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Army Restructuring (Wales)

4.15 pm

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab): Before I open this debate on an important topical issue in Wales, it would be appropriate, as I hope all hon. Members agree, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the recent Hercules crash in Iraq, and to those men and women who have served this country in Iraq and other areas in recent times.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to initiate this debate on Army restructuring in Wales, a subject that has elicited a large postbag of correspondence from my constituency and, I am sure, those of my colleagues who are present. I am glad to see the Minister of State in his place. I say at the outset that, as a Labour Member, I have no quarrel whatever with him on the bigger picture of the fundamental need to restructure the Army, to make it operationally more effective and responsive to modern needs, so he need not spend much, or indeed, any of his time defending that strategy. I would rather he tried to explain why the naming of the new regiments and the antecedent battalions has created so much of an outcry in Wales, and how it can be justified in operational terms. On the more substantive issues—before I go on to the more controversial matter of names, with which he will be familiar—with regard to the new regiment, the Royal Welsh Regiment, does he not accept that, whatever happens, there is a need to retain a regimental base or headquarters in Wrexham in north Wales?

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Anyone who witnessed the regiment marching through Wrexham only last year on returning from its tour of duty in Iraq will be aware of the strength of support in the town for the regiment and its base, and how that will affect the future of the regiment. I have heard again and again from officers in the regiment about the importance of those local ties.

Gareth Thomas : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board. I know that decisions on a regimental base have yet to be made but, at this stage, it is worth putting down that marker, as well as stating the need for the new Welsh regiment to have a home in Wales, whether in the south or the north.

The Secretary of State made an announcement on 16 December last year about the new infantry structure, which involves the creation of large, single-cap regiments with two or more battalions. In Wales, the new regimental structure involves the creation of a large single-cap regiment with two battalions, to be known respectively as the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welsh (the Royal Welch Fusiliers) and the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh (the Royal Regiment of Wales).

In itself, I would suggest—and this is borne out by discussions that I have had with serving and retired soldiers from the Royal Welch Fusiliers—that that was an unfortunate decision. The relegation of the antecedent regiment's name to a position in brackets after the name of the new regiment was in itself insensitive and something of a slight to the memory of those historic regiments. As the Minister will know, the
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Royal Welch Fusiliers goes back 300 years. The same argument applies to the Royal Regiment of Wales and its antecedents.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): This is an all-party matter, and what the hon. Gentleman says is fully supported by all parties in Wales. Last night I was with the Blaenau Ffestiniog branch of old comrades of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and I was told that recruitment is very much a family affair. Many of us believe that if the changes go ahead, recruitment will be badly affected.

Gareth Thomas : That is an important issue because, as we know, the British Army traditionally recruits on a regional basis, and Wales has been a fertile recruitment ground.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that what is asked for is very reasonable? It will not cost millions of pounds and will help to safeguard and protect the proud traditions of the Welsh regiments.

Gareth Thomas : I agree entirely. To rebut any suggestion that sensitivities about the name were not ventilated at an early stage, I should say that I know that the colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, one Major-General Brian Plummer, to whom I have spoken in recent days, did in fact express that view and say that the old, famous names of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales should be given precedence in the new title, so the suggestion that the issue was never ventilated is erroneous, as I understand it.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Am I to understand that military representations in Wales were made to the executive committee of the Army Board? Was the request listened to at that level—that is, by military personnel, and not political people?

Gareth Thomas : I am not privy to that information, but the divisional colonel-commandant may well have expressed a different view, a collective view representing the interests of not only the Welsh regiments, but others, too. As far as the Welsh regiments are concerned, my understanding is that the wish was expressed to the executive committee of the Army Board.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, particularly given that it is highly unlikely that the Government will change their mind, although he is absolutely right that they should. I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman's colleagues behind him.

It seems to me that the executive committee of the Army Board unwisely took the advice of the colonel-commandant of the Prince of Wales Division, instead of listening to the Welsh regiment's colonel, Major-General Brian Plummer. The seven regiments that make up the Prince of Wales Division select a colonel-commandant between them. He was not privy to the Welsh view, or, if he was, perhaps he mistakenly failed to put it across.

The point made by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) is extremely important. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that the
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decision is neither tactical, nor expensive, but is based purely on common sense. It would aid recruiting and give people in Wales and their tremendous regiment, which was formed in 1689, exactly what people in Scotland have.

Gareth Thomas : On this occasion, the hon. Gentleman is correct. I hope that the Minister notes that there is a large measure of cross-party support on this issue. My point is that even before subsequent developments there was a strong head of steam behind retaining the old names. To add insult to injury, the Scottish regiments—and one has great respect for their traditions—were allowed the same concession that I and fellow hon. Members seek for the Welsh regiments.

Scotland loses a regiment and we are sorry about that, but the names of the antecedent regiments in Scotland are given proper respect and priority in their new titles. For instance, in the case of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the title of the new battalion is the Royal Highland Fusiliers (2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland). These are significant changes, and we are dealing with matters of sentiment and loyalty which are fundamental to the morale of our forces. I am sure that the Minister accepts that.

If the Minister was not already aware, I can tell him that the situation has gone down very badly, and, rightly or wrongly, the disparity of treatment between Wales and Scotland is perceived as a slight to Wales. I will quote from three letters, which are a sample of a much larger collection of correspondence that I have received on the issue. The first is from Mr. P W Jones, president of the Colwyn Bay Royal Welch Fusiliers Comrades Association. He said:

Another letter came from Mr. Bryan Lewis from Ruthin, a former national service subaltern in the Royal Welch Fusiliers who made his point quite strongly. Talking about that regiment, he said:

The final letter, which was distributed to all Welsh Members, came from the right hon. Lord Morris of Aberavon, who served in this place with distinction for many years and is a former Secretary of State for Wales. He put the matter succinctly. He referred to the two old regiments, the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales and said:

I accept what not only Lord Morris, but my constituents have said on the issue, and I ask the Government to reconsider their decision. I understand
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that negotiations and discussions are continuing with the Army Board and I hope that there will be movement on the issue. I know that a cross-party petition will be presented next week. A great many Labour Members have signed a letter expressing concern about the decision and explaining how strongly people in Wales feel.

I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that we have a strong argument and that there should be equity. We are not asking for a lot. The regiments are proud and many people who have served in them lost their lives or suffered great injuries. They are asking for no more than a prefix rather than a suffix. They want their traditions and loyalties to be respected by the Government at a time when their services are, unfortunately, much required.

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this debate on Army restructuring in Wales and I appreciate his thoughts and comments on the tragedy in Iraq. In previous debates we have set out the logic underpinning the decision to restructure the infantry, but I recognise that the changes have generated and continue to generate considerable debate. My hon. Friend enumerated some Welsh views, which are mirrored elsewhere in the country, and the attendance at this short Adjournment debate indicates the strength of feeling on the subject.

My hon. Friend did not question the underlying organisational changes that have resulted in the decision to form the new Welsh regiment, but rather voiced his concern about the formulation of the names of the two battalions that will form the regiment. It is always worth putting on record the rationale behind the overall changes to the Army structure. I recognise that he accepts that rationale, but not everyone does and not everyone acknowledges the quality of the debate. There are those who still argue against the fundamental principle behind the changes.

Nobody would dispute that the Army must continue to evolve to meet future challenges; to do otherwise would be to jeopardise the fighting effectiveness of our forces. The changes to the infantry are only one aspect of a wider evolution that will enhance the deployability of the whole Army. Once fully implemented, the future Army structure will provide a force better suited to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We are moving towards a more balanced force organised around two armoured brigades, three mechanised brigades, a light and an air assault brigade, and the Royal Marines commando brigade.

It is important to emphasise that we cannot deploy forces that we are unable to sustain in operations. The Army has therefore been reorganised to be more robust and with enhanced enablers. That requires us to make significant enhancements to the key specialist capabilities, including communications, engineers, logisticians and intelligence experts. At the same time, we want to make fighting units, including the infantry, more robust by ensuring that they have adequate
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numbers and increased availability for deployment. It is our view in the Ministry of Defence that those enhancements can be achieved only as a result of a reduction by four in the number of infantry battalions, which will release 2,400 posts for redeployment across the force structure. That measure is made possible by the improved security situation in Northern Ireland.

I will come to the points raised about the name of the regiment in a moment, but there is a misunderstanding about the size of the Army. It will remain broadly the same size as it is today—between 103,000 and 104,000—until normalisation in Northern Ireland is complete, when it will settle at 102,000. It is worth noting that the Regular Army is measurably larger than it was in 1997, so we have been recruiting successfully and expanding the strength of the Regular Army as a result of a lot of effort. No area in the country has it easy in terms of recruitment: some are better than others, but when we compare establishment to real strength, we find that some areas are significantly under strength. We have been succeeding against some very difficult odds.

The most important factor in the changes to the structure of the infantry is the decision to end the infantry arms plot and the associated move to multi-battalion regiments. The arms plot was a process whereby we moved infantry battalions from role to role and place to place every few years. Although the arms plot maintained broad experience and variety, it hampered the availability of infantry battalions. As we have said time and again—some people are still not prepared to take on board the logic of ending the arms plot—of the 40 infantry battalions, only 26 or 27 are available for deployment at any time. Seven or eight battalions are unavailable due to the arms plot, which is some 20 per cent. of the total infantry strength. That is simply impractical and inefficient.

Ending the arms plot will make most of the 36 battalions available for deployment, as opposed to 26 or 27. The logic and benefits of that are undeniable. Ceasing the arms plot will increase our operational capability. I am grateful that my hon. Friend accepts all that.

In future, battalions will be fixed by role and largely by location. That will release resources routinely tied up in moving location or retraining. The Army will be more capable and effective, because as well as more battalions being available for operations, the new structure will provide continuity of expertise in respect of role and greater brigade stability.

Mr. Wiggin : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram : In a moment. I shall come on to the naming of the regiment, but I thought that it was worth while setting out the background. If the hon. Gentleman is disputing the logic of what I have set out, I am interested to hear his position.

Mr. Wiggin : The Minister has talked about the effectiveness of the Army, and we all accept that arms plotting should come to an end, but I want to press him on one issue. There are three Welsh regiments—we must not forget the Welsh Guards. Can he confirm whether
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any of those will be stationed in Wales and, as a Royal Welchman and an Englishman, may I urge him, a Scotsman, to listen to his Welsh colleagues?

Mr. Ingram : I shall certainly listen to my Welsh colleagues. If the hon. Gentleman has been following what has happened to the Welsh Guards, he will know that, during my time as the Minister responsible for the armed forces, the Welsh Guards have been sent to Wales—to St. Athan—which is the first time in its history that it has been based in Wales. So, he obviously has not been following closely the traditions of that particular—

Mr. Wiggin : What about the other ones?

Mr. Ingram : All the other issues in terms of where people will be based—super-garrisons and so on—have to be determined. We are developing a process to get to the best position. Again, that applies to where we base the future regiments within the UK overall. There is sensitivity about that issue, which is important because we want maximum regional impact.

The end of the arms plot—I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman recognises that that is desirable; not everyone in his party does—means that the single-battalion regiments, including the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Welch Fusiliers, need to reorganise themselves to meet the requirements for regiments of two or more battalions. There is a drive to all that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West referred to the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 16 December, when he set out the new structure with regard not only to Wales, but to what is happening in Scotland and in every other part of the United Kingdom. Different decisions were taken accordingly.

We have made it clear throughout that the process of restructuring the infantry has been worked through by the Army. The process has not been manipulated or dictated by Ministers. It is best left to the Army, because the Army has the best understanding in historical and traditional terms and in terms of effectiveness and what it wants to come out of this important restructuring.

A key element of all that was the consultation with the divisions and regiments concerned. In making the recommendation on naming the Royal Welsh Regiment, the executive committee of the Army Board took into account of advice from the colonel commandant of the Prince of Wales's Division, in which the Welsh regiments sit. He is the representative of the regiments concerned. I do not believe that he arrived at this out of the blue— [Interruption.] Well, hon. Members say that that is the case, but there has to be a process of consultation. Every other division went through that process.

A lot of heat was generated—justifiable heat, I have to say, because of the scale of what was going on. I think I am being told here that in Wales one person made a decision, did not speak to anyone and simply passed it on to ECAB. I shall check that out, but I do not think that it will accord with what is happening in the other divisions. ECAB left the matter to the divisions in one sense, but it was not wholly left to them as it had to take
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into account a number of competing arguments in terms of some advice that was given. ECAB had to assimilate that advice and come to a conclusion.

The new regiment, we believe, will preserve a distinct Welsh identity within the future infantry and will explicitly identify the two new battalions with their antecedent regiments. Their traditional recruiting areas and links to the local community will also be maintained. We have made clear our commitment to maintain the traditions and ethos of the battalions in the new regiment. That will include further work—this is not a completed, rounded-off process—and the regiment and the division will have to consider accoutrements issues, such as the cap badge. It has not yet been determined whether there should be a single cap badge and I would be interested to know whether anyone here has a view on that matter.

Mr. Wiggin : I will happily intervene if the Minister wants to give way.

Mr. Ingram : No, I have already given way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West asked about headquarters, basing and local identity. Again, I say that the Army is very sensitive to that matter, as the one thing it does not want to lose is the point of local contact. The preservation of local ties is a matter that it will have to work through carefully to arrive at the best solution. The key is maintaining the links between the regions and the Army units.

Some famous regimental names are going. The Glosters have an issue, as the regiment is being combined with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment to become a single-battalion regiment of the Light Infantry. There will be a lot of pain and discomfort in the reorganisation, but to get to the position that I set out at the beginning of my speech we have to take some of the pain to get that big, maximum gain.

My hon. Friend compared the arrangements for the Welsh and Scottish battalions—I must say that this has not been an easy process for me in Scotland—and referred to the Royal Highland Fusiliers, which is not a long-standing regiment in the Army, but an amalgamated regiment, as he may be aware. It recruits in my area, but I have not had one letter on the matter as a constituency Member of Parliament, although I have received letters as a Minister. The west of Scotland—

Gareth Thomas : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram : Let me finish this point. That does not mean that the issue is not "out there"; it just has not generated the same issues. That is not a reflection on Scotland's commitment to those regiments that recruit in Scotland.

Gareth Thomas : Why are the Scottish regiments being treated more favourably, as Wales would see it, than the Welsh? Will the Minister respond to the specific point on what we consider the relegation of the old name, compared with what is happening in Scotland?

Mr. Ingram : Many in Scotland do not take that view. Remember, before the announcement there were six regiments or battalions. There was a possibility that two
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would go, but to maintain maximum regional impact it was determined that it would be best to reduce from six regiments or battalions to one regiment with five battalions.

The determination was made that because the regiment would be the single biggest in the British Army in its new form—going to a single cap badge and a single tartan—this decision on the name should therefore be taken. Every other division was asked whether it had a comment to make on the issue and there were no adverse remarks. There were no representations on getting the same provision for the Welsh regiment. If that had happened, the decision may have been different.

We understand the strength of feeling and my hon. Friend is right: I have received a letter on the matter, which is being attended to, and a reply will be issued shortly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is due to meet a cross-party group next week and the petition might be given to him then. He will also meet interests from elsewhere in the country that want to raise particular issues.

This is an important issue, but I believe that it is best left to the Army to come the conclusions.

Mr. Wiggin : On a point of order, Dame Marion. Just before the Minister leaves, is it possible, through you, to communicate the fact that Welsh regiments would prefer to retain their cap badges, and two cap badges are better than one?

Dame Marion Roe (in the Chair): That is not a point of order for the Chair.

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