HL Deb 10 February 1992 vol 535 cc552-78

9.35 p.m.

The Earl of Shrewsbury rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that their plans for the future of the infantry provide adequate reserves for likely contingencies.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise before the House an issue of serious substantive concern to us all; namely, the future of the British infantry. I apologise for keeping your Lordships here at this late hour. However, it is a most important matter. I am much heartened to see so many noble Lords, all of whom are much more knowledgeable than myself, taking part in the debate.

My recent mailbag has been full of emotional correspondence concerning the Government's policy with regard to the future of the Army and the infantry in general and, especially as I live in Staffordshire, the amalgamation of the Stafford and the Cheshire Regiments. But the matter is a hard and most difficult one and emotions must not be allowed to come into the question.

Noble Lords will recall that my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces in a Statement in this House and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence in a Statement in another place on 23rd July last year announced the Government's intention to reduce the nation's Army establishment by 17 battalions to a peacetime strength of just 116,000 men, of which the infantry will comprise just 25,000 men.

Many of your Lordships have already expressed concern about the sizeable reduction in the infantry, perhaps most notably in this House during the Defence Estimates debate on 16th October last year. No one is suggesting as times change and as geo-political conditions change that there is not a need to review our military commitments at home and abroad and how we meet them. In a changing world with changing needs it is of course entirely appropriate that we should re-examine our military requirements. Indeed, it would be the more peculiar and a justifiable source of concern to us all if we did not do so. But the Government have proposed that the infantry establishment, our most flexible fighting force which traditionally holds the key to operational success, be reduced to a size unheard of since the Crimean War. I am immensely concerned that in this we have made the wrong judgment and struck the wrong balance.

When the Government began their Options for Change review, the Soviet Union was still intact and Yugoslavia was still an enticing holiday destination for British holidaymakers, and in their droves. No one could have been expected to anticipate that so soon after the Statement of my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces to the House in July last year there would be an attempted coup d'état in the Soviet Union and that the Soviet Union would itself swiftly collapse and he replaced by an unstable, uncertain union of states to be known as the Commonwealth of Independent States. No one could have expected the recent upturn in appalling violence in Northern Ireland or the breakdown of law and order and upsurge of ethnic strife in Yugoslavia. I have no doubt that a United Nations peacekeeping force will be wanted there shortly—and that potentially in addition to our commitments to the multinational ACE Rapid Reaction Corps which is under our command. The ARRC is, however, a separate issue which I shall return to in a moment.

My point is that just over the horizon for ever lurks a threat to our security, the probability of which we ignore at our peril. To leave the infantry with only 38 battalions, two of which have limited employability, leaves little in reserve to meet unexpected contingencies. If nothing else, history has surely taught us that the unexpected invariably happens: and I suggest to your Lordships that this morning's announcement that it has become necessary to send to Northern Ireland a further infantry battalion, from the Queen's Regiment, proves that point.

I am sure that my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces will have been briefed to tell your Lordships that his officials have accurately predicted all likely contingencies. I am afraid I just do not believe it. Although our commitments at home and abroad have certainly been reduced and will decrease still further when the Crown colony of Hong Kong is returned to the Chinese administration in 1997, there remains widescale concern that the Ministry of Defence has failed adequately to balance the reduction in commitments with the reduction in the infantry establishment.

If, as widely supposed, that is so, overstretch—or the commensurate over-employment of a decreasing number of officers and soldiers to meet peacetime commitments at home and abroad—will be enhanced. The cost is measured in human terms. The level of disruption to the lives of officers, soldiers and their families becomes intolerable and they leave the service. This leads to undermanned battalions, poor morale among those who remain, additional recruiting effort, more expense for the taxpayer and a less well trained and thus less effective infantry.

As a local branch president of SSAFA in Wolverhampton, I must ask my noble friend whether he can give the House an assurance that fully adequate resources will be committed to helping those soldiers and their families who are no longer needed to ensure they are able adequately to meet the needs, the demands and the considerable stress of their new-found role in civilian life. Can he give an assurance that former soldiers and their families will not find themselves in bed and breakfast accommodation?

In the light of this morning's announcement that men from the Queen's Regiment are being despatched to the Province, more than a third of the proposed 36 infantry battalions (less the Gurkha battalions) are presently deployed to Northern Ireland at a time when the Army Board says that it is looking to achieve a 24-month gap between tours of duty. Given that the current establishment of 55 battalions produces a gap between tours of, at best. 18 months—and frequently less than 18 months—there is little prospect of the Army Board meeting the 24-month gap objective which it has set itself when it has 17 fewer battalions upon which to draw.

Let me turn now to our command of the ARRC. This, I suggest, would be comic if it were not quite so serious. Our commitment to the ARRC means precisely what it says—that we have the capability to deploy quickly. My noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces will surely tell your Lordships, straight-faced, that this is perfectly practicable. In anticipation I am bound to ask whether it really is.

How can we hope swiftly and effectively to deploy when so many of our battalions have two roles to fulfil? I have heard it said that the reserves or the territorials could in such circumstances be deployed, but at what notice? Crises will not wait contentedly in the wings until such times as we can muster and deploy our men. Would deployment, therefore, take 30 days, or would it be seven days? Moreover, how could the Territorial Army (for whom I personally have the highest regard) be brought to a peak of fighting fitness in less time? One thinks of the experience of the US infantry and armour which at the time of the Gulf War discovered that they could not use their reservists called up for service in the Gulf because on a learning curve those reservists would be unable to achieve an acceptable standard of competence in the time available.

At this juncture it seems appropriate to add that it has been said that other arms could take on some infantry commitments, as sometimes happens in the less critical areas in Northern Ireland. This must surely be wasteful of the skills and resources of the other arms in retraining for infantry roles, in their combat effectiveness when compared with trained infantrymen and in retraining for their original roles.

At this point, I beg your Lordships' indulgence for one moment and turn to an issue of especial concern to me; namely, the future of the Staffordshire Regiment. Many of your Lordships, and certainly my noble friend Lord Arran, will already know that during a memorable and widely reported adjournment debate in another place last week significant concern was raised by Members on all sides of the House about the proposed amalgamation of the Staffordshire Regiment with the Cheshire Regiment.

It seems inimical to me, as it clearly does to many others, that the Staffords should be threatened with their second post-war amalgamation despite meeting in full each and every criterion laid down by the Army Board which should have militated against their amalgamation. Moreover, it is the only regiment in the Army that, because of a tragic breakdown in the military command structure, was never given the chance to put its case to the Director of Infantry or the Army Board.

My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces again suggested in that debate that the Staffords were able to put their case to the Army Board. That is not so. I must therefore call upon my noble friend to come clean on this matter. Does he now admit that the Staffordshire Regiment never put, and was not able to put, its case to the Army Board? I should be delighted if my noble friend would provide me with evidence of the Staffords' case being put to the Army Board. I am, however, confident that he will not. He cannot, because there never was a presentation to the Army Board of the Staffords' case.

On a second and by no means insignificant point, does my noble friend also admit that the extent to which the Staffordshire Regiment is underestablished —which is almost minuscule—derives entirely from the fact that the regiment is so well recruited that Ministers had, in their wisdom, seen fit to put a recruiting cap on the regiment until recently? A recruiting cap which has meant that the regiment could not recruit to its full establishment would appear therefore to have been the penalty for being successfully recruited.

Lastly, is my noble friend prepared to deny that the local recruiting officers in the Staffords' recruiting area are currently turning away new recruits when the Staffords have an enormous and largely untapped recruiting potential, especially in the core recruiting age group of 16 to 24 year-olds, and at a time when many other regiments are under strength and on future demographic projections ever will be?

I have this evening expressed in detail my great concern about the shape of cuts in the infantry in general and of one regiment of the line, the Staffordshire Regiment, in particular. I put it to your Lordships that we have made a fatal miscalculation about the shape and size of our future infantry establishment. I pray that we shall not have to witness the scale of that error, although I fear that almost certainly we shall.

9.48 p.m.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, I am immensely grateful to the noble Earl for putting down and, even at this late hour, sticking to his Unstarred Question on the future strength of the infantry, because it is matter of considerable anxiety, as is the Army strength as a whole. I find myself in entire agreement with his most excellent speech, because, whatever the merits of some parts of Options for Change—there are a number of matters that commend themselves—on the subject of Army manpower, with its special impact on the infantry, the Government clearly have it wrong, and I strongly suspect that everyone in the MoD knows that they have it wrong, have overdone it and are wondering how they will get off the hook.

The figure of 116,000, which allows for no more than just over 100,000 trained men, has from the start been a highly suspect one. It flies in the face of professional advice, which had always considered that at least 120,000 to 123,000 would he required to meet envisaged commitments and establishments. It is still a formidable cut from the existing establishment figure of 160,000 and it had as about its only rationale the fact that the Treasury had insisted upon providing funding for a much lower figure still. I am quite certain that the Minister would not deny that. It is hardly the best way to conduct a supposedly strategically based review, particularly bearing in mind the Treasury's past battle honours, which so nearly did for us in earlier decades.

However, that figure has now become even less plausible and defensible. Since it was first established, there have been the lessons of the Gulf, drawing attention to the need for proper battle strength. The Staffordshire Regiment itself has had to be made up to 880 strong and there have been the manpower demands of logistic support to any operation worthy of the name. Also the full manning implications have been assessed of the complicated but wholly worthwhile NATO requirement for a British-led and supported rapid reaction corps. It is spread over two, if not three countries with the North Sea between and if it is to be true to its name, its combat units would need to be largely unencumbered by regular tours in Northern Ireland.

Not one adjustment in the proposed strength has been made as a result of these matters. Nor was there any adjustment when the Ministry of Defence suddenly decided that it could not get away with only 36 battalions, which was a feature of the figure of 116,000, but would need 38 battalions. The manning implications are all too obvious. Nor has any further consideration been given to the figure since, following the welcome demise of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the cold war, there failed to materialise the peaceful and harmonious evolution to democracy and stability which optimistic bureaucrats must have assumed would emerge. There was greater uncertainty than ever. Some dangerous and disturbing manifestations appeared on the world scene: rampant ethnic rivalries in Europe, as well as in the Middle East and North Africa, involved hostilities quite close to home and a mounting refugee problem; unpopular governments struggled with unsuccessful democracy and severe economic conditions; and religious fanaticism lapped round the southern shores of the Mediterranean. These are all ingredients for the re-emergence of powerful, ambitious hardliners against whom it will be at our peril that we drop our guard or forgo our capacity to react in our own interests.

Above all, this manpower figure has not yet been modified to take any account of the tragic and seemingly worsening security situation in Northern Ireland. When I was Chief of the General Staff at the end of the 1970s and in the early 1980s, the garrison was down to 9,000 strong and only nine battalions. It is now considerably in excess of that: the figure has increased to about 13 battalions, three of which have gone there since the beginning of the year.

As a result, the gap between unaccompanied tours and other unaccompanied duties during which soldiers can be with their families has been lengthening quite unacceptably with, as the noble Earl said, devastating effects on marital problems and retention. Nor is it properly appreciated how much extra strain is imposed on soldiers and on the manpower strength of the unit merely by the endless extra guard and escort duties made necessary by even the threat of terrorist action, not only in Northern Ireland but also in this country and Germany.

When we add all that to the necessary training with modern equipment on prolonged exercises, garrison duties round the world, largely unchanged at least until 1997 when the Hong Kong commitment ends —although who knows how many problems may be produced in the run-up to that date?—and further unaccompanied tours in Belize, the Falklands and Cyprus, the tempo of everyday commitments remains as formidable as ever. Yet if the Government's plans go ahead, we shall soon have 17 fewer infantry battalions and many fewer other combat units to handle them, as well as having inadequate manpower to man the units we retain.

All this makes no sense. The Secretary of State's defence is rather naive arithmetic about the number he hopes to save in Germany justifying the vast cut to 116,000. It made no allowance for the extra strain or for the fact that for some time now the size of the infantry has had to be governed as much, if not more, by the force levels in Northern Ireland as by any Warsaw Pact threat. Indeed, a noble Lord of great wisdom and experience in government said to me recently that whatever one may have thought of Options for Change and however well it may generally seem to have been accepted, Northern Ireland has driven a coach and horses through the military arithmetic.

I would therefore ask the noble Earl, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State if it is not time that fact was recognised. It would be no good for him just to say that under certain circumstances some of the mergers and disbandments might be delayed or postponed. Unless a new manpower figure is established and properly funded, it will merely mean that other parts of the already truncated programme will be unacceptably affected and/or the extra units will be disgracefully undermanned, which will have exactly the same effect.

Although I do not wish personally to get involved in special pleading for this or that regiment, much as I sympathise with certain regiments—in my opinion some have been grossly unfairly dealt with, the worthy being disadvantaged, promises being broken and splendid, once viable regiments being made unviable —I wish to register deep concern about the overall numbers of infantry battalions, and perhaps even more about the strength of those battalions which could be achieved with only 116,000 men after all the other calls on manpower. Before he considers his answer to the noble Earl, I put it to the Minister that what the Government are doing to Army manpower will make the rotation of infantry battalions through unaccompanied tours excessively rapid with a demoralising effect on family life, on retention and on training.

In this dangerous and increasingly uncertain world, the Government's action will make these battalions unable effectively to meet known commitments, let alone cope with the unexpected which so invariably crops up. I urge the Government before it is too late to check the Options for Change proposals, particularly those that affect Army manpower and the infantry, against the background of a proper strategic review so that the numbers of full strength battalions can be related to our up-to-date commitments over the next five years and not just to some bureaucratic and financial whim.

9.57 p.m.

Lord Fanshawe of Richmond

My Lords, I wish to congratulate my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury on initiating tonight's short debate. I took part in debates on this subject last year. While again declaring my interest as a director of a major defence establishment which is a private company, I also declare my interest as someone who, at the end of the war, served as an officer in The Life Guards and, subsequently, as a Territorial Army officer in the 21st Special Air Service. In his speech my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury put his finger on the concern that is felt not just by former soldiers but also by those serving in the Armed Forces at the present time, particularly those serving in the infantry.

I have made the following case before but I intend to repeat it. I refer to the Household Division. There are three infantry battalions in the Household Division: the Second Battalion of the Grenadiers, the Second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards and the Second Battalion of the Scots Guards which have been put into suspended animation. They play a major role not only in performing public duties but in adding to the fighting strength of the infantry. The Welsh Guards and the Scots Guards fought in the Falklands. They were sent out at short notice. They also act as a reserve stationed in the London area. That reserve has been vital, not only during the Falklands campaign but also as a back-up in Northern Ireland, Germany and other parts of the world. Not only have the Government decided to place those three battalions in suspended animation, but they have also forced the Household Cavalry into a composite regiment of one armoured recce regiment.

I should like to comment on a point made by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury regarding the way the Staffordshire Regiment has been led up the garden path by the MoD. A similar situation arose in the case of the Household Cavalry. Honourable Members in the other place asked why the composite proposal had been brought forward. Their letters were sent to the Ministry of Defence and submitted to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He replied saying that the proposal to form a composite regiment of the Household Cavalry of two squadrons of Life Guards and two squadrons of Blues and Royals was put forward by the regiments and was their idea. That was totally untrue. A protest was made to the Ministry of Defence following the statement by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

A grovelling apology was sent to the colonels of the two regiments by the Chief of the General Staff, General Chapple. That was followed by an apology and a statement in the House of Commons by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who said that he regretted having misled Members of Parliament and that the proposal had come from the Ministry of Defence and not from the regiments. Such an attitude leaves one with a feeling that the Ministry of Defence no longer has any credibility if it can take such action against loyal and devoted regiments which have served this country for many years. Regiments facing the cutbacks should at least be treated decently.

Another point which has not been raised tonight is the removal of any career structure in the Household Division as a result of the proposals which have been put forward. The career structure for the officers and NCOs in both the foot guard battalions and the Household Cavalry is very important. If there is no career structure the volunteers who are needed, particularly for the mounted regiments of the Household Cavalry, will not be forthcoming. That is an extremely important point. Morale has been damaged, not only in regiments such as the Staffords, but also among the Household troops based in London.

I should like to raise the question of the proposal to begin merging regimental depots. One of the important elements of the regimental system is the training depot of each regiment. It is there that regimental pride is instilled. I understand that there is a proposal to merge regiments such as the Royal Green Jackets, the Household Division and the regiments of the line based in the South of England into one centre at Pirbright. Merging the depots will inevitably undermine the very regimental system which Ministers have said time and time again they wish to protect. I should be grateful if my noble friend the Minister will reply to that point this evening.

I should like to raise a further point in relation to the Household Division. The cutback in three battalions of Foot guards and the possible demoralisation and feeling in the Household Cavalry that it will have difficulty recruiting for the mounted regiment will result in diminished performance and deteriorating standards in public duties. What benefit can that be to the taxpayer? Although it is denied by Ministers in both Houses, we all realise that the cuts are Treasury inspired. The cost of public duties in London is covered entirely by the contribution which is made by the tourist industry. As was said by my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk in the debate on 14th November, the London Tourist Board has estimated that contribution as being between £500 million and £1 billion a year. Therefore the Treasury should feel quite comfortable about leaving the Household Division as it is.

I should like to raise one further issue, which the noble and gallant Lord Bramall made more powerfully than I could. Why is there to be such a profound reduction in "teeth" arms when, apart from Germany, all our commitments remain? That point was made by the noble and gallant Field Marshal just now. Forces in Germany are being cut back, and rightly so, as a result of the ending of the Cold War. However, commitments remain in Hong Kong until 1997. The Falkland Islands commitment remains, and who knows what will happen down there? The Belize commitment remains. The Cyprus commitment remains. There is no sign yet that the Greeks and Turks will come to an agreement on the future of Cyprus. That may well mean that more troops are needed in Cyprus. There is not a single part of the world, except in central Europe, where there is any change whatever to the commitment that our troops face at present. Therefore surely there is an argument for having another review. It has already been mentioned today by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that Northern Ireland is becoming more and more of a worry to us. Why not have a proper defence review?

Since July last year, when the Treasury-inspired Options for Change from which we have all suffered for the past six months appeared, the Soviet Union has disintegrated. The world has become even more uncertain than it was in the middle of last year. The Government would lose no face if they were to say, "We put forward Options for Change last July. We have now thought again in view of the developments that have occurred in the world over the past six months and have decided to have another look."

In the debate on defence on 5th February at col. 273 my noble friend Lord Caithness, the Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a colleague of the noble Earl, Lord Arran, stated: Now is not the time to take hasty decisions on basic British defence strategy".—[Official Report, 5/2/92; col. 273.] I believe that most noble Lords in the House would subscribe to that comment. I hope that Ministers and officials will reconsider their 1991 decisions. Even if they cannot bring themselves to bring about another review, please let them try to do some fine tuning.

10.7 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I too am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury for asking this important and relevant Question. However, it is with not a little sorrow that I find it necessary to intervene in the debate. As my noble friend Lord Arran will know, I have long been an advocate, if not something of a champion, of the Government's policies of maintaining adequate armed forces to enable them to deliver that first duty of any government—the defence of the realm. Indeed, I have on many occasions stood at the Dispatch Box and enjoyed the almost unfailing support at least of my noble friends on nearly every aspect of a defence policy that it was my duty to explain. However, tonight I do not suppose that my noble friend will find himself in such a happy position.

The problem of overstretch is not a particularly new phenomenon. Those of us who were serving in Northern Ireland at the start of the troubles were all too well aware of the constant need, for varying periods of time, to reinforce not just with infantry but also with other arms. That was at a time when there were barely enough infantry battalions in the United Kingdom to be used as reinforcements and certainly insufficient Royal Armoured Corps regiments were available for re-roling as infantry. Therefore, the British Army of the Rhine had to be depleted from time to time within the constraints that were then allowed.

My noble friend Lord Fanshawe has dealt admirably with the fact that reductions are now to be made without any apparent reduction in responsibilities and role. I shall not repeat what he said. However, perhaps my noble friend Lord Arran will tell us the number of infantry battalions in the Rhine Army, assigned now to the Northern Army Group, or to be re-roled into the new Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, will eventually be required to remain permanently in that role assigned to their duties and hence not available for other emergency tour plot duties elsewhere. What constraints will be applied to fulfilling "out of theatre" tasks by those assigned to the new NATO roles? Surely the scope for flexibility under the new arrangements is rather more constrained than has been the case hitherto. It thereby increases the risk of overstretch rather than reduces it.

There appears to be growing among some in the Ministry of Defence a curiously blinkered approach which seems to assume that all is well with the world. They also assume that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has made the world a safer place. To a limited extent that may be true, but I argue that the extent is limited. As has been said by so many noble Lords this evening, it is certain that the changes have thrown up other real anxieties, uncertainties and instabilities which are so new and not fully analysed, and hence so unpredictable, that planning for contingencies must remain for the foreseeable future an exceedingly uncertain art.

Nevertheless, with hope apparently triumphing over experience and with a good deal of prodding from the Treasury, the Ministry of Defence seems determined to reduce the number of infantry battalions without corresponding reductions in tasks. Indeed, if things go on as they are—my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury referred to the reinforcements to be sent to Northern Ireland announced today—the Ministry of Defence will probably have to decrease the permanent emergency tour plot commitment. The battalions must keep up with training for assigned roles, with leave, with providing men for extra regimental employment and with courses. Most of all, they must maintain morale through that very backbone of army life; that is, contented regimental families in reasonably stable, properly-planned circumstances.

It is worth noting that the Royal Armoured Corps is not immune to what is proposed for the infantry. It already fulfils a number of duties in the infantry role. The Maze prison guard in Northern Ireland is one, a regiment in the infantry role in Cyprus is another, as is one more regiment on its feet in Northern Ireland. Of the 44 squadrons which will be available for these and other emergency tour plot commitments when Options for Change is complete 14 squadrons will be committed to the ETP at any one time. Added to that is to be another task not on the emergency tour plot roster but nevertheless to be fulfilled by the Royal Armoured Corps; that is, the provision of an opposition force at the British Army training unit in Suffield, Canada. That will require four squadrons.

In order to achieve two clear years between emergency tour plot commitments and to fit in leave, training, courses and so forth, means that probably a total of 54 squadrons will be needed to fulfil the task. Forty-four will not be able to fulfil the task without huge disruption, the dislocation of family life and demotivation. Those responsible directly for soldiers under their command are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the demands to be placed upon them with illusory promises of two years between emergency tours. So far real unforeseen emergencies, such as the Gulf War last year, have not come into the equation. That is the nub of the question asked by my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury.

I hope that my noble friend Lord Arran will in no sense underestimate the strength of feeling which underlies those anxieties. He has told us in the past that the Options for Change exercise has not been Treasury driven. I confess that I am bracing myself for that claim to be repeated again this evening. Is he really saying that the Treasury was not at the forefront of the changes, at least as planning progressed? All my experience leads me to the conclusion that if the exercise was wholly a Ministry of Defence proposal, it must be a fascinating historical achievement. It would be the one occasion on which the Ministry of Defence demanded more of itself than the Treasury demanded of it.

I take no pleasure in being so critical of the Government. However, all my senses tell me that the decisions announced in July and subsequently confirmed have, as my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury said, even less validity now than they had then. Everyone of experience who has an eye on history is saying the same thing. Those views have already been clearly voiced this evening by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and others; and yet the Ministry of Defence seems determined to ignore history. It seems intent upon embarking on a policy which is not only unsafe but which also causes real, practical, morale and welfare problems among our infantry and others. There is much disquiet among their fellow countrymen from John O'Groats to Land's End.

I beseech my noble friend to draw to the attention of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State the important anxieties which are being voiced this evening. They are not a series of extravagant myths, nor are they special pleading. The voices raised come from those in this House —and reflect the anxieties of many outside it—who are worldly wise, who have considerable experience and know what they are talking about. They have spent a larger part of their lives far closer to soldiers on the ground than any civil servant currently in Whitehall. The Government would not be wise to discard as irrelevant, or as just plain busybodying, the anxieties that have been raised.

10.17 p.m.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I am eager to support the message implicit in the Unstarred Question in the name of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. I accept his arguments on the important national issues supported so completely by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. I accept that and there is no need to repeat it because that message comes with real authority when it comes from the noble and gallant Lord.

I want to use the few minutes which I have to emphasise the unfair treatment meted out to the Staffordshire Regiment. Staffordshire is my county. My family has never lived anywhere else. The one point on which I disagreed marginally with my noble friend was when he said that emotion need not come into this issue. It is too late. In Staffordshire emotion has come into it. The Government are well aware of the emotion which comes from Staffordshire. Three weeks ago they were the recipients of 100,000 signatures, in the form of a petition, presented by the people of Staffordshire. They are well aware of the feelings as a result of the debate which took place in another place two or three weeks ago.

I should like my noble friend Lord Arran to have clearly in mind that the feelings which come from Staffordshire will not go away. The people of Staffordshire intend to pursue the need to be treated with the respect which their record over the centuries demands. At present the people feel that they are the victims of broken promises. When the regiments of North and South Staffs were amalgamated in 1959, they were told implicitly that there would be no question of their again having to face possible amalgamation. That is a broken promise.

It has been suggested that they are responsible because they did not put their case when the review was under consideration by the Army Board. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury made clear that there is no basis for that. If there was any neglect in allowing their point of view to be presented at that time in official quarters, that was the fault of the advisers to the Army Board.

Also, I should like my noble friend not to repeat, if he can avoid it, that because the Army Board has made a decision, nothing can be done about it. This is not an Army Board decision but a political decision. It was a decision made by the Minister and he has the power, with the backing of his Government, to rescind it if he feels so inclined. In other cases the Government have shown their proper power. Whether or not it is before the next election—the time spent is not so important —Staffordshire will insist on rectifying this grievous undermining of the contribution from one of the most outstanding regiments of the line that this country has ever had.

I beg my noble friend to take seriously the petition that is in his hands. I beg him to use whatever political power his department has to bring about a review that will rectify the emotional feeling in Staffordshire that it has been treated in a disgraceful way. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and my noble friend who initiated this Unstarred Question put forward what I would call the technical and national case. At the end of the day it is a parliamentary case. If at the end of the day Parliament has the supreme power and it impresses upon the Government, who are for the time being the executive who have to make the decisions, that a mistake has been made, then it is up to Parliament to use its power to see that the mistake is put right.

I beg my noble friend not to fall back on saying that the Army Board has made its decision and it would be opening a Pandora's box to have a review. Whatever may come out of a review, it is essential that we do not undermine the confidence and emotional feelings of the people of Staffordshire, who feel deeply about the matter and will not let the problem run away. The normal explanation that a decision has been taken and nothing can be done about it is not good enough in this case. I hope that when my noble friend replies he will be in a position to indicate that the Secretary of State will be prepared to consider the possibility of using what powers he has to see that the Army Board's decision, as it affects Staffordshire, is looked at again.

10.22 p.m.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury upon tabling this Question and also upon not being derailed by attempts to make him postpone it owing to the lateness of the hour. I suspect that if it had been postponed it would not have been heard at all, certainly not before an election, owing to the pressure of the business of the House.

As my noble friend Lord Glenarthur said, the defence of the realm is the first duty of government. It is not just the physical defence of the United Kingdom but the defence of our legitimate interests worldwide. Speaking to various people in different parts of the country and from different walks of life since Options for Change was published, apart from government spokesmen, I have met no one who agrees with it. Everyone I spoke to considers that our armed forces, particularly the Army, are being far too drastically cut —dangerously so.

I would not in any way place myself on a level with Winston Churchill, but my noble friend will recall that before the First and Second World Wars he spent a considerable amount of time and effort persuading the governments of those times to make adequate provision for the defence of the realm. I have a terrible feeling that the Government today are going down the same route—probably Treasury-driven—as the governments of those days.

In recent communications the Government have said that they firmly intend that there should be sufficient infantry battalions to meet our commitments to NATO as well as our national responsibilities in such locations as Northern Ireland, Belize and the Falklands and that they are reducing the number of infantry battalions by 17 but offsetting that by a reduction of 19 infantry battalion commitments. That is quite true so far as peacetime commitments are concerned.

However, they have merely redesignated certain home defence commitments which were previously covered by regular battalions to the Territorial Army. We must remember that we are not dealing tonight with peacetime commitments but with the possibility of wartime commitments and readiness for such commitments. The government statement totally ignores the needs of Northern Ireland and of other places where battalions go on emergency tours unaccompanied by their families.

It is government policy to have a 24-month interval between such emergency tours. I understand that that has never been achieved; if it has, no doubt my noble friend the Minister will tell us tonight when and by what infantry units. I suspect that our refusal to take part in the proposed Yugoslavian peacekeeping force is more a measure of our inability to provide the troops than any reluctance on the part of the Foreign Office that we should do so.

As is well known, as soon as violence escalates in Northern Ireland the spearhead battalion is deployed there, thus adding to the overstretch. That leads me to the conclusion that 38 battalions will be inadequate to meet current commitments for emergency tours and provide a 24-month interval. Any additional commitments can be met only by significantly adding to the overstretch.

In the past, units other than infantry have been used and it is possible to use them again in future. But that is an inefficient use of our troops. Additional training is required to fit them for the infantry role. I understand that that can take up to five months. The unit is away from its proper role and associated equipment and therefore not available for its primary task at short notice. Again, when it returns to its primary task, additional retraining is required. In addition, the strength of some other arms units such as armoured regiments is often less than for infantry battalions. Therefore more than one other unit would be necessary to replace an infantry battalion.

The 1st Armoured Division based in Germany is a vital part of the Rapid Reaction Corps. It has six armoured infantry battalions which are available for inclusion in the Northern Ireland roulement. I understand that longer warning times are considered by the Government to make that possible. However, there are arguments against that. It is called a Rapid Reaction Corps, which is clearly a misnomer if the troops are not available. I understand that the Supreme Allied Commander Europe does not like what I might call the misuse of troops under his command, nor, I understand, do the Germans, who see it as a lack of commitment on our part.

Each armoured infantry battalion in an armoured corps will be expected to do two six-month emergency tours during its six years in Germany. The battalion will require to reorganise and retrain for this new job. Provision will have to be made for its equipment; block leave will have to be allowed for and a considerable number of key individuals will have to attend specialist courses. On return from Northern Ireland further reorganisation will have to take place; equipment will have to be brought up to standard and, again, block leave will be required. All in all, a battalion may well be out of the order of battle for about a year. In effect, two of the six battalions will be out of the order of battle at any one time. That means that the armoured division cannot train as a whole and it also makes brigade training seriously difficult.

With the setting up of the Western European force the battalions of the armoured division become triple-hatted; that is, NATO, United Kingdom national, and the Western European Union. That will be a nightmare for planning staffs as well as for the officers and men. People will become disenchanted and leave, thus exacerbating an already difficult situation.

I could go on, but the evening is drawing on and your Lordships will want to get home. There is, however, one particular question to which I hope my noble friend will be able to give the House a satisfactory answer. It is similar to one which I asked him some months ago. If the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps is called out in full for its primary duty and at the same time we need to reinforce Northern Ireland, or the Falklands, or Belize—bearing in mind that at a time when our troops are being deployed in one place and we have a problem elsewhere any enemy of the nation, tactically, would find that a suitable time to cause trouble for us—where would the necessary additional reinforcements be found for Northern Ireland, the Falklands or Belize?

10.33 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, at this late hour I do not wish to make a long speech; indeed, I never do. But I feel I must support my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury in his Unstarred Question on the case for the infantry, which he put in such clear and brilliant detail; as did the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, my noble friend Lord Glenarthur and other noble friends.

Last week the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, quoted Shakespeare. I quote Bernard Shaw, who said, the British soldier can stand up to anything except the British War Office". In this case perhaps for "War Office" one should read "British Treasury". Every television news bulletin one watches, every newspaper one reads, every speech one has heard all confirm that the break-up of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet empire has left a world far more unpredictable and far more dangerous than anything since 1914.

We still have, just, 55 infantry battalions and they are finding difficulty in producing manpower to deal with their known commitments. We still have a military presence in Germany, Cyprus, Belize, the Falklands, Hong Kong, Brunei and, indeed, in Britain. The situation in Ulster has recently deteriorated so sharply that more reinforcements have had to be flown in. If the cuts are implemented in this shortsighted way and we have the infantry reduced to 38 battalions there simply will not be enough men to go round.

All of the men in the Army I have spoken to in the past six months are uneasy and unhappy about the Options for Change scenario. This uncertainty and unhappiness can do nothing but harm to the quality of our Army. This is not simply a financial book exercise; we are dealing with people. We have the best Army in the world, of highly trained, committed, dedicated people. Do not let us destroy that lightly, nor from pig-headed obstinacy, so that when we need it, it is no longer there.

I started by quoting Shaw. I should like to conclude by quoting Kipling: Oh, it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' `Tommy, go away'; But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins,' when the band begins to play".

10.35 p.m.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for asking this Question tonight. In his answer to a previous Unstarred Question on 14th November 1991, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, said that the Government, have carried out a comprehensive review of our commitments in the light of enormous changes in the European security situation".—[Official Report, 14/11/91; col. 697.] The programme to restructure Britain's Armed Forces known as Options for Change was based on whatever that review may have consisted of at the time it was carried out. Options for Change was published in July last year. Since then various things have happened. First, the former Soviet Union has broken up, the economy of its component parts is very shaky indeed and people who, under communism, were merely hungry are now, under democracy, facing starvation and looking sadly back to the good old days of communism. Many members of its vast army are probably facing redundancy, with no prospect of jobs or housing. They are not happy either, and an unhappy army with nothing to do, facing unemployment and combined with a starving populace is a very dangerous combination. At any moment democracy could give way to a military dictatorship with the repression and aggression which usually accompany military dictatorship. Only last Wednesday, in the debate on the implications of change in the former Soviet Union, several noble Lords—in particular the noble Lords, Lord Colnbrook and Lord BoydCarpenter—warned the Government against lowering their guard in any way in such a volatile situation.

Secondly, recent events have led to a considerable increase in the number of battalions committed to Northern Ireland. My noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall and the noble Lords, Lord Glenarthur and Lord Swinfen, have already spoken about this situation. I can only support all that they have said.

Thirdly, there is the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular, where we and the United Nations seem to have unfinished business, particularly as regards locating and destroying biological weapons installations. If we should be called upon to help finish that unfinished business, or if any other emergency whatever should crop up, how should we be able to respond? Would it not therefore be wise to postpone the proposed restructuring and think again, in the light of these developments alone as well as others which my noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall and others have mentioned?

10.38 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, there was much in the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, with which my noble friends and I would warmly agree —in particular, his powerful criticism of the handling of the merger of the Staffords by the Army Board, which was underlined with emotion by the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls. There was the lack of consultation, the lack of opportunity to state their case and the lack of explanation by the Army Board as to why it felt the merger was necessary. It is a matter of concern. We shall listen to the Minister's defence with great attention.

We would also agree with the idea that there should be a comprehensive defence review. The idea was echoed by other speakers, and has often been put forward from these Benches. One of the great shortcomings of Options for Change was that there was no such general, strategic review. As the Defence Committee in the other place put it: Anyone buying the White Paper in order to discover the rationale for the changes proposed would be sorely disappointed". However, the noble Earl is on more debatable ground, as indeed are other speakers, with the apparent suggestion that such a review would show that the overall reductions called for in Options for Change are excessive and, still further (as was put forward in a paper circulated by the noble Earl) that the reductions should be suspended while the comprehensive review was carried out. My noble friends and I could not agree with either of those propositions.

Of course, Options for Change is now out of date. But it is not necessarily out of date in a way which supports the case of the noble Earl or that of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and others. I listened with interest to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun of Abernethy. She said that since Options for Change the Soviet Union has broken up, starvation is spreading and the people are wretched and divided. But, so far as concerns defence planning, that is surely no reason for more troops; on the contrary, it means that more reductions can be made with safety. That is self-evident.

Let us suppose that today we did have such a comprehensive defence review. We can try to imagine some of the conclusions it might reach. Many of the conclusions would support the noble Earl's case and that of the noble and gallant Lord. Of course, the increased commitment to Northern Ireland is very important, as is the increased commitment to United Nations peacekeeping. The review would almost certainly say that this new development in world affairs is something to be greatly encouraged and something in which the British Armed Forces are peculiarly well qualified to participate.

The review would also draw attention to the increased instability in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe since Options for Change. As in Yugoslavia, an armed peacekeeping role may be required from the United Nations, NATO or the European Community to which British forces should make a proper contribution. Moreover, in the light of the speech made yesterday by Mr. Quayle, the American vice-president, the review might also point out that American commitment to Europe may be weakening, thus placing increased responsibility on the European members of NATO. In addition, it might argue that, although the unilateral overseas commitments of Britain are anachronistic and although the Foreign Office ought to be doing much more that it is at present about sharing them, or negotiating them away, that process cannot be completed overnight and, therefore, in the meantime those commitments remain.

All those factors are true. They all powerfully support the noble Earl's case and that of the noble and gallant Lord and other speakers. Yet they overlook the dominant factor in defence planning today—that is, the factor that would entirely dominate such a comprehensive defence review. I refer to the disappearance for the foreseeable future of the threat of conventional attack by the Soviet Union. It is one thing to say that events in the Soviet Union are unpredictable. Of course they are, and everyone knows that. But it is quite a different matter to say that Russia might become willing and able to launch a conventional attack on the West and that our current defence policy should make provision for it. That is a totally different concept. Those who support the idea must first argue that first Russia must make peace with Ukraine and the other republics, crush the democratic movement in its own country, tear up its treaty commitments with the West, dispense with western aid, master its fundamental and crippling economic weaknesses, reunify its demoralised armed forces, reoccupy the Baltic states, Poland and Czechoslovakia and then it can make a conventional attack on western countries. That was the strategic reasoning behind Britain's defence policy for more than 40 years and the rationale for the present level of defence forces. It is no longer a scenario that is in any way credible and we have to readjust our thinking and feeling towards it.

Reasonably enough, Options for Change was based on the assumption that the Soviet conventional threat had diminished. Today it has disappeared; there is no Soviet threat and no Soviet Union. That has happened since Options for Change. In terms of defence resources and planning, that is a factor of vastly greater significance than even the increased security requirements of Northern Ireland and the other requirements instanced today. It is right that in response to entirely understandable and honourable local pressures we should tonight be discussing the subtraction of two or three battalions from our infantry strength, but a realistic defence review today would have to ask and answer questions of a far more radical kind. What is now a realistic provision in infantry, ships and aircraft for home defence? Against what potential enemy are we defending ourselves? Given that there is no threat of all-out conventional war in Europe, does the Rapid Reaction Corps really need 100,000 men? If Britain's contribution cannot be decreased, why can our troups not be made available for other commitments?

Because all-out conventional war in Europe is now unthinkable a defence review would ask frankly whether we still need to maintain a very large fleet for the protection of American reinforcements crossing the Atlantic. Further, now that the Soviet Union controls only a tiny segment of the Baltic coast, is it reasonable to maintain our amphibious capability for landing in Norway? Those are some of the questions Ministers ought to be considering and which a proper defence review would ask and try to answer. It will be hard enough for Ministers to answer them and even harder for opposition parties to do so. I myself shrink from giving specific answers to those questions this evening.

One conclusion of which I feel confident is that while Options for Change may have borne too heavily on the infantry as against the other defence services, to meet today's circumstances the overall reductions that that review proposed were too limited rather than too far-reaching.

10.50 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, for raising this subject. We have, if I may say so, debated it on one or two occasions, but there is no harm in debating it again.

It is ironic, and I speak from the Dispatch Box, that the Conservative Party seems to accuse the Labour Party of being soft on defence, and yet in this evening's debate we have had nothing but criticism from members of the Conservative Party. I hope that the Minister will take on board that criticism and stop his right honourable friend the Secretary of State from attacking us on defence when we are probably rather more secure than he is at the moment, judging from the reaction of his own party.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, rightly said that we should have a complete defence review. I agree with him. The problem is that the Options for Change process has fallen apart. I want to quote from an article which was based on a presentation to the institute by Mr. Richard Mottram, the Deputy Under-Secretary of State (Policy), Ministry of Defence. He talks about the Options for Change process and states: It has been conducted in two main phases. The first was an analysis by Ministers and a small number of their advisers of changes in the strategic environment and their possible implications for the size and shape of Britain's Armed Forces by the mid- I 990s, culminating in the Defence Secretary's announcement to Parliament on 25 July 1990. Further work"— the Secretary of State having said what he intended to do— was then put in train on Alliance strategy, concepts and force structures and Britain's place within them. In national terms, this focused on detailed implementation and the implications"— I stress these words— of matching the programme to the budget agreed in the 1990 Public Expenditure Survey". Mr. Mottram then went on to say in a letter in the correspondence columns of the same journal: The circle of those involved in the whole exercise, in both the central and single-Service staffs, was tightly drawn to enable a range of options to be looked at, and often discarded, on a confidential basis. This was intended to help avoid the selective leaks to the media of the kind which can damage Service morale and indeed the reputation of the Services". That seems, according to a published article—I am advised that I am allowed to quote that published article and letter —to be the basis for Options for Change. That does not seem to be quite good enough.The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, has told us in explicit terms how the figure arrived at to meet, the budget agreed in the 1990 Public Expenditure Survey", is unsatisfactory in terms of the infantry's operational commitments. I am not an expert on the infantry. The noble and gallant Lord is an expert on the infantry. He should be properly heard and properly answered by the Minister.

We have a problem in Northern Ireland of which perhaps that small number of people who were responsible for the Options for Change programme were unaware. We have had since then a number of wide-ranging changes, as the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, in the international situation. Perhaps the little circle that decided what the future of our armed forces should be were not aware of that either. I do not know what any future defence review will contain. However, I agree with the noble Lord that the questions which must be asked are perhaps quite different from those that were asked when that small circle of people got around some table or other and decided what Options for Change really meant.

It is not my task this evening to comment on which regiment should be amalgamated with which other regiment. Noble Lords opposite have waxed eloquent on the subject and I understand it because they have strong loyalties. It is true that regimental loyalties are very strong.

I wonder whether the Government will now pay attention to what a former Chief of Defence Staff, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said. Are they satisfied that the figure for the infantry that they have promulgated is adequate to meet the commitments that they foresee? For me, and for us, that is the basic question. If they are satisfied then they must explain why, how and in what degree they are satisfied. If they are not satisfied then I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, is right: they should re-think the whole matter from start to finish, ask themselves new questions, stop and look again. That is why the House is grateful to the noble Earl for asking the Question he asked this evening.

10.56 p.m.

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

My Lords, this evening your Lordships have spoken about the nature and scale of Britain's current defence commitments and have speculated about the nature of the unforeseen that Britain may be called upon to face in the future.

NATO collectively recognised the need to respond to the radical changes taking place in the former Soviet Union and in central and eastern Europe. NATO was determined to maintain its objectives of deterrence and strong defence which have served us so well over the past 40 years but, like the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, saw the future means of achieving this at lower force levels and with more mobile and flexible forces. It was not coincidental that the British Army was chosen to lead the most flexible of the forces—the ACE (Allied Command Europe) Rapid Reaction Corps—and we pay tribute to the professionalism and dedication of our service men and women, and to the civilians who support them, that made Britain's Army the natural choice for this role.

I should like to dwell on the subject of flexibility because I think it is fundamental to this debate. Restructuring the Army presented us with an opportunity to design a smaller, more flexible and relatively more capable Army, better able to respond to the changing risk to our security in an uncertain world and one which could be properly manned in the face of increasing demographic pressures. In particular, the difficulties of manning a larger Army should not be understated and I think it is a telling fact that the existing 55 infantry battalions are effectively reduced by undermanning to the equivalent of only 51, and we are only just entering the demographic trough now. In addition, we took care to ensure that in designing future force structures we were able to meet both existing commitments and a full range of contingencies.

Once again, I wish to reassure the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, my noble friend Lord Glenarthur and other noble friends who criticised the Government and said that this whole exercise had been resource-driven. Options was not driven by resource considerations but by the changed security situation in Europe and the emergence of a less specific and less immediate threat.

Britain's contribution to the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps will consist of 1(UK) Armoured Division made up of three square brigades, each of two armoured regiments, two armoured infantry battalions and a full range of supporting arms. The UK, based division, 3(UK) Division, will include two mechanised brigades and 5 Airborne Brigade. The UK will also be providing 24 Airmobile Brigade to a multinational division of the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps and this will include two airmobile infantry battalions and two aviation regiments together with supporting arms.

While Britain's contribution to the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps formed one of the main design determinants in restructuring the Army, it was of course also necessary to examine carefully the requirements of our national interests and peacetime operational tasks such as a need to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland. Our non-NATO commitments remained unaffected by the changes in Europe. Our planning, therefore, had to accommodate our present day commitments in Cyprus, Hong Kong, Belize, Brunei, the Falkland Islands and Northern Ireland as well as ensuring that we are well prepared to provide a short-term enhancement to an existing commitment or a response to the unexpected. This could be out of area or closer to home, alone or in concert with our NATO and European allies. The force structure we decided upon had to be able to respond to these many challenges, some of which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, mentioned this evening.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury has tonight referred specifically to a possible requirement for further infantry battalions. Other noble Lords have also mentioned that. I would like to emphasise at this point that in planning an Army for the future it was necessary to provide a balanced structure. Of course one must take into consideration the requirement for front line units, but these elements cannot be considered in isolation—logistic support, communications and engineer support to name but a few are all vitally important. Whether in a peacekeeping situation or an out-of-area conflict such as the Gulf, the need for a balanced structure remains of paramount importance. This was clearly demonstrated in the Gulf where the front line was critically dependent upon the quality of logistic and other support. Furthermore, many of the so-called support services serve alongside or are fully integrated with the combat arms.

Let me turn now to our ability to maintain our peacetime commitments. It is of course the case that in 1997 our commitment to garrison Hong Kong will cease. Of the remainder, the Falkland Islands, Belize and Northern Ireland are covered by what is known as the emergency tour plot which involves units, mainly infantry, spending up to six months in these locations. Because personnel have to serve on an unaccompanied basis, it is intended that there should be at least 24 months in between each such deployment. In the past few years we have not been able to achieve this objective and this has been one of the main causes of the overstretch that has been referred to by many noble Lords tonight. Such turbulence is not good for the Army as a whole and places enormous pressure on troops and their families. However, it is the intention that this will not be the case in the future, and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why.

Regular infantry commitments in Germany will be reduced by a total of 10 battalions: three from Berlin and seven from the British Army of the Rhine. The diminished land threat and increased warning time will allow five regular battalions previously committed to direct defence of the United Kingdom 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 reduce 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. Increased warning time also permits greater flexibility over the use of the Army in peacetime. It will be possible in future to make greater use of units based in Germany to undertake emergency tours in Northern Ireland and elsewhere than it was when we were faced with the threat of a surprise Soviet attack. This, together with the increased availability of the three Royal Marine Commandos, means that there will be rather more battalion size units available to undertake emergency tours than is the case today.

Units of other arms will also be better placed to take on a share of these tours, thereby reducing the burden on the infantry. Furthermore, because units will be fully manned, it should be possible to avoid the irksome business of one battalion having to borrow men from another to reach the minimum manning strength recommended for a particular tour. Your Lordships may be interested to know that the current indications are that the 1993–1994 emergency plot will allow a minimum 24-month tour interval for most battalions. This is a considerable improvement on what we have been achieving of late.

My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury referred to the likelihood of a UN peacekeeping force for Yugoslavia and Britain's contribution to that force. As the UN took note on 8th February in Security Resolution 740, there is no immediate prospect of a full UN peacekeeping force in Yugoslavia because, unfortunately, the conditions are not yet right. Such a deployment requires the agreement to the peacekeeping plan of all the relevant Yugoslav parties, which is currently not forthcoming. Nonetheless, Her Majesty's Government have naturally been considering the options for UK participation. It is too early to speculate on what form that might take, a point which I hope my noble friend Lord Swinfen will take on board.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls, referred this evening to the Staffordshire Regiment. The regiment and its predecessors have a fine and distinguished history, most recently serving in the Gulf but also in two world wars and in the Peninsular and Crimean Wars. We pay tribute to the regiment's achievements and at the same time to the achievements of all the other regiments which, under the regimental system, form the British Army.

It is, of course, the case that the Staffordshire Regiment is due to merge with the Cheshire Regiment in mid-1993. In deciding which regiments and battalions should disband or amalgamate the Army Board took account of a number of factors. Those included past, present and future manning considerations, previous amalgamations, the geographical representation of arms throughout the county and also views expressed by the arms directors, regimental colonels, and others, during the consultation process. No single factor took precedence. The proposals put to Ministers reflected the professional judgment of the most senior officers in the Army. I have every sympathy with those units which were selected for disbandment or amalgamation, but I do have to say that the time for brooding has now passed. Furthermore, I should like to add that it is not particularly helpful to the Army as a whole—and certainly not to those units most affected—to have the uncertainty that prolonged discussion of such matters inevitably creates when my colleagues and I, both here and in another place, have repeatedly made clear that this Government see no grounds for altering the decisions that have been made in relation to both the future size of the Army and the units it will comprise.

The Earl of Shrewsbury

My Lords, perhaps my noble friend will give way for a moment. The Staffordshire Regiment was given an assurance that it would not be amalgamated again in the foreseeable future because it had already been amalgamated in 1959.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, to answer my noble friend, I have already indicated the factors which were taken into consideration at the time. It is not in anyone's interest to provide specific details. All levels of consultation were conducted in confidence. It is sufficient that the decisions taken by the Army Board had the full support of all of its members, who included the most senior members of the Army.

I have heard it mentioned that the Staffordshire Regiment is over-recruited. I can assure your Lordships that that is not the case and that before recruit-capping was instituted the Staffordshire Regiment suffered a considerable degree of under-manning. I have also heard it said this evening that the amalgamation of the Staffordshire and Cheshire Regiments would be anathema given the different recruiting grounds of the two. I find that argument hard to accept since one need only look at the examples of the Brigade of Guards or the Light Infantry, which recruit from places as far flung and diverse as Cornwall and Somerset, Yorkshire and Durham.

Both my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, quite rightly mentioned housing and resettlement. We are currently carrying out a thorough and considerable review of measures to help those leaving the services to make the transition into civilian life. Those measures will include assistance with finding alternative employment and short-term housing. The review is almost complete and we expect to be in a position to make announcements in the near future.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I did not say a word about housing and resettlement on this occasion.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I apologise if the noble Lady did not do so on this occasion, but she implied that she did so on another occasions. I am trying to be helpful.

My noble friend Lord Glenarthur referred to the Royal Armoured Corps. The Royal Armoured Corps currently undertakes emergency tour commitments of regiment size, or less, in the sovereign base area in Cyprus—UNFICYP—Belize and Northern Ireland. Consideration is being given to the scope to increase the Royal Armoured Corps' role in the emergency tour plot, but no decisions have been taken. My noble friend will agree that it would be hypothetical to speculate on the outcome of that consideration.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point, I made the point that the corps is already overstretched. If my noble friend is now saying that the emergency tour plot role of the Royal Armoured Corps is to be increased in addition to what is proposed in terms of providing an opposition force for Suffield, all that will be achieved is that the corps will be further overstretched. That is precisely the point that I made earlier.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the point that my noble friend makes will have to be taken into consideration when deciding the final outcome of the Royal Armoured Corps and its commitments.

My noble friend Lord Fanshawe expressed anxiety about the prospects for career structures in those areas that are most affected by the restructuring. I can assure him that the reductions in manpower are being made in such a way as to protect so far as possible the careers of soldiers and officers in those units affected by amalgamations.

I can say that the Government are firmly committed to ensuring that the new smaller Army will be the flexible and more mobile force that we shall need to provide Britain's defence for the 1990s and beyond. While no government could ever rule out completely the possibility of changes in permanent commitments such that the size of their forces needed to be revised, there exists no grounds at the moment that would cause us to reconsider our present plans for Britain's Army for the 1990s.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, will he clarify the answer that he gave to his noble friend Lord Shrewsbury? What exactly were the assurances given to the Staffordshire Regiment in 1959? In what respect, if any, have they been broken?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I made it quite clear to your Lordships' House, and I make it clear again to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that it serves no purpose or point in going into further considerations and details about the decisions and how they were made. Suffice it to say that I think it would be invidious to select one regiment against any other on this particular point.

House adjourned at twelve minutes past eleven o'clock.