"Six VCs before breakfast" is an extravagant claim for any regiment to make, but the Lancashire Fusiliers won them in the landing on the Gallipoli peninsula on
"it was to the complete lack of the senses of danger or of fear of this daring battalion that we owe our astonishing success".
That same gallantry has characterised the Lancashire Fusiliers in every action they have fought from their formation in 1688. Every year in Bury, which borders Rochdale, we celebrate to this day the Fusiliers' gallantry in what must be one of the most memorable British battles, which involved some of the most courageous soldiers that our infantry have ever seen.
As a result of that passion, history and local context I have asked for today's Adjournment debate; I and my constituency recognise that 13 towns and cities in this country have given the predecessor regiments to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers the freedom of their boroughs, towns and cities because of such heroic acts. The RRF is the parent regiment for the four historic infantry regiments that were amalgamated in 1970 and 1992, and is now under threat. The RRF can be dated back to June 1685, and is on record as being the first ever infantry regiment to receive the title of "Royal" and can be traced to the formulation of a regiment to guard the ordnance of the Tower of London under King James II. There is no doubt about the compelling history of the RRF and the four areas, and it has a home in the hearts of the people.
I assure the hon. Lady that opinion is as strong in Northumberland and Tyneside as in her area, particularly so because the people there, like her constituents, had to accept a major reorganisation. They thought that the result of it would at least be that the identity they had managed to preserve under the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers could be preserved in future, and not threatened as it is today.
However, one of the things that is incumbent on all of us as parliamentarians and passionate Fusilier supporters is to recognise that they are soldiers through and through. Throughout the various regimental histories of the Fusiliers—they amalgamated eventually into the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—they have been soldiers to their fingertips.
The soldiers realise that what the Army Board and the Army are trying to do to reformulate the arms plot—the way that postings and jobs are rotated on a two-year cycle—has changed. They realise that it is the most disruptive thing to family life and, therefore, to retention. It also has an impact on recruitment to a modern-day Army. The Army has always changed, ever since the first infantry battalions and regiments were created. It is a way of staying on top of our game and all soldiers worth their salt know it.
I want to place on the record my appreciation for what the Army Board is trying to do to improve the lives of the families and the soldiers who serve our country well, as well as to ensure that our armed forces, especially the infantry battalions, are constructed in a way that meets the needs of modern-day warfare. I would further like to stress that I utterly endorse the criteria, as I understand them, that the Army Board—not politicians—has set itself in that task.
I am married to an infantryman, and am somebody who is now meant to be a lieutenant-colonel on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, although I am sure that I do not deserve the rank. One of things that is important to put on the record and make public is that communications in peacetime in the Army are a bit of an anachronism. I will use that mechanism to communicate that the matter that we are discussing is not a politicians' cut or reorganisation; it is being done by military men and women in the best interests of the British Army. We are talking about their view as soldiers.
The hon. Lady is speaking with great passion and I am sure that every hon. Member agrees with her. Does she agree with me that, given that the Army Board met yesterday, it would be in everyone's best interests if we knew as soon as possible what decision was taken?
Having met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State with a delegation of people who as parliamentarians share my passion for the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the contribution that it has made, is making and should make to the future of the British infantry, I agree with the hon. Gentleman—and I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees—that it is in no one's interests for the process to be strung out, particularly as there has already been a period of uncertainty.
Let me return to the review. It is important to place on the record the fact that there is a lot of agreement about changing the arms plot and the aims and ambitions. However, I am extremely worried that there is deviation from the central purpose of the review. Several things must be adhered to under the success criteria of the executive committee of the Army Board. First, whatever changes happen, recruitment cannot be damaged. That is just common sense. Whatever regimental and battalion structure is proposed subsequent to the review must be sustainable. That means that a recruiting footprint must be left throughout the British isles.
An important Army doctrine underpins what we are discussing. I shall quote from The Daily Telegraph, but I understand this from many sources:
"Gen Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of General Staff, is determined to get rid of the historic single-battalion regiments, amalgamating them into larger, more flexible multi-battalion regiments."
I understand from all military sources that those are known in common parlance as super-regiments, consisting of two or more battalions. In modern-day warfare, they are far more flexible. There is no need to re-role. What has been described is the only way in which we can change the arms plot over a two-year period we want to, and is therefore totally sensible. Given those points, it is very disturbing that of the 38 British infantry battalions, the six poorest recruiters historically are a Prince of Wales regiment, the Irish regiment—the one remaining one—and four Scottish regiments.
My right hon. Friend the Minister who will reply to the debate is a Scot, and I would not like to say that he is biased, although I hope that his constituents think that he is. However, to us mere English, and particularly to a Lancashire lass, now that it is readily acknowledged that the Army Board has said that Scotland can take only one hit and only one battalion can be cut, the time has come for us all to rise up and ask why. It is ludicrous that Scotland, with only 9 per cent. of the population, is expected to find 15 per cent. of the infantry. Given that four of the seven Scottish battalions are in the worst six in respect of recruitment, the fact that we may have to chop one of the historically most successful super-regiments in the British Army in terms of recruitment goes against the success criteria that the Army Board set itself. I say to anyone who says that this is a case of meddling politicians that it is not; it is Army politics afoot. I want to bring the Army back sharply to the success criteria. The way in which many of my constituents and I will judge whether it has done a good job is whether it sticks to its original criteria.
Let me sound a second caveat about the criteria, which relates to the figures for non-British nationals from foreign and Commonwealth—F and C—countries who are recruited into the British Army. At the start of the review, as I understand it, it was considered that everybody was a body and therefore such recruits were accepted as equal when it came to the counting. Then when people got into the detail, that did not suit the purpose, so suddenly, halfway through the review, we hear that perhaps F and C figures will be taken out. As I understand it, they have been counted for only two years and no one told any regiments that have been recruiting from F and C countries that two years down the line it might jeopardise the whole future of their regiment. It is not cricket, to say the least, that the review should start off including F and C figures and then, halfway down the line, say, "Well, the only way that we can get the Queen's division and the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in is by removing the F and C figures to establishment." If those recruits are prepared to fight for our country, they should be counted. I defy anyone to say that an F and C soldier in any regiment fights less passionately for Queen and country than the recruits from my constituency of Rochdale or from any other constituency.
I ask the Minister to reassure me that we are not taking an 18-month or two-year snapshot of figures to stack up the preferred decision. The Ministry of Defence gave a detailed piece of evidence—a manning study over 10 years of all 38 infantry battalions—to the Select Committee on Defence. I hope that the Minister can also assure me that decisions will be judged against those long-term data of performance and trend, including F and C figures.
Although it is not intrinsic in terms of the hard core, another criterion that is absolutely key to how the Army does business is that the decision must be, and be seen to be, equitable. I understand that that is also part of the Army Board's criteria. As I said, under the Labour Government's White Paper of 1967 and in 1992, the Fusiliers took the brunt of some of the heaviest amalgamation and changes in the British infantry, and so did their two sister regiments in the Queen's division.
I understand that the Army Board has agreed to take one of the four battalions that need to be amalgamated from Scotland, one from King's division and one from the Prince of Wales's division. It is then stuck with finding a fourth battalion, and I believe that there is a debate about it. If F and C figures are removed, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers or the Yorkshire regiments in the King's division should lose one battalion. Given that General Jackson is on the record as saying that the doctrine is to move to super-battalions, how could cutting a division with three super-regiments recruiting in 17 counties and many metropolitan districts possibly be justified to safeguard three single-battalion regiments recruiting in one county? It defies belief. As I said to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time, on major criteria and on the criteria of equity and fairness, I hope that the Army Board has kicked into touch the 11th-hour suggestion from the director of infantry to cut one of the two remaining battalions from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Let us be clear: it is not just the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers that would pay the price but the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment and the Royal Anglian Regiment, which would have to merge with the one remaining battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to make two super-regiments of three battalions, which would subsequently make even weaker the recruitment hold in the historic areas of all three regiments. For what gain? Because we are too soft to cut the Scots? I am sorry, but that is typical of our Parliament. However, I thought better of the military; I did not think that they were soft. I realise that I am threatening all the revenue going to my constituency via our Scottish Chancellor—I am sorry, Gordon.
However, the fact remains that we must come back to the criteria. I hope that the Army Board adhered to its criteria in the long meeting of the executive committee of the Army Board—ECAB—yesterday. We have battalions and regiments that have always played the game, have always been compliant with the British Army's need to change and have always followed the doctrine willingly and successfully. I am talking not only about the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, but about the other two regiments within the Queen's division. It would be unpalatable news and hard to defend if they were asked to pay the ultimate price, and there were no remaining Fusilier battalion or regiment in England. Given the way in which the Fusiliers have served our country for 400 years or more, that would be poor treatment of them.
The Clerk of the Defence Committee sent me a copy of the memorandum from the Ministry of Defence, FC3, entitled "Future Capabilities". It states:
"The Committee should note that the F&C figures have not been, and are not being, used as a discriminator in decisions about battalion restructuring (not least because the fact that a battalion has a higher proportion of F&C soldiers need not suggest that they could not recruit from within the UK if required).
I am a mere Back Bencher, but I would not want the Secretary of State for Defence to have to justify to the Defence Committee a cut in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, bearing in mind that the Ministry of Defence has given such evidence in its review. I must explain that such action would be a cut to the infantry, but not in the overall establishment figures. Everyone talks about overstretch, but it could not have failed to strike many of us who have relationships with the Army that one of the biggest problems is not in finding infantry people—gorgeous and wonderful though they are—but in finding those with certain skills, such as chefs, medics and logisticians. The more we are committed, whether in peacetime or in theatre operations such as Telic 1, the more we need to bump up those skills to make sure that they are supporting the infantry.
Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Army Board will adhere to its original criteria, for which there is much support? I wish to put on the record the concern of my constituents and that of my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor, who cannot be here today because he is undergoing an operation. A petition containing 2,000 signatures was drawn up in four days in my constituency. The passion for the Fusiliers is of an unusual order of magnitude. Such matters are absolutely crucial for the future of the British infantry.
I am sure that those associated with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, both past and present, will be grateful to my hon. Friend Mrs. Fitzsimons for securing this important debate. Understandably, the issue is close to her heart and she has made many pertinent points about the regiment's quality and effectiveness. No one can gainsay those points.
I genuinely welcome my hon. Friend's contributions to the wider debate. She met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday. I was not present at those discussions, but I have been told that there was a strong debate and that my hon. Friend put forward her argument in her usual forthright way. I wish to give her the absolute assurance that there is no ministerial hands-on in respect of preferential treatment of regiments. I do not recommend it for everyday reading, but we need only look at the Scottish press to see what has been generated. I understand that the Save the Scottish Regiments campaign is talking about standing a candidate against me, so that is hardly a sign that we are favouring the Scottish regiments.
We are aware of the speculation about the future of the Fusiliers, whose 1st Battalion served with such distinction last year in the liberation of Basra. Today's discussion gives us a chance to ventilate the key issues associated with the debate, and it is worth explaining once again what we are doing with the infantry, why we are doing it and what it would mean not to do it. I must also stress that although the executive committee of the Army Board met yesterday, no final decision has been taken. Ministers do not know the outcome of that meeting because we have not yet received the Army's formal recommendations.
The history is that the Army has always been subject to change, sometimes dramatically. The history of the regiment that we are discussing today is testament to that. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was formed in 1968, bringing together four infantry regiments. Its three battalions were reduced to two in 1992 following the "Options for Change" process. In themselves, those events demonstrate that the Army must evolve and adapt to meet future challenges, and that it has always done so.
To ignore reality would truly be a case of failing our troops. It would also be damaging to the high standards expected of a modern fighting force. We would all agree that the Army needs to be in a position to fight the battles of today and tomorrow, not yesterday, and the changes planned for the infantry are part of that evolution. There are two key reasons for them: first, the conclusion by the Army Board that the infantry arms plot no longer represents the best way to deliver operational capability, and secondly, the progress towards lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
Let me deal with the impact of events in Northern Ireland first. With the improved security climate, it was judged that we could remove four battalions from the 14,500 troops allocated to the Province. That provided an opportunity to look at how best to organise the Army for expeditionary warfare. The judgment was made 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 if our forces had the right balance of key enablers such as logisticians, engineers and intelligence personnel. My hon. Friend alluded to that point in her contribution. We therefore decided that around 500 of the posts freed up by the change in Northern Ireland would be reinvested into the infantry to develop more robust and resilient units, while the rest would be used to strengthen those key enablers crucial to sustainable operational capability.
The most important factor in changes to the structure of the infantry is the decision to end the infantry arms plot. I appreciate the points made by my hon. Friend on that issue. Not everyone takes the same point of view, but there is a growing awareness of the decision's importance. The arms plot is a process by which infantry battalions change roles and locations every few years. It maintained broad experience and variety, which was especially important during the cold war when the Army was less expeditionary, but it also reduced the availability of infantry battalions. Currently, of the 40 infantry battalions, only 26 or 27 are available for deployment at any time, with some seven or eight unavailable due to the arms plot. That is some 20 per cent. of total infantry strength. It is neither practical nor efficient to continue with such a process. Ending the arms plot will make the most of the 36 battalions available for deployment, as opposed to the 26 or 27 at present. The logic and benefits are undeniable; ceasing the arms plot will increase our operational capability.
The frequent moves caused by the arms plot are also disruptive to family life and impact adversely on retention. My hon. Friend recognised that in her contribution.
I will not, because I have less time than normal. I should have had 15 minutes, but my hon. Friend understandably exercised her judgment and used as much time as she could. I do not intend to allow any interventions, as I have to deal with the issues.
Reflecting changes in wider society, family stability has become much more of an issue for our people. The end of the arms plot will mean that the Army is able to offer much greater stability for soldiers and their families. In future, battalions will be fixed by role and largely by location, and that will release resources routinely tied up in moving location or retraining. The Army will therefore be more capable and effective, because not only will more battalions be available for operations but the new structure will provide continuity of expertise in role and greater brigade stability. That can only be a good thing in light of our expectation that brigade-level deployments will be most commonly used. It will also mean that career development for officers and senior non-commissioned officers can be much more carefully planned. Individuals will be able to move more easily between battalions for career development and increased breadth of experience. At the moment that is largely dependent on the role that an individual's battalion has at any one time. It is restrictive and inefficient. But all this demands a change in the way that the infantry is structured. Multi-battalion regiments are not a new concept.
If the right hon. Gentleman will listen, I will come to that point. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is one example of how that already exists within the Army of today. There are others. Indeed, half the infantry is already structured in this way. Let me make this clear: we value highly the benefits and traditions of the regimental system. Extending the large regimental system does not undermine that philosophy—far from it. It secures the benefits of the regimental system for the future. The RRF could be a good example that could be used to point out how this has been developed in the past.
There is no single model for a regimental system. What is described as the regimental system is a structural dynamic that has evolved and adjusted over time to meet the changing operating environment. The fact that we contemplate a further evolution now should come as no surprise. It reflects the current and future operating environments. I ask right hon. and hon. Members just to reflect on that. Change is taking place. It always has been a process of evolution. Why the resistance now to examining our current structure and looking for better solutions?
I have already pointed out to the hon. Gentleman that he could make representations to the Secretary of State as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale has done. Very few of our regiments and corps exist today in the same form in which they existed in the past. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is an excellent example of this, having been formed from four previous infantry line regiments. There has been a constant process of change. The idea that because we are making changes, we will lose regimental tradition is not borne out.
The past also tells us that when new regiments are formed—the RRF is one example—they have maintained their previous traditions, while also developing their own. That is true in Scotland too. The Highlanders and the Royal Highland Fusiliers have retained their previous traditions as well as developing new traditions for the future.
May I just stress and get my right hon. Friend to agree that I did not go into rose-tinted emotion about regimental history, apart from starting with some powerful quotes. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has always done the bidding of ECAB and the Army Board and has always been compliant with change. We are not arguing about tradition, but about having a strong, effective infantry.
We have to await the outcome of ECAB's determination. My hon. Friend indicated—I do not know how she knows this—that it was a long meeting yesterday—
Well, it was probably still going on when she was meeting the Secretary of State. Certainly it was going on when I left my office last night. That shows the intensity of the debate that has taken place. There could be cynics who think that it has been got up as a cosmetic exercise. It has not. We have sought to consult personnel throughout the Army about what they would like to see for the future. That is clearly a two-way process.
People have asked why we did not make a quick, neat decision. That would have denied everyone the opportunity to make their contribution. We should be complimented. I know that my hon. Friend has said how well she thinks that the process has been conducted, but there are others who say that we should simply make a decision and get out of the way. We have gone through the consultation process. We have listened to what has been said. ECAB and the Army Board have to weigh up all of those matters.