Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Lady has not been listening to the other answers that have been given on this issue. In recent times, we have been very successful in our recruitment campaigns overall. That means that we have had to adjust the training structures to meet the increased numbers of recruits coming in. That involves taking experienced personnel away from the front line and putting them back into the training environment at a time when the front line in certain key areas is exceptionally busy. To pause is therefore the way to get the best adjustment. It was not a freeze, although I know that the hon. Lady will keep using that word no matter how many explanations she is given.

I am trying to explain how our success has meant that we have to ensure that we get the balance right between the training environment and our front-line demands. If we look back to the exercise known as "Front Line First", which took place in the 1990s, there was a thinning out of the training environment resulting in a significant reduction in the ratio between instructors and trainees. We have had to address that. During my time, we have put a considerably more money back into the training environment and increased the number of instructors, in order to strike a better balance.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): That is not true.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister—

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made a sedentary comment that that was not true. I shall give way to him.

Mr. Blunt: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As far as I can recall, there were no studies in "Front Line First", with which I was intimately associated, that resulted in a thinning out of the number of instructors per trainee. That was not a product of "Front Line First". Indeed, its result was to release resources to increase training, such as flying training for the Royal Air Force. That was a direct benefit of the process.

Mr. Ingram: We were talking about infantry and the Army, but there are certainly variations within that
20 Jan 2005 : Column 975
answer. The hon. Gentleman should go back and look at just what happened as a result of "Front Line First". He should also study the reports that have been produced on the back of the tragic incidents at Deepcut and at the investigations that the Army conducted, which looked at some of these issues. We can exchange history lessons from that period, but if the hon. Gentleman looks at what happened in the training environment he will see that the ratios were changed, not because of an increase in the number of recruits, but because of a reduction in the number of instructors. The ratio reached a level which then had to be adjusted. If that had not been the case, I would not have had to put in additional resources to increase the number of instructors. I believe that what I was saying was true, but I am not disagreeing with some elements of what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Minister agree that, when service personnel put their lives at risk, they do so not only for Queen and country but for their comrades and their regiment? Obviously, the ethos and history of a regiment is very important. Does it not worry him that, by scrapping every remaining English county regiment, he will undermine that key ethos?

Mr. Ingram: Well, there is always a possibility of anything, I suppose. I tried to explain in my preamble that this is about trying to reshape and restructure the Army for the future. That has gone on through the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s. Over recent decades, something like 44 regiments have come out of the line under Conservative Administrations, and 22 under Labour. I am not trying to make a cheap point here. I am simply saying that previous Governments have had to deal with changing environments and to restructure accordingly. Only time will tell whether that restructuring has been effective and can deliver for those who approach this issue from a military, as opposed to a political, perspective and who have to help those honourable men and women who serve Queen and country to deal with the challenges that they face. This is about military advice and military assessments, and about matching resources to those needs. Previous Governments have done the same.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Minister confirm that there is a need for fairness in recruitment across the United Kingdom? That being the case, does he think that the 10 counties that traditionally recruit to the Royal Anglian Regiment, and which have a population of 2 million more than the entire population of Scotland, are being unfairly represented in the new structure that he is proposing?

Mr. Ingram: No, I do not. In the early examination of what we are seeking to do, there was a view that the four battalions coming out and the redistribution of certain posts would strengthen the capability of the Army. At the same time as doing away with the arms plot, it was mooted that two regiments should go from Scotland because of the recruiting profile. A judgment was made, however, that to do that would be wrong because it would have left a bit of the United Kingdom from which we did not draw soldiers into a regiment and/or a battalion. We were trying to get an equal distribution, so
20 Jan 2005 : Column 976
the debate then turned to four battalions coming out—one from Scotland and three from England. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, however, that in a sense only two have been taken from England, because of the determination to look at utilising 1 Para as a core base of a tri-service support battalion for special forces. There was, therefore, a process of change as all of that got under way. We tried to examine how best to lay down the footprint across the whole of the United Kingdom, so I do not think that "unfairness" is a word that I recognise. I think that the process has been well judged but, as ever, only time will tell whether we have got it right.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I speak as someone who congratulates the Department on having the courage to rebalance our armed forces to meet future challenges and enhance capability. Nevertheless, does the Minister agree that the names of the new regiments are important, particularly because history and tradition affect recruitment? Will he confirm that the Secretary of State is carefully considering the names of the new regiments? The Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales have a 300-year tradition and it is very important that we get the new names right.

Mr. Ingram: I believe that it is important to get the names right. That is why the Army spent so much time examining the issue. There was a whole process of consultation within the Army, which the Army Board took into account. Not everyone agrees with what we are doing—[Interruption.] It is a big change. History shows that there is always a great debate whenever that happens. It was the same when the Conservatives decided to integrate the Gordon's into the Highlands. There was a big furore in Scotland about that, but a brave and, I think, justifiable decision was taken because of the need to bring about that effective change.

As to the Secretary of State becoming involved, we have said consistently that it is a matter best left to the Army, and we should tread warily and not become over-involved. That is particularly true when many people believe that this is an election year. That may or may not be the case. We should not be seen to be playing with this matter for political purposes, but I recognise the strong feelings expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) and others in Wales. Their representations will be made available to the senior military personnel who deal with these matters. It will be for them to decide. As I said, it would be wrong to bring political pressure into the debate because we would then be criticised for over-interference.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con) rose—

Mr. Ingram: I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman. He can enter the debate later if he wants to.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Ingram: I have given way quite extensively already and I want to make some progress.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ingram: I have just said no. I am generally willing to give way to my hon. Friends and I may provide her with an opportunity to intervene later.
20 Jan 2005 : Column 977

It would be wrong to assume that better armed forces equal bigger armed forces. Our emphasis is on providing agile and flexible forces, utilising 21st century technology, to ensure that they are structured with a pattern of operations that they are most likely to undertake. More people do not necessarily mean more capability. By shifting resources from lower priority capabilities and delivering maximum efficiencies where possible, we will make the best use of our people. We will also provide better support and better equipment to our people. Those are essential factors in taking care of our people.

For the Army, particularly the infantry, those organisational changes are essential to addressing the new challenges. They will mean that we have more deployable troops and that our troops will be better balanced in respect of the branches and trades required for modern operations. Ending the arms plot will increase the availability of the infantry for operations. Capability will no longer be lost through the need for battalions to move location or re-role.

No matter how good our infantry, it needs top quality support to be effective. That is why we will reinvest people freed up by normalisation in Northern Ireland in key areas such as engineering and logistics, which have been in great demand in recent operations. By boosting capacity in those areas, we will also make a real difference to the lives of hundreds of key specialists and their families.

Similarly, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are embracing change and delivering force structure changes in line with our operational requirements. For the RAF in particular, that will mean a reduction in numbers, but the result will be forces better suited to the challenges that they will face in the future rather than the conflicts of the past.

There will, of course, be an impact on our people. For some, it will be unsettling in the short term. To maintain a balanced force structure, there will need to be a limited number of redundancies. That is essential so that we do not repeat past mistakes that left gaps in our force structure. It does not imply, however, any less commitment to continue recruiting high quality people or to offering young people a wide variety of challenging and rewarding careers.

Next Section IndexHome Page