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Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab) rose—

Annabelle Ewing: The people of Scotland regard our brave soldiers as part of the fabric of the Scottish nation. They are proud of them and disgusted by the Government's decision to disband and amalgamate the Scottish regiments out of existence. Their disgust is even greater, given the fact that the announcement was made by the Defence Secretary just as soldiers from the Black Watch were returning home to their families in Perthshire, Fife, Dundee and Angus.

Mr. Joyce rose—

Annabelle Ewing: They had just served their second tour of duty within a year in Iraq, had been involved in the controversial deployment to northern Iraq and had sustained the loss of their comrades in arms.

Mr. Joyce: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not customary for a Member making a speech at least to indicate to someone who asks them to give way that they will not do so?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Whether the Member addressing the House gives way is entirely a matter for her. If the hon. Gentleman had been in the Chamber early on, he might have realised how short of time we are, which is probably why the hon. Lady is not giving way.

Annabelle Ewing: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

On the timing of the Defence Secretary's announcement, not only were soldiers from the Black Watch returning home after their second tour of duty in Iraq and a controversial redeployment but they had sustained the loss of their comrades. They had also been required to take part in a publicity shoot with the
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Defence Secretary, who visited them when they were safely back in Basra—he did not quite make it to Camp Dogwood. It is no wonder that there is anger not just in the traditional recruiting heartlands of the Black Watch but the length and breadth of Scotland.

People believe that the Black Watch, the Argylls and the other Scottish Regiments have been stabbed in the back. They do not accept that it is either sensible or logical to axe the Scottish regiments at a time of increasing international insecurity and military overstretch, about which we have heard much today. They rightly regard the Scottish regiments as the finest in the world, and the bravery, professionalism and commitment of our Scottish soldiers are second to none. It is cynical in the extreme, they believe, that the Government should, on the one hand, put a cap on recruitment—I think that we are supposed to call it a pause in light of what the Minister of State said in response to my intervention—while talking up recruitment difficulties, even though the Black Watch, to name but one regiment, exceeded its recruitment target. They consider the arms plot argument a red herring, because nobody has ever explained why scrapping the entire Scottish regimental system is necessary to phase out the arms plot.

What is clear to people in my constituency and elsewhere is that this was a political decision, although the Government tried in an unseemly way to pass the buck to the Army. It is also clear to people in Scotland that the decision was Treasury-driven and that the impetus came from the Chancellor. That was recognised by no less than Colonel Tim Collins. In a BBC interview of November 2004, he said:

We have heard much from the Government about operational efficiency and the need to improve it, but the fact of the matter is that scrapping the entire Scottish regimental system will not improve operational efficiency.

Our Scottish regiments are the envy of the world, for the esprit de corps that is engendered by loyalty to the regiment first and foremost is what puts Scottish soldiers in a class of their own. That was recognised even by this Government, who took the decision to redeploy 600-odd Black Watch soldiers to the US zone in Iraq because they were indispensable to the 130,000-strong US army. What my constituents still want to know is why the Black Watch is not therefore viewed as indispensable to the Government. Indeed, in recent weeks, we have seen the return of the Royal Highland Fusiliers to Iraq, with the Royal Scots held in reserve. That is another example of how indispensable our Scottish regiments are and how fit for purpose they are for doing the job that the Government have asked them to do.

Key military experts have also expressed fears about the impact on recruitment of these damaging policies. We need look back no further than the early 1990s, when the then Conservative Government launched their assault on the Scottish regiments with the amalgamation of the Gordons and the Queen's Own Highlanders, to see the devastating impact of such changes on recruitment for many years.

We have heard much about the Government's claims that serving Scottish soldiers favour the scrapping of their regiments, but they were not asked how they felt.
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The only poll conducted by the Ministry of Defence apparently did not even include that question. Instead, there was a Hobson's choice question about which kind of amalgamation they would prefer. Curiously, the results of that poll were not published by the MOD, as far as I am aware. Given that the soldiers have also been gagged to stop them speaking out, it is difficult to understand how the Government can state that they have evidence to show support among serving soldiers for the decision to scrap the regiments. I have received many letters from serving soldiers not only in the Black Watch, but in other regiments, and I can assure the Minister that none of them wishes to see their regiment scrapped.

In conclusion, the decision taken by the Government to scrap Scotland's entire regimental system is not only wrong, but a betrayal of our brave soldiers. It will never be forgiven or forgotten by the people of Scotland. Even at this late hour, the Government could do a U-turn. They have done so on other issues, and they could give the regiments a reprieve. That view is supported by the Adjutant-General, no less, and by the current colonel of the Black Watch. I urge the Government to think again. If they do not do so, they will deserve all that they get at the ballot box when the people of Scotland have the opportunity to say what they think.

4.53 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I am delighted that the Minister of State is back in the Chamber. I thought earlier that it was rather silly and slightly pompous of him to take the attitude that my failure to be present in the Select Committee on Defence when he was giving evidence was a basis for not taking an intervention from me. If the Secretary of State exercised such criteria, several Labour members of the Committee would be in serious trouble in future defence debates.

Had the Minister taken my intervention, I would have asked him the question that I now hope the Under-Secretary will answer. Now that we have agreed the configuration for the infantry regiments, can the Ministry of Defence give us a timing for when those decisions will be implemented? When will the full capability now being talked about be deployable? On commitments, what tasks was the Secretary of State alluding to when he said that they would no longer be on the agenda of the Royal Navy? When he was pressed to answer that question at the Defence Committee, regrettably he chose not to. Several hon. Members were concerned that he had stated on two occasions that a number of cold war tasks would no longer need to be tackled by the Navy and could be covered in other ways, possibly by other navies. He was not prepared to give straight answers to questions about timing for the Army or the commitments of the Navy.

All hon. Members who have spoken have been extraordinarily complimentary, and rightly so, about the men and women who serve in our armed forces, from the very top to the most junior recruits. We have heard testimony after testimony of the work that they are doing in their fighting capacity and in delivering humanitarian aid, which has been so apparent not only in recent weeks in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, but repeatedly across the world. We should recognise that and be proud of it.
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We must recognise that discipline is crucial to a coherent fighting force. It must be present at all levels and there must be confidence that it will be exercised fairly and accountably. The Defence Committee is engaged in a duty of care exercise. If Ministers have not yet read the testimony of families from Catterick and Deepcut who came to give evidence, I urge them to do so. If I had been present at that evidence session, I would have asked the Minister for the Armed Forces why he felt compelled to set up the inquiry into Deepcut at that stage, when the evidence that he is now asking the inquiry to examine had been in his hands for several months before that decision was taken. The decision to hold the inquiry was taken because the Ministry of Defence, or the politicians who head it, was shamed into it by the sort of evidence that we heard in the Select Committee when those families came, and by the media exposure of the incompetence and the failure of Ministers to tackle the issue properly.

The issue is where the duty of care starts and finishes. Many reports were written. We were given evidence by Lieutenant Colonel Hais, who gave the last report on the problems relating to training and recruitment. When he started the process, he was not told that there had been previous reports. When asked where those reports had ended up, he could give no answer. When senior officers came to give evidence to us, we asked them the same question. None of them has so far given an answer. The Defence Committee is still awaiting a written reply from the Ministry of Defence about where those three or four reports on problems at Deepcut and on bullying in the Army ended up and who took responsibility for them.

If there is to be discipline, it should start at the top. Discipline and a duty of care should be exercised from the top downwards. It is beyond belief that for years the MOD was in a state of denial and thought the problems would go away. That was the failure that so depressed the families. [Interruption.] I can understand the Minister for the Armed Forces muttering under his breath that he does not want to hear it. He did not want to hear the intervention earlier. He did not want to hear what the parents of the dead soldiers had been saying—[Interruption.]

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