§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.–[Mr. Kirkhope.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
I understand that hon. Members other than the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) may seek to intervene. I should remind the House that the Adjournment debate is, as it were, the property of the Member who has it and of the Minister who is replying. Interventions can take place only with the agreement of the hon. Member and the Minister.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
I am glad to have this opportunity to raise again the case of the Staffordshire Regiment and its proposed amalgamation. The matter raises serious and substantive issues which have evoked deep concern among right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom—particularly those from Staffordshire—are here tonight. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who will reply to the debate, and to hon. Members on both sides of the House who, by their presence here after midnight, are demonstrating their anxiety about the amalgamation. As the Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton), will be aware, there is immense concern amongst my constituents and those of all hon. Members from Staffordshire and the west midlands and, indeed, Cheshire about the proposed amalgamation.
Soon after 23 July 1991, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement to the House outlining the shape of regimental amalgamations, a campaign to save the Staffordshire Regiment was initiated by the Save Our Staffords campaign committee. The strength of feeling about the unreasonableness of the amalgamation was amply demonstrated when, in October, I and other hon. Members presented to Mr. Speaker a petition containing almost 100,000 signatures from the people of Staffordshire and the west midlands. Tonight right hon. and hon. Members are once again demonstrating their support for a review of the rationale for the proposed amalgamation of the Staffordshire Regiment.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has on numerous occasions said that it is not possible to reconsider the proposed amalgamations or justify them, even when the rationale appears to be far from clear.
§ Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)
Does not my hon. Friend agree that a political decision was taken to preserve the Royal Welch Fusiliers without any amalgamation and to amalgamate the Staffords with the Cheshires, and that that was plainly in breach of the undertaking that was given to the Staffords when the North Staffords and the South Staffords amalgamated in 1959?
The House now requires a proper explanation of the political decisions that were taken. It is plainly unsatisfactory for the Minister who made those decisions, and who appears before the House to justify them, simply to say, "It wasn't me, guv; the Army Board decided this." He is the person responsible and if a political decision has been taken, it is for him to explain it and justify it.
§ Mr. Cash
I agree with my hon. Friend, and that is precisely why we were dissatisfied with the answers that were given, as shown on television, when the Minister was cross-examined by the Select Committee on Defence, the report of which is due soon.
The Staffordshire Regiment has already been amalgamated once since the second world war; it was not recommended for re-amalgamation by the Colonel Commandant of the Prince of Wales Division—an important factor; it meets every criterion laid down by the Army Board for retention, when many regiments do not; and it was never given the opportunity to put its case to the Army Board, when others were. I should welcome my hon. Friend's comments on those issues, should he feel able to discuss them tonight. I suspect that he may not be willing to do so.
§ Mr. Cash
That is a matter for the Minister when he replies. It is not acceptable for him or his officials to hide behind the pretext that, because decisions on amalgamations have now been made, they cannot be considered because that would open a Pandora's box and lead to every regiment clamouring for a review of its case.
§ Mr. Nicol Stephen (Kincardine and Deeside)
I support the hon. Gentleman's campaign. Is he aware that there is equally strong feeling in Scotland about the amalgamations of the infantry battalions there, that all-party support has been given to the campaign to save the Scottish battalions and that we, too, are awaiting an explanation of the military rationale for the cuts? No such explanation has so far been given, and it appears that the cuts have been made purely for financial reasons.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind hon. Members that the Adjournment is related to the future of the Staffordshire Regiment.
§ Mr. Cash
Just because a decision might have been ill-judged and might prove embarrassing to review is insufficient reason to refuse to review it. In any event, I draw the attention of the House to other aspects of the case for the amalgamation of the Staffordshire Regiment that do not make sense, politically or militarily.
My right hon. Friend has said frequently that he supports the regimental system. This amalgamation, which would combine people from Liverpool with those from the midlands, demonstrates no social, historical or regional communality. As one who lives north of Watford, I do not believe that those who made the decision have the faintest idea that that is a real problem.
I come to the issue of regional representation. In an interview with Severin Carrell of The Scotsman on 27 January of this year, my right hon. Friend said that it would not be "politically acceptable" to have a large number of regiments in one part of the United Kingdom and fewer in another. I agree. I agree also with his contention thatthere is demand from the people of the United Kingdom that they should have local regiments to join.Where then is the political or military rationale for retaining six English infantry regiments north of the Humber-Merseyside line, some of which are struggling to recruit, and only two in the huge population area and recruitment reservoir of the midlands? Pooling the two 260 regiments into one will not only reduce pride in and commitment to them; it will reduce the prospects for recruitment when employment patterns change.
The Secretary of State and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces have said that, because there will be fewer regiments, those that remain will be better able to be recruited at full strength. "Smaller is better" have been the watchwords, but how can this be so when some recruiting areas, judged by the published demographic projections, can always be expected to experience greater difficulties than others in maintaining their peacetime establishments?
Let me take the example of the King's Division, where published demographic data strongly suggest that it will not be possible to sustain the number of infantry regiments located in the area. I understand that the King's Division recently asked the Scottish Division for 100 soldiers to make up its strength in anticipation of a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. Since the King's Division cannot meet its recruiting targets, what possible justification can there be for sacrificing the Staffordshire Regiment on the altar of amalgamation when demographic projections show clearly the Staffords' huge and largely untapped recruiting potential for infantry, particularly in the core recruiting age group of 16 to 24-year-olds?
§ Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)
It is quite clear from the speech that my hon. Friend is making that feelings run very high in Staffordshire. Is he aware that feelings run just as high in Cheshire about this proposed amalgamation?
§ Mr. Cash
I am indeed, and I have heard the same thing. After all, my own constituency virtually borders on Cheshire and there is absolutely no question about the feelings in both counties. I will go further and say that when the Cheshires were asked which regiments they would want to amalgamate with they put the Staffords at the bottom of the list. That is not a very good recipe for harmony.
I put it to my right hon. Friend that insufficient time —this is important—was made available in those last 36 hours for the many balances and nuances to be adequately weighed and discussed. The result is that the infantry will be overstretched to an even greater degree. The result is, too, that the Staffordshire Regiment has been unfairly singled out for amalgamation, despite the fact that it met the Army Board's own criteria, which should have militated against its amalgamation.
"Options for Change" crucially failed to take account of the unexpected, as I said in a previous debate. To be fair, who, in June or July last year, could have been expected to anticipate the abortive putsch in the old USSR, that country's subsequent collapse and the emergence of the Commonwealth of Independent States? Who could have expected the upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland or the request for a United Nations peacekeeping force in Yugoslavia, or what remains of it? And all this is in addition to any commitment we may have to the advanced rapid reaction corps. The uncertainties in this situation, the instability and volatility in Europe and elsewhere in the world speak for themselves.
I understand that in a recent letter my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence wrote to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs regarding the Staffordshire Regiment in the following terms:the excellent work done by the Regiment in the Gulf is not forgotten.I truly trust that it is not. 261 It would be a tragedy if the Staffordshire Regiment were to be re-amalgamated at a time when other regiments have not been amalgamated once since 1945, when the regiment has an outstanding record of service to the county and to the country, when its recruitment and retention are good, when demographic trends show clearly its sustainability, while other regiments' demographic projections do not, and when the geography and regional representation arguments simply do not stand up to examination.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the crux of his very excellent argument is that both the Staffordshire Regiment and the Cheshire Regiment entirely meet the criteria of the Army Board for retention as they are, while many regiments that have remained unamalgamated and unmerged do not meet those criteria, and that is the unfairness of the situation?
§ Mr. Budgen
It is all very well talking about fairness, but a political decision was taken and, therefore, the politicians ought to explain it.
§ Mr. Cash
Indeed, we shall wait to hear what the Minister has to say.
I urge the Minister to consider the fact that the Staffordshire Regiment was never given the chance to put its case to the Army Board, because of a breakdown in the military hierarchy. That is where the problem lies. I also urge my right hon. Friend, in the strongest possible terms, to look again at the rationale for the amalgamation.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Does the hon. Gentleman have the agreement of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to make a speech?
§ Mr. George
I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) for allowing me to intervene. I speak on behalf of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Staffordshire (Mrs. Heal) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and many thousands of people in Staffordshire, the west midlands and Cheshire.
My objections to "Options for Change" and to the enforced merger of the Cheshire and Staffordshire Regiments are many. The reduction to 116,000 and 38 infantry battalions is absurd and dangerous. Overstretch is inevitable, especially as a result of our commitments in Northern Ireland. In one crisis some years ago, there were a dozen infantry battalions in Belfast alone and only 36 will now be available for Northern Ireland.
Was our leadership of the rapid reaction corps gained on a false prospectus? Will NATO be happy with the double hatting of the rapid reaction corps and forces engaged in Belfast and Belize? Will we keep control of the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps?
The Ministry of Defence has got the threat analysis wrong. How long will it be before that folly is exposed? 262 The Treasury smoking gun is visible for all who wish to see it. Why should an analysis of security be determined by the Treasury rather than the Ministry of Defence?
The key question is whether an Army of the size proposed by the Government will prove sufficient in peacetime, let alone crisis and war. I am certain that it will not. The method by which the Army Board and Ministers chose the regiments for merger was shameful, and was exacerbated by their wilful refusal, in public and in private, to give the Defence Select Committee, the Staffordshire Regiment and hon. Members an opportunity to understand why they were chosen. It is an issue not of national security but of politics. Why do not the Government come clean and tell us why the regiments were merged? Silence will prove more costly to them in the long run.
The decision to merge the Staffordshire and Cheshire Regiments is bizarre and has not been explained. The Minister hopes that the issue will go away, but it will not. I guarantee that it will return to haunt him, his colleagues and the members of the Army Board who endorsed it.
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) on securing this debate. I am well aware of his close interest in this subject and that he has argued diligently on behalf of the Staffordshire Regiment.
The House will be aware of the background to the Army restructuring under which the Staffordshire and Cheshire Regiments will merge in 1993. It is important that the necessity for this restructuring should be fully understood and I make no apologies for repeating some of the many points which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I have made before in this House.
The past two years have seen radical changes in the European security environment, where the scale of conventional forces now facing the west has declined significantly. It was against that backdrop that what has now become widely known as the "Options for Change" exercise was born.
Forty years of peace under NATO demonstrated that the security of the United Kingdom is best served by maintaining effective national forces as part of a powerful alliance. With the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the withdrawal from eastern Europe of forces of the former Soviet Union, the risks of conflict have changed. Europe no longer faces such a threat from massive forces able to move forward across a wide front in a matter of days. But there remain political and economic changes in Europe and continuing turbulence in the middle east and elsewhere.
I am aware that many believe that those events call into question the small size of the reductions announced. Others argue for even smaller forces. The Government have taken full account of all those considerations and cannot agree with either those who say that the cuts are too great or those whose enthusiasm for cuts in defence would leave the nation without effective armed forces. I must emphasise that our plans were developed with a considerable degree of caution in recognition that the future course of events, in Europe and elsewhere, is still far from certain and that dangerous instabilities continue to exist. The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) made that point. We will be vigilant and, as always, keep 263 our force levels and force structures under review. That said, only a major change in future commitments, requiring additional long-term deployments, would require reconsideration of the size and shape of the Army overall and, in particular, the number of infantry battalions.
Turning now to the Staffords, the regiment and its predecessors have a fine and distinguished history, most recently in the Gulf but also in both world wars and in the Peninsular and Crimean wars. It is right and proper to pay credit to so many achievements over so long a period. I share the sadness of all those who regret that this arid other famous regiments should now have to merge or be disbanded.
Of course, the decision to amalgamate the Staffords and the Cheshires was not welcomed by many of those associated with either regiment. I think it would be fair to say that every regiment would rather remain unchanged, but change to the decisions we have made can be done only at the expense of another regiment. A similar degree of pain and disappointment has been felt by all those affected by the changes, although I realise that this is no compensation for those concerned.
§ Mr. Budgen
Is it not the case that before the Secretary of State's announcement it was generally thought that the Royal Welch Fusiliers would be amalgamated, that there was some surprise when that regiment was left unamalgamated, and that plainly a political decision was taken to amalgamate the Staffords and the Cheshires? Will my right hon. Friend, who is the political head, please tell us what the political considerations were?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am about to reply. If my hon. Friend will be kind, I will make my point without him shouting at me. Military considerations were taken into account and recommendations were made to the Army Board, of which other Ministers and I are members. Those military considerations were accepted by the Army Board as a whole.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am also aware of a great deal of parliamentary and public interest in support of the Staffords. It is heartening to know that the regiment is held in such high public esteem.
§ Mr. Hamilton
No. I have a lot to say and I cannot give way.
Many of those seeking to challenge the decisions taken about individual regiments have quoted various criteria in support of their views. Past and present manning patterns, previous amalgamations—my hon. Friend made the point that the Staffords were the result of such an exercise in 1959—future demographic changes and the need to retain appropriate regional representations are all cases in point. But I must repeat that those criteria were fully taken into account when addressing the future of individual regiments. Taking any of those factors in isolation is 264 misleading, and it was the Army Board's task to weigh those factors, along with all other relevant issues, in coming to its decision.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am not giving way. Containing, as it does, the senior serving members of the Army, the board was uniquely placed to weigh all the issues involved.
§ Mr. Hamilton
This is an Adjournment debate and I have a very short time to answer it.
The board was also uniquely placed to devise a solution which was in the best interests of the Army as a whole. If we were to go into detail on what points were considered when it came to the different amalgamations that were put forward, that would not satisfy anybody who was unhappy about a certain regiment being amalgamated with another. It would merely give people a reason to question the assumptions, and the whole process would go on and on. If my hon. Friends and hon. Members think that it is good for the Army to reopen the whole issue, and to have the whole thing thrown back into the melting pot, they are totally and utterly wrong. The best thing we can do is to accept the decisions that have been made, unpalatable to some as they may be.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am not giving way. I wish that hon. Members would not try to invervene. I am not going to give way because I have a lot to say.
If hon. Members feel that it is for the benefit of the Army to reopen all these questions, they are wrong. Supporters of the Staffords and other infantry regiments facing changes have expressed concern about current overstretch and the possibility of its continuing—the hon. Member for Walsall, South made that point—or even worsening, following the restructuring. Regrettably, many inaccurate figures have been quoted by those who seek a reprieve. It may assist the House if I set out again the facts which underlie the Government's effort to eliminate overstretch as part of our commitment to a better future Army.
Regular infantry commitments in Germany will be reduced by a total of 10 battalions: three from Berlin and seven from British Army of the Rhine. The diminished land threat and increased warning time will allow five regular battalions previously committed to military home defence to be replaced by the Territorial Army, and withdrawal from Hong Kong will, by 1997, release a further four battalions. Thus by 1997, infantry battalion commitments will be reduced by 19. By contrast, the number of regular battalions will reduce by only 17, thereby leaving us with two additional battalions which will be made available to the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps.
The future Army will therefore be well placed to meet expected NATO readiness and availability requirements for the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps, while at the same time being able to meet existing emergency tour plot obligations with much improved tour intervals. Longer warning times in Europe have given us greater flexibility over how we meet our emergency tour plot commitments and it will be possible for units based in Germany to play a greater role in those deployments than 265 has been possible up to now. We plan also to make more frequent use of the Royal Marines and other arms in the emergency tour plot. Overall, we are well placed to ensure that the preferred 24 month tour plot—which is not always achieved now—will be achieved in the future.
§ Mr. Cash
Will my right hon. Friend explain what connection this matter has with the decision that was taken last July to amalgamate the Cheshires with the Staffords? What is the relevance of what my right hon. Friend is saying? We understand the basic arguments in relation to "Options for Change", but fail to understand the relevance of the arguments that my right hon. Friend the Minister is now advancing to the decision taken last July.
§ Mr. Hamilton
One of the arguments being proposed is that, in practice, we shall not have enough infantry battalions to do the jobs that we are being asked to do.
§ Mr. Hamilton
If he does not believe it, that is a different matter. It is up to him to decide whether he believes me or not. There will be two more infantry battalions to meet our commitments due to the reorganisation. That is important when addressing the overall issue made by the hon. Member for Walsall, South who believes that the reductions in number in the Army are too great and mean that we will be unable to meet our commitments. That is not the case.
§ Mr. Hamilton
No, I shall not give way because I have much more to say.
To the hon. Member for Walsall, South I say that, if there is a long-term change in our commitments and we become involved in long-lasting commitments that tie up additional infantry battalions, we shall have to reconsider the changes that we have made. However, we are happy that we have the battalions to carry out our present commitments. Therefore, we have had to take hard and difficult decisions on cap badge regiments. I agree that some people will always be unhappy. It is not only the Staffords and Cheshires who are concerned; there is anxiety in Scotland.
I was amazed at the intervention of the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Steven) who complained about the amalgamations in Scotland, when the Liberals call for a 50 per cent. cut in defence spending by the end of the century. It is difficult to see how that policy could be achieved without amalgamating even more regiments in Scotland.
I cannot stress enough that eliminating overstretch was a primary concern during the decision-making process. The difficulties that the infantry are experiencing are largely a result of undermanning and the reality is that the existing 55 infantry battalions are effectively reduced in manpower terms to the equivalent of only 51. That has meant that units have suffered increased turbulence and 266 some battalions have had to undertake emergency tours at intervals significantly below the 24-month period that it has been long-standing Army policy to achieve.
Following amalgamation with the Cheshires, the new regiment should be able to achieve full strength, thus eliminating the cause of overstretch—
§ Mr. Hamilton
They are not over-recruited now. The Staffords are not over-recruited, but under-recruited now.
§ Mr. Hamilton
They are not. This is an absurd conversation. I am telling my hon. Friend that the Staffords are under-recruited.
It is neither efficient nor effective to have units continually under strength. They struggle to meet their commitments, and, when deployed for an emergency tour, have to borrow men from other units to make up a full deployment, thus exacerbating overstretch in other battalions.
The number of battalions in the future Army is designed to ensure that that kind of overstretch will not normally occur, especially at a time when demography is having an adverse effect on recruitment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford raised also the criticisms that have been made of a lack of consultation before the decisions were announced. It was recognised from the outset that it would not be possible to consult about every conceivable option during the initial consultation phase. Consultation was therefore designed primarily to allow regiments to put forward their own ideas on amalgamations and to state their general positions.
I assure the House that the Staffords' wish to avoid amalgamation was fully taken into account, but the same wish was expressed by many other regiments, and I regret that it was not possible to satisfy them all. The ultimate decision in favour of a merger with the Cheshire Regiment was made in full knowledge of the objections that might be raised by the regiment and its supporters.
My colleagues and I have been pressed on numerous occasions to embark on detailed explanations of judgments as they affect individual regiments, including how and why they were made. The Army Board concluded that to do that would inevitably be divisive, painful for the units concerned, and altogether unproductive. For those tempted to believe that view was imposed by Ministers, I may point out that it is the view of senior Army officers on the board, with whom Ministers agree.
The question of suitable regional representation was also raised on a number of occasions, and was an important consideration during the board's discussions. The significance of local affiliations and the "family" feeling of infantry regiments is in no way underestimated. It is part of what makes the regimental system the success that it is.
The new regiment will continue to recruit from areas covered by its predecessors, and will seek to maintain and build on existing local links. Those two factors will help to ensure that the county continues to be represented in future, and will mean that those living in the area will have no difficulty identifying with their local regiment.
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.268
§ Adjourned at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.