial decoration for his gallant service in the reserve forces over many years. Moreover, in this place he can be described as TD--or truly dedicated. He has consistently advocated better use of the reserve forces; he has travelled overseas to conduct research; he has written extensively; he has been active in Committee and on the Floor of the House; and now he has introduced a new clause that not only has merit in itself, but sets out the good grounds for its acceptance by the Government and the House.

We know that the Bill will not be the last word on the reserve forces--I hope it is not--but the appointment of a two-star officer from the reserve forces as director general in the Ministry of Defence, will mean that there will be in post at the heart of the policy-making machinery on the nation's defence, someone with the experience and the status to make a significant contribution and continue the modernisation process of the reserves which will have been set in train by the Bill.

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I particularly welcome the exceptionally ecumenical nature of my hon. Friend's new clause. It is a genuinely tri-service measure. Like many Conservatives, my hon. Friend holds the Territorial Army particularly dear, but we know that reserves of all three forces are required and that the greatest deficiencies are in the naval and air reserves rather than in the Territorial Army as in recent years, the Army has been more imaginative than the Navy and the Air Force in its use of reserves.

I shall just re-emphasise a few of the points that my hon. Friends have already made. The first relates to status. When dealing with the Ministry of Defence, one cannot over-emphasise the importance of status--it is jealously guarded and earnestly sought. Once obtained, it has to be earned. The gallant gentleman, the two-star officer who will hold the post will be doubly qualified--he will have authority of all three services within the military community and within the civilian community. This dual role is crucial and will enable him to carry weight in a sense that no Regular officer could ever do, particularly among the civilian community, with which the reservists have to deal and from which they are drawn.

The officer must carry authority with the Territorial and Volunteer Reserve Associations. There is a risk that the TAVRAs might be a little jealous and think that a two-star officer would intrude on their territory. However, the new clause makes it clear that he would work with the TAVRAs regarding all aspects of recruiting and manning. Therefore, they should not be rigorous custodians of their terrain but instead use their imagination and welcome the appointment.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) referred to the medical services. Those services are becoming more reliant on reservists in all three armed forces. I have received a letter from the British Medical Association welcoming the new clause and expressing the hope that it will be carried into law.

Many of my constituents in Ruislip-Northwood are involved in air transport activities. RAF Northolt is a dual-use station which is also used by civilian aircraft and Heathrow is the biggest single employer in my area. At times of emergency or war, our armed forces may have to requisition civilian aircraft for military purposes and that somewhat sensitive and difficult role must be executed diplomatically. It can only be helpful to have in post someone with experience in commerce--and preferably with an air transport background--when dealing with the Department of Transport and the aviation industry, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The point applies also to the National Employers Liaison Committee.

The reservist two-star officer would have a proselytising role. He would have to support the university air squadrons, the university sea cadet corps and the university officers training corps in their attempts to ensure that graduates do not simply enter the Regular forces upon completion of their service. He must make it clear that they can play an equally valid role in the reserves. The number of schools liaison officers at the Ministry of Defence has been rigorously cut--like so much else--and their role could be reinforced by the reservist two-star officer.

The officer would also have an overseas representational role. If the director is merely a seconded Regular officer of one-star rank, it creates the impression that Her Majesty's Government do not give the emphasis

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to our reservists that is accorded to those in other countries where the reserve forces are used more effectively. The United States is a prime example, but I could also cite Switzerland, Israel and others. We have much to learn from those countries about the cost-effective potential of the reserve forces. The Ministry of Defence would do well to have on hand the expertise of a highly qualified, experienced two-star reservist officer who would represent the reserves overseas.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has recognised that Regular officer back-up is essential. It is important to have on hand a one-star officer, such as a brigadier, air commodore or commodore, who would ensure that the Regular forces aspects of the reservist commitment are understood and that reservists are not out of line with thinking in the Regular forces.

In conclusion, I reiterate the warmth of my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. I note that the co-signatories to his new clause have all worn uniform and have all been members of Her Majesty's Regular forces. From the perspective of their Regular service, they understand the merits of having a reservist two-star officer as director general in the Ministry of Defence.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has worn uniform as a Regular, will join us in supporting the new clause.


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