|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, to be contemplating cuts to the infantry at a time of international instability, with the threat of terrorist attacks at home on top of unsustainable operational overstretch defies logic and all the lessons of history. So what is the Government's response? Cut the infantry. This is a sad
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1450
day. Some of our most famous regiments have been killed off. Those regiments have given outstanding service to our country and we owe them very much. I am happy to join the Minister in paying tribute to the Army's professionalism, courage and determination to succeed.
What will happen when the next important commitment comes along? How will the Army cope if we are faced with another firemen's strike or a crisis like that of foot and mouth? Ministers try to persuade themselves that the Army supports these cuts. But senior officers have expressed serious concerns to me and to other members of the Opposition Front Bench team that a cut in the number of battalions will seriously reduce the Army's ability to meet any new threats. This is being forced on the Army by the Treasury which will not fund our Armed Forces at the proper level, both in manpower and equipment, to undertake the ever-growing tasks the Prime Minister lays upon them.
What has happened since 1998 to convince the Government not only to reverse the SDR plans, but to introduce further cuts? It appears that someone here has been reading the wrong intelligence dossier, yet again. The CIA has warned that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating. The Americans have increased their garrison in that country by some 15,000, and the MoD now tells us that our troops will remain there until 2008.
We are being pressed to increase our commitment to Afghanistan. We still have Kosovo, Bosnia, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus and Northern Ireland. And the Government's own White Paper anticipates that around the world, these obligations will increase. While we are reducing our infantry, the Americans and the Australians are increasing theirs. The infantryman is, and will remain, the most important battle and peace-winning component of our defence capability.
Clearly rotation intervals are too short. So what is the Government's response? Reduce the number of regiments available for rotation. The tour gap between operations is meant to be 24 months; currently, it is averaging out at nine months for the infantry. The King's Own Scottish Borderers had no leave after finishing in the Gulf and going to Northern Ireland.
We are pleased that the Gurkhas have been saved and that there will not be any reduction in the role or size of the TA. We agree that there is a need for our
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1451
Armed Forces to be more usable, and we will support the Government on ending the arms plot. We must have stability for the families. But we do not see the linkage between ending arms plotting and reducing the number of regiments
May I now ask the Minister some questions? Will these changes still go ahead if troops are not able to be withdrawn from Northern Ireland? What contingency plans are in place to ensure that troops will be made available should the security situation deteriorate once again?
The Statement mentions new uniforms. Will the MoD be paying for these, particularly as a new service-dress uniform is being introduced in three years' time? A particular concern has been expressed to us in regard to young officers and NCOs and the cost of replacing their mess dress.
Lord Redesdale: My Lords, the Minister may be surprised to learn that we welcome some of the underlying themes within the Statementparticularly if they are successful in making the MoD and the Army more effective.
The concept of regiments having one or more battalions makes operational sense. As the Statement points out, more than 11 battalions are, at any time, moving, relocating or re-roling, which must be unacceptable in today's Army. It is one of the reasons that the Army has so many difficulties with recruiting and retention, which is the major cause and result of overstretch.
The Statement mentions the issue of families. The sight of soldiers returning from Iraqparticularly the Black Watchhas brought home to us all the pressure that Army families are under at the moment. Obviously in the larger regiments it will be individuals moving around rather than units, and it is to be hoped that this will stop some of the dislocation in family life.
The Statement also refers to the size of the Army. The real issue for us is not how the Army is made up but, to a large degree, its size. Without soldiers on the ground there will be a real issue in meeting the many commitments that have been undertaken. Is the reduced size that the Army is looking to over the next year a reflection of its manned strength? In other words, will the reduction in the size of the Army reflect the reality in the Army at the momentwhich is that it is running under its manned capacity?
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1452
I ask the same question in regard to the Territorial Army. I apologise for being a couple of minutes late entering the Chamber. I was looking outside for a copy of the Statement, which I could not find. It states that the Territorial Army,
The phrase "the same size" raises questions. Does it mean the same size as its manned strength at the moment or its establishment strength? Obviously if the Minister is saying that the Territorial Army will be reduced to its present manned strength, that means there will be a cut in its establishment strength.
There has been a great deal of lobbyingI know the Minister will have been lobbiedbut that process has come to an end. The interesting aspect of the Statement was the loss of the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment and its re-roling as a ranger unit. We will follow this development with great interest. We understand that the role of the special forces is vital, but they cannotalthough it seems to be almost accepted wisdom in the press nowcompensate for large numbers of troops in theatre.
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for what they have had to say. I am slightly disappointedif not entirely surprisedby the reaction of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, who speaks for the Official Opposition but who also has a deep personal attachment to the Armed Forces. In doing what he has no doubt been ordered to do, he makes the Conservative Party look as though it believes that the Army is some kind of museum piece.
That is very disappointing indeed because Conservative governments in the past, under some Secretaries of State who are now Members of this House, were quite prepared to amalgamate regiments where it was necessary and proper to do so because that was the way in which the Army had to go.
I repeat, the infantry changes are an important part of the changes to the Army generally. It is essential that the Army changes to meet the demands of current and future operations and we must not have an army which fights the battles of yesterday. If the opportunity is not grasped now, it is our viewand the Army's view that its war-fighting capability could be significantly threatened.
Progress in Northern Ireland has enabled the reinvestment of about 3,000 posts across the Army, especially in those trades which are in great demand. The noble Lord asked a proper question about how we will be able to place more engineers, more logisticians, more intelligence operators. These people"key enablers" as they are described in modern parlanceare absolutely crucial if we are to continue to deliver a robust expeditionary war-fighting capability. Of the 3,000 posts that will come from progress in Northern Ireland, 2,400 will go as engineers, logisticians and intelligence operatorskey enablersto the various brigades, divisions and regiments where there have
16 Dec 2004 : Column 1453
been gaps. This will ensure that they are better prepared for the kind of exercise that they are likely to have to carry out.
I resentnot on the Government's behalf, because we are meant to be big enough to take iton the Army's behalf that the noble Lord begins to challenge the prospect that somehow the Army has been forced into this step by politicians. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the noble Lord had had the opportunity of listening to the Chief of the General Staff this morning he would know that that was not so. Indeed, the very idea that this particular Chief of the General Staff could be suborned by politicians into coming up with a scheme for his army that he did not like is so ridiculous as almost to pass understanding. Of course the Army Board is absolutely in favour of this because, like all Army Boards in the past, it wants to see an army for the future and the present, not one for the day before yesterday.
That is why, with the greatest respect, I advise the noble Lord that his party can shout off todayfair enough; I understand thatbut, in time, it should perhaps contemplate a little more carefully what it is that both the Army and we want. There is a need for his party to accept that change is necessary.
Beyond saying that he is in favour of the change to the Arms Plot, the noble Lord has not told us whether he is in favour of amalgamating infantry battalions into larger regiments. Of course, our case is that it follows, as night follows day, that once you get rid of the Arms Plot the only sensible thing to do is to have regiments made up of more than one battalion; to have multi-battalion regiments. You cannot get rid of the Arms Plot sensibly without doing that. I am sure the noble Lord will concede that. We are not, as the noble Lord said, "getting rid of the infantry". We are merging some infantry regiments and he will see what the net result is.
I was surprised and delighted by the general support for what we are doing from the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. It is important to see what we are doing in the context of changes across the Army as a whole. The Army has always evolved to meet current and future challenges. While the Army cherishes its traditions, it cannot base future capability on tradition alone. It has always had a proud history of embracing necessary change. That has happened under Conservative and Labour governments. It is my regret that the present Conservative Opposition are not prepared to accept the logic of this case.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|