HL Deb 03 July 1991 vol 530 cc983-6

3.1 p.m.

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether a decision has yet been made on the future of Welsh infantry regiments as a result of the defence review known as Options for Change.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced in another place on 4th June, consultations are now taking place within the Army on its future structure. Final decisions have yet to be taken.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I understand why he cannot go much further at this stage. Can he confirm the proposal that the Prince of Wales' Division should be reduced from nine battalions to six and, therefore, that the contribution of Wales to the British infantry will be reduced to two battalions, which is roughly the same as the contribution of the Kingdom of Nepal? Can he further confirm that as part of the re-organisation it is proposed that the Royal Welch Fusiliers should amalgamate with the Cheshire Regiment, which must be one of the most bizarre military adventures conceived since the Charge of the Light Brigade?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I appreciate the strength of feeling that my noble friend has put into his Question. Equally, I ask him to understand that whatever he hears or sees in the media is entirely speculation. No decision has been taken about the future of any particular regiment. As soon as a decision is made my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence will announce it.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I derive a certain amount of comfort from the Minister's reply. Nevertheless, is he aware that there is profound disquiet in Wales about the reports that have appeared in the press and on television; namely, that the Welsh Army is to be reduced by three battalions compared with Scotland, which is to lose two? The population of Wales is nearly two-thirds that of Scotland and such a reduction would be totally inequitable and unacceptable. I do not say that that is the Government's plan, but it has appeared in the press and is causing great anxiety in the Principality. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Welsh regiments will be treated equitably and that there will be no step towards amalgamating any Welsh regiment with any English regiment?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I hope that I have made clear the fact that at present I can give no assurance. However, I can say that the Army will work out these painful decisions with fairness, logic, good sense and total understanding.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the Army do so on the clear understanding that Wales is a nation, as are England and Scotland?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I am sure that will be taken into consideration. Indeed, when I see the battalions of Welsh troops on the Benches opposite I sometimes wonder whether I should go to my bunker.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say when the promised White Paper will appear? Will it appear in time to be debated before the Summer Recess?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is hoped that a decision and an announcement will be made before the Summer Recess.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, while in no way underestimating the difficulties of the Sectary of State for Defence in making the economies made possible by the end of the cold war, and while appreciating that there is a fierce loyalty towards every regiment in Her Majesty's defence forces, will the Minister bear in mind that the Royal Welch Fusiliers is a special case because it draws recruits from both north and south Wales and that most of those recruited from the north speak Welsh? Is the Minister aware that we are as proud to be Welsh as the right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State is entitled to be proud of what he is, and that we are proud of the rest of the United Kingdom? Will the Minister convey to his right honourable friend that in respect of this matter it is a rare occasion when all Wales is united?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, "Nec aspera terrent" is the regimental motto of the Royal Welch Fusiliers; that is, "Nor do difficulties deter". Once again I take the point made by the noble Viscount. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is fully aware of the passion felt in your Lordships' House about this matter.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, will my noble friend take note of the wise advice given by the former Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. George Younger, that the only way to approach the issue is to go for the areas that, year in year out, have the best recruitment and retention levels? Is my noble friend aware that on that basis Wales should continue to have three regiments and that it would make no sense to merge the two regiments in the Prince of Wales' Division, which have the best recruitment records. Will the Minister take my advice that there can be no more certain way of destroying the unique spirit of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and its outstanding recruitment record, which springs from its Welshness and involvement in the community, than to merge it with an English regiment?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I note the passion that also comes from my own Benches. Noble Lords will appreciate the fact that we are receiving a great deal of advice from all quarters. Approximately 8 per cent. of the infantry's recruits come from Wales.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is widespread unease in Scotland, in Wales and possibly in England? English regiments have always been very proud and thrilled to recruit Welsh and Scotsmen to their ranks. This morning there was a poignant ceremony celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Royal British Legion. I am proud to be the metropolitan area president of the Royal British Legion and this matter was discussed this morning among the Welsh and the Scots. I shall be happy to tell them that no firm decision has been taken. Why are the Conservatives so opposed to Welsh and Scottish regiments? I cannot understand that. Let that go on the record. May I say to those people that no firm decision has been taken? Does the noble Earl realise that when the initial paybook was introduced over 90 years ago it was in the name of a Royal Welch Fusilier who actually existed—Tommy Atkins.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I understand the point which the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, makes but it rather wanders into the tramlines.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, will the Minister undertake to convey the very deep anxieties and, indeed, anger which have emerged on this issue from all quarters of the House? If by any chance the rumours which have been spread about are proved to be founded, will he also undertake to save the Army from itself and to ensure in future that its bullets are fired on the Queen's enemies and not at its own feet?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as I said on several occasions previously, painful choices and difficult decisions must be made. I am sure that everybody in your Lordships' House admires the pride and loyalty of all regiments in this country. We hope that their future will be satisfactorily concluded shortly.

Baroness Strange

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, this is one of those rare occasions when there is adequate time for the last Question. In those circumstances, it is only fair that my noble friend should be allowed to ask her question.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Leader of the House for that. Is the noble Earl aware that I was at the Royal British Legion service at Westminster Abbey this morning and that the former Dean of Windsor made a very powerful plea for the retention of the whole British Army including the Welsh and Scottish regiments at their present levels?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I was not aware that my noble friend was at that service this morning but I take particular note of her comments.