HC Deb 23 July 1991 vol 195 cc1031-47 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the restructuring of the Army.

For more than 40 years the British Army has stood in the front line in Europe with our NATO allies. For more than 40 years we have had to maintain, even in peacetime, very substantial force levels on the continent of Europe, against the risk of a massive surprise attack across a wide front by the huge military strength of the Warsaw pact. But suddenly, after all those years of confrontation, the Warsaw pact has collapsed; East Germany is no more; and Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and others all seek closer links with the west. Only last week in London at the G7 summit, President Gorbachev came, not as an adversary, but in search of support for his economic reforms. None the less, tensions and risks remain, and the Soviet Union is still the largest military power in Europe. That underlines the importance of maintaining the NATO alliance.

NATO's strategy for the cold war was built on deterrence and strong defence. NATO's new strategy is to sustain those policies that have served us so well, but to achieve them within lower levels of forces, which will be more flexible and mobile. NATO's decisions in May opened the way for us to make changes to our own force structure. Since the greatest threat previously came in the central region in Europe, it was on Germany that the major part of our Army was focused and it is from this area that the largest part of our reductions now comes.

NATO decided in May that the United Kingdom should join and lead the new multinational Rapid Reaction Corps. This challenging role is welcomed by the Army and well suited to our all-volunteer professional forces. In addition to providing the commander and a significant proportion of the headquarters we shall also be providing some corps troops, a powerful armoured division based in Germany, a more flexible, mechanised division based in the United Kingdom and a strong air mobile brigade based in a separate multinational division.

This NATO decision was the essential component in deciding the future strength of the Army and enabled me to announce on 4 June that by the mid-1990s the strength of the Army would be 116,000. In deciding this, we also took account of our needs for the direct defence of the United Kingdom; for responsibilities overseas in our dependent territories and elsewhere; and to help the Royal Ulster Constabulary to uphold the law in Northern Ireland. It was then possible to start consulting widely within the Army on how the restructuring should be achieved. I should now like to report to the House on the outcome of this consultation.

I shall deal first with the supporting corps, which are often less noticed but which play a vital role in the fighting effectiveness of our Army. We have already announced our plans covering personnel and administration. We will be bringing together in a new Adjutant General's Corps, the Royal Army Pay Corps, the Women's Royal Army Corps, the Corps of Royal Military Police, the Military Provost Staff Corps, the Royal Army Educational Corps and the Army Legal Corps.

We now intend to concentrate the support functions into two new corps. The first, for service support, will comprise much of the existing Royal Corps of Transport, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Royal Pioneer Corps and the Army Catering Corps, and will handle all aspects of keeping combat forces supplied in the field. The second, responsible for equipment support, will be centred upon the existing Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The effect of these changes will be to reduce the number of support corps from 18 to 10.

There are 10 Army districts in the United Kingdom each commanded by a general. This number will be significantly reduced; as a first step, a new combined Wales and western district will form in September replacing three existing districts. We shall also rationalise the Army's training organisation, concentrating training on a much smaller number of larger and more efficient establishments.

We are anxious to manage this reduction of more than 40,000 in the Army over the next four years in the most considerate and fair manner. Most of the reductions will be achieved by natural turnover, but there will be significant redundancies particularly affecting middle rank officers and senior non-commissioned officers. As far as possible, we shall seek voluntary redundancies but some may need to be compulsory if we are to maintain a proper balance of ages, ranks and skills in the Army for the 1990s. The normal redundancy terms will apply; all those leaving the Army will have access to full resettlement assistance. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is giving details of redundancies in the other services in a separate written answer today.

I now move on to a subject that concerns both those leaving and those continuing to serve in the Army. Under this Government, there has, over the past decade, been a welcome major extension of home ownership, including new forms of co-ownership and part ownership, made available through new organisations in the voluntary housing sector. These developments have not been matched by new opportunities for service personnel. The proportion of home owners in the Army is on the whole low. We intend to make comparable changes in the housing opportunities open to service men and women, and to bring service housing policy up to date with developments in the community.

The Government have always ensured that service personnel are properly rewarded for the work that they do. We also wish service men and women to have the best possible insurance cover for serious injury as well as death, off duty as well as on; and we are planning new initiatives to bring such arrangements within the reach of all our services.

I now move on to reserves. They make a vital contribution to our defence effort. They need to adapt to changes in the Army as a whole and have regard to how many they can realistically expect to recruit and retain given the unfavourable demographic trends that will face us. While we have taken no final decisions on the Territorial Army, we do not wish to turn away willing volunteers, but we envisage that the long-term future strength will settle at between about 60,000 and 65,000 against 75,000 today. We are studying the best mix of regulars and reserves and we are consulting with the Territorial Army associations—I hope to make further announcements on the way ahead for the TA later this year.

I shall now deal with the changes in front-line forces, I deal first with the particular issue of the Gurkhas. In May 1989, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) announced the plan to retain some 4,000 Gurkhas, following withdrawal from Hong Kong, but he also made it clear that it might be necessary to reconsider this if circumstances changed, such as the size of the British Army as a whole.

This is now the position, and we have reviewed our plans for the Brigade, along with those for the rest of the Army. The Gurkhas play an important role in Hong Kong and Brunei. We intend to retain the Gurkhas within the British Army after 1997; but we believe, subject again to any major change in circumstances, that a smaller force of around 2,500, based on two infantry battalions and support units, would be more appropriate. As a first step, two Gurkha battalions will amalgamate in 1992.

Reductions in the combat arms will reflect the needs of the new force structure. There will, for example, be no change to the present number of six Army Air Corps regiments, reflecting the increased importance of the armed helicopter on the future battlefield. By the mid-1990s, there will be 11 armoured or armoured reconnaissance regiments, compared with 19 today. The present infantry strength is 50 United Kingdom and five Gurkha infantry battalions. Next year they will be reduced to 46 and four respectively, and progressively thereafter, until by 1997 there will be a total of 38 battalions, of which two will be Gurkha. Together with the three Royal Marine Commandos, we shall then have available a total of 41 infantry roled units.

The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment will remain unchanged, and the Life Guards and The Blues and Royals will form a combined armoured reconnaissance regiment retaining their separate identities. In the Royal Armoured Corps, the Queen's Dragoon Guards, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the 9th/12th Royal Lancers will be unaffected.

The six regiments of Hussars will amalgamate to form three regiments, the two regiments of Lancers will amalgamate and the four Royal Tank Regiments will amalgamate for form two regiments.

The Royal Regiment of Artillery will reduce from 22 regiments to 16, the Corps of Royal Engineers will reduce from 15 regiments to 10 and the Royal Corps of Signals will reduce from 15 regiments to 11.

In the infantry, we plan to make changes over the next four years, as follows. In accordance with precedent, the second battalion of each of the Grenadier, Coldstream and Scots Guards will be placed in suspended animation. The Irish and Welsh Guards are not affected. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the Royal Anglian Regiment, the Light Infantry and the Royal Green Jackets will all reduce from three battalions to two. The Queen's Regiment will amalgamate with The Royal Hampshire Regiment and form a regiment of two battalions. The Parachute Regiment is unchanged.

Within the Prince of Wales's division, recruiting from Wales, the midlands and the west Country, the Cheshire Regiment will amalgamate with the Staffordshire Regiment and the Gloucestershire Regiment with the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment. The following will be unaffected: the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment; the Royal Welch Fusiliers; the Royal Regiment of Wales; the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment.

In Scotland, the Queen's Own Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders will amalgamate, as will the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers. The Royal Highland Fusiliers, the Black Watch, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are unchanged.

In the King's Division we are taking the opportunity to bring the Ulster Defence Regiment more fully into the Army by merging it with the Royal Irish Rangers. The new regiment will comprise one battalion for worldwide service and up to seven battalions for service in Northern Ireland only; its recommended title is the Royal Irish Regiment.

In the remainder of the King's Division covering the north of England: the King's Own Royal Border Regiment, the King's Regiment, the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire, the Green Howards, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment and the Duke of Wellington's Regiment are unchanged.

The restructuring of the Army along the lines that I have described has inevitably required painful choices and difficult decisions. Although there are no actual disbandments in the armoured or infantry regiments, none the less recognise that there will be sadness at the amalgamations and at the possible loss of some famous names. Everyone who recognises the great benefits that flow from regimental loyalty and tradition understands that—but also understands that, as with amalgamations in the past, that same spirit is carried forward into the re-formed regiments. That has been the strength of the regimental system, which we are determined to maintain.

The Army that emerges in the mid-1990s will meet the challenges for the next century. It will have a new and demanding role. It will be fully manned. It will be properly supported, and it will be well equipped. I am in no doubt that it will continue to offer an attractive career to the high-quality young men and women who have served us so well in the past, and whom we shall continue to need in the future.

I commend my statement to the House.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I imagine that the House will wish to return to this topic after the summer recess, in the debates on the estimates and when we have a chance to see the fine print of some of the financial aspects.

First, may I ask the Secretary of State a question about the strategic context in which he placed his statement? Can he tell us what he now considers to be the warning times that are available, and that allow him to make the cuts to which he has referred? Will he also tell us what proportion of the costs of the Rapid Reaction Corps, in terms of expenditure and personnel, will be borne by other NATO members?

We recognise the logic behind the organisation and composition of the Rapid Reaction Corps; the House will want an assurance, however, that the burden is being shared fairly between ourselves and our allies. We support the establishment of the new Adjutant General's Corps and the other two corps proposed for service and equipment. Surely, however, the Secretary of State will recognise the disappointment that is felt in Wales about the disappearance of the Army district into headquarters in Shrewsbury.

As early as last June, in the debates on the estimates, I said that changes in the regimental structure would be necessary; but, nevertheless, that there was a need to maintain a system of local recruitment, with all the consequent benefits for morale and retention levels. The right hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the reduction in the ranks of the General Officer Commanding Scotland, and the disappearance of the Welsh military district, could undermine that dimension of the Army in the nations that make up this United Kingdom.

It is with great reluctance that we accept the need to reduce the size of the Gurkhas. Will the Secretary of State ensure that assistance will continue to be given to Nepal to compensate for the fall in remittances from troops?

Our mailbags have brought a continual stream of letters from members of the Territorial Army. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that an early decision will be made on the review of the Territorials and the Reserves? We know that the current consultations are a source of considerable anxiety to all those involved with the Territorial Army.

The whole House hopes that the regimental reorganisation will be achieved with the minimum disruption. Certainly, we recognise that the decision not to disband any of the regiments, but to merge and amalgamate them, will be welcomed across the country, and we pay due tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his efforts in that regard. In other words, there is no party division on this issue and we are grateful that so many of the regiments that our constituents support are ready to go into the new structure.

The lives of large numbers of men and women will be blighted by the changes. Their service careers will be at an end. Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that redundancy and severance payments will reflect the straitened circumstances of the economy at this time? When redundancies of this type were last made, the levels of unemployment were not as high as they are today and job opportunities outside the services were much greater.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that attempts are made to improve housing tenure for those continuing in the services, with generous housing and education resettlement allowances for those affected? Will he also ensure that retraining is in excess of the 28 days currently available? The skills of some of the infantry personnel affected by the cuts may need broadening and deepening, and that may require far more than the 28 days afforded at present.

Will the right hon. Gentleman do his best to see that uncertainty and doubt is removed as soon as possible and that all those concerned are told quickly? Will he provide service personnel and their families with a charter for their rights as citizens which is more comprehensive and convincing than that offered yesterday to civilians?

Mr. King

I have noted the hon. Gentleman's comments. He said that he would want to study my remarks and, as he knows, I have today published a White Paper entitled "Britain's Army for the 90s" which deals with many of the points that he wants addressed. There are no easy decisions in this matter and while I understand the enthusiasm and support expressed by some people as part of their loyalty to regiments, I know that the very people who cheer also feel for those regiments which will merge. That is an inevitable consequence of a change of this kind and we have tried to handle it in the most sensitive way. I noted what the hon. Gentleman said about the way in which we have tried wherever possible to avoid disbandments.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for noticing what we have said about housing. Service personnel, by virtue of the lives they lead and what is required of them as part of their service life, are particularly disadvantaged in terms of opportunities available to people with more fixed place occupations to get on the home ownership ladder. We are keen to see how that issue can be tackled, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall be pursuing it energetically.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall do my best to call as many hon. Members as possible. We have three other statements to follow, so I shall allow questions on this matter to continue until 4.30, bearing in mind that there will be a two-day debate when the House resumes. I intend to give some precedence today to those who, sadly, were not called in the Army debate on 1 July.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people will deduce that his statement today represents a difficult job well done? While there is sadness about the amalgamations, hon. Members in all parts of the House are pleased that he has managed to find some extra battalions to reduce the overstretch in the infantry.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the recruiting organisations for the Gurkhas will be able to cope with the much smaller number of troops on board?

While I am pleased that the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards will not be affected, what will be the position of the Scottish-recruited artillery regiments? Can he comment on their future?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments. I was aware of his concerns about the problem of overstretch and commitments and I am grateful for his support for what I have been able to announce.

Discussions about my announcement are now taking place on the Gurkhas with the Governments concerned—Nepal and Brunei. We are anxious to see that in the rundown, which will be gradual over the next four years, we meet the point that my right hon. Friend raised.

My right hon. Friend also raised a fair point on the artillery aspect because people focus on infantry and armour. I confirm that the contribution of Scotland in the Royal Artillery is significant in terms of the two Scottish regiments, neither of which is affected.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the continued existence of the regimental system, important though its contribution may be, is necessarily subordinate to the need for a coherent defence policy for the United Kingdom in the future? If that is the case, why are we considering these proposals for the Army without a full-scale defence review involving all three services? Is it not necessary now to identify our commitments, both actual and potential? Without such a review, is it not the case that these proposals, however well intentioned, are bound to be seen as patchwork and piecemeal?

Mr. King

I thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman had attended our earlier gatherings. We have carried out a complete assessment of our defence requirements against the background of the changes in the Warsaw pact. It was an across-the-board strategic assessment, which was included in the White Paper "Britain's Defence for the 90s" which we published recently and, if the hon. and learned Gentleman reads the command paper that I have published today, he will see in the opening paragraph a digest of the assessment on which the changes are based.

It is not just we who have conducted an assessment: the crucial assessment is in the NATO alliance and in its response to the changed situation. There has been the most intensive work in NATO, out of which arise the conclusions on lower force levels, greater flexibility and more mobility and the agreement by the NATO Defence Ministers for the United Kingdom to take on the role in the Rapid Reaction Corps.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although this is inevitably a sad day for some old and distinguished regiments, most people have accepted that in the changed circumstances in which we live, much of this was inevitable and they will be grateful to my right hon. Friend for the sensitive way in which he has introduced the changes. For the avoidance of doubt, will he tell us that he has had the advice of the chiefs of staff, the Chief of the General Staff and the Army Board, that they are content with these changes and that their military advice is that we can undertake the commitments that we have and are likely to have with an Army of the proposed size over the next decade?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. I can confirm that I am closely advised by the Chief of the Defence Staff and the defence staffs who have responsibility across all the services. I should like to pay tribute to the Army Board for the way in which it has dealt with these difficult restructuring issues. I think that the House will accept that, although the publicity may have been about the difficult, sensitive and emotional issues of regiments arid battalions, this represents a wide restructuring approaching all the facets of the Army's activities and its civilian support, which is very important. Significant parts of the Army could not work without civilian support. Such support is not simply in those sitting in the Ministry of Defence, but in those involved in many of the activities on which the Army depends.

Sir Patrick Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Is the Secretary of State aware that in Yorkshire there will be much relief and appreciation that its three fine regiments—the Green Howards, the Duke of Wellington's and the Prince of Wales's Own—remain unchanged by his statement. However, is he aware that even those who understand his overall objective and the difficulties in the way of its attainment remain concerned that the savings in teeth arms are not proportionate to those in the rear echelon and that the result may be overstretch in peace time, as his right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) undoubtedly feared, and a dangerous shortage in times of tension?

Mr. King

We have learnt lessons from the Gulf about the difference between the front-line numbers and the rear support. For example, one multiple-launch rocket system unit manned by three men can fire the same volume of ammunition as an artillery regiment firing conventional guns manned by 450 men. The key requirement in pure military terms is what is the support structure needed to ensure that that one unit is kept supplied. Therefore, the conventional ratio of numbers in the front line and numbers in support may be rather different.

I did an interesting historical check. At El Alamein, we had 882 conventional guns. In the Gulf we had 72 similar artillery guns together with units of MLRS. The fire capability revealed that one tenth the number of people can fire four times the weight of ammunition.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the proposed amalgamation of the Cheshire Regiment and the Staffordshire Regiment? I remind him that the Staffordshire Regiment is already an amalgamation of the North and South Staffordshire Regiments in 1958, that it has shown splendid service in Northern Ireland and, more recently, in the Gulf, and that its recruiting figures are very good. The suspicion will remain that there has been political pressure resulting in the dropping of the proposal to amalgamate the Cheshire Regiment with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and there will be much regret in Staffordshire and the west midlands at these proposals.

Mr. King

Everything that my hon. Friend says about the quality of the Staffordshire Regiment is very fair, and I understand his point entirely. This is a very sad statement to have to make because it means that in amalgamations some very good regiments will have to face such a prospect. When my hon. Friend has a chance to read the command paper he will see that the Army Board in its consultations and in its decisions studied very carefully a range of factors. A number of hon. Members in an earlier debate stressed the importance of the ability to recruit as one of the criteria—clearly the ability to maintain the numbers required by a regiment is very important—but other factors must also be considered. This is the decision reached by the Army Board and—tough as it is—it cannot be changed.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

My party shares the concern of a number of senior and distinguished military officers about the drastic cut in the strength of the Army. I mention immediately the amalgamation of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment. The Secretary of State will know that any change of such a nature is viewed almost traditionally with suspicion in Northern Ireland. That was the initial reaction of many people when we heard of the amalgamation. None the less, it will be with pride that members of the Ulster Defence Regiment take their place in a royal regiment. I believe that that is something that the brave men and women who stand between the terrorist and the law-abiding community fully deserve and have earned by their service during the past 21 years.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that career structures within what is presently the Ulster Defence Regiment will be equal to those in any other regiment? Most important, can he reassure me—as his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already done—that there will be no tampering with the part-time element which is presently a part of the Ulster Defence Regiment and that it will be used for as long as it is required to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary in its fight against terrorism?

Mr. King

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I understand entirely his opening remark—everything of this nature is viewed with suspicion in Northern Ireland when it is announced. I genuinely believe—and I am entitled to say that I have an opportunity to observe the proposed merger from both sides—that it is an imaginative and constructive approach. It is in the interests of both regiments and very much in the interests of career development for many in the UDR who will now have a chance perhaps also to become involved in the worldwide regiment.

The UDR will also be able to draw on some of the senior officer capabilities within what at the moment is two, but which will become one battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, which is the recommended name. So I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said. He will know that there has been a move towards more full-time and rather less part-time service, and that trend may continue, but we certainly wish to maintain a significant part-time element. There is no question of undermining that.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in mounting the recent expeditionary force to the Gulf with only one division, all the ancillary services in the Army were stretched to the limit? Does he recognise, therefore, that some of us do not believe in the basic calculations on which he propounded his statement?

Will my right hon. Friend ponder in the next ten weeks, before we have a chance to debate the matter fully, that he will get his White Paper not because his hon. Friends approve of it but because the Opposition, with their new-found interest in defence, will vote for cuts?

Mr. King

I know of my hon. Friend's close interest in such matters. We learned a lot of lessons out in the Gulf; there was a lot of stretch involved in providing for our forces, and it flowed from undermanned units and from equipment not always of the quality and reliability that we would have wished to ensure for our forces.

What will flow from the reforms is that we shall have what I described in my statement as a powerful armoured division—the most powerful that this country has ever had. There will be three square brigades, two armoured regiments, two armoured infantry regiments in each brigade, with Challenger 2, and the upgraded Challenger 1—on which there will be substantial expenditure in the years immediately ahead. Every armoured infantry regiment will be equipped with Warrior, backed up by the AS90 howitzer, MLRS—the multiple-launch rocket system—and the high-velocity missile Starstreak. All that will give us a capacity significantly greater than we were able to send to the Gulf.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

Will the Secretary of State accept that his decision to maintain the Royal Welch Fusiliers and to cut the throat of the suggestion that they be amalgamated with the Cheshire Regiment will be very much welcomed in Wales? Can he tell us how many jobs will be lost in Wales as a result of the closure of district headquarters, and what prospects a redundant soldier will have of being rehoused by a local authority?

Mr. King

I am grateful for, although not surprised by, the right hon. and learned Gentleman's opening remark. I have a feeling that about 35 jobs will be lost, but I shall check that figure for him.

Mr. Robert Boscawen (Somerton and Frome)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that we feel that he and his colleagues have had an exceedingly difficult time in reducing the size of the forces? Of course, there will be many disappointments, but my right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on retaining some of the famous regiments. Will he confirm that all the soldiers concerned, over as wide a range as possible, are satisfied that an army of 116,000 men is sufficient to meet all possible unforeseen eventualities?

Will my right hon. Friend answer a question about the future of the Foot Guards? A reduction by three battalions represents more than 25 per cent. of the existing Foot Guards. Will they be able to continue to carry out their present public duties as well as their valuable service as full-time soldiers? What does my right hon. Friend mean by "suspended animation"? Will that mean, as it has meant in the past, elimination?

Mr. King

The phrase "suspended animation" was used at the specific request of the Guards Regiments concerned. At their request, they remain on the Army List.

My hon. Friend also asked about our commitments. I could not have presented the White Paper and the command paper to the House unless I had satisfied myself absolutely on that question. The implications of what has happened in Europe, and of the collapse of the Warsaw pact, are profound. They affect the structure of warning time—to which the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) referred—the alert state of our forces, the requirement for forces to be in particular states of readiness, and their availability to discharge other roles, too. My hon. Friend will know that, in the past, it has always been practice to draw forces from Germany to serve in Northern Ireland. We now have much greater flexibility than we had before and that is one of the key factors.

My hon. Friend asked about Foot Guards public duties. We shall be examining that point but, in any case, while they are losing the second battalions and coming down to five regiments, they will receive an additional increment in terms of extra strength to help them with their public duties.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

The Secretary of State will understand that there will be dismay and anger in Scotland at the fact that four of the seven Scottish regiments will be affected by amalgamation and cuts. The changes thus place what seems to be a disproportionately heavy burden on Scotland. Why did the right hon. Gentleman choose to tackle the more popular, better recruited regiments, rather than concentrate cuts on the poorer, less well recruited regiments? What will the time scale be and what numbers will be involved in the amalgamated regiments? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the cuts will not be acceptable in Scotland, and will he think again?

Mr. King

I understand the hon. Gentleman's disappointment, but he should look at the figures, which were drawn to our attention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir G. Younger). Four Scottish regiments are to amalgamate to form two and three will remain, so that there will be a total of five instead of seven. On the cavalry side, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are one of only three cavalry regiments that will be unaffected by the change. Similarly, the two Scottish regiments of the Royal Artillery are unaffected.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that, following the changes, Scotland, with 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom's population will have 16.6 per cent., as opposed to 18 per cent., of the infantry. Its percentage of the cavalry will increase from 10 per cent. to 13.5 per cent. and its share of the artillery will increase from 13.5 per cent. to 18.8 per cent. Although there is obviously disappointment about famous regiments, no honest, objective observer could say that the changes are unfair to Scotland.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I am glad that my right hon. Friend has included additional battalions in his decision, but there will be profound disappointment in Scotland at the fact that we are to lose two battalions rather than one, as we originally expected. Why has my right hon. Friend decided to amalgamate the King's Own Scottish Borderers with the Royal Scots, which will make an enormous recruiting area in the south, and the Queen's Own Highlanders—already an amalgamated regiment—with the Gordons, which makes an enormous recruiting area in the north? Other permutations would seem to have been much more acceptable.

Mr. King

I well understand my hon. Friend's obvious personal disappointment, and I know of his great interest in these matters. May I say that I did not "decide"? The matter has been the subject of the most extensive consultation and consideration, and it is the collective judgment of the Army Board that these are the most appropriate amalgamations to make. The decision was based on a whole range of criteria which the Army Board considered; it was not made on the basis of some whim. I pay tribute to the Army Board and to those who work for it for the effort that they put in to this extremely difficult, and, I think, in all the circumstances, extremely well conducted review.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I remain concerned about the implications of the cuts, and I suspect that the nation and the Secretary of State may live to regret tampering with the highly successful Scottish regiments to which the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) referred.

May I invite the right hon. Gentleman to say a little more about housing? Home ownership is not the whole story, and the fact of tens of thousands of people leaving the armed forces as a consequence of the changes will present serious housing difficulties in the rented sector. Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the problems of a constituent of mine who came to see me on Saturday. The wife and young child of a Royal Scot who is just leaving the forces after serving in the Gulf now find themselves homeless and in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Surely there ought to be a safer, more secure and more dignified future for people leaving the armed forces.

Mr. King

That is precisely what I said. We are concerned about those who may be leaving the forces and those who remain in the services, but want to secure their own housing when they retire from the forces. I understand the problem, and I want to see how we can improve the help that we give to service men. What the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has described is not an unknown problem.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

While my right hon. Friend's comments about home ownership are welcome, he is aware that there have been several attempts to improve home ownership in the Army, but they have—alas—failed. Is my right hon. Friend aware that two features will determine whether the scheme works: first, whether it is based on where a soldier is rather than on some attempted absentee landlordism in a property elsewhere and secondly, on whether the Army can recover the quarter at the end of each posting? I leave my right hon. Friend with this thought: if he wants the scheme to work—as I am certain he does—it will probably require legislation.

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has performed a great service to our service men through his absolutely relentless interest and pressure on that subject. I am very serious about that. I hope that we can carry forward some of the ideas that he has been active in canvassing—perhaps with amendment. The difficulty lies with service life and how we can help people in the services to keep their feet on the ladder of home ownership. That is what we want to do and we are determined to find a way to do it.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Will the Secretary of State put the House out of its misery and, with regard to redundancies, tell us how many are involved in "considerable" and how much that will cost? In relation to the Secretary of State's reply to the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), is he satisfied that there will be commitments to prevent a recurrence of what happened to the Gurkhas when people who were within months of completing terms of duty lost all their pension entitlements which caused poverty in the hills? Will he ensure that that does not happen this time? Will he answer the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) about the availability of local authority housing because my constituents who are serving in the Coldstream Guards will have difficulty in being housed and I imagine that people will face similar difficulties in other constituencies that are affected by the cuts?

Mr. King

To deal with the hon. Gentleman's latter point first, he will see in the command paper some comments on several different approaches that we will adopt to help solve those problems, including ways in which we might be able to employ parts of the present Army and defence estate—if that is surplus—which might be helpful in certain areas.

I note the hon. Gentleman's serious point about the Gurkhas. The redundancy figure in the command paper is a possible 10,000 spread over four years. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the cost, because that will obviously depend on the timing, ranks and on the length of service of the people concerned.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Why are the three best infantry regiments in the British Army—the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards and the Scots Guards—being asked to take 50 per cent. cuts?

Mr. King

That is not quite accurate. Although they are losing their second battalions, they will receive an increment to help with their public duties.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

The Secretary of State will know that I represent this House on the independent board of visitors of the military corrective training centre in Colchester—

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Among others.

Mr. Cook

Yes, and the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck) serves on that body as well. I will confine my question to that specific area of responsibility, despite my interest in other aspects of the statement.

When the Secretary of State consulted about this issue, did he consult with Brigadier Bell, the inspector of military establishments? I understand that the brigadier agrees with me that it would be undesirable to absorb the Military Provost Staff Corps into the Adjutant-General's Corps. As the pocket philosopher Kilroy, whose comments are carved on walls, would state, "You has your catchers and you has your keepers and you know not never to mix them, no matter what." There will be dismay about today's announcement of the surrender of the neutrality of the MPSC. Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Emson of the Coldstream Guards has said: to absorb the MPSC into the Adjutant-General's Corps … would do much to nullify the rehabilitation work that is being undertaken at Colchester. Will the Secretary of State reconsider, even at this late stage?

Mr. King

I have not had the discussion and consultation to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I was talking to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about this matter as the hon. Gentleman was raising the point. I should like to look into the matter, and I am grateful to him for drawing it to my attention.

Mr. Cook

I thank the Secretary of State.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

How is the Ulster Defence Regiment to be more fully merged into the British Army by joining up with the Royal Irish Rangers? The Act that set up that regiment makes it clear that members of the force shall be members of the armed forces of the Crown. Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that that sort of argument will wear in Northern Ireland? Is he aware of the deep outrage, concern and anger among UDR members and their families, especially when 240 members have been killed by the IRA in the action taken against them? Could he tell us whether, after the vicious campaign that was launched against the Ulster Defence Regiment by Dublin, Dublin was consulted on the decision? Was it raised at the Anglo-Irish Conference? Is this part of the overall Anglo-Irish Agreement?

Mr. King

The answer to the latter point is no. This is an Army decision. Those concerned who have a legitimate interest in such matters would have been informed at the proper time were it not for an advanced leak of this matter. It was not a matter of outside consultation, other than with those within the Army and the colonels of the regiments concerned, in precisely the same way as other regiments in the British Army have addressed the problem.

The hon. Gentleman's influence is obviously substantial and a significant element in the Province. I ask him to look objectively at this matter. He knows of my interest in and support for the Province. He can take it from me that I genuinely believe that this is not some underhand, seditious move. I have bowed to none in my admiration for the courage and bravery of the UDR. I also know by heart the number of part-time and regular members of the UDR who have lost their lives—some of the bravest of the brave, as I have said on many occasions.

I genuinely believe that this proposal is in the interests of those who served in the UDR, as it is in the interests of the Royal Irish Rangers, who will merge to form the regiment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take it from me that it is not a hidden agenda. It came to me through the Army advisers and Army staff. It is a very imaginative and constructive approach indeed, in the interests of those who serve in both regiments.

Mr. Seamus Mallon: (Newry and Armagh)

Many people in Ireland who would wish to give the Secretary of State's announcement a fair wind will be aware of the paradox that, on the day when he dispenses with the services of 40,000 professional soldiers, he reinforces the part-time element within the new regiment to be called the Royal Irish Regiment. Is it not outdated, cumbersome and perhaps dangerous to have a part-time militia within a full-time regiment? Is the Secretary of State aware that the history of Ireland clearly shows that each part-time militia that was formed, for whatever worthy motives, ended up as a rather embarrassing failure?

Mr. King

I note the hon. Gentleman's comments. I do not want to misrepresent him, but I take it that he also recognises that there could be merits viewed dispassionately in the proposal. I take encouragement from that, because, as I said, I genuinely think that it is an imaginative proposal. I thought hard about it. It was not one that I originated; it came to me from the Army staff. It is a very good idea indeed, and I am very grateful for and encouraged by the welcome it has received on both sides of the House.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

Will my right hon. Friend explain how the cuts announced today will represent a 35 per cent. cut in the teeth arms of the British Army, yet only a 15 per cent. cut in the strength of MOD civil servants and civilians who, after the implementation of the cuts, will be stronger in numbers than the entire British Army? Is he aware that many people in this country and in the House would like to see those proportions reversed?

Mr. King

I have read my hon. Friend's letter in the newspaper. He may be doing a great disservice to those who are called "civilians" in the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that he would not include in his comments the merchant seamen who manned our Royal Fleet Auxiliary throughout the Gulf war, who are "MOD civilians". I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want to see their numbers slashed. I am not sure whether he includes in his statement those in civilian clothes who stand shoulder to shoulder with service men in uniform to repair Tornado engines and Challenger tanks in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and in the workshops at RAF bases where civilians and service men work side by side.

I am determined to ensure that the core establishment of officials at the Ministry of Defence is as lean and effective as I can get it. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the total number of those classed as civilians in the Ministry of Defence has been halved since 1980. I would accept this criticism—it is something of a self-inflicted wound. I know that my hon. Friend believes in the importance of the nuclear deterrent, but all those who work at our atomic weapons establishments are also classed as civil servants and I do not think that my hon. Friend would like to see that group disbanded. We should look closely at the question of categorisation and take a clearer view of what we really mean by civilians, who are my hon. Friend's real target, rather than muddling the issue in a broader-based attack.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is nowt so funny as politics? In 1983, the Tory Government said, "Vote Labour—and they will cut defence". In 1987, they repeated that message, "Vote Labour and you will have no defence." But today the Secretary of State has taken a scythe to the battalions—so he must not lecture us any more about Labour conference resolutions. It is time the Secretary of State understood that he is the one who has used the big knife.

Mr. King

'The hon. Gentleman's contribution, as he desperately tries to fan some spirit back into Labour's defence policy, does not fool any of my hon. Friends. We are making some reductions—overall, about 20 per cent.—in our manpower defences as a prudent and sensible response, but we are not making anything like that reduction in our expenditure on equipment, because we are determined to ensure that our forces of the future are well equipped, well supported and able to discharge any role that we look to them to carry out. It would be extremely helpful if the hon. Gentleman could at some stage enlighten the House about whether his party now has any defence policy.

Sir Marcus Fox (Shipley)

As someone who served in two of the three Yorkshire regiments, in the Duke of Wellington's and in the Green Howards, may I advise my right hon. Friend that there will be great relief and joy in the county tonight not least because we have a Secretary of State who is prepared to listen and to respond to the representations that are made to him? Does he agree that anyone who sees those regiments in training is bound to be impressed by their dedication, skill and loyalty?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and impressed by the fact that he served in two of Yorkshire's regiments. I shall not ask the reason why, but I understand that his loyalty, although shared, is unalloyed.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Although there is clearly a strong case for reducing the number of artillery regiments, does the Secretary of State accept that there will be great sadness in my constituency if it means that the Royal Artillery will have to leave its historic birthplace at Woolwich because many of my constituents regard Woolwich without the Gunners as being rather like Blackpool without the tower? Can the right hon. Gentleman offer any encouragement on that point?

Mr. King

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking. We have to look and, if we are to ensure that we keep the most effective front line, it is our duty to those in the front line to examine all our support and base arrangements in that way. I cannot, at this stage, give the hon. Gentleman any encouragement on that point.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Bearing in mind the fact that the crucial NATO meeting took place only in May, I commend my right hon. Friend for presenting his statement to the House before we rise for the summer recess and, on the face of it, for coming up with a sensible and well thought out package of changes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the success of "Options for Change" and his leadership of it will depend on ending up with a higher capital investment in front-line service men than we have at present?

Mr. King

We met on 29 May, so the statement has been prepared even more quickly than my hon. Friend suggests. It was not easy. I was somewhat encouraged to read what Lord Wolseley said on 25 April 1887 when addressing the annual dinner of the Press Club: From my experience I advise any of you who contemplate changing your profession to have nothing to do with organising the British Army, for of all the difficult offices, of all the thankless duties which can devolve upon a human being, that of being an Army organiser and reformer is the worst. Therefore, I am encouraged by the support that I have had from my hon. Friend and others in what Lord Wolseley described as this thankless task.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

As a Welsh Member, may I thank the Secretary of State for preserving the Royal Welch Fusiliers? It is greatly appreciated. But cannot he gauge the sense of anger and frustration in Brecon in my constituency, where headquarters, Wales is to be closed? What would happen if HQ Scotland was to be closed? Wrath would descend on the Secretary of State's head. Does he agree that recruitment in Wales has been extremely good probably better than in any other part of Britain, because we have had our own HQ? Will he recognise that and give me good reasons why HQ Wales has been closed, with a great loss of jobs? Is there any truth in the rumours that the school of infantry is to move to my constituency from Salisbury plain?

Mr. King

On a day when, as a result of the determination of the Army Board, Wales has not been hit hard, the hon. Gentleman opened by thanking me for the survival of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and then berated me for the fact that perhaps 25 to 30 jobs may be lost. There will still be an office in Brecon. We have sought to deal with the matter as sensitively as possible. I should say politely that the hon. Gentleman's remark about recruitment was unwise. I should not have thought that the ability of regiments to recruit was based on the presence of a headquarters office. To say so demeans what I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would wish to praise—the calibre and reputation of the regiments themselves.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

Can my right hon. Friend clarify the apparently confused position of the Household Cavalry? It is not to amalgamate but to "combine". Does my right hon. Friend accept that at least at first sight it seems that it will be extremely difficult to retain a proper career structure? Is it expected that people will spend half of their careers in the mounted regiment? Surely that would be a disastrous course to suggest to people who wish to recruit. Can my right hon. Friend further explain why the Blues and Royals, which was one of the three regiments to amalgamate on the last occasion, should be asked to do something similar this time?

Mr. King

I understand my right hon. Friend's loyalty and anxiety. The outcome, which is a difficult one, was based on the absolute determination of the Army Board to maintain the mounted regiment. While the regiments of the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals are to combine, the size of each part is to be enhanced. So, instead of three squadrons in each and one headquarters squadron, there will be two squadrons of the Life Guards, two squadrons of the Blues and Royals and one headquarters squadron plus the three squadrons of the mounted regiment. Instead of the present 11 squadrons there will be eight. It is the clear view of my advisers and those closely involved with the regiments that with good will and support from other cavalry regiments, the change will ensure that the regiments can continue.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry that it has not been possible to call all those who wished to put a question to the Secretary of State. I shall certainly bear them in mind when we debate the matter again after the recess.