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Defence Establishment

Volume 264: debated on Tuesday 24 October 1995

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1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current level of the defence establishment; and what was the equivalent figure immediately before the end of the cold war. [36559]

As at 1 September this year, the strength of our regular armed forces was just under 228,400 and our civilian staff strength was about 130,000. On 1 April 1990, the figures were 305,711 regular service personnel and 172,273 civilian staff.

Will the Minister recognise that there is now an estimated shortfall of about 10,000 personnel in Her Majesty's forces? Will not that present problems to Britain when meeting its national and international obligations in future? Will he recognise, too, that—by contrast—the British economy is suffering from severe unemployment? Does it not take a Government of some ineptitude to bring about such a contradiction?

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman has not quite got the right end of the stick. It is true that there are manning shortfalls, principally in the Royal Armoured Corps, the Royal Artillery and the infantry, because of poor recruiting and the inadequate retention of young soldiers. These shortfalls occur from time to time but are being dealt with by a vigorous recruitment campaign; and a special bounty has been introduced to improve retention in some areas.

The hon. Gentleman should realise that 32 per cent. of the land Army is engaged in commitments and operations—it is still an extremely exciting and thrilling career, one that is well worth people's joining. We must do more to ensure that people continue to be recruited to the service.

Will my hon. Friend use this opportunity to congratulate all involved in the defence costs study, which will save about £720 million on next year's defence budget? Will he also confirm that those savings will not be plundered by the Treasury but will be ploughed back into defence expenditure? Would he like to earmark some of it to improve on the establishment of our manpower, which is suffering from overstretch?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says about the defence costs study. As he rightly says, the results are extremely impressive: not just because the front line has been preserved but because substantial savings have been made.

I am also able to announce this afternoon that, in order to alleviate undermanning in the Army, we intend to retain for three years, from 1997, some 400 Gurkhas who would otherwise have been made redundant next year. They will form up to three infantry companies to substitute for British soldiers in infantry battalions, and a small number will also fill unmanned posts in units of the Royal Signals.

I believe that this imaginative scheme to use available military manpower in this way will be warmly welcomed by the Gurkhas, by the British Army, and above all by the British public, who rightly have huge regard and great affection for the Gurkhas.

I can assure the Minister that, despite the misleading headline in one newspaper this morning, as regards the defence establishment the Labour party has no intention of abolishing the courts martial system. As far as the figures are concerned, does he not have some explaining to do? The Ministry of Defence and the armed forces Minister have spent £500 million on redundancy payments, made 40,000-plus soldiers redundant, and now tell us that because we are short of soldiers we have to spend £100 million on recruiting them. Is that not an indication of mismanagement on the part of the Ministry of Defence?

No, Madam, it is not. We are grateful for the clarification on the courts martial system. I am disappointed to see that the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), its genesis, has been removed to the Whips Office. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well—he is merely mischief making—that restructuring could not be achieved by natural wastage alone. A phased redundancy programme had to be used by each of the services. Obviously some recruitment continues during a redundancy programme, to ensure that there is a properly balanced age and rank structure to meet all the skill shortages in certain areas. The hon. Gentleman is making mischief in the way in which he phrased the question. There is a problem on recruiting. He knows that, as do we. We see it coming and are taking the most radical and sensible steps to ensure that we deal with it.

My hon. Friend reflected on the fact that, at the height of the cold war, under the previous Labour Government, members of our armed forces faced decline in their conditions of service, whereas today they have realistic conditions of service that reflect the dangerous and challenging nature of their job. Does not that show that, on many other issues, one cannot trust Labour with defence?

The whole nation knows that one cannot possibly trust the Labour party on defence. My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, the services have never been better equipped or motivated than they are today. They are indeed at a lower level than they were, and quite rightly and inevitably so. They continue to be the most formidable armed forces of any nation in the world.