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UK Armed Forces: Wales’s Contribution

Part of Special Educational Needs: Isle of Wight – in Westminster Hall at 5:30 pm on 25th February 2020.

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Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:30 pm, 25th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate Fay Jones on securing this important debate. We have had a very consensual and positive debate about the contribution that Wales makes to Her Majesty’s armed forces.

The hon. Lady talked about the historic and significant contribution that Wales has made to the armed forces and highlighted her concerns about the future of the Brecon barracks, which I will come back to later in my remarks. My hon. Friend Alex Davies-Jones talked about bringing the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards closer, if not home, to Wales.

Stephen Crabb mentioned his concerns, which I am sure we all share, about the Capita contract and the recruitment issues that have beset the armed forces in recent years. My hon. Friend Stephen Doughty talked about his vast experience of support for our armed forces and his constituency’s historic links to the merchant navy and other parts of our armed forces.

My hon. Friend Jessica Morden spoke about the role of her constituency, particularly with the Royal British Legion, and about the need to offer better support to our veterans, with which I am sure we all agree. My hon. Friend Chris Evans spoke about the need for justice and recognition for the nuclear test veterans, as well as about the issue of service accommodation, which is, I am sure, of concern to many hon. Members.

We in Wales have clearly punched above our weight in terms of our contribution to the armed forces across the United Kingdom. As we have heard, the armed forces—particularly the Army—have a long-standing and significant presence in Wales. Wales is currently home to 2,200 regular forces, 1,490 of whom are Army personnel.

Of the Welsh combat units, which recruit predominantly from Wales, the Royal Welsh Regiment is composed of 731 personnel; the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards has a current size of 403 personnel; and the Welsh Guards has a current size of 579 personnel. Wales therefore continues to contribute meaningfully to our armed forces and that is something to be celebrated.

I will be pleased and proud be in Merthyr Tydfil town centre on Saturday as we welcome the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Welsh to the town for their St David’s day parade, which the whole local community will support and enjoy. Across the House, we all share a pride in our armed forces, and that was demonstrated recently as many—if not most—Welsh MPs attended the reception hosted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth.

As we have heard, the MOD intends to close Cawdor barracks and Brecon barracks, two of the main Army bases in Wales, in 2024 and 2027 respectively, and to dispose of the Sennybridge storage compound in 2025. We appreciate that, as time passes, there is a need to modernise and adapt our defence estate to ensure that it is fit for the 21st century, but we are concerned that the closures will have a negative impact on Wales’ military presence, with a negative spill-over effect on the Welsh economy and local communities. Will the Minister revisit the defence estate strategy to ensure that if the base closures go ahead, they do not result in a reduced military presence in Wales?

There has also been a lack of clarity over the future location of the 14th Signal Regiment based at Cawdor, as well as over the future of MOD St Athan and its No. 4 School of Technical Training. That contributes to significant uncertainty for all personnel, including MOD civilian personnel, as well as the local communities. I would be grateful if the Minister provided a much-needed update on that.

In 2013, the Army basing programme reorganised army units in the UK to accommodate those returning from Germany and to consolidate their presence around seven major centres in the UK. None of those major centres was to be in Wales. The Welsh combat units that I and other hon. Members have mentioned all remain outside Wales. That is quite unlike Scotland, where the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and several battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland are all based.

Given the association of the Welsh combat units with Wales, it makes sense for at least one of them to be based in Wales, as other hon. Members have highlighted. That is important not only for those units to retain their Welsh connections and identity, but for recruitment and retention. From the Robertson barracks to Cardiff is a five-hour car journey and a six-hour journey by rail via London, which no doubt has an effect on recruitment and retention of Welsh personnel. This is also about defence visibility; clustering our troops in certain areas means that fewer people are able to see them in action.

Will the Minister give an assurance that, when moving the Welsh dragoon guards from Norfolk in future, the Government will consider moving them to Wales and working with the Welsh Government, ensuring that the next base for the Welsh cavalry is in Wales?