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Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for early notice of his statement, and send my best wishes and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames).
Today's announcement has been much trailed and much speculated about, and we would expect some winners and losers. As the Secretary of State rightly said, there have always been changes to the armed forces, not least under the previous Conservative Government. We welcome some of today's announcements. We welcome the move to make the Army more mobile and rapidly deployable, but we have strong concerns about the cuts in infantry numbers, which could leave Britain with its smallest Army since the first Afghan war of 1839.
We accept that the threat to UK security from terrorists and failed states is real. We must adapt our armed forces better to deal with those new threats. The old threats remain, however, and the old demands remain: peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention, and support to the civil powers during floods and foot and mouth. We accept that the logistics are overstretched, but how will that be countered by scrapping infantry regiments?
Can the Secretary of State assure the House of Commons that no member of the armed forces will face compulsory redundancy as a result of the changes that he is announcing today? We welcome the addition to our special forces, for which we called two years ago in our paper, but where will the rangers unit be based? We are pleased that there will be no changes to the Territorial Army and the Gurkhas: that is absolutely right.
The Black Watch is being retained in name only. Why could we not keep all the regimental names? We welcome the end of the arms plot, but it could and
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should have been done without the loss of numbers of battalions. Does that really send the right recruitment and retention message? Does it really encourage members of the public to join and stay in the armed forces?
All the changes presume the continuation of peace in Northern Ireland, and no more overseas deployments. We sincerely hope that that is the case, but while it is possible to axe soldiers in one sentence in the House of Commons, it will take years to bring them back. Is the Secretary of State really confident that he will never have to do that?
I have always recognised that there is a balance between the network-centric, high-tech forces that the Secretary of State wants to be able to work with the United States, and the more traditional capabilitiesthe boots on the groundthat we need today in Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan. We believe, however, that the balance is moving much too far away from the backbone of our armed forcesthe men and women who work and fight with extraordinary courage and skill. There is a price to be paid for high-tech equipment. Today, four battalions of the Army have paid that price, and we believe it is a price not worth paying.
I have made it clear that, in the light of the improved situation in Northern Ireland, we can reduce the number of battalions by four. Those postsaround 2,400along with a further 600 not in infantry battalions will be reused across the Army, partly to strengthen existing infantry battalions where there are shortfalls but mainly to ensure that we have key enablers. Anyone who looks carefully at the way in which the modern British Army is deployed in the world must recognise that key enablers are vital. This is where the Conservatives have missed the point: we can have any number of infantry battalions, but if they cannot be supported in operations in hostile environments such as Afghanistan, there is no purpose in having them. They are there in name only, and cannot be used.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned arrangements for the end of the arms plot. I assure him that our intention is precisely to aid retention. The biggest threat to retention, particularly among trained, experienced members of the modern Army, arises when they have to move home every two years. It is absurd that that practice should continue in the 21st century. Our proposals are entirely retention-positive: they will help us to retain in particular the best skills and the most able people, those who have had the most training in the modern Army. They are about ensuring that we have the right people with the right skills for the future.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab):
I hope my right hon. Friend will accept that I am as relieved now as I was in 1991, when my local regiment survived "Options for Change" while many others were amalgamated into oblivion. I hope that he looks forward as enthusiastically as I do to his appearance before the Defence Committee, along with the Chief of the General Staff, shortly after our return from the recess. Will he explainnow or thenwhy the
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regiments that appear to have survived, and retain a name, a museum and a cap badge, can look forward to the preservation of their historical traditions and high competence? Does he accept that there is no incompatibility between a regiment's survival in reality and its operation in a more coherent regional framework?
I should emphasise that in producing large regiments, a consistent ambition of the Army over many years, we have been guided both by military advicethe strong, firm, clear recommendations of the Armyand by a detailed consultation exercise, which has generated different responses in different parts of the country. Different areas have adopted different approaches. Indeed, the approach in Scotland is different from the approach in my right hon. Friend's part of the countrya part of the country that I share. Our actions, however, have been guided and steered by the Army itself.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Everyone must accept that issues relating to the arms plot need to be constantly revisited, but nothing can disguise the Secretary of State's prevarication over his plans to cut the target size of the Army. Why did the Government come to the House after their election in 1997 with the strategic defence review, proposing to increase the size of the Army to 108,500? It now emerges that they never achieved that and never intended to achieve it, because the money was never made available.
As long as the Government continue to fit the armed forces into a Treasury envelope of the Treasury's choosing rather than matching the resources necessary to meet the demands made of the armed forces, they are taking risks with the security of the country and, indeed, with the lives of our armed forces.
Mr. Hoon: The truth is precisely the opposite of what the hon. Gentleman suggests. Let us assume that we had increased the size of the Army to 108,000. Had that been possible, it would have been based largely on extra infantry battalions. We would have faced exactly the same problem as the one that I have addressed todaythe problem of how to support extra infantry battalions when they are actually deployed.
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises, even since the strategic defence review we have seen a dramatic change in the strategic landscape. We used to organise our armed forces to face a single threat from the Soviet Union with a single line of logistics to support a large number of deployed infantry battalions. We now face multiple threats around the world, including those with which our armed forces must currently deal in Afghanistan. It simply does not make sense to organise the Army along that single line of communications. We need multiple, deployable battalions. I agree that infantry battalions are vital, but they must be supported, and they must be supported from within our existing resources.
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Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in a few years people will look back and wonder why infantry arms plotting survived for so long? The changes that he has announced will result in more deployability, and a more rapid response to overseas developments. Does he also agree that when our troops are in action overseas, it is vital for our soldiers not to have their tours extended beyond the standard six months, and, when they do come home, to have adequate time for training and recuperation?
Mr. Hoon: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a point that, by implication, might embarrass Conservative Members: precisely the same proposals were made by the Army in 1962, in the 1980s and again in the early 1990s. The truth is that Conservative Governments did not have the courage or conviction to see them through. They were incapable of reorganising the Army along the lines that it advocated itself. That demonstrates just how feeble their approach is today. They are trying to pretend that they have never supported our approach, whereas in fact they simply could not see it through.
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