I beg to move,
That this House opposes the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF); notes that 2RRF is the only infantry battalion being cut that was not initially due for disbandment on military grounds; further notes that 2RRF was instead caught by the Government’s additional criteria of only one battalion loss per regiment and no deletion of cap-badges, which has resulted in more poorly-recruited Scottish battalions being saved; further notes the social and economic costs of disbandment; and urges the Government to reverse its decision.
I shall start by thanking a few people. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and I wholeheartedly thank all Members from both sides of the House who have supported our campaign, especially those who have signed the motion. I also thank the many hundreds of ex-Fusiliers who have participated in the march and lobby today outside Parliament in support of the motion, most of whom have been up since the very early hours of the morning and travelled long distances. Our thanks go to them, and most of them are in the Gallery. We wish them well and thank them for their support. I also thank the many other regiments that volunteered to march with the Fusiliers today. Their kind offer was declined, but their support was very much welcome.
I should perhaps single out one person. It is always unfair to do so, of course, but I would single out Colonel Brian Gorski and his team—they know who they are—for everything that they have done and for their support and tireless efforts. Finally, I thank the Serjeant at Arms and his office; Samantha Howlett, the ticket lady; and everybody else on the parliamentary estate who has engineered an administrative miracle by getting 400-plus Fusiliers into the House today and accommodating them so well.
Why this debate? Needless to say, I am very proud to have served as a Fusilier. As a regiment, we trace our ancestry to the 17th century, and we have won more battle honours than any other regiment in the British Army, including the Guards. We won more Victoria Crosses in the great war than any other regiment, and we completed more operational tours of Northern Ireland than any other regiment.
Looking forward, we perhaps need to remind everyone that the Fusiliers is one of the few regiments to have served in all the recent military campaigns, including both Iraq wars, Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Operationally, it is one of the most experienced regiments in the British Army. Our fighting record is second to none—that is undisputed, but it is not the subject of this debate. The subject of the debate is our contention that 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is the only infantry battalion to be cut for non-military reasons as part of the Army 2020 proposals.
We are told that the cuts were based on military logic, notably capability and demographic sustainability, yet answers to written questions, a letter from the Secretary of State and discussions confirm that 2RRF has a better recruitment record than other battalions that have been spared. In fact, in recent years 2RRF has one of the best recruiting records of any battalion, and indeed it was the best recruited battalion when the announcement was made.
There was one person missing from the list of thank-yous at the beginning of the debate—the hon. Gentleman himself. I thank him for securing the debate and for the campaign that he has led.
This morning, the hon. Gentleman and I presented several petitions to Downing street, including one containing 10,000 signatures of people in Lancashire and Greater Manchester, collated by the Manchester Evening News. Does that not indicate not just the scale of support for the Fusiliers but the unhappiness at the way in which the decision has been made and the unfairness behind it?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The strength of feeling has been illustrated not just by today’s march but by the number of people who have signed the petitions. There can be no dispute but that feelings run high on the issue, and I thank him and all other Members who have supported the campaign.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that Coventry and Warwickshire have been great recruiting grounds for the Fusiliers over the centuries. Does he agree that although we often praise our soldiers in the House, for a change we now have an opportunity to stand by our soldiers’ regiments?
I completely agree. This is a clear opportunity to say that we stand side by side with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. At the end of the day, soldiers take orders, which is absolutely right. However, we are having this debate because we contend that 2RRF has been felled by political considerations, to save more poorly recruited Scottish battalions ahead of the 2014 Scottish referendum.
Let me be clear that I, for one, think that the cuts to the Army, and certainly their scale, are a big mistake. In this increasingly uncertain world, when many countries that are not necessarily friendly to the west are increasing their defence spending, I am really concerned about the scale of our cuts and about the ability of the Territorial Army, much as I respect it, to plug the loss of those regular battalions. I believe that no battalions should be cut, Scottish or otherwise, but if there are to be cuts, they must be based on military logic and not political calculation born out of the misguided view that it will somehow help to save the Union if we save more poorly recruited Scottish battalions.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his leadership of this campaign. Can we not find further evidence that the decision was not made on military grounds in the fact that it was not part of the Government’s initial proposals but was added later to take political considerations into account? Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Let us be absolutely clear about this. I do not believe that any battalion should be cut at all, and that is a fact, but if there have to be cuts, they must be based on military logic, not political calculation. The bottom line is that the figures provided in answers to written parliamentary questions about recruitment and retention and in the Secretary of State’s response to me clearly show that two Scottish battalions are undermanned—far more so than the equivalent in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. That is what we are discussing. Decisions should be based on military logic, not political calculation.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that, given the amount of money we are spending on foreign aid and our contribution to the EU budget, it is lunacy for the Government to put themselves in the position of having to make these difficult decisions? Is it not about time the Government reassessed their priorities and put defence of the realm at the top of that list?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who is spot on. I shall come on to that point later. I for one, to answer the question from the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), am not pointing the finger at any other regiment. I am not asking for further cuts in the Ministry of Defence, but if the Government cannot make the right decision here and now about 2RRF, there is money outside the MOD budget, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, that could be used to reverse this bad decision.
If hon. Members will forgive me, I want to make a little progress before I take further inventions, as time is pushing on and I know that a number of Members want to speak.
The Government have been reluctant to justify their reasoning. In fact, getting information from the MOD has been like extracting teeth, and one can see why from the damning evidence that was eventually obtained. The House will remember that on 5 July the Secretary of State for Defence announced the Government’s Army 2020 proposals. As part of the proposals, five infantry battalions were earmarked for disbandment, one of which was 2RRF. The impression created in this Chamber—I and other Members were present—was that the decision was based in large part on military calculations of capability and sustainability, or, in other words, that military logic had prevailed.
Many of us know that 2RRF has not only a good recruitment record but sound demographics in its core recruiting areas. On 6 July, I tabled named day written parliamentary questions asking for the recruitment and manning figures for all battalions involved. Given that we had been told that the decision on which battalions were to be cut was in large part based on those figures, one would have thought that they would have been ready to hand. I did not get the answers until 3 August, a month later, when Parliament was in recess. While I was waiting, I pressed the Prime Minister and the MOD by way of e-mail and letter.
In my view, the initial response from the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), who was then Minister for the Armed Forces, skated over the logic and continued to suggest that the MOD had “used a methodical approach with objective criteria to select those battalions which had to be lost”, but did not tell us what those objective criteria were, despite the fact that I had specifically asked for that in my letter and questions.
I then finally received answers to my named day questions, comparing 10-year records of establishment and strength for each of the battalions being cut and the five battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The figures were revealing; they clearly showed that two battalions from the Royal Regiment of Scotland had worse recruiting records by far. On 14 August, I met the Secretary of State and the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Peter Wall. On that very morning, after a number of phone calls from the MOD, I finally received a letter by e-mail from the Secretary of State. That letter finally admitted that on purely military grounds two Scottish battalions would have been axed. The letter clearly stated that 2RRF was the only one of the battalions being axed that was not initially earmarked for disbandment. In fact, the letter was quite specific. It made it very clear that the five least sustainable battalions are two battalions from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, one from the Yorkshire Regiment, one from the Mercian Regiment and one from the Royal Welsh Regiment.
The letter went on to explain that what did for 2RRF was the Government’s decision to limit regimental losses to one battalion each and to ensure that no cap badges were lost. The Government’s insistence that no cap badges are lost makes no sense when we think that, as Members will remember, only six years ago in 2006 four cap badges and six battalions were amalgamated to form the five battalions of The Rifles. That was held up as an example of best practice by many senior Army officers. The Government’s justification for capping regimental losses to one battalion also does not make sense or withstand scrutiny. Five-battalion regiments can more easily withstand the loss of two battalions, particularly if they are struggling to sustain them, than two-battalion regiments can withstand the loss of one. Single battalion regiments also find it harder to meet the operational flexibility required and to offer their officers and soldiers a varied and demanding career profile.
It is perhaps also worth nothing that contrary to Government assertions, no Scottish battalion is being cut. The letter made it clear that on military logic two should have gone, and we know that if the regimental losses had been limited to one battalion, one should have gone. However, the one that should have gone has not gone. All that has happened is that it has been reduced in size for ceremonial duties. No cap badges or colours will be lost north of the border.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and securing this debate. I am proud to say that the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, one of the bedrock regiments that form the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was my dad’s regiment. He served in Palestine and north Africa before the war as a regular soldier and was captured in north Africa in 1940.
Some of my constituents are in the Public Gallery today. Messrs Spalding, Gannon and Allen are welcome to London for this debate—
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am afraid that the damage is done.
I have talked to colleagues in the regiment and note that the creed of the battalion includes the words:
“I will never accept defeat nor let down my mates or my regiment.”
We should take that on board as regards 2RRF.
I completely agree. Once a fusilier, always a fusilier and despite the odds we will carry this campaign to the end.
I shall wind up shortly, as I am conscious that a number of Members wish to speak, but I must add that the letter from the Secretary of State was revealing in another sense. I have talked about history and recruitment, and some might say, “Well, that is history. What about the future?” The letter, however, cast doubt on the demographic sustainability of the regiment, which I suggest is utter and complete nonsense. The regiment recruits from the three largest cities in the United Kingdom: London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Yes, and Newcastle. I could go around the country—Rochdale, Bury—but I am sure the regiment will forgive me for not listing every city, town and village. However, it certainly recruits from the three largest cities, and I will not forget Newcastle, of which I have many happy memories.
The letter from the Secretary of State was revealing because it omitted to mention London as one of the regiment’s recruiting grounds. How can the MOD talk about demographic sustainability if, in its list of what it considers to be the regiment’s regional recruiting grounds, it fails to include London, probably one of the key recruiting grounds? We should not forget that the headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is based at the Tower of London, yet London was conveniently forgotten.
It is; my hon. Friend is quite right. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), agrees. It is strange: we go through the recruiting regions of the whole country for the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, yet somebody forgot to mention London. That is absolute nonsense.
I love Scotland; I am married to a Scot and I believe in the Union. However, this is not the way to go about cementing that Union, and it is impossible to believe that the demographics of Scotland are healthier than for the three largest cities in the country, and the four largest counties—let me mention Newcastle again. Figures also confirm that for battalions exclusively recruited from a country, England has a population of 3 million per infantry battalion, against fewer than one million for Scotland.
May I add my voice to those of other hon. Members who have congratulated my hon. Friend on initiating this debate? I assure him that when I became Defence Minister in 2010, I and my colleagues found it extremely painful to make these difficult decisions. One of the reasons we did so was that we inherited a budget deficit of £156 billion, and to retain the confidence of the international capital markets, something had to be done. We also inherited a £38 billion black hole in the finances of the Ministry of Defence, which has now been put right.
I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) a belief that there is an alternative. When in government I never said that there was no alternative—there is, and it is to reprioritise Government spending. In my view, we cannot justify spending ever more taxpayers’ money on overseas aid and cutting our armed forces. I recognise that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, carries responsibility for those matters, as did I. We had a real problem to face.
Order. This is a very important debate and a lot of Members wish to speak. It is going to be time limited, and interventions from both sides of the House must be shorter. I want to hear everybody’s contribution, not just certain ones.
Briefly, if there have to be military cuts, I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) that they should be based on military logic, not political calculation. As he knows, he and I are at one when it comes to priorities and Government spending.
We should not be blind to the social costs of axing 2RRF. Not only will 600 soldiers find themselves out of work—many of whom are recruited from areas that do not have healthy employment opportunities—but there will be a knock-on effect on their families, on veterans and on local affiliated cadet organisations. Furthermore, if 2RRF goes, I suggest that Warwickshire will be the only county in England without a direct battalion link. We should perhaps remember that Field Marshal Montgomery was a Warwickshire fusilier, and his regiment became 2RRF.
We will argue about that later; we are all claiming Field Marshal Montgomery. [Interruption.]
Looking at the bigger picture, and to follow the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), I have severe doubts about the extent of the cuts to the Army and our armed forces generally. We must never forget that the first duty of Government is to national security. As the Foreign Secretary reminded us:
“The range of threats and dangers is, if anything, increasing.”
Many countries, not necessarily friendly to the west, are increasing their defence spending. Much as I respect the Territorial Army, having been on operations with it, I question the extent to which we are asking it to step up to the plate and plug the gap left by the loss of regular battalions. I am sad to say that the coalition Government continue to cut. Defence spending has halved over the past 20 years, and it continues to decrease.
I suggest that our relationship with the United States is a process of give and take and is not free. It is based on shared values and a close working relationship on nuclear and security issues, and it is underpinned by our military capability. These are austere times, but given that the first duty of Government is to national security, I suggest that money could be saved in other areas.
I am not suggesting that the Government do the right thing within the MOD budget; I have made it clear that I am not pointing the finger at other regiments. I am saying that we need to reprioritise our spending. I, for one, have trouble with all the extra billions of pounds that we are sending in our contribution to the EU budget. I also have a problem—I know this is unfashionable but I will say it anyway—with sending £1 billion in aid to India, a country with its own space, nuclear and rearmament programmes, an aircraft carrier, and its own aid programme. We are, in effect, subsidising those programmes, which I think is wrong.
In conclusion, the Government are wrong. Military logic and not political calculations should determine Army cuts. I am a firm believer in the Union, but this is not the way to achieve it. In my view, the Government’s culpability is illustrated by their reluctance to justify their decision, and the evidence has been damning. That was illustrated by a freedom of information request that I submitted on 6 September, asking for the first draft of the Chief of the General Staff’s recommendations as to which battalions should be cut. I received the answer late last night, saying that that they will not release that information. I ask the Government to think again and reverse the decision to axe 2RRF. I am not calling for any other battalions to be cut, just for this very bad decision to be reversed.
Let me say at the start that despite the dulcet tones hon. Members are listening to and the agreement across the House there should be few or no cuts across England and Scotland, I have an English constituency and am therefore an English Member of Parliament—except, of course, when we are playing football.
Since this decision was announced in July, a large number of constituents have contacted me, asking me to speak in defence of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. As part of the Fusilier family, the Lancashire Fusiliers recruit heavily from my constituency, and other constituencies across Lancashire. It was in July this year that the Secretary of State decided on these heavy cuts to the regular Army, which included the dismantling of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. That is happening at a time when the world is very unstable, so the cut is serious.
May I convey the feelings and views of my constituents? I will not name them, but present in the Gallery are a representative of the reserve armed forces, the chairman of the Lancashire Veterans Association, and a number of other people from my patch. They told me first hand this morning that they are very proud to be taking part in the first march on Parliament since soldiers demonstrated in the Bishopsgate mutiny of 1649, when 300 members of the new model army protested against Oliver Cromwell’s orders to send them to Ireland.
This is also the first time that the British Army has taken to the streets in protest—I met some of its members—since it was formed in 1707. That year is famous for the union of the Parliaments, so it could be said that it was around that time that my ancestors became British. Hon. Members will no doubt hear throughout the debate of the regiment’s illustrious history, but more recently the Fusiliers were the first regiment into Iraq, fought the longest battle in Afghanistan, and have had more service in Northern Ireland than any other regiment.
The Ministry of Defence website states:
“The Second Fusiliers are a superb, operationally hardened Light Role Infantry Battalion”,
but 2RRF is the only infantry battalion to be cut for political rather than military reasons.
My hon. Friend makes the point very clear and I agree with him.
As the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) has said, 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is the only infantry battalion to be cut for political rather than military reasons; otherwise, the more poorly recruited Scottish battalions would have been axed. In my view, that is outrageous. Is it prudent to interfere politically with the collation of Future Force 2020 with regards to the Army?
Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to thank the Army and the Fusiliers in particular is to reinstate the battalion? That would be a big thanks to the Fusiliers for all the service they have given to this country over the past 400 years. Instead, we have redundancies, and all the social consequences of that.
That is the real subject of the debate. Our armed service personnel are the nation’s mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and political interference brings extra risks.
May I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this open debate, which is an opportunity to put the right alternatives forward? Members of Parliament can simply encourage the Government to remove additional criteria to limit regimental losses to one battalion or even fewer, and that no cap badges should go. If there are to be Army cuts, military capability and sustainability should be the key determinants. Please, I beg the House to ensure that 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has its rightful place in future forces beyond 2020.
As a platoon commander, company commander and a commanding officer, it was my pleasure to service alongside 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I found it a splendid and gallant regiment that was always ready to face the Queen’s enemies. It should not be cut, and neither should any other regiment of British infantry, cavalry, artillery or sappers. Of course cuts have to be made, and defence is not an exception. We are in difficult times and were left with an appalling legacy that must be cured, but not at the expense of those who defend this country.
I shall expand on the political nature of the decisions later in my speech, but the overall design is not political but military—it is made by senior officers. That is why I was so surprised when the Secretary of State for Defence came to the House and not just announced the regiments that would lose a battalion, but specified the battalions. That shows an extraordinary lack of understanding of how the regimental system works.
I compliment my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), and thank the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), whom I rudely failed to thank following his speech. It is not just Warwickshire that has lost its regimental representation; Staffordshire, Derbyshire and a number of other counties no longer have a regimental link and a regimental cap badge to wear.
I question why those decisions were made. Let us take the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers as an example. The Fusiliers are immensely adaptable. In its time, the regiment has been called the East Devonshire Regiment. The 7th Regiment bore the title “Derbyshire”. It adapted and overcame, and were reconfigured again and again to the demands of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
The current document, “Transforming the British Army”, which was published in July 2012, says that the formations of the British Army are to be based on infantry battalions. In my day, they were based on armoured units, and largely on tanks, because we faced a different sort of threat, but things have changed. The leading arm is now infantry. I quite understand that, and as an ex-infantry man I applaud it, but the point is adaptability. The face of war has changed, and the very arm chosen to lead our combat arms is being cut to the bone in an illogical fashion.
I am interested in the regimental system. “Transforming the British Army” refers to structural changes and states that the fewest number of cap badges that can sustain the regimental system should be lost from across the Army, and yet in May, the Secretary of State said:
“The ancient cap badges have largely gone—they are attached in brackets to some unit names. I can’t say to you that there will be no loss of battalions in the infantry as we downsize the Army. We are looking at the options.”
Which is it to be? Are we maintaining the regimental system or are we scrapping the ancient cap badges?
Just a few short years ago, under the previous Government, it was explained that our infantry structures would be changed in such a way that there would be no more single battalions left in the Army, with the exceptions of the five battalions of Guards and the one battalion of the Royal Irish Rangers, which is now the Royal Irish Regiment. It was explained that single-battalion regiments were not sustainable, and that the careers of non-commissioned officers and officers depended on there being at least two battalions—possibly three, and, better still, five—in every regiment. How have things changed in the last 24 months to such an extent that we are prepared to reduce a well recruited, sustainable and fighting regiment such as the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to one battalion? Similarly, the Royal Welsh Regiment, the Yorkshire Regiment and the Mercian Regiment will lose sustainable, capable, fighting battalions. It is a disgrace. It is a disgrace that makes no sense, and a disgrace that is based on ill judgment and ignorance among both politicians and senior officers.
We simply cannot have our fighting forces cut at a time when the world is unstable. It strikes me as utterly illogical. People have simply not opened their history books and seen that every time this country cuts its forces, we are immediately met by another drama. Where do I start? The Korean war? The Crimean war? I could give any number of historical examples, which I know you do not want me to do, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will only say that most recently we cut HMS Ark Royal and our Harrier fleet, yet within days—days!—we needed both. My own regiment was scrapped in the 1960s, yet was needed within weeks, when the Northern Ireland crisis exploded in a way that we could never possibly have imagined.
This is an act of extreme short-sightedness. Money can be found from elsewhere to sustain our combat arms. If that money has to come from within the military system, let us not cut combat arms. Let us cut the endless number of senior officers, cooks, bottle washers, signallers, computer operators, drivers, batmen and bootblacks who support our Army today. We cannot have this. These battalions are precious, and if I hear one more plaintive voice raised about recruiting, I think I will be sick. When I commanded an infantry battalion, albeit some time ago, I was told that it was impossible to recruit from below the minus 40 I had in my battalion, but within six months we were plus 120. We had a spare company. When I was told that it was impossible to recruit in Scotland, I pointed to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, which raised an extra squadron in next to no time.
We are now looking at taking away the current recruiting system and replacing it with a civilianised system. This is wrong. We have had defence cut after defence cut after defence cut. Before we know it, our old, proper, sensible and fighting regiments will disappear forever. The Fusiliers and the others must be spared for the sake of the nation.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who has defended the motion so eloquently.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this important debate. He has worked extremely hard over the past few months on behalf of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and its supporters, and has drawn together MPs from across the House to forward the campaign. Had it not been for his exceptional effort, I do not think we would be having this debate today. Nor would we have witnessed the wonderful sight of 400 Fusiliers marching down Whitehall to join us in Parliament.
I give my full support to the motion, but in doing so I do not wish to slight our Scottish colleagues in the House or the brave soldiers who serve in the Scottish battalions. The motion serves to highlight the Government’s flawed strategic defence and security review, which sees 30,000 servicemen and women lose their jobs in cuts.
I stand fully behind the retention of 2RRF, which is really important, but does my hon. Friend agree that the mention of the Scottish battalions does no favours to the motion? Had it not mentioned any other battalions, it would have been more comradely and in the right spirit, and would probably have garnered more support.
The Scottish battalions are mentioned because of the unfortunately political manner in which the Government are carrying out the disbandment.
The cuts will not only cost jobs but cost people their careers, could result in thousands of ex-servicemen and women facing long-term unemployment, and in time could pose a threat to the security of our nation. In the north-east, 200 soldiers will lose not only their jobs but, as I have said, the careers they have trained hard for and of which they are rightly proud. Soldiers from the north-east have a long history of service in the British Army. During the first world war, the Northumberland Fusiliers raised more battalions than any other in Britain—52—and in those days a battalion was more than 1,000 strong.
Today, the north-east still provides more soldiers for the Army than any other region in the UK, so it is no surprise that, when the Secretary of State announced the disbandment, veterans, the public and politicians joined the campaign to make the Government see the unfairness of their actions.
I was probably going to make the same point as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). I was honoured to be a company commander in the then X company of the Northumberlands. I totally agree with what the hon. Lady says. The Northumberland Fusiliers had more battalions because it recruited from the strongest recruiting area almost in the country. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) mentioned the situation in Newcastle. Does she agree that the Fusiliers must continue to survive, because of their strength at all levels? The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West will probably say exactly the same thing.
I was going to make a slightly different point from the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). The 200 Fusiliers who will lose their jobs will have 200 families, probably with many children, and in this time of restraint, with the double-dip recession and the high unemployment, especially in the north-east, we should not be making 200 people redundant and leaving them looking for jobs.
Both those points strengthen the case for maintaining the 2RRF.
I have been proud to support the local campaign, which has received the kind support of the Newcastle Journal and the Evening Chronicle, which has been fantastic in helping to publicise the fight across our region. The veterans and the Fusiliers have played a massive role in promoting the campaign, and have organised two public events in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which I have been honoured to attend.
It was at one of these events that the real impact of the Government’s decision hit home. I noticed among the honoured veterans and members of the public a young man standing particularly proud during the minute’s silence, in a way that no other civilian around him did. After the ceremony, as the crowds chattered and photographs were taken, I managed to speak to this young man. He told me that he had been a Fusilier, but that more than a year ago had had an accident and had to leave.
Fortunately, the young man has fully recovered, but he has not been able to find any work since leaving the Army. Shamefully, employers do not always seem keen to employ ex-soldiers. He told me that he would be eligible to re-apply to rejoin the Army in November, and that it was his greatest wish to resume his Army career in the 2nd Battalion. My heart went out to the young man and to all the other young people who, like generations before them, have wanted to serve their country in the military but who now have little prospect of ever being able to serve as full-time soldiers.
Former members of the Territorial Army are sceptical about the Secretary of State’s plans to replace full-time soldiers with an expanded reserve force. They gave me the example of the 6th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which had been a well-recruited and fully equipped, operational, NATO-role battalion, and which was recognised as one of the best in the country. The battalion was disbanded and became the Tyne-Tees Regiment in 1999, but it lost all its support weapons, which meant that associated skills were lost too. It now exists as the 5th Rifle Battalion, with only three companies and no support weapons. There is a severe shortage of officers and senior non-commissioned officers, and a lack of funding has meant no training and led to the deskilling of the battalion.
The fear is that disbanding regular units that are not immediately replaced by a reserve capacity creates a wide capacity gap—indeed, a gap in our entire national security. The campaign is clear in its aims. The 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has no trouble recruiting in London, Manchester, Birmingham or the north-east, as has been said. It is currently at full strength. The regiments that the Government are choosing to save have to recruit largely from foreign and Commonwealth troops. Our Government have said they are committed to British jobs for British people. Clearly in this instance they are not. The campaigners and supporters of the motion know that this is not a fair decision.
I should point out that the recruitment of foreign and Commonwealth troops took off under the last Government. There was a deliberate policy to recruit up to, I think, 10%. I should say that those troops do a very good job, most of them, and I pay tribute to them, but I do not think the hon. Lady should accuse us of in some way being illogical in this regard.
I do not think I mentioned the Minister being “illogical”. The point is that those battalions are poorly recruited and have to go abroad, when in 2RRF we have the strength of the Army being made up from people who are local, as is the regimental tradition.Moreover, I would point out to the Minister that there has been criticism of the decision from top-ranking figures, who state that the abolition of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers will not stand up to public scrutiny.
I stated at the beginning of my speech that the motion is not against the brave Scottish soldiers, which is true. However, in the north-east there is a fear that the referendum on Scottish independence will see the Government favouring Scotland over the north-east, in order to keep Scotland in the Union. I do not want to see Scotland leave the UK, nor do I want to see my region pay any economic or social price to ensure that we maintain the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom must be fair and honest to all its people, in all its regions. However, if Scotland becomes independent, it is possible that such a small country will not be able to sustain five battalions, nor will the remaining UK be able to be properly served by the 25 remaining battalions.
In summary, the feelings of everyone who supports the motion are expressed in the words of Major Chester Potts:
“‘Quo Fata Vocant’ (Whither the Fates call) is the regimental motto of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Wherever the fates have called we have been there and shed our blood in the defence of the country. We have fought the nation’s enemies for nearly 350 years now. We never expected our greatest enemy, and architect of our demise would be our own Government.”
I welcome the work of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) in securing this debate and leading the campaign. I do not think that there will ever be a cause in his parliamentary career that is dearer to his heart than this one, as an ex-Fusilier.
Alnwick in my constituency is the traditional heartland of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, which is one of the parent regiments of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. In Alnwick, the red and white hackle is a familiar sight, especially on St George’s day. It was a particularly welcome sight on the streets of London this morning—so much so that it caused me to miss a question in the House, because I was with the large numbers of Fusiliers outside, whom we were so pleased to welcome here. The regimental museum is also in Alnwick. People in Northumberland, as in other parts of the country, have watched with pride as they have seen what are often frightening television shots showing members of the Fusiliers serving in so many of the increasingly televised conflicts that we have seen in recent years—in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and of course on the streets of Northern Ireland as well.
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is one of the best recruited regiments in the British Army, and the recruitment figures demonstrate that. That is what has led a number of us, such as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay, to get into correspondence with the Ministry of Defence and with Ministers as soon as the decision was made. It appears from MOD figures that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has consistently had the best recruitment record over the period that the figures cover, apart for the final year. It has the best track record on being at or near establishment over the last few years. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence admits that the figures for 2010-11 are artificially low, owing to a nine-month pause in infantry training, which affected regiments differently, depending on where in the year their training slots were in the infantry training centre programme. When that feature is added in, we see that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has a superb recruitment record. That led us to pursue the matter further with Ministers and to seek a further response from them.
However, that response came in words carefully tailored by the Minister’s civil servants—the reply I received was from the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is in his place. He wrote to say:
“As I am sure you will appreciate this was a complicated piece of work and for this reason I am unable to provide the detailed information for recruitment catchment areas that you sought,”
although he then drew my attention to various websites where we could look at some of the sources on which the work was based, which we did. There were probably a number of mistakes in that work. I strongly suspect that the modern county of Northumberland was used in references to Northumberland as a recruiting area, rather than the county that stretches from Tweed to Tyne, which is the traditional Northumberland Fusiliers recruiting area, which also includes substantial urban areas. However, the letter went on to demonstrate quite clearly that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers should not be one of the five battalions that go, saying:
“After the removal of four battalions, the method for predicting future sustainability became less statistically discerning.”
Let us think about that. I think it should win a “Yes Minister” prize for obfuscatory circumlocution—or, to put it another way, dodging the issue with fancy words. A little further, the letter says:
“Therefore to determine the fifth battalion to be removed from the order of battle required the application of criteria that went wider than demographics”—
in other words, “We told the officials to find some other reason which would enable us to disband the 2nd Battalion.” The letter continued:
“Historical manning performance and the need to maintain equity of opportunity meant that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers…was the next appropriate regiment”.
What that “equity of opportunity” is I do not know, but it certainly does not apply to those who wish to serve in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in the north-east of England or the many other recruiting areas that have been mentioned today.
I also want to talk about the extraordinary consequence of creating a single-battalion regiment, which is in defiance of policy to date. In the last round of changes, under the previous Government, there was an explicit desire to get away from the idea of single-battalion regiments. For example, in his letter to the Chief of the General Staff, Brigadier Paterson, the Colonel of the regiment, sets out the position:
“During the last Options For Change the Army Board stated that large Regiments were the future for the infantry for all the well rehearsed arguments of operational capability and sustainability…What has changed for that policy to be reversed and for single battalions to be created deliberately?...Single Battalions fail to meet the criteria of sustainability…neither do they offer the variety and career opportunities of larger Regiments.”
We have been through the process of losing cap badges before in Northumberland, because my constituency is also the regimental headquarters of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, which lost its cap badge when it was amalgamated with a less well recruited regiment—the Royal Scots—to form a battalion in the Royal Regiment of Scotland. Indeed, one of the arguments strongly used then was the argument against single-battalion regiments, yet here we are, creating one.
The other important consequence we must consider, which I would like to mention in the brief time available to me, is the consequence for the Territorial Army. In 39 years in Parliament, I have seen the TA in my area go up and down and up and down as changes of policy have led to changes in the extent to which use was made of the TA. We cannot do it like that, however, because that does not build up the core of officers and non-commissioned officers needed to run a really efficient TA. Remarkable things have been achieved, and TA soldiers have given wonderful service in regular units in all the conflicts that we have mentioned, but we are now expecting a major TA expansion without having the people in place to ensure that the necessary training and officer management are available for the increased force.
We all know why this decision has been taken. Political reasons took the place of military logic, and in such a blindingly obvious way that I do not know how anyone in the Ministry of Defence thought that anybody would be fooled by it. How did they imagine that nobody would spot what was happening a mile off?
I am familiar, from my various spheres of work in the House, with the way in which missives from Downing street can bring about sudden changes in the development of policy, and it would be no surprise if evidence emerged that that had happened in this case. This is the wrong decision, for the wrong reasons and with the wrong results for the efficiency of the Army and the defence and security of this country.
I also begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this debate. I also pay tribute to the Royal Fusiliers. As a Newcastle city councillor, I was always conscious of the tremendous contribution that they made, and I remember the well-turned-out serving and former members of the Fusiliers who attended the Remembrance Sunday events. As a Defence Minister, I also saw the tremendous work that they did on the ground in theatres such as Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman mentioned their history of bravery, sacrifice and courage, and I concur with his comments on that. The Fusiliers remain a constant source of pride in the north-east, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has said, as well as in Manchester, London and Birmingham. The local communities in those areas have great pride in the Fusiliers.
Our concern is that the decision to disband the 2nd Battalion the Royal Fusiliers derives from a rushed defence review and an inadequate Army reform plan, known as Army 2020. The basis of any review should be sustainability and value for money.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the way in which these matters should be decided. Will he cast his mind back to 2004, when he was a Defence Minister? A total of 19 battalions were closed or amalgamated at that time, and there was no defence review then.
I must ask my hon. Friend not to fall into the trap that so many others have fallen into—namely, of setting one against another. We should all be arguing that a major mistake is being made, and that we cannot allow that to happen. If the regiment’s numbers fall below a critical mass, it will not be able to recruit when it needs to.
I will not, because of the time limit.
The conclusions of any review should also take into account the long-term strategic objectives that will be in the interests of this country, but neither Army 2020 nor the strategic defence and security review did so. The SDSR was rendered out of date within weeks of being written by events in Libya, with equipment that had been scrapped weeks before being brought back into service. Army 2020 has got rid not only of some of the British Army’s best battalions, but of some of the bravest and most dedicated members of the armed forces. The Minister must explain what his criteria are, and how he is going to maintain the necessary skills, even though many have already been lost.
We are told that the numbers have to be cut, but I want to concentrate on the way in which that is being done. There was confusion this summer as the Government let the process linger on, allowing rumours and uncertainty to continue, mainly to save the Prime Minister the embarrassment of making this announcement before Armed Forces day. There have also been substantial cuts in the numbers of our armed forces personnel. Let us remember that, when in opposition in the last few years before the general election, the Conservatives were calling for a larger Army and a larger Navy with more personnel. They have achieved exactly the opposite since they have been in power. They are saying one thing and doing another. [Interruption.] I will come to the question of budgets in a minute, if the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) will just hold his water.
These decisions are resulting in the Government having a credibility deficit on defence matters, not only with the public but with our armed forces. It is no wonder that there is confusion. The planning assumptions in the SDSR were based on an Army whose manpower was 95,000. Will the Minister tell us whether those assumptions are still being achieved, now that the number has been reduced to 82,000? Will he also be precise about the time scale for the build-up of the reserves? It has already been pointed out that there could be a capability gap in that area. I pay tribute to the members of our reserve forces. It is not surprising to discover from the continuous attitude survey of the armed forces that morale is at an all-time low.
The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay talked about the criteria that had been applied when making the decisions. Serious questions need to be asked about how and why they were made.
No, I will not. I would if I could get extra time—[Interruption.] No, I could not. I have already taken two interventions; those are the rules.
We are told that the units that were having the greatest recruitment difficulties would be abolished. The 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment was only six short of its full establishment, and the 2nd Battalion the Royal Fusiliers was only eight short. However, other battalions with much less favourable recruitment records were maintained. It is no wonder that the honorary colonel of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Fusiliers said that the decision to axe his battalion would not “best serve” the armed forces and
“cannot be presented as the best or most sensible military option.”
It has been pleasing to see the turn-out today outside Parliament, and I know the strength of feeling that exists in the north-east of England. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) has already mentioned the tremendous campaign being run by the Newcastle Journal and the Evening Chronicle. We are seeing the ad hoc nature of decision making in whole areas of defence. The fact that Ministers have announced further reductions, over and above the numbers proposed in the SDSR, shows the short-sightedness of their proposals. We said when the SDSR was produced that it was not a blueprint for our strategic future so much as a Treasury-led defence review.
I have already paid tribute to our reservists. The Secretary of State has said that the proposal to back-fill the Army with reservists presents a risk. The fact that the only announcement he has made so far is that he is going to change the name of the Territorial Army leaves questions unanswered. There has been no clarification on training, or on whether employment law needs to be changed, as is quite likely if people are to be released from their employment to serve in the armed forces. So there are still a lot of loose ends, and there will be a capability gap if we are not careful. It is quite clear that Government policy is about deficit reduction and not about what is in the best interest of this country’s defence.
I will touch on the thorny issue of budgets, because we are told that the cuts are justified because of the big, bad Labour Government who left the Ministry of Defence with a £38 billion black hole. From this Dispatch Box, I have repeatedly asked the Government to explain this. The Public Accounts Committee has asked them to explain it, too, but to date nothing is forthcoming. I will be happy to hear, when the Minister replies to the debate—
Because I do not have the time. I shall wait with anticipation for the first ever breakdown of this figure. As I was saying, this has been the justification for the cuts that we have seen. It is quite clear what has to be done: if we are to take these cuts, the Government must set the record straight and be honest not only with the British public but with our brave servicemen and women.
Historic battalions are being axed for short-term savings without any coherent strategy for our armed forces. We have no confidence that the abolition of battalions, such as the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is either in the best interests of the country or is being done on a fair basis. Until Ministers fully explain the criteria behind Army 2020 that justify the abolition of these regiments; until they clarify the reforms to the reserves and the rebasing of forces in Germany on which we still await explanation; and until they are more honest about the state of MOD budget—simply coming here to say that the budget is unbalanced is not good enough—it will be difficult for the Government to have any credibility on defence. More importantly, the people who are quite rightly campaigning against this decision will think that decisions have been taken in an ad hoc way, without taking into consideration the interests of either the 2nd Battalion or of this country’s defence.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this debate. He and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) have made the case for the 2RRF in the context of the current review extremely powerfully. I am not entirely sure that they were wholly served by the arguments of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), whose assault on the supporting arms could be described only as unfortunate. I would have thought that he among others would understand that the armed services, the Army, depend on team work between the different armed services and between the teeth arms and all the supporting arms. They all have an extremely important role to play.
When on coming into office the Government were faced with financial stringency, decisions about the number of infantry battalions as opposed to arm or core regiments, as opposed to engineers, were among the wretched decisions that Defence Ministers then had to take. The point I am about to make is beautifully illustrated by the Public Gallery, which I have never seen looking more impressive. The Officers of the House deserve congratulation on imposing a little bit of discipline up there. If I were the Defence Minister, I might find it quite intimidating, but the view presented in the Gallery makes one think about the wonderful institution that we are discussing today.
Anyone such as me who has had the privilege of serving in the Army understands the essential element of regimental identity. I was lucky enough to serve during the 1980s when I was only training to fight and die alongside my colleagues. Tragically, since 1990, far too many times that training has had to be turned into reality. That is what the deliberate creation of identity within Army fighting units is about. When Ministers are faced with wretchedly uncomfortable decisions about how to reshape the Army as times change and as warfare and the balance between the arms changes, we run straight into the political difficulty surrounding issues of identity.
The Ministry of Defence and the chiefs of staff have attempted to put in place some basis for making choices, but the toxin in the issue has already been alluded to. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has explained, this decision has been about political calculation, not about military logic. I believe that these decisions have not been taken by the chiefs. I know from my own experience just how painful it is when one’s regiment is amalgamated. For those who have ceased serving—they, of course, will have spent 20 to 30 years in service—these issues will be at everyone’s heart. For those who are currently serving—their service is likely to be shorter—they will be concerned but they will turn to the right and get on with whatever organisation they are placed in, in order to do their duty for Queen and country.
Issues of identity, graphically represented here today, are incredibly important. I think that my hon. Friend has made his case when it comes to explaining how the decisions have been taken in this particular round. These are incredibly difficult decisions for the Minister for the Armed Forces and his colleagues, although the point has been made that we cannot be entirely sure that it was he who took them.
This brings us to the issue of national sentiment. I shall now do the strategic equivalent of invading Russia and China, and take aim at Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha lobby. I think it is a particular pity that we are talking about the disbandment of a British line infantry battalion when there are battalions of, frankly, foreign mercenaries still in our Army. The national sentiment attached to the Gurkhas is, of course, entirely proper. Their century-plus service to our country is beyond compare, but it is many senses now an historic anachronism. There in 100 years-plus of sentiment associated with them, which led to the then Government being defeated on a measure dealing with the Gurkhas in the last days of the last Administration.
I strongly support the campaign and the debate, but I think it will be extremely unfortunate if we allow the failure of the Government to do their first duty to defend the realm by preserving our armed forces to descend into a battle between whether we prefer the Gurkhas, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the Loamshires or whatever. We should be saying that the Army will be too small at 82,000 and that these cuts are unacceptable, as we cannot defend the realm as a result of them. We must not allow ourselves to set one regiment against another.
It becomes an issue about identity in the end. With parts of the United Kingdom such as South Yorkshire providing the recruits for the Fusiliers or the north-east providing recruits for the Light Dragoons and so forth, there is an important issue of identity and then of wider public policy in relation to having a recruiting regime in another country, bringing Nepalese soldiers into the British Army. That was fine when, frankly, the Gurkhas were cheap. They were paid less than their equivalents—their pensions cost less, too—and there was a deal. It meant that these soldiers went back to Nepal, highly trained to be really good citizens of enormous value to Nepal. We have changed the rules through sentiment. In my judgment, we now have the most expensive infantry in the British Army supporting a training organisation in Nepal, which is quite limited in what it can do in comparison with British line infantry whose future we are debating today. That poses real public policy problems that we should be brave enough to address; we need to be brave enough to work through the sentiment. Of course there is enormous sentimental attachment to the Gurkhas.
For the information of the House, much as I want to save the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the Gurkha regiments have been recipients of the Victoria Cross on no fewer than 26 occasions. I think the hon. Gentleman maligns the Gurkhas with his words today.
Yes, I did, and I was wrong. I am happy to put on record that I regret it. One of the consequences is today’s debate, and another is the fact that we have done Nepal no favours by taking some of its finest people into the British Army and giving them the right to settle here as a result of their service. The British Army, which is a fantastic training machine, is taking some of Nepal’s finest young men, and they are not returning to Nepal to give it the benefit of their Army training. Moreover, we are probably building up social problems of our own, because the population who are coming into the United Kingdom with their families are going to find it tough to adjust to life here.
We have ended up with an expensive part of the infantry which is much more restricted in its employment than a British light infantry regiment such as the one that we are debating today, in the wake of a policy decision made on grounds of wholly understandable sentiment and for exactly the historic reasons alluded to by the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), including its awesome contribution during two world wars and the Falklands war. It is our responsibility here to try to exercise proper judgments about public interest and public policy. We need to decide what is the right thing to do, and what is in the defence interests of the United Kingdom.
It is easy to be carried away by sentiment. If I did not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay had made his case in support of the 2nd battalion, I would not be supporting his motion today, because battalions have to face disbandment. I will of course listen to what is said by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but the fact is that we are having to trade off British tommies against Gurkha battalions because of national sentiment, and because decisions were made in Downing street for reasons that were political rather than connected with military logic. I can summarise the arguments presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay by saying that decisions such as this should always be based on military logic, not on political calculation.
Let me begin by thanking the hon. and gallant Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for providing such strong leadership on this issue. It has been much appreciated. Let me also say that it is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who made some good and honest points.
I am very pleased to see Rochdale veterans down here in London, and in Parliament. That gives me great pride; and it gives me great pride to speak in the debate, because there are few, if any, more important topics than this on which a Member of Parliament can speak. I do not make that point lightly, for debating issues relating to our armed forces and speaking about the men and women who sign up to defend our country and our way of life is critically important.
As Rochdale’s Member of Parliament, I think it fair to say that few subjects for debate would take precedence over the subject of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Rochdale is sometimes associated with bad news stories, but one of the good stories about our town is its strong association with that regiment. Many of our young people join up with the Fusiliers, and it performs the important function of providing much-needed jobs in Rochdale.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just about jobs? In the north-east as well, the regiment gives young people—men and women—life chances that they would not have in the communities from which they come, and in many cases it changes their lives for ever.
I entirely agree. That is particularly important in places such as Rochdale, where the level of unemployment is unhealthily high.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people throughout our town have served in the Fusiliers, and continue their association with the regiment. Through the Royal British Legion and the Fusiliers Association, we regularly celebrate the commitment and dedication of these soldiers.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on initiating the debate. As the only Northern Ireland Member present, I should like to record our thanks to the regiment for the work that it has done in Northern Ireland, for the distinction with which it has served, and also for its contribution to the peace process and where we are today, because it can take some credit for that.
A retired major who had served for approximately 20 years approached me and told me that this was a disgrace. The force that he had signed up to had promised to take care of him and his family when he put his life on the line for his country, and now, through Government policy, his country was abandoning those who had sacrificed their physical and mental health in fulfilling Government policy. It was not their choice to fight in various different countries, but they were commanded to do it and they did it. Does my hon. Friend agree with the question that they ask—
Order. I think that we have got the point.
May I appeal to everyone? A lot of Members are taking a lot of interest in this very important subject. If interventions are short, they will all be able to contribute to the debate. The longer the interventions, the less likely it is that we shall hear all who wish to speak, and I believe that it is important for everyone to speak.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I think that it was also important for the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to put his point on the record.
In 1947 Rochdale gave the Fusiliers the freedom of the borough, and the amount of pride that the regiment brings to the town cannot be overestimated. It is for all those reasons that Rochdalians are so appalled by the cutting of the 2nd Battalion. The strength of feeling has been made clear in our local newspaper, and I pay tribute to the excellent campaign led by the Rochdale Observer.
Let me now turn to the politics of the issue. I must first say how pleased I am that there is cross-party support for our campaign to stop the axing of the 2nd Battalion. We all know now why the Government are doing it: it is because they do not want to upset the Scottish situation, and that is simply not good enough. The Fusiliers is one of the best-recruited regiments in the armed forces. It is clear that the decision to axe one of its battalions was not based on what those at the top of the Army think, but has more to do with a political fix that is intended to satisfy people concerned with the Scottish question.
I have to say that probably one of the worst ways of reaching a decision in politics is to base that decision not on the facts, on what is best for the people of our country or on what is best for the long term, but on a short-term event that has no association with the armed forces. I urge the Government and the Minister to think again, and to reverse their decision to axe the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents. For many of them, this issue is of extremely great importance and significance. It is a great pleasure to follow my neighbour, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), who speaks with great authority on this matter. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for it to take place here in the main Chamber, rather than in Westminster Hall—that is crucial, particularly given the number of members of the public, specifically the Fusiliers, who want to view it.
One of the first things that anyone who moves to the town of Bury, as I did, quickly realises is people’s enormous respect for and pride in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Families from right across the town have links in some way, down the years, with the Lancashire Fusiliers. Bury is home to the Fusiliers museum, which has recently been moved from its previous premises in the old barracks to a new site right in the town centre. I urge anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to visit the museum to do so as soon as possible. I also recommend that after visiting the museum they go outside to the small Gallipoli gardens, which contain the Lutyens memorial, and then take a short walk to the Bury parish church, the garrison church of the Lancashire Fusiliers, where a number of retired colours are on display. Every Wednesday at 1 pm the church holds a short service to commemorate all those soldiers, particular those from Bury, who have given their lives while serving in our armed forces and to remember all those now serving in our armed forces around the world who put their lives in danger to protect our freedom.
Talking of freedom, the Lancashire Fusiliers—now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—holds the freedom of not only the borough of Rochdale, but the borough of Bury and the neighbouring city of Salford, as the hon. Member for Rochdale mentioned.
My uncle was in the Lancashire Fusiliers and he got a distinguished service order with the regiment. It crosses my mind as we listen to my hon. Friend that there are so many Fusilier enclaves around the country. One battalion will have great difficulty covering everywhere in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’ vast recruiting area, and that will be extremely sad. We need as many battalions as possible, and thus we need to have the 2nd Battalion back.
My hon. Friend makes the valid point that the loss of the 2nd Battalion will result in great social and economic cost, with the loss of those opportunities for young men in towns such as Bury.
The Fusiliers have a proud record of military achievements, and Fusiliers have been decorated many, many times down the years for their bravery and courage. Each year, on the Sunday nearest to 25 April, the town centre of Bury is brought to a standstill as the Fusiliers parade through the town, and a special service is held in the parish church to commemorate the tragic events of the morning of 25 April 1915, when hundreds of men were killed and wounded as the 1st Battalion landed on W beach at Gallipoli. On Gallipoli Sunday, the exploits on that morning are still remembered to this day. The exploits of the Fusiliers that day were so heroic that they were awarded six Victoria Crosses—this is often now famously referred to as the winning of “six VCs before breakfast”.
However, I realise that past achievements alone are not sufficient reasons for not disbanding the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay set out in his excellent opening speech, there have to be—and there are—good military reasons why the 2nd Battalion should be retained. We must never forget why the Government have made these decisions. The defence budget must be balanced, and in the long term that will be for the benefit of our armed forces. In essence, though, politics is all about making choices—it is all about deciding on priorities. On this issue, I believe that the Government have made the wrong choice. There ought to be no higher priority than the defence of the realm. It cannot be right that, at a time when we are sending billions of pounds every year to pay for the bureaucratic monster in Brussels that is the European Union, we are sacrificing the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers here at home. I urge right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the motion.
I congratulate the hon. and gallant Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this debate and on the way he opened it.
I spoke in the pre-recess Adjournment debate on 17 July about the anger felt in Salford and across Greater Manchester about the Government’s decision to axe 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The Manchester Evening News has run a strong campaign urging the Government to rethink their plans. The campaign has attracted 15,000 people to sign petitions, including the petition of 10,000 handed in today to Downing street. Many former Fusiliers from Greater Manchester, including those from Salford whom I am pleased to have met, were on the march today. There is great strength of feeling in our area and today I shall talk about what the battalion means to people in Salford, and to one family in particular.
We have heard, but it bears repeating, that the 2nd Battalion has a long and distinguished service history dating back to the Lancashire Fusiliers—indeed, Fusiliers first took that title in 1685 and have fought in every major engagement since. In 1968, when the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was formed from the four English Fusilier regiments, they inherited from the Lancashire Fusiliers a regimental history steeped in tradition. As the hon. and gallant Gentlemen said, the regiment won more Victoria Crosses in the great war than any other regiment: 19 of the heroes of the Lancashire Fusiliers were awarded the VC, including the six the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) just described who won the VC in the action at Gallipoli. Many of the regiment’s soldiers have given their lives fighting for this country.
In 2009, the 2nd Battalion completed a tour in Afghanistan in which it lost seven men killed in action; others were wounded, some very seriously. Three of the seven died together in an explosion while on patrol near Sangin in Helmand province on 16 August 2009. One of them was Fusilier Simon Annis, from Salford. Simon and fellow Fusilier Louis Carter were trying to drag their injured comrade, Lance Corporal James Fullarton, to safety after a roadside bomb blast. As the pair lifted Lance Corporal Fullarton on to a stretcher, they triggered a second device, causing an explosion. All three soldiers died at the scene.
Simon Annis was on his first operational tour. He was described by his commanding officer as follows:
“Always at the heart of whatever was going on, it was no surprise to me that he died whilst trying to save his mortally wounded Section Commander. He should be seen as a shining example to the nation of what selfless commitment really means.”
Simon was 22 years old and had been married for just one month before he deployed to Afghanistan. I met his parents, my constituents Ann and Peter Annis, when the 2nd Battalion had its homecoming parade from Afghanistan later in 2009. Salford people lined the streets to give the returning soldiers a warm welcome, and I was so proud to be at that parade and to meet Mr and Mrs Annis. When the news came through about the axing of the battalion in which her son had served, Simon’s mother commented:
“Simon was so proud to serve in the battalion and now this feels like a smack in the face… Lads are still in Afghanistan and dying out in Afghanistan and the Army are talking about cuts and job losses. Morale must be at rock bottom.
I look at Simon’s headstone at his grave and it says ‘2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’. He was so proud to serve in the battalion.”
This week, Mrs Annis told me her thoughts:
“As the mother of a Fusilier who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his Queen, his country and his battalion, I can only see this decision as a betrayal of trust for the soldiers still serving and to the memory of the brave men who have given their lives while serving in this historically proud regiment.”
She said that this is
“a decision that surely cannot be justified with the recruitment figures for the battalion. This can only be seen as cost-cutting rather than restructuring.
When I read the names on the Wall of Remembrance at the National Arboretum, I was immensely proud to be the mother of a young lad whose name appears alongside the names of such brave men from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Over and over again I have heard government excuses and reasons why this battalion should be axed, yet I still see no valid reason.”
“I urge you to think and reconsider the decision.”
I strongly support Mrs Annis’s views and, together with hon. Members across the House, am asking the Government to reconsider. As Mrs Annis said, the decision to axe the battalion feels like a betrayal of the memory of her son Simon and the other soldiers who have given their lives.
There is a deep attachment in Salford and across Greater Manchester to the 2nd Battalion, which was formed from the Lancashire Fusiliers and has such a long and proud history of service to this country. It is linked to Salford and, as we have heard, to Bury, Rochdale and Manchester. The loss of the battalion at this time of higher unemployment in our area of Greater Manchester would significantly reduce the opportunities for local people who want to enter a career serving their country, as young Simon Annis did, and it would of course put 600 soldiers and officers at risk of being made redundant.
I probably do not need to rehearse the key issue in the matter. As we have heard, the 2nd Battalion currently has a very good record on recruitment; it has 523 trained soldiers out of a maximum strength of 532. Brigadier David Paterson, the battalion’s honorary colonel, has described it as
“the strongest in raw manning and deployable strength”.
Surely that is a key factor. He also pointed out that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is the only regiment set to grow over the next six months. Brigadier Paterson has questioned the criteria being used to single out the unit for cuts when it is actually in such a strong position for recruitment. It seems that officers who understand the situation do not agree with the reasoning behind the decision to axe the battalion. The previous Labour Government’s plans meant that the Army would not have ended up with single-battalion regiments. This Government’s plans leave regiments such as the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in a weaker position. When the hon. and gallant Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) spoke about that earlier, he called it a disgrace.
I urge Ministers to reconsider the decision to axe the 2nd battalion. I hope that they will respect its proud history and valour, its current strong recruiting position and, most of all, the sacrifice of fallen Fusiliers such as Simon Annis. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has had the freedom of the city of Salford since 1974. I and the people of Salford and Greater Manchester are very proud of the 2nd Battalion. Losing it would be a great loss to us. They are England’s finest.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley). I join colleagues in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and congratulating him on his campaign and on securing the debate. I have no intention of repeating the facts he laid out so clearly before the House. Instead, I wish briefly to flesh out the vital local perspective on such a decision, because the local angle is fundamentally important to a county regiment and local links with historical recruiting areas are the bedrock of the regimental system.
When I was 11 years old I joined the Army cadets. My boots were a bit too big, my beret was rarely straight, I never really got the hang of putties—I am sure some Members present remember those—and I often struggled to look smart, but I remember clearly and proudly putting on my beret, with its distinctive red and white hackle, for the first time because, although I was just a cadet, I had joined the Fusiliers. It was a formative moment for me. My time as a cadet in Warwick genuinely changed my life. Before that moment I had no ambitions to join the Army, but as a direct result of my time as a cadet with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers I went on to join the regular Army and served for nine years, leaving with the rank of major. And so it is for many of our brave servicemen and women. The link with a local and much-loved regiment is the route into service life for many of our soldiers.
In my constituency of North Warwickshire and Bedworth, the fate of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is not some distant, academic debate. The Fusiliers are a much-loved and integral part of the community. Bedworth is perhaps the only town in the country to hold a full armistice parade on 11 November every year, regardless of the day on which it falls. Last year more than 5,000 people attended. They do so because our community is fiercely proud of our veterans and our local regiment. Two years ago the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was awarded the freedom of the borough of Nuneaton and Bedworth.
Sadly, our borough has seen its share of tragedy. In recent years, we have seen the deaths on operations of two local heroes—Fusilier Louis Carter and Sergeant Simon Valentine. Their sacrifice touched local people immeasurably. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire community came together on both occasions in grief and to support the families. Louis’s and Simon’s mothers are well known and loved locally, and I know that they are watching this debate with great interest and sadness.
I am not standing here today asking the Government to abandon defence reforms completely. I have great sympathy with colleagues who have said there is no need to go ahead with the reforms at all. I share the views of many who have said that there are probably alternatives—that other parts of Government spending could be looked at again to ease what is having to be done in defence. However, I do not believe that it is practical or credible to say that the Ministry of Defence can escape any reform whatever.
The Secretary of State has a difficult balancing act: to bring the MOD budget back on to a sustainable footing after many years of a growing financial black hole, regardless of how big that hole is; I know that people argue about that. Tragically, there is no part of the armed forces that has not made sacrifices and lost lives in recent years, and there are no easy decisions on this matter.
Although I have specific concerns about the decision on the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, I understand the MOD’s difficulty. The difficult decisions must be made in the right way. Decisions about fighting units should be made by the Army itself, on sound military logic. What worries me is the clear impression that, for political reasons, well recruited English regiments are being sacrificed to save less well recruited regiments elsewhere.
In addition, I share concerns raised by a number of colleagues at the apparent change of Ministry of Defence policy regarding multi-battalion regiments. In 2004, under the previous Government, when the Ministry of Defence was last making difficult decisions about axing and amalgamating regiments and battalions, General Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of the General Staff at the time, made it clear that the future lay with multi-battalion regiments rather than single-battalion ones. They are more efficient and cost-effective and provide a more effective promotion structure for soldiers within a family of connected battalions. At that time, the single-battalion regiments were targeted and the multi-battalion regiments were preserved or created. I ask the Minister why that policy now appears to have changed.
Many Fusiliers are seriously considering leaving the Army altogether rather than face being transferred to a Scottish battalion—as I understand it, the only option that members of the 2nd Battalion are being given once the 1st Battalion reaches capacity. There may be as few as 50 places available in the 1st Battalion to absorb members of the 2nd Battalion.
I strongly urge the Secretary of State and Prime Minister to look at the decision again for the sake of the families, the communities and the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, who face an uncertain future. Once a Fusilier, always a Fusilier.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on leading on this issue and on how he addressed the motion. As members of the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), my parliamentary neighbour, and I were delighted to be asked to schedule this debate, which is timely.
I have no direct history in the armed services but I have had experience in war zones. I spent quite a bit of time in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and in 2008 I was part of a delegation that went from this House to Baghdad. While we were there, we became subject to a mortar attack. I was led by a Gurkha to an air raid shelter. I was disgusted by the comments made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt). I did not consider that soldier to be a foreign mercenary; I considered him to be a member of the British armed services taking care of me and the people I was with. How the hon. Gentleman contributed to this debate reflects badly on him.
My father was a member of the armed forces for three days; having been a coal miner, he joined the RAF during the war but they sent him back saying, “You’re more important to us working in the mine than mending aeroplanes.” But two uncles of mine were prisoners of war—one who worked on the Burma railway and another, ironically, who left the coal mines in 1928 because he hated them, but was captured as a soldier as part of the rearguard action at Dunkirk and spent the next four years working in a coal mine in Poland under German occupation. Everyone in this House has heard about that history and can share in our appreciation for the service of these people over so many years. Colleagues from the north-east have already mentioned the tremendous support for the Fusiliers, who have a huge history and huge respect. I pay tribute to all those who have marched here, from whatever part of the country, but particularly those from our part of the world. We are immensely proud of what you have done in the past and what we hope you will continue to do in future.
I want to get to the heart of the issue—the politics. I have spent a lifetime working in the public sector, and throughout that time I have seen various services used as a political football, including the health service, local government and the coal industry—and now the police and the fire service are in the front line of the debate about politics in public services—but I have never seen any of them being gerrymandered to the extent that has been happening in this debate. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) was absolutely right—the fingerprints of the Chancellor of the Exchequer are all over this debate. He is not just the part-time Chancellor of this country; he is a part-time political strategist. This is a man whose whole life has been involved in being political, as we see when we read his history. When he was 13 years old he changed his name from Gideon because he thought it was a disadvantage in getting on in life. Perhaps it was also because his nickname at school was Giddy.
However, this is not a question of Giddy but “Diddy”. Did he interfere with the decision? Did he think it was a good tactic to try to placate the Scots by leaving them out of this mix? Did he give any thought to the impact on unemployment, now and in future, in regions like mine? Did he give any thought to the tremendous history of service and sacrifice that the Fusiliers have given to this nation? Did he care about the damage that these actions will cause? Did he feel so much contempt for the Scottish people that he thought they would be fooled by this sucker punch? Clearly he does not care about what is happening in relation to this issue; he is only interested in gaining pure party political and parliamentary advantage. That is a huge disservice to the people who are here today—people who we in this House ask not only to go and die for us but to go and kill for us. It is an absolute disgrace to treat them in this way when they deserve so much better.
I was very proud to go and meet the marchers today, but I have previously met many marchers in London and other parts of the country, and I have been on many marches in my life, and I have to say that most of them have ended up in disappointment. I have seen this Government and other Governments ignore health workers, policemen, firefighters and many other public servants who have asked them to reconsider their view of how they are being treated. It is incumbent on all those of us who have stayed here for this debate to vote in the right way to give these glorious men and women, the Fusiliers, the chance not to join that list of disappointed public servants. We must support the motion, but that is not the end of it—we have to keep the pressure on to make sure that this decision is reversed and that we look at other ways to make these savings.
I draw the House’s attention to my interest as a member of the reserve forces. I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate because I have been serving on a Bill Committee, and will consequently keep my comments short.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and the Backbench Business Committee for making this debate possible. It allows us not only to air and scrutinise the nitty-gritty of Army 2020, its objectives and processes, but to show that there are many of us in this place—Back Benchers and those on the Front Bench too—who understand why this process is so difficult and painful. I am sure that will be cold comfort to members and veterans of 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, but I hope that today brings them some comfort.
Change—any change—is hard, but it is doubly so for our armed forces. Why? Because from the moment a person begins their training, in whichever service it is, everything they do is connected to the core values, philosophy, history, achievements and sacrifices of their unit or battalion and regiment. The deep emotional connection that such training creates has a very rational purpose—to produce soldiers, sailors and airmen with the courage to fight and win. Members of the Defence Committee and other hon. Members have monitored and are monitoring that process and the data underlying those decisions. In doing so, I have asked myself three key questions.
First, are the reforms needed and is their scale justified? We all know, and often talk about the massive budget deficit that Ministers have had to deal with, but we do not often discuss its consequences. Poor financial management at the Ministry of Defence costs lives. The reforms are required, to ensure that our armed forces are never again short-changed in the kit or training that we provide, or in their pay, terms and conditions or support for their families.
Secondly, how would I like these reforms to be done? I would want the services themselves to be in the driving seat, and it is my understanding that that has been the case. Thirdly, do I agree with the criteria against which the decisions have been made? The motion clearly does not, particularly the criteria that only one battalion should be lost per regiment and that there should be no deletion of cap badges. For the reasons that I gave at the start of my speech, and because I want a wide geographical presence for our armed forces in the United Kingdom, I am in favour of those criteria. However, despite disagreeing with that technical point in the motion, I am glad that it was tabled and that it has enabled this debate, and I hope that the House will not divide on it.
We do not talk enough in this place about defence. I am grateful that today we have been able to remind this House and the country of the unique difficulty of the reforms to our armed forces, and that the debate has also enabled us to pay tribute, which I wholeheartedly do, to 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
I had the privilege to serve, albeit briefly, with 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. As a Lancastrian I am well aware of the high regard in which the regiment is held by the local community, which is reflected in its successful levels of recruitment. I fully support the campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and I will not detain the House by repeating the points that he skilfully made in highlighting the many flaws in the Government’s case. I want to address not the criteria, which my hon. Friend tackled, but the wider decision-making rationale that underpins the Government’s measure and that was at the heart of the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth), who is a distinguished former Ministry of Defence Minister, when he sought to justify why this cut is being made.
First, if a measure such as this is to be positioned on the grounds of cost savings, the first thing one might expect is clarity on how much is being saved. However, when I asked the House of Commons Library that question this morning, answer came there none—it could not tell me. A rough estimate might put the figure at £25 million a year, but the least we might expect from the Minister’s closing remarks is some certainty, if the measure is being justified on cost grounds, as to how much is being saved.
Secondly, the MOD suggests that this cut, which is out of step with the criteria applied to other battalions, is needed to address the defence overspend; but the saving is puny in the context of overall MOD spending, when one considers the reputational impact, the history and the esteem of the front-line service that is being cut.
Let me put this in context and draw the House’s attention to some recent National Audit Office reports. Last year the MOD increased its defence inventory at the same time as it was cutting the size of its armed forces, so we are buying more kit for fewer troops, even though we already had, for example, 10 years’ supply of overalls. We have 54 years’ worth of equipment for Nimrod, even though the plane has already been scrapped. The sums of money being wasted are not insignificant. The MOD spent £2.4 billion on non-explosive inventory, even though it already had five years’ worth of such items in stock—we spent £2.4 billion buying things when we already had five years’ worth of supplies. We are now trying to get rid of some—£1.4 billion-worth—of the stock that we bought by mistake. It is costing £277 million a year just to store the stock that we do not want, and which we should never have bought. That puts the saving that is being made by the decision on 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in context.
My second question to the Minister is therefore why, when the National Audit Office report in June—the very time when this cut was being proposed—could identify savings of that order, officials in the Department could not do more to avoid the necessity of cutting this battalion.
My hon. Friend is making a good point about overstocking. We are bearing down on that enormously. He will understand that, not having been in government between 1997 and 2010, we did not order most of this kit. We are selling off the kit so that we have to spend less money on storage, and we are spending less money on unnecessary kit; but he will also understand that the armed forces need good equipment, especially given the ongoing situation in Afghanistan.
I am willing to recognise the big strides that the Government have taken in making those savings. However, we are spending vast sums of money on kit of which we have five years of supplies. The Minister says that this is about equipping our troops better, but we are not addressing that point by buying a higher specification of kit if we are buying things that we do not need. That was one of the key findings of the National Audit Office report.
If Ministers are not convinced that more could be done on logistics and supplies, perhaps I could put this saving of about £25 million in the wider context of our defence procurement. Again, I am willing to acknowledge the huge strides that have been taken by Ministers to get to grips with procurement. However, the 15 largest defence projects have overspent their initial budgets by £6 billion. The saving from this cut is a fraction of 1% of that, although we cannot know exactly how much it is because we have not had the figure. It is a tiny amount, and yet it is hitting the front line—our fighting units.
The case that I put to colleagues today is that surely more could be done, notwithstanding the efforts that are being made, to increase the scale, intensity and speed of implementation of the savings in logistics, supply and procurement. This decision does not provide value for money. It is too modest, it uses flawed criteria and the scope of delivering savings elsewhere means that it would be a mistake for the Government to go ahead with it. That is reflected in the comments from Members from all parts of the House today.
I have never voted against my Government, but I support my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and will do so if the motion is put to a vote. I hope that Ministers will listen to the strength of the arguments, look at the findings of the National Audit Office and deliver the required savings from other areas of the defence budget.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay). I would also like to sing the praises of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for bringing this topic before the Chamber.
Seldom has this Chamber—I mean the Chamber in its entirety—been so full of so many gentlemen of such distinction.
And women, of course, but I am talking about those in the Gallery, whom I am not allowed to mention, although I just have. It is a great pleasure to be here today.
First, I am angry at the Opposition, because of their years of profligacy, their spending on social experiments and their continual reduction in spending on defence.
No, I will not.
As a consequence of that spending, when the cuts have come, the defence of this country has not been on a level playing field.
As Members can imagine, I am not exactly happy with the Government, either. It is our solemn duty in this place to protect our country, her people and our dependants, and to meet all our commitments, not least our NATO ones. Our ability to do that is now seriously in doubt. It is clear to me, and to many others, that the defence spending review was carried out by accountants, not according to military logic. For example, we are now preparing to have a higher proportion of Territorial Army personnel. I have the highest respect for the TA, but if we are to reduce our forces, we need a higher, not lower proportion of regulars. Consequently, we now find ourselves making decisions for political expediency. As a former soldier, I find that shameful.
This is all about priorities. As I said, the priority should be to defend our country and her people. Our priorities are wrong. We have plenty of scope to cut state expenditure, which the Government have said continually that they will do. We have started down that road, but we have a long way to go. Throwing money at the Soviet-style bureaucracy that some people call the EU, and at foreign aid to states that practise genocide, is utter madness at a time when we are cutting our armed services, and it has put us in the terrible situation that we are in today.
I have been in this political game, if that is what it is, for two and a half years, and I am tired of our selling out on integrity, honesty and the defence of our country. We have to wake up, all of us, and defend our country in this House with every ounce of our being. If we do not, we betray our people and regiments that are sadly under threat today. That cannot go on. The people of this country will not accept it, and nor will I. Nor, I know, will many colleagues on both sides of the House. We have to face our responsibilities seriously, put politics to one side and look at the future of our country—our country, our country, our country—and not at our careers and whether we will be re-elected in five years’ time or whenever. Our country comes first, our careers come second.
We must reverse the Government’s decision. I will vote against the Government today, as I have on many occasions already. I take no pride in doing that, but I am not necessarily here to support the Government. I am here to support my constituents and what I believe in—my country.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and to be part of the Warwickshire tail-end to this debate. There is clearly strong support for the motion throughout the House, and I add my congratulations to those that colleagues have paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for the diligence that he has shown in the campaign, the way he has brought people together and the convincing case that he has made for reconsidering the decision to disband the battalion.
I wish to speak about two matters. The first is the impact of the decision on my constituency, and the second, which we cannot avoid, is why we are in the position that we face today. Unlike many gallant colleagues who have spoken today, before my arrival in Westminster two and a half years ago I knew little of our armed services. My background had not given me that contact, so I was keen to join the armed forces parliamentary scheme to learn more. I have become attached to the Army. Through briefings on the state of our forces, visits to military establishments and, above all, the opportunity to speak to servicemen of all ranks, I have, thanks to that scheme, come to understand the bonds of loyalty and shared history between servicemen that were mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr Blunt) and for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). I have also come to understand why these issues are so important to so many of those who are involved in the services.
Of course, these issues are important to my constituents, too, as the regiment was formed when the Royal Warwickshire Regiment joined with others in 1968. Rugby has many connections between the town and the regiment. Rugby is a two-tier local authority and my constituency is covered by two district councils, both of which, along with the county council, have passed motions in full council to call for the decision to be reprieved. I am sure that other local authorities in areas covered by the regiment have done the same.
The mayor of Rugby, Councillor Miss Kathryn Lawrence, wrote to the Defence Secretary on 26 September and advised him that the council had unanimously passed the following notice of motion:
“Rugby Borough Council calls upon the Ministry of Defence to reconsider its proposals to disband the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and to continue to support the success and leadership shown by the Regiment in recruiting, training and retaining loyal soldiers in the County of Warwickshire.”
The council stressed the high regard in which the people of Rugby held the regiment. As a former member of the authority, I echo that and endorse those comments.
My constituency includes the village of Bulkington, which has strong connections to the armed forces and falls under Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council. That council passed a resolution on 16 October opposing the abolition of the regiment and calling on MPs in Warwickshire, including myself, to oppose the proposal in the House of Commons, which I know we will do.
Warwickshire county council passed its resolution on 25 September, drawing attention to the signing of the armed forces community covenant in Warwick earlier this year. The connection between my constituency and those of my colleagues and the regiment is strong, as it is in Northumberland, the broader west midlands, London, south Lancashire and greater Manchester. We all have families who are linked to its survival.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us all of the role of such a distinguished member of the armed forces.
In Warwickshire, we were proud to host the regiment on its homecoming parade when it returned to the UK after its tour of Afghanistan in 2009. It marched through Coventry, Nuneaton, Leamington Spa and Stratford-on-Avon, as well as my constituency and home town of Rugby. On Friday 1 May, I was proud to be in the crowds outside Rugby town hall, applauding its achievements while on active service.
We must not forget why the Government have been faced with difficult decisions. When we came to office, the new Government were confronted with not only a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget but the fact that no review of defence had taken place over the previous 12 years. That delay and the putting off of key decisions for so long has led to a much more severe adjustment than would otherwise have been necessary.
I fully understand that the structural changes necessary within the Army have been made to ensure we continue to have a force admired throughout the world that is properly funded. I believe the long-term future of our armed forces is far safer in the hands of this Government than it was in those of the previous Government.
This is an important debate and for the sake of my constituents and this battalion, I urge the Minister to reconsider this decision and to join colleagues from both sides of the House.
2 14 pm
It is a privilege to follow a Warwickshire colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), and I endorse his comments. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for his work in securing both this debate and such cross-party support for what we are trying to achieve.
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has deep roots in my constituency, as in many constituencies across the country. I am reluctant to mention Montgomery again, but Warwick is certainly a place of which he would have had fond memories. Over the centuries, the regiment has served with honour and courage across the world, fighting to preserve our freedom and security against the greatest of odds. I was a cadet although not a soldier, and I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) was also a cadet in my constituency. The British Army has been so successful because of its regimental structure. Soldiers not only serve their Queen and country, but are part of a community and family and feel an attachment to that. No matter where in the world they are serving, they can feel a piece of home.
As a Member of Parliament, I have been privileged to meet serving soldiers in Afghanistan, and I know how much pride they take in their regimental duties and identities back at home. From speaking to veterans, I also know that that bond spreads across the generations, and that it is felt not just by soldiers, but among civilians. Tens of thousands of people across Warwickshire have signed petitions in the regiment’s recruiting areas to save the 2nd Battalion. The regiment is part of our community and way of life, and that emotional tie is important to a modern, voluntary Army.
At the weekend, I was particularly moved to hear a local vicar, Reverend Brown, speak about the “golden thread” of the Fusiliers’ regimental history, which he called a “true community” that is timeless and binds generations of service personnel together. It is something I have heard repeatedly in many representations received from constituents.
I know that we are facing difficult economic times, and that as a consequence the Government must look carefully at the structure of our armed forces. I believe, however, that there has been no adequate explanation for why the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers must be removed from the order of battle, and that the Ministry of Defence should look again at the proposals.
We should be basing these decisions not on historical issues but on the future, and at present, the 2nd Battalion is not one of the worst recruiting units but one of the best. Out of a maximum strength of 532, it has 523 trained men and women, and many more are waiting to join. Moreover, it is recruiting out of some of the fastest growing populations in the country. Warwickshire grew at 8% a year during the decade between 2001 and 2011—above the average for England and Wales—and Greater London’s population increased by 14% between 2001 and 2011. The 2nd Battalion is not recruiting from parts of the country that are in terminal demographic decline, but from areas where population growth is likely to be at its strongest. I understand that the Government want to give all parts of the country a chance to serve in our armed forces, and that is why it is so confusing that they have chosen to reduce opportunities for service in areas with the fastest population growth where demand is likely to be highest.
There is also a real concern that by paring back the 2nd Battalion, the regiment as a whole may wither. Once the damage has been done to local morale and the community behind a regiment, there is danger that the whole future of the regiment may be affected. That would be a damaging blow to our armed forces as a whole.
I believe there is a clear military case to be made to keep the 2nd Battalion, but there is also an emotional one. My constituents want the 2nd Battalion to remain, as I am sure the constituents of many hon. Members on both sides of the House do. They want that important part of our community to be preserved, and I have a duty to represent their very strongly held feelings.
It gives me great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) in this important debate, and it gives me great pride to be one of four Warwickshire MPs on the Government Benches in the debate. Warwickshire is one of the smallest counties in our country, but we make strong representations for it with great pride. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on a tremendous campaign. He should be very proud of his efforts.
When the Secretary of State made his initial statement, I said that my constituents would be deeply concerned over the announcement to disband 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I also said that my constituents would welcome the retention of the Gurkha regiments. I stand by those comments, but since the initial statement, I have spoken to many of my constituents. They are not just deeply concerned, but absolutely devastated that 2RRF is to be disbanded.
My constituents have a deep affection for the regiment, which they demonstrated in September 2010, when the regiment was given the rare honour of freedom of our borough. Thousands of local people lined the streets proudly to welcome home 200 brave soldiers from the 2nd Battalion. Not even an unsavoury element from the English Defence League could dampen the enthusiasm and pride of my constituents on that day. It was with that same degree of pride that I felt humbled recently when I marched through Nuneaton town centre shoulder to shoulder with Fusilier veterans in support of their campaign to save the 2nd Battalion. It is with pleasure and pride that I am wearing the regiment’s tie, which I have been asked by veterans to wear.
The passion and pride of my constituents stems from the long history of people from Nuneaton joining that proud regiment of Fusiliers. My constituents were pained when two brave young Fusiliers, Fusilier Louis Carter and Sergeant Simon Valentine, were taken from us recently in the conflict in Afghanistan. The proud mothers of both Louis Carter and Simon Valentine are strong supporters of this campaign. Mrs Carter and Mrs Valentine, along with many of my constituents, will be watching this debate with great interest.
I stress that I understand the challenges that the Secretary of State and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), have faced since coming to office. I understand and agree that changes to our armed forces are inevitable given the deficit, the debt and the black hole in the defence budget that we faced when we came to office. I have supported many of those changes, however unpalatable they were.
That said, many of the changes were made using the principle of evidence-based policy. The decision to disband 2RRF follows that principle to an extent, but the evidence-based approach is skewed by what seems to be a more political criterion overlying it. I fully agree that the main criterion and determinant in the decision-making process should be military capability and sustainability. It seems somewhat strange, particularly on the point of sustainability, that 2RRF can fall on the basis of that criterion when five less sustainable regiments are being maintained. By adding the criterion of allowing a single regiment to lose a maximum of one battalion and the principle of losing no cap badges, the Government have moved from evidence-based policy that depends on military grounds to a policy that looks like a political fix. That has muddied the waters.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that the political will goes beyond the Government’s headline policy. I fully appreciate the assertion, in view of the facts presented thus far, that 2RRF is the fall guy for the Scottish regiments, which have a far poorer recruiting record. With the Scottish independence question before us, this is a persuasive theory which is hard not to believe. That said, I do not advocate abandoning the Scottish regiments. On the contrary, we need to be more imaginative. That seems to have been the case with previous reorganisations. I would be interested in the Minister’s explaining why regimental troop numbers across the review cannot be considered to see whether 2RRF can be retained. That approach would help with the sustainability of other regiments that are probably far less successful at recruiting.
Whatever method we use to resolve the impasse, today’s debate shows the strength of feeling across the country among Members representing constituencies such as mine. The 2nd Battalion deserves a far better hearing than it is getting, not only on the grounds of sentiment but on factual grounds of capability and sustainability. I appeal to the Secretary of State to reconsider how the decision was arrived at and to support 2RRF.
It is a pleasure to be the tail-end Charlie in the debate, other than the Minister, of course.
Like others, I begin by paying tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing the debate. It has prompted a wonderful outburst of regimental ties, which cannot be a bad thing, and has resulted in probably the smartest turnout in the Public Gallery that we have seen for years. Although we are not allowed to mention the Public Gallery, the whole House pays tribute to the service and gallantry of those seated up there. [Hon. Members: “You’ve done it twice now!”] I mentioned it twice, but I think I got away with it.
I have been punished with time taken away from me as well.
This debate has been a healthy and valuable reminder of the important role that our armed forces play not only in meeting our national and international obligations but in maintaining links with society and community, which my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) also stressed. The armed forces are also the force of last resort to which we turn when there are problems with, for example, flooding, foot and mouth and, most recently, the Olympics—let us remember their last-minute contribution there.
Sadly, the Opposition did not recognise, register or apologise for the dire financial situation that led to these tough decisions having to be made and the fact that there was a specific funding gap of £38 billion.
We have read the report carefully. It is true that the last Government took money from future budgets, and of course that money cannot be spent twice. It is also true that in the good times prior to 2007 the then Government cut the defence budget in real terms, while other budgets across the board went up.
We did not call for a larger armed forces at the election itself. It was our intention. It is where we would like to go. When we made these announcements, we were not expecting Labour to have ruined the Treasury numbers, as it did.
As has been repeated again and again, Labour made a mess of something else. I refer to the madness of its procurement strategy, which wasted billions of pounds in overruns. The worst of it was delaying the carrier build by one year, which cost £1 billion alone. Given that the capitation cost of a brigade is £100 million, let us think how many battalions we could have saved. To take an operational perspective, for years our troops in Afghanistan were forced to use Snatch Land Rovers, but suddenly the last Government woke up to the fact that they were not adequate and there was a flurry of buying off the shelf. The Cougar, the Mastiff, the Ridgback—all these vehicles were purchased off the shelf, wasting huge sums of money, while our armed forces suffered on the front line. All those funding issues had a knock-on effect on the decisions we are debating today and the decisions for the future, not only on battalion and brigades, but on the order of battle.
I am an infanteer—I served in the Royal Green Jackets, another regiment that disappeared under the last Government—but I am also a national politician. We are all national politicians, and we must consider the capability of our entire armed forces—the demand to save ships; the demand to save planes, such as the Harrier, which has been debated by this House many times; the demand to save intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability; and, of course, the demand to save regiments, not least my own. As we have heard, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has an amazingly proud history, dating back to James II —I am sorry that the Father of the House is not here to confirm that—and it has had an impact not just in its own area, but right across Britain as a whole. When the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was formed, it was given the most up-to-date weapon of the day, the fusil, which gave it its name, and in the first world war it had a total of 196 battalions in operation. How different the picture is today.
We have heard some powerful arguments, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister says in response to the support we have heard for the Fusiliers. However, I would also say to him—I hope he listens carefully to this proposal—that if it is the Government’s intention to reconfigure the balance of our armed forces between regular forces and the Territorial Army more towards the Australian and American models and to increase the size of Territorial Army units, and if it is also the Minister’s intention to decide to disband the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, then why not allow this fine battalion to configure immediately into a Territorial Army unit? I absolutely accept that that is not an ideal solution, but it would prevent that footprint in history and the contribution made by this amazing battalion from disappearing in their entirety.
I am grateful to the Minister. I appreciate that that is not the solution that many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, are looking for, but if it is the Government’s intention to reduce the size of our battalions, my proposal would seem to be one way of maintaining the future prosperity and history of this wonderful regiment.
We have heard some very heartfelt, passionate and emotional contributions today. I do not criticise hon. Members for that emotion in any way; indeed, I have a great deal of sympathy for many of the points that have been raised.
I would like first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this debate, which has allowed so many people to contribute and make their points, which is very important in this House of Commons. I welcome this opportunity to explain the situation. We have come to these decisions, as has the Army, after a great deal of consideration and analysis. The British Army and the regiments concerned are now looking to get on with the difficult task of implementing the decisions, which, frankly, have not been palatable.
In May 2010, when we entered government, we faced a dire financial situation. A £38 billion black hole, possibly a great deal more—
Of course I will give way, although I must point out that the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to give way to me and would not do so, even though he had been told, on a piece of paper that I saw being slipped to him, that he could take as many interventions as he wanted.
Order. I can probably help the Minister on this. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) was under the impression that he was time-limited, which of course was not the case. That was not down to any information that he had at the time; it was while he was speaking that he believed he was time-limited. The Minister will have a slightly longer time. Perhaps we can sort this out across the Dispatch Box.
Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), left a note saying that there was no money, and there is no money. We are working on producing a detailed analysis of the money, which will be made available to the Defence Committee at some stage. I am not quite sure where we have got to on that.
Not for a third time. He would not give way even once. Can we crack on?
We have to deal with that hole in the budget, and the hole in the defence budget, if we want to put the defence of this nation on a sound and sustainable footing—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) chunters away, but we cannot spend money that we do not have.
Have you finished?
As hon. Members will know from statements made by the Secretary of State for Defence, the Ministry of Defence is now—for the first time I can remember—living within its means, and we can plan for the future with a much greater degree of certainty than was previously the case.
I find what the Minister is saying completely remarkable. He has just told us that he cannot explain the £38 billion. He has also told us that the figure could be bigger, and he is now saying that the defence budget is in balance. If he did not know how big the hole was in the first place, how the hell can he now claim that the budget is in balance? That is complete, incoherent nonsense.
I sympathise with the Minister; as an ex-military person, he must be in an uncomfortable and lonely position. However, rather than having a debate about the nation’s finances, which would be more appropriate at another time, will he respond to the points that have been made on both sides of the House? What is his argument against the fact that the decision to get rid of the battalion was made on political grounds, and not on military grounds? That is the substantial point of the debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As it happens, I have a great regard for him, and I do not wish this to be a party political debate. I wish to talk about the future of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has a very proud history.
We are now living within our means, and we have a fully funded equipment programme and affordable armed forces. Reaching that position has required us to make hard, painful choices, which have included reducing the size of the regular Army. I have always said—I have heard it repeated two or three times in this debate—that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm. Our mission endures, and it is to protect our country and its values and interests abroad and at home. To do this, we must meet the complex range of threats and challenges in a rapidly changing world. We must adapt to stay ahead and ensure that our people have what they need in order to do what we ask of them.
I am pleased that the debate is returning to the substance of the motion about the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The Minister said that detailed analysis was undertaken to come to the basic decision to axe 2RRF. Will he explain the basis of that analysis, as the Secretary of State’s answers to written parliamentary questions make it very clear that other battalions had far worse recruitment and retention figures than the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers? On what basis, then, was this analysis undertaken?
If I may, I will cover my hon. Friend’s points as they were made in his speech. My responses are written down here, and it is better that I give him a detailed analysis rather than provide one off the top of my head.
While our armed forces might be smaller than before, they will still be able to reach across the world and operate across the full range of capabilities. We are reducing the size of the regular armed forces, but we are increasing the reserves, including an integrated element of the total land force of 120,000, with an extra £1.8 billion of investment in reserves, training and equipment.
The Army has been both pragmatic and imaginative in responding to this very real challenge. The blueprint was decided upon by the Army and announced by the Defence Secretary on 5 July. This project we call Army 2020. For the first time, this provides a pathway to a fully integrated Army of regular and reserve forces that will be configured for high-end conflict, rapid reaction, UK engagement and upstream conflict prevention.
Will my right hon. Friend address the point that the value of the defence inventory is currently £40.3 billion? Just this June, the National Audit Office said:
“the Department is spending money on unnecessary levels of stock, which could be spent elsewhere in government.”
We are talking about such a modest sum of money; can it not be found elsewhere?
I have to confess to my hon. Friend that I do not deal with procurement measures. We have a defence reform project going on, which I think he will find addresses his point. I will ensure that he receives a letter from the Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, setting out a proper response.
I think it would be better if we stuck with the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, because that is what people have come to speak about. Today, we have heard arguments about the withdrawal of 2RRF from the Army’s order of battle. Neither my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State nor I take any pleasure in the removal of any unit from the Army. I can assure hon. Members that we did not come into politics to reduce our armed forces. There is not a battalion or regiment in the current order of battle that does not have a proud history and significant battle honours. If, however, we are to create an affordable and balanced Army offering serious military capability into the future, a small number of those proud units and battalions will have to be withdrawn from the line.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has been made aware of the reasons behind the Army Board’s decisions—and they were Army Board decisions, endorsed by Ministers. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate these reasons for the benefit of the House.
I am about to answer my hon. Friend’s questions; he might like to intervene again later.
In redesigning the future Army, it was decided that five fewer regular infantry battalions were required than are currently in the order of battle. In deciding which of the current 36 battalions to withdraw, the Army—I repeat, the Army—applied a number of criteria. The first was to maintain a regimental system that was largely regionally aligned. The second was to ensure the sustainability of regiments according to the projected regional supply of recruits in the 2020 time frame. The third was to ensure proportionality of outcome across the infantry, with no cap badge deletions and with no regiment losing more than one battalion.
Another key criterion, which Members who have served in the Army will understand, was to balance the whole infantry structure to maintain a variety of roles and parity of opportunity of experience for officers and soldiers. It was also important to take account of previous decisions on mergers and deletions, as well as historical manning performance. Finally, the Army wanted those who are currently serving to see this as fair and equitable. After all, it is those who are serving now, and those who are seeking to join the Army, who will make the change happen.
Those criteria were determined by the Chief of the General Staff and by General Carter, who has led the Army 2020 review. After a period of consultation with Ministers, they constructed an objective, fair and transparent process that included the criteria, applying the military logic to which my hon. Friend referred.
I appreciate the Minister’s generosity in giving way. Let me make it clear for the record that I know him well enough to be aware that he takes no pleasure in announcing these cuts. I do not doubt that at all: it is not what we are questioning. However, if there have to be cuts—and I personally think that the Government’s priorities are wrong; I think that such cuts should be made outside the MOD budget—they should be based on military logic, not on political calculation that is designed to save more poorly recruited Scottish battalions north of the border.
In answers given to me by the Secretary of State and in answers to written parliamentary questions, it has been confirmed—confirmed in writing by the Secretary of State—that the five least sustainable battalions will be two from the Royal Regiment of Scotland, one from the Yorkshire Regiment, one from the Mercian Regiment and one from the Royal Welsh Regiment. That is military logic, as applied in a letter to me from the Secretary of State.
The Minister is an old military hand himself, so he will know the phrase “situating the estimate”. Let me explain for the benefit of those who are not military that it means setting the parameters deliberately in order to achieve the desired outcome. Does the Minister not recognise that there is a great deal of concern among Members in all parts of the House who believe that that is what has happened in this instance?
I do recall the phrase, and that is not what has happened.
Let me now explain in some detail how the application of the criteria that I listed earlier led us to the outcome announced on 5 July. Some of this may sound a little dry, but it is important for the House to understand the care that was taken in reaching these decisions.
Drawing on demographic data for the age cohort across the United Kingdom from which infantry recruits are drawn—the 15-to-29 age group, according to the way in which the Office for National Statistics segments the population—and taking account of historical trends in terms of the percentage of that cohort who were likely to join the Army, an assessment was made of which regiments were likely to be the least sustainable in the future in their current configuration. That work also included a comparison of each regiment’s historical outflow so that the likely recruiting requirement could be determined. On that basis, the Army’s analysis showed that the regiments likely to be the least sustainable in future were the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Yorkshire Regiment, the Mercian Regiment, and the Royal Welsh Regiment. It was therefore decided to move one battalion from each of those regiments.
After the removal of the four battalions, and given the criterion that there should be no cap badge deletions and no regiment should lose more than one battalion, the method of predicting future sustainability, and therefore which battalion should be added to the four whose future had already been decided, became less statistically discerning. To put it another way, it was impossible to distinguish between a number of regiments on the basis of the future sustainability criterion alone.
In his letter to me, the Minister used those figures and there was a prediction that the Royal Regiment of Scotland would be one and three quarter battalions short on sustainability in the future. When we compare the risk to operability of that level of difficulty with the predictions for the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, do we not find that the military logic is overpowering?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. However, in these difficult decisions, certain criteria were applied, one of which was that there should be only one battalion taken away from each regiment. That is what, I fear, trumped the good point that he makes.
I am conscious that the Minister finds this an exceedingly painful process, but can he explain something? We were told a few years ago that it was deeply undesirable for regiments to continue as one-battalion organisations, for reasons relating to the career structures and all sorts of military logic, which I did not necessarily agree with. How was it that just a few years ago new regiments were invented and curious names were developed, yet now, a short time later, all of that is being stood on its head?
I do not think that I made that point, because I was not the person involved at the time. Since my hon. Friend’s time in the armed forces, and mine, people have moved a great deal more between divisions and between larger regiments. Where we are talking about a one-battalion regiment in a division, people cross over between the regiments in the division. That is certainly happening much more than it used to.
Determining the fifth battalion to be withdrawn required the application of criteria that went wider than demographics. Remembering the imperative of having no regiment losing more than one battalion, the Army discounted those regiments that were already losing a battalion, such as the Royal Scots, and those which were single-battalion regiments. That meant that the choice came down to a battalion from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the Royal Anglian Regiment or The Rifles—the Parachute Regiment was excluded on the grounds of its specific role. Taking account of the need to maintain equity of opportunity across the infantry divisions, the Army decided—I stress that it was the Army that decided this—that it should be the Queen’s Division that lost a battalion. That was because it had six battalions whereas other divisions would be left with only four or five. Taking account of historical manning performance—since the previous reorganisation of the infantry, in 2007, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has had average undermanning of 13.3%—and the fact that the Fusiliers is a regiment with two battalions, it was considered the most appropriate from within the Queen’s Division from which to withdraw a battalion.
I would like to pay tribute to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. It has a proud history and it will continue as a regiment with a proud history. It has served in every major campaign since 1674, up to and including Afghanistan. I have visited the regimental museum and the headquarters in the Tower of London with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay—in fact, I went back only last month. I know the history of this proud regiment.
As some in this Chamber may know, in Northern Ireland Second Lieutenant Winthrop devised a clever way of finding hidden caches. I remember being taught this in Northern Ireland, and it allowed us to find hidden IRA weapons. He was a Fusilier, and that is someone more recently who influenced military thinking. I served with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in the first Gulf war, and my mother’s uncle was killed in 1916 while serving in the Fusiliers. I mention that because we all hugely respect the past and present members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I fully understand that this decision came as a great disappointment to those serving with the regiment and those, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, with connections to it.
I welcome the Minister’s warm words, but I suggest to him that we do not just want warm words—we want action. Clearly he is basing his whole argument on the idea that regimental losses should be limited to one battalion. That is exceptionally questionable, and it is a complete about-turn on the thinking of the reorganisation that took place only six years ago, when four cap badges and six battalions were amalgamated into larger regiments. Can he not understand that it is far more disruptive for a two-battalion regiment—a well-recruited one—to lose one battalion than it is for a five-battalion regiment that has trouble sustaining two battalions, as has been admitted by the MOD, to maintain those two battalions? Can he not see the logic here? Can he not see why the MOD’s limitation of one battalion loss per regiment is so illogical?
My hon. Friend is an intelligent person, but I have made the point several times that the Army decided that it wanted to withdraw only one battalion from each regiment, and that is why this decision was reached.
I know that the decision is a great disappointment to many people, but it was simply not possible to save every unit, given the financial situation in which we found ourselves. I hope that what I have explained is a fair, transparent and equitable process, which produced the right outcome, in difficult circumstances, for the Army. The MOD has now placed in the Library of the House the detailed data the Army used in reaching its decision on which battalions to remove from the order of battle.
I think I have dealt with the question of Scotland. We did not take another battalion out of the Royal Scots, because that would have been to the detriment of the criterion that only one battalion should be taken from each regiment. My hon. Friend and others have suggested that the decisions were not taken on wholly military grounds and that a degree of political influence was brought to bear that has resulted in English regiments “losing out”—their words—to the Royal Regiment of Scotland, but the advice from the Chief of the General Staff and his Army 2020 team was clear: the effect on the regimental structure and the wider community of losing more than one battalion would magnify the impact of any change and thus impact on the subsequent healing process. I hope that that advice and the rest of the objective criteria the Army applied to the review will put minds at rest. As the Government have made clear on a number of occasions, we are making no plans on the basis of an independent Scotland, as we firmly believe—a belief that I know is shared on both sides of the House—that the majority of Scottish people will continue to support the Union in any referendum.
Cap badges and uniforms are important, but hon. Members should realise that they evolve and change over the years, and indeed have done so during our lifetimes. I have worn many different cap badges and I believe that people adapt very quickly and are proud of the regiments and the units in which they serve. I assure all hon. Members here today that we are aware of the justifiably fierce pride and loyalty felt by local communities to their locally recruited battalions, wherever that might be across the UK.
I come back to the real reason behind the reductions, which is the fiscal mess we inherited in 2010. The process has been painful for the Government. I reiterate: no Defence Minister came into government to reduce our armed forces. However, balancing the black hole inherited from the previous Government required difficult decisions to reach our current more balanced and affordable position. The Army—and it is the Army—has played an intelligent and constructive part in the exercise and has had to make some very tough decisions, but it is never possible to make such significant changes without causing some pain somewhere. The plan that has been announced, while difficult for some to accept, offers a balanced and fair way to maintain a robust regimental system into the future.
I reiterate that the Fusiliers—the proud Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—will go on as a regiment. We are not abolishing the Fusiliers, as some seem to have implied. I know that the Army as a whole understands that and is now getting on with implementing the new structures in the positive and pragmatic way that anybody who knows the Army would expect. My sincere hope is that hon. Members, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, who instigated this debate, can now allow the Army to do so.
Perhaps we should make it absolutely clear that no one really wants to make cuts to the armed forces, particularly in these increasingly dangerous times. However, if cuts have to be made, our contention is that military logic should prevail rather than political calculation about saving more poorly recruited Scottish battalions ahead of the Scottish referendum. I have made it clear that I do not believe that any battalion should be cut, Scottish or otherwise, but the Government’s decision is a bad one.
The decision is a bad one, not because we say so but because it is clear from responses to letters and inquiries to the MOD and from written parliamentary answers—the evidence is there for all to see—that 2RRF should not be in this position because its recruitment and retention record is excellent. The original five battalions, which were the least sustainable ones, did not include 2RRF. I cannot help but conclude that this rather silly rule that regimental losses should be limited to one battalion is a political fix ahead of the Scottish referendum, because only six years ago four cap badges and six battalions were amalgamated into one regiment. All the talk then was about how larger regiments were the way forward because they provided a varied career structure and sustainability. That is the right way to go about it.
The sudden introduction, out of the blue, of the rule about limiting regimental losses to one battalion is utter nonsense, and it is just by coincidence that it has happened to save both Scottish battalions that there were earmarked for closure. The MOD admits that the Royal Regiment of Scotland should be two battalions short. It is two battalions down. It is illogical for the Government to say that they will maintain them when they cannot help themselves. As for the Government’s claim that only one battalion, the Scottish battalion, will be lost, that is also untrue, as the Minister very well knows, because it will only be downsized. No Scottish battalions will be lost.
I repeat that I do not want any battalions to be lost in these cuts. I think that we should be prioritising our spending outside the MOD budget better. I have questioned aid to India, unfashionable though that may be, and the billions we are pouring into the European Union. This is a bad decision. It is based not on military logic but on political calculation. It is my intention, with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, to do what I can to divide the House on the issue.
That this House opposes the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF); notes that 2RRF is the only infantry battalion being cut that was not initially due for disbandment on military grounds; further notes that 2RRF was instead caught by the Government’s additional criteria of only one battalion loss per regiment and no deletion of cap-badges, which has resulted in more poorly-recruited Scottish battalions being saved; further notes the social and economic costs of disbandment; and urges the Government to reverse its decision.