§ 2. Mr. Patrick Thompson
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the state of implementation of "Options for Change".
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
Our proposals to move to smaller, but more flexible, more mobile and better equipped armed forces continue to be implemented. Progress was reported in this year's Statement on the Defence Estimates and further announcements have been made since then. I shall continue to keep the House fully informed of progress.
§ Mr. Thompson
While paying tribute to the professionalism of the Royal Anglian regiment, will my right hon. and learned Friend comment on the problem of tour intervals for Northern Ireland? Will he also take the opportunity to emphasise the importance in future policy of the armed forces reserves, who need our strongest support?
§ Mr. Rifkind
Yes, I am happy to pay tribute to the Royal Anglian regiment, which has performed valiantly in Northern Ireland. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, an exceptional problem has arisen: although 2 Battalion, which is due to deploy in Northern Ireland in December, will not have been in Northern Ireland for some two and a half years, there are, I think, 153 members of the former 3 Battalion who, because of the amalgamation in August this year, will return to Northern Ireland far sooner than would normally be expected. That exceptional problem has arisen because of the amalgamation, and I pay tribute to the professionalism of those who have been asked to serve in that way.
§ Mr. Trimble:
As the Secretary of State knows, there has been considerable concern about whether, with the reduction in the number of infantry units under "Options for Change", the Army will be able to meet its committments. Notwithstanding the point made in reply to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), is it not the case that the average gap between tours in Northern Ireland is down from the promised 24 months to nearer 15 months? Does that not show that the proposed rundown in infantry units is unrealistic?
§ Mr. Rifkind
No, it does not. It was explained at the time of "Options for Change" that, because of the number of amalgamations taking place, it would not be possible to meet the 24 months target until the end of the rundown period—but it is still our intention to achieve that target. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I keep the question of force levels very much under review, as it is important to ensure, for the reasons to which the hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention, that the Army is not overstretched.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the regiment with which I had the honour to serve, the 14/20 King's Hussars, ceases to exist on Friday this week, when it is to merge with the Royal Hussars to become the King's Royal Hussars? I hope that the whole House welcomes and supports that new premier cavalry regiment. Will my right hon. and learned Friend 725 give an assurance that the new regiment will have a regimental band? That is vital for the regiment. In particular, the new regiment feels that it will have no medical cover if it goes into combat without such a band because, as many right hon. and hon. Members know, bandsmen double up as medics.
§ Mr. Rifkind
I am sure that the new regiment being formed this week will inherit all the finest traditions of its two illustrious predecessors. As to regimental bands, the Army Board has been considering proposals, but no decision has yet been reached. I am fully conscious of the importance of regimental bands to the morale and tradition of individual regiments, and we shall ensure that all factors are taken into account before any decision is reached.
§ Dr. David Clark
Does not the Secretary of State realise that it is impossible fully to implement "Options for Change" without an amphibious aircraft carrier? Will he give the House a categorical assurance this afternoon that he will place an order for such a vessel? If he feels able to do so, will he also bring forward that order by six months, to cope with the labour demands of the two competing yards?
§ Mr. Rifkind
That particular order is currently out to tender. Obviously, those matters must be considered very carefully. It would not be proper to reach a hasty conclusion without due consideration, using the normal procedures applied to such projects.