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3.30 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate for two reasons: first, because I was prevented from taking part in the recent defence debates because of Standing Committee commitments, and, secondly, because this debate on the future of the infantry precedes tomorrow's debate on the Scottish regiments.

I have no doubt that emotions will run high, with the Black Watch at present in the eye of the storm in Iraq. However, the Black Watch is part of the British Army—it is not, as some have described it, part of a Scottish army—and I am sure that the Black Watch itself recognises that what is good for its future is good for all the single battalion regiments threatened with disbandment, merger or forced absorption into larger regiments. We should not be pitting regiment against regiment in the fight for survival. It is also particularly fitting to be discussing these matters just after Remembrance Sunday, when we remember the sacrifice of all our forces who fell in defence of the United Kingdom and to preserve our freedom as a nation state.

The Cheshire Regiment is the only infantry regiment that, in its long and distinguished history, has remained a discrete shire regiment, apart from the Green Howards, a local regiment that recruits from north Yorkshire and Teesside; I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) in his place. The Cheshires, together with many other regiments, took a terrible pounding during their recent tour of Iraq, just as they did in Bosnia. We should pay tribute to our British forces, which are the finest in the world. They are perhaps not always the best equipped, but they are certainly the best trained, and they are unique in having a regimental system, which ensures loyalty, stability and support, rather like a close-knit family.

When the Minister announced the future Army establishment figure of about 102,000 on 21 July, he did so in the knowledge that trained strength stood at 104,130, and that the increased target figure had been achieved over the previous three years. The Army Board is therefore recommending a cut in numbers not from trained strength, and the reduction of four shire and local infantry regiments will just involve moving personnel around.

To make the case that those redundant infantry personnel would move to other sectors of the Army—in particular, to logistics, engineers, intelligence and signals—is nonsense. The Army Board knows full well that infantry soldiers are a very different breed, and are not necessarily best suited to joining those corps. They do not have the appropriate qualifications, and neither are such moves actually necessary, because rapid improvement in recruitment to those corps in the past 18 months has nearly removed the shortfall—and, in the case of the Royal Corps of Signals, has achieved a 2.5 per cent. oversupply.

A year ago, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, stated in response to a written parliamentary question that

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In March this year, the Army Board met the colonels for the first time. What happened in those four months to reverse the decision not to disband any single battalion regiment? We are told that the reason was the reduction of battalions in Northern Ireland and the ending of   the   arms plot. The future Army structure has its advantages, but the Army Board is being over-optimistic if it thinks that the present level of overstretch can be overcome and that normality can be brought back to intervals between roles as a result of what it is recommending.

Training, which is essential and keeps British troops at their very best, still has to be done after operational tours. It is a fact borne out by experience that when regiments have been amalgamated in the past, recruitment has deteriorated. On recruitment, I am awaiting a reply on whether any capping or restriction has taken place. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the future Army structure relates to or is based on the proposed future rapid effect system formation?

The recent solution was to use the Territorial Army, from which personnel are disappearing fast; the TA is   now some 12 per cent. under establishment. The Army Board does not appear to appreciate that the TA   comprises, first and foremost, civilian volunteers. Neither they nor their employers will be a position to accept six-month tours of duty stretching to nine months. To state, as the Secretary of State did in a letter to me, that the TA knows what it has signed up to is arrogant. Those who say that TA members get paid should remember that their pay is about 40 per cent. of what a retained fireman receives.

Why do the cuts proposed by the Army Board fall   entirely on four shire and local regiments? It is inconceivable that the executive committee of the Army Board has advised that three regiments should go out of two divisions. We know the pressure that the Army is under, yet the Army Board has deliberately pitted the Prince of Wales and King's Divisions against each other as to which will sustain the second cut. It is nothing less than a disgrace that senior command has put those in the front line under such extra pressure.

The Prince of Wales and King's Divisions also have 58 per cent. fewer Commonwealth personnel than the Queen's and Light Divisions. That is one of the criteria listed after recruiting levels. Why, therefore, are reductions not being proposed for the Queen's and Light Divisions, the Parachute Regiment, which has not been used in a paratroop role since the Suez crisis, or the Guards Division?

The shire and local regiments are ideal for peacekeeping and reconstruction work. Today's infantry has to switch rapidly from being an effective fighting force to becoming a policing and social force. The Americans in particular are finding out to their cost that they need such troops, and not just death-or-glory boys or those sitting 20 miles behind a supposed conventional front line surrounded by technology. The whole nation knows that the fight against terrorism and tyranny rests with the infantry, which is 24 per cent. of the trained strength of the Army.

The Prime Minister has pledged 12,500 troops to the European defence force, and 35 per cent. of them—the equivalent of seven battalions—are to be infantry troops. On the one hand, the Army Board recommends
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a cut in a certain sector of the infantry, while on the other, the Prime Minister guarantees a higher-than-ever commitment for that sector. The argument will be that the commitment rests on a case-by-case basis, but can one really see the Prime Minister saying to the European Union, "Sorry chaps, I cannot fulfil my obligations to you"? We can bet that the EU will find some beneficial crisis to bring about EU involvement and that those troops will be called up. Next month, under Operation Althea, the Grenadier Guards will be deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of an EU force.

The Ministry has made it very clear that those regimental cuts are not down to finance, so perhaps we had better look elsewhere. That is surprising when we see that General Sir Michael Jackson is quoted in today's paper as saying:

I have tabled three parliamentary questions on finance, but have not yet received a straight answer. Perhaps that is not surprising in the circumstances. General Jackson also said in an interview with Soldier magazine that

That is why four shire and local regiments are to go: manpower is to be replaced by technology that is not even yet available.

I say to the Secretary of State that there should be no cuts to those regiments until the technology is up, running and of proven capability. If General Jackson thinks that the future rapid effect system will be operational by 2010, I believe that he is much mistaken, as do many others. The recent House of Commons research paper on the defence White Paper "Future Capabilities" clearly points out the disaster areas: the   Eurofighter, which was late and over budget; the   Astute Class submarine; the Nimrod MR4A; and the Brimstone advanced air-launched anti-armour weapon.   Neither should we overlook the Bowman communications system. What a gamble is being taken by throwing caution to the winds and thinking that technology will be delivered on time and on budget, while getting rid of what we know works.

Our forces are not conscripts; they are professional soldiers doing a brilliant job, often under terrible pressure. The Army Board, if the Secretary of State would like to listen, should take better care not to push them over the limit. This affects people's lives and is a very serious matter. However, one can see why General Jackson wants to strengthen the medium section of the Army to comply with the introduction of a rapid reaction force, which means airlift. He is planning a futuristic Army for 20 years down the line, but surely we must learn the lessons of Iraq and Falluja, where technology has played its part, but where street fighting in urban warfare is done by low-tech tanks and infantry. We are no longer fighting conventional wars. The enemy is all around us, dressed in civilian clothes. High technology can of course work in the right situation, but a boy herding goats who has a $20 grenade launcher can take out a multi-million pound piece of high-tech equipment without much difficulty.
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The final decision rests with the Secretary of State, and the future of the British infantry rides on his shoulders. It is his head and that of the Government as a whole that will be on the block, and not that of the Army Board. We all know that we live in dangerous times and that British security is under continuing threat. The Government should act responsibly and show caution. In no circumstances should they introduce cuts to existing units until the war on terrorism has been won.

The answer is not to destroy the culture, values, tradition and loyalty of the smaller regiments. Experience has already taught us that larger regiments do not retain the same levels of recruitment. I look forward to meeting the Secretary of State later this afternoon with other colleagues from Cheshire. We will seek to impress on him our conviction that what works and works well should not be destroyed, and that it can never be replaced by unproven future technology.

I trust that common sense will prevail in the end and that the British infantry will not be emasculated in the way that is proposed.

3.41 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on securing this debate, and I thank her for   allowing me a few moments to raise the concerns of several Yorkshire Members, including the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), about the future of our three Yorkshire regiments—the Duke of Wellington's, the Prince of Wales and the Green Howards, which is one of the oldest regiments in Britain and the one thought to be most at risk in Yorkshire. The Green Howards have recently returned from Afghanistan and served with such distinction that one of their number, Captain Pledger, received a very rare commendation from the commander of the multinational brigade.

If we are to win the hearts and minds of the local population in Afghanistan and defeat terrorism, that is exactly the kind of peacekeeping work that is so sorely needed, and it is what makes the British Army the envy of the world. The support of the local community is what helps to make the difference. In our service of remembrance at Old Malton priory on Sunday, the standard of the Green Howards Association stood proudly, as it has done for generations.

The Army proposed to cut four single battalion regiments. Thus far, I understand that the Army Board has identified a regiment each from the Prince of Wales Division, the King's Division and the Scottish Division, but is having difficulty identifying the fourth regiment. The outcry from Scotland, which will be debated here tomorrow, is obviously aimed at preventing any cut in Scotland, yet if the cuts were shared fairly, there would be two cuts in Scotland and only two in England. It would be completely unacceptable for all the cuts to fall on the English divisions. The Scottish regiments do not have a monopoly on regimental history, traditions and local ties, and the manning criteria set by the Army indicate that Scotland would be very fortunate to escape with one cut if the cuts go ahead.

The King's Division of northern England regiments has already agreed to accept one cut, as the Secretary of State knows, which is likely to fall west of the Pennines.
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A second cut against the King's Division would be grossly disproportionate and very wasteful of highly trained infantrymen, and it would lead to under-manning and redundancies.

The Yorkshire regiments are being very positive and constructive in looking to the future by campaigning for a Yorkshire regiment of three battalions and one Territorial Army battalion. I suggest to the Secretary of State that that could be a real success story. This is a highly dangerous time to be cutting infantry battalions at all. The Northern Ireland peace dividend and the ending of arms plotting will not free up as many battalions as was first thought, given present and future operational commitments to which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred.

If there are to be cuts, the Army Board should stick with the three cuts that it has identified and forget about the fourth.

3.44 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.57 pm

On resuming—

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon) : I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann   Winterton) for introducing this debate on the future of the infantry. I look forward to explaining once again why we are doing what we are doing and I   welcome this opportunity to address some concerns that have been raised about the future size and structure of the Army.

The reasons behind the need to modernise the Army have been well rehearsed previously. Hon. Members will be familiar with our analysis of the changing strategic environment and the new challenges that it represents. We set those out in our December 2003 White Paper and our July 2004 announcement. It is clear both that no organisation can stand still and that the Army is no different. It must evolve and adapt to future challenges as our world changes. Only by doing so will the Army maintain its ability to tackle whatever task it is faced with and continue to achieve the operational success that is the hallmark of Britain's armed forces.

The changes planned for the infantry are part of that evolution. There are two key factors driving our plans. The first is the conclusion by the Army Board that the infantry arms plot no longer represents the best way to   deliver operational capability. The decision to end the arms plot demanded restructuring the infantry to sustain the strength of the regimental system. The second factor is the progress towards lasting peace in Northern Ireland and the consequent flexibility to reassign units committed to supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland, allowing a reduction in the number of infantry battalions.

That change provided the opportunity to transfer resources to strengthen other parts of the Army and concentrate on those capabilities that can best deliver the effect that we require. The decrease in the support needed by the PSNI led us to conclude that the future requirement for infantry battalions would decrease from 40 to 36. Given that making those reductions
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would free up some 2,500 posts, this offered an opportunity to reinvest the posts to deliver the robust and resilient organisation that we need to meet the challenges of the future.

Let me make it clear that the driver behind the exercise is not financial. In the last spending review, the Government announced an extra £3.7 billion for defence. The exercise reflects the need to ensure that the   Army of the future is properly configured to meet the priorities and challenges of the future, rather than of the past. Some 550 of the posts freed up will be reinvested in the remaining infantry battalions to develop more robust and resilient units. The rest will go towards strengthening high-demand trades that are crucial to a sustainable expeditionary capability, such as intelligence, signallers, engineers, logistics—in other words, those areas under still greater pressure as highlighted by our recent operational experience.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that I commanded his, mine and   others' local regiment, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, when we were a Warrior battalion in Tidworth. We were there for nearly six years, which, at the time, was an unusually long tour. We pretty well negated the effects of the arms plot. My battalion was reinforced by the Cheshire Regiment, the Staffordshire Regiment and regiments across the Prince of Wales Division. I am told that it worked well. We were not a super-regiment; we kept our identity. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Mr. Hoon : Because it is not working as we would like. The problem with the hon. Gentleman's illustration is that trickle posting certain positions in that way puts extra pressure on the battalions from which those people have come. We have experienced that cascading difficulty for some time.

Furthermore, the proposed reform is simply the continuation of changes that have been brought forward by previous Army Boards and Governments. Half the Army was organised on one basis while the other half was organised on an entirely different basis. In a sense, that is unfinished business for the Army and it really is time that it was completed.

Ann Winterton : The Secretary of State has made a fairly lame excuse. The Government have been in power for seven years and they can do more or less what they like. Frankly, the situation in the world has changed during those seven years and we are now having to deal with terrorism. As I am intervening, will he also confirm whether the future Army structure will be based on the future rapid effect system?

Mr. Hoon : I shall deal with that matter in due course. I gave way to the hon. Lady on the basis that she was about to address the point I was making. My argument is clear: we cannot continue indefinitely with two different structures for our Army—different structures that previous Governments anticipated would change and failed to carry through. This is the Army finishing that business.

I want to make progress. I challenge any hon. Member to say that, given the reduction in the commitment to Northern Ireland—which is real—we
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should simply put those four saved infantry battalions into the regular order of battle inadequately supported by the enabling trades, rather than look at where the pressures are in the Army today. If Opposition Members really had genuine concern about our armed forces, they would be saying, "Secretary of State, you should be helping those parts of the Army that are most under pressure." I am not suggesting that infantry battalions are not under pressure, but they are not as much under pressure in the context of tour cycles, tour intervals and leave at home with families as precisely those whom we intend to augment. Unless and until Opposition Members can deal with that issue, all they are doing is making cheap points for the benefit of their local newspapers.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Until now, I thought that the Secretary of State had been reasonable. However, most informed members of the defence community have seen a credibility gap in that infantry battalions are being disbanded to free up posts for intelligence logisticians. As a result, members of the Black Watch, whoever they are, will be transferred to be logisticians or signallers. No one doubts the fact that there is a requirement for such people, but as General Jackson said in The Sun today, the problem is that he would like a larger Army. That is his premise.

Mr. Hoon : I shall deal with that issue in due course.

Bringing to an end the infantry arms plot will ensure that we have far more military capability from our resources. Again, I invite hon. Members to consider the issue carefully. If their complaint is that there is far too much pressure on infantry battalions, what we are doing will relieve that pressure significantly. I shall explain why: for several decades we have moved infantry battalions from role to role and place to place every few years. That action maintained broad experience and variety, but it also hampered the availability of infantry battalions. Times have changed and the Army Board has rightly taken the view that the diminution of our capability through the arms plot is impractical and inefficient.

Some hon. Members will be familiar with the detail, but let me restate it. Of the 40 battalions in the order of battle, seven or eight are unavailable at any one time because they are moving or re-roling. I have heard no objections from Opposition Members to that. Let me give some recent examples. In March, the highlanders moved to Germany to begin their armoured infantry training, which meant that they were unavailable for   some seven months. In September 2003, the Scots Guards began its conversion and was similarly unavailable for six months. In terms of physical disruption, our local regiment, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, to which the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) kindly referred and which is serving in Afghanistan, where I visited it last week, will shortly move from Chester to Hounslow. Neither place is particularly near Worcestershire, Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire, where most of the men were recruited.
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Patrick Mercer : I am again grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene. None of us, particularly those who have suffered at the hands of the nonsense that is the arms plot in today's Army, would argue with him. However, the fact remains—I think he is being a little disingenuous—in respect of this being unfinished business. It is not half the infantry that has   been reorganised; it is a third. We went through this process in the 1960s and it failed. The Cheshires, the    Staffords, the Sherwood Foresters and the Worcestershire Regiment were to be grouped, believe it or not, as the Mercian brigade. The same tired idea is being resurrected. That organisation was known in the Army as "the Mexicans". I promise him that it is not a good idea to reintroduce it—if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Mr. Hoon : I had a long conversation with the commanding officer of the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters last week and I gently reminded him of what happened in 1970, when people from the Sherwood Foresters—perhaps the hon. Gentleman was among them—said that it would be impossible for people from Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Sherwood Foresters ever to work satisfactorily with the Worcestershires. Now, there is a campaign to preserve that merged identity. I find that slightly ironic in the circumstances.

I want to stress to hon. Members another effect of frequent changes of location. They are massively disruptive to the family life of members of our armed forces. That is such an issue in terms of retention that we have to address it. Because of changes in society, family stability has become much more of an issue. Ending the arms plot will mean that the Army is able to offer much greater stability for soldiers and their families.

Those significant benefits are powerful arguments for change and they explain why those serving in the Army overwhelmingly welcome our proposals. I recognise that there is a concern about our armed forces on the other side of the House and among all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. However, that concern must not simply be historic, relating to regimental names and titles. Those who genuinely believe that the arms plot must come to an end have also to follow through the logic of how to achieve that.

The hon. Member for Newark has made one suggestion, and I will reflect on it. However, the reality is that the Army believes that the best way to deal with an end to the arms plot is restructuring of the kind that has been outlined. Therefore it is important—

Patrick Mercer : What about the Guards?

Mr. Hoon : We can deal with the Guards in due course, as part of the process. I do not suggest that the logic does not apply equally in that case. In future, battalions will   be fixed by role and largely by location. That will release resources routinely tied up in moving location or   retraining so that they can, instead, be used on operations. As a result, the Army will be more capable and more effective because—to answer one of specific points raised by the hon. Member for Newark—more battalions will be available for operations and because the new structure will provide continuity of expertise in role and greater brigade coherence, which is dissipated by the arms plot.
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That increase in available battalions is over and above the increases resulting from the reduced commitment to Northern Ireland. We will be better off in terms of operational availability. It will be possible for the career development of officers and senior non-commissioned officers to be much more carefully planned. At the moment, it depends partly on what role a battalion has at any given time.

To make that work, however, individuals will need to move between battalions for career development and increased breadth of experience. In the interests of preserving the regimental system and the value that it brings, we need a future infantry structure based on larger regiments of two or more battalions. I emphasise that that is not a new concept. Nearly half the infantry is already organised in that way and it operates extremely effectively. Multi-battalion regiments will allow individuals to move around for personal development while a sense of regimental identity is also maintained. That way, it will be possible to deliver the advantages of ending the arms plot in terms of operational effectiveness and family stability while preserving the benefits and traditions of our regimental system.

All the divisions of infantry have been tasked to consider how they can best model themselves to take full advantage of ending the arms plot, taking account of the need to reduce by four battalions in total. Their recommendations will be put to the executive committee of the Army Board. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, no decisions have been made, and it is important that the Army is given the opportunity to determine the structure that will best deliver the operational effectiveness we need.

In due course, the Army Board will make recommendations about the future organisation of the infantry. They will be presented to Ministers for final approval, and I expect to announce the outcome before the Christmas recess.

Mr. Simpson : I am grateful to the Secretary of State, who is being very generous in giving way. A few minutes
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ago, in the context of the reorganisation of the Army, he gave the impression that the restructuring will affect the Household Division. Can he say in what way?

Mr. Hoon : It is important that there is consistency. Part of the argument that I made to the hon. Member for Newark is that we cannot go on with two different structures. Therefore, we need to look at the implications of this for all elements in the Army. No one will be immune; this applies equally well across the board.

Given the emphasis that is placed on history, the point needs to be made that very few of our regiments or corps exist today in the same form as they existed in the relatively recent past. Since 1958, 54 infantry regiments have been subject to amalgamation, 21 of them since "Options for Change" was published in 1990. I have mentioned the amalgamation of the Worcestershire Regiment and the Sherwood Foresters. At the time, that was strongly resisted in the east midlands, but it has produced a strong regiment that works extremely effectively, notwithstanding the fact that there are still people in the east midlands who want to return to having a Sherwood Foresters Regiment. Such is the case in many parts of the country, but it is important that we deal with the reality of operations today and the threats we will face in the future.

There has been a constant process of change and regeneration in which new organisations have been created that have fostered previous military renown while developing their own traditions and reputations to    engender loyalty and camaraderie. Many of today's   excellent large infantry regiments are perfect illustrations of that process. I have no doubt that the new structure to be recommended for the infantry will not only seek to retain existing geographical linkages, but in due course enhance them. With soldiers and their families at last having a chance of greater stability, the result can only give even greater identity between regiments and their local communities. Given the support that regiments can depend on, that can only be good for all of us. It is important that Members think about the future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Time is up.
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