Fusiliers heckle defence secretary Philip Hammond at Conservative Party conference (From Bury Times)
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Fusiliers heckle defence secretary Philip Hammond at Conservative Party conference
DEFENCE Secretary Philip Hammond was heckled during his speech today by a retired army colonel who called him a disgrace for cut backs to his former regiment.
Colonel Ian Brazier interrupted Mr Hammond's speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester to claim the Ministry of Defence had betrayed members of the Royal Fusiliers by cutting the regiment back.
Mr Hammond promised to speak to the retired soldier, a Conservative party member, before he was ushered out of the hall by security guards.
Interrupting Mr Hammond's speech in the main hall, retired Colonel Brazier said: "Tell the truth about the disbandment of the Fusiliers.
"I write you letters, you don't respond. The public must know the truth - the Fusiliers are loyal soldiers, you have betrayed them.
"Sir, you need to be looking at defence. This is denial, not defence. You're a disgrace."
Speaking outside the main hall to reporters, Col Brazier, chairman of the Fusiliers Association, said he was speaking on "behalf of all retired fusiliers".
He was accompanied by Captain Joe Eastwood, aged 76, from Cambridge, when he interrupted Mr Hammond.
Col Brazier, aged 59, added: "I am very angry about the fact the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF), is to be disbanded.
"We were not in the disbandment plan. We were substituted at the last minute, for reasons we have yet to be told.
"Freedom of Information requests have been denied, written requests have been denied because it is embarrassing.
"Why? Because 2RRF was the best recruited infantry battalion in the army at the moment they were selected to be split up, made redundant and penny-packeted in to less well-manned regiments.
"Twenty-six battalions in the army are less well-manned than 2RRF - that is a disgracefully bad piece of management and if this is how our defence forces are managed then we have serious questions to ask of our minister.
"The MoD are not answering our questions, it (the process) has not been open and therefore I am left with no choice.
"I have asked, I have written, I have petitioned - I have been denied, it has been denied evaded and avoided and yes I am angry.
"My soldiers, the people I had the honour to serve with have been betrayed.
"We cannot operate as an armed force, when we are talking about being the force largest defence budget.
"After these cuts, we will be the 31st largest in the world. It won't be a defence force, it will be incapable of producing anything like the reach which the minister seems to think it can have."
Col Brazier added: "It's not just about reviews and money. I know Mr Hammond is a banker and he obviously behaves like one.
"What he has to do is look at the need. Of course there have to be cuts but make them rational, make them about manning, make them about capability, make them about recruiting."
He said Mr Hammond should now be replaced as defence secretary by somebody "who knows what they are doing".
Today's row is not the first time a defence minister has clashed with ex-servicemen from the regiment.
In December, Defence Minister Andrew Robathan apparently tried to get former members of the regiment kicked out of the commons public gallery during a three-hour debate, claiming they were making too much noise.
He later denied the claim, saying he had the "greatest respect for ex-service personnel".
The regiment is being disbanded as part of the government's Army 2020 strategy, which is reducing army strength from 102,000 to 82,000.
Mr Hammond said the decision was made by the army.
"If they'd stayed in the hall a bit longer they would have heard the case that I was building in my speech for why we have to invest in the new capabilities we need to defend Britain," he told Sky News.
"While we all cherish our military traditions - and we have great regiments with proud histories - we have to reduce the size of our conventional armed forces as we are investing for example in new cyber.
"The army has made the decision about how it needs to restructure to be able to defend Britain in the future with a smaller army than we've had in the past.
"These two RRF guys - the campaign's been long running - they know very well the point that we are making."
Col Brazier said he was not interested in meeting the defence secretary. The ex-serviceman added that if Mr Hammond believes what he says then he is not fit to do his job.
He said: "The contempt with which our questions and Freedom of Information responses have been given has made it evidently clear that we are of little or no interest and considered to be a mere irritant rather than anyone to be discussed or spoken with.
"I don't think we have anything to say, if Mr Hammond believes what he professes to believe then frankly I don't think he's fit to be doing the job he's in."
Both men said they hoped to remain Conservative Party members and Col Brazier said thousands of the party's rank-and-file would support what they are doing.
"There are thousands of Conservatives who agree with exactly what we are doing and I'm sorry if Mr Hammond finds that embarrassing," he said.
"It's not half as embarrassing as it is for me looking in the faces of some of our young soldiers who have come back from Afghanistan to be told that they are redundant or they are going to be posted to regiments they've never heard of to support them."
Murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby belonged to the same regiment and Col Brazier said it was "incredibly insensitive" of the government to disband it. But he said the regiment, started in 1674, belonged to thousands of soldiers and people around the country.
He said: "I think it's incredibly insensitive of the government in common-sense political terms to be disbanding Lee Rigby's battalion.
"But it's not Lee Rigby's battalion - it's our battalion, thousands of soldiers.
"Your battalion because if you live in Manchester or Birmingham we've been recruiting there for 300 years. We're not some passing fantasy - 1674 our regiment started proudly and has served its country through generation after generation."
Both Col Brazier and Cpt Eastwood claimed the will of parliament was being ignored as MPs voted against closing 2RRF in a House of Commons debate last year.
He said: "I understand the requirement for non-binding votes but there is a democratic deficit. If parliament makes a statement about what it wishes to occur in a democracy, the government owe a duty to respond to it."
Cpt Eastwood said he was concerned about replacing "crack soldiers" with reservists.
He said: "I've had reservists under my command and they are very, very good, but they are not a seven-day-a-week regular soldier.
"They need to be highly trained, they are technologists these soldiers, they are not just grunts any more. They've got to be very, very sharp cookies and you can't do that part-time and yet this is what Mr Hammond is going to replace this crack regiment with."
Both men agreed there would have been no need to protest if Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.
Cpt Eastwood said: "She would not have got rid of her soldiers, no way, absolutely no way. And that was the best part of that wasn't it, that glowing tribute to actual reality - a woman who cared about the nation and cared about how it was looked after. Defence first - pound notes will not keep you safe, they will not."
Col Brazier added: "If this is the legacy we celebrated in the opening film (paying tribute to Thatcher) then there are some very embarrassing gaps."
Col Brazier also expressed concerns over reservists who have 26 days' training a year replacing full-time soldiers.
He said: "That's not training, that's just preparing for sacrifice.
"It is a deeply challenging, highly difficult task and you can't leave that to people no matter how well motivated as a part-time occupation.
"Would you like to do part-time brain surgery as well? It is insane. It's a very unstable world at the moment and if we think that we need the smallest defence in Europe to protect our interests then obviously I've missed something somewhere."
An army spokesman said: "We have been clear that the regular army is becoming smaller and over a year ago we also announced changes to its structure so it is more reflective of the complex global situation.
"These changes were led by the army, who took account of a number of criteria to determine which Infantry battalions would be withdrawn, to ensure the army is more adaptable to future challenges.
"To suggest decisions were taken on recruitment performance alone is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Army's process."
As part of the Army 2020 programme, the government announced in July further details to restructuring plans to reduce regular numbers to 82,000.
One of the criteria for the restructuring was to ensure no regiment lost more than one battalion.
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