A combination of high employment, a prosperous and strong economy, attractive alternatives in further education and stiff competition from other employers have all increased the pressure on the Army in its efforts to attract young men and women. To counter this, the Army’s recruiting group has redoubled its recruiting effort through advertising campaigns. During recent months, its intensive marketing campaign has paid dividends and the number of applications has increased. The challenge now is to convert that interest into enlistments.
With unprecedented numbers of Territorial Army soldiers and other reservists currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet with TA strength at its lowest level since its formation more than 100 years ago, what do the Government plan to do to fix the recruitment crisis now affecting all our reserve forces?
As of 14 June 2006, some 574 members of the Territorial Army—about 1.8 per cent. of the TA—were deployed on operations overall, of whom 397 are serving in Iraq. Extensive efforts are being made to achieve better recruiting. As at April 2006, the TA’s strength was more than 2 per cent. higher than it was one year ago, and it is at its highest level since June 2004. Its strength has increased by about 900 since the beginning of the year, which could indicate a trend. However, in respect of the TA, the reserves and the regular forces, constant effort needs to be made to keep the marketing intensity high, because that is what the competition is doing to attract young men and women into their areas of interest. We are beginning to see some trends that are to our benefit, but we can maintain them only through such intensive effort.
I know that my right hon. Friend is well aware that Lancashire and the entire north-west is a very fertile recruitment area for the armed forces. However, has the time not come to ensure that, in addition to good recruitment, we enjoy good retention in the north-west by moving Army bases from the south to the north, which is where the families live? That is much overdue and much needed, and the time has come to recognise the needs of our troops.
It is about recognising the need of the armed forces overall—in this case, the Army. Part of the basing reason is to be close to training areas, and that is why we still have extensive basing in Germany and in the south—to be close to those training areas—but my hon. Friend raises a good point, which he should follow with interest in the months and years ahead. Super-garrisons are being considered as part of the future Army structure, but it is too early to say where the lay-down of such garrisons will be—whether in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west, the midlands or the south. However, all that work is under way. Moving troops involves spending an extensive amount of money on infrastructure and has to be planned for. That will not happen overnight, but work is under way to achieve some of those objectives.
I am very pleased indeed to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) in emphasising the importance of the north-west to Army recruitment. Will the Minister accept that the TA makes an increasingly important contribution to our armed forces, and certainly in respect of recruitment? He recently admitted to me that there has been a problem with the payment of the bounty to TA soldiers in the north-west, in that soldiers who deserve the bounty have not been awarded it. Will he ensure that that matter is corrected at a very early date?
I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments: the TA plays a substantial part in all that we do, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but elsewhere. In many ways, that is perhaps why we are beginning to see, once again, an increase in recruitment. In fact, we are getting indications that people want to join the TA because deployment is becoming a feature of the role, whereas before, that was not necessarily the case. The rebalancing of the TA is about restructuring it to make it more usable and better focused on the regular service, so we have attended to some of those issues. I do not recollect saying to the hon. Gentleman what he said that I said about the bounty, although I might have done so in a written answer, of which I write hundreds in a given period. I do not think that I have given that answer, but I will check whether I have, and if there is an issue to be addressed, it will be.
Recent figures that I have before me show that only one infantry battalion in the whole Army is now at full strength; on average, each battalion is one third below combat strength. Can the Minister confirm that the infantry battalion soldier manning deficit is about 3,000, and that the Government’s own prediction is that that will worsen while we are deploying more troops abroad? If that is not overstretch, just how would he describe it?
I do not accept that overall analysis from the hon. Gentleman. I have given an indication of the trends and we are beginning to see some benefit from our intensive marketing campaign. I do not deny that we are under-strength, that we find it hard to hit our targets, or that we are under-target, but I should point out that, historically, that has always been the case. What we have tried to do through the new future infantry structure and future Army structure is to get the balance right—to set realistic targets and then to try to achieve them.
In my reply to the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), I said that the recruiting environment is difficult. The economy is very strong and we face a lot of competition from elsewhere in the marketplace, so to speak, which is why we are now investing so heavily in the marketing campaign. We can measure the impact in two ways: one of our marketing strategies led to 15,000 expressions of interest, and the Everest west ridge campaign led to an additional 15,000 expressions of interest. What we have to do now is turn those expressions of interest into actual enlistment. That is the next objective.