Last week's meeting of NATO Defence Ministers agreed a new role for the United Kingdom, to assign forces to and lead the new multinational rapid reaction corps. In accordance with my "Options for Change" statement last July, and under this new strategy agreed by NATO, we shall move to an Army of 116,000 by the mid-1990s. On that basis, consultation within the Army on the future structure of regiments and corps will now proceed. Although the reduction in the size of the Army will inevitably involve changes for many units, whether amalgamation or in some cases, possibly, disbandment, I can confirm that the basis of the consultation will be that the regimental system will be kept.
The Secretary of State will be pleased to hear that his last remarks give me some reassurance. I recall the events of 1968, the defence review and the tragic decision to curtail the traditions of some of the most famous regiments in the British Army. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is still possible to keep those traditions, even at the one battalion level? The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has three regular battalions, could perhaps have two battalions—
I will do my best. Perhaps the first battalion could have in brackets after that title, "Northumberland"; the second, "Lancashire"; and, if there were a third, it could be called, "Royal Fusiliers".
The matter is for consultation within the Army, as I said, and I shall report back to the House as soon as I can on the decisions that are reached. I echo what the hon. Gentleman said and appreciate his recognition of the situation. Like every other major country, there is scope for a reduction in the scale of our armed forces. It can be done sensitively and intelligently, remembering and recognising the advantage and tremendous benefits that flow from the deep traditions of the regimental system that mean so much to so many of our fellow citizens.
In view of my right hon. Friend's important announcement about the reduction in the Regular Army, will he recognise the increased importance of the Territorial Army and resist the blandishments of the generals to reduce either its numbers or resources, since the reserves are even more important when our regulars are fewer in number?
I appreciate why my hon. Friend, with his knowledge of the subject, raises that point. We shall be addressing—indeed, we are considering—the position of the Territorial Army. As I made it clear in my original statement on "Options for Change", I value the contribution made by our volunteer reserve forces and am anxious to see the right basis on which the appropriate need, retention and recruitment can be addressed so that the forces continue to play and, in some respects, play an enhanced role in the defence of our country.
Is not the leadership of British forces in the rapid reaction corps a tremendous complement to our forces and a major step forward in the provision and supply of a self-sufficient modern military force?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and very much agree with what he said. He will know that the Army welcomes the new role that has been identified for United Kingdom forces within NATO. The leadership and the majority of the members of the Rapid Reaction Corps will give it a significant and important role for the future, which will be appropriate to our high-standard professional army.
Is the Secretary of State aware that the Rapid Reaction Corps will not only be good news for Britain, because, as the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Dartford, (Mr. Dunn) said, it will be British led and dominated, but will be welcomed within our alliance and not unwelcome in eastern Europe? When does he expect to make a statement on the financial arrangements for the new corps?
On the general set-up, I hope to publish a defence White Paper before the summer recess to bring together the developments taking place in the defence area. I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman, with his knowledge of the subject, says. The hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not use the word "dominated" in relation to that multi-national corps as it will include elements from a number of other countries, which will be very welcome in that new, more flexible and mobile multi-national approach to the lower force levels but important defence needs of the new NATO strategy.
Mr. John D. Taylor:
I hope that the announcement of the reduction in the regular Army will not affect the Royal Irish Rangers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the reduction will not affect the presence of our regular Army in Northern Ireland, where it has been involved in a big operation for the past 20 years? If he cannot confirm that, will he assure us that he will consider the urgent extension of the Ulster Defence Regiment as an alternative?
For obvious reasons, I do not propose to deal with individual regiments today. Those are matters for discussion within the Army and the right hon. Gentleman will accept that consultation should take place. I can confirm, however, that, although the change will be reflected principally within the central region of NATO, there is absolutely no change in the commitment, role and tasks of the United Kingdom Army and its responsibility in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland.
Does the Secretary of State accept that there will be widespread disappointment at the limited nature of today's statement? A great deal of press speculation and hype, obviously encouraged by his Department, preceded his announcement. Ten months after the statement of 25 July we have no more details, no exact figures, no timetable and no indication of what is happening to the troops. There are 170.000 civil servants in the Ministry of Defence and there are 330,000 troops. Surely the Government are capable of assembling a better package in the time available.
The Secretary of State says that he hopes to have consulted the forces before the end of the Session. In his statement of 25 July he said that he had a duty to the troops, but that duty is taking a long time to fulfil. He must end the uncertainty and difficulty confronting so many members of our armed services and their families. The present situation is not good enough, and the House should recognise that.
The hon. Gentleman's behaviour is disgraceful. He stands at the Dispatch Box and speaks as though the Gulf war had never occurred and as though there had been no events whatever between 25 July last year and now. He knows that in a military situation for obvious reasons, the first priority was to deal with the Gulf war. The hon. Gentleman's criticism that we should have made an earlier announcement would be valid if he were prepared totally to ignore the interests of our NATO allies and to drive ahead without conducting proper discussions on the NATO strategy. Before I take criticism from the hon. Gentleman, who should be ashamed of his defence policy because it will leave this country naked as his party has voted overwhelmingly for huge reductions in defence expenditure, I should simply say that NATO agreed that strategy—[Interruption.]
Many people in the armed forces are concerned about their future. The hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and his hon. Friends make all the noise that they can to interrupt matters of great importance. The people involved will be watching those Opposition Members and be aware of their attitude. NATO took the decision last Tuesday and Wednesday, and I am announcing the consequences of it so that we can proceed immediately with consultation. If we had been prepared, as the hon. Member for Clackmannan seems to be, to ignore our NATO allies and consultation, we could have made a fuller statement. I am not prepared to do that.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to the regimental system. Will he bear in mind in future the high standard of recruitment in the north of England and Scotland? Will he also bear in mind the tremendous commitment throughout the United Kingdom to our county and Scottish regiments?
I well appreciate that and I know that the capability of regiments to recruit is bound to be one of the criteria that the arms directors involved will wish to bear in mind when considering which future structure to recommend.