HL Deb 03 February 1993 vol 542 cc264-75

5.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place this afternoon by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, I should like to make a Statement about Army manpower.

"My right honourable friend the Member for Bridgwater set out our plans for Britain's Army for the 1990s in June and July 1991. These 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. This 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 clear that we would 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 would 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 the Army is required to meet at the same time that 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 honourable Members have understandably expressed concern. As planning for the ARRC and other elements of the force structure has been taken forward a number of requirements for additional manpower have also been identified.

"Against this 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 honourable 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 some 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 this additional manpower I have been influenced by two considerations. The first consideration 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. This 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. This 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 identified as necessary should be provided. I have consulted the Chief of the General Staff and my other colleagues on the Army Board of the Defence Council. After considering all of 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 this 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 this 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 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. This 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 these 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 it needs to meet the challenges of the 1990s and beyond".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. The House will also rejoice—and there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, even though it is a half repentance, than the 99 who have been debating the matter over the past few months, trying to persuade the Government that the forces are inadequate. I take it that it is the first review of Options for Change. Indeed the language of the Statement indicates that. Perhaps there will be a second, third, fourth and fifth review as we progress and have more debates in your Lordships' House. There will be rejoicing in Cheshire, Staffordshire and Scotland over the regimental announcements.

Do not these announcements indicate that Options for Change was a fiasco? Do they not show that the policy was Treasury driven and not driven by the defence needs of the country? Does not the Statement highlight the need to have a full, comprehensive review of defence strategy and the personnel levels required by our Armed Forces? It is no good tinkering with structures and numbers of men and equipment if one does not have a clear idea of strategic needs. Should not the Government now further apologise to those service personnel who were forced to take redundancy when they left the Armed Forces because they felt that there was no future in the Armed Forces as a result of Options for Change?

Will the noble Viscount, furthermore, expand on how the announced increase in service personnel is to be achieved? Can he confirm that it will be facilitated through new recruitment or by retention of personnel who have already been notified of redundancies? Will he also assure the House that the adjustments will be reflected in the Armed Forces equipment budgets? It is no good having men if they are not properly equipped.

Finally, can the noble Viscount say from where the £80 million per year—which I understand to be the cost of this change—will come? Will it come from the MOD budget? In that case, what other areas will the MOD cut in order to find the £80 million? I should be grateful if the noble Viscount, in accepting my general welcome for the Statement, could respond to the questions that I have put.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I think that my noble friends would wish me to offer moderate congratulations to the Secretary of State for his Statement but unqualified congratulations to the Defence Committee in the other place. On several occasions it pointed out the inadequacy of Options for Change: that there was no strategic thinking behind it; that it simply laid down across-the-board cuts for the services, with the Army suffering the worst.

I understand that on Tuesday the Defence Committee will report again. It will recommend increases in the Army beyond those now announced by the Government. So by happy chance the Secretary of State will have blunted its criticism by his Statement today.

I should like to ask particularly about the financial consequences. I saw that the noble Viscount nodded when the noble Lord, Lord Williams, mentioned the £80 million. However, the Statement also says that it will come within the stated financial provision for the forces of last year. Therefore, cuts of £80 million are to be expected. When shall we be told about these? Where will the cuts fall?

I think that my noble friends would be happy to see those cuts, if they have to be made, falling on the Government's plans to increase expenditure on our nuclear strategic and sub-strategic weapons. Options for Change failed to foresee —so the Government now say—the increase in our United Nations commitments. But Options for Change also underrated the decline of the Soviet threat. It stated that the Soviet threat had diminished, whereas now the Soviet Union has disappeared and with it the Soviet threat of conventional attack on the West.

To spend money now to increase our strategic deterrence power so that it can penetrate the anti-ballistic missile defences of Moscow is preposterous—let alone the idea of an entirely new nuclear weapons system, the air-to-surface missile system. I think my noble friends would probably agree that, if cuts have to be made, the Government should look at this again. Once more, it comes from a failure of prediction by Options for Change and reinforces what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said: that it was a fiasco.

It results from the failure of the Government to have a proper defence review. All these points underline the need for one. They underline the point often made from these Benches that we need effective forward defence planning which will fit our resources to our inevitable commitments.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome, however qualified, from both the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Mayhew. If I may pursue the biblical tone of phrase adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I repudiate the implication that the Government see themselves as a sinner who repented. Rather they were like the wise virgin; they kept open the possibility of reviewing their defence posture in the light of changing circumstances.

I have to say to both noble Lords what my right honourable friend said during the course of his Statement in another place: the main thrust of Options for Change is still there. We are talking about a relatively minor adjustment both in terms of overall operational capability and in budgetary terms.

Both noble Lords were quite correct in saying that the overall cost of what my right honourable friend announced today would be in the region of £80 million per annum. That constitutes a fraction of 1 per cent. of even the overall reduced defence budget that we are contemplating during the current long-term costing review.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, and, by implication, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked from where that £80 million per annum would come. Like the rest of the defence budget, the precise balance of expenditure is, as usual—as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, knows perfectly well—under review at this time of year. All will be revealed when we publish our Statement on the Defence Estimates. Therefore, I hope that both noble Lords will restrain themselves and their impatience until the time when, as is usual, we reveal these important matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, made what I am sure your Lordships will feel is a regular plea for greater consideration of his singular views on the nuclear deterrent. I have nothing to add to what I have told him before in this respect. We are well aware that a nuclear threat still exists, that we need a nuclear deterrent and that that deterrent is a minimal one. There is no read-across, as he implies, between what my right honourable friend announced today and the overall requirement for a nuclear deterrent.

A number of other questions were raised by both noble Lords. All four battalions will remain. They will be type B battalions, which are not armed with Warrior. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, with his military experience, will know what that means.

The effect on the redundancy programme is pretty well non-existent. We do not anticipate that people who will be called upon to volunteer—indeed many of whom have already volunteered—for the second tranche of redundancy will be affected. There may be some marginal effect on the third tranche.

The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, drew attention to a report that we all anticipate reading from the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence which is due to appear next week. I can tell him, because I was there myself, that Ministers in the Ministry of Defence first began to reassess the need for marginal additional manpower, not in anticipation of the House of Commons Defence Committee's Report, but well before the new Defence Committee was even established. As my right honourable friend said in his Statement, this was a subject to which the new defence team began to address itself some months ago. I can assure the noble Lord that that was so, because I was part of the process from the very beginning.

6 p.m.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, I too welcome most warmly the Statement of the noble Viscount, in as much as it at last gives proper recognition to the fact that for some time the Army has been grossly overstretched even for its ongoing and everyday commitments. Bearing in mind the glaring shortcomings to which he alluded of all peacetime establishments, particularly but not exclusively in the infantry, perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he is confident that the Army's authorised manpower ceiling of 119,000 under Options for Change has been raised sufficiently to support and maintain the extra battalions. If not—personally I would have hoped for double that figure, the extra 2,000 being much more problematical—we will have extra cap badges but all the units will still be inadequately manned for the job they have to do. The strain and stretch on the individual soldier will remain much as before.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, as my right honourable friend and I have been saying for many months, we keep the situation constantly under review. Our assessment at the moment is that the key measure of the emergency tour plot that the noble and gallant Lord has consistently referred to during the course of interventions in this House will be enormously relieved by the postponement of the two amalgamations to which I have referred and the additional manpower that we are confident we can find from other sources, particularly the support area. We believe that, during the course of, and after, the draw-down, which he knows is much the most difficult part for the emergency tour plot, if commitments remain at their present level we shall be able to fulfil that obligation. If, on the other hand, commitments continue to increase, we are perfectly willing to look at the situation again. For the moment we are content.

Lord Colnbrook

My Lords, I believe that the whole House will welcome the Statement by my noble friend as an indication that the Government have at last recognised what pretty well everybody else has known for at least a year—namely, that we do not have enough infantry. His statement that there is to be a marginal increase in the number of infantry must be well received. But I did hear him say—and he confirmed it in answers to questions from the other side of the House —that the funding for this would come from within the budget. Can he tell me whether there is any truth in what is written in the Daily Telegraph today—that the money will he found by taking from the Air Force a squadron of Tornados and by depriving the Royal Navy of its new helicopter carrier—a vessel which he knows better than I do the Royal Navy regards as central to its revitalised amphibious capability?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sorry that I may not be able to give an answer that my noble friend will find entirely satisfactory. I cannot comment on press speculation in advance of the Statement on the defence estimates. Sadly, I must ask my noble friend to contain his impatience, just as I asked noble Lords opposite to do. I emphasise that whatever the FPMG may recommend to Ministers it is no more than a recommendation and Ministers will decide. That is no reflection on the accuracy or otherwise of the report in today's Daily Telegraph.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I welcome the Statement but I am sure that the Secretary of State for Defence in the other place and the Minister himself has made it with tongue in cheek, bearing in mind the words in the foreword of the last defence White Paper, in which the Secretary of State said: The major restructuring of the armed forces which is now underway will match them to our changing defence needs to enable them to face the future with confidence". Unfortunately for Her Majesty's Government the amalgamations and severe cutbacks coincide with a greater global demand being made on our forces. The lowering of morale through loss of individual regimental status, plus the obvious chronic overstretch, have placed the Government in an embarrassing position politically both at home and internationally. It is the numerous pressures not only from members of the Armed Forces and the chiefs of staff but also from abroad that have brought about this U-turn.

I should like to ask the Minister two questions. First, perhaps I may ask him about the volunteer reserves and press him further on what he has said —that is, will any proposed run-down now be halted and a similar increase in their strength to that of the Army be announced? What can he say today to give them some similar satisfaction? Secondly, does he visualise any strengthening of the Royal Air Force and the Navy in the light of the increased calls being made on the United Kingdom through United Nations operations?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising these points. I must refute any imputation that I ever address your Lordships' House with tongue in cheek. The reverence with which I regard your Lordships precludes any such possibility. However, I must tell the noble Lord that, if he regards what my right honourable friend has announced today as a U-turn, perhaps he grossly over-estimates what has happened. What we have done is consistently to say that if we see a need for increased manpower, particularly infantry, we will reassess the situation and not hesitate to increase manpower. I believe that is an example of our consistent approach to this difficult problem.

So far as the volunteer reserves are concerned, the noble Lord knows that we are extremely sensible of the importance of the role that those reserves will play in the future order of battle under the Options for Change arrangements. The basis of Options for Change and the role that we have in mind for the reserves has not changed. I hope that he will be reassured at least so far as that is concerned.

As regards the strengthening or otherwise of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, this Statement addresses itself purely to manpower. If there is any change to the strength of those other two services, your Lordships will be the first to know. At the moment none is contemplated.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I welcome the Statement so far as it goes. It is a move in the direction foreseen as necessary in the debate in your Lordships' House which I initiated in November 1991. Referring to the comment by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I am sure my noble friend will be aware that, although there will be satisfaction in southern Scotland, there will not be much satisfaction in northern Scotland.

When the Government find that more infantry will be needed in the kind of world in which we find ourselves today, will they take fully into account recent rates of recruitment and retention, especially the retention of warrant officers and NCOs? That is important in providing trained and experienced forces.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend and I would be the first to agree with him that the warrant officers and the NCOs of the Army are its backbone: without them the British Army would certainly not be what it is, or nearly as effective as it is. I hope that they will continue to be the backbone.

I have to say to my noble friend that the criteria which were used in choosing which battalions were to be saved from amalgamation were precisely those which were used in coming to the judgment which my right honourable friend the Member for Bridgwater came to during the Options for Change exercise. For the very same reasons that we did not expand then on what those criteria were, I should be reluctant to expand on them today.

The Lord Bishop of Chester

My Lords, I am tempted to intervene, as a Bishop of course, in the biblical debate which has been started and perhaps to quote the words, if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves. However, that is not the point of my intervention. I rise as Bishop for Chester to ask the Minister whether he is aware what pleasure the people of Cheshire will take in the Statement on two counts. First, there is their pride in the Cheshire Regiment. I think that there will be pride not only in Cheshire but in England in their marvellous performance in the former Yugoslavia and in the way they have carried out their mercy missions. They have been brilliantly led. Also the families involved will be proud: they have felt the enormous strain of the very considerable number of duties which the regiment has had to undertake.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate for what he has said. Nobody could be more delighted than I to be given another opportunity to pay tribute to the remarkable job that the Cheshire Regiment has done in Bosnia. Everything we read in the press is true as far as it goes, but the whole truth is better still. I am very sensible of the pleasure that this will give in Cheshire and in the recruiting areas for the other three battalions as well. I am extremely grateful to the right reverend Prelate for what he has said, as well as for adding to the biblical nature of our discussions.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I welcome the inevitable announcement that has been made today. I hope that, following the remarks that have been made opposite, we shall not in a few months' time hear another inevitable announcement that a squadron in the RAF has been withdrawn from the front line.

In the overall reassessment that has been made of this—I presume it is too much to call it a review—has a particular investigation taken place of the number of troops in Northern Ireland? The number of soldiers in Northern Ireland matters. Without them we could not manage; but it is not numbers alone that are important and, given the increase in the RUC and what was the UDR, has a reassessment been made? Meetings took place with the Irish Government today. The Irish Government never allow co-operation between the Irish Army and the British Army on the borders. If that were to take place it would effectively reduce the need for the number of British soldiers who operate on the borders dealing with the movement of explosives. Today, as I said, there has been a meeting. I hope the opportunity was taken to raise the matter again.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the whole House knows the very considerable experience the noble Lord has both of the Province and of the RAF. So far as concerns the Army in Northern Ireland, I can assure him that the matter is kept under continuous review. He will be as well aware as I am of the fact that two additional roulement battalions are even now in Northern Ireland and that their period of service there has been extended.

As regards the talks with the Irish Government, I have not yet had the opportunity of hearing any reports of how the first day's discussions went, and I do not think the noble Lord would expect me to comment beyond saying that I hear what he says about co-operation between the British Army and the Irish Army on the frontier. I am grateful for what the noble Lord has said and for his welcome of the Statement. I can only repeat what I said a moment ago to his noble friend about the strengths of the RAF and the Royal Navy and reaffirm that if there were to be any change your Lordships would be the first to know.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the £80 million that has to be found will in no way prejudice a decision on the dual site options of the Royal dockyards?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am very happy to give my noble friend that assurance.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, £80 million may be only a small proportion of the whole of the defence budget but it is still not an insignificant sum. Are we to deduce from this Statement that Her Majesty's Government now acknowledge that there is no scope for engaging our forces in further commitments without additional resources being made available to defence?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord knows far better than I do the importance of matching commitments to resources. That balance, as he already knows full well, is one which Her Majesty's Government keep under constant review. If that balance were to fall out of kilter, as I have already said this afternoon in your Lordships' House, defence Ministers would have no hesitation in re-examining the present balance.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, I greatly welcome the news that two battalions have been saved but I hope the noble Viscount will realise that many of us think that Options for Change is really a very bad plan. We find that the essential thing about the Army is the regimental system. I marched with the British Army, with the Infantry, for 30 years and I cannot see how we can go on with the RAF Regiment. We all admire the RAF and we all know what Bomber Command did and what Fighter Command did. However, we now have three battalions of the RAF Regiment, which was founded to guard aerodromes, and really they are replacing military battalions.

Secondly, how can we go on with the Gurkhas? I had the Gurkhas with me in the 4th Armoured Brigade when they were part of the 8th Indian Division. I admire the Gurkhas enormously. Let us go on training them and keep in contact with them; but to have two Gurkha battalions on the strength of the British Army is surely very wrong. They cannot possibly fight in Northern Ireland. They cannot go to Bosnia: at least I do not think they can.

Finally, do we really want to have three naval commandos? Why can we not have just one and save some more regiments? The marine training system is terribly over-heavy and I would ask the noble Viscount to look at it again.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, my noble friend has often regaled me in private with accounts of his considerable military experience. Therefore I feel it would be very far from sensible of me to engage in public debate with him on this subject. However, I can reassure him that, just as he is committed to the regimental system forming the basis of the British Army, so are Her Majesty's Government. Just as he would be extremely sorry to see this important system, which is fundamental in achieving the superior performance of British soldiers, disappear, so would Her Majesty's Government.

I have to say to my noble friend that, so far as the Gurkhas and the Commandos are concerned, they form part of the overall exercise of judgment which is still in place, much as he may regret it. That balance, in the judgment of Her Majesty's Government, still remains the right one for the foreseeable future. I can only repeat, as I am beginning to find myself repeating this afternoon ad nauseam, that, if we feel there is a need for change in the light of changed circumstances rather than in the light of circumstances as we see them today, we shall not hesitate to look at the position again.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that, in spite of his welcome announcement this afternoon, the forces will still be over-stretched, bearing in mind their commitments both at home and abroad? Can he not take more seriously the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, about a proper and necessary review of our nuclear armament? Also, would it not be as well, if we do review that, to see whether we could do with fewer than four Trident submarines and—how many is it?—900 missiles?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sorry if I gave the impression in any way that I do not take the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, seriously. I always listen with the greatest care to what the noble Lord says. He has his point of view, and I hope your Lordships will recognise that I have mine. I have often told noble Lords during the course of the past year that Her Majesty's Government regard their present nuclear posture as the minimum effective deterrent. Should that situation change, we shall re-examine the matter. It is our considered opinion that that is the position at the moment. So far as overstretch is concerned, I have little else to add to my answer a few moments ago to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the customary 20 minutes has now passed and I suggest that we return to the business as detailed in the Order Paper.

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