Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 29th November 2004.

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Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 2:30 pm, 29th November 2004

What the current strength is of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment; and where it has been deployed in the last five years.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

As at 1 October, the strength of the 1st Battalion the Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment was 620 officers and soldiers, including 65 personnel from other units currently attached to the battalion.

In the past five years, the battalion was based at Colchester up to April 2000, as a resident battalion in Northern Ireland from April 2000 to April 2002, and at Hounslow from April 2002 to the present. While at Hounslow, it made two operational deployments to Northern Ireland between December 2002 and June 2003, and to Kosovo between March and April 2004.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming the full recruitment of the RGBW and its distinguished current service, which is in addition to the 209 battle honours and the 16 VCs and the George cross that it enjoys. It also has the great distinction of wearing the cap badge at the back in memory of the Glorious Gloucesters' distinguished service at the battle of Imjin during the Korean war. Does the Secretary of State agree that if his plans go ahead for the reduction of three battalions in England and the creation of super-regiments, that regiment will either be consigned to the regimental museum and the history books, or the super-regiment he creates will have some small part of it in enjoying that distinguished tradition and history? Does he agree that those people fight well together because of that history and the unique deep feeling within the regiment? Does he not worry that he risks destroying it with his plans?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's observations. Of course it is right that we should pay tribute to the distinguished record of the three separate regiments that he relies on for his argument. The various distinctions that he has brought together are the result of—[Interruption.]—at least three different regiments; I am being given helpful assistance by Opposition Back Benchers. He has cumulated those to suggest that the regiment is long standing. He knows that that particular regiment was amalgamated by the last Conservative Government as part of the significant cuts made under the supervision of the then Minister for the armed forces, Mr. Soames, now representing the Opposition on the Front Bench. This process of consolidation and amalgamation has seen a number of such amalgamations down the years.

What is important—I agree with Mr. Gray to this extent—is that we preserve, where we can, the identity and distinctive characteristics of regiments. I stressed that this morning when I met a number of distinguished veterans from the Gloucestershire regiment. To suggest, however, that that identification of history and the association of particular regiments with their very distinguished past is not possible under any reorganisation is completely undermined by his example of an amalgamated regiment and his reliance on its limited recent history.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

I thank my right hon. Friend for joining me in meeting a delegation of members and former members of the Gloucesters. I also warmly thank him for making a commitment to look sympathetically at ways and means of ensuring that the identity of the Glorious Gloucesters is protected, whether through the back badge, the US presidential citation or other such measures, so that it continues to have a strong local link with areas such as mine.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I am particularly grateful to him for arranging the meeting this morning. It was a great privilege to meet distinguished veterans of the Gloucestershire regiment and to emphasise to them the importance of recognising, as part of the reorganisation, the distinguished history of our great regiments and of doing our best to preserve that as part of any restructuring of the Army for the 21st century.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs, Shadow Minister, Environment and Transport

I ask the Secretary of State not to forget the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry in all the discussions. It is a distinguished ancient and single-county regiment. Will he also recognise that there is a political dimension to the decisions? No one is arguing that there should be no modernisation or even reorganisation, much as I would regret it, and we cannot deny that there were amalgamations, but the whole point of those that took place under the Government of whom I was proud to be a member was that they recognised the importance of keeping the names of the counties. If we have some great south-west regiment, we will lose all that. So I ask him that when the decision is put to him for final ratification, whatever the military may say on military grounds, he recognises the great affection with which the RGBW is held. It was only on 16 October that it received the freedom of the city of Salisbury.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I have consistently recognised that point. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman's observation that no one is suggesting that there should be no reorganisation is not shared by his Front-Bench team, who have argued consistently that there should be no change and that regiments up and down the country should be preserved as they are. He and I agree. I am always delighted to agree with him. He is a voice of common sense on the Conservative Back Benches, and long may he continue to be so. I hope that he manages to persuade those on his Front Bench to adopt a slightly more realistic policy towards both the need for reorganisation and the preservation of identity.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

I am not sure that Mr. Gray has greatly assisted the campaign to retain the RGBW; I will try to do a little better. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a considerable number of representations on the future of that fine regiment, which faces either amalgamation or disbandment. Is he able to give me any guarantees on the future of the RGBW, and particularly of Brock barracks in my constituency, which provides a base for no fewer than 20 other service groups and associations, all of which are anxious about the future of our local regiment?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence

I assure my hon. Friend that the principles that we have set out will be kept to. It is important that we provide an Army structure that is right for the 21st century, which provides us with the right deployable capabilities for the modern age and at the same time recognises the importance of local identity and, in terms of my hon. Friend's constituency, local connections.