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Armed Forces (Recruiting)

Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

12.33 a.m.

The subject of recruiting has exercised the House of Commons for many years. As we remember from history, there has always been difficulty in persuading young men to come forward for the various Armed Services. In the past we have had to resort to press gangs, recruiting sergeants and all the rest to try to make young men take the Queen's shilling.

We have moved from those rather extraordinary times to something more spohisticated in recruiting terms in that we try to persuade, by all means available to us, those we should like to see in our Armed Services. Yet clearly as Britain's rôle in the world has changed, so the opportunity available for young men—and nowadays for young women—to join the Armed Services as a way of seeing the world also has changed. Thus, the task of those who seek to keep up the numbers of our Armed Forces is entirely different. They have to find the essential element that attracts young people to the Services and have to play on certain themes to persuade young people to come forward. Yet I suggest that whereas that is what they should be doing, they have not defined their task clearly or brought to their assistance many of the aids used by industry and commerce.

Therefore, when I saw in the Supplementary Estimate a further £100,000 for publicity and recruiting services over and above the £1,720,000 in the Estimate, I felt that this was an opportunity to ask the Minister if he would answer some questions about the general subject of recruiting. I have taken an interest in this subject for six or nine months, and therefore some of what I want to say is the result of my not very deep research.

First, we are spending about £6½ million on Service recruiting, advertising and promotion. But "promotion" is an ill-defined word, and if the hon. Gentleman could help me to understand exactly what comes under it, I should be grateful. For this expenditure in 1973–74, we obtained 2,237 officers recruits and 30,196 Service men and women. In other words, for the expenditure of £197·30, we obtained one recruit, never mind the rank, Service or sex. That is our base figure for the debate.

When we break it down, however, we discover that in advertising expenditure it cost about £863·80 to obtain a Royal Navy or Royal Marine officer, £466·20 to obtain an Army officer, and £618·60 to get a Royal Air Force officer. One might say that Army officer recruiting is apparently the cheapest form of officer advertising recruiting we have.

In other-rank terms, a sailor cost £123·90, a soldier £99, and an airman £116·70. I emphasise that these are the advertising figures. Therefore, in the recruiting of other ranks, we come up with an average figure of £100 per new other-rank recruit.

That may not seem in these days of inflation particularly high, yet when I put it to someone in civilian life, he said, "A secretary would cost you that." I countered with the argument that, whereas industry may have to recruit a single person for a single job, we are here talking about recruiting sailors for the Royal Navy, soldiers for the Army and airmen for the RAF, and therefore we cannot use the argument that one has to have a particular advertisement for everyone one gets. So the figure of £100 for every other rank recruit, in my submission, is quite high, and I hope to be able to persuade the hon. Gentleman that it is actually even greater than I have so far suggested. Indeed, it is on this question that what I want to say turns.

If we have to have a Supplementary Estimate and a debate on this Bill to discover why extra money is required, it is equally fair to ask what cost-benefit analysis has been carried out by the Ministry into expenditure on recruiting and whether the hon. Gentleman really thinks that the British taxpayer is getting value for money. Does he know how every pound is being used? Is he satisfied that every pound is achieving a particular target? Does he share with me the thought that recruiting is an extraordinarily haphazard process—so haphazard that no one can be in any way specific about what any piece of promotion achieves?

For instance, we cannot divorce the figure of £6½ million for advertising in 1973–74 from the cost of what are now called career information offices but which used to be called recruiting offices, of which there are no fewer than 295 throughout the country. Those 295 career information offices and the many people staffing them are also part of the recruiting drive.

Was the answer given to me by the Minister of State in April last year, that there were 596 civilian personnel staffing these offices, correct—or was the answer given to me on 7th November, that the number of civilian personnel was 396, correct? Whether the number is 596 or 396, there is this large number of civilian personnel employed. There are also 1,500 Service personnel manning these career information offices.

The career information offices are filled with models of guns, and all the paraphernalia of defence. There are glossy magazines, posters, and books, claiming that one Service is better than any of the others. In short, the offices are full of material which can be described under the one word "promotion".

Next, what is the cost of upkeep of these offices? Seventy-eight of them are freehold. How valuable are the freeholds? Two hundred and seventeen are leaseholds. When do the leases fall in? Will the Minister confirm that the cost of running the offices is £5½ million? So, instead of talking about £6½ million for recruiting advertising, we are really talking about a figure of £12 million. That is a 1973–74 figure. I wonder what it is today with the effects of inflation.

Obtaining 32,430 recruits in the course of 1973–74 from 295 recruiting offices thus works out at 109 recruits per office, which means that we are getting two recruits per week per office. This is a fairly expensive way of recruiting young men and women for the services. The Minister must wonder with me whether we are getting value for money from these offices when the output from each office is only two recruits a week.

Added to the recruiting offices and advertising is the cost of all the Service displays which are used to attract people. There are special parades and displays at agricultural shows. There is "beating retreat". There are mobile exhibitions. There are small mobile recruiting offices at such places as the Battle of Britain shows and the Farnborough Air Show. There are open days on warships. I suppose one might even say that there is the Royal Tournament.

What is the cost of all those promotions? When that cost is added to the cost of the recruiting offices and the advertising expenditure, are we talking about a figure of £12 million? If not, what is the figure. If it is £12 million, it means that it costs us on average well over £200 to get an other-rank recruit. That is a lot to pay to recruit a young sailor, soldier or airman. If we add the officers, my figure of £197·30 rises to over £400. That too seems an excessive figure for what we are achieving.

It may be that I am being very unfair. Perhaps the task of recruiting is incredibly difficult and if only I understood the problem better I should not be making this speech. But I have the feeling, backed by fact, that what I am saying would be substantiated in many career information offices.

I recall a visit which I paid to the recruit selection centre at Sutton Cold-field last August. I asked the staff from where the recruits came. Were they attracted by the advertising—"The Professionals", which I think is the Army other-rank advertising concept; or had their fathers been in the Army? Had they walked past the recruiting office and thought, "Gosh, that is a super life. I shall join"? The staff said that they had not the faintest idea which magnet brought young people into the Services. That seems to provide fairly powerful evidence that what I am saying bears more than a grain of truth.

However, I wish to go beyond the question of what the recruitment selection centre tells me and to use my own judgment. I thought that perhaps the best way to do this was to look through four national newspapers last week to see what sort of recruiting advertising was being carried. I selected the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Sun. I chose them in alphabetical order so that no one should think that I had any preference. It made fascinating reading, for hardly a day goes by without each of the Services vying with another for new recruits.

It is interesting to read the arguments which are put forward in those advertisements to attract recruits. I am not in advertising professionally, though I have taken some interest in the subject, but I gather that there is one phrase which is used by advertising companies when they consider a new client and how they should approach his problems. It is to discover the "unique selling proposition" which applies to the product they are being asked to advertise—in short, USP. When I look at the Service advertisements, I feel that most of the advertising agencies—and I remind the Minister that there are seven involved in Service recruiting—have not discovered what the USP is. They do not know what they should be advertising. Therefore, there is an extraordinary hit-and-miss approach.

I wish to carry the matter further by quoting some of the headline slogans, but at the moment I want to stick to this concept because it seems to me that one of the agencies has got it right. I do not know the name of the company, but it is the one which does the advertising for Army officers. Earlier I pointed out that we get Army officers more cheaply in advertising terms than either Royal Navy officers or Royal Air Force officers. Perhaps my judgment is supported by my eyes when I look at that advertisement, for it seemed to have got hold of a USP concept. When we had an Empire, or even the bases at Cyprus or Hong Kong or Singapore, they were attractions to offer Service men. Now we have a different, more rugged situation, in which our Services will be less attractive from the point of view of a lot of free travel and will demand from those who join them a much greater appreciation of what it means to be a soldier, an airman or a sailor today.

As I have said, I read the advertisements which appeared between 13th January and 18th January in four national newspapers and found that the Royal Navy advertisers, who were essentially advertising for other ranks, told me that I could have "a secure future", and that if I wanted "a great career and was between the ages of 17 and 20½" I should be in the Royal Navy. I was told that I could "swap my job for a career", and that "if it was easy I would probably not be interested". That was an advertisement for helicopters pilots. As I read the slogans I wondered why they applied only to the Royal Navy rather than to a dozen other professions.

For instance, one of the Royal Navy advertisements spoke of security and said one could earn over £2,970 at 21. It was not bad, but it did not have much to do with being in the Royal Navy.

The Royal fleet auxiliary took a slightly different angle—it was the engineer officer cadetship that set you apart. I suppose that that is a rather elitist concept. I wonder whether it appeals to the Minister.

Then there were the other charming advertisements, used by the Army and Navy, inviting people to write for either a "Free Book of The Facts." I suppose that when one has no other ideas a "Free Book of The Facts" will do.

On 14th January an advertisement for Army officers appeared in the Daily Express under the heading "Are you prepared to die for them". I thought that the copywriter responsible for that advertisement had thought seriously about the USP of the Army and had come up with an advertisement which, while it required a certain amount of reading, seemed to put the Army in its contemporary setting and asked the questions that should be asked of a young person who is serious about doing something for his country. However, there was one sentence in the copy which, if it did not stick out, somehow rang a familiar bell. It said:
"By laying such stress on the dangers of an Army officer's life it is not our intention to give anyone schoolboyish thrills. It just seems more honest at the present time than showing photos of cheery young men water-ski-ing or tinkering with advanced electronics."
On Monday, 13th January in the Daily Mirror an R.A.F. advertisement, showed—guess what?—a young man water-ski-ing, while a naval advertisement showed a young man tinkering with electronics. I found myself wondering whether these advertisements illustrated a lack of Service recruiting co-ordination or whether the advertising agents were having a go at each other. Clearly someone is out of step with someone else, or perhaps the Army is more serious about its task than either the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force.

The Royal Air Force advertising slogans read "A better life in the RAF", "It is easy to make friends in the RAF", "Broaden your horizons. See a bit more of the world. See a bit more of life." Have those slogans much to do with being in the Royal Air Force, servicing aircraft and generally acting as a Service man? All those phrases could apply to 1,001 civilian jobs, and I suggest that whichever agencies are responsible for Royal Navy and Royal Air Force advertising should seriously consider what they are about.

I also wonder why advertising for officer recruits is so much better than that for other ranks? Why is it so much more intelligent? Why is it written in a way which makes one think about the Service while the other rank phraseology is so often slap-happy and, it seems to me, out of place today?

I come back to the advertisement for the Army officer. I went to the recruiting officer in my constituency town of Newbury and asked the recruiting sergeant there what he thought about advertising. I asked him what he thought about the other rank advertising for "the Professionals". He said that he did not think that that was what a young man wanted when he came to the office to join the county regiment. He wanted to meet a job which would test him physically. He wanted risk-taking, toughness, and toughness combined with fairness. He wanted to sense that it was not a chore to be in the Army, but that he was performing a really valuable function in defending our democracy and the free world. That is why I think that the Army officer advertisement was so good, and that its theme is one which other agencies might get on to. I noticed the Royal Marines advertising went much the same way.

It is not my task to tell the Minister which advertisement is better or worse than another. I have my own view, but I do not claim to be a professional. But we both know that the best recruiting sergeant for the Army in the past five years has been the troubles in Northern Ireland and that deserves a great deal of careful consideration. Perhaps it was because Northern Ireland was a task which was worth doing and people respond to that sort of situation. Although it may now have fallen off as a recruiting plus, there are not many recruiting officers in the United Kingdom who would deny that they had plenty of young men coming forward when those troubles started.

But I come back to the main purpose of my speech. It is to kindle in the Minister the same enthusiasm that I have to get some sort of cost effectiveness out of recruiting, and to discover whether the figure of £200 plus for an other ranks recruit is the sum that we should pay, whether we need 295 careers information offices and the vast number of personnel who man them, what is the cost of all other promotions being used to get recruits, and finally whether he is convinced that the £6·5 million plus this Supplementary Estimate has to be spent. Is it achieving what it should be achieving, or does the Minister feel, as I do, that his Department or the Service chiefs, or both, should be looking at the whole subject of recruiting again, especially in view of the reductions in the Services which have been announced, to decide whether we are getting value for money and whether next year, instead of having a Consolidated Fund Bill debate about additional money for Service recruiting, we shall be told that it has been possible to reduce the amount spent in that direction.

12.59 a.m.

We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for bringing an important fresh approach to a subject which we have discussed too infrequently in the past. Modestly, he said that he was not an expert, but his research has been very thorough, and his presentation of his case was all the better for being so fresh and so thoroughly well briefed before he started.

I am amused by the thought of the careful thumbing of the columns of Hansard that will go on in the various advertising agencies concerned following my hon. Friend's speech. I know something of that competitive world, and I imagine that a league table will be drawn up showing who was criticised most in his entertaining description of the various methods of advertising.

I had great sympathy for those members of the recruiting staff that my hon. Friend interviewed at Sutton Coldfield in trying to give any information about what persuades someone to join the Services. Even when one goes to experts, one gets as many opinions as there are people. For instance, large numbers of people in the Army believe that the best recruiting factor is the county regiment or the regimental tradition itself. Others say that it is the satisfied Service man. As with all advertising, it is difficult to tell whether a particular advertisement or some other factor is bringing about a certain result.

I would put one of my hon. Friend's questions the other way round. It is fascinating to draw up a league table of how much each Service spends for each recruit obtained, but I should like to know what monitoring is done—perhaps monthly, perhaps six-monthly—of the need to cut or step up advertising for a particular Service which is doing well or badly in recruiting.

What is the rationale behind advertising for naval and RAF officers? Both are well recruited. The RAF is pretty well up to strength, and in the Navy there are 12 applicants for every one selected. One wonders whether the truly magnificent advertisements for naval officers need, therefore, be on such a scale.

The standard of most Service advertising is extraordinarily good. The efforts are very lively and obviously represent a great deal of thought. But I would sound one note of caution. Some of the more adventurous copy writing of the last few months is getting near to being a little too racy, certainly for my taste. I am not sure that some of the Army slogans bear in mind the fact that people who are not concerned with recruiting are also reading them and getting a subliminal impression of Service life.

Will the Minister give us his latest assessment of the trend in Service recruiting? At various times this causes us extreme concern. Then we find that things improve and we all relapse into euphoria. There was extreme concern last year. Some recent figures have been very interesting. I hope that the Minister can give definite opinions about them.

Finally, when we are considering recruiting and expenditure upon it, we should remember the most important factor of all, which is that it is not only the recruit that we take in from civilian life that is important—although that is very important, and in some cases a dominant factor in our recruiting; it is also the existing Service man who decides at the end of his engagement to re-engage. He is not only very important, in terms of numbers, but he is very much more valuable, because of his experience, than the new person from civilian life.

Much of the public relations and expenditure on welfare and the good projection of Army life should also be directed to thinking how we can encourage our skilled Service men to be sufficiently happy and satisfied in their jobs to make them wish to re-engage. That is really the key to keeping the Services up to strength.

The House will be very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important subject. We hope that the Minister will be able to give us some impressions and opinions of the current situation.

1.7 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force
(Mr. Brynmor John)

I have been bombarded with questions and, in part of the speech of the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), subjected to the tyranny of figures. I shall try to answer the questions and to understand the figures as best I can, but if either the hon. Member for Newbury or the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) has a question that is unanswered, I hope that he will forgive me, and I shall write to him upon that.

I agree that the subject which has been raised is important. I should like to explain what the philosophy is behind our total package of advertising and recruiting.

This is an important subject, for two reasons. The first is surely that in an age in which defence establishments are much less frequently happened upon, often the only contact which the public has with the Services is either the Service advertisement or the local recruiting office. More important still is the fact that in each case the first point of contact that a recruit has with the Service of his choice is either through the advertisement or through the recruiting office or information office. It is extremely important that the information he gets there throughout those first few days is as accurate as possible. As has been said, we are looking beyond the immediate three or five years of the first engagement towards his subsequent re-engagement, and subsequent career. The accuracy and candour of the information that he gets on his career prospects in the early stages very often decides whether he re-engages.

Secondly, in recruiting and advertising for recruitment there is no static policy. Everything done, every move made, is subjected to self-criticism. We hope that analysis and change is made where necessary so that we may attract recruits of the highest possible calibre and character and in the numbers which will enable us to fulfil our defence commitments.

It is worth while putting on record something which may be axiomatic to hon. Members opposite as well as those on the Government side of the House—namely, that we shall still need our recruiting effort because we need to keep a flow of recruits to balance the age structure, the career and promotion structure, in the Forces. There will still be an extremely fine career for suitably qualified men and women in the Forces.

But on the matter of achieving this flow of recruits, I return to the cardinal point which I hope to make in this debate, and throughout the time I am charged by the Secretary of State with overall responsibility in this matter—which is something I have acquired fairly recently. It is that we must give a truthful and realistic picture. Sometimes we have overplayed the recreational pursuits—elevated them as if they were the whole of the Service man's career and the hard work was just an unpleasant interlude. Recreation and travel, however, certainly play a part in recruiting some people, of course.

It is a matter of judgment, which varies from time to time, whether a satisfied Service man is the best recruiter. However, it is beyond peradventure that if we do not tell the truth and if we release a flood of disgruntled Service men who feel they have been misled about the prospects open to them, they may be a positive disincentive to the recruiting effort. So, for the sake of the young men's careers involved, and for the sake of future recruiting effort, we need candour and realism.

I must tell the hon. Member for Newbury that his unique selling product falls down at precisely that point where human beings differ from soap or deodorants. We are infinitely more complex, and I fear that there is no such thing as the unique selling product in the Armed Forces. There are certain factors which we know sell the Forces to some people. We know that for some the thought of comradeship plays a part. The hon. Member was talking in a rather disparaging way about meeting friends. I think that he referred to the advertisement which dealt with friendship. To some young men the prospect of comradeship of that nature is extremely attractive and therefore it is right, in some advertisements, in a balanced way, to mention that.

The hon. Member referred as though it were an inconsiderable factor—which it is not—to the appearance in an advertisement of the figure £2,900 at age 21. We know from research that the salary and its comparability with civilian life is important and is an attractive factor to people coming into the Forces, and therefore it is right that that should be mentioned at some time on a balanced basis. There are as I say these infinite variations in human beings, but one can at least try to reduce these varied motivations to certain propositions upon which to place emphasis in our advertisements. There is certainly not now, nor will there ever be, a unique selling product—one coin-operated phrase which will enable us to get all our recruits at the cost of one never-changing advertisement.

In order to attract the sort of people we want in the numbers we want we have to emphasise different facets of the Service career, to emphasise where it differs from other careers in the hope that one or more of these will appeal to the sort of person whom we need to attract to Service life.

I was seeking to suggest not that there is a unique selling point, but that there is a unique selling proposition. We have to get hold of what the Services have to offer. I agree that we cannot categorise human beings like soap, and that we should not try to. The problem is to discover why a man wants to go into the Royal Air Force rather than the Army.

As I have tried to make clear, that proposition is irreducible to one single cause. A complexity of factors plays some part in the composition of the individual, that is why one advertisement will cover different aspects of the same career.

The hon. Gentleman will also see a different sort of sales pitch—if I may be allowed to use the Americanism—in each Service's advertisement. Although the hon. Gentleman said that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force were competing with the Army for the same pool of individuals, there is not, so far as we know, an attraction to Service life in the abstract. There is an attraction to a single Service. The needs of those single Services vary. That is why in advertising for recruitment the type of appeal one must make differs.

I take a simple example, that of the advertisement the hon. Gentleman saw for the Navy, where the man is tinkering with electronic equipment. It may be that in advertising for recruitment to the Army one must not, for candour's sake, build up the prospects of being an electronic operator. But the sailor—a compendious word, which does not mean a great deal nowadays, because the skills are such that the men are hardly interchangeable—may well need the capacity to understand and operate electronic equipment. That is why the fact that one Service emphasises one facet rather than another does not necessarily mean that the Services are competing or criticising each other. Each is appealing to the sort of person who is most likely to join that Service. There is a whole gamut of factors which cause this.

It is true that we have seven advertising agencies, all of which deal with recruitment for the various Services. It is not true that it is a hit-or-miss arrangement. I have only recently taken up the tri-Service responsibility for this aspect of Service life, but I have already managed to visit one advertising agency. I was surprised not by the fact that the matter was approached scientifically and in great detail but by just how scientifically and in how much detail it was approached.

Interviews are conducted to see what attracted a particular recruit to the CIO in the first place. Each of the little forms that the hon. Gentleman so nobly refused to fill in, because he was not between 19 and 21 at the time, bears a tag which identifies the newspaper in which it was placed, to show which newspapers are most effective in reaching the target audience.

There is also a massive programme, not only post-campaign, but pre-campaign, to assess the effects of each campaign on the recruit. When there are live features the serving soldiers or airmen often play a vital part. They will often say to the agency which wants them to pose in a certain way, or do a certain exercise for the purposes of recruitment, "That would not happen in real life", and in that way the realism and candour of which I have spoken comes across.

The hon. Gentleman asked me, as if his request were necessary, whether I was satisfied with the value we get for our money. One can never be completely satisfied that one is getting value for money. I promise the hon. Gentleman that so long as I have responsibility it will be part of a continuing function of mine to search for better ways of advertising and recruitment, so that we get the sort of recruit of whom I have spoken.

I now turn to the careers information offices. I think that the recruiting factor has been overstressed at the expense, as I like to think of it, of the counselling factor. It clearly is important that the man who joins knows that he is being treated and advised to the best of our ability. I am considering whether there are too many CIOs, whether they are in the right places and whether we are getting value for money out of them. Since, whilst in Opposition, I asked a Question about tri-Service recruiting offices, there has been a modest increase in the number of CIOs in recent years. However, I am keen, where at all possible and practicable, that there shall be shared use of accommodation, so that the overheads can also be shared. That in no way derogates from the single Service appeal. It means that certain common factors are shared.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) referred to monitoring. As he will know, each Service has its director of recruiting. He is naturally extremely concerned to monitor the progress not only of CIOs but of professional advice and the performance of professional contracts that are carried out. The agencies do not get a contract on a dynastic basis. They do not assume a throne never to step down until the agency goes out of existence. They are subject to competitive stress at certain times. Of course, it would be unrealistic to pretend that experience does not help them. However, that is discounted to the maximum extent possible. There is fair competition to ensure that the agency which has been given the job is still up to it.

I cannot give the assurance that everything is perfect; I should be a fool to do so. I can give the assurance that I shall make it my business to ensure that everything is as good as it can be made to be.

I was asked to give an assessment of the latest trends in recruitment. For the year ending 31st March 1974, 25,800 Service men were recruited. That compares with 39,000 for the previous year. It was a sharp and disastrous drop. The main factor was the raising of the school leaving age. I am happy to say that this year there has been a definite increase in recruitment. We have already recruited more men than in the whole of last year. I hope that this year we shall be able to push recruitment levels beyond the 30,000 barrier again.

Recruitment is not a matter for complacency. However, even with the commitments which the previous Conservative administration undertook, there was not a serious shortage of manpower, although there were crucial weaknesses in certain trades. I hope that the present trend will continue. My object will be to ensure that the young man who is placing his future at the disposal of the Armed Services will know what he is doing and will be appreciated and valued. If I can achieve that I think that I shall have satisfied the spirit of the valuable contribution of the hon. Member for Newbury.