To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to review the manpower of infantry regiments.
We continue to keep Army manpower under review. While we will make adjustments if necessary —as we did with the measures announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 3 February—we have no current plans for further changes.
May I belatedly congratulate the Minister on his appointment? This is the first opportunity that I have had to do that. He said in yesterday's debate that the time between emergency tours by the Army was 19 months. His statement to that effect appears at column 111 of the Official Report. That is not the figure given to me by members of the infantry battalions and others to whom I have spoken. Will he reconsider the matter, remembering that it has a great effect on the families and personnel involved?Is the Minister aware of a further problem concerning in-service training because of a shortage of manpower? It seems that in-service training and similar activities are being delayed, so will he conduct an in-depth study into that matter, too?
I thank the hon. Gentleman warmly for his kind remarks. I confirm the figures that I gave last night in the debate. On the basis of current emergency tour commitments, the average emergency tour intervals for infantry are likely to meet the target of 24 months by 1995. The average emergency tour interval for the current year is 19 months. I stress that that is an average figure—some forces are able to be deployed while some are not; some are reorganising and re-roling, so are not available for use. We aim to reach the target of 24 months soon. With the withdrawal from Belize and the withdrawal of two battalions from Berlin, there will be more forces available for us.
I, too, belatedly congratulate my hon. Friend. Is he aware that there is concern among those who take a genuine interest in such matters that manpower constraints are making it difficult for Britain to meet its international obligations? Will my hon. Friend quietly consider in the weeks ahead rescinding the decision to merge my old regiment, the Gordon Highlanders with the Queen's Own Highlanders and, at a stroke, find a cost-effective solution to those constraints, as well as providing a future for two of the finest infantry regiments of the British Army?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Army is large enough to keep all its commitments following the reduction in threat due to the change in the strategic environment. As we often say, the post-"Options" Army will be smaller but fully manned, well equipped and properly supported. I believe that the House will be proud of the commitments that we shall continue to carry out throughout the world. However, those commitments must be balanced—we cannot, and should not, do everything. We should not put our men and women at unnecessary risk. I have looked at the issue in the past few weeks and believe that Scottish regiments were not treated unfairly in the restructuring process. It was not possible to exempt the Scottish regiments from the inescapable need for certain cuts. I realise that many people with Scottish regimental associations have strong feelings about the restructuring, but equal pain was felt by all regiments—whether Scottish, British, Welsh or Irish.
As the Minister embarks on his new portfolio, I plead with him that, if he will not take my advice, he should take the advice expressed. not only by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), but the Minister's hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason) and undertake a full defence review specifically to deal with the issues raised about the infantry.The Minister may wish to ask his civil servants about the following issue. Since the beginning of the operation called "Options for Change", the Government have made a net increase in the number of battalion tasks of 10—an extra two in Northern Ireland, plus one in Bosnia, minus one in Belize, times five—but they have increased the number of infantry battalions by only two. Is it not clear to the Minister, as it is to the Opposition, that the tasks of the infantry cannot be increased by 10 and the numbers by two without creating a mismatch between resources and commitments? As he embarks on his new ministerial position, will the Minister do what his Front-Bench predecessors at the Ministry of Defence refused to do: carry out a genuine review so that we do not place burdens on our soldiers and service men which they cannot meet because they lack resources?
The hon. Gentleman is a friendly soul and I shall willingly take advice from him, except on this matter—for the simple reason that there is no need for a full defence review. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be sitting on the edge of his seat waiting for the White Paper to be published in the next few weeks. I think that even he will be so impressed with that document that he will feel that the need for the review has gone out of the window. We keep Army manpower closely under review—the increase in tasks for existing manpower shows the efficiency and effectiveness of our armed forces.
Is my hon. Friend aware that one third of all recruits to the armed forces are youngsters under the age of 18? Given the increasing complexity of modern warfare, is it any longer sensible to take on young people with only minimum basic education? Should we not in future consider recruiting only youngsters over the age of 18, thereby avoiding the current problem of sending them to difficult areas—as with, for example, those in my local regiment, the Staffordshires, serving in Bosnia?
My hon. Friend is right to say that some 35 per cent. of Army recruits are under the age of 18. It would put the Army under great stress if we were to restrict recruitment to those over the age of 18; we would lose many talented people to other walks of life. Those under the age of 18 should, with their parents' permission, be given the opportunity to serve in the British forces, one of the best jobs in the world.With regard to the deployment of young people in the theatres of war, many of those who are under the age of 18 have trained within formed units and if they were not allowed to go with their units, it would not only break up that unit but would be a great disappointment to the young people concerned. However, we shall keep the matter under review.