§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boswell.]2.31 pm
§ Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)
I declare an interest at the outset as a reserve officer in the Life Guards who has in the past served in both the service regiment and the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment. I am delighted that you are in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I know of your family connections with the Army.
I am grateful for the opportunity to address the subject of military ceremonial duties. It is important both in itself and as a case study of what I believe to be the ill-thought-out implications of "Options for Change". A Friday Adjournment debate, when most hon. Members are in their constituencies, is never a well-attended occasion, but I especially welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and others. Many more hon. Members have sent messages of support.
It was Harold Macmillan who once wisely advised that any Government took on the National Union of Mineworkers or the Brigade of Guards at their peril. Just over a fortnight ago, the Government succeeded in taking on not one but both, and—in defiance of all military principles—opened two fronts on the same day The debate on the pit closures conveniently disguised the fact that dramatic reductions in the Household Division were being confirmed by means of a written answer. The House has thus had no opportunity until now to consider the matter.
For some 18 months, discussions on what I believe to have been a well-informed basis have been taking place with successive Secretaries of State for Defence, and with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He will know that a group of us—I should like my remarks to be associated with our former colleagues, Robert Boscawen and Sir Charles Morrison—also took our case to our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The strength of our arguments was recognised, but I submit that no adequate answer—let alone any significant concession—has emerged. I make an exception for the welcome retention of the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London.
In his typically generous way, my right hon. Friend —along with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence—has apologised to me and, by implication, to the whole House, for failing to give proper notice of the decision. I do not wish to dwell on the issue, but it was indeed curious that the military seems to know more about the proceedings of this House than hon. Members do, despite numerous inquiries to the Ministry of Defence and to business managers.
At the risk of sounding trite, let me say that the Government's decisions on the two issues ensured that the miners went on the march, but put in grave doubt the Household Division's ability to do so in a way that is compatible with its incomparable history, standards and reputation. I wish to sketch my grave reservations, the legitimacy of which can be supported by statistics in my possession. I shall try not to bog the House down in a 'mass of figures, however, as those might obscure fundamental arguments. I also wish to ensure that my right hon. Friend has an opportunity to reply.
596 The overriding aim of the Household Division is to produce first-class operational soldiers who also provide the finest ceremonial in the world—a unique dual role. The fact that they have been able to do so for centuries is a tribute to the skill and dedication of officers, NCOs, guardsmen and troopers to uphold standards that have long been forsaken elsewhere. Their ability to continue these commitments is, I submit, being severely undermined by the Government's proposals.
There are two component parts to the problem, the Foot Guards and the Household Cavalry, which I put in the context of the need to reduce the Army in this changed, but still highly unstable, world and the inevitable pressure of the public expenditure round. The Foot Guards are to be reduced from eight to five battalions—a cut substantially larger, in percentage terms, than those in the infantry as a whole. The House should not forget that the Household Division in London and elsewhere not only supports the monarchy but shows off this country to its best advantage in terms of prestige and excellence.
The ceremonial duties, with their colour and music, are carried out supremely well. The troops, in a brilliantly British way, act as a reserve force. They are financially self-supporting, by virtue of the tourist industry. They could be used at any time to give security to the capital and to maintain public order. No more efficient or cost-effective set-up is conceivable. What is that very special institution now being required to do? It is being required to accept duties which range from the Queen's birthday parade, through state visits, guards of honour, the Cenotaph parade, the State Opening, and so on, which may mean Foot Guard battalions being based in London district for eight to 10 years as against the present maximum of around five years, which is already considered unacceptable. That period of eight to 10 years will be interrupted only by six months of unaccompanied emergency tours to Northern Ireland.
What sort of future does that offer to soldiers and their families in terms of career progression and quality of life? I cannot see a great rush to take on or to maintain such daunting and demanding duties. Already officers and men of the Foot Guards and the Household Division generally—the very people whom they least want to lose—are applying for redundancy.
The Government tell us that nobody will notice that the birthday parade has been cut from eight to six guards. The precedent of the Falklands campaign is prayed in aid. I suggest that at that time the country's thoughts were concentrated at least as much on the Foot Guards fighting far afield, as on a reduced parade. It may suit the Government to settle on a six-guard parade, but it will soon become clear that that is the maximum.
Where shall we obtain extra fighting soldiers, if the Army is stripped to a skeleton? The Foot Guards are not up to strength now and rumours of imminent recruit capping abound. Initially what the Secretary of State describes as "discretionary commitments"—by this curious term I imagine that he meant the deployment of troops in the Gulf and Bosnia, let alone other unforeseen emergencies—will have implications for the Foot Guards, on top of the difficulties of fulfilling our commitments in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. The very existence of the birthday parade as a proper spectacle worthy of the monarch must be put in doubt.
As for the position of the Household Cavalry, historically it is made up of two regiments——the Life 597 Guards and the Blues and Royals. Powerful though the arguments are over the Foot Guards, the Household Cavalry's problems are much more acute. Nearly three weeks ago the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals underwent the most extraordinary process—a so-called "union", by which two service regiments were brought together but still wearing separate cap badges.
In addition to its duties as an armoured reconnaissance regiment, it will be expected to find the Mounted Regiment in London not from two service regiments but from one. In other words, there will be the same commitment but from a different base. It will also be expected to continue to carry out ceremonial duties of a highly sophisticated kind from that reduced base. No other formula would be so certain a guarantee of damaged career prospects, disillusion and overstretch.
Neither my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces nor I doubts the willingness of the Household Division as a whole to make the proposal work —that is its ethos. However, serving soldiers are in a peculiarly inhibited position from which to express their strong doubts as to the medium-term and long-term sustainability of the plan, especially as the initial reorganisation would mask the problem for a while. Soldiers cannot speak up for themselves if they consider the Government's plan unworkable. They will continue to struggle to make it work, but the mathematics prove that it will not.
The most infuriating aspect for the Household Cavalry is that the solution is instantly available. There is a perceived need for a third regular recce regiment for the rapid reaction corps. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that if "union" is to be more than clever semantics and there is a true distinction between it and "amalgamation" either the Life Guards or the Blues and Royals could take on that role.
I know that the Foot Guards are grateful for their increment, and the Household Cavalry for its training wing, albeit both look better on paper than in practice, but those are not enough.
My right hon. Friend has it in his power to rectify the situation, and I wish to give him time to reply specifically to what I have said rather than to regurgitate old and, I suggest, discredited arguments. I wish to press him on the following three points, which his long experience as Minister of State for the Armed Forces will enable him to answer.
First, will my right hon. Friend confirm that reservations and caveats have been expressed in many of the most experienced quarters both through the chain of command and through other channels?
Question number two is: will my right hon. Friend confirm that an undertaking has been given that no additional pressure will be brought to bear on the Household Division? As a rider to that question, will he further confirm that never again will there be more than two state visits a year?
The third and most important question is: will my right hon. Friend confirm on the record that a verbal undertaking has been given both by the Prime Minister and by the Secretary of State for Defence that the proposals for the Household Division are for a trial period only, and that if the reductions prove unworkable the whole situation will be reviewed?
598 Without those assurances I believe that what has been admitted to be a highly theoretical exercise will have to be rethought immediately, before it is too late to retrieve the situation. Only in that way can the country continue to maintain the military expertise and excellence for which it is so widely respected throughout the world.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) for allowing me a moment or two to take part in the debate. I agree with every word of his argument.
The House knows that we do not have to have ceremonial duties in London if the Government of the day think it a bad idea. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to abandon them, and if we are to have them we must ensure that those who carry them out are given the opportunity and the conditions in which to do so without appalling strain being put upon them. If they are not, the present state of affairs cannot survive long.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to give us two assurances when he replies to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon. The first is that if the situation that the Government have imposed on the Household Division does not work, it will be kept under careful review and changes will be made if that proves necessary. Secondly—again I echo what my hon. Friend has said—will my right hon. Friend ensure that no additional pressures are brought to bear upon soldiers who already face a very difficult and demanding task in London? If he cannot give those assurances, the new arrangements will remain extremely unsatisfactory and the Government should not countenance them.
Is it really the case that the Foot Guard battalions will be kept in London for up to eight years? If so, I cannot believe that that arrangement can last for long.
The public like ceremonial duties; they appreciate them. There is no doubt that the amount of tourism that is attracted by those ceremonial duties means that they represent one part of the armed forces that clearly pays for itself. Those duties are not, of course, essential to the defence of Britain, but I believe that if they are to be undertaken, they must be done well. My right hon. Friend owes it to those who undertake those duties now and those who will undertake them in the future to ensure that the new arrangements work. Everyone concerned wants to make them work, but I doubt whether they can—I hope that I am wrong.
If those arrangements do not work I urge the Government to give us an assurance that this matter will be kept under review. I also urge them to ensure that no undue strain is put on the Foot Guard battalions or on the Household Cavalry in undertaking the task that they have been given in the difficult conditions set by the Government.
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) on securing this debate. I know that he takes a great interest in this matter. I also know that my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend 599 the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) have been to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to discuss their concerns at some length.
Hon. Members will be aware of the background to the Army restructuring, which is now under way and I do not wish to dwell unduly on that. As part of the restructuring it was decided that the Foot Guards should reduce, as my hon. Friend has already said, from eight battalions to five; and that the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, who already work together in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, should unite into a single regiment to be known as the Household Cavalry Regiment, while retaining their individual indentities.
Clearly, with the reductions, the dismounted public duties undertaken by the Foot Guards had to be tailored to the new situation. To this end, an interdepartmental working group was set up to consider how reductions in the public duties commitment could be achieved without adversely affecting the conduct of ceremonial or the security of the royal family. The royal household, the Home Office, the Metropolitan police, and the Department of the Environment—supported by the Historic Royal Palaces Agency—were all involved in the process. As I announced to the House in a written answer on 21 October, a number of measures were identified by the working group which will reduce requirements for the employment of Foot Guards on public duties while maintaining essential security and appropriate ceremonial duties. I reported that Her Majesty the Queen had graciously agreed to the measures and that they will be implemented between now and 1994. I also placed in the Library of the House a document providing full details of the changes.
These changes are sufficient to achieve the greater part of the target reduction in Foot Guards manpower effort. Bearing in mind, however, that one of the three battalions to be based in London in the future will often be deployed in Northern Ireland or on a short overseas tour, each of the three London-based battalions will, as I have announced, be supplemented by a public duties increment of about 100 guardsmen, who will remain in London when a battalion is temporarily deployed elsewhere.
I want the House to understand that the main objectives and features of dismounted public duties will be largely unaffected by these measures. In most cases, the changes will only be noticeable to the more expert onlooker. I certainly do not believe that there is cause for alarm, and if there was concern previously, it ought to have been allayed by the measures that have been announced.
I should like, if I may, to consider briefly mounted public duties, where, as I stated in a written answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West on 26 October, there is to be no change. The Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, as part of the new Household Cavalry Regiment, will continue to consist of one squadron from each cap badge, and its duties will continue as they are now.
I ought also to make mention of the Royal Horse Artillery who will continue, as now, to fire ceremonial salutes at state occasions, and to take over the Queen's Life Guard when the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment is on annual training camp.
It has been argued in some quarters that the Household Division should somehow have been exempt from the restructuring process. I think that most hon. Members will 600 agree that that would have been wrong and unfair to the other arms and corps that were required to make changes. I fail to understand how it would have been possible for the Government to have amalgamated a number of different infantry regiments going back a long way while the Foot Guards kept its second battalion. The Grenadiers, Scots and Coldstream Guards have not.
That being so, the challenge was to come up with a package of measures that enabled the required reductions to be made with minimum impact, both on the level of public duties and on the careers of the individual soldiers and officers of the Household Division. I am confident that the measures I have announced meet that challenge.
A particular concern expressed by my hon. Friend relates to commitments and overstretch. It is clearly in no one's interests to place the Foot Guards in a position where they cannot meet their commitments without an unreasonable amount of disruption. I assure the House that it was our firm intention that the reorganisation would not impose undue strain on the Foot Guards, nor be too tight.
I do not deny that, with the reduced number of Foot Guards battalions, there will be some pressures. But I am confident that, with the reductions in the scale of dismounted public duties to which I have referred, together with the public duties increment of requisite size and the achievement of full manning, they will be able successfully to carry out their tasks.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
The Minister referred to the public duties increment. If someone is expected to spend many more years in public duties, there is no way for that person to become a good operational soldier at the same time. The Household Division has a history of providing elite soldiers who have done well in battle. They cannot do that if they do nothing but drill.
§ Mr. Hamilton
It is not a question of their doing nothing but drill. For those going on the Northern Ireland roulement, there is an extensive period of training before duties start. I accept that the Household Division has had extremely high standards in Northern Ireland and I am sure that that will continue to be the case. It is wrong to give the impression that they come straight from doing drill to carrying out tasks in Northern Ireland. That is not the case and, as I have explained, there is an extensive training programme first.
I assure the House that the Household Division has been thoroughly consulted throughout. That covers the point that was raised about reservations and caveats through the chain of command. The chain of command has been consulted extensively and some of the concerns that have been raised have been met, for instance with the increase in the increment, which was originally intended to be at a somewhat lower level.
We have been told by the chain of command that this will work and that it is more than prepared to ensure that it will. If my hon. Friend is telling me that the chain of command has other reservations, I must say that those reservations are not coming to me. In the circumstances, they should come to me; people should not be saying that the measures will not work when they are telling the chain of command that they will.
§ Dr. Goodson-Wickes
I imagine that my right hon. Friend is speaking from an entirely up-to-date position. 601 Will he undertake that if representations reach him following today's debate, he will fully consider them and discuss their implications with interested parties?
§ Mr. Hamilton
At this stage we are moving on—this bears on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon about a trial period—and are not talking in terms of a trial period. I am also answering the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West when I say that we shall keep the matter under careful review. If at some stage it is found not to be working, we are not so inflexible as not to try to make it work better.
The Army is in a constant state of change and nothing that happens at any stage is necessarily set in concrete and perpetuity. Much consultation has gone into the matter and we are confident that the system will work. If at some stage we find that it is not working as we anticipated, we shall look at it again.
I mention full manning because I know that it is of interest to hon. Members and, clearly, it is an important factor in making the changes workable. On current manning forecasts for the Army as a whole, we are confident that full manning is achievable: fewer recruits being required for a smaller Army. There is no reason to suppose that the Foot Guards will not benefit from that as much as the other arms and corps. If, however, circumstances were to prove that we had been over-confident in our predictions, we would look again. But at the moment we judge that it is right to press ahead.
I wish to take up the point about manning levels and the Foot Guards. They will be affected by the capping of recruiting levels, which is only sensible if we are moving towards the amalgamation of battalions. We do not want them at full strength at the time when they are amalgamated. I therefore imagine that the numbers in those regiments that are being amalgamated are being reduced.
I know that the structure of the new Household Cavalry Regiment has caused some concern. It has even been suggested that its structure is extraordinary and suspect. While it is certainly true that the union is unlike any of the other amalgamations that are taking place, in that the two former regiments will retain their separate identities, that does not make it suspect or unworkable. The two regiments have shown that they can successfully work together in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, and there is no reason why that same spirit cannot be carried through to the new combined Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. Those who have the interests of the regiments at heart will, I am sure, seek to make the new arrangements work.
I should like to conclude by stating some general principles that underlie this whole debate.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
Before my right hon. Friend concludes, will he assure those like me who fear that, having gone through that painful "Options for Change" exercise, we shall be rapidly overtaken by further defence cuts and reductions in manpower for the British Army?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I wish that I could give my hon. Friend all the undertakings that he wants. My hon. Friend will have to wait until we hear the announcement next week to 602 see how it affects defence. Indeed, we shall have to see what the position is. I share many of his concerns. The Army is certainly under a lot of pressure at the moment and I have always made it clear that if the Army were involved in long-term commitments that were more than we could meet with our existing levels, we should have to look at the matter again. That position has not changed. So I accept that, if we are to have very long-term commitments in Yugoslavia and if the increased numbers in Northern Ireland become a permanent feature, we shall have to see how all that works out.
§ Dr. Goodson-Wickes
My right hon. Friend has kindly dealt with two of the questions that I raised, but he has not answered the one about additional pressure on the Household Division; nor has he answered my question about the number of state visits a year.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I shall come to that. On additional pressures, it is difficult to give my hon. Friend carte blanche that nothing will be asked of the Foot Guards beyond what they are doing now. We do not intend to heap other long-term commitments on to them in terms of public duties and what they are doing at the moment.
On the question of two state visits a year, that is certainly our long-term plan, but there is a plan to have three next year. Beyond then, we are working on the assumption that there will be two.
The twin roles of the Household Division are to be first-class operational soldiers, and to provide the finest military ceremonial in the world. That is not in dispute. The exacting nature and demands of ceremonial are well appreciated by the Army. The quality of the Household Division's ceremonial in London derives from specific training, from tradition, and from those qualities that military discipline confer. Although resources are limited, and what we can achieve has to be a compromise with the best that is attainable in the circumstances, I am confident that our ceremonial will continue to be second to none.
I would caution the House against taking an overly pessimistic view of the consequences of the restructuring. There will undoubtedly be some difficulties arising from the reduced pool from which soldiers may be drawn for mounted training; and some loss of flexibility with the reduction from eight to five battalions of Foot Guards. We do not believe, however, that there are any insurmountable problems ahead.
It is true that the achievement of full manning is important to the success of the restructuring, both here and elsewhere. The suggestion, however, that if that is not absolutely achieved then the whole situation will unravel is unduly alarmist. We are, as I have explained, confident that something approaching full manning is achievable.
As far as the Household Cavalry is concerned, we do accept that some action is needed to increase proportionally the number of soldiers that are mounted trained, and to that end, we are establishing a training wing at Windsor.
As for the Foot Guards, we do not accept that the loss of three battalions will make it impossible to maintain a reasonable balance between ceremonial and operational duties. We are concerned that dismounted public duties should continue to be carried out in a fitting matter. We have therefore looked very carefully at the balance of tasking and the availability of manpower. We are satisfied that the numbers available to the Household Division should be sufficient and that the Army is intent on making 603 the new arrangements work. As Ministers have said on more than one occasion when faced with scepticism about the adequacy of Army resources, we are quite ready to look again at particular issues if practical experience demonstrates the need to do so. I do not believe that that is likely in the case of dismounted public duties.
I do not see a need to depart from the agreed restructuring arrangements that were announced to the 604 House on 21 October. The situation will, however, be kept under review. If it became clear that remedial measures were required, I can assure the House that action would be taken.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.