Calls for UK Defence Secretary to clarify Scottish cuts

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By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP has demanded clarity from the Ministry of Defence over what the established strength of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRS) will now be, as confusion continues over the number of ‘boots on the ground’ following the announcement of Army cuts this week.

SNP Westminster leader and Defence spokesperson Angus Robertson MP also called for confirmation of whether the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion RRS – which is being reduced to Public Duties Company status – is to effectively being disbanded following comments by the Defence Secretary that it would be made up of approximately 150 personnel drawn from the other four RRS units on a rotating basis.

Reports suggest that the established strength of the other four RRS units will be about 450 each – well below the anticipated 600 strength of their England-based equivalents.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary question from SNP MP Pete Wishart revealed that the reduced size of Scotland’s individual infantry units mean service personnel are now easily outnumbered by the MoD’s own ‘super-battalion’ of 700 press officers.  

In response to Mr Wishart’s question, Conservative MP Andrew Robathan, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, said that the armed forces employ 108 Press Officers, 39 ‘Internal Communications Officers’, 334 ‘External Communications Officers’, 62 ‘Communications Strategy Officers’, plus an additional 62 employed in other press and communications roles. 

In addition to the armed services personnel, the MoD also employs a further 43 press officers and communications staff outwith the armed services.   

Mr Robathan added that the number of MoD staff employed in press and communications roles had been cut by almost 10% since 2010.

However, the SNP claim that Scotland is being disproportionately affected by the cuts.  The Conservative former Defence Secretary Liam conceded this point in June 2011, before being forced to resign amidst allegations of inappropriate conduct while in office.  Speaking to the Scottish Select Committee, Dr Fox said:

“…between 2000 and 2010, the total reduction [in service jobs] was 11.6% but the reduction in Scotland was 27.9%, so over the decade there were bigger reductions made in personnel as a proportion than in other parts of the UK.”

A few weeks later, Dr Fox committed the UK Government to stationing up to 7000 troops, returning from Germany, in Scotland, saying:

“It is impossible to give an exact number, but I would imagine that between 6,500 and 7,000, or something of that order, of the 20,000 personnel we currently have in Germany will be coming back to the multi-role brigades in Scotland.  The precise number and lay-down will be subject to the plans that the Army will bring forward in the months and years ahead, assuming of course that we have the agreement of the local authorities and the Scottish Government.”   

However it now appears that this promise will not be kept, and Scotland may now be home to less than 2,000 troops.  The confusion over the MoD’s plans has created uncertainty in the communities whose local economies had already been hit by the closure of RAF bases.  

Westminster’s broken promise will increase speculation, already widespread, that the UK Government is deliberately stripping Scotland of assets in the run-up to the independence referendum.  

Despite the continuing cuts to Scotland’s historic regiments, while in Opposition, the Conservatives pledged that they would reverse the Scottish regiment cuts being planned by the then Labour Government.  Speaking in October 2004, the former Conservative Shadow Scottish Secretary Peter Duncan said:  

“I pledge that a Conservative government will reverse any Scottish regiment cuts made by Hoon, Brown and Blair.  We will reinstate six distinct Scottish regiments.  All Labour offers is a cap badge and a war memorial.  We will save the Scottish six.”

The Tories’ broken promise on Scottish regiments has led the SNP to claim that none of the Westminster parties can be trusted with defending Scotland’s defence interests.

Commenting, Mr Robertson said:

“After months of uncertainty, our service personnel and defence communities deserve clarity from the UK Government over what these further cuts mean.

“Philip Hammond must make clear what the established strength, that is boots on the ground, will be for the individual units that make up the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

“We also need answers on the future of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion.  While it is understood that the unit will now be reduced to a company status – the Defence Secretary has confused matters with comments that its strength will be drawn from other units on a rotating basis – and not from existing personnel.

“Having already cut military personnel numbers in Scotland by 27 per cent over recent years, compared to 11 per cent across the UK as a whole, these further cuts again hit Scotland disproportionately.

“While the retention of cap badges was welcome, cuts to capabilities leave Scotland with a smaller infantry than that of the Irish Republic.  And infantry units are now easily outnumbered by the super-battalion of almost 700 MoD press officers.

“With the Tories having broken their promises to restore Scotland’s six infantry regiments it is clear that nobody can trust a word Westminster say on defence.

“At a time when Westminster politicians are busy scaremongering over Scotland’s defence prospects, decisions like this show exactly why Scotland would be better off making defence decisions ourselves and not leaving it to London.”