Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Callaghan of Cardiff: It is not for me as a transient and passing phantom in this Committee to inquire by what miracle the Committee finished at Clause 55 last Thursday. Suffice to say that it was very convenient. I just want to make one small, but I believe rather important, point arising from my discussions in South Wales. Clause 56 enables the Secretary of State to call out members of a reserve force for,


as paragraph (b) says,


    "for the alleviation of distress or the preservation of life or property in time of disaster or apprehended disaster".

The short point is this. I fully understand the great enthusiasm of the non-governmental organisations to be useful in this direction. However, there is another side to this that is particularly concerned with the medical services. The three services have significantly cut back on medical staff and cover both at home and abroad in relation to regular medical staff, so the likelihood of them relying upon reservists to run operations such as the Gulf War is very much greater.

The National Health Service itself is under stress. In this country, hospitals and trusts are all working under great strain. If there is an humanitarian operation overseas and medical staff in this country are fully engaged in their hospital work, what will happen? It may be predicted, rightly or wrongly, that there may be some resistance to calling out people who are engaged on medical operations here to do humanitarian operations overseas. I just ask what the Government think about that.

I support what my noble friend Lord Judd said. I believe that this Bill is receiving a splendid reception--and I do not often pay compliments to the Ministry of Defence--because of the very great care that has been taken in its drafting and the detailed consultations that have taken place. People feel that local opinion has been taken into account, and that is especially right because of the splendid work volunteers do in the Territorials, which is never recognised. It comes only second to the work being done by your Lordships in this Committee, who are spending so much time on it.

30 Jan 1996 : Column CWH101

Perhaps I may suggest that the Minister has another word with the local organisations and especially with the hospital trusts to see whether we can get a clearer definition and clearer criteria as to how to balance the requirements of restricted medical staff here and a situation arising when the services may require them.

Lord Bramall: The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, has a very, very real point. These reserve army officers have to come from the health service. Although for a general war the health service may be prepared to let them go, there is a great reluctance, when it is so hard pressed, to do so for humanitarian operations or situations such as Bosnia. It is absolutely right that there should be a capability to call up reserve officers. But it demonstrates the great danger of running down the regular medical services to the extent that has happened. There will be a clash of priorities, as I see it.

Lord Craig of Radley: Perhaps the Minister can help the Committee by outlining who has primary call on individuals or medical servicemen in the National Health Service who have a reserve responsibility. It is not clear to me where the priority would be in a conflict of the sort described by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. Indeed, as the Minister will recall, at the time of the Gulf War we had to call out a number of National Health Service "medics", many of whom, having set up their field hospitals, were held there against the day when operations would start but at the expense of National Health Services patients here in this country. We had problems involving a conflict of interest at times when there were many more medical personnel available in the services. One is left with a very unhappy feeling about how a situation such as that mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, would be dealt with.

Lord Redesdale: I support the clause, but I would like some information. The Secretary of State may make an order. I wonder under what circumstances he will make that decision. Will it be a cost assessment? As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, pointed out, NGOs already fulfil many of these functions and in many cases could do the job at far less cost than the regular Army. I speak of situations such as Rwanda where the Royal Air Force quoted a cost of transportation six times higher than that of private airlines and freight companies. I wonder on what grounds the Secretary of State would make the order and, if he did so, whether a cost assessment would be available for examination.

Where would the money come from? Would the Overseas Development Administration be asked, under any circumstances, to fund certain operations? And if so would the ODA be able to influence the decision of the Secretary of State over the resources to be used? I believe we have an amendment later concerning medical personnel. I speak from personal experience of the Gulf War in which my brother-in-law served. There was a very considerable problem, because he could not be given a specified date of return to his civilian job. It seemed that medical personnel were being kept for every eventuality. There should be a cut-off date. Perhaps the Minister can indicate whether that could happen?

30 Jan 1996 : Column CWH102

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate on the clause. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for the warm welcome he gave to the inclusion of these provisions in the Bill. As he indicated, they are entirely new provisions, the purpose of which is to enable the Secretary of State to call out any member of any reserve force for peacekeeping tasks outside the United Kingdom and also for disaster relief tasks anywhere in the world. The increasing role of reservists in the capability of the services as a whole and, as he said, the enthusiasm of reservists to serve in these operations make this power wholly appropriate.

As with the other powers, call-out is authorised by an order. The order would cease to have effect on a specified date but not more than 12 months after it is made. The order's effect may be limited should there no longer be a requirement to call out reservists and the order may be revoked if there is no longer anyone serving under it. It is important to note that the Bill sets limits to the frequency and duration of call-out to nine months in any 27-month period. This period cannot be extended without the consent of the reservist in question.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the circumstances in which the power might be used. The power to call out reserves for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance overseas would be applicable, for example, to the recent and continuing suffering in Rwanda or to the current monitoring and support operation in Angola.

The use of reservists in disaster relief overseas needs little elaboration. I was asked about the criteria which would be adopted. We already deploy regular service personnel overseas in support of such operations. I believe it is only right that where reservists possess the relevant skills they should be able to be called out to assist their regular colleagues with the employment protection which the law confers. Normally, such operations--if they represent bilateral aid--are funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but it clearly depends upon under whose auspices the aid is offered. It could be under one of a number of banners. Reservists can bring civilian skills valuable in humanitarian operations that may not be available in the regular services at all. An example is the geotechnical expert deployed to Bosnia last year to assist in the search for new water sources for isolated communities and services bases.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked about the relationship of the call-out of reservists under this power and the work of humanitarian relief agencies such as the Red Cross and others. Let me say--and I am sure your Lordships would ask me to speak on your behalf--that the courage and dedication of those who work for such agencies are undoubtedly features of their work which we would do well to recognise more overtly. They do absolutely splendid work and are very often not praised enough, I believe, for the expertise which they bring to it.

30 Jan 1996 : Column CWH103

Our armed forces have worked successfully alongside voluntary bodies--for example, during famine relief in Africa--and I believe that co-operation has been extremely effective. If similar occasions arise in the future, then our armed forces, regular and reserve, will work alongside humanitarian agencies as the situation demands. Of course, each situation will be subject to its own appropriate plan. The introduction of this power will not lead to any change in our relationship with the voluntary agencies. I do not believe that that is either necessary or desirable.

The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, made a valuable and pertinent point. We fully understand that the call out of medical reservists presents particular problems. However, we believe that for the types of operations envisaged under Clause 56 the level of manpower established for the regular services is sufficient. Indeed, that would hold for quite substantial deployments of all three services. It may be helpful to mention as an example that there are no doctors or nurses among the reservists called out for the current operations in Bosnia.

More generally, my department maintains close touch with both the NHS Executive and the trusts and also has contact with the BMA. In the course of the formal consultation exercise on the Bill many trusts and the BMA wrote in with their views. Some of the points they raised were similar to those put forward by employers in general. The provisions for exemption from or deferral of call out and for payments to employers will apply to the NHS trusts in the same way as they do to ordinary employers and will go some considerable way towards meeting their concerns. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord that we shall make a point of consulting NHS interests before making the relevant regulations.

I hope that what I have said will serve to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, and other noble Lords that we are sensitive to the needs of those NHS trusts which are employers of medical reservists. We recognise that the support of NHS trusts for the reserve forces cannot be taken for granted. Our national employers liaison committee is working hard to ensure that its message setting out the benefits to employers of having reservists on their staff gets through to the trusts.

I believe, as I have said, that this is a useful and valuable clause which will enhance the role of the reserve forces. I commend it to the Committee.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page