By Matthew Barrett
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Last week, the Duke of Westminster retired from his position as Deputy Commander Army Reserves. The Duke had previously served as the Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff with responsibility for Reserves and Cadets, and had served in the Territorial Army for many years and several wars – first enlisting as a Trooper in 1970, before going to Sandhurst and working his way up to being a two star Major-General (and the TA's first two star Major-General). In his words, "I have been serving for nearly half of the entire life of the Territorial Army – and if there is anybody who knows how it ticks, it has got to be me."
It is alarming therefore, to learn that the Ministry of Defence was so dismissive of his advice on how to help cure a quiet but distressing injustice being done to Reservists. The Duke complained about the fact that British companies routinely discriminate against potential employees who are serving in the TA:
"There is undoubtedly positive discrimination against someone who at interview says he is in the Territorial Army… These days when you have to tick the boxes on the interview sheet, one of the questions is ‘Are you in the Territorial Army’. [But] we are not allowed by legislation to say: ‘Are you pregnant? Are you about to be pregnant? Are you black? Are you white? Are you Muslim?’ That we have got to get over."
It's a cultural problem, the Duke suspects: "Our overseas employers are better than the English employers – I am talking about French, Japanese, Americans and others. All those countries had national service or its equivalent right up to two or three years ago, so there is a service culture built in." Employers are unwilling to take on new staff who are likely to go off on months-long tours of Afghanistan. The Duke's suggestion to encourage British firms to take on more TA staff was to offer tax breaks to firms through a "National Insurance surcharge relief".
When the Duke raised the idea with the Ministry of Defence earlier in the year, "I was [t]old to rein my neck in and not say anything more about it". The idea of an NI tax break for employers taking on TA staff makes so much sense that it's a wonder nobody thought about it before, and a short-sighted mistake for the Ministry of Defence to reject it without consideration. It recognises the bond between the country and reservist, and between employer and employee. Persuasively, the idea would not cost a great deal.
The Duke suggests classifying membership of the TA as being a "lifestyle choice" – thereby making it illegal for potential employers to ask about it during the job application process. That would be a step too far and too secretive, but the principle of enforcing non-discrimination is a proud one. Instead, the Government could enforce the principle that no reservist should return to their job with a demotion, different position, or loss of benefits or salary.
There is further criticism about the Government's handling of soldiers, however. A campaign for pensions justice noted that in June, over three thousand service personnel were made redundant, including many who were within twelve months of their immediate pension point, thus breaking the covenant between the soldiers and the MoD. After years of fighting for Britain, soldiers should not be denied the pension they had planned to build a new life with after leaving the forces. Personnel should be allowed to serve an extra year, or until the immediate pension point as specified in their contract. Many more cases like those made redundant in June will arise, as reductions take place.
The Ministry of Defence is set to start a review into the future of the Territorial Army. As well as considering financial benefits, the review would be wise to consider the very name of the institution. The TA is no longer territorial, and many members are now nationally recruited. Perhaps more importantly, reservists want to have their name changed, to cast off the Dads’ Army label, and be treated simply as what they are: reserves to the main Army, rather than some separate weekend soldiers' force.
The welfare and happiness of the Territorial Army matters a great deal now, and for the foreseeable future because of this government's decision to become a lot more reliant upon reservists in an attempt to make up for the insulting cuts to the main Army. By the end of this decade, the TA’s battle-ready strength will have increased by 10,000 to compensate for a reduction in the Army of 20,000. We should give every financial incentive possible for firms to employ reservists, and look down upon those firms who do not do their duty, and discriminate against the TA.