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12.47 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley) for raising the issue and congratulate him, not for the first time, on being lucky enough to introduce this important subject for discussion on the Floor of the House.

I should say at the outset that while I recognise the temptation to go down the route that he took towards the end of his speech, this is not a matter of argument between Scotland and England. I am the Minister for the Armed Forces who serve the United Kingdom. United Kingdom Land Command is charged with looking at the structure and management of the armed forces throughout the United Kingdom; it is not taking decisions on the basis of Scotland and England, but according to what is best for the Army. It is not taking decisions merely in respect of the north of England and Scotland, but in respect of Wales, the south of England and London, as my hon. Friend said. I fully understand the passion that my hon. Friend brings to these matters, but it is wrong to believe that a decision will be made in isolation about Scotland and the north of England--the question must be put in its wider context.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The arguments about the integrity of United Kingdom forces and where the Land Command should best be located have been eloquently put by the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley). As the Land Command has already moved once in the past 10 years--from the Colchester garrison in the eastern area to York--does the Minister agree that it is wrong that it should face another move even further north, to a place that is even less central? Will he assure the House--I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said--that full public consultation and debate will occur before any decision is reached?

Dr. Reid: I shall not give an assurance to condemn anything simply because it involves change. The whole point of the strategic defence review is to test what will be the optimum configuration of forces and their tasks.

I say to the hon. Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) with great respect that, in the past five decades, no subject in the Ministry of Defence has received more public discussion, consultation, submissions--there have been more than 600--seminars, scrutiny or debates on the Floor of the House than the strategic defence review.

I have personally answered more than 20 detailed questions on whether the headquarters should be based at York or Edinburgh, which hon. Members are entitled to read. On 5 March, I discussed the matter fully with my hon. Friend the Member for City of York, who brought representatives to meet me. Moreover, we are having an Adjournment debate on it this afternoon. If the hon. Members for Vale of York or for Ryedale had been sufficiently interested to ask to meet me, I would have discussed the matter with them, too. I do not accept that either I or the Ministry of Defence have been guilty of omission in discussing the issue publicly.

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I have enormous respect for the traditions, loyalty and the efforts made at recruitment in the north of England--I fully recognise them, as does the United Kingdom Land Command. I shall not respond to some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York raised, as he seems to have seen some papers that I have not seen and I do not necessarily agree with all the statistics that he used--statistics are rarely objective, although we are all perfectly entitled to use them to present our point of view.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. He is extremely well informed, not least, I should like to think, because we discussed the subject in my office a month ago--we have been as open as possible in providing information. I have answered a large number of his parliamentary questions and letters--I think that the most recent was only yesterday evening--and I have told him everything that I can at this stage.

Our policy has been to be open, which I hope is to our credit. It is to my hon Friend's credit that he has diligently advanced what he believes to be in the interests of his constituents--and, he would argue, in the interests of the Army--so that I know what those interests are when the proposals are put to me on the future structure of the Army in the United Kingdom.

I say to him again--notwithstanding reports in The Daily Telegraph this morning--that he seems to have the advantage over me, as no such proposals have been put to me. I shall not reply to some of his detailed points, because he is asking me to defend a proposal that has not been made in advance of a decision that I have not taken. The House will not be surprised to note that I shall not fall into that trap.

Mr. Greenway: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his clarification. As Members of Parliament, we are not absolved of criticism if there are matters about which we should have known and taken action, but I believe that the fact that no proposals have been put to anyone explains why there has been no public debate in the York area. The news that Imphal barracks may close will come as a bombshell to the people of York--the proposal will be greatly resisted.

Dr. Reid: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been for the past four months, but I should have thought that anyone who has read the Yorkshire papers, the Scottish papers or, indeed, Hansard--as I said, I have answered 20 questions on the matter--would be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York has been raising these issues.

We need to distinguish between what is being said and what is actually being proposed. At the moment, nothing has been proposed. In the strategic defence review, we are treating the restructuring of the United Kingdom Land Command in the same way as we are an immense number of other issues. We have scrutinised every aspect of our posture, configuration, weaponry, procurement process, strategic pose, relationship with NATO, the Army,

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the Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Marines, to ensure that they more efficiently meet the needs of the modern age.

Mr. Bayley: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Reid: Yes, although, given the constraints on time, my hon. Friend is preventing me from giving a full response.

Mr. Bayley: I have two brief points. First, there is no question that Imphal barracks will close, as there is plenty else there, including 2 Signal Regiment and the 15 brigade headquarters, although the fact that the divisional headquarters may move from the barracks is serious.

Secondly, I am not trying to set a trap for my hon. Friend. I do not want him to defend a Scottish headquarters solution; I want him to acknowledge the strength of the English argument for a York base--I am sure that he will weigh it against other arguments--and to come to a decision based on the best military and financial solution.

Dr. Reid: I am glad that my hon. Friend has made it absolutely plain that there is no proposal that Imphal barracks should close--it is not only the divisional headquarters, but encompasses an area brigade headquarters. There are a large number of soldiers in the northern region, including recruits, regulars and reserves, as well as command-and-control facilities; there is no question that they should move. No one has suggested such a proposal in the papers that I have not yet seen. I do not want anyone to create in the Yorkshire area a scare that has no basis in fact.

In general terms, the work that is going on in Land Command is not primarily a cost-cutting exercise or an interregional competition. The aim is not to do things cheaper, come what may, but to do things better. At the same time, we are constantly considering ways in which to ensure efficiency. The Secretary of State has made it clear that the search is for ways in which to deliver our existing or improved military capability at reduced cost--that is what taxpayers expect.

By way of background, the House should note that there were in 1990, and had been since 1972, nine mainland districts in the Army structure, conforming to Government home defence regions. In the 1990s, those nine mainland districts were reduced to five and were then rearranged into six. That is the current arrangement, the operational efficiency of which is being considered.

Not only the numbers, but the roles of the divisions and districts have evolved since the cold war. The divisions are more and more preoccupied with support functions, running the home base for regular troops and the training and administration of the Territorial Army, and less and less involved with planning for operational contingencies, the reinforcement of our forces overseas or home defence. It is a matter not only of numbers, but of structures, efficiency and roles.

We are talking about the home base infrastructure rather than the operational structure of the Army, and the two cannot be put together willy-nilly. The regionally based commands are now largely concerned with supporting functions and the management of resources, not with the operational application of fighting power.

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That is not to disparage the work that is done in those headquarters. Far from it: it is valuable and even essential work that ensures that our forces are ready when called on to carry out their tasks.

This is one of the extremely important issues that will arise from the strategic defence review. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York, with his usual passion and commitment, has once again been an articulate exponent not only of his constituency interest but of the proud and loyal traditions of the north of England. I assure him that, in any decision, the matters that he raised will not go unnoticed. He has not allowed that to happen.

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