HC Deb 02 June 1992 vol 208 cc697-9
10. Kirkwood

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to be in a position to respond to the Select Committee on Defence's proposals on the size of the infantry in "Options for Change".

Mr. Rifkind

I expect to be in a position to respond shortly to the Defence Select Committee's third report.

Mr. Kirkwood

Does the Secretary of State recall that, at the time of the Kincardine and Deeside by-election, he wrote a letter expressing his hope at that stage that some of the proposed amalgamations for the Scottish regiments could be reconsidered? Having regard to the situation that obtains in Yugoslavia and to the extra demands that may be made on our infantry, and to the intolerable pressure on service families in some regiments facing amalgamation, would the Secretary of State respond as early as possible? Will he make his response positive and reprieve, or bring back, at least some of the regiments facing amalgamation?

Mr. Rifkind

I have said that it is important to ensure that the needs of the armed forces are fully met and that we do not impose on them any requirements to which they cannot properly respond. It is therefore important to use those criteria to determine the imposition of "Options for Change" during the next two years. Parallels can be found throughout the western world which show that substantial savings can be made on defence and they are appropriate at the present time.

Mr. Bill Walker

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear it in mind that it is better to take time and to view the matter coolly and properly, rather than to make hasty decisions? Most defence decisions are made in the light of events and in many areas of the world, those events are not under our control. Yet, as history has shown, we are often required to send Scottish regiments to trouble spots around the world.

Mr. Rifkind

As my hon. Friend said, it is certainly the case that our armed forces have often been called on to meet obligations in other parts of the world. About 1,200 British forces are in peace-keeping roles in other countries, and we have 13 United Kingdom dependent territories, many of which require a military presence to ensure their security. All those factors have to be taken into account when determining what the force levels in the armed forces should be in the years to come.

Dr. Reid

May I take this first opportunity to congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment? Is not the fact that he holds that office, and that the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has demitted office, a sign and a tacit admission that the Government got their sums wrong over "Options for Change"? Will he now answer the question put to him—does he stand by the views that he expressed in his letter during the Kincardine and Deeside by-election about the possible overstretch of the infantry? Will he give us, in plain words, a guarantee that that decision will be re-examined, as urged by every section of the House, including the Select Committee on Defence, apart from his predecessor?

Mr. Rifkind

May I first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the former Secretary of State for Defence, for the courage with which he proposed "Options for Change"? Throughout that time he showed a determination worthy of our admiration. With regard to the issues to which the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) referred, I emphasise that I attach considerable importance to ensuring that force levels are appropriate to the demands expected of our armed forces. If the Government ever came to the view that force levels needed to be reviewed that is what they would do. Those are the criteria to apply.

Mrs. Ann Winterton

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that real and informed concern is being expressed within military and civilian circles about the future size of the infantry, bearing in mind our responsibilities, not least in Northern Ireland? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that overstretch is a serious problem? Will he consider the report by the Select Committee on Defence? Will he consider, once again, the excellent case for the retention, as a single county, regiment, of the Cheshire regiment, which is well recruited and well retained?

Mr. Rifkind

I note what my hon. Friend says. To put the position completely in the round, my hon. Friend is aware that there are proposals not only to reduce the number of battalions in the armed forces but to reduce greatly their commitments because of the rundown of our forces on the continent and, ultimately, the withdrawal of certain battalions from Hong Kong. Those factors must be borne in mind when deciding what the appropriate level of our forces should be.

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