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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Will the Minister confirm that about 9 per cent. of the soldiers in the British Army are not British citizens? Clearly, we welcome anyone who wants to serve in the Army, but is that proportion the result of a deliberate policy decision, or is it because too few British citizens apply to join?
The reason for the proportion of non-British citizens is probably a mixture of those alternatives. A conscious decision was taken to encourage what are known as Foreign and Commonwealth personnel into the armed forces, and the proportion that the hon. Gentleman quotes is about right. All the people to whom he refers serve with distinction, and I draw his attention to the bravery of Fusilier Beharry from Grenada, who won a VC. Others among that element in the armed forces have served with considerable distinction as well, and they bring much strength and support. Another example might be the Gurkhas, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that their presence in our armed forces is undesirable. I am also sure that he is not suggesting that we should not encourage South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians and others into the British armed forces. However, we are always aware that a balance needs to be struck in these matters. We must maintain the pressure on recruitment, and I shall say more about that later.
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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I mentioned at Defence questions on Monday that I had the opportunity last week to spend time with the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment in Afghanistan. It is doing a splendid job there, under very difficult circumstances. I undertook the visit with some trepidation, as I expected a lot of flak about the further reorganisation of the regiment. In the main, however, the regiment has accepted the proposed merger with the Devon and Dorset Regiment, although there are some misgivings. The one assurance that the regiment seeks has to do with the continuation of the back badge. Will my right hon. Friend say something more about how the situation can be clarified, so that the memory of the Gloucesters can continue, even in the new, merged regiment?
Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks, and he is right. Change is always difficult, but there is an appreciation among our armed forces that what we propose will be for the greater good of the British Army in the longer term. I am always struck that sergeant-majorsand, sometimes, the regimental sergeant-majorsare the most forceful when it comes to putting that view across. One talks to such people with some trepidation, as in one sense they speak on behalf of everyone. I have never met one who has said that what we are doing is wrong. They understand the difficulties that we face. Although they say that they wish that no reform was necessary, they are keen to move forward rather than move backward or stand still. They know that we need to change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) raises the whole question of accoutrements and the golden thread. I must explain that that really is not a matter for Ministers. It is a minefield into which we tread very warily. The Army must decide what is acceptable and deliverable in that regard. The executive committee of the Army Board is looking at these questions, and announcements will be made in due course. It is possible that decisions have been made that have not been passed on to Ministers but, once the information is available, the House will be notified in the appropriate manner. It is right that we notify those who serve about such matters first. We are conscious of the golden thread and the whole question of accoutrements. Difficult decisions will have to be taken, but I take note of my hon. Friend's point.
I was talking about the end of the arms plot and the fact that 20 per cent. of the Army is unavailable for deployment under the existing system. As we move forward with the restructure, there will be fewer battalions36 instead of 40but we will have greater usability. Capability will no longer be lost due to the need for battalions to move location or re-role. That will also mean that the infantry will be able to offer much greater stability for soldiers and their families, so they will be able to plan their lives and careers with confidence. That is what our soldiers want. Given the benefits to families, that should help with the retention of our highly trained people.
When making changes to modernise the infantry, it has been important not to throw away their history and heritage. I have explained the background to why we are determined to maintain the golden thread. As well as considering history and heritage as part of our approach
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on recruitment and retention, we must keep it in mind that in the 21st century our armed forces must be truly representative of the society that they serve. We must review barriers to equality of opportunity whenever that can be done without compromising operational effectiveness. Let me cite several examples of the way in which we are addressing the matter. We are considering what flexibility might be possible to help those serving in the armed forces with child care and other family responsibilities. We carry out a wide range of outreach and recruitment activities that are specifically designed to build links with ethnic minority, gay and lesbian communities. We have recently recruited our first Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh chaplains, and we are continuing to work in partnership with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the Minister pay particular attention to a detailed matter regarding our Commonwealth soldiers? The time that they spend overseasoften they are deployed overseas for the entire duration of their servicedoes not count towards their application for British citizenship after they have left the Army. Surely it is only right that if they serve the nation in the Army, even if they do that in Germany or the Falklands, the time spent should count towards their applications to become a British citizen.
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman hits on another point that we must address. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), will be able to say more about that in his winding-up speech. We are aware of the issue. We must be sensitive to the fact that if people who are serving are seen to be disadvantaged, we must take account of that. The situation is a bit more complex than that simple explanation of the problem because we must work through the Home Office and deal with layers of regulations. I have not examined the matter in detail, but I know that my hon. Friend has considered it.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): On the question of human resources, will he look again at the way in which the armed forces advise young soldiers who have come to the end of their term in the military to return to civilian life, especially those who wish to apply for positions in the police force? The issue concerns me at the moment because of the experience of one of my constituents. The kind of advice that is given to young soldiers who want to become policemen could be improved.
To be realistic, I could say that there are other things that could be improved. We are not perfect. We are becoming more aware of the need to address a range of issuesthe hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) touched on one. The way in which we deal with resettlement is important because if we can get that right, others will be encouraged to join because they will know that they will be well looked after. I do not know the precise circumstances of the situation cited by my hon. Friend the Member
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for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), but if he writes to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who deals with these matters, we can perhaps examine it.
I have mentioned the way in which our resources are used to target specific groups in our society. The way in which we deal with our young peopleand those of mature yearswho leave the forces is important. We must be a caring employer, and I think that we are. We do exceptionally well, but we can do better, which is what we are trying to do.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am trying to put in context what the Minister said about looking after the historical legacy of the regiments. The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment is merging with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, which is then merging with the Light Infantry, although I now understand that that will merge with my local regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, to be called the rifle regiment. How can the Minister justify a link with the historical legacy when all the historical links are being removed?
Mr. Ingram: There will be an announcement on the names in the not-too-distant future. The hon. Gentleman asks me to respond to press speculation. We will make an announcement on the names of the new regiments when we are readysome are already knownand he will have the opportunity to raise his objections at that time. I cannot comment until the formal decision is made, which will happen very soon.
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