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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on securing this debate and providing me with the opportunity to speak on the issue. I did not know that in the past an attempt was made to close the barracks. I was not advised of that, but it is now received wisdom.
We are now attending to the reorganisation and better definition of our armed forces because previous Administrations did not seize the reality. They did not face up to the harsh choices that had to be made in restructuring the Army overall. I do not necessarily comment on Invicta barracks in saying that, because I do not know the details of what happened at that time, but we are addressing the problems of that legacy. That is not driven by cuts or financial imperatives, but because the Army and the chiefs of staff have determined that there is a better way to organise the armed forces. That is what we laid down both in the future infantry structure and the future Army structure generally.
I was congratulating the right hon. Lady on her deep interest. When I asked those who were briefing me how closely engaged she was, I was told that she is a very good friend of the regiment. We value such close engagement of Members of Parliament and their local Ministry of Defence interests, whether they are military or civilian, or, indeed, both. I also know that she has the best interests of the regiment, the Gurkhas and her constituents at heart.
As the right hon. Lady knows, the Royal Engineers has a considerable and noble history. Its construction activities are as relevant today as they have ever been. Recent events have seen Royal Engineers soldiers providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance to the earthquake victims in Pakistan. A small team of sappers has been involved in bringing fresh water to the
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villages of Kpalusogu and Koshibu in northern Ghana. I recently visited Ghana to open the second phase of an internationally supported peacekeeping training centre and was briefed on the work done by Royal Engineers personnel in Ghana and the contribution they were making. They were performing a non-military role in one sense, but clearly building on the defence diplomacy that is essential to keep our partners and allies supportive of us.
Such innovation has continued through to the present day, and 36 Engineer Regiment, in particular, should be proud of its contribution. Today, soldiers from 36 Engineer Regiment serve all over the world in Iraq, Afghanistan, Belize, Norway, Gibraltar, Kenya, Brunei, the Balkans, Nepal, Cyprus and Canada, as well as Northern Ireland. I am really grateful for the part that 36 Engineer Regiment played at the beginning of current operations in Iraq and subsequently in two further squadron deployments. The entire regiment was deployed for the initial conflict phase of operations. I pay tribute to the men and women of 36 Engineer Regiment, who truly show what it means to be part of the best trained and most professional Army in the world.
The regiment has developed a significant attachment to its current home, Invicta Park. Its links with Invicta Park stretch back to 1949, when it was stationed there for two years. It moved away for eight yearsfirst to Ripon and then to Osnabruckonly to return in 1959, since when Invicta Park has remained its home. I recognise the importance of the historical connection and the links that have been developed with the local community. I also recognise the need for our soldiersthose brave men and womento have decent homes. It should be noted that over the past five years we have spent around £2 million on maintenance, upkeep and improvements to Invicta Park.
Contrary to the somewhat unhelpful speculation in the local media, there are no plans to close the Invicta Park site. The right hon. Lady correctly referred to the letter that she received from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that observed that the Army is examining the possibilities for consolidating its estate into fewer and larger sites in line with the Defence Estates strategy of developing and rationalising the MOD's estate holdings. The logic of doing that must be sound. The armed forces must examine their real estate and its quality all the time. It must examine the prospect of building new facilitiessuper-garrisons, if that is how they are to be describedfor our personnel. If that means that we must examine the existing estate and determine what can be realised by way of assets, it is a sound approach. It is nothing new. It has been the consistent approach of previous Governments. We are, admittedly, taking another big step forward.
Again, the logic of looking at disparate barrack sites is sound. An estate that is spread out costs a lot of money to maintain. The purpose is to get money to the front line. The armed forces benefit greatly from close community links. We very much value looking after personnel in the ways that we do in the areas that we are in, but it is an imperative of the Ministry of Defence to rationalise and get the best use of the taxpayer's pound, and to ensure that it is invested in equipment and support for the front line. Those are difficult equations to balance, because there are many aspects to consider.
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I do not want to make a party political point, but a decision was made in the 1990s not to invest in real estate. There is now a massive catch-up, the scale of which is truly phenomenal. We are already committing about £1 billion over the foreseeable number of years to complete that catch-up, although a lot of the estate has not been maintained, no new build has taken place and large parts of it were sold off. The assets realised from the sums that were received when the right hon. Lady was a member of the Government did not all come back to defence. We are operating on the basis that all the rationalisation and efficiency measures will be retained for the defence purposes that I mentioned. A qualitative change has taken place.
The point of building new super-garrisons is to give greater continuity to people overall and to provide them with better accommodation, probably on new sites, although sometimes existing sites will be developed. They will allow people to integrate properly with the civil community.
The right hon. Lady mentioned how our armed forces are stretched and the pressure that they, and in particular the Royal Engineers, are under. I recognise that. It is one reason why we have defined the new way forward in terms of the future Army structure. As a result of rebalancing, 2,400 posts have been reallocated to what would be defined as the key enablers. Engineers fall into that category. We understand that we have put a huge strain on those key enablers, and the Royal Engineers have been part of that. We are therefore reinvesting 2,400 posts.
The right hon. Lady also mentioned in passing the important role of the TA. I do not want to get into the detail of that, because I am due to announce shortly our approach to TA rebalancing. However, the Royal Engineers will benefit from that as well.
We have not established firm timelines for the work on which we have embarked. There is no particular focus on Invicta Park. It is not as though a work stream is saying, "Let's look particularly at a range of barracks, of which Invicta Park will be one." Nothing is in the machine at this stage and nothing is immediately coming over the horizon. That is why I say that the speculation about the threat to Invicta Park is a bit premature. I do not deny the right hon. Lady her entitlement to raise the subject and to take the arguments forward. I would do the same in her position. However, Invicta Park is in the same position as other barracks of equivalent size on the Army estate and no plans to relocate 36 Engineer Regiment are on the stocks.
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Mr. Ingram: Yes. I am more than happy, time permitting, to do so. I benefit a lot from such visits, and I hope that those whom I visit benefit too. It allows them to tell me what they think and to put their views. On such a visit I would be able to say to them what I have sought to set out today. No doubt the report of these proceedings will be disseminated. I just hope that the arguments that I am advancing get a fair shake in the local press.
There are no plans for closure. We have invested over recent years and we are looking at ways in which we can invest to meet our commitments under the Gurkha married accompanied service rules. The Government have taken a major step forward and we are having to address some very important issues about the Gurkhas who are based at Invicta Park. I have set out to make it clear that there are no plans that put Invicta Park under immediate threat, and there are no timelines. At one point, there was a timeline of 2012, but that no longer applies, and for a very good reason: funding. It takes a lot to invest in infrastructure, and when we are doing so we are not investing in equipment and personnel. We must balance the priorities across the various resources.
I am happy to visit, but I cannot say that I will do so immediately. The right hon. Lady will be notified if I visit. I hope that I will not be met by a demonstration at the gates. I know that she would not operate in that way. I genuinely like to engage with our people and to hear what they have to say, because it allows me an opportunity to put across our point of view.
I hope that has helped the right hon. Lady's understanding of where we are coming from and of the overstretch issue, which she mentioned. I recognise that there are pinch-point problems, and we are addressing them. She has just to wait a bit longer for clarity on TA rebalancing. Investment is going on and will go on for the Gurkhas once we can find the resource allocation to enable it. We will continue to maintain Invicta Park for as long as the 36 Royal Engineers are there. We are proud of the regiment and of what it does. I know that the right hon. Lady is a great advocate for all that it does.
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