My Lords, at the outset, I thank my noble friend Lord Freeman, for securing this debate and for his excellent speech. As we begin the period leading to Remembrance Sunday, the contribution of all members of our Armed Forces, past and present, is very much in our minds. Reserve Forces have fought in every recent operational theatre, alongside regular personnel. As we remember the sacrifices of the past, we need to look to the future in a spirit of sober reflection.
When we look at the future role of the Reserve Forces, we cannot do so without considering the wider defence context. The Strategic Defence and Security Review provides the backdrop for these important decisions. I welcome the fact that these reviews will now be held every five years. Before 2010, the last Strategic Defence Review was held in 1998; and the previous one in 1992. As we look towards the end of our military commitments in Afghanistan, now is an opportune time to think about the future shape of our Armed Forces. What is clear is that we will need greater flexibility in both Regular and Reserve Forces. I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement, on 5 July, that the Government accepted the broad thrust of the review of our Reserve Forces.
To increase operational flexibility, reservists can expect an increased role, with greater integration alongside Regular Forces. That will require an increase as well as a change in the nature of the role of reservists, and it sits well alongside wider defence reforms. We need to recruit reservists with specialist skills and expertise. By redefining reservists’ role, there will need to be more predictable scales of commitment, particularly for enduring operations. This raises some potential issues. The Government, as an employer, have set a good example by demonstrating how they will encourage civil servants’ participation in future; civil servants can look forward to 10 days’ paid leave to conduct Reserve Forces training. However, as was explained to me recently, when reservists are deployed in theatre, the tour may last six months, but the time away could be more than that. With my background in business, I know that this could have serious consequences, particularly for small businesses. A balance is difficult to strike; employers can ask at an interview whether someone is a member of the Reserve Forces. I hope that the Minister will be able to update your Lordships’ House on what support is being made available to businesses as well as potential recruits.
I congratulate the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Territorial Army for its work on this. I welcome the Partnering for Talent initiative between the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions and private enterprise. This pilot started recently, identifying business benefits for employers supporting reservists. These are early days, but I would welcome the Minister’s observations on progress.
Reserve Forces have sometimes been at a disadvantage when returning from theatre. Their period in decompression can be less than for Regular Forces, and the level of support available can be harder for them to access. The Armed Forces Act 2011 enshrined the military covenant in law; this agenda has been picked up enthusiastically all across the country and captured the public imagination. I welcome the Government’s commitment to the military covenant, including for reservists.
I now press the importance of the contribution of people of all ethnic groups to our Armed Forces. In this regard, I raise two points. First, there is a shortfall of about 20% in the recruitment numbers from ethnic minority communities; secondly, there is the issue of retention. On the latter, it is important that the skills of the ethnic-minority personnel are fully recognised and that promotions are based on merit. I am reliably told that there is some disquiet among serving personnel and we need to look at why there is dissatisfaction. I would appreciate the Minister’s views on the two points I have raised.
I add that I encourage ethnic minorities to join the Armed Forces and have spoken on this subject many times at meetings and events. Our Armed Forces have always been strongest when drawn from the widest possible pool of manpower and talent. To conclude, this debate has rightly celebrated our Reserve Forces and their increased contribution to our continued security.