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Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the changes made to the shape of the Army, which match the new challenges facing defence forces in the 21st century and improve the scope for people who serve in the Army to have a stable home life.
Mr. Hoon: Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important in ending the arms plot that we look at the reasons for doing so. It is partly about having more battalions available for operational duties, but a crucial other aspect is to assist retention by providing our armed forces and their families with a greater degree of predictability and stability in future.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): May I correct a misapprehension of several Back Benchers on both sides of the House? The English and Welsh regiments will lose their names, lose their cap badges and, where appropriate, lose their hackles and other regimental appointments: the Scottish regiments will not. With the exception of the King's Own Scottish Borders and the Royal Scots, they are maintaining their names in brackets before the future regimental name. I know that it is all sentiment to the Secretary of State, but to those who have served in these regiments, it is not sentiment, but crucially important. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is dealing unfairly with the English and Welsh regiments.
I do not accept that. The recommendations came from the regional groupings and I know that the hon. Gentleman is wholly familiar with the way in which these matters are decided. I have also made it clear that, as far as possible, the traditional accoutrements can be preserved right across the country, not simply in Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the
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crucial thing about the structure of our armed forces is regimental identity. That is what will remain so important for the future of these regiments.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State explain more clearly how the identity of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment as a whole will be protected in the new merged structure that he has outlined, because it was not that clear from his statement? Will he also confirm that the RGBW is itself the product of a county merger authorised in 1994 under the previous Government?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is entirely correct on his last point. I set out a rather complicated arrangement for the future of the constituent elements of the RGBW. Essentially, the Glosters will go in one direction and the former regiment that was merged into the RGBW will go in a different direction. I am certainly willing to write to my hon. Friend with more detail about how those arrangements will be achieved.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): I sympathise with those loyal service men and women and their families who are most affected by today's announcement of a reorganisation and modernisation of our armed forces. I welcome the fact that the Royal Irish Regiment has been exempted, but will the Secretary of State say for how long that will apply? Will he assure the House that that regiment will not become a political football, subject to the negotiations on Northern Ireland's future?
Mr. Hoon: I will not allow that to happen. That is precisely why I felt it appropriate not to make a decision in relation to the Royal Irish Regiment. As the hon. Gentleman will knowand the representations that I have received from other Northern Ireland Members make it clear that they also recognise thisthere are inevitable consequences of normalisation in Northern Ireland, and the military implications are inevitable. I am sure that he will welcome that, on behalf of the people whom he represents.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): A paper submitted on a joint basis by hon. Members representing constituencies in Cheshire held that the county identity should be protected within the battalion if there were to be a larger grouping in the Prince of Wales Division. I welcome that aspect of my right hon. Friend's important statement, but he now has an opportunity to address some of the appalling housing issues faced by Army personnel. They are quite different from those that affect the other services. Will he make it his business to ensure that my constituents serving in the Cheshire Battalion of the Mercia Regiment are properly and adequately housed, to the standard that people should expect today?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and for the representations that he has made along with other hon. Members from Cheshire. There is no doubt that, in the course of this process, I have considerably enhanced my knowledge of military
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history. I agree that it is important to preserve that history, and our military traditions and reputation. However, one of the consequences of ending the arms plot and the resulting greater stability for our Army personnel and their families is that we will have to look still harder at the question of accommodation. We inherited a disastrous situation in 1997 as a result of the previous Government's outrageous decision to sell off military housing to Annington Homes. That was a short-term quick fix. The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was in the Cabinet at the time, and he knows that that decision was dictated by the Treasury and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was a disgraceful decision and it has taken us a great deal of time to recover from it.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): As a representative from the proud county of Cheshire, I deeply regret the Secretary of State's announcement about the Cheshire Regiment. Will the regiment be allowed to keep its cap badge? Does he understand that some Conservative Members who, unlike him, have served in the Army believe that he has misrepresented the statistics relating to the Army establishment? In 1997, the number of TA and full-time Army regulars was greater than it is today.
Mr. Hoon: I am terribly sorry, but I am not going to allow the hon. Gentleman to get away with that. Were he talking about Alistair Campbell's activities in the same terms, he would describe it as spinning. There is a clear figure for the size of the regular Army, and I quoted regular Army statistics to the House. I did so absolutely accurately. I am afraid that I do not recall the hon. Gentleman making the same complaints in 1997 about the disgraceful size of the Army under the previous Government.
Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman did make such vigorous complaints at that time, I certainly apologise to him now. As I made clear in response to the question from the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), what is important about our armed forces' regimental structure is that there is a regimental identity. That is the answer to the question: the regiments to which the hon. Gentleman refers will have a regimental identity.
Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): I assure my right hon. Friend that I have no intention of carrying out a pathetic stunt such as the one perpetrated by members of the Scottish Nationalist party in relation to his plans for Scottish regiments. Those hon. Members seem to want to disband the whole British Army. In respect of the merger of the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers, there is a worry in Lanarkshire and Dumfriesshire that the names might be lost. Will he confirm that both names will be retained?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. I confirm that the merged battalion name will include both titles, the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers. I want to take this opportunity of responding to the observations made by the Scottish Nationalists. Members of that
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party do not believe in membership of NATO, nor in European defence. They have opposed every deployment of British troops in recent years. I wonder what the point of having an army in the UK would be if that party ever got into any kind of power anywhere.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The people of Wiltshire will regret very much the obliteration of 300 years of history with the Wiltshire Regiment, which served with such distinction in the second world war. Will the right hon. Gentleman not rise above his Islingtonian mediocrity and acknowledge the excellence of institutions like the Wiltshire Regiment? He talks about regimental identity. Wiltshire is the home of the British Army: surely that is worth acknowledging?
Mr. Hoon: Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have sought to approach this matter in a balanced way, using the best military advice. It is important that we look at these proposals in the way that the Army recommends. We have used the best military advice available to us. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman believes that he is better at providing military advice than the Chief of the General Staff, but this is what the Army has proposed.
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