The Army

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:09 pm on 1st July 1991.

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Photo of Mr John Browne Mr John Browne , Winchester 9:09 pm, 1st July 1991

I am sorry, but I am rushing against the clock.

We were told that in future we would deploy small, lightly equipped units, but in the Gulf crisis we deployed large, heavily equipped formations. The gap between warning time and response time was vital—we were lucky to get some six months.

The most important lesson was that the United Kingdom formations in Germany were not battle ready. Three armoured divisions were denuded to provide just two armoured brigades which were battle ready. The ratio was 9:2 in terms of men, ammunition, equipment and spare parts. It exemplified the fact that, for decades, we were sold third-party insurance in terms of our military defence. Successive Governments cut and said that it would make no difference, but it has made a difference. If the Government really believe that peace alone is not enough and that we demand peace with freedom, and therefore that defence is their primary duty, they owe it to the country to deliver comprehensive defence insurance.

Today's Army is not battle ready and is overstretched, and yet it is proposed to cut it by another one third. I have yet to hear what change in strategy, threat or task justifies that. The Chief Constable of Northern Ireland asked for another two battalions, but we cannot provide them. If we have a rapid reaction corps, we must have battle-ready divisions—we no longer want the type of divisions that sat undermanned and underequipped in Germany. Cuts must be constructive. They must be built up from the intended strategy and roles of the armed forces. They must concentrate on quality, cost-effectiveness and the best-suited assets. We now have a director of infantry who has called for equal pain, for pro rata, across-the-board cuts. I mean no disrespect to the Opposition but that is socialism—socialism in uniform. I have never heard of anything so fatuous or damaging to the armed forces.

If we are after quality, why do we consider cutting the Parachute Regiment, the Household division and the Gurkhas? If we are after suitability, why are we cutting five British battalions in order to retain the Gurkhas? Why are we cutting the large regiments, which we want, but saving the small ones? Pro rata cuts are utter nonsense and very damaging.

I turn to the Household division. A cut of three battalions is proposed for the Household division, but it has already lost two battalions in the previous cuts. It has a dual role—it has public duties and performs an active role, which is vital for recruitment for the whole division. Thirty per cent. of the Household division took part in the Gulf war. It is an extremely cost-effective division. First, it is made up of large regiments. Secondly, it earns money. Tourist income in Britain amounted to some £5·5 billion last year and, in view of the posters seen worldwide, what would be a fair estimate of the division's contribution to that sum—20 or 10 per cent? Even if one takes the lower figure, 10 per cent. represents £550 million that is earned by the Household division. Therefore, I believe that it is largely self-financing. The ceremonial uniforms for the entire division cost less than one tank.

As for quality, would it raise the quality of the British Army to cut three footguards battalions? Such a question is unbelievable. History proves it to be nonsense.

Why is a general—the poor chap whom I have criticized—the director of infantry—playing such a highly charged political role? I believe that, as many hon. Members have said, it is because my right hon. Friend and his colleagues have abdicated their responsibility for what is a very difficult political decision. In making that decision, my right hon. Friend must consider the concept of the critical mass—in this case, the critical mass of military credibility. I believe that the Army is already down to that critical mass and that the proposed cuts would go below it.

I turn now to the injured Grenadiers. Their story is well-known and I shall not waste time repeating it. The Government have decided not to make an ex gratia payment. They have challenged the three mutilated Grenadiers to take on the mighty Ministry of Defence, which has shrouded itself in secrecy. The Ministry of Defence still holds the crucial evidence on which the outcome will rely—the inquiry's report—and it is scandalous that it is still a classified document and not yet available to the Grenadiers' legal representatives.

It is interesting that the Government keep assuring the House that no one was to blame for the incident. How is it possible to know that no one was to blame for an unexploded shell lying for five years on a range over which people have walked and which has been dug? The board of inquiry was not asked even to investigate why the shell was there, so it did not report on negligence in that respect. I believe that justice will not be done until my right hon. Friend assures the House that the board of inquiry's report will be made available and that the inquiry itself will be reopened.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's proposed meetings with the Grenadiers' legal representatives, but they are not enough. We want either the ex gratia payment or the reopening of the board of inquiry. This would create a precedent, but why are the Government so worried about precedents'? They are worried because there are tens of soldiers now in civilian life who have not received the correct compensation. They should have fair compensation, so of course we are striving to create a precedent because in this case it would be a good precedent.

I have already taken enough of the House's time, so I shall sit down.