Scottish Regiments

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 17th November 2004.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watson.]

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 9:30 am, 17th November 2004

Here we are again, Mr. Deputy Speaker, back in Westminster Hall with Scottish regiments on the agenda. I wish I could say that it was a pleasure to be here, but given the confusion surrounding the fate of the Scottish regiments, I cannot be that generous. It is the same venue and the same plot—perhaps I should say the same arms plot—but with a slightly different cast. In place of the Secretary of State we have the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the Armed Forces Minister, who I am sure will respond to the debate in his usual congenial, consensual and constructive manner.

Before going any further, on behalf of my colleagues I extend sympathy and condolences to the family of Private Paul Lowe, whose funeral will take place today. That follows the funeral yesterday of Scott McCardle and precedes the funeral of Sergeant Stuart Gray. Those three brave young men lost their lives in the deserts of Iraq. I have come to know the Black Watch pretty well during the past few months. It is more than a regiment: it is a community, and I am sure that it will offer all necessary support and comfort to those bereaved families.

This is our last opportunity to debate the fate of our regiments before the Army Board or the Government meet to decide their fate. It is the last chance that hon. Members will have to put their case for the retention of the regiments. We debated the subject two months ago, so it is worth looking to see whether any real progress has been made. I have considered what has gone on during the past couple of months, listened to some of the debates and read some of the press comments, but I do not know. Are we any clearer about the Government's intentions about the future of the Scottish regiments? Most important, are we any closer to reassuring the many constituents that we represent that the Scottish regiments, to which they have such an attachment, are any closer to being saved?

The campaign to save our regiments goes on; it has started to grow in strength. Indeed, it has been encouraged during the past couple of weeks because the Government have started to buckle under its pressure. That makes me wonder why the campaign to save our regiments has been so passionate and vocal. The campaign has galvanised communities and has touched every part of Scotland. Every newspaper in Scotland is running a campaign to save the Scottish regiments—and last week, some prematurely claimed credit for saving them.

What is it that people like about the regiments? It might be tradition. People like the fact that the regiments have a past, especially the distinguished and illustrious past of our regiments. It might be that our regiments enjoy fantastic community links—the fact that father, grandfather and son may all have served in the same regiment. It might be that, historically, our regiments have performed an almost unimaginably dangerous task on behalf of us all. I am sure that many shared that sentiment at the Remembrance services on Sunday.

All that might be true, but the campaign to save the Scottish regiments has an extra potency and bite in Scotland. I do not want to talk about the war in Iraq. I do not want to talk about the deployment of the Black Watch in the American sector. However, we must all recognise—I choose my words carefully—that in Scotland the war in Iraq is at best controversial. We can at least say that there was unease about the deployment of the Black Watch in the American sector. It is in that context that the campaign to save the Scottish regiments takes place.

The thing that the Scottish people singularly cannot understand is that, while those regiments and those brave young men are out there doing the Government's bidding in Iraq, the Government plan to stab them in the back by amalgamating the regiments out of existence. That is a heady brew, and it is particularly unpalatable in Scotland. That is why the campaign is gaining strength. That is also why the Government's attempt to spin and brief their way out of the situation completely backfired last week.

Yesterday, we heard that the Black Watch may be coming home in advance of the expected date of 3 December. There was even talk of the regiment arriving home in the next few days. Let us hope so; if one group of people deserves to come home before the end of the mission, it is the brave young men who are fighting in the desert. If they remain in the desert, we will at least know that the decision is political. General Walker was quite clear about that yesterday. He said that the decision to keep British troops deployed in Iraq

"would be a political decision and militarily irresponsible."

So, we now know that if the Black Watch does not get home in the next couple of weeks, the decision will have been political. Will the Minister confirm that there is a view to having these brave young men home ahead of schedule?

That brings us to the politics of what is going on. Just for a moment last week, the Government seemed as if they were prepared to consider the issue seriously and perhaps to offer a few concessions to those of us who care very much about the future of our Scottish regiments. However, that moment disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. I am sure that I am not alone in seeing last Tuesday's spinning, briefing and counter-briefing exercise as bordering on appalling. To brief and spin about the future of our Scottish regiments when they stand in the line of fire was a particularly cynical act.

Mr. Joyce scuttled backwards and forwards to Millbank, briefing anybody who was prepared to listen that the Prime Minister and No. 10 were going to get involved, but that was as duplicitous as it was thoroughly wrong. We know how determinedly on message the hon. Gentleman is, and it is unfortunate that he is not here, but as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I had a conversation with him yesterday and I said that I would mention his activities. The hon. Gentleman would not get out of bed for a scuttle without the full tacit acknowledgement and endorsement of No. 10. So, we have to ask why he was put up to it or, if he was not put up to it, why he did it. Finally, why was he left hanging out to dry?

To the hon. Gentleman's credit, however, he did a fantastic job. I am not praising the things that he did, but he managed to get on the front pages of all the newspapers. The headline in the Daily Record is "Saved"; in The Herald, it was "Blair signals fresh hope for campaign to save regiments"; and in The Scotsman it was "Blair orders MoD to 'save the regiments'". It was a fantastic exercise, and it was a real credit to the hon. Gentleman that he did such a fantastic job—the only problem is that the regiments were not saved. The Prime Minister decided that this was not a matter for the Government—it was a case of "Nothing to do with me, guv." He actually thought that we would swallow that and that the fate of the British infantry had nothing to do with the British Prime Minister. That has to be the biggest pyramid of piffle since the time of the ancient Egyptians.

If that is what the Prime Minister thinks, he should perhaps have told his Defence Secretary, who appeared on "Jonathan Dimbleby" on Sunday, saying that he hoped that the Black Watch might get something out of the changes; he thought that it might be able to preserve its name. Of course, he said that it was a matter for the Army Board, but his ambition was that the Black Watch would get something out of the review. So, we have the Prime Minister saying, "It's nothing to do with me, guv", the Defence Secretary saying, "We've got some ambitions for the Black Watch beyond this change", and the Army Board seemingly left to make the decision. The problem is that the restructuring of our infantry has everything to do with the Government, because they set the parameters for the review, said that four battalions had to go and made the final decision about the fate of the Scottish regiments.

The Minister is a member of the Army Board, as is the Secretary of State. Do they just sit in silence when the board deliberates? They could put the case for the Scottish regiments if they were that way inclined, but no—the only case that we have heard them put in the past few months is the case for amalgamations and disbandment.

Speaking of the Army Board, I come to our good friend General Sir Michael Jackson. It is probably he who has thwarted the ambitions of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West and other Scottish Members who thought that they had brokered a solution at last Tuesday evening's briefing meeting. Some of my hon. Friends and I were at that meeting, which was hosted by Mr. Sarwar, and I found some merit in the case that was put. I could not believe, two hours later, that the meeting, which had been described as a get-out-of-jail clause for the Government, had become the "Saved" clause in the Daily Record.

I do not know what happened in the intervening two hours, but the proposals that were discussed had some serious merit. The idea for the Scottish Brigade—the coming together with the rest of the regiments—was reasonably sound. The fact that the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers would be disbanded was very disappointing. There were problems with the solution, and I say that candidly. We saw only two sides of a bit of paper on the proposal; we did not see the details.

It takes more than a cap badge, a regimental name and a regimental dinner to make a regiment. Community links and recruitment are important. However, there was merit in the compromise; it is even said that the Prime Minister liked the plan. According to Downing street sources, he found it attractive. He thought that it might get him out of a hole—that, apparently, is what he told General Sir Michael Jackson. Unfortunately, the general was not in a mood to play, and told the Prime Minister that selection and retention of aim is a fundamental principle of war. Seemingly that is military language for "Go and get stuffed."

The general believes that if the Black Watch or any other Scottish regiment is allowed to remain independent, that would run a coach and horses through what he is trying to achieve, the one-regiment solution for the existing Scottish regiments.

So, what is the future for the Scottish regiments; where does all this chaos and shambles leave us? Well, not in a very satisfactory place. The only encouraging sign that I have detected in the past couple of months is that the Government seem to be buckling under pressure from campaigners. I hope that that pressure will now be piled on until we get a satisfactory response and conclusion.

I come to my questions to the Minister. Will the Government accept that the future of the Scottish regiments is a matter for Government—a political decision—and stop hiding behind the Army Board? Will the Government reject the Jackson plans and respond positively to the widespread and overwhelming opposition to them? Finally, will the Minister or any of his colleagues here this morning look members of the Black Watch, deployed in the desert of Iraq, in the eye and tell them that their regiment has a future?

Photo of Mr Iain Luke Mr Iain Luke Labour, Dundee East 9:42 am, 17th November 2004

I am glad to be called to make this contribution to the continuing debate on the role and future of the Scottish regiments and commend Pete Wishart for having secured a further debate on the issue. It is highly charged both because of its local implications and because of its significance for the future effectiveness of the British Army.

On the local side, I am happy to concede that I have major concerns, as do many of my constituents, about the future of our local regiment, the Black Watch, in the light of the MOD's intention to create a Scottish super-regiment. I, and many others, believe that a super-regiment would submerge and eventually extinguish all the individual loyalties, traditions and histories of the Scottish regiments as we know them. That might not matter to the MOD or to General Jackson, but it has created a profound reaction in Dundee, which has traditionally supplied the industrial muscle to balance the rural brawn that recruits from areas such as north Tayside and Perthshire have brought to the regiment.

I am not sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, whether you have ever been in Dundee, or are aware of the city. I am sure that you are, given that you are well travelled in Scotland.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. I did work in the Dundee, East by-election.

Photo of Mr Iain Luke Mr Iain Luke Labour, Dundee East

I remember your telling me that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so you will know that Dundee is an industrious, hardworking, radical town. Throughout its turbulent history, it has faced change and change again. One of the greatest assets of the city is its people. They are very conscious and proud of their family ties; they are creative, determined and, if sometimes prone to internal dispute, united in the face of intrusion from outside the city boundaries.

Given the long history of recruitment to the Black Watch, virtually every family has a connection with the regiment. My grandfather and great-grandfather served in it. My father, unfortunately, was a Gordon Highlander, but we did not hold against him the fact that he was not one of the "gallant Forty Twa".

So close is the relationship that many claim that the drumbeat of the Black Watch band echoes the city's collective heartbeat. Indeed, a drum of the Black Watch sits high on a ledge above the city chambers in the city square, where I served in the council for 18 years, commemorating the proud ties between the city and the regiment. The regiment has the freedom of the city of Dundee, and has the right and honour to parade through the city, bayonets fixed, colours flying and drums beating.

It is to be hoped that on its return from Iraq—we hope earlier than the prescribed period—the Black Watch will again take the opportunity, as it has done so many times, to exercise that right and to allow the city to rejoice in its safe homecoming from Iraq following a successful tour of duty. Obviously, the dead will be honoured. I associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for North Tayside about the sad funerals taking place, in Fife in the main.

That would also be a chance for Dundee to renew its commitment to the campaign for the retention of its own regiment: the Black Watch. Many people in Dundee believe that, if the MOD has its way, the spectacle of the Black Watch marching through the city, as is its right, the members of it being freemen of the city of Dundee, will be lost for ever and will become a thing of the past. The opposition that the Minister faces from this part of Scotland should come as no surprise to him. The issue unites politicians from across the political spectrum.

While stressing the unanimity at a local level, I have to make clear where I diverge from the hon. Gentleman. It has to do with how I see the role of the Scottish regiments, which I hope will—as is widely speculated and as is touted by my hon. Friend Mr. Joyce, who is missing—be brought together in a Scottish Brigade, serving, as they have throughout their proud history, Crown, flag and country. They make a unique Scottish contribution to the British Army in the service of the monarch and carry out their duty under the Union jack, within which the cross of St. Andrew provides a strong and patriotic background setting. They act in defence and promotion of the interests and security of the United Kingdom: an entity to which, as a Scot, I am deeply committed.

I am a strong supporter of the British Army and the British Government in their efforts, as active participants in NATO and other alliances, to ensure the security and well-being of all the countries of Europe, and throughout the world. On those points, perhaps I differ with the hon. Member for North Tayside and his party, but we are united in wanting to ensure that the Black Watch is retained as a unit in the British Army.

The point is: what would be the rationale behind the long histories of those regiments, and what would their brave, selfless and professional service in the British Army amount to if we did not think about those things in the terms that I alluded to earlier when talking about Crown, flag and country? That was the rationale that lay behind my great-grandfather and grandfather joining the ranks of Dundee's regiment, the 42nd Regiment of Foot, in the first and second world wars. Their patriotism was channelled through that regiment and that is why such regiments are so important to the Scottish scene, and why I and so many people are passionate in the cause.

My concern at the threats to the Black Watch and the reduction from six to five Scottish regiments in the new round of cuts is based not only on my family connections, but on a wider concern that the Government are embarking on the cuts and the reorganisation at a critical time, when the security of this country and our allies is under threat from random attack.

The message that we, collectively, should send out from this debate is our commitment to campaign for the Scottish regiments to remain as fully functional separate units in a Scottish Brigade, in the British Army, to support the needs and requirements of the UK Government in countering the growing wave of terrorism. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has put aside his and his party's—I see his party leader here today—separatist agenda to join us in putting a strong case for the Scottish regiments to retain their unique identities within the British Army. To assist in that cause, we must combine to put the case.

In conclusion, I reiterate the call made by my hon. Friend Mr. Sarwar last week, when he asked the Prime Minister to take note of the concern in Scotland over the future of the Scottish regiments. I further ask the Government to rethink the proposals for the reduction in the strength of the British Army and to do all that they can to promote and encourage recruitment to both regular and territorial units of the Army throughout the UK.

I call for the Government to signal that they are willing to scrap the proposals to create a royal regiment of Scotland and to commit themselves to creating a Scottish Brigade that all the Scottish regiments will operate under, keeping their individual identities. That is the message that Scotland wishes and waits to hear. It is the message that the Black Watch deserves to hear.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. I offer no criticism of those who have spoken thus far. I have no power to control the length of Members' speeches, but I remind them that the purpose of the debate is for the Member initiating it to get an adequate reply from the Minister.

Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Shadow Minister (Homeland Security), Home Affairs 9:50 am, 17th November 2004

I congratulate Pete Wishart on having procured this debate.

I want to lay out my credentials. What on earth is an Englishman and a former English Army officer doing here, speaking about Scottish regiments? The answer is simple. I am married to a Skye girl; I served with the Queen's Own Highlanders with great pride and pleasure, despite being described during the whole of a four-month tour in Northern Ireland as "that redcoat"; and a cousin by marriage is about to command the Royal Highland Fusiliers, if it continues to exist.

It seems extraordinary that at the present time of emergency, difficulty and tension, the Government are planning to axe four infantry battalions—it does not matter whether they are Scottish, English, or Welsh. The infantryman is the single most flexible soldier in the British Army. Despite the great phrases, "boots in the mud" and "boots in the dust", technology can never replace the hugely experienced Tommy, Jock or Taffy on the ground, doing his job, killing when necessary, rebuilding when necessary and dishing out sense, kindness and justice wherever he goes. That is what all our soldiers are good at, be they Scottish, English, Welsh or Irish.

To lose four of our battalions now is madness and I want to challenge two comments by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence that the size of the Army is not about to shrink. That is just not true. On 21 July, the Secretary of State for Defence made it very clear that the target for the Army is currently 108,500. The Army has failed to meet that, more of which later, but the new target will be 102,000. Whichever way it is cut—"cut" is the word—that is a defence cut. On the back of that, I fear that we shall lose regiments such as the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers, which have survived untainted for 300 years. The Royal Scots came into service in this country in 1633. It has never been amalgamated and has never been merged with any other unit. It has won countless honours and Victoria crosses for this country. Why tinker with a regiment like that? Why tinker with the King's Own Scottish Borderers? That must be wrong.

A second argument is that recruiting in Scotland cannot support six infantry battalions. That is complete and utter rubbish. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards—I know that it is not an infantry battalion—has been seriously under strength for almost 10 years. When the recruiting restrictions on that fine regiment were removed and it was allowed to spread its wings and to use every tactic and technique allowed to regiments, recruiting to the RSDG rocketed to full manning, only for the Government to slash 100-plus of its well trained men. I believe that any Scottish regiment can bring itself up to full strength if it is allowed to. I did that with my regiment and I am sure that the situation in north Nottinghamshire is no different from that in parts of Scotland. I believe that this country has the potential to maintain six fully manned Scottish infantry battalions, and if the Government would remove the recruiting cap and put the proper resources into the Army Training and Recruiting Agency, that could be achieved. Let us have no more nonsense about recruiting.

Interestingly, anyone who read The Times on Sunday will have seen a picture of Colin Campbell commanding that famous regiment, the 1st Battalion, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Crater. It seems that we are stuck in time in some sort of aspic. We seem to be in the same position as in the late 1960s and the Argylls are under threat yet again with a certain officer leaving his regiment to come into Parliament to argue the case for the Argylls. Anyone who looks carefully at the picture will see what he is wearing on his hat. We used to call the Argylls' cap badge a soup plate. That may be slightly rude, but there we are. He does not have an Argylls' cap badge in his glengarry; he has a super-regiment cap badge of the Scottish Brigade, which came into existence in the mid-1960s and was scrapped in the late 1960s because it failed. What are we again to have? Another super-regiment because of tired, thoughtless and exhausted thinking and because no one in the Ministry Defence has been able to produce anything that is fresh and original.

Yes, we must move forward, the arms plot must go, and more battalions are coming back from Northern Ireland. However, even with the add-back from Ulster and the battalions that are no longer involved in the arms plot, the 24-month gap between battalion deployment tours is nothing like 24 months. It will still average out at less than that.

That is not right. It is an unfair deal, not just for Jock and Tommy but, more importantly, for the wives and children who need to spend time with those men. That is why recruiting is suffering and people are not staying in the Army. The departure of corporals and sergeants—experienced men—adds to the recruiting problem. The Government have embarked on an evil spiral.

The other greatly misguided comment that we have heard in the past couple of days is that the infantry is already half large regiments and half single battalions. That is not the case. The Prince of Wales's, King's, Guards and Scottish divisions are all single battalion organisations. Only the Queen's and Light divisions have gone down this path.

If one were to take, let us say, the Argylls and put their name in brackets after the 4th Battalion of the Royal Scots Regiment, would the name and identity survive? Would the tartan, hat and cap badge survive? Ask the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment or the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. Their names were in brackets after battalions of the Royal Anglian Regiment for a while. Where are they now? If one were to go nine miles from my house and try to join the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment, the response would be, "What on earth is that? I have never heard of it." That regiment, with all its wonderful history, is gone—it has died.

The proposal is desperately misguided and dangerous for the country. It dishonours Scotland's dead, and, militarily, it is enormously foolish. I urge the Minister to think in a fresh direction, as it is not yet too late to save those wonderful regiments.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries 9:58 am, 17th November 2004

I shall begin by echoing the comments of Pete Wishart in paying respect to all those who have lost loved ones in recent months, especially in the terrible conflict in Iraq, in which we are still engaged. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. The hon. Gentleman has managed to achieve another debate some two months after the previous one that was held in Westminster Hall on this very issue. It is basically the same debate, but its name is slightly different.

I wish to thank the Minister for taking time on two occasions to meet me and talk about this issue. I also wish to put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for managing to schedule in his diary meetings with me, in particular the meeting last week with three colleagues from the Liberal Democrat party: Mr. Beith and the hon. Members for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) and for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore). There were also ex-serving members of the King's Own Scottish Borderers at that joint meeting. As individuals with a military background, they were allowed to put their case to the Secretary of State, which is very important.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's comments. The meeting that we had last week was productive. Does he agree that the passion that Donald Fairgrieve and the other KOSB representatives brought to it was very telling? The single most important issue for them was the prospect of the KOSB losing its identity in an ill-judged merger with the Royal Scots, which they found ludicrous, even offensive.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is exactly right. His comments return to those made by the hon. Member for North Tayside. It is a matter of communities and the feeling of the wider family. I remember saying to the Secretary of State last week that if we look at the south of Scotland, only one thing links the east coast with the west coast, and that is the King's Own Scottish Borderers. We have our differences in a number of other areas, but that is the one link across the south of Scotland.

We are all incensed by what appears to be going on and with what the future may hold for our Scottish regiments. I am so incensed that I have even managed, albeit for a couple of minutes, to have a one-to-one-face with the Prime Minister earlier to further make the case. We should leave no stone unturned when it comes to what we feel.

Doing nothing is not an option. We have all met constituents over recent weeks and months, some of whom have absolutely no contact or connection with the military. Others are widows of ex-serving members of the armed forces and, in my area, of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, or those who have brothers and uncles who have served. Some are serving at the moment. The future of our armed forces has to be secured.

After the Remembrance day parade and church service in Dumfries on Sunday, it was interesting to take the opportunity to speak to a number of personnel. As one would expect, different people have different views. Some people wanted absolutely no change, but it was good to hear them recount their stories of the time that they served—10, 15 or 20 years plus, for many of them. They said that they wanted absolutely no change, and that we must secure the individual identity of the King's Own Scottish Borderers.

Others, when we got into deeper conversation, realised that today's young men and women are perhaps looking for a secure future with the regiment, but realise that serving in the modern Army is different from 15 or 20 years ago. Some of our young men and women spend a significant amount of time with their regiment, and are then drawn away to support other regiments and to supplement and complement what those regiments are doing because of recruitment shortages.

The question has to be asked: who are we to determine that the same old ways should remain, especially when we consider the future of married personnel? The Government have talked long and hard since they came into power in 1997 about family-friendly policies. We should also, as best we can, have family-friendly policies for those who serve in our armed forces. They are doing a job of work, just like any other member of society who is gainfully employed. Will a political decision be made as soon as we reach the end of the road, or a military decision?

If we look back to the early 1990s, many of us have been in this situation before, although some of us were not in this place at the time. It happened then. We saw the highland regiments amalgamated; we should consider the difficulties from then until now. Recruitment and retention have been serious problems.

The thing that sticks in my craw more than anything else is the suggestion by the Scottish Council of Colonels that we should merge the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers. The council has come up with the worst of all scenarios, as far as I am concerned. I do not say that from a political point of view, but the idea beggars belief. To be open and honest about what happened in the early 1990s, there was a regrettable problem with the Royal Scots in terms of its recruitment and retention. A decision was made then not on military grounds but on political grounds to save someone's political neck. That mistake has come back to haunt us today.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

As Mr. Luke will remember, it was the Gordon Highlanders that paid the price to save that political neck.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

I bow to the hon. Gentleman's greater wisdom. I know that there was a problem that should have been dealt with properly and that there should have been no political shenanigans in the early 1990s.

From what I can gather from speaking to ex-members of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, it was also said in the early 1990s that the shortfall in some of the other regiments would be made good. Lo and behold, that commitment was not fulfilled. I say to the Minister today what I have said to the Secretary of State previously. If at the end of the process there is a commitment to 36 sound and strong regiments that can do a job at any time for this country, whether that is on behalf of this country or to help another nation, that is what we should aim for. If the commitment is to make up those numbers and regiments, we in the House and throughout the country want to see it fulfilled and not merely swept aside, as has happened in the past.

I have heard this morning about the issue of names in brackets. The English language is strange, and the use of brackets or parentheses can mean different things to different people. As I have said all along, I want to see young men and women in my locality in southern Scotland—and further afield, as the footprint for the King's Own Scottish Borderers stretches further than merely south Scotland—have the opportunity to join our armed forces and the KOSB for many years to come. That is vital.

If the King's Own Scottish Borderers name has to be retained, we must put the recommendation from the Scottish Council of Colonels in the bid immediately. I have written to General Sir Mike Jackson saying that I believe that we had a positive meeting last week with the Secretary of State for Defence. I made the case in that letter for him to consider what is being said. There are ways out, not just for the Government, the Secretary of State for Defence or the Prime Minister, but for the military, which appears to be making recommendations that make no sense to anyone.

I hope that the Minister will take on board what has been said today—I am sure that he will, because he has done so in the past. We are looking for a positive outcome, and it is vital that the individual identities of the regiments remain.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. Three Members are trying to catch my attention, but I cannot call them all. However, if the next two are brief, I can get them both in.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Constitutional Affairs Committee 10:09 am, 17th November 2004

I thank Mr. Brown. My hon. Friends and I have been glad to work with him in meetings and campaigns about the future of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, including in what I thought was a constructive meeting with the Secretary of State last week.

The King's Own Scottish Borderers has its regimental headquarters in the barracks in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where its regimental museum and association are also based. The regiment has the freedom of the borough, and it marches through it on Minden day every year and on many other occasions. We are proud of the regiment, which recruits in Berwick, the borders, Dumfries and Galloway, and Lanarkshire. It has an excellent recruiting record: over the past 10 years, it has regularly been the first or second-best recruited Scottish regiment and in the top half of all infantry regiments.

Regimental pride is of great importance to the community support that former members of a regiment and their families extend to one another and that communities extend to them. It is also a potent factor in recruitment. Although it would be easy to dwell on the sentimental, nostalgic and honourable reasons for keeping the separate identity of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, the reasons that should be persuasive with the Army Board and the Minister are sensible, practical and highly relevant to the future of the Army—in particular the regiment's ability to recruit throughout the area.

What came as a real body blow to serving and former members of the regiment, as well as to the local community, was the completely ill-judged proposal to force an amalgamation with the Royal Scots, a regiment that has had serious recruitment difficulties over the years and is being pushed into the merger to deal with that problem. As the hon. Gentleman said, the problem should have been dealt with some time ago and is not a problem for the King's Own Scottish Borderers. Why damage success in this way? The foremost consideration in the minds of everyone concerned with the KOSB is to maintain its identity because of its practical value in recruiting for the British Army and providing good soldiers.

On closer examination of the figures, one realises that recruitment in some regiments, including the Royal Scots, depends heavily on Commonwealth citizens. Some of them are extremely good soldiers—for example, Fijians are superb soldiers and we are glad to have them. However, that is also an index of the weaknesses of recruitment in some regiments. The King's Own Scottish Borderers has about nine Commonwealth citizens compared with 89 in the Royal Scots. That is a measure of relative recruitment ability.

It was a bad day when the Scottish colonels—the colonel of the King's Own Scottish Borderers was away in Afghanistan—made a recommendation that did not recognise the key judgment supposed to be at the heart of how to configure these regiments, which is the sustainability of future recruitment. That phrase was used in the official documents concerned. On that count, the KOSB should remain a clearly defined unit of the British Army, preferably a regiment.

There are alternative solutions for the Royal Scots name. It could go to the brigade, to the overall structure, to the TA or be used in a different kind of merger. However, it certainly does not make sense to sacrifice the qualities of the King's Own Scottish Borderers to find somewhere to put the Royal Scots. Therefore, I hope that the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Army Board have already agreed that they must reconsider the one extremely misguided merger in the Scottish proposals.

We can all see the writing on the wall and the amount of military pressure for the creation of a single Scottish super-regiment. People have different views on that. Clearly, some problems have to be addressed, such as the ridiculous and inefficient disruptions of the arms plot, and the destruction of the relationship between a regiment and its region, which is particularly marked in England by the circulation of regiments. It is right to address those problems, but some people find it hard to accept that a super-regiment is the right solution.

Of crucial importance to us in the borders is that the King's Own Scottish Borderers continues to contribute its flow of recruits and its regimental traditions and qualities to the British Army. The borders want that to happen and it is the logical course to follow. Therefore, I ask the Minister to pose the right questions to the Army Board to ensure that the ill-advised recommendation of the Scottish colonels is set aside and the issue is reconsidered.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Spokesperson (Social Security (SNP Shadow Scottish Minister); Education & Skills; Home Office; Law Officers; Work & Pensions) 10:14 am, 17th November 2004

As the Member of Parliament for Perth, where the Black Watch has its regimental headquarters, I am pleased to have been called to speak briefly today. I add my condolences to the family of Private Paul Lowe, whose funeral will take place early this afternoon, and I extend my condolences to the families and loved ones of the other six Black Watch soldiers who have died in Iraq.

This is a sad day for the Black Watch, but it will also be a historic day for it and the other Scottish regiments because this may be the last opportunity for debate before the Government implement their plans to axe the entire regimental system in Scotland. We should be clear that the ultimate decision lies with the UK Government—a fact recognised by my constituents, many retired and serving military personnel, and even the Secretary of State for Scotland during Scottish questions on 26 October. It is a pity that neither the Secretary of State nor his deputy, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, is present at this important debate.

We should also be clear that the impetus for the decision came from the Chancellor and his Department. That was recognised by Colonel Tim Collins, who, speaking to the BBC on Sunday, said:

"These reductions are about saving money for the Treasury. It is not about making the army better and it is not about fixing something that is broken."

We have also heard much from the Government about the arms plot argument. That is the apparent basis for the proposed scrapping of the entire regimental system in Scotland. However, senior military figures including Brigadier Gary Barnett, who retired last year having served as colonel of the Black Watch for the preceding 12 years—a man, therefore, of immense military experience—have challenged that purported rationale for the scrapping of the regimental system in Scotland; Brigadier Barnett termed it a red herring. The Minister will be aware of the brigadier's recent detailed submission to the Secretary of State for Defence.

The proposals make no sense militarily, particularly at a time when there is overstretch of our armed forces. A Black Watch officer serving at Camp Dogwood, directly in the line of fire—I am not in a position to release his name—wrote to me and said:

"Recently, the Black Watch moved from Germany to the UK to become the Army's training battalion. In this role, we should train other battalions for operations, but not deploy ourselves. However, for the first time in the Army's history, and because of troop shortages, we have returned to Iraq a year after we left.

The contradiction between deploying the training battalion on the one hand and yet cutting four battalions on the other, needs to be addressed. The Army has a policy of a 24 month tour interval between 6 month tours. And yet we are back here", in Iraq,

"after 12."

That point was echoed by many other Black Watch soldiers who have written to me from Iraq, young serving soldiers who want their regiment to be retained and who reject utterly the Government's proposal. I will briefly quote one of those young serving soldiers, currently at Camp Dogwood:

"The recent decision to reduce the armed forces can only add to the stress and pressure put on us and our families what with the ever increasing commitments and deployments we are volunteered for. Some of us have been separated from our families for 400 days in the past 2 years.

I am writing to you to fight on my behalf to reverse the decision to reduce our Armed Forces, as I am fighting for my life out here in Iraq in support of the politicians".

In conclusion, it is clear that the Black Watch wants to keep the regiment. It is also clear that the people of Scotland want to keep the Scottish regiments. Will the Minister take the opportunity afforded to him today to end the endless spin and uncertainty that has caused so much anger and distress among the soldiers and their families? Will he tell us today whether soldiers in the Black Watch are coming home to their regiment, or whether they will be amalgamated out of existence?

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

I thank hon. Members for their co-operation. If Mr. Sarwar is brief, I shall call him.

Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Govan 10:19 am, 17th November 2004

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I congratulate Pete Wishart on securing this timely debate.

Hundreds of my constituents have raised the future of the regiments with me in recent weeks. Last Tuesday, I organised a cross-party meeting with my hon. Friend Mr. Luke to discuss the issue with the Keep Our Scottish Battalions campaign. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Tayside and others who attended that lobbying. We met Clive Fairweather, a former commanding officer of the Scottish Division Depot, and Stuart Crawford, who was previously a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Tank Regiment. The following day, I asked the Prime Minister about the future of the Scottish regiments during Question Time. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Minister are certainly aware of the depth of feeling about the issue throughout Scotland.

I appreciate that the Chief of the Defence Staff is still considering how best to proceed with changes to infantry deployment and that the Army will make its decision soon. I hope that the weight of public opinion in Scotland will lead to a positive response that retains the regiments' unique historic identities and traditions.

Simply merging Scotland's infantry regiments would be a mistake. Each of them has a proud history of service to our country. The idea of a Scottish Brigade that incorporates our regiments without losing their special identity, as proposed by the Keep Our Scottish Battalions campaign, is worth considering. For centuries, Scottish soldiers have shown professionalism in serving around the world. I am particularly troubled that disbandment could be considered while the Black Watch sees active service in the most dangerous region of Iraq. While the Minister will be aware that I did not support military action in Iraq, we all share a deep respect for those who have served there during the past two years.

I want to pay tribute to my constituent, Russell Beeston, a Territorial Army soldier in the 52nd Lowland Regiment who was killed 15 months ago in southern Iraq. When I joined thousands of Glaswegians in George square on Sunday, we all remembered his sacrifice and that of the Scots and British serving our country from all our regiments. In Glasgow, the Royal Highland Fusiliers has a proud local history of recruitment in my constituency. That could be lost with the merger.

I turn now to the training of Scottish recruits. When infantry recruits in both the regular Army and the Territorial Army were trained in Scotland, they were able to maintain close contacts with their families at home. Now all members of the Scottish infantry are trained in Yorkshire and it is more difficult for families to visit or support young recruits. Far more recruits drop out of training. The Minister has always taken a keen interest in improving the standard of training for all recruits throughout the United Kingdom, and we should reconsider training Scottish recruits in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend the Minister might say that he cannot give us further assurances at this time. The hon. Member for North Tayside and others may consider that this debate is the last chance to make the case for Scotland's regiments and the last opportunity for the Government to make their position clear. I am sure that the Minister is listening carefully to the genuine concerns that have been expressed about the matter. I am also certain that the debate will not be the final word on the matter. Two strong grassroots campaigns will continue to lobby their elected Members of Parliaments about the issue, as will many of our constituents. We must all respond accordingly.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:23 am, 17th November 2004

I congratulate Pete Wishart on securing a second debate on the future of our Scottish regiments. It comes at a particularly appropriate time, a few days after Remembrance Sunday when we commemorated the sacrifice of the men and women who served in our armed forces. That sacrifice continues to this day with the war in Iraq.

The large number of hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have shown what great importance we attach to the future of our Scottish regiments. For many months, great uncertainty has been hanging over the future of the regiments and that uncertainty cannot be good for morale. The uncertainty started in July when the Secretary of State announced that one Scottish battalion would be axed and that the Army structure would in future consist of regiments made up of two or more battalions. It can be deduced from simple arithmetic that the Government intend to reduce the number of Scottish regiments from six to either one or two.

I am not arguing that the status quo should prevail for ever. Naturally, time and circumstances change and the Army must change with the times. However, while changing we must keep the best of what we have inherited from past generations, and the British regimental system, based on geographic areas with which people identify, is an important inheritance that we must keep. Surely one of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan is the importance of highly trained and motivated infantry. The British regimental system, based on recruitment from geographical areas, has produced the finest infantry soldiers in the world.

Now is not the time to reduce infantry numbers. In recent years, the infantry has seen action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Bosnia and has carried out peacekeeping duties in many other parts of the world. It is also often called on to help out at home, such as during the firefighters' strike and the foot-and-mouth epidemic. That epidemic should serve as a warning for the Government that Army assignments can appear unexpectedly out of the blue. Our armed forces are already overstretched; the future is uncertain, so infantry numbers should not be reduced.

Many hon. Members have referred to the proposal of the Council of Scottish Colonels to merge the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers into a single battalion, reduce the other four Scottish regiments to battalion status and make the five battalions form one new regiment. I do not know what remit the colonels were given, but it looks suspiciously as if they were told to go into a room, play a form of Russian roulette and not come out until they had decided which two regiments should be merged. The Royal Scots and the KOSB were the regiments that lost out.

Like all hon. Members who have spoken this morning, I urge the Government to reject the proposal, which would mean a loss of identity for two regiments that have a long and proud tradition of service to the country. The other four regiments would also suffer a loss of identity by being reduced to battalion status. Recruitment is bound to suffer if the six regiments are merged to form one or two large super-regiments. Throughout Scotland, people identify with the local regiment, which in my case is the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. That was obvious at Sunday's Remembrance day parade, when the vast majority of veterans were wearing the famous red and white Glengarry. The message from recent history is that abolishing regiments is not a successful strategy. For example, when the Cameronians were disbanded, 17 per cent. of that regiment's soldiers left the Army.

Several hon. Members have referred to the Scottish Brigade solution. I have a suggestion for the Government that would streamline efficiency but keep regimental identity. They should reverse an earlier round of cuts under which the Scottish division headquarters was moved from Edinburgh castle to Warminster. The existing six Scottish regiments should be kept, but made part of a Scottish division with headquarters in Scotland that has an effective command and control function instead of simply an administrative function, as at present. That would provide a streamlined command and control structure, yet retain the six distinctive Scottish regiments.

Those regiments have contributed so much to the defence of our country through their long and proud history. If the Government see sense, our six Scottish regiments will remain and make a vital contribution to the country's defence for many years to come.

Photo of Mr Peter Duncan Mr Peter Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Local and Devolved Government Affairs 10:29 am, 17th November 2004

I add my congratulations to Pete Wishart, and I express my sympathy with his remarks on the recent bereavements. They remind us of the high price paid by the British Army, and it has been paid by our forces over generations.

There is a considerably improved turnout on the Government Back Benches for this debate, which is obviously related to the Minister's appearance today. However, the gap between him and his Back Benchers is tangible. I see plenty of room for Mr. Joyce, if he had managed to join us, and for the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who could have joined us today for this important debate for Scotland.

It is not the first time that we have debated this issue, and if the Government press ahead with their agenda of cuts, it will not be the last. The proposals have upset and astounded many people in Scotland and throughout the UK. Despite the Defence Secretary's attempts to finesse them, there is no doubt that they signal the end of the six Scottish regiments as we know them. Imprecise talk of identities and traditions is no smokescreen for radical change. A cap badge in a super-regiment is no substitute for a single-battalion regiment in its own right. To pretend otherwise is misleading and ultimately futile.

People have been upset not only by the cuts but by the way in which the Government have handled the issue, especially in recent weeks. In the past month or so, the position has changed more times than I care to remember. First, the Defence Secretary said that the only option was abolition of the Scottish regiments and their merger into one or two super-regiments. Then at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister said that no decision had been made. Then at Scottish questions, the Scottish Secretary told me that it was important to take account of public opinion. During First Minister's questions in the Scottish Parliament, the First Minister then said that he supported retention of the regiments, before my colleague David McLetchie caught him out and forced him to admit that he was in favour of the proposals for cuts.

Last week, the soldiers and their families had to endure the ultimate insult: Downing street sent that loyal foot soldier, the hon. Member for Falkirk, West, on a spin mission to the Scottish press on Tuesday night to say that four of our regiments would be saved in their current form. That was a partial victory, we thought, but it lasted all of 12 hours, until the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition obtained a response from the Prime Minister declining to back up the Falkirk, West line. Instead, he said again that no decision had yet been made.

If the No. 10 spin machine believes that communities throughout the south of Scotland can be persuaded to support a compromise involving the loss of two independent historic regiments—the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots—it is seriously mistaken. Three hundred years of history and some of the strongest community ties in the British Army cannot be cast aside. My constituents, in particular, will continue to fight any Labour proposal to scrap the KOSBies. I support the traditional regimental structure in Scotland and throughout the British Army, and I will continue to fight for the independence of the KOSB.

What is happening is simply not good enough. Soldiers, their families and the whole of Scotland need to know what their fate is. I urge the Minister, in replying to the debate, to tell us today when there will be an answer. The Black Watch would especially welcome that. Her Majesty's Opposition realise that the deployment of Black Watch troops to central Iraq was a military request in a time of war, and we stand by the Government in that undertaking. As tragic events have unfolded, we have continued, and will continue, to support the Government when we think that they are taking such hard but necessary decisions. Unlike some in the House, we will never use the deaths of Scottish soldiers as a vehicle to score political points. To do so would be extremely questionable. However, we will continue our campaign, which is ruthlessly focused on saving all six of our historic regiments.

Scotland's six regiments have battled for Britain for hundreds of years. Our soldiers have fought, bled and died in the name of freedom. In the past century alone, they have protected this island's liberty in two world wars. They have defended our interests in Korea and the Gulf. They have dealt with our internal troubles in Northern Ireland and sought to keep the peace in the Balkans. They have fought to give others, in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, the same freedom as we enjoy. All six regiments have a proud and distinguished history. Four have seen action in the continuing liberation of Iraq. Speculation continues that the Highlanders and the Royal Scots are being readied to go to Iraq, which would mean that all six regiments would shortly have been at the forefront of operations in that theatre.

As I said, the way in which the Government have treated soldiers and their families, especially those of the Black Watch, disgusts me. Families of troops are well aware that their loved ones live a dangerous if incredibly rewarding life. Our soldiers have wives and children, and mothers and fathers, and they deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and admiration, especially at times of war. That has not happened in the past few weeks. That is why I urge the Government to tell Parliament today when they will announce the final decision on Scotland's regimental structure. If they do not know the date for that, the least they can do is admit it. I hope that between now and then the Government take stock and re-evaluate the consequences of the action they seem intent on taking.

Let us not pretend that the Army has asked for this. Yesterday, General Sir Mike Jackson said:

"I would much prefer increasing the size of the Army but that's simply not on offer. I can either accept what's on offer—a reduced size of the Army—or go."

This is a political decision that goes right the way up to the Prime Minister. It is not a military decision, and that shows. We would be hard pressed to find an Army man who thought that this was a good idea in any respect.

If the Government had set out to choose the most inappropriate, ill-informed and insane time to cut our armed forces, they could not have picked a better time than now. We as a nation have been involved in several conflicts in recent years—not to mention our ever-increasing peacekeeping obligations. Nobody ever said that preserving freedom and helping others to do the same was easy. It comes at a price; that price is maintaining our full fighting force. This is not the first time that cuts in our armed forces have been proposed. However, I cannot remember cuts being proposed at a time of such severe military overstretch. As well as being a wretched betrayal of our troops, it undermines the security of our country.

Many Members in attendance this morning are committed to saving our Scottish regiments.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

I am listening intently to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and if he is going to come on to the topic that I am about to mention, I apologise. I have not heard what his party's position is. He is talking about cuts and financial constraints. Is his party in favour of retaining all the regiments in their current form? If his party were in power, how would they achieve that on a declining budget?

Photo of Mr Peter Duncan Mr Peter Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

Our policy certainly is to retain all the regiments as they are at present. I have made that perfectly clear, and I will restate it shortly.

The hon. Gentleman mentions a declining budget. That contradicts what the Secretary of State for Scotland said yesterday in this Chamber; he suggested that the budget was increasing. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should get their figures correct.

Many Members are committed to saving our Scottish regiments, and I am delighted to see so many of them present. No matter which party they belong to, they must be realistic about how that will be achieved. Scottish National party members argue—somewhat hypocritically—for the maintenance of Scotland's full complement in the British Army. That will add to the momentum of our campaign, but in the final analysis whether the six Scottish regiments are retained is a matter of political will-power. The final decision will depend on who is Prime Minister. Members must be realistic and concede that, notwithstanding a humiliating U-turn by the Government, the only way to save the regiments is for the Conservative party to form the Government after the next general election. For the information of Mr. Brown, the Leader of the Opposition has stated that within the very first week of our being in power, the next Conservative Government will reverse any Labour cuts to our Scottish regiments.

This is a noble cause that is supported by the majority of Scots; even the Minister has to acknowledge that.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence 10:39 am, 17th November 2004

I thank Pete Wishart for securing this debate on the role and future of the Scottish regiments. I also acknowledge the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke), for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) and for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar), by Mr. Beith, and by the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), and of course the contribution of Mr. Duncan.

In recent debates and elsewhere my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I have made clear the importance of Scotland's relationship with the armed forces and, more widely, with the Ministry of Defence. I am conscious of the fact that a good number of Members present never attend defence debates. I excuse the hon. Member for Newark and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) who, of course, is on the Conservative Front Bench, but I welcome the new converts to the cause of defence. I look forward to them standing side-by-side with the Secretary of State and me when we campaign for more resources for defence, something that they have not done to date.

The debate centres on the restructuring of the infantry. It is perhaps the most high profile area of change announced in July by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I welcome the opportunity to explain once again what we are doing, why we are doing it and what the implications of not doing it would be.

I am, of course, aware of the debate that surrounds the future of the Scottish regiments. After all, I represent a Scottish seat. The debate highlights how much the Army matters in Scotland. Scotland's infantry regiments have a proud history and continue to serve this country courageously. That was most recently demonstrated by the Black Watch deployment. I commend the bravery of the deployment and offer my condolences to the bereaved families. This is a sad period for the Black Watch. I accept that everyone in the House supports that sentiment.

I wish, however, that we could get a bit more honesty from the party that Pete Wishart represents. The SNP does not want to preserve the Scottish regiments as we know them. It has made it clear that, in an independent Scotland, we would withdraw from NATO and would not participate in EU missions, as they are linked to NATO. The SNP would downgrade the Scottish regiments to occasional peacekeeping missions. It is difficult to know precisely where those missions would be because the SNP opposed what our forces were asked to do in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and questioned our engagements elsewhere.

So, I question the motives of the SNP on the issue. I doubt whether its argument is about preserving the capability of the Scottish regiments. I remind the House of the statement made by an SNP spokesman, who called the Union flag "the butcher's apron". That is an outrageous slur on the courageous men and women of the British Army, not least those serving in the regiments that we are considering. So it is little wonder that I do not take the hon. Member for North Tayside or his party seriously when we are discussing the future of the armed forces.

Throughout its history, the Army has been subject to change—sometimes that change has been dramatic. It must evolve and adapt to meet future challenges. The reason is simple. To ignore reality would be foolhardy and damaging to the high standards expected of a modern fighting force. The changes planned for the infantry are part of that evolution. There are two key reasons for those changes.

The first reason is the conclusion by the Army Board that the infantry arms plot no longer represents the best way to deliver operational capability. I note what the hon. Member for Perth said when praying in aid for a retired brigadier, but the weight of military experience on the Army Board is substantially against her. I expressed my views about where the SNP is coming from. I am only commenting about that particular issue.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

If I have time, I will give the hon. Lady an opportunity to speak.

I read the report from the brigadier in question and I recognise his considerable experience. However, we must set that against the breadth of experience on the Army Board.

So, one reason why we are implementing this change is the considerable arguments that have been advanced—not for the first time—that there is a need to change the arms plot and dispose of it.

The second issue is the progress towards lasting peace in Northern Ireland. I will deal with the impact of events in Northern Ireland. The improved security climate helped us judge that we could remove four battalions from the 14,500 troops allocated to the Province. That provided an opportunity to consider how best to organise the Army for expeditionary warfare. The judgment was that the Army would be best served and best prepared for the challenges of the future if infantry battalions were less reliant on reinforcements when deployed on operations and our forces had the right balance of key enablers: logisticians, engineers, signallers and intelligence personnel. We decided that some 550 posts freed up by the change in Northern Ireland would be reinvested into the infantry to develop more robust, resilient units, and the rest would be used to strengthen the key enablers who are crucial to sustainable operational capability.

However, the most important factor in changes to the structure of the infantry is the decision to end the infantry arms plot—a process whereby we have moved infantry battalions from role to role and place to place every few years. Although the arms plot maintained broad experience and variety, it also hampered the availability of infantry battalions. Currently, only 26 to 27 of the 40 infantry battalions are available for deployment at any time and some seven to eight battalions—about 20 per cent. of the total infantry strength—are unavailable due to the arms plot. I shall give some examples.

In March 2003, the Highlanders moved to Germany to begin their armoured infantry training, which meant that they were unavailable for some seven months. In September 2003 the Scots Guards began their conversion and were unavailable for six months. The Black Watch has been subject to similar disruption, which was brought home to me recently when I visited Black Watch families in Warminster. Not to put too fine a point on it, that is impractical and inefficient and no one has argued against it today, apart from the hon. Member for Perth. I do not think that anyone can deny its impracticality and inefficiency.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Spokesperson (Social Security (SNP Shadow Scottish Minister); Education & Skills; Home Office; Law Officers; Work & Pensions)

I was quoting Brigadier Gary Barnett, and I am pleased that the Minister recognises his breadth of military experience as a colonel of the Black Watch for some 12 years. The suggestion that the scrapping of the Scottish regiment system is a precondition for the phasing out of the arms plot is, as Brigadier Barnett said, a red herring.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I suggest that the hon. Lady reads again the totality of what has been argued. If she is now saying that the brigadier accepts the removal of the arms plot, perhaps we have unanimity in the Chamber. Let us understand the importance of what is driving this change: the need to have a more efficient and effective means of utilising our infantry battalions.

Ending the arms plot will make most of the 36 battalions available for deployment, as opposed to the 26 or 27 at present. The logic and benefits of that change are undeniable. Ceasing the arms plot will increase our operational capability, not reduce it. Doing so will also assist in achieving a more predictable tour interval across the infantry. I do not gainsay some of the problems that we are experiencing in some areas on tour intervals. We are trying to get back into a better balance.

In future, the battalions will be fixed by role and, largely, by location, which will release the resources that are routinely tied up in moving location or retraining. The Army will, therefore, be more capable and effective, because as well as more battalions being available for operations, the new structure will provide continuity of expertise and role and greater brigade stability. In future career development for officers and senior non-commissioned officers could be much more carefully planned, and individuals would be able to move between battalions for career development and increased breadth of experience. At present that is largely dependent on the role played by an individual battalion, which is restrictive and inefficient.

I could mention many anecdotal comments that I have heard. I probably meet more members of the armed forces than anyone else—probably even more than a good number of generals—because it is the nature of my job to meet them and their families. I have many anecdotes, some from Scottish regiments, many of which come from serving warrant officers, who say "Keep going, because this is about the future Army structure, not about the past Army structure." We can trade comment on this matter, but the important thing is that the debate is out there and many people realise its benefit. It is about career development and the capacity within the armed forces to best use essential resources.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

No.

Multi-battalion regiments are not a new concept. A substantial part—we could argue over whether it is half or one third—is organised that way, and operates effectively. That concept has been a success. Let me make it clear that we value highly the benefits and traditions of the regimental system; that is not in dispute. What is being proposed will not undermine the system, but will underpin it.

Photo of Mr Peter Duncan Mr Peter Duncan Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Local and Devolved Government Affairs

Does the Minister think that a multi-battalion single regiment will assist or take away from Army recruitment in Scotland?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

There is an important debate to be had on that, and I will come to recruitment issues later, but that point is hard to prove one way or the other.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

No, because I want to deal with some of the issues raised.

The frequent moves caused by the arms plot are destructive to family life, and have an adverse impact on retention. It is reflective of the change in wider society that family stability has become much more of an issue for people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries pointed out, the Government seek to be more family friendly. That is one benefit to ending the arms plot.

The end of the arms plot will also mean that single-battalion regiments, including the Scottish regiments, will need to reorganise themselves to meet the requirement for regiments of two or more battalions.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

If I get time. [Interruption.] Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will give way when I am ready to give way. If hon. Members want me to answer the issues raised—

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. If the Minister gives way, he gives way; if he does not, he does not.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

If Pete Wishart rose to apologise for his butcher's apron comment, I may be prepared to accept his contribution.

I was making the point that the end of the arms plot will have consequences on the structure and organisation of the Army, and on what will then happen to single battalions. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that no decisions have been made. It is important that the Army is given the opportunity to determine the structure that will best deliver the operational effectiveness that we need. When it is ready, the Army Board will make recommendations on the future organisation of the infantry, with a final decision being announced before the Christmas recess.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the Minister for tearing himself away from the traditional and usual Ministry of Defence speech. I know that he is an avid reader of the Daily Record; can he therefore account for why we saw those headlines last week? What on earth happened on Tuesday night? Why were the regiments saved on Tuesday night, only to be told that it was nothing to do with the Prime Minister on Wednesday morning?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I could say, "Stupid boy" to the hon. Gentleman. I wish that he would not ask me to account for newspaper headlines. I do not write the newspapers; I do not even read many of them, because the quality of information imparted is not good and does not deal with the breadth of issues. I take his point that I am an avid reader of MOD speeches. That is because these are important and technical matters, not debating points. The reason why I am setting this out at some length is so that, hopefully, the audience outside the Committee will understand the misrepresentation that has been going on.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. This is not a Committee.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I apologise for that technicality, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I mean outside the arena in which we are debating this issue. We hope also to get our argument over. That is important, because there has been a great deal of misrepresentation and misinformation.

I answered my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwan), who asked when we would impart that knowledge. I said that the plan is to do so before the Christmas recess.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. We have many opportunities to debate these issues in defence debates, and I want to deal with the issues that have been raised this morning.

We have not set out to destroy the regimental system, or, as some have argued—although I have not heard it raised in this debate—to create a corps of infantry. Those accusations are simply not true. The regimental system has served the British Army extremely well, and we recognise that it is at the heart of the British infantry. It is vital that we maintain the traditions of the infantry, but that does not mean that the current structure is the right one for the future. That is where the debate lies.

Very few regiments and corps exist in the same form today as in the past. There has been a constant process of change and regeneration; new organisations have been created, which have maintained previous traditions while developing their own. Some of Scotland's regiments are perfect examples of that. The Royal Highland Fusiliers, which recruits in my area of East Kilbride, was formed in 1959 from the amalgamation of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and the Highland Light Infantry. They were previously the 21st Regiment of Foot and the 73rd Regiment of Foot. We can see the long traditions when we unravel what is inherent in the amalgamated and reformed regiments. It is important that traditions carry on in the new structures.

I have no doubt that the new structure for the infantry will not only contain existing geographical linkages, but enhance them. With soldiers and their families having the chance of greater stability, the result can only be even greater identity between regiments and their local communities. It is important that hon. Members understand that the decision to reduce the infantry by one battalion in Scotland and three in England was taken only after careful consideration of a number of factors. It was not a case of members of the Army Board meeting in a smoke-filled room and being told to get on with it: there was careful analysis by military planners and people who have spent all their lives serving their country.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I will give way in a moment. Had the Army Board looked only at the sustainability of manning, the options for the future of the infantry would be very different.

Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Govan

Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the historic and unique names of the regiments were lost, that would be detrimental to future recruitment?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

That becomes a point for debate, and I am coming on to recruitment. Over the past 10 years, compared with other regiments, Scottish regiments have had difficulty recruiting and retaining personnel. Of the six most undermanned regiments in the infantry, four were from the Scottish division. On average, over that period, the Royal Scots were undermanned by 126; the Royal Highland Fusiliers by 69; the King's Own Scottish Borderers by 39; the Black Watch by 73; the Highlanders by 83; and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders by 32. That is not a criticism; that is a recognised fact.

I was speaking to a regimental sergeant-major of the Argylls recently, who said that Scotland cannot sustain six regiments. That was his opinion, but the fact of the matter is that he understands what many people have not grasped: demographic problems are affecting recruiting in Scotland. There is a declining population in the key areas of recruitment. Given the number of Scottish battalions, there is also an imbalance, and they struggle to recruit sufficient personnel. Per head of population, Scottish battalions need to recruit roughly three times the numbers of soldiers than other battalions. These demographics will become much more difficult in future. We must attend to the matter now, as we are thinking of the future.

I have tried to set out a range of issues that we are addressing within the Ministry of Defence, and I appreciate that there is a deep feeling about these matters. I am conditioned by it too because I represent a Scottish constituency, but I really do question the motives of some who raised the debate.