HC Deb 15 September 2004 vol 424 cc439-64WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Derek Twigg.]

9.30 am
Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), may I encourage brevity from everyone? A quick glance will tell hon. Members that the numbers present do not divide very well into an hour and a half.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

First, may I say how pleased, grateful and just a little flattered I am to see the Secretary of State in his place? I think that that shows his real appreciation of the deep concern and anxiety that is felt throughout the defence community in Scotland about the plans for the infantry and for our military bases and installations. He also appreciates the deep concern that is felt in my constituency and in those of other hon. Members; we have a deep attachment to our historic regiments and we appreciate and admire the work that they do on our behalf.

The Secretary of State's presence makes a contrast with the approach taken by his Armed Forces Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) and I wrote to the Minister a couple of months ago to make a simple request for a meeting about the plans for the Army. In response, we received a message that more or less said, "Get stuffed". It took two months to get that reply, so it is good to see that the Secretary of State is here. I am might not be too pleased about what he might have to say, but I am glad of his presence.

May I also thank the large number of hon. Members who have turned up for this debate, particularly the many Scottish Members? It shows the concern about our armed forces that exists in every corner of Scotland. I am glad to see so many people here.

I will be brief to allow as many hon. Members as possible to contribute to the debate. I also intend to be as generous as possible with my time and if any hon. Members wish to intervene to give their support for our historic regiments, I will be prepared to take the interventions. Perhaps they can make their remarks to the Secretary of State through me. My remarks will almost exclusively be on the plans for the infantry in Scotland: the plans to do away with one of our historic regiments and subsequently to amalgamate what is left.

This debate is part of the ongoing campaign to save our regiments and a way of life in our infantry that has served us so well and with such distinction through the centuries. The infantry has tremendous links with the local communities that we have the privilege to represent. I do not need to tell the Secretary of State that there is almost overwhelming hostility to the plans for the infantry in Scotland. Campaigns and protests have sprung up all over Scotland, where the proposals, have in a way, galvanised communities. The plans have attracted criticism from very senior officers who previously served in the armed forces and they are starting to attract it from current senior officers in the infantry, most notably General McColl, who commented on Monday about the overstretch in Iraq. I am glad to see serving officers breaking the Ministry of Defence's three-line whip of silence, which has been imposed upon the military on this issue. It is great to see them breaking ranks.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

The hon. Gentleman made an important point when he highlighted overstretch in Iraq. As well as our keenness to support our specific regiments, at the heart of this debate is the fundamental fact that many of us believe that the Government have made a mistake in seeing the peace process in Northern Ireland as a chance to cut the size of the Army, rather than as an opportunity to redeploy that strength to ensure that we can fulfil our overseas commitments more easily.

Pete Wishart

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valid point. We are already beginning to see the results of overstretch. The Black Watch regiment, which has recruited from my constituency, is on its second tour of duty in Iraq because it is the only regiment that is equipped to deal with that particular task.

The current campaign has been fantastic. Usually when we as hon. Members get the petitions board out and head down to town centres to try to recruit an unsuspecting public to whichever campaign we are backing this week, we are met with indifference and scepticism—not with this campaign. People are queuing up to sign the petition to save our regiments. I have not encountered anybody who has refused to sign the petition—or who has not been prepared to do so. That has not only been the case in regimental constituencies such as mine, but throughout Scotland.

May I, at this early stage, pay tribute to the excellent campaign that has been conducted to save our regiments. It has done a fantastic job and has been ably backed by some of the national media such as The Scotsman and The Herald, and by publications such as The Courier and the Perthshire Advertiser in my area. They have created a very vocal and passionate campaign. Our voice will be heard on this issue and we will not go away.

I am fascinated about why there has been such a passionate and vocal campaign to save our regiments. What is it about the way that we organise our infantry that inspires the public with such confidence and respect? There may be a number of answers to that, some of them to do with traditions. People like traditions; they like the way in which such things have been organised. They respect the fact that they still work, and there is value in that.

Such public confidence may have something to do with the fantastic community links that the regiments enjoy; the fact that they are there, and always have been there. It may have something to do with respect for the way in which our regiments perform an almost unimaginably difficult task. However, I think that it is about more than that; it is about reassurance and our confidence that our armed forces are the best in the world. They are the best in the world, not because of accident but because of the way in which they are designed, arranged and structured. Our armed forces are the envy of the world and the way in which the regimental system works is the envy of many armed forces throughout the world.

Like the Secretary of State, I have never been a soldier. Before he became an esteemed and distinguished senior politician, the Secretary of State was a barrister—not, I would suggest, a particularly dangerous occupation. I was a musician; probably the most dangerous position that I was ever put into was when I faced an army of unsuspecting rock fans, which was not a particularly dangerous task. Neither the Secretary of State nor I have performed dangerous tasks, and it is important that we take on board the views of existing and former soldiers, although not in the form of the sham consultation produced for the infantry in Scotland, in which soldiers were asked whether they preferred one, two or three battalions or whatever. That was like asking what sort of wood they wanted their gallows made out of. We should speak properly to soldiers about the type of infantry that they want in the future.

I have spoken to a lot of soldiers since the defence review was initiated and spent a lot of time debating with them the type of infantry that they would seek. I received a number of interesting responses, but the one that impressed me most came from an old soldier who had served in the Black Watch in the second world war. He said that our regiments work because soldiers are doing it for their pals; it has nothing to do with esoteric concepts such as Queen and country. It is about a soldier's pals, and the fact that they were recruited in the same town and may even have gone to the same school. It is about the fact that a soldier's father and grandfather had fought in the same regiment. It is about pals that one can rely on when the going gets tough. We tinker with that loyalty, determination and comradeship at our peril.

My local regiment is the Black Watch; I have the Black Watch hackle on today and my tie was given to me on a visit to Balhousie, the regiment's headquarters, on Monday. The Black Watch is in Iraq serving its second tour of duty. The regiment goes back 300 years. It was formed in Aberfeldy, on the banks of the Tay in my constituency. It was called the Black Watch because it was formed to watch over the highlands for brawny highlanders who might come into my constituency years and years ago. Sometimes I wish that it would come back and continue to perform that useful task.

In Aberfeldy, there is a monument of a kilted soldier who looks down at the very spot in which the Black Watch was mustered. It is a beautiful place, to which people come to pay their respects for fallen comrades or for people who have served with distinction in the regiment. It is that sense of history and attachment that creates the special culture in our historic regiments. Men want to join, and fight for, those proud regiments with their special camaraderie. How can we expect fighting men to have the same affection for abstract formations designed in Whitehall? How can one compare such a romantic name as the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to the third battalion lowland regiment? Large battalions may seem sensible to Whitehall pen pushers, but they are nothing but synthetic creations to fighting men.

The most important question to consider when talking about the reorganisation of the infantry is whether it will work. Will the Jackson proposals mean that our armed forces will be better prepared to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world with new, developing, evolving military theatres? Sure, it looks like we are going to have a lot of smart bombs and smart technology to fire at and obliterate all sorts of appropriate and suitable targets. However, will our armed forces be able to meet the challenges of the new world, in which peacekeeping and conflict prevention will be the major task that our infantry have to face? Is it not bizarre that we have a regimental system that is supremely prepared to meet such challenges, but that we are thinking about doing away with it?

We have to take on board the views of some of our senior officers. I was impressed by what General John McColl, one of our most senior officers serving in Iraq, said about the situation. He said that if the Jackson proposals go through, You either work the army harder or do less with them. He went on to say that our capacity to conduct a number of these commitments"— that is, our current commitments— is reduced with a reduction in the number of infantry battalions. As the second most senior officer serving in Iraq, he should be listened to. I hope that the Secretary of State takes his remarks to heart.

I suppose that the amalgamation of regiments makes perfectly good sense to the Ministry of Defence. We are always told how reasonable the proposals are, and how they take on board what has been said, but those of us who have a problem with what has been suggested, and who have concerns about the way that the issue is going, are always presented as traditionalists or sentimentalist. Well, call me an old-fashioned sentimentalist but, given that our infantry is the envy of armed forces all over the world, that our armed forces command such respect and confidence from the public and that we have the finest fighting men in the world, I make no apologies for being a traditionalist and a sentimentalist in this respect.

I suspect that the real reason for the amalgamations is that larger battalions will be easier to cut at a future date. Once the local connection has been severed and the regiments are submerged into a great, amorphous blob, they will be much easier to cut; there will be a lot less local protest next time around.

Why are these changes being suggested now? It is no mistake that these proposals are called the Jackson proposals. General Sir Mike Jackson will retire next year, and he is keen to cement his place in history with these proposals. That is why they are being rushed through with undue haste. Where is the national debate on the way forward for our infantry? Where are the debates in the House about what has been proposed? Where are the proper consultations?

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Will my hon. Friend accept that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Secretary of State's proposals, there is something deeply unpleasant—indeed, unacceptable—in effectively eliminating regiments when they are in the line of fire in Iraq, where the Prime Minister has placed them?

Pete Wishart

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have received many letters—as, I suspect, he has—from soldiers serving in Iraq who are appalled at the prospect of the changes. They know that they have been placed in unimaginable danger, and know that what has been proposed is a betrayal of what they are doing abroad by those who are supposed to be in positions of responsibility at home.

Why are the changes happening now, especially given that our armed forces are overstretched as never before, as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned in relation to the situation in Iraq? The Jackson proposals make absolutely no sense, given that the bulk of the armed forces' operational commitments involve peacekeeping, for which our forces are supremely prepared and well equipped after their experience in the Balkans and elsewhere. High-tech military hardware and smart technology will not win hearts and minds on a hostile street. It takes men on the ground in berets and Tam o' Shanters, men such as those who serve in the Black Watch.

I hope that the Secretary of State has listened carefully to the sheer crescendo of opposition to what has been suggested for our infantry. Our regiments have served us well. They are respected and admired the world over. Men continue to want to fight in them.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman rightly talks about the benefits of cap badges, and the local community that regiments serve. Is he aware that many in the Black Watch are recruited in Lancashire? He is supportive of Scottish regiments, so will he be as supportive of Lancashire regiments continuing? There are such close links between them and the Scots Guards and Black Watch. I hope that he will support the Queen's Lancashire Regiment when there is a debate on that subject.

Pete Wishart

I am grateful for those remarks. Of course we support what is happening in Lancashire. In fact, I was there with some soldiers serving in that regiment. They asked me to sign their petition, which I was more than happy to do. We know that there are such issues across the UK, and I am impressed by some of the campaigns to resist the plans that have been put forward.

I do not wish to speak for much longer, as a number of hon. Members want to speak. I just hope that the Secretary of State has listened to the voices of opposition. We will not go away. We will continue to fight for our regiments, and we hope that the Secretary of State and other hon. Members will join us and help us save our regiments.

9.44 am
Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) (Lab)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) on securing this important debate. It is usual parliamentary practice for the parties to engage in political point-scoring, but I do not intend to do so because I want to use this time to emphasise to the Secretary of State for Defence the strength of feeling that I have observed among all ranks of serving and retired personnel and their families, and the public, about some of the proposals that he made on 21 July. I ask my right hon. Friend not to proceed with any decision, and to hold a full consultation with all ranks and all communities involved.

May I briefly, as I am sure others will, pay tribute to our armed forces? They have a reputation throughout the world for their professionalism and high standards. Their skill and their commitment to conflict prevention and peacekeeping are second to none, and the role that they have played in promoting this Government's global agenda has become ever greater and more important. The Government's proposal to cut back on the numbers serving in our Army, Navy and Air Force when they are already overstretched and overcommitted is not something I can support. Linked as it is to the removal of four regiments, it is seen by service personnel, families and communities as an act of backstabbing, particularly given the commitment that they have made to put their lives at risk, knowing that they might pay the ultimate price.

If the Government go ahead with the cuts, they need also to decide from which operations to withdraw service personnel. The hon. Member for North Tayside mentioned the Black Watch, which recruits particularly from Dunfermline and the area that I represent. Like other hon. Members, I am very proud of the Black Watch and its history, as well as its example of professionalism and high standards, and am mindful of the ever-increasing demands that are made on its serving personnel.

For instance, the Black Watch was in the Balkans in 2002, and served in Iraq in both 2003 and 2004. An average tour now takes place within a year, rather than every two years. Its personnel were supposed to be at Warminster, serving for two years as the Army's training battalion, yet they were called on to return to Iraq at very short notice due to the lack of available highly-trained personnel. The Black Watch stands out as a regiment that has ever-greater demands placed on it, yet which, due to the Government's proposals to remove a Scottish regiment, is at risk of disbandment and is experiencing low morale, particularly among personnel serving in an extremely challenging and dangerous environment.

While some have said that contemplating larger regiments could be a good idea, they have qualified it by adding that before we reflect on cutting or merging regiments the world needs to be at greater peace than it is at this time of such active engagement. The Member for North Tayside mentioned what I would call the importance of bonding, which is always emphasised to me by veterans. The way that those in our services, particularly in our regiments, bond during training and the development and maintenance of their skills, professionalism and commitment are very important, particularly when they are under fire.

May I conclude with a brief mention of the Royal Navy dockyards and the Royal Air Force, although I am sure that others will speak about them? Hon. Members would be surprised if, as the hon. Member representing Rosyth dockyard, I did not say that while I welcome the commitment that has been made with regard to the future aircraft carrier, I am not at all happy about the reduction in the size of the fleet, because of the impact that that has on the work load at Rosyth dockyard and elsewhere, and because of its contribution to the active and full service being undertaken in all parts of the world by the Royal Navy.

While there is no RAF base in Dunfermline and west Fife, I would not like to fail to mention RAF Leuchars in Fife, which includes part of the constituency of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), and emphasise its contribution, along with the outstanding contribution of RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP)

On that cue, as represent both RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, does the hon. Lady agree that the Ministry of Defence should listen to the arguments put by the local community and take it on board that any run-down or closure of either facility will have a disproportionate impact on Moray and the north of Scotland compared with a run-down or closure elsewhere in the UK?

Rachel Squire

I certainly agree on the strong importance of RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss not only to the RAF, but to the local communities and their future.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet will listen to the views and widespread concern, and recognise that they need to—I shall use that very Scottish phrase—"go back and think again" and consult fully all ranks of service personnel, as well as veterans, families and communities. They must ensure that we maintain the UK's reputation for the outstanding professionalism and commitment of our armed forces.

9.51 am
Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD)

It is welcome to see the Secretary of State in his place to respond to today's debate. The seriousness of the subject is emphasised by his presence and by the strong presence of Members from all parties representing Scottish seats and other parts of the United Kingdom. Such a good turnout is a sign of the importance of the Scottish infantry's contribution to the British Army and the other defence interests in Scotland.

There has been a great deal of uncertainty for months about the future of Scottish regiments. For several months, newspapers such as The Herald have had apparently well placed sources telling them that a major review was under way and that one—or worse, more—Scottish regiment would be at stake. I am afraid that the Secretary of State's announcement at the tail end of July, just before the parliamentary recess, enhanced that uncertainty, as he confirmed that there would be a reduction of one battalion in Scotland from six to five.

My basic grasp of arithmetic suggests that that would not work, and as yet it is not clear how it might develop. I hope that, after many weeks during which it has not been clear what is happening, the fact that the Secretary of State is here today will allow us to understand his thinking more clearly and that the process will lead us to a decision.

The concerns in my part of south-east Scotland about the future of the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots are reflected in the number of petitions that have been collected. I presented one to Parliament last night; I know that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) presented one from the King's Own Scottish Borderers last week. Local newspapers in Fife and elsewhere have been running strong campaigns on the future of the regiments. Each focuses on key factors relating to traditions of the regiments, military honours that they have won and the importance of their contribution to the work of the British Army, whether in Iraq, Northern Ireland or the many other parts of the world where the British Army is doing sterling service. It strikes people as very strange that at a moment of such heavy requirement for deployments, we should be contemplating a reduction in the number of regiments.

The specific proposal in Scotland is that there should be one regiment for the whole country, or a highland regiment and a lowland regiment. From what we read in the press and learn elsewhere, it appears that the decision on whether there should be one or two regiments, and the related and difficult decision of how to get six regiments down to five, has been left to the colonels of the Scottish regiments. Perhaps they will play some elaborate game of musical chairs or Russian roulette to work out which of their number should leave the table. That is a difficult way for anyone to make a decision. I hope the Secretary of State clarifies how it will be made.

I understand that there is some sound operational thinking from the perspective of the planners in the Ministry of Defence. I say to the Secretary of State that, as yet, people in Scotland have not been persuaded of that. We look to him again today to set out the justification for that reform of the Army in Scotland. I do not think that any of us, regardless of our political opinions, is against reform of the Army. We appreciate that it must change and adapt to the different circumstances of the post-11 September world as well as to the way the world has changed since the end of communism. The world is very different from what we were geared up for 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The Army must adapt, and I do not think that any of us has seen any unwillingness among the people we represent to be part of that process.

However, the form of reorganisation planned by the Ministry of Defence has not been persuasive across Scotland. We await with interest what the Secretary of State tells us today and hope that his intentions become clear. Inevitably and properly, the regiments, and their huge number of supporters across Scotland, have been consulting the communities that they are drawn from, the retired elements, and families and friends to find out what they think of the proposals. There are plenty of examples of the negative responses that have come forward as a result of the consultation process. The discussions and questionnaires all articulated key aspects of the regimental system and stressed why it is important that we continue with each of the Scottish regiments that serve us with such distinction. One of the questionnaires that a friend passed to me emphasised some key elements of the regimental system, which bear a quick repetition. The responses start by emphasising the sense of belonging to an entity that has an existence—a past, present and future of its own. That is important to people at all stages of their military service. Continuity—the ability of individuals to keep returning to the regiment or battalion in which they began, to their benefit and that of the units in which they serve—is also important. Names and traditions are at the heart of the debate, and one of the great anxieties is over the fact that, whatever reform the Secretary of State settles on, maintaining the names and traditions, what they stand for and the power they have to motivate the people involved as well as those who support them is crucial. For Scotland to lose any of the names would be a tragedy.

Thanks to our constituency roles, each of us can emphasise and bear witness to the regional connections. I appreciate that some regiments draw their support from various parts of Scotland. The King's Own Scottish Borderers recruits from the constituency of the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) as well as from more obvious places such as my constituency. Those regional connections are fundamental—not just to recruitment but to ensuring that the people represented by me and by others feel a sense of identification with and connection to the British Army in its broader sense. That recruitment focus is rather important.

What I understand, above all, from discussions with family members who have been in the armed forces, from friends and from constituents across south-east Scotland is that esprit de corps—the connection that people feel to their regiment or battalion—is essential to them. It would be a crying shame to give up on that.

The King's Own Scottish Borderers, the Royal Scots and the other Scottish regiments all embody the finest traditions in the British Army. We have yet to hear convincing arguments or evidence that suggests there is a case for removing one of those battalions or regiments. Whatever the final form of the recommendations, I hope that the Secretary of State will reflect on each of the points as well as the strength of feeling in the Chamber today, which represents a strong feeling throughout Scotland. I hope also that, as a result, he makes it clear that there will be no cuts in the number of regiments and battalions in Scotland.

10 am

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP)

As the Member of Parliament for Perth, where the Black Watch has its regimental headquarters at Balhousie castle, I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this extremely important debate. I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate my Perthshire colleague, the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), on securing the debate. I endorse what he said in his excellent contribution. It is instructive to note that it took the Scottish National party to force a debate, as none was offered by the United Kingdom Government. That is regrettable, and it is entirely consistent with the secretive way in which the Labour Government have pursued their agenda of scrapping Scotland's entire regimental structure.

As we have heard from other hon. Members, the official announcement came on the eve of the summer recess. There has been no opportunity for proper parliamentary scrutiny, as mentioned by other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire), and the detail of the Defence Secretary's military case for this full-frontal assault on Scotland's regiments remains a mystery. Perhaps we shall hear a bit more about that from the Secretary of State today.

Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber) (Lab)

If we had an independent Scotland, what would the disposition of your forces be? How many regiments, battalions and how many men and women would make up the Scottish army?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is using "your". That refers to me, and I do not have any forces.

Annabelle Ewing

I am a bit disappointed with the contribution from the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart). I would have thought that he should be fighting for the future of the Highland regiment. Perhaps his time would be better employed for his constituents in doing that.

There has been complete silence from Scotland's Government in the summer months. When Scotland's First Minister came to London on his whistle-stop, cocktail-party visit in early July, his spokesman said that the First Minister wanted all the facts before he made a statement. I wonder what statement the First Minister has made on the subject of the future of Scotland's regiment. As far as I can see, he has made none. What of the Scottish Secretary? Again, there has been silence. What of the Ministry of Defence? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside said, we wrote to the Armed Forces Minister on 7 July and it is an absolute disgrace that we did not get a reply until 7 September.

We have experienced, to coin a phrase much liked by the Chief of the General Staff, a deafening wall of silence from Ministers, but serving soldiers, veterans, local communities and all the local authorities in the Tayside and Fife area have made their views known. The unanimous view is that the Government's proposals to scrap Scotland's regimental system are wrong in principle and are likely to be deeply damaging, particularly in light of the current overstretch of our armed forces.

A serving officer in the Black Watch, currently on its second tour of duty in Basra, wrote to me because I am his local MP. Obviously I am not in a position to give the name of this officer, not least because of the MOD's gagging order, but I would like to quote part of what he wrote to me in his bluey:

While we wish to look after our country, our country seems less keen to look after us. The contradiction between deploying the training battalion on the one hand, and yet cutting four battalions on the other, needs to addressed. I have also been contacted by a number of serving soldiers currently in Basra on their second tour of duty. Again, I am not in a position to provide the names, but I would like to quote from a bluey from one of those soldiers:

The recent decision to reduce the armed forces can only add to the stress and pressure put on us and our families. What with the ever-increasing commitments and deployments we are volunteered for. Some of us have been separated from our families for 400 days in the past two years. I am writing to you to fight on my behalf to reverse the decision to reduce our armed forces as I am fighting for my life out here in Iraq in support of the politicians. I have also been contacted by the most recent colonel of the Black Watch, Brigadier Gary Barnett, who retired last year. On the subject of creating a synthetic super-regiment, Brigadier Barnett says:

We have seen no arguments that persuade us that battalions from large regiments are more operationally efficient or exhibit any other advantage over single battalion regiments. It is clear to us that the advantages of a sense of belonging, continuity, regional connections, recruiting focus and esprit de corps far exceed the perceived disadvantages of the small regiment. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. In my concluding remarks, I stress that the strength of feeling about the Black Watch locally—in all parts of Tayside and Fife—is very clear. The Secretary of State needs only to read the back pages of the Perthshire Advertiser and The Courier during the summer. Both papers have led excellent campaigns.

The regimental system has served Scotland well, and it has proven its worth time and time again in terms of recruitment, retention and operational efficiency. Then professionalism of Scotland's regiments is second to none. I quote again from the serving officer currently in Basra:

The Black Watch is proud to come from Perthshire, Angus, Fife and Dundee. We hope the people of those counties will stand by us. The people of Perthshire, Angus, Fife and Dundee have stood by the Black Watch. The question that needs to be answered is will the Secretary of State for Defence do so?

10.7 am

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife) (Lab)

I have an honest concern about the defence review, but I want to reflect on one or two other points other than those concerning the Black Watch.

I do not believe that the Secretary of State has the easiest job, and making a decision based on popular opinion is not the way to run defence effectively. It is unfortunate that this has already become a political dogfight rather than an honest concern about the outcome of a balanced decision. That exposure is sad at this stage. It is also sad that Opposition parties will not give an honest answer to straightforward questions. They are put to the Secretary of State for Defence, who is expected to give a straightforward and honest answer about what he believes an effective defence to be.

It is fair to say—I shall say it—that, in an independent Scotland, you would have great difficulty in maintaining existing defence.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already had to tick off one Member for using "you". I have to advise the hon. Gentleman that by using "you", he means me, and I would have more difficulty than most, as I represent a constituency in the north-east of England.

Mr. MacDougall

My sincere apologies to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall refrain from using that word again.

I have a long-standing relationship with the Black Watch and I appreciate and value, as I am sure the Secretary of State does, the excellent service provided by those who have served in the Black Watch over many years and the work that they have carried out—the campaigns that they have been involved in and what they have been called upon to do, especially at present in Iraq.

That mixes up the argument. On the one hand, there are the high emotions. When someone loses their life—and we do not want that to happen—there are calls to bring the troops back home. On the other hand, we want to keep the regiment; we want to keep it, but we do not want to send it to war where its members' lives might be lost. We must remove ourselves from that position and honestly concern ourselves with whether we have the right balance between an effective ground force and the advanced technology of today. In my opinion, the balance is wrong, but that does not mean that I will not respect the Secretary of State's final decision, which will be intelligently based on much more information than I have and which will take into account what is needed for the future.

I am not going to say to my constituents in Central Fife that I do not value the jobs that have been developed in new defence technology. I can mention companies in Central Fife that employ hundreds of people who have benefited from the decisions that are being taken in the defence review. I welcome the fact that the more we put into modern technology and effective defence, the less chance there is of people on the ground losing their lives. That has to be valued. We must take that into account; we cannot ignore it.

As I mentioned at the outset, I also accept that we cannot keep troops simply because it is popular to do so. What kind of a silly defence would we have in this country if we simply based it on our saying, "Well, we are not going to do this because we don't like it, so let's have a show of hands and decide not to do it." No effective Government could do that.

I have concerns, but they are mixed. They are honest concerns, not political ones. I am concerned about the eventual outcome and whether the balance that is decided on will be right. My personal preference would, of course, be for the Black Watch to be retained, but I understand that the decision on that cannot be taken on the basis of personal preference; it has to be taken on the basis of intelligence, knowledge and effectiveness. If anyone wants to stand up and say, "Well, that does not matter," they should tell that to the country. Do they think that the electorate will go for that? They will not, but they will go for honesty and concern. My concern is that the balance is not right.

I appreciate that this message is not healthy for morale at present. It does not help the troops on the ground to be as effective as they should be. In fact, it could create a situation where it puts them at risk rather than aids them to do their job. The quicker we collectively and responsibly give out the message that that is not what we want to say to the troops, the better. This debate should not be about trying to weaken the Government's political agenda; it should genuinely be about the effectiveness of the ground force balanced against new technology. If the debate remains around that, I am convinced that it can be effective and that the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), who secured it, will get an honourable outcome. However, if it is about scoring points, it will not end in that way.

My sincere wish is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take on board the intelligent points that have been made this morning, and that he will send out the right message to the people who serve their country very well and have done so for many years and will continue to do so in the modern defence structure of the future—the message that their Government take on board their service but will make their final decision based on a listening policy that includes taking account of what has been said in today's discussion.

10.14 am
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

I will call the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) if he promises to be brief.

Mr. Reid

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I undertake to be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) on securing this important debate. I am pleased that the Secretary of State is present; that shows that the Government regard this debate as important.

It is clear that the Army is already overstretched. I am concerned about the Government's plans, which appear to assume no more commitments for the Army; one of the lessons of recent years is that it is always landed with unexpected new ones. In addition to the obvious commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, issues such as foot and mouth and the firefighters' strike have meant that the Army has had to be involved in unexpected commitments at home.

It is important that we keep our infantry strength at its current level; we should not reduce the numbers. As was said earlier, high-tech is vitally important and means that we can win wars by putting fewer soldiers' lives at risk. However, it has also emerged from the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan that even after the war has been won and the conventional fighting is over, there is still an important job to be done in winning the peace and that requires highly skilled, committed infantry soldiers on the ground. The record of the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown once again that it is the best army in the world, and the present regimental system, which instils in our soldiers a sense of loyalty to the regiment and a sense of belonging, is a vital reason for that. I am concerned that the Government's proposals, which would effectively scrap the Scottish regimental structure, would make the Army a lot less effective.

The local regiment in my constituency is the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which has a long, distinguished history and only recently returned from Iraq. Recruits want to join local regiments that have long and proud traditions. If the Government go ahead with their plans to merge the Argylls into a new regiment, that is bound to have a negative impact on recruitment, compared with keeping the famous, longstanding name of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. That must have an impact on the morale of soldiers serving in the regiment. I am also concerned that the signals that the Government are sending out—that we are cutting numbers and there is no long-term future—are bound to deter people from joining the Army and put off anybody who is considering it as a career.

I conclude by reminding the Secretary of State that, 30 years ago, a previous Government tried to abolish the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. There was a massive campaign of opposition, which succeeded and the then Government buckled under the pressure. I urge the Government not to proceed with plans to abolish the Argylls or merge them into another regiment because I suspect that, like their predecessors in office, they will buckle under the weight of the subsequent campaign.

10.19 am
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) on securing the debate. It is clear from the strength of feeling in the contributions made today that this timely debate touches hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am pleased to see the Secretary of State here today. I hope his presence is a sign that the Government understand that strength of feeling and may be open to some arguments of reason.

We have a proud tradition of service in Scotland, particularly in the highlands, but, as has been evidenced by contributions from hon. Members from south of the border, that tradition is not confined to Scotland but covers all the British armed forces—Army, Navy and Air Force.

There is a book relating to my area, which I have read, called "Sword of the North", which sets out the history of the Seaforth Highlanders. I recently read another book about the history of a battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders in the second world war, from which I learned just how many people whom I have known in civilian life served in the second world war. I had no idea of that, nor did I know how many medals they had won, or how much they had done. I just knew them as the Domine of the local school, a grocer or whatever it was that they did.

Throughout history, Scotland and the highlands have produced regiments that have fought bravely for this country. One has only to look at the war memorials to understand what they have given. That is an important tradition, and allied to it is the tradition of service by the Territorial Army, which has not been mentioned so far, but should be. There is a long tradition of sound service by the TA. At a time of overstretch, which has been mentioned, and when the Army is committed in many parts of the world, we should remember what Territorials are doing in many theatres of conflict.

Tradition is important as the bedrock on which our military is based and the focus for how we act as well as for morale and recruitment, but I believe that we cannot be hide-bound by tradition. We live in a fast-moving world and, as has been pointed out, there is new technology to consider. In that sense, the Government are absolutely right to adapt and to modernise. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said to me earlier, it would be inappropriate for the party of Haldane to oppose the reorganisation of the Army. We have no problem with that reorganisation.

It seems to me that there are two separate points in the debate. The first is the size, scope and role of our armed forces, what we require them to do and how we introduce new technology. The second is how that is managed and organised. We are focused on the second, but I shall briefly mention the first. Our active military commitments are at one of their highest levels since the second world war. During the Iraq conflict, more than 50 per cent. of our military was committed. The then Chief of the General Staff described that as unsustainable and we are back to about 20 per cent. We are committed in a big way in Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia and have commitments in East Timor and Sierra Leone. We have 1,200 troops in the Falklands, which is the leftover of a previous commitment.

So, we have men and women serving us in many theatres throughout the globe. As was mentioned by one of my hon. Friends, the Army was also involved in the fire strike. There is clear evidence of overstretch and the future is uncertain. Therefore, my question is, why do we need to reduce battalions at all? Surely all the evidence indicates that we should be maintaining and, if anything, enhancing our infantry capability. This, it seems to me, is the wrong time to go for what is a modest saving. It is the time to be supporting those troops.

I turn to organisation. It is clear that we must adapt to new roles and it is absolutely right that we reorganise to meet new threats. We no longer face a cold war or need heavy armour in the way that we did. I have no quarrel with the desire to move towards light and medium-weight capability. So, much in what is being suggested by the MOD is clearly sensible and deserves support.

I am not nearly so convinced by the argument for arms plot. Of course it provides stability for families, which is important. I gather that the argument has been going on in the Army for more than 20 years as to whether we should move to arms plot and trickle posting. Many professional soldiers—past and serving—to whom I have spoken believe that this would not help at all. One put it to me this way: The argument on Arms Plotting or Trickle Posting has been going on … for … 20 odd years to my certain knowledge and for those of us who studied the arguments, many of us would say that it is a very dangerous thing to move to Trickle Posting, because you will lose cohesion in battalions and units will get stale in one location and be less professional. He goes on to say that training can get to a point where people think we did that last year". The movement of troops is part of our ability to focus and deliver.

Sir Robert Smith

One thing that has impressed us all is the great professionalism of the Army, which is serving us in all those places around the world that my hon. Friend mentioned. It has been put to me that part of that professionalism stems from the immersion in so many different experiences, so that there is versatility and adaptability, and therefore the Army can be put to whatever cause is necessary at shorter notice than would be possible were we to change the structure as suggested by the Government.

John Thurso

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point somewhat better than I was making it, and I thank him for that.

We must consider whether all we want to achieve in modernising our armed forces—delivering the capability, building on the tradition and all the points that hon. Members have made—has to be done by disbanding our regiments, or whether disbanding or merging regiments produces a negative effect. It has been suggested to me that there are other ways in which the desired effect could be achieved. We should consider management structures within the Army that could both preserve the regiments and provide the command and control adaptability that the MOD seeks. My message to the Secretary of State is that we should see whether we can, as we surely should, preserve the proud regiments that have done so much for us.

We have heard from all parts of the House—this is not a party issue—about the tradition of the Army and of the job it does. These are not the cries of hide-bound traditionalists; they are the earnest pleas of people who recognise both the value of tradition and the need to modernise, the strength of feeling in Scotland and the genuine and positive benefit for recruitment of serving soldiers of the link between traditional regiments and their traditional areas.

I ask the Secretary of State to think again, bearing it in mind that there has never been a military conflict that has not been won by the professionalism of the infantrymen and the Mk. I eyeball.

10.26 am
Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con)

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that today is the 64th anniversary of battle of Britain day. It is a significant anniversary, given that that battle brought together troops from local communities across the United Kingdom.

Today's debate is on the UK armed forces. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) for having secured it. I am sure that many slips of paper were submitted to Mr. Speaker with this subject on them, and I am delighted that it has come up during this particular week. It gives us an important opportunity to address our concerns to the Secretary of State.

I also commend the Secretary of State, as others have done, for answering this important debate in person. That he has chosen to do so confirms the significance of the armed forces in Scotland, and underlines the seriousness of the proposals that he outlined in the House on 21 July, just as we prepared to rise for the recess.

So far, the debate has, inevitably, focused on the uncertainty that the Government have placed on the future of the Scottish regiments. Let me acknowledge at the outset the significance of the air and naval announcement on local communities across Scotland. The Scottish armed forces are a team that goes all the way from shipbuilding on the Clyde to the technology referred to by the hon. Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) to the regimental system and the troops on the ground. There is teamwork in Scotland, and that should be recognised.

Inevitably, uncertainty over the future of our regiments has been the focus of the debate. Hon. Members of every party have made it clear that that is the major issue striking a chord with the Scottish public. Any hon. Member who has held a surgery or attended a public function or received any volume of mail from Scotland will be aware of the strength of feeling on the issue north of the border. The campaign in opposition to the changes is both well co-ordinated and deep rooted. Hon. Members recognise the difference between bloated lobbying and campaigns that genuinely focus the concerns of a nation. The save our Scottish regiments campaign has certainly done that.

There is huge pride in what our forces have achieved over generations, genuine belief that they are currently delivering excellence on duty around the world, and a fear for their future if their link with our communities is irretrievably weakened, as would be the consequence of the proposals. My local promotion of the save our regiments campaign showed the deep bond that exists in rural communities. At agricultural shows across my constituency during the summer, I was totally unsurprised at the outpouring of affinity with the local regiment, the KOSB.

The people in my constituency, and others across Scotland, should know that, without equivocation, the Conservative party is resolutely opposed to any cut in infantry battalions. Those battalions have all served the United Kingdom with distinction. They have been immensely proud to do so and we in Scotland have been proud of their achievements. At a time of high and increasing international uncertainty across the globe, and with terrorism a continued and growing threat, we see no case for cuts in their number. For the Government to put the regiments in jeopardy when their skills, determination to serve and historic allegiance are most in demand is nothing less than crass and ill-judged.

The Scottish regiments are sustained by, and flourish with, a strong local bond in their recruiting areas. It creates that immeasurable resource of affinity, comradeship—to which the hon. Member for North Tayside alluded—and dedication to serve that will be put at risk if these changes are enforced. The Government must recognise that and think again.

In considering the proposals put to the House on 21 July, the overriding question that has been put by hon. Members from all sides of the Chamber this morning is, "Why now?" Why are these cuts to be made now to our armed forces, reducing them to a UK total of 102,000? That represents a reduction of 6,500 from the previous established strength of more than 108,000. Every forces family talks of the current reality of armed forces overstretch. What was once a warning has become reality; resources are stretched to breaking point. Indeed, there is no greater confirmation of that— as was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) than the Black Watch's second tour in Iraq, which started less than one year after the first. The Government have drawn on Scottish regimental expertise regularly. With my local regiment and that of the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore), which is currently in Ulster, it is clear that the military expertise is irreplaceable. That is why it is called upon so regularly.

Regiments have served wherever and whenever they have been asked to, but the demands on their operational strength have extended far beyond combat operations. When the Home Office was in such a tangle during the fire dispute, it was our Scottish infantry regiments, among others, that provided the essential and professional back-up services that saved life and limb in our home communities. In my region, which was ravaged in 2001 by foot and mouth disease, our local regiment stepped into the breach and undertook with dignity and determination the most difficult tasks that were asked of it. It has done the dirty work when required.

Those same troops, the same forces families and the same communities are now being threatened with the loss of their local regiment. Given the diversity of the challenges that are presented, in foreign fields or in those at home, is it any wonder that overstretch is having an effect on recruitment and retention? The Select Committee on Defence report on the defence White Paper stated in paragraph 5 of its conclusions: What has emerged in the past six years is the extent to which the Armed Forces have been operating at the limits of what they can achieve. Given the difficult and delicate nature of current operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, is it any wonder that there is disbelief at the timing of the Government proposals to abolish one Scottish regiment in its entirety and to subject the others to unnecessary and counterproductive reorganisation?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I have listened carefully to what appears to be a thoughtful argument. However, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to address a question? He has placed great weight on the question of overstretch. If he were in my position and were told that parts of the Army were more stretched than others, would it be right to shift the burden away from the less-stretched parts in the direction of those that were more stretched?

Mr. Duncan

The Secretary of State will recall that I highlighted the reduction of 6,500 in our troop complement. That does not strike me as the actions of a Government who are taking the issue of overstretch seriously.

The demands on our armed forces cannot be indefinitely expanded to meet growing demands without impacting on those serving. That has been recognised across the Army, not least of all in the comments given by one serving senior general to The Scotsman on Monday. He said: The army is very busy indeed and the reduction of four battalions will not help in any way". He is right. Most others have maintained public silence, but it is clear that serving soldiers believe either that current commitments will have to be reduced or that the proposals will have to be reversed.

The Secretary of State has—of course—made it clear that, in the future, he sees the Scots regiments being supplemented by the technology of the future, and there is no denying that high-tech developments will come forward. However, is it not highly irresponsible to step into uncharted waters now in the hope and expectation that technology will rescue the situation at some point in the future—to say nothing of the fact that, in the end, the foot soldier is the backbone of operations and can never fully be replaced?

Far from recognising the strains caused by new commitments, it now seems clear that a secret recruitment freeze has been in place to ensure that manning levels have fallen. They have fallen significantly already. That has been delivered furtively. I was informed recently of a horrendous difficulty being experienced in securing beds for recruits in training. Therefore, although regiments have been under-strength, recruitment has stalled.

It is true that some of our regiments have had, and continue to have, recruitment problems, but the Government have to answer the central issue in links between our communities and Scots regiments. Will centralisation of the Scots regiments strengthen or weaken recruitment? I have no doubt that the loosened ties that these proposals make inevitable will create further difficulties in maintaining manning levels.

Mr. Hoyle

I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, but I think that he is rather disingenuous. I can assure him that the Black Watch and the Scots Guards have been recruiting in Lancashire and that, only six weeks ago, the Scots Guards were recruiting in my constituency. Therefore, recruitment is taking place. Will he address the following problem? One in every three 18-year-olds in Scotland will have to join the Army to bring those regiments up to strength. The question he ought to be answering is: why are people not joining?

Mr. Duncan

Absolutely. Unlike others, I have paid tribute to those who are recruited to Scots regiments from beyond the border with Scotland. However, these proposals will not help to address the central issue of recruitment difficulties.

The Government will face increasing recruitment demands, with the consequent negative effect on retention levels, unless morale can be improved. There is no doubt that those serving in Scottish infantry regiments are deeply unhappy with these proposals; my constituency mailbag confirms that. They, too, seek a change of heart from the Secretary of State. They have been presented with a consultation with only two options; a single Scottish regiment or a highland-lowland regimental format. I have no doubt of what the response would be if they were truly consulted and offered the third option of saving the existing Scottish regimental structure.

Some of the Secretary of State's announcement was to be welcomed as far as it affected Scotland's defence interests. Our forces have to become more agile. We recognise and support proposals for the scrapping of the arms plot. Its replacement may well present a positive opportunity for local regiments in rural areas of Scotland, in particular. However, on the substantive proposals to tear apart the traditional regimental structure in Scotland, the Government must be sent "homeward tae think again."

At this time of considerable danger from terrorism at home and abroad and major military deployments overseas including in Afghanistan and Iraq, we wholly oppose the cuts by amalgamation or disbandment of any Scottish battalion, and judge such a proposal to be a grave error.

10.39 am
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Let me begin by thanking the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) for proposing this debate on the impact of the strategic defence strategy in Scotland. Defence is rightly a reserved matter. Scotland has a vitally important relationship with the armed forces and with the Ministry of Defence more widely. I welcome this opportunity to explain again what we are doing and why we are doing it, and to address some of the concerns that have been raised.

I am of course well aware of the importance—economically, and through pride and tradition—of the Scottish regiments to Scotland. Even had I not been so, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and his deputy have, in any event, made sure throughout our considerations that we bear that in mind. The only reason that they are unable to take part in this debate is that they both have long-standing ministerial engagements.

Before I come to some of the specific issues that have been debated, let me set our discussions in context. The United Kingdom has one defence policy, and one set of armed forces protecting and promoting all of our interests and values. Any discussion about the future of those armed forces needs to be seen in the context of the future capabilities White Paper that the Ministry of Defence published in July. As I explained then, in the 1998 strategic defence review, we set out plans to develop defence capability to match the needs of the post-cold war world. We built on that with the strategic defence review "A New Chapter", which was published after the events of 11 September 2001, and we confirmed that direction in the defence White Paper of December 2003. We have concluded that we need to modernise further to meet the challenges of the future strategic environment: the more pronounced threats and challenges of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the challenges presented by weak and failing states.

The world changes, and we need to change with it. The programme that I announced in July is about ensuring that our armed forces are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In order to meet those challenges, defence spending is increasing. The 2002 spending review provided the largest sustained growth in defence spending plans for 20 years. This year, it has been possible to make even more resources available for defence, providing the longest period of sustained growth for more than 20 years. Our spending review settlement will result in a £3.7 billion increase in the defence budget during the next three years. That is an average annual real growth of 1.4 per cent.

We also need, however, to ensure that we are using those substantially increased resources in the most effective way. For example, our new plans will continue the shift in emphasis away from measuring capability in terms of numbers of ships, tanks and aircraft and towards the delivery of military "effects". We formally measured numbers of platforms during the cold war because we were preparing for an essentially attritional campaign that would hold back Soviet and Warsaw pact forces. Technology has moved on since then, and the nature of warfare has fundamentally changed. The capability of our armed forces is growing as intelligence is combined with target acquisition, modern communications and precision weaponry to produce new capabilities, allowing a commander in the field to deliver a range of combined effects. Military tasks can be completed in much less time, with far greater accuracy and correspondingly lower risk to our armed forces. In 2003, we were able to deploy to the Gulf in less than half the time that that had taken 12 years earlier, and our aircraft were able to hit targets with less ordnance, using better target acquisition and precision weaponry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) on an extremely thoughtful speech in response to the challenges faced by the defence sector. It is important that Members, particularly those with experience of defence, should look carefully at the background and context in which decisions are taken. However, modernisation certainly does not mean undermining our key strengths, not least of which are the much-valued links with the communities in which our people live and work. That is certainly the case with Scotland. Scotland has one of the largest defence footprints in the United Kingdom. The Ministry of Defence has almost 50 core defence sites in Scotland and many minor units. All three services—the Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force—are well represented.

Although we have no plans for significant changes to that footprint, we must always continue to ensure that we are delivering defence capability in the most cost-effective way. However, I have no doubt about the importance of Scottish sites within the Ministry of Defence estate. In total, there are 14,000 services personnel in Scotland and more than 7,000 civilian personnel. There are also 5,300 members of the volunteer reserve forces based in Scotland; many thousands of regular services personnel based outside Scotland train there each year.

The impact and footprint of defence extends beyond its military bases and facilities. The defence industry sustains thousands of jobs in Scotland, and has an important role in supporting research and high-tech manufacturing there. In turn, Scottish industry produces much of the cutting-edge and technologically advanced equipment on which the United Kingdom's armed forces depend. A few examples are the work on landing ships and Type 45 destroyers at Govan, Raytheon at Glenrothes, which works on the airborne stand-off radar and precision-guided bombs, and the Thales land and joint division, which produces optical products, thermal imaging devices and a host of others. This past year alone, the estimated spend on contracts placed with Scottish companies was £600 million; more than 400 new contracts were placed.

The Ministry of Defence is deeply committed to Scotland and, I am pleased to say, the armed forces remain as deeply engaged in Scottish life as ever they have been. That tradition will continue, and it is something to be celebrated. What cannot be sensible, however, is for that relationship to be set in aspic, or used in argument as a barrier to modernisation. We need to make adjustments to our force structure across the United Kingdom to ensure that our armed forces are best placed to face the challenges of the 21st century. That brings me to the issue of Army regiments.

The hon. Member for North Tayside has given me the opportunity to pay tribute to the proud history of Scottish regiments. History documents their bravery, skill and fearsome reputation on the battlefield, and they continue to serve this country courageously and diligently. That record continues to the present day. One of the great privileges of my job is to visit our armed forces on operations and hear first-hand accounts of their actions. Several times in recent years I have been hosted in operational theatres, from the Balkans to Iraq, by several Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. I have never ceased to be impressed by their professionalism and bravery.

For reasons that I have already outlined, we require the modern Army to be flexible, structured and equipped to deploy rapidly around the world, and able to generate the right capability in a less predictable and more complex environment. The threats that we face are changing, and if the Army is to continue to be successful on operations—all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate have insisted that that is so—it must adapt to the changing strategic environment.

It might be helpful, therefore, to explain the detailed rationale behind the Army's plans for its future, part of which is a move to the "future army structure", which represents a move to more coherent brigades, properly supported by the appropriate enabling capabilities and manned robustly. It is designed to make the Army more useable, robust and relevant to the modern age. We aim to create a more balanced force structure, so that in addition to our current mix of heavy and light forces, we will have a true medium-weight capability that is able to intervene in events faster than our heavy forces, but with more combat power than our light forces. In future, we will have two heavy armoured brigades, three medium-weight brigades, and a light brigade, in addition to the Air Assault and Royal Marines Commando brigades.

Pete Wishart

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hoon

If I can make a little progress, I will give way in due course.

At the same time, the Army is taking advantage of a reduction in commitments to take this restructuring further and, in turn, these plans further drive the requirement for a "future infantry structure", central to which is a reduction in battalion numbers that has been made possible by the progress made towards lasting peace in Northern Ireland and the ending of the arms plot. Following consultation between the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, it was concluded that four battalions could be removed from his command, as they were no longer required for routine support to the PSNI.

Pete Wishart

Will the Secretary of State give way on that point?

Mr. Hoon

I shall make a little more progress first, because I want to deal with the arguments that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

This situation has presented the Army with an opportunity to take forward the planned restructuring and transfer of resources released from the Northern Ireland task to strengthen other parts of the Army, thereby concentrating on those capabilities that can best deliver the effect we require.

I announced in July that the infantry would be reduced from 40 to 36 battalions, precisely reflecting the commitment that we will no longer have in Northern Ireland. Three battalions would be found from England and one from Scotland. That judgment was made after taking into account a range of factors, including manning and recruitment levels, geographical representation, and the need to ensure the appropriate balance of roles and specialist capabilities within the remaining 36 battalions.

With the reduction of four battalions, including one from the Scottish Division, around 2,500 posts will be released and redistributed across the Army. Some will be reinvested back into the infantry itself, including Scottish battalions, to develop more robust and resilient units. Others will go to strengthen high-demand trades such as logisticians, engineers, signallers and intelligence, which are crucial to a sustainable expeditionary capability and are even more heavily deployed than the infantry at present. In other words, those people will go to areas highlighted by our recent operational experience. That is precisely the point that I put to the Conservative spokesman.

It is all very well talking about overstretch, but the real overstretch, if it has existed in recent years, has been felt by the enablers and supporters of the infantry. It is not possible to deploy infantry battalions unless specialists are available to support them. What I am doing is designed to assist those people in having a more reasonable life in the Army, which is why the Army Board is strongly in favour of it. Those people are more heavily committed than our infantry battalions.

Posts will be reduced because the infantry battalion commitment to Northern Ireland will no longer be required, and that will leave us with a straightforward choice. I challenge any hon. Member here to say that, given the reduction in the commitment to Northern Ireland, we should simply put those four infantry battalions into the regular order of battle, rather than look at where the real pressures are in the Army. I cannot understand anyone making the point about overstretch not recognising that fact.

Pete Wishart

Will the Secretary of State concede that there is overstretch in our infantry regiments and, if not, can he explain why the Black Watch is serving its second tour of duty in Iraq and has not been home for the past four Christmases?

Mr. Hoon

I am not in any doubt that the entire Army—and indeed all our armed forces—have faced higher pressures in recent years. There have been more operations, more demands on their time and more effects on them and their families than, arguably, at any other time in recent history. No one can argue that, and I certainly shall not try. However, as we consider our commitments and our organisation, we have to make a judgment about which parts of the armed forces are to develop because they are likely to be necessary in future, and which parts, bearing in mind the overall pressures on everyone, we can maintain at roughly the present level.

Hon. Members really need to think the matter through. For the moment, we have four infantry battalions dedicated to Northern Ireland. By reducing that commitment, we are not putting greater pressure on our infantry battalions in what we do in future. What I then have to decide, and what hon. Members have to think through more carefully, if they will forgive me for saying so, is how to use those 2,500 posts. What I am suggesting seems perfectly sensible: we should look at where the pressures are in the Army today and use those surplus positions—the result of the reduction in the commitment in Northern Ireland—to ensure that we have the kind of structure, organisation and people that we need in future. If hon. Members were in the Army, that is the conclusion that they, too, would reach, because those people know what sorts of pressures are faced by logisticians, signallers, and our communications and intelligence people. I am afraid that it is a fairly straightforward exchange.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD)

There is a great deal in the Secretary of State's analysis with which I would agree, not least because it compares favourably, if I may say so, with the sort of analysis which lay behind "Options for Change" and "Front Line First". However, if he is right that there is an opportunity because of changed circumstances in Northern Ireland, is it not sensible to take that opportunity to provide the infantry capability that, as he pointed out recently—in the past two year—has been under such considerable pressure? He may recall that the defence review of 1998 talked about defence diplomacy. If we have extra battalions now available, why do we not put some real meat on the bones of defence diplomacy?

Mr. Hoon

I do not disagree with the principle but, generally speaking, defence diplomacy does not require the deployment of a battalion. Even allowing for that—[Interruption.] It could do; I accept that. However, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, and he is a thoughtful observer of such matters, sustaining battalions wherever they happen to be in the world requires all the people I described: logisticians, communicators, and intelligence. They have to ensure that the battalion can operate effectively. Therefore, as we have a number of commitments simultaneously across the world, it makes sense to ensure that we have the right numbers of those people. That is why it is necessary to look carefully at the balance of our structure.

Even the best infantry in the world—I am sure that everyone here will agree that ours is among the very best—needs the highest quality support to be truly effective, even when peacekeeping—a point I just made to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. In the current strategic environment, Britain needs to have the most effective Army possible. That is what our changes are about: directing our resources to the capability needed most. That must be the right way forward.

Equally important are the proposals to ensure that we make the best use of our infantry. For several decades, we have moved infantry battalions from role to role and place to place every few years—the arms plot. That was needed to maintain broad experience and variety. But times change, and the Army Board has concluded that in order to meet the operational challenges of the future, the provision of infantry capability in that way is no longer sustainable.

The facts speak for themselves. The loss of capability incurred by battalions moving, "re-roleing" and retraining clearly outweighs the benefits it once provided. For example, this year 10 battalions out of 40 in the order of battle have been unavailable to us for between two and six months simply as a result of the arms plot. Recently, General Jackson made the point in an article that it cannot make sense, when Members of Parliament and commentators talk about overstretch to have, as we will in the future, 36 battalions rather than 26 or 27 that are available when we are arms plotting. This is a perfectly straightforward and sensible change.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con)

Does the Secretary of State not understand the real confusion that exists, which has been referred to by several hon. Gentlemen here this morning? Everyone supports the reform of the arms plot and the doing away with it. However, in order to do that and bring greater stability to the Army and greater security to military families, it is not necessary to cut four battalions of infantry. Will he deal with that problem? Furthermore, will he deal with the point, peripherally raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) that to remove six ships from the Royal Navy and equip the rest with network-centric technology does not increase capability?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that I gave way, as I have already dealt with the point about the four battalions. The hon. Gentleman must consider carefully the consequences of dealing with the arms plot. During this debate, the point has been rightly raised by hon. Members that it is necessary to provide a breadth of experience, variety and different kinds of training to the young men and women who join our armed forces, in particular the Army. That cannot be done with single regimental battalions fixed in a particular location. That drives, necessarily and absolutely logically, the creation of these larger organisations, and there is no other way of achieving it. The hon. Gentleman is chuntering from the Back Benches, but he needs to think this through. He cannot say, "I believe in an end to the arms plot" without explaining the implications that that has for force structure, and I have heard no evidence of that.

Annabelle Ewing

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hoon

I need to make a little more progress.

Battalions will be fixed by role, largely by location. We will release resources that are routinely tied up in moving location or retraining so that more battalions can be used on operations instead. That will help to relieve the operational burden across the Army. To ensure that that works—and this is crucial—individuals will need to move between battalions for career development and to increase their breadth of experience. In the interest of preserving the regimental system, and the value that it brings, that argues for a future infantry structure based on regiments of two or more battalions, as indeed half the infantry is already organised.

To accommodate the end of the arms plot, Scotland's single battalion regiments will need to reorganise among themselves to form regiments of two or more battalions. No decisions have yet been made, but logically the possibilities obviously include one regiment of five battalions, or two regiments of two and three battalions. Taking those various elements together, a period of considerable change is inevitable. But the case for those changes is undeniable and compelling. It represents the best future for the Army and for the individuals in it.

Annabelle Ewing


Mr. Hoon

It is important for all those who say that they are speaking on behalf of those serving in the Army and their families to look at the implications of the arms plot for those people. Being moved every two years does not help family security or stability. Some hon. Members should think that through carefully.

Anyone involved in the decisions recognises that whatever the merits of the approach, change is bound to be difficult for those most affected, both for individuals and historic regiments. That is one of the reasons why it is vital that hon. Members, instead of going back to their constituencies and misrepresenting what the Government are proposing, look carefully at what we have advocated. There is no reason why the changes will mean a loss of identity or history. The battalions can preserve their identity within a larger structure; there is no reason why that should not happen under our proposals. If I thought that hon. Members were prepared to consider that approach, I would be much more impressed by some of the arguments that have been advanced today. Preserving the identity of historic battalions is vital, but it needs to be done in the context of the kinds of changes that we are seeing. I would appeal to all those who think carefully about these matters to consider that.

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