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Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): The shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), very much regrets being unable to respond to the statement today, but he is recovering from an operation.
I thank the Secretary of State formally for giving me advance sight of that dismal statement. This is a dark day for our armed forces. It is an even darker day for the proud regiments that the Government seek to scrap. They have given outstanding service to our country, and we owe them much. In tribute to them, I am making a list of their names and achievements available in the Library.
This is also a day of shame for this discredited and ineffective Defence Secretarydiscredited, because he seeks to hide his direct responsibility for today's decisions behind the coat tails of the generals; and ineffective, because he has abdicated his historic ability to defend our armed forces against the ravages of the Treasury.
Behind the spin, the reality is stark: 19 great regiments gone, infantry battalions cut from 40 to 36, the Army trained establishment cut from its current target of 108,500 to a target of 102,000 by 2008. Today's announcements are dangerous for our country. In the words of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, in The Sunday Telegraph last Sunday, the Army
The Secretary of State says that this is all about reorganisation. None of us is against necessary reorganisation, but this statement was driven not by a need to reorganise but by the Chancellor's demand for financial cuts. I welcome the decision to create a new tri-service ranger unit dedicated to special forces support, but can the Secretary of State confirm that as a result of the changes that he has announced to the Parachute Regiment's structure, there will not now need to be a reduction of a fourth battalion from the infantry of the line?
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The Opposition agree that there is a need for our armed forces to be more usable. We accept that the arms plot is disruptive to families and to the operational needs of the Army. What we do not accept is the Secretary of State's attempt to use that to justify cuts in infantry manpower, or his attempt to paint those cuts as Army driven when, as we know, they are politically driven, and designed to help fill the Chancellor's gaping black hole.
Today, we face considerable threats from terrorism at home and abroad. We have a grossly overstretched Army undertaking major military deployments over- seas. Since the strategic defence review, our armed forces have effectively been conducting continual, concurrent operations, deploying further afield to more places, more frequently, and with a greater variety of missions than was ever assumed. We still have our obligations in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Cyprus, and the Government's White Paper anticipates that, around the world, those obligations will increase.
Even as we speak, our soldiers are fighting in Iraq, where we expect to remain until 2008 at least. I am sure that the whole House welcomes the Black Watch back with pride. We are under pressure to increase our commitment to Afghanistan. To meet some of these burdens, since 1999, approximately 30 per cent. of the Territorial Army has been mobilised to support the regular Army operations overseas.
Today's decision therefore flies in the face of reality. There is a serious military case for more infantry, not less. As Chief of the General Staff General Sir Mike Jackson told The Sun on 16 November:
We would not have made these cutsand, after the election, we will not carry them through. We would not see these regiments go or these battalions reduced. We believe profoundly that these reductions are wrong.
Therefore, let me ask the Secretary of State some questions. What has happened since 1998 to convince him not only to reverse the SDR plans but to introduce further cuts? Have not the threats increased since then? Are not our armed forces today experiencing a greater and more frequent range of operational demands than they did in the 1990s? Has the average interval of 24 months between tours for the infantry been achieved? On Tuesday, we learned that another 900 armed forces reservists were to be drafted to serve in Iraq. Is not one of the main reasons for that that there are not enough regular troops to deploy? After today's statement, there will be even fewer.
The truth is that this statement is not about the welfare of our armed forces. It is not about the security of our country. We were promised new thinking. What we have today are tired old ideas heated up. In the end, it is all about saving money, and I predict that this will not be the end of it. These swingeing cuts to the Army must be seen alongside equally dangerous reductions in the number of surface warships and compulsory redundancies in the RAF.
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Mr. Hoon: First, may I extend the very good wishes of the Government and Labour Members to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)? We wish him a speedy recovery. I extend that on behalf of his many friends in the Ministry of Defence, among whom I count myself. There was some concern, however, at the strength of any new hip with which he would be provided. The research department of the Ministry of Defence is perfectly willing to provide some new materials to ensure that the replacement is fit for its purpose.
I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has approached this debate as he has chosen to do. Clearly, he had a choice: he could have seriously considered these issues, carefully considered the military advice that has been available to him and to Conservative Front-Bench Members, and approached the matter in a proper way. Instead, he has chosen to make party political points, which he is entitled to do, and has produced an entirely incoherent response to a set of carefully thought-out proposals based on the best military advice[Interruption.]
Mr. Speaker: Order. Many hon. Members want to be called to ask a supplementary question, and this is a serious matter for many communities and their regiments. I do not want the Secretary of State to be barracked. He has been asked to answer questions, and he will do so. The House should remember that I can stop a statement at any time. I therefore remind those Members who are heckling of my position: I will not allow the Secretary of State to be barracked in any way.
Mr. Hoon: The incoherence of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's position is demonstrated by the fact that he claims to support the need to reorganise the Army, and appears to recognise, in saying so, that we need more support forces for front-line forces, but he insists at the same time, for party political reasons, that it is necessary, somehow or other, to maintain the same number in the infantry. Anyone who examines these issuesI appreciate that he does not do so on a regular basisknows full well that if we are to deploy large numbers of infantry battalions in the way that we do at present, they must be properly supported. One simply cannot put down infantry battalions in Afghanistan unless they have an appropriate chain of communications to support them there.
Therefore, this is not about cuts, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman and Opposition Members need to understand that. It is about ensuring that the 3,000 posts saved by the improved situation in Northern Ireland are used to support front-line forces. Unless he grasps that, unfortunately, he will do his party and the House a considerable disservice.
Even more importantly, the right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about a grossly overstretched Army. He should look carefully at the figures. Which part of the Army is overstretched? I emphasise that it is not the infantryif he listened to General Jackson on the radio this morning, he will have heard him make the same
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point. The tour interval for the infantry, on average, approaches 22 months. Inevitably, that disguises the fact that parts of the infantry are facing shorter tour intervals. The real question to which he must face up, and which the Opposition must start considering seriously, is that of tour intervals for the support elements. Those people are facing shorter tour intervals than the infantry battalions, and it would therefore be grossly irresponsible for any Government, or putative Government, to pretend that, to address overstretch, they will protect those parts that are less stretched than others. It is a simple, straightforward and undeniable point. If we are to ensure that we have deployable armed forces, they must be supported on those deployments.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made a great deal of the issue of numbers. We will preserve around the same number of people in our modern Army as at presentaround 102,000. He needs to examine carefully, and the Conservative Front-Bench team need to think through a little more carefully than they have done so far, how many people were in the Army in 1997. There were far fewer than there are today. For his criticisms of Army numbers to have any validity, he should have addressed that issue when he was in government. He failed utterly to protect the Army when he was a Cabinet Minister, as there were a whole series of amalgamations and changes. It is simple hypocrisy to come to the House and pretend otherwise.
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