HC Deb 11 May 1967 vol 746 cc1712-8
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Denis Healey)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make an announcement about a reorganisation of the infantry.

As the White Paper on Defence explained, a wide-ranging examination of the long-term structure of the Army is being carried out. The Government have already taken decisions about the organisation of the infantry. Since we must now consult a wider circle about putting these decisions into effect, I thought it right to inform the House about them now.

The infantry of the line is at present grouped into 13 brigades or large regiments and the Parachute Regiment. Each contains either three or four battalions. It has become clear that the present groupings are too small to meet the needs of the future.

Accordingly, the infantry of the line, apart from the Parachute Regiment, will be organised into five new larger groupings, to be known as "Divisions", each being formed by amalgamating either two or three brigades or large regiments. The names of the new Divisions will be as follows:

The Queen's Division, which will consist of The Queen's Regiment, The Fusilier Brigade, The Royal Anglian Regiment.

The King's Division, which will consist of The Lancastrian Brigade, The Yorkshire Brigade, The North Irish Brigade.

The Prince of Wales's Division, which will consist of The Wessex Brigade, The Mercian Brigade, The Welsh Brigade.

The Scottish Division, which will consist of The Lowland Brigade, The Highland Brigade.

The Light Division, which will consist of The Light Infantry Brigade, The Royal Green Jackets.

The Brigade of Guards, also, will become a Division.

These larger groupings will allow for contraction, or for expansion, with the least possible difficulty. In the new organisation it will be easier to smooth cut inequalities in manpower as between one battalion and another. The reorganisation will also make for efficiency in recruit training and economy.

The new organisation will be introduced by planned stages and will be complete by the middle of 1969.

The aim is to meet the needs of the future while preserving the best features of the regimental system.

I have arranged for details of the reorganisation to be available in the Library and they will also be published in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Powell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has made a very important statement which will have far-reaching, perhaps very far-reaching, consequences for the future of the British Army and that it will be necessary to debate it as soon as may be practicable, especially as it has, apparently, had to be made on the day before the House rises for the Recess?

Meanwhile, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman this: does he deny that a main object of this reorganisation is to make possible a substantial reduction in the number of the infantry? If so, would it not have been more logical, more candid, and more manly to announce his decision on that major point first and the reorganisation afterwards so that this might be considered by the House and the country in a proper manner?

Mr. Healey

No. I know very well that if I had waited another three, six or nine months, however long it was necessary to wait before fixing the long-term size of the Army, I should have been under continuous criticism from the benches opposite because of the rumours and leaks which were continuously spreading about the formation of the large divisions on which it has been necessary, as the House may know, to consult colonels of regiments already. It would have been impossible to keep this quiet.

I felt that the only right and honourable thing to do was to tell the House at the earliest possible opportunity. I think that the right hon. Gentleman, if he reflects on the matter, will recognise that I was right.

Mr. Powell

But does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the rumours and anxieties which he so much deplores relating to the future size of the infantry will continue until he does make his announcement?

Mr. Healey

Yes, I do, and for that reason I shall make that announcement as soon as I possibly can. But I am not in a position to make it this afternoon.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the forecasts that this will mean a substantial reduction in the Army are justified? Is he aware that a distinguished soldier like Field Marshal Montgomery has recently called for very, very substantial reductions in the Army?

Mr. Healey

I have noted with great interest and some approval a number of remarks made by the noble Field Marshal on more than one occasion in recent weeks. What I can tell the House, as I have told the House on many occasions, is that it will be necessary to reduce somewhat the ceilings of all three Services before the Defence Review is completed. I made this clear a year ago and was taken to task by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) for doing so.

Mr. Monro

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that this decision will be received with grave disquiet in Scotland? Can he assure the House that the eight Scottish regiments will retain their separate identities?

Mr. Healey

I should like to make it clear that this new organisation does not affect the separate identity of the individual regiments. They will keep their insignia, although at some later time it may be agreed to be desirable to make some rationalisation in dress. The existing cap badges will remain, at any rate for the time being, although again, at a later stage—[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite should know that when they created large regiments out of existing regiments they introduced a new cap badge for members of the large regiments. It will be similarly necessary at the appropriate stage to introduce a new cap badge for members of the divisions, but we do not foresee that stage at the moment.

Mr. Turton

Would the right hon. Gentleman make it clear that recruits will be able to go into the battalion of their choice, wherever possible?

Mr. Healey

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Ramsden

Would the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about the reason why the present brigade organisation is judged to be too small to meet future needs? Why have the Government abandoned the previous policy of moving towards the large regiment which hitherto has been actively pursued by the brigades?

Mr. Healey

I think that there were two main reasons. First, there are serious manpower inequalities in recruitment to the various brigades. If there is to be free movement of officers and men between one battalion and another, it is necessary to group battalions into rather larger groupings than the existing large regiments. Secondly, as a result of this regrouping it will be possible considerably to reduce the overhead costs of organising the infantry. It will be possible, for example, in time to get rid of some existing depots.

Mr. James Davidson

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, at battalion level, the Scottish and other regiments will retain their present names? Will he also say whether he has taken into account the effect on recruiting, particularly in view of the traditional links between individual villages, towns and families and certain regiments?

Mr. Healey

All this has been taken into account, and I am glad to confirm that battalions will retain their existing names.

Mr. Maxwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as a former soldier in the Queen's Royal Regiment, I regard the naming of one division as the Queen's Division as a very good idea? Much more seriously, this reorganisation strikes me as extremely sensible and the only way of bringing about the kinds of savings both in overheads and in numbers of infantry to make possible the reductions which we obviously need, not only economically but from the point of view of maintaining a sensible military establishment.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Will this reorganisation of the infantry into divisions also include the supporting arms which will normally be associated with particular divisions?

Mr. Healey

I want to make it clear that these divisions are divisions of infantry grouping, in the same way as an infantry brigade is a grouping of battalions. It is quite different from a fighting formation, which has supporting arms going far beyond the infantry.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Will the right hon. Gentleman recall that, a year ago, after the reappraisal of the whole defence policy, he told the House that all the major decisions had been taken? His answer today that he anticipates substantial cuts in the strength of all three Armed Services reflects the total failure of the economic policy of the present Government and appeasement of their own Left wing.

Mr. Healey

The hon. Gentleman's memory is at fault.

Mr. G. Campbell

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, in Scotland, retention of regimental identities is important, otherwise recruiting could be badly damaged, when, hitherto, recruiting in Scotland has been good?

Mr. Healey

I recognise that very well, and would point out that regimental and battalion identities are not affected by this regrouping.

Captain W. Elliot

Arising from the right hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks, have the Government made a decision to reduce the ceilings for the Army and the Air Force? If so, can he give the new figures? If he cannot, can he say when he will be able to do so?

Mr. Healey

I dealt with this matter at some length in this year's defence debate, and foreshadowed it in last year's debate. I made it clear that, when I am in a position to announce changes in the long-term structure and size of the three Services, I shall do so, and I recognise that the sooner that that can be done, the better.

Sir C. Mort-Radclyffe

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that, up till now, with the brigade grouping, this has not seriously altered the characters of the different regiments? Now, with the new proposals to go on to a divisional basis, could he give a more convincing answer than hitherto as to how it is proposed to retain the very important regimental traditions within the new divisional grouping? Could the House have a White Paper to explain in detail how it will be worked out?

Mr. Healey

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I cannot do better than talk in the same terms as he did, namely, that the identity and tradition of individual battalions and regiments will be preserved in exactly the same way under the new grouping, as under the grouping of the large regiment or brigade.

As for a White Paper, the hon. Gentlemen will find that the details to be published in HANSARD tomorrow will answer any questions which can be answered at this time.

Mr. Tinn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we on this side of the House welcome the fact that, in honouring the Government's pledge to contain our defence expenditure, he has not shrunk from grasping this nettle, and that, if it involves us eventually in the cost of a few new cap badges, we will not bother too much about that?

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mrs. Castle——

Mr. Goodhew

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the rising of the House, are we not to have a statement on the third London Airport, about which there have been extensive reports in the Press today?

Mr. Speaker

No request has come to me from a Minister to make such a statement.

Mr. Mac Arthur

On a further point of order, Mr. Speaker. There are a number of other questions arising from the state- ment by the Minister of Defence, largely because of the uncertainty that some of his words have raised in our minds. Is it possible to allow one or two further supplementary questions?

Mr. Speaker

This is always the difficulty of Mr. Speaker, but, at the same time, I must protect the business of the House——

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Further to that point of order——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am dealing with a point of order. I allowed the questions to run as long as I thought reasonable. The House must leave it to my discretion. Mr. Biggs-Davison. Point of order.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Further to the point of order of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew), may we take it from what you have said, Mr. Speaker, that there will be no attempt on the part of the Government to announce a decision on Stansted Airport, which is of grave concern to my constituents and is threatening havoc in Essex, just as the House is rising? That would be most improper.

Mr. Speaker

The last thing which the hon. Gentleman would wish to do would be to get the Chair involved in the differences of opinion between both sides of the House.

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