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Volume 455: debated on Monday 22 January 2007

The size of the Army reflects the current requirements, and the future Army structure as announced in December 2004 is designed to produce an agile, balanced and robust Army, capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. Of course, we keep the size and shape of the Army, like the other two services, under review.

That was not much of an answer. We are fighting two dangerous and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet the Government, in their wisdom, have seen fit to reduce the size of the Army, most recently cutting four infantry battalions from the order of battle. At the same time, people have been leaving the Territorial Army in droves. I was delighted that the Secretary of State said in a recent article that he believed that the Army should be bigger. Can he tell us what he intends to do about it and how much bigger it should be?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the article concerned, he will see that that phrase, which was never attributed to me, was actually the work of the sub-editor—[Interruption.] I just say to him that he should read the article. He will also notice that the newspaper that carried the article omitted that headline in later editions, when it was pointed out that I had never used those words. He is right that the size of the Army has been cut, but not by this Government. The size of the Army was cut by the Government whom he supported by about 50,000 between 1983 and 1997. Since 1997, the size of the Army has been broadly the same as that which we inherited, at about 101,000.

May I say to the Secretary of State that the figures given to me by MOD sources seem to indicate that those numbers have dropped by some 1,900 in total over the past 10 years? Can he explain why some Members of the House believe that they have dropped by some 10,000?

Frankly, that figure is in the public domain because the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) put it there in October last year. Immediately after he did so, I wrote to him and pointed out that it was inaccurate to suggest that the size of the Army had been cut by 10,000 since 1997. Thankfully, in his briefing to the press this month, he corrected that, and indicated to them, privately I have to say, that the figure is broadly the same as that which we inherited. He also had to admit that his Government had cut the size of the Army by too much.

If the cuts to the Army following the end of the cold war were so bad, the Secretary of State had better explain why the Government cut the budget in the strategic defence review by £500 million a year—a cut that would have been £1 billion had it not been for the personal intervention of the Chief of the Defence Staff. Given that the assumptions that underlay the defence review have been bucked for the past five years while we have been sustaining such an operational tempo, the Secretary of State’s statement that the size of the Army reflects the current requirements is astonishing. The simple fact is that the Army is not large enough for the current requirements. What will the Government do about it?

I am on record as saying, and I repeat, that we are asking the Army to do more than was planned. I accept that. [Interruption.] I accept that, but it does not mean that the Army is not capable of doing it. The advice that I receive from those who know best—the chiefs of staff—is that the Army is capable of carrying out the functions that it has been asked to do. In the very interview that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) raised, I explained that I have an understanding that if we continued at this tempo for a period of time, we would be in danger of damaging the core of the Army, but we do not intend to do that.

On the budget, perhaps the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) will share with his hon. Friends the knowledge that he has that the real cuts to the defence budget took place under the Government whom he supported up until 1997 and that, in fact, there have been real cash increases in defence since we came to power in 1997.

May I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention that since the last Defence questions we have had the Prime Minister’s speech of last Friday week in which he reiterated his vision of us having a global reach, which for many of us seemed to bear no relation to the available resources—to our logistical capacity, equipment or service personnel? Will the Secretary of State use this occasion to explain how we can achieve the objectives set by the Prime Minister with those limited resources and, if there was a crisis in an overseas territory this afternoon, requiring the swift deployment of a significant number of armed forces personnel, will he explain where they would come from?

On advice, I remain confident that the Army is fully capable of meeting the current levels of commitment. Indeed, the Navy, which we discussed a few questions ago, is also capable of meeting the current levels of commitment. It has a global reach, as do the Army and the RAF, as we heard. We retain the ability to respond to additional urgent requirements, but we have to plan for the future.