HC Deb 03 February 1993 vol 218 cc321-30 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about Army manpower.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) set out our plans for Britain's Army for the 1990s in June and July 1991. Those reflected the United Kingdom's leadership of, and substantial contribution to, the new Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, as well as the need to provide for the direct defence of the United Kingdom, our responsibilities in our dependent territories and elsewhere and our continued support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland. He envisaged at that time that there would be some 116,000 regular personnel in the Army by the mid-1990s. That figure included some 12,000 personnel under training, giving a total trained strength of around 104,000.

Both he and I have repeatedly emphasised the importance we attach to ensuring that the armed forces are able to respond to the demands we place upon them. The requirement to allow sufficient leeway to deal with the unexpected was one of the major considerations underpinning the original work on ?Options for Change?. My predecessor and I have also made it clear that we shall keep the position under review and that, should we judge it necessary to look again at planned force levels and the balance between capabilities, we shall do so.

The judgments made in ?Options for Change? remain valid. The threat to our national security is much less than it was. Since 1991, however, there have been a number of developments which have added significantly to the commitments that the Army is required to meet at the same time as it is in the process of reorganising. Additional battalions have been deployed to Northern Ireland, and our overall contribution to United Nations peacekeeping tasks—in Cyprus, Cambodia, the former republic of Yugoslavia and elsewhere—has almost trebled.

The effect of these additional commitments, combined with the disruption caused by the restructuring and drawdown, is placing increasing pressure on individual soldiers and their families. This is something about which many hon. Members have understandably expressed concern. As planning for the Rapid Reaction Corps and other elements of the force structure has been taken forward, a number of requirements for additional manpower have also been identified.

Against that background, I have been considering for a number of months, with my military advisers, the need to adjust the force levels set out by my right hon. Friend. I have concluded that there is a case for an adjustment in the planned strength of the Army. I am therefore announcing today measures which, together with initiatives already in train, will make available 5,000 additional men and women for the front line units of the field Army.

First, I am announcing that the planned strength of the Army in the mid-1990s should be increased by 3,000 to 119,000. In determining how to use that additional manpower, I have been influenced by two considerations. The first is that it is desirable to bring up to strength a number of units which would otherwise have to be reinforced in order to undertake their peacetime operational commitments; a significant proportion of the additional manpower will be used for that purpose.

The second consideration is that the Government attach importance to increasing the emergency tour interval towards the target of 24 months, to which we remain committed. That can best be achieved by revising the number of battalions that will be available in future. I have decided therefore to permit the retention of two further infantry battalions. There will therefore now be a total of 40 battalions—including two Gurkha—in 1998, compared with the 38 previously planned. That will have the effect of increasing the average interval between emergency tours from 15 to 17 months this year and providing an additional margin above 24 months once restructuring is complete, which would make it easier to accommodate any further commitments.

I come now to how the two additional battalions which I have consulted the Chief of the General Staff and my other colleagues on the Army Board of the Defence Council. After considering all the reductions currently under way or planned, it is our unanimous view that the amalgamations of the Cheshire Regiment and the Staffordshire Regiment and of the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers should not now proceed.

The funding for that additional manpower will be met from within the financial provision announced for defence in the November 1992 autumn statement. We are at present considering the consequences for the armed forces of the financial provision available. Today's announcement will make those decisions more difficult, but I am in no doubt that the need to increase Army manpower is the highest priority currently facing my Department.

This leads to the second area where extra manpower will be released. As well as the increase of 3,000 in the total size of the Army, the development of detailed plans for reorganisation, and the implementation of market testing and other initiatives aimed at improving efficiency should release approximately a further 2,000 personnel, mainly from the support area, over the next few years. Some of that manpower will be available for redeployment to field army units.

While it is important that the armed forces should be large enough to carry out the tasks required of them, manpower is a very expensive resource and I do not believe that it is sensible in terms of the overall defence programme and profile to view their size as permanently fixed. I will continue to keep the long-term strength of the Army under close review in the light of changing circumstances. Such circumstances will include any changes to current and foreseeable operational commitments, including the planned withdrawal from Hong Kong.

More generally, they will also include further progress with the Government's market testing and other initiatives, which should help us to reduce our requirement for service and civilian manpower across the programme. It is also important that senior commanders should have the flexibility to decide on the balance of manpower and other resources that they use to meet the objectives placed on them. Finally, following the publication last year of the open Government document on the future use of reserves, we have yet to complete our studies of how best to integrate both regular and volunteer reservists into the post-options force structure. That too will have implications for the long-term strength of the Regular Army.

In ?Options for Change?, we committed ourselves to an Army which is fully manned, properly supported, and well equipped. The decisions I have announced today reflect that commitment. I have arrived at those decisions only after several months of consideration with my professional military advisers. It represents a small but sensible adjustment to the planned size of the Army, which will ensure that it has the flexibility and resilience that it needs to meet the challenges of the 1990s and beyond.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement, as one would the words of any sinner who repenteth. I welcome his admission that the armed forces of this country are over-stretched, but I suggest that this form of crisis management is not really the way to run an army. If the Government have got their sums wrong about the infantry, how can we trust them to have got the figures right overall?

The Secretary of State's announcement, long and complicated as it was, raised many issues of national concern—among them the key question, what is the extra cost of today?s announcement? The right hon. and learned Gentleman failed to give us the precise figure, although he did make it clear that the cost had to come from within the defence budget. He also admitted that the results of these cuts would be ?difficult decisions ahead?. How can he come to the House to announce such cuts and speak of difficult decisions ahead when he has not yet worked out the consequences of the cuts for the other arms of our services? These strike us as panic measures.

Are we to understand that the Navy's budget is to be cut? Does that mean that the vital helicopter landing ship will not be built, in spite of Government reassurances to the contrary only last week? Or is it the turn of the RAF? Will this mean that the mid-term refits of essential aircraft will be delayed?

Will the Minister give the House a categorical guarantee that, as a result of this statement, no one serving under fire in Bosnia or Northern Ireland will be served with his redundancy notice while serving in those theatres?

I have mentioned Northern Ireland. May I press the Secretary of State on that? Will the emergency tours of four months be extended as a result of this statement, or will it be possible to reduce them to the four months originally envisaged? We have a right to know that.

Finally, what is the position of the service personnel due to be made redundant on 25 February?

Given the decision to replace the Army's Bedford trucks with DAF models, has today?s announcement that DAF Trucks is to be placed in the hands of administrators had any effect on the Army?s ability to do its job and move its personnel about?

Is not the Secretary of State?s statement merely an acknowledgement of the Government?s failure to have a national strategy for defence? Will he explain why, in the event of momentous strategic change—the end of the cold war—the Government have refused to implement a full-scale defence review? Will he now follow the advice of Field Marshal Lord Bramall and of the Select Committee on Defence, who have joined the Labour party in calling for such a review?

Does not today's statement merely confirm that ?Options for Change? was merely a response to Treasury diktats, not a policy to defend Britain and the free world?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman's reference to repenting sinners comes well from a former member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament who now projects himself as the champion of the armed forces. Such remarks also come ill from representatives of a party which, at its last conference, once again called for a 25 per cent. reduction in the defence budget but which now seeks to chastise the Government.

Notwithstanding his pedigree, the hon. Gentleman asked a number of perfectly reasonable questions to which I shall now be happy to respond. He asked about the cost of today?s announcement. It will be about £80 million in a full year. That £80 million is a significant sum, but it should be put into perspective. It represents about one third of 1 per cent. of the defence budget. At the moment, we are involved, as we are every year at this stage, in reconciling the resources that have been provided as a result of the public expenditure round with the continuing programme of the Ministry of Defence. That programme has to be assessed annually. Today?s announcement has been included in that review and, in due course, we shall reach conclusions about any adjustments in the programme that will prove necessary.

I am aware of various press reports about individual procurement items and whether they affect one service or another. No decisions have been reached, nor do I anticipate any for some time on any of these matters. As I said in my statement, of course there will be difficult decisions. They would have been necessary irrespective of the statement, and that continues to be the case.

The hon. Gentleman asked about redundancies, and he must also put that in the proper perspective. As a result of ?Options for Change?, the overall size of the Army is coming down substantially from 156,000. That means an overall reduction before today?s announcement of some 40,000. Today's announcement could have some implications, but clearly they will not be profound, because of the factors to which I have referred. It is of course welcome that most of the redundancies that are likely to arise will be voluntary, and that the number of compulsory redundancies will be relatively small.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a defence review. I have said on numerous occasions that ?Option for Change? was itself a comprehensive assessment of the needs facing our armed forces. The assumptions of ?Options for Change? remain valid because of the way in which the international situation has developed. The adjustments that I have announced will make a useful contribution to relieving some of the pressures on our armed forces. They will be warmly welcomed, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming them.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)

My right hon. and learned Friend will be well aware that the Select Committee on Defence has been conducting a review of ?Options for Change? and that our report is due to be published on Tuesday. He will also be well aware that our conclusions were comprehensively leaked to ?News at Ten? last week and will therefore know that my Committee wished for substantially more than my right hon. and learned Friend has offered. None the less, I wholeheartedly welcome his statement and thank him for showing the flexibility of being prepared to move towards the level of manpower that our armed forces need. There is no doubt that his announcement will help in the critical stage that has been reached in the emergency tour plot and will also help to flesh out the inadequate level of manpower in our existing battalions. The 580 strength that we have had until now was inadequate and adding to it will inestimably help the strength of our armed forces.

I have two questions for my right hon. and learned Friend. First, he was good enough to tell the House that he will remain flexible about further changes should the need arise. It is probably the feeling of the House that in future we may need to increase the level further if the requirements imposed upon us by the United Nations and the peacekeeping and intervention roles that we now play increase. Will he confirm that that matter will be kept under constant review?

Secondly, how will my right hon. and learned Friend assist the reprieved regiments to repair the damage that has already been done to their recruiting ability? What can be done to ensure that they can now recruit back up to strength as soon as possible?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Notwithstanding today?s announcement, I look forward to the publication of the Select Committee?s report so that we can study not only its general conclusions, but its detailed analysis of any specific points that it wishes to draw to our attention. I am sure that it will contain much that is worthy of serious consideration. I assure my hon. Friend that, as I said, we must remain flexible.

The whole point about ?Options for Change? is that it did not seek to implement its recommendations overnight. Quite deliberately and quite properly, there was to be a gradual implementation over several years, and that has given us the opportunity to monitor not only the implications for the armed forces, but the changing international scene that has led to my announcement.

Of course we all wish to take into account my hon. Friend's points about recruitment in the regions affected by today's announcement. We seek to ensure that it continues to be of a very high order, as it has traditionally been.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is entitled to the good will of the House following today's announcement. He will appreciate that the overstretch to which the Army has been subject has been paid for by serving soldiers themselves; today's announcement will come as some consolation to them.

The financial consequences for the armed forces as a whole, to which the Secretary of State referred in his statement, are rumoured to include the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Is it not now clear that we require a full-scale defence review in which we ascertain what our obligations are, or are likely to be, and then determine what military and financial resources are necessary to meet those obligations properly?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his initial comments. As for the wider issues, of course our armed forces will continue to have difficult problems to resolve as between resources and commitments—that is true around the world—but I believe that the fundamental assumption of ?Options for Change? remains unchallenged. It is no coincidence that, around the world, particularly in the western world, major reductions have been and continue to be implemented.

The United Kingdom still spends perhaps a higher proportion of its gross domestic product on defence commitments than most countries. I make no apology for that, and a number of reasons could be cited. However, at a time when France, the United States, Germany and other countries—quite apart from the countries of the old Warsaw pact—are making major reductions in their defence budgets, it is right and proper for us to do the same, thereby releasing resources for other requirements. It is important to get the balance right, and I believe that the adjustment in manpower that I have announced will help us to do so.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. The House will be aware of the interest in the statement, which means that I cannot possibly call all the hon. Members who are rising. I appeal to hon. Members to ask the Secretary of State a single direct question, with no accompanying statement or preamble, so that he can reply as speedily as possible—which, with respect, I hope that he will do. There is a great deal of interest in the statement, and I want to call as many hon. Members as possible.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for putting his statement in context, and for confirming the undertaking that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and I always gave at the time of the announcement of ?Options for Change?—that we would keep the matter under review and, should circumstances require it, ensure that our forces were adjusted to meet current needs.

I consider the changes announced by my right hon. and learned Friend to be sensible, in the light of the new circumstances. I also recognise that the real extra pressure has resulted not from peacekeeping, but from the additional commitment to Northern Ireland. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to continue his discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that the resources applied to essential security work utilise our Army, the other armed forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Royal Irish Regiment in the most sensible and cost-effective way?

Mr. Rifkind

I pay tribute to the great care that my right hon. Friend devoted to such matters when he was Secretary of State for Defence. He is right: we have a huge commitment in Northern Ireland. It is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland that we use our highly qualified, expensive military manpower in the best way possible to counter the terrorist threat, and to ensure that they work effectively in support of the civil power.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

I support what the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—said about the priority to be attached to the defeat of terrorism. Will the Secretary of State for Defence give an assurance that Her Majesty's forces will be used primarily for the defence of Her Majesty's subjects and the protection of British interests, and not for the recolonisation of territories from which Britain was forced to withdraw prematurely by critics at home and abroad who are now standing on their heads?

Mr. Rifkind

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the first obligation of Her Majesty's armed forces is the protection of United Kingdom territory and United Kingdom citizens. Only when we are satisfied that we have discharged that obligation fully can we consider other commitments in other parts of the world.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I also welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. He talked about the difficulties in making certain decisions. Will he reassure the House that he attaches the utmost importance to maintaining the flexibility of our rapid reaction forces stationed in Europe—a flexibility which is so important to his strategy—by ensuring that the rapid reaction forces are kept up to the mark by having the most up-to-date equipment to discharge their responsibilities?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend. The rapid reaction force is perhaps the single most important component of the new NATO force structure. It has a United Kingdom commander and, of course, it is important that it has the equipment to fulfil its responsibilities.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Your warning, Madam Speaker, and my elation at the saving of the Staffordshire and Cheshire Regiments inhibits me from gloating or saying, "I told you so," but I very much welcome the belated decision and thank the Secretary of State and his predecessor for being here to make it. However, does it not reflect badly on how decisions are made? First, there was the stupidity of making the decision in the first place, but the strength of our system is that stupidity can at least be rectified by the House, by a Select Committee and by public opinion. Will the Secretary of State try very hard to ensure that there is a little more far-sightedness in future, because the rationale that he gave for changing the decision was obvious to everyone 18 months ago, even before the decision was made?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is being unfair and uncharitable. If he thinks back two years, in 40 years the United Nations had agreed a further 14 overseas commitments, but in the past two years it has agreed a further 14. I do not remember the hon. Gentleman predicting that that would happen.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Having just had a lunch engagement, quite by chance, with Major General Peter Martin and a senior representative of the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association, may I tell my right hon. and learned Friend that his announcement will be warmly welcomed by the services, not least the Staffordshire and Cheshire Regiments? Will he accept that his announcement will go a long way to putting right the overstretch which has been one of the major problems facing the Army, not only the serving personnel but their families, and which sometimes leads to great distress, separation and divorce? He has given me and the House great reassurance that he listens to informed and constructive advice from colleagues and others on important matters.

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important to consider not only the political and geo-strategic issues but the human implications for individual soldiers who carry out considerable responsibilities on our behalf and sometimes at considerable risk to themselves. That is an obligation that we recognise.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I welcome the announcement, or tactical retreat, as far as it goes, especially as it will secure the future of the first regiment of foot of the British Army, the Royal Scots. However, as it has taken 51 weeks for the Ministry of Defence to grasp that point set out in the latest Select Committee's report from February last year, would it be fair to say that the Secretary of State could not give a damn about military overstretch in the army but that what concerned him was the prospect of political overstretch when the Select Committee publishes its next report on Tuesday?

Mr. Rifkind

That is a very silly remark. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that I have said several times in the House that, if I ever became satisfied that there was unreasonable pressure on our service men and women, I would not hesitate to respond. That is what I have done.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his encouraging and realistic statement, but please will he reconsider the proposals to amalgamate the Glorious Gloucesters, who are shortly to celebrate their tercentenary of wonderful service from the Nile to Korea, and especially during the two world wars? If my right hon. and learned Friend is really to be a flexible friend, will he please save the Gloucesters?

Mr. Rifkind

I pay tribute to the remarkable traditions and achievements of the Gloucesters, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to them. It is always difficult and painful when the Army Board has to make such judgments. It has taken into account all the proper considerations and reached a unanimous conclusion. However, I appreciate that, inevitably, it cannot please everyone.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I congratulate the Secretary of State on at last agreeing with the view which I have expressed since I became a Member of the House and which was expressed by the Labour party throughout the election campaign and before it. Serving soldiers of the Cheshire Regiment and their families will welcome today's statement, particularly in relation to soldiers serving in Bosnia.

I also welcome the fact that the Secretary of State recognises that issues of family stress are involved in the current structure of the armed forces. Will he therefore continue to ensure that family stress issues are properly addressed? Will he help that process by answering my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and confirm that there will be no redundancies among the Cheshires serving in Bosnia?

Mr. Rifkind

I have no intention of making an announcement today about that matter. It is a very difficult, sensitive and important issue. I intend to be fair to the armed forces as a whole and not to comment on the implications for any one regiment. While I welcome the congratulations of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) in respect of the statement, I am bound to add that, given the apparent unanimity of Labour Members in favour of defence expenditure, it is a pity that they cannot persuade their party conference to agree with them.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there will be great rejoicing in Staffordshire at the reprieve of the Staffordshire Regiment? Will he bear in mind that the Staffordshire Regiment fought a tremendous battle in the Gulf and that the Cheshires are fighting such a battle in Bosnia? Those of us in Staffordshire and Cheshire congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his flexibility, and we trust that the resilience that we have shown in the light of adverse circumstances in battling for the Staffordshires and Cheshires will be borne in mind on the other side of the fence.

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The statement is welcome as far as it goes, but does the Secretary of State understand that it is very difficult for those of us representing northern seats, in Scotland, to understand why the amalgamation of the Gordons and the Queen's Own Highlanders is to go ahead, particularly when a platoon of the Gordons is being sent to Bosnia? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain very simply what criteria were applied when deciding which amalgamations would proceed and which would not?

Mr. Rifkind

I obviously pay the same tribute to the Gordons and to the Queen's Own Highlanders that I paid to other regiments a few moments ago. The criteria applied by the Army Board were the same criteria that were applied two years ago. The hon. Lady will recall that my predecessor declined—I believe correctly—to comment on the details of the criteria. These are very difficult matters, and I believe that it is appropriate to say simply that the Army Board took into account all the relevant criteria and the considerations that were before the board two years ago and came to what would inevitably be a difficult judgment.

Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)

I heartily congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on a statement which was full of thoroughly sound common sense. It goes some way to reassuring those of us who have been long-time critics of the mathematics of "Options for Change".

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that it makes sense in the next phase of the review of the levels of forces to look to 1997 when we are to withdraw from Hong Kong? Will he also keep the special problems of the Household Division under further and continuing review?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend. Of course it is important to remain flexible over the next few years. As we have seen over the past few years, unforeseen circumstances inevitably arise—some of which will lead to a reduction in our need for manpower while others may lead to an increase. I appreciate that the Household Division has particular responsibilities because of its ceremonial duties. Clearly, that must be taken into account when determining its manpower requirements.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman understand that his decision in respect of the Cheshires will be greatly welcomed in my constituency, where recruitment is quite strong? The decision taken by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's predecessor in respect of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was very well received. The Secretary of State might agree that the Royal Welch Fusiliers is one of the finest regiments in Britain.

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his statement is most warmly welcomed, especially his announced reprieve for the Cheshire Regiment, which is very much in people's minds at the moment, being in the front line in Bosnia? His statement will be greatly welcomed by my constituents in Greater Manchester and Cheshire. Furthermore, does he accept that, as he has said, it is but a modest step in the right direction? Significant overstretch will remain in the Army. Will he make a further step should, in his judgment, the situation require it?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Our armed forces will always be under pressure; it is the nature of armed forces and the nature of the work that they do. A judgment constantly has to be made as to what is the unacceptable level of pressure. I believe that the degree to which international events have required the United Kingdom to make a useful and important contribution justify the consideration that we have given to these matters and the decision that we announced today.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We must move on.[Interruption.] Order. There will be other opportunities.