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Armed Forces (Recruitment and Retention)

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of recruitment and retention in the armed forces, and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. This debate is particularly timely, as today marks the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, an event that provides the context and backdrop to almost every issue relating to our armed forces that is currently discussed in the House. It is absolutely central to the topic that we are discussing this morning. Iraq is at the heart of the problems of overstretch, and it causes and exacerbates recruitment and retention problems.

Furthermore, this is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate the issues raised in the National Audit Office report, “Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces”, which was published in November. It highlighted some of the enormous challenges and made several specific recommendations for the Ministry of Defence to take on board in order to improve recruitment and retention.

Earlier this month, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body published its 36th report, which made recommendations on pay, allowances, accommodation and other charges. In strengthening and examining the evidence base for its report, the pay review body made some specific observations about the recruitment and retention problems that exist in the armed forces. It reinforced much of what was said in the NAO report, especially in respect of the impact that operational commitments, and the tempo of those commitments, are having on our servicemen and women, and the imbalance between commitments and current manning levels.

The debate is timely, and I hope that the Minister will welcome it as a good opportunity to outline his thinking on the issues raised in the reports to which I have referred, and to update hon. Members on his efforts to address recruitment and retention challenges in the armed forces.

In a tight labour market such as that in the United Kingdom, there are recruitment and retention challenges across the full range of employment sectors, and some of those challenges are particularly severe for certain categories of work. I shall not digress into areas that may be covered in the debate in the main Chamber tomorrow afternoon, but it is worth acknowledging what is driving the tight labour market. Demographic change means that a decreasing cohort of young people enters the labour market each year, which, when combined with the general strength of the economy, means more intensive competition to attract workers. There must be few hon. Members who do not regularly receive comments from local employers about how difficult it has become for them to find appropriately skilled and motivated staff to fill vacancies.

Skill shortages, recruitment difficulties and the challenge of hanging on to good workers are raised at any gathering of employers in the country, but what we are discussing when it comes to recruitment and retention challenges in the armed forces is not only one subset of a broad trend. The issue is fundamentally different, because the work carried out by the men and women who serve in our armed forces is unique and not directly comparable with anything in civilian life, and because the consequences of recruitment and retention difficulties, which result in added pressures on the service person in post and, ultimately, affect our ability as a nation to meet strategic military objectives, could be very serious indeed.

As I have said, the operation in Iraq forms a backdrop to many of the current challenges facing our armed forces, and that is certainly true when it comes to recruitment and retention. However, I do not for one moment go along with the crude line that I have heard expressed by some hon. Members that Iraq has somehow been a catastrophe for military recruitment and retention efforts. Yesterday, an officer described to me the challenge presented by the so-called mum factor—parents not wanting their sons and daughters to be killed or injured in Basra—which I do not dispute, but it is also true that the war in Iraq, our role in the invasion four years ago and the ongoing security operation have time and again thrown the spotlight on to some of the very best aspects of our armed forces, which can create heightened levels of interest among potential recruits. However, that also cuts the other way, in that our heavy commitment in Iraq has created new and additional pressures on our serving troops, which, in combination with other factors, have served to reinforce some negative retention trends.

The fact is that since 1997 the British armed forces have been operating at a much higher tempo than that envisaged by military planners. They have been deployed in the Balkans, Africa, the middle east and Asia, and they have supported other United Nations missions around the world. Most significant, of course, have been the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2001, the armed forces have consistently operated at or above the most demanding combination of operations envisaged by the defence planning assumptions.

The NAO report observed that:

“Increased operational tempo has led to heavier workloads and more separation from families than expected, particularly in many pinch point trades.”

I think of the men and women of the 14th Signal Regiment, who I met recently at Cawdor barracks in my constituency. They are heavily in demand for their technical and linguistic expertise, and their regiment is currently engaged in three theatres—Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. Some of the soldiers were getting ready for their third deployment to Iraq, and, although they approach the mission with the utmost professionalism and dedication, it would be entirely understandable if their motivation levels and enthusiasm were perhaps not as high as they were when they were preparing for their first deployment, and if thoughts of the long period of separation and the pressures on their young families now feature more strongly in their minds than thoughts of the novelty and excitement of a new mission.

The problem of targets for manning requirements not being met, requirements which themselves are not accurate for the scale of operations demanded of our armed forces, is at the heart of the problem of overstretch, which feeds powerfully into the mix of factors currently affecting recruitment and retention. The manning requirements published by the MOD do not reflect the level of operations that the Army and rest of the armed forces are undertaking. Put simply, manning requirements fail to reflect the true demands being placed on the Army.

The NAO report stated:

“The manning requirements have not been adjusted to reflect the current levels of deployment of the Armed Forces which have since 2001 exceeded the assumptions made about enduring concurrent operations”.

When one considers that even the understated manning requirements are not being met, one can begin to appreciate the seriousness of the personnel challenges facing the armed forces.

The NAO report refers to a shortfall of some 5,000 personnel, but states that

“the figures mask wider shortages of trained personnel within a range of specific trade groups across all three Services.”

I am very interested in the report to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, which points out that there is a shortage of approximately 5,000 troops. Is he aware that if the recruitment policy of the Army, Navy and Air Force were colour blind—that is, if they were recruiting a similar proportion of the ethnic minority population as exists in the community at large—they would recruit an additional 10,000 personnel? Indeed, if we were recruiting ethnic minorities at the same levels as the United States army, navy and air force, we would have almost 20,000 additional recruits and no problem with recruitment or retention.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention. I was not aware of the point that he has raised, although I shall make a few remarks about recruitment among ethnic minorities later.

Manning shortfalls in the pinch-point trades examined by the NAO were as high as 70 per cent. for intensive therapy nurses and 68 per cent. for accident and emergency nurses. The report recommends that the MOD review overall manning requirements within individual operational pinch-point trade groups to determine whether they are set appropriately. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that specific point and on the extent to which he thinks that the stated manning requirements are realistic.

Although broad recruitment figures across the three services may not demonstrate an overall crisis, and some successful measures have been taken to improve recruitment to pinch-point trades, I maintain that the challenge to the Army of recruiting new soldiers has become severe. Over the past few years, Army recruitment has dropped significantly, and in 2006 more troops quit than signed up. Recruitment was slightly up last year, but I understand that it was still the second-worst year for recruitment in the last decade. Whereas in the past the Army might have expected to recruit nearly 17,000 people a year, the number has now dropped to well under 13,000, and it was as low as 11,700 in 2004-05.

The decline in recruitment has occurred despite a 34 per cent. increase in the Army recruitment budget. Given that the Army is currently thousands under strength, it is vital that recruitment efforts are sustained and increased. I invite the Minister to explain what will happen to the Ministry of Defence recruitment budget and recruitment activity and to comment on the observation in the NAO report that recruitment has been deliberately reduced by the MOD, at least in part, to make short-term financial savings that may not represent value for money in the longer term.

Will the Minister expand on his recent comments to the press about the disbanding of school recruitment visits by the MOD? In my constituency, many teachers believe such visits are useful and welcome. The only complaints that I have heard are from some members of Plaid Cymru, who do not consider such activities to be appropriate in Wales.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument for the need to increase recruitment. One of the problems is the recent change in dynamics regarding the type of soldier leaving the Army and the other two armed forces. Traditionally, a private solider who had been in the Army for three or four years would be more likely to leave, but now it is the more senior ranks—corporals, 12-year sergeants and 15-year staff sergeants, who simply cannot be replaced by a new recruit coming in at the bottom. The retention of senior soldiers is key to managing the recruitment process.

That is an extremely valuable point, and my hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience of the subject. Replacing school visits with a beefed-up online recruitment effort for young people will not seriously improve recruitment rates in the target group. I support as much interaction as possible between service personnel and schools. Last year, I spent half a day at a local secondary school, where a team from the MOD that specialises in citizenship education looked at a disaster scenario with a year group and involved teams of young people in designing hypothetical responses to an international disaster. The group operated extremely effectively in the school and, although it was not there specifically for recruitment purposes, it was, no doubt, an excellent advert for a career in the armed forces.

One area of recruitment where the Government have taken steps to improve performance, but where much more needs to be done, is the recruitment of soldiers of Muslim faith. Last November, I attended the memorial service held in St. Davids cathedral in my constituency for Corporal Peter Thorpe and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, who were killed earlier in the year in an attack by Taliban fighters in Helmand, Afghanistan. Both men had been serving with the 3rd Para battle group, but were either part of or attached to the 14th Signal Regiment, to which I referred earlier. It was a privilege to meet members of their families and the Army imam who participated in the memorial service. One of Lance Corporal Hashmi’s officers told me that they desperately need more men and women like him in the regiment, because of the value and commitment that he brought and the skill set that he possessed— specifically his expertise in Arabic. Having grown up in Pakistan, Lance Corporal Hashmi had a knowledge of the culture, religion and language of the region, which made him an extremely important and valued member of the team.

A written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) revealed that the number of Muslims recruited to the forces is statistically insignificant and, for each month last year, barely reached double digits. I would be interested to hear what further steps the Minister thinks that his Department can and should take to improve recruitment among such an increasingly important demographic group.

On the problems and challenges of retention, if one of the challenges is improving the inflow of new recruits, the other side of the equation involves hanging on to good, experienced personnel who have benefited from expensive and extensive training and who occupy vital roles. Some degree of churn is welcome in any organisation, as it enables younger guys to come through, have a chance and make steady progress in their careers as well as fostering the spread of new skills and experiences within the organisation—we are perhaps learning some of that in the Conservative party. In certain sections of the armed forces, however, the rates of exit are too high and represent a net loss to the services. The Royal Marines other ranks exit rate is more than 7 per cent.; the average exit rate for Army general practitioners is 10 per cent.; and the figure for Army nurses is more than 8 per cent. Those figures are above the guidelines set by the Department and surely represent a challenge to ongoing efforts to hang on to valued and good personnel.

At the heart of the retention issue is the importance of making service personnel feel valued in their roles. For each individual and service family, a different mix of factors will make them feel valued in the career and lives that they have chosen. For many, the issue of accommodation is extremely important, and thanks to the comments of some senior officers it has recently received a lot of attention in the press. Clearly, accommodation issues present a major challenge that needs to be addressed. In its recent report, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body stated:

“where personnel have access to new and upgraded accommodation they are generally positive”.

However, it also noted that

“personnel moving from such accommodation to that of a lower standard…can contribute to retention problems.”

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body reiterated its disappointment with the cuts made by the Department to accommodation budgets over successive years. Urgent action is required regarding the issue of accommodation. It is not enough for the Minister simply to refer to the amounts of money being pumped into service accommodation; he needs to demonstrate that he and his team genuinely understand the grievances expressed and are committed to seeing the problems addressed.

On accommodation, when I visited Cawdor barracks to meet the 14th Signal Regiment, personnel generally expressed satisfaction with the quality of their accommodation, but the issue of broadband access was raised again and again. Despite those men and women being experts in electronic warfare, they do not have broadband access—access to the internet—in their barracks, which would really improve their quality of life. I have previously corresponded with the Department about that issue and did not receive an entirely satisfactory response. I ask the Minister to look at that issue again and find some way of connecting up Cawdor barracks to broadband internet access, because it would make a significant improvement to the quality of life of many excellent soldiers.

I have received numerous e-mails and letters from the spouses of some of the soldiers in my constituency about the quality of health care services locally. They have informed me that they enjoy the quality of life on offer in Pembrokeshire for service families, but are totally exasperated by the fact that they cannot access a dentist. As many hon. Members are aware, Pembrokeshire is a rural, peripheral area of the country where NHS dentistry has been all but decimated over recent years. Some service families moved from areas where there was good NHS dental provision only to find that the service barely exists in Pembrokeshire, which affects their outlook on the military lifestyle.

For some servicemen and women, what counts is access to training and the opportunity to acquire and develop new skills and improve their education, which will help them to get ahead in their military careers or when they return to civilian life. What are we seeing currently in that area? Well, more than 60 training exercises were cancelled last year out of a planned total of 548 separate exercises, which means that one in nine training exercises were suspended as a result of general issues associated with overstretch in the armed forces. Those cancelled exercises and courses represent lost opportunities for service personnel to develop vital skills and, for some, it will shape their perception of life in the armed forces, again, in a negative way.

Our armed forces have a superb track record in getting on with the job no matter what circumstances they face; they do not moan, whinge, or down their tools—there is no British Leyland tendency in the armed forces. More than anything, they want to be valued and properly resourced to do the job that they are asked to do. Recruiting and retaining high quality personnel in our armed forces is a serious and growing problem, and a significantly under-strength Army is being asked to operate over and above the level for which it was designed. That situation can only be maintained for so long before real pressures emerge that will cause lasting damage to the institution, and we are getting dangerously close to that point. I look forward to hearing the Minister explain how such problems can be effectively addressed.

I want to make four points. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) has made an excellent speech and I do not wish to repeat anything that he has said. However, as a starting point, I must state that it is true that the Ministry of Defence is having to recruit in a tight labour market. I joined the Territorial Army back in 1970—35-plus years ago. At that time, the armed forces were “benefiting” from structural unemployment around the country. Heavy industry was changing, coal mines in south Wales were closing, manufacturing industry in the west midlands was being lost, and men saw opportunities and better long-term careers in the armed forces. Today, even with the pay increase, a new recruit—a private, a gunner or a sapper—will earn not much more than £11,000 a year, or just short of £12,000. That is not a lot of money. The Minister looks at me quizzically, but I visited a Pioneer regiment in my patch the other day and was told that recruits earn about £11,000.

Out there in the labour market, one can earn more than that. In my constituency, where there is practically zero unemployment, one wonders what attracts people to the armed forces. Everyone must recognise that the MOD will be competing in an increasingly tight labour market.

Following on from that, many of those whom one would recruit as private soldiers at 18 will have left school at 16. It seems to me that there are two years that go gash there. One hears commanding officers having to explain that many of those recruited need to work to improve their educational standards, and our armed forces are obviously becoming increasingly technical, so why do we not recruit at 17? I appreciate that recruits cannot fight at that age, but we used to have a good junior leader scheme from which half of those recruited became lance-corporals and corporals.

Why does the MOD not recruit younger people, and use that first year on education and training, and getting guys up to standard, so that when they reach their 18th birthday they already have a head start? Otherwise the danger for the MOD is that those who might want to join the armed forces will have left school at 16, taken up other employment and become involved in other jobs and will be lost to the armed forces. That is particularly so if they have taken up employment that pays them as much as, if not more than, they are likely to earn in the Army.

I know of a good place where the Army could set up a new education school, and I hope that the Minister will agree. I know that the MOD is thinking about having super-garrisons. Bicester in my constituency—as the name suggests, it was a Roman garrison—became a garrison for the British Army at the time of the first world war. It had a huge footprint because it was built to resist Zeppelin attacks. It was thought that if the Zeppelins managed to hit one part of the depot they would not hit the others. It covers a huge area.

It has some enormous hangers and storage sheds, which must be among the wonders of the world. In one of them—it is an incredible sight, and I am sure that the Minister will have seen it—is the Bowman conversion for the new radio system. The set-up includes classrooms, and it is like going into a university. When the Bowman training at Bicester is over, I hope that the Army will find another good purpose for it. I believe that it would be an ideal place for a super-garrison, where apprentices and young soldiers, both men and women, could be trained. It would ensure that they found their trades at the earliest possible opportunity.

The point is that we should be recruiting earlier. We should use the time to enhance people’s education and training in trades and skills, particularly if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire says, they have less time for training or to acquire skills because they are being deployed so frequently.

My next point is about housing. My hon. Friend made the point that families will be pretty disillusioned if the quality of housing is not good. Ambrosden in my constituency is a large village just outside Bicester that once had within its borders almost a village of MOD housing. A road that goes through Ambrosden once had MOD housing on both sides. Some time ago, the Ministry sold off the housing on one side of the road to Annersley Housing, which then sold it on to the private sector. In other words, it is now owner-occupied; people have done up their houses, refurbished them and remodelled them. On the other side of the road, the housing is traditional; I do not say this in a pejorative sense, but it is bog-standard MOD married quarters, in which little has been invested. It is pretty depressing.

I speak for the Army because I do not have so much experience of the Navy or the Air Force. It needs to recognise that if it wishes to retain soldiers it must also retain their wives and families. And the wives and families will stay only if married quarters are of a good standard; they do not want to think that they are being prejudiced by having to live in sub-standard accommodation.

There is a further issue. I have seen the problem in my constituency, but I do not pretend to have the answer. Twenty or 30 years ago, a staff sergeant or warrant officer leaving the Army with a gratuity could probably put a deposit on a home. It is now difficult for people leaving the armed forces to get on to the housing ladder. I do not know the answer, but it behoves us to ensure that the quality of housing while in the armed forces is good and that when people leave the services they have access to social housing should it be needed. I hope that the Minister can give us an undertaking that whichever defence estate is involved, it is giving active consideration to upgrading married accommodation.

The third point that I wish to raise was not mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. It is something that I genuinely do not understand. Anyone who has had any involvement or connection with the Army or the armed forces knows that the regimental system works to look after those in the regiment. It has always done so because most regiments rightly see themselves as a family so I genuinely do not understand why barely a week goes by without a surfeit of articles in the press about soldiers being neglected.

Last week’s edition of The Week magazine included the headline “Wounded soldiers: a shameful neglect”. The Mail on Sunday of 18 March carried an article headlined “Soldiers wait years for MOD payouts”. Sub-headlines in that article included “Government admits 7,000 wounded soldiers have not received their war pensions—many more are not even told of their entitlement”; “I may never have kids, but I’ve had no money”; and “I thought I’d die. Now I can’t afford hot water”. The Sunday Times of the same date had the headline “MoD ‘deserts’ teen soldiers scarred by Iraq”. It is a litany of neglect. It must have a corrosive effect.

As my hon. Friend said, parents are loth to support their children if they express a wish to join the armed forces. I genuinely do not understand why that is. If there is a system in place or if unit welfare officers are available, I do not understand how people can get lost in the system. One of the lessons that we should have learned from the first Gulf war is that it cannot be beyond the wit of man and officialdom to ensure that every wounded, injured or discharged soldier leaving our armed forces has some dedicated support, even if it comes through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association or other organisations, to ensure that people are not left alone. What is coming through many of these stories is that people being discharged from the Army feel that they have been left on their own. I cannot believe that our uniformed institutions should get so much bad press. It must have a corrosive effect on recruitment. That is apart from the fact that each story is a matter of concern in itself—I am sure that the hon. Members who represent the individual soldiers affected will seek to raise those concerns in Adjournment debates if they feel it appropriate. The situation reflects badly on the Army and on its duty of care.

My final point is on access to military personnel. The armed forces are in a changing world, and each and every member of them is an elector. Serving soldiers are our electors. Yet, curiously, it is easier for me to get through to a closed convent than to serving personnel. If I want to go and see serving soldiers—my electors—in their garrison, including in Bicester garrison, I have to write to the Minister of State to ask permission.

I do not wish to tease anyone, but that situation might well go back to the days when half the Labour party were rabid members of CND, and Lord Heseltine was concerned that if they were allowed into barracks and garrisons they would cause mayhem by demonstrating and chaining themselves up. However, time has moved on. We should ensure that all soldiers are on the electoral roll where they live. I understand that the position has now been changed so that, if they register, their registration counts for three years rather than one. Nevertheless, there is a difference between Members of Parliament visiting installations—regiments per se—to talk about operational issues, deployment and so forth, and Members of Parliament visiting soldiers’ quarters and married quarters, and having contact with soldiers as electors. The latter type of visit gives us confidence that we as MPs have first-hand information about what is causing concern in the military and about what is good.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said, what soldiers tell us is often good. When I went to Afghanistan last year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme—along with a detachment of Labour MPs whom the Chief Whip had clearly wished to lose for the purposes of a key vote—we took time out to ask soldiers what they thought of their kit. Every one of them said, “We like our kit. We no longer have to buy any other kit.” Coming from Bicester, where the Defence Clothing and Textiles Agency is located, I was genuinely glad to hear that. Soldiers are candid—they are up front in saying what is good and bad. At the beginning of the 21st century we should have new protocols for Members to have access to and contact with those of their electors who are members of the armed forces.

Allow me to summarise my four points. First, we should be recruiting earlier and training younger. Bicester should be a super-garrison because it would be an ideal location for an army education centre—not least when Bowman training goes. My second point was about housing. Thirdly, I just do not understand why so many soldiers who leave the armed forces, or who are wounded or injured, feel neglected. Finally, MPs should have much better access to soldiers who are their electors.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, albeit briefly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing it—the subject is important and I agree almost entirely with the content of his speech, which was a good one. I agree also with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

The final point made by the hon. Member for Banbury was about access to service personnel and establishments. It is the constitutional right of every US Congressman to visit any military establishment and speak to any military personnel, not just in the United States but anywhere in the world where US forces are serving. I am not necessarily suggesting that we adopt that practice in its entirety, but that right is an important one, because it allows legislators to gain access and to know exactly what the issues are in the three services.

I should like to speak briefly on an important subject that I believe crucially affects recruitment and retention—the recruitment and retention of ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom’s armed forces, which is a matter of concern. I approach that issue from the perspective of the pressure caused by the scale of the current operational tempo, and the fact that the armed forces are stretched as opposed to overstretched.

One has to be a little bit careful with the figures, but it is utterly unacceptable that there is an ethnic minority population of roughly 10 per cent., or just less than that, in today’s United Kingdom, yet the current figure for the recruitment of ethnic minority military personnel in the three services is 4.9 per cent. Sadly, there are also indications that such recruitment is in decline.

Since 1997, the Government have taken a number of welcome initiatives to address the problem. Between 1997 and 2001, there was early success in increasing recruitment among ethnic minorities, but those welcome efforts have clearly not succeeded in the longer term. There is a problem in the UK armed forces that involves barriers to recruiting from ethnic minorities.

The situation of our closest ally, the United States of America, is completely different. Again, we need to be careful with the statistics, because there are varying versions. However, even on the most conservative estimate, it can be argued that the ethnic minority population of the US, excluding Hispanics, is between 10 and 12 per cent. At the same time, that population’s recruitment into the armed forces in the US averages between 15 and 18 per cent. So not only does the US achieve the objective of being colour blind, and of recruiting at least the same proportion of people from ethnic minorities as in the community, it recruits half as many again. We should be doing the same for the simple reason that ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom, as in north America, tend for a host of cultural and historical reasons to live in areas where recruitment to the forces occurs at a much higher level. We should be attracting more people from ethnic minorities into the armed forces, but we are not.

For socio-economic reasons, ethnic minorities invariably find themselves in less favoured positions in society, and I know from personal experience that the military offers people a wonderful opportunity—often a second chance—to pursue a career and make a life for themselves. It is wrong that our military clearly does not offer that opportunity to ethnic minorities.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire was right to refer to the situation of the Muslim community. There is a particular problem relating to the Muslim community, because the levels of recruitment of members of that community to the three services are almost statistically insignificant. In the United States of America, however, members of the Muslim population are recruited to the armed forces at a level that reflects the size of that population within the country at large.

The same applies to Afro-Caribbean recruits. We struggle desperately in this country to be able to recruit enough Afro-Caribbean service personnel. In the United States of America, however, members of the Afro-Caribbean community are recruited very successfully. Moreover, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff in the United States of America, General Colin Powell, was of Afro-Caribbean origin. I state here today quite openly and categorically that that would be impossible in today’s forces in this country, because of the bars to recruitment. We must do something about that. Ten years after the Government’s gallant but, I have to say, failed attempt to address the problem, we can no longer afford to ignore it, given the pressure that our armed forces are under.

Our total military personnel establishment is just over 200,000, of whom fewer than 10,000 come from ethnic minorities. If we recruited at a level that reflected the proportion of people from ethnic minorities who live in the community, we would have at least another 10,000 personnel to draw on. If we recruited at the same level as the United States of America, we would have another 10,000.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument. In his analysis of the issue, which he has obviously taken a great deal of trouble over, what are the barriers in the British armed forces that the Government have failed to remove? Why does he think that we have not been as successful as the United States of America?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because it is the very one on which I shall finish. I do not think; I know what the barrier is. As an ex-serving airman myself, it saddens me to say this, but there is no doubt in my mind that the single largest barrier to recruitment within our armed forces is institutional racism. It has to be, because there is no other explanation. We are talking about a uniformed disciplined service, structured by authority. We should be able to break down any barriers that exist in the service. Why have the Americans achieved that and why have we failed? Quite simply, the Americans, back in the 1960s, took positive action. They said, “It is unacceptable that we do not give the ethnic minority communities access to our armed forces.” I am not saying that individuals in our armed forces are racists. I have no knowledge of that. I am saying that the armed forces are by definition, de facto, institutionally racist and it is about time that Parliament did something about that.

I hope that, over the next few minutes, I do not betray the fact that I had no intention of speaking when I came into this Chamber. Having listened to the debate, and as one of, I think, just two Members of Parliament who still wear a uniform, I think that it would be remiss of me not to make a contribution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate, which has been excellent. I shall make three brief points, if I may. First, I shall touch on operational welfare. Secondly, I shall touch on an area that has not been mentioned at all, which is recruitment and retention in the Territorial Army. Thirdly, I shall add to the debate on the recruitment of people from ethnic minorities.

As hon. Members realise, I had the honour to spend last summer in Afghanistan, fighting alongside our soldiers, and it was a fascinating experience, but I took home with me, among other things, the genuine concerns held by our soldiers and servicemen about the extent of their welfare package. To be fair to the Government, the welfare package for people on operations has improved in recent years. I had served twice before on operations—in Kosovo in 1999 and in Bosnia in 2002—and there is no doubt that over the years the welfare package has improved. I remember having to queue for 40 minutes in Kosovo to get on to the single Ptarmigan telephone in Pristina to ring home for my 10 minutes once a month. That was a thoroughly depressing experience.

There are still great areas in which we can make improvements, and telephones are one. It was quite depressing to find in Kabul that although we are now issued with a 20-minute phonecard, soldiers could buy what is called a banana card from the German PX or post exchange, which would allow them to make limitless phone calls home for a very low price—£2 or £3. Soldiers used that system rather than the issued card. It says a lot that when soldiers looked at the Ptarmigan card, they said, “Well, this is a waste of time. I’m going to use a banana card.” There were also complaints that those in the platoon houses were having to pay up to five times more to buy the extra units for the mobile satellite phones than they were for the landline, so ironically the closer people were to the front line, the more expensive it was for them to phone home. That was fundamentally wrong.

I have touched before in the House on my experiences of the air bridge and I do not intend to go over that ground again, but it is right to say that one of the things that we owe to our troops is to ensure that they receive their full rest and relaxation entitlement. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence would argue that R and R is not an entitlement but a privilege, but I would argue the opposite. If we send our troops on operations for six months, the very least that they can expect is their 15 days off. More importantly, when they get their 15 days off and they are due to come home, they should not have to lose three days of their time off because, for one reason or another, the air bridge is failing. That means, apart from anything else, that it is simply impossible for people to plan time off with their families when they come back from an operational tour. If they have no guarantee of getting back home on a certain day, they simply cannot book a holiday. That was a major bone of contention and I am pleased that the Government seem to be tackling it; I give them credit for that.

I want to touch on Territorial Army recruitment and retention. I have great concerns about the direction in which we are heading. I had the honour to command a Royal Engineers TA squadron just up the road in Holloway. I think that, by the time I left, of the 119 men and women on that establishment, 104 had been mobilised on to an operational tour at some point or another. That is a tremendous rate. We have clearly reached the point at which the Territorial Army is no longer being used as a reserve; it is being taken for granted. It has been taken for granted that the establishment of the Territorial Army will be there the whole time to support our regular forces. Indeed, I think that between 10 and 15 per cent. of our armed forces on operations at the moment are serving in the Territorial Army.

The point has not been grasped that that is simply not sustainable. Members of the Territorial Army join and are delighted to be mobilised to go on operational service. There is no doubt about that. People volunteer time and again, as indeed I have. I was amazed this morning to receive a text message from a very good friend of mine who at 44 is very excited about the fact that he is going off on an operational tour to Afghanistan for what will be the fourth time.

The problem, which the Government have not really grasped, is that members of the Territorial Army are not prepared to sacrifice their primary career for their secondary career. Under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, the jobs of members of the Territorial Army are protected, so that when they come back their employer is obliged to give them their job back. However, the employer is not obliged to promote them. Let us say that someone has had six months away. There is no guarantee that within the next four years, he will not go away again. The employer will look at their two employees and think, “Well, this chap has been loyal. This chap has been away for six months. What he learned over that six months has been very valuable, but I have no guarantee that he will not be sent away again for another six months.” So who will the employer promote? Whom will he tell, “I can rely on you”? Whom will he tell, “I value your time in the TA, but your being away is difficult because this is a small company”? Again and again, members of the TA who have been given their jobs back on their return realise that that they may well lose them if they stay in the TA and run the risk of repeated mobilisations. They are simply not prepared to do that.

Years ago, when members of my generation joined the TA, we knew that we would all mobilise as a unit following an Order in Council. To echo my hon. Friend’s point, however, it became clear to me when I was an honorary colonel of a Royal Logistic Corps unit that people were happy to do one six-month tour, but that a second such tour was almost too much for their employers or their families. Once people have done a six-month tour, therefore, their effectiveness in the unit will be very limited if the same demands continue to be made on them.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend sums up the point far better than I did. Indeed, the situation is worse than that because people are not allowed to train with their TA unit during post-operational tour leave—they are literally not allowed to go in. I should be fascinated to see the figures for the number of soldiers who have resigned from the TA after they have come back from their first or second operational tour.

The point that I am attempting to make is that the Government have still not got the message that the TA is there to be used and wants to be used. We should remember that the TA is rather like a shotgun: we can fire one barrel and then the next, but it will take an awfully long time to reload.

Let me touch now on the debate about ethnic minorities. As I mentioned, I commanded a TA squadron in Holloway and I think that it was the most multiracial in the British Army—soldiers who were not from the ethnic minorities were in the minority. We had a tremendous record of recruiting ethnic minorities, simply because we had that gravity in the unit. Members of the ethnic minorities who came to recruitment evenings found that there were already significant numbers of ethnic minorities in the unit, so they felt comfortable with it.

When I was a regular soldier, I was the ethnic minority in many ways, because I served in a brigade of Gurkhas, which was a fascinating experience. We shall need to look carefully at how we organise our units, however, if we are to make the most of such situations. I am not suggesting for one second that we should have ethnic minority units—far from it—but there are advantages in having such numbers, because they give entirely the right impression that the British Army is not—to be controversial—a white man’s army. That is certainly not what it is, and the TA units in London that are recruited from their local area are good examples of how the recruitment system can work.

When I served in Afghanistan, I had the honour of sharing a room with Corporal Charlery, who was recruited from Antigua. He is part of a growing cohort of foreign and Commonwealth soldiers in the armed forces, but there is great unease among its members, who feel let down by the Ministry of Defence. When Corporal Charlery was recruited in Antigua, he was told that he would be allowed to apply for a British passport within five years of service. That was absolutely not the main reason why he joined the British Army—like so many others, he wanted to serve the Commonwealth—but it was a factor. When he went on operational service, however, he discovered that his time on operational service would not count towards residency in the UK, and nor would his time in Germany. That was a major demotivating factor—he felt very strongly about that. To the Government’s credit, the issue was looked at towards the end of 2006, but I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that it has now been fully addressed and that time on operational service counts towards residency when Commonwealth soldiers serving in our armed forces apply for a British passport.

Before I call the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), let me remind the Front-Bench spokesmen that they should each take up to a third of the remaining time so that we can have a full reply from the Minister.

I note your comments, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate. I also congratulate those hon. Members who have taken part on the way in which it has been conducted. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Retention and recruitment are two sides of the same coin and include issues such as the conditions and care of personnel, the standard and quality of equipment, the provisions available in conflict zones, levels of training and preparedness and the needs of soldiers’ families.

To follow up the point about ethnic minorities, it is interesting to note that 10 per cent. of the British Army is not British, with one in 10 soldiers belonging to one of 57 other nationalities. That must be because there has been a decline in the number of young British men and women who wish to join Her Majesty’s armed forces, although I welcome the increase in the percentage of young ladies who join the Army, in particular.

Fiji leads the way on this issue, providing 2,000 of the 6,700 soldiers who come from the Commonwealth countries. In one sense, we should rejoice that so many people from other countries wish to join our armed forces, but what percentage does the Minister think that the British Army can go to given that the figure is already 10 per cent.? What is being done to encourage young men and women from this country to join Her Majesty’s armed forces?

As I said, Fiji leads the way with about 2,000 soldiers, but the A to Z roll-call of countries with citizens in the British Army goes from Australia, with 75, to Zimbabwe, with 565. There are also 660 soldiers from Ghana, 975 from Jamaica and 720 from South Africa. Even tiny countries such as St. Lucia and St. Vincent have provided 225 and 280 recruits respectively. Two weeks ago, I visited Bassingbourn as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and had lunch with three young men—one from India, one from Ghana and one from Nigeria—and the members of their cohort were predominantly Ghanaians.

What incentives are there for joining the armed forces? Although the higher ranks seem to be doing quite well, there appear to be limited incentives otherwise, and the basic rate of pay for privates and recruits is not in line with that for other professions. I do not usually quote Williams Rees-Mogg, but he recently reported in The Times that the average Army recruit is paid £10,000 less than a Metropolitan police recruit.

It could be said that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved more challenging and often more hostile than anticipated. It is also fair to say that the impact of the Iraq war and our intervention in Afghanistan is taking its toll on the retention and recruitment of troops. It is therefore important that our troops feel valued and supported in their missions; after all, they are the backbone of our fighting forces. The Government therefore need to prioritise their welfare, fair treatment and conditions of service. Regiments and individual soldiers are being asked to do too much too often without proper regard to their welfare needs.

If we send our troops overseas, they will obviously need to be well prepared and protected. At home, however, the situation may be little better, with nearly half of armed forces accommodation considered substandard and the quality of medical care at times questionable, as recent reports have indicated. Those are just prominent examples, but there are others.

We also need to focus on the needs of armed forces families and the issues facing them to ensure that they get a good deal and are looked after while their loved ones are away, and I shall return to that in a minute. There is also a link to issues such as education for armed forces children.

Another issue is tax. It is ludicrous that men who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have to pay council tax back home.

Married quarters often leave a lot to be desired. There is also the issue of the time that families do not spend together because of increasing deployments. Overstretch means that troops are spending longer away, and anybody who says that overstretch is a myth is not living in the real world.

I pay tribute to all those who provide Her Majesty’s armed forces with welfare and medical services. However, they are in short supply, and we have already heard about dentists. I had an Adjournment debate on education for armed forces children a few years ago, and I invite the Minister and his officials to look at what was said and at what the then Minister promised in response to see whether it has been delivered.

Welfare is important for the well-being of families back home, particularly when troops are serving overseas, but also when they are on training schedules elsewhere. We pay tribute not only to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, but to others including the Royal British Legion.

On schools, I have the great privilege of representing one of the super-garrison towns, and we have several garrison schools. However, the turbulence factor is not taken into account in the funding of those schools. Indeed, it has got worse in recent years because the hot-school-meals service that those schools used to receive has been withdrawn by Essex county council. It is fair to say that in many parts of the country things have improved dramatically for single men, not least in Merville barracks in Colchester, where the accommodation is superb. However, that is not the case everywhere, and certainly not the case with family housing.

As an aside, the number of MOD police has been cut by 40 per cent. in my garrison, and I believe that there have been cuts in other parts of the country as well. That is related to welfare and the feel-good factor. If there was a 40 per cent. cut in the police service in a neighbourhood, it would be noticed. That is exactly what has happened.

I said that I would concentrate on the housing side of the matter. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said about housing, but let us go back to 1996, when the previous Government sold the entire MOD housing stock—57,428 houses—for £1.66 billion. Interestingly, they have ended up in the ownership of Annington Homes, which has made quite a financial killing. I shall come to that in a minute.

I have tabled parliamentary questions about the decent homes standard and, in reply, I was told that the MOD has even higher standards—the standard for condition, bands 1 to 4. That is the good news. However, then we discover that all is not well. Indeed, I raised that matter previously and received a letter from the chief executive of Annington Homes in which he informed me that the MOD

“directly benefits from our sales due to a profit share arrangement which formed part of the original transaction to buy the MoD homes in 1996. To date the Treasury has received over £145 million from Annington.”

My question to the Minister is: why has that £145 million not been ploughed back into increasing the housing stock? A very illuminating passage in that letter informed me:

“You are perfectly entitled to call for the standard of accommodation for all Service personnel to be improved, a sentiment shared by many, but you know that Annington is not involved in how and when the MoD do this. The MoD chose to retain its responsibility for the management and maintenance of the properties it leases from us and, naturally, makes its own decisions about its priorities.”

Annington is saying that the ball is very firmly in the MOD’s court. I ask the Minister to dwell on that.

I shall quote from an article in the current edition of Private Eye—a magazine that we all read fondly—under the headline: “All MoD cons”. That is one of the best headlines that I have seen in relation to this story—the words “MoD” and “cons” slip nicely off the tongue. It reads:

“Meanwhile the company that bought the housing in 1996, Annington, continues to do very nicely. When the forces no longer want to rent houses from Annington the company sells them, with the MoD recouping a share of any profit on the property it paid for in the first place. But the taxpayer only gets 22 percent of the gains, and since 1996 has recouped just £140 million.”

Now, there is a bit of a variation there, but the general picture is the same and virtually confirms what Annington said. It continues:

That means that in the same period Annington, controlled by Japanese investment bank Nomura, has bagged £500m”.

Let us bear in mind that the 57,428 houses were sold for £1.66 billion. One does not have to be a mathematician to work out that Annington has made a fantastic financial killing already.

The article continues by stating that that £500 million

“would have come in very handy in the defence budget, not least for the dirty work of maintaining and upgrading the housing that remains the public sector’s responsibility). And there’s plenty more bunce to come: the MoD’s share of future gains, expected to be large, soon drops to 10 per cent. and disappears completely in 2011.”

I invite the Minister, his colleagues and the Government in general, to look again at what went on and what can be done to retrieve the biggest rip-off, I believe, of all the privatisations under the previous Government.

Much more needs to be said, but I appreciate that the clock is moving on. I hope that the Minister will take very seriously the housing issue because it is very important to retention, along with welfare, education and MOD policing. I hope that he will also look at what is not working in recruitment because quite clearly it is not right that 10 per cent. of people serving in the British Army are not British. However much we welcome members of the Commonwealth serving in the British Army and, to a certain extent, Air Force and Navy, the simple fact is that something is not right if we cannot encourage a sufficient number of our own young men and women to join Her Majesty’s armed forces.

Thank you very much, Mr. Williams, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this debate and for the excellent opportunity it has given us. We have heard contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) which touched on a number of important issues.

The root problem, which a number of hon. Members have identified, with the difficulties in recruitment and retention and the general overstretch of the armed forces comes down to a central question. In 1998, the Government did a good piece of work on the strategic defence review, out of which came the defence planning assumptions, which underlie the size and shape of the armed forces. Those assumptions were that we could undertake a certain level of operational activity, but, as the NAO has noted, we have exceeded that level in each of the past five years.

As far as I can tell, there is no sign that that is going to change in the near future. I know that we only signed up to a three-year Afghanistan operation, but it is clear from talking to NATO planners and from the state of that country that realistically we will be there for a decade or so. It is also clear from recent announcements on the Iraq deployment that although we have been able to reduce troop levels, we are going to retain several thousand troops, again, probably for the medium term. We will continue, therefore, to run our armed forces “very hot” to quote the phrase of the Chief of the General Staff, which will bring with it a continuation of the problems with retention and recruitment.

I have raised that matter because, as we all know, this summer, or possibly, autumn, the Chancellor will announce the comprehensive spending review settlement for the MOD, which will set out the spending plans for the next three years. It would have been sensible for the MOD to review its defence planning assumptions ahead of the comprehensive spending review in order to make the case to the Chancellor for the appropriate budget settlement. It is disappointing that that review will not be concluded until next year. If those defence planning assumptions are that we will be running at the current level and that we will have to recruit and retain more members of the armed forces, it is going to be a bit late if the funds are not in place to do so.

That can be seen clearly from looking at our current manning levels. The Government’s own requirement for the armed forces is 183,950 personnel, and the latest figures are that we have only 178,610. On the Government’s own figures—a requirement based on defence planning assumptions that themselves are too low—and based on the level of commitment, we have a shortage in the armed forces of more than 5,000 personnel.

The situation is getting worse, because the level of exits from the armed forces is exceeding the number of those recruited, which will increase the problems with recruitment, retention and the level of deployments in both the regular forces and the Territorial Army, which we have heard about. Indeed, the Chief of the Defence Staff recently told the Select Committee on Defence that the most important thing for the armed forces was to achieve full manning—to get to the required level set by the MOD. Given the figures and trends and what hon. Members have said, that does not strike me as being at all likely. Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to get back to that manning requirement level? How does he plan to do that?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire has said, the most worrying thing with recruitment is that although there has been some increase—last year was the second-worst year in the past five for recruitment, rather than the worst, so there has been some progress off a very low base—there has been an increase in what the MOD spends on recruitment. Army recruitment costs have increased by 34 per cent. and now run at £89 million. The cost per recruit has also gone up: in 2001-02, we were spending just under £4,500 per recruit, but we are now spending about £7,000 per recruit, because recruitment has not risen in line with the budget.

The MOD has a central defence schools presentation team that does excellent presentations in schools across the country. The Minister himself has said:

“These presentations are extremely well received and do allow us to get our messages over about the importance of defence. Almost all schools ask for a repeat visit the following year which has lead to a yearly increase in presentations. Civilian and military staff are seen as excellent role models and there are consequently significant benefits for future recruiting.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 922W.]

That shows that there are benefits both in recruiting and in communicating to the wider world. It also relates to a point made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan about presenting the armed forces as an attractive career prospect to ethnic minority populations, thus bringing a double benefit.

Unfortunately, having said all of those fine words, the Minister has also announced that the defence schools presentation team is being wound up. Those presentations will no longer take place, but will, I am afraid, be replaced by an on-the-web solution. However good the penetration of the internet is, particularly with younger people, it is no replacement for having men and women from our armed forces physically going into our schools and doing all those excellent things that the Minister has acknowledged.

I want to pick up the points made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan about recruiting from our ethnic minority populations. When I pressed him in an intervention, I was genuinely trying to understand what some of the barriers are. I know that the MOD has taken steps in the past few years to try to recruit more widely from ethnic minority populations. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire has mentioned recent efforts to recruit from our Muslim population. It is clear that we have not been as successful in recruiting from those groups as we had hoped, but at the end of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I was not much wiser. I do not find the phrase “institutionally racist” at all helpful, and I am still completely unclear about what he believes we need to change in our armed forces. He has simply cast a slur on them. I know that he said that individuals in the armed forces are not racist, but simply branding the whole organisation as racist is not very helpful—it is an insult and it does not take us any further forward.

This is a short debate, and perhaps I did not make myself clear. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has suggested some possible solutions. We have to positively discriminate to get rid of this unacceptable anomaly, which we have not done up to now. That is what I propose.

We have a great deal of difficulty with recruiting, but I am still not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he saying that people are coming forward to join, but are not being recruited, because the evidence does not seem to bear that out? I absolutely agree with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on this. He has said that we must ensure that the armed forces are clear that there is absolutely no place for racism.

I want the armed forces to be seen to recruit from across the whole population. I believe that they do so, but they need to be seen to recruit and promote on merit. That is the direction the Government want to go, and it is certainly what I want, but the problem is moving from that aspiration to specific policies. I am still unclear as to exactly what needs to be changed, but, as the hon. Gentleman has said, we do not have time to go into that in great detail. Will the Minister touch on some of the things that the Government are doing?

Moving briefly to retention, medical treatment has been mentioned. To be fair to the Government, the recent problem at Selly Oak was about not the clinical and surgical treatment that members of our armed forces receive, which is generally acknowledged to be very good, but the environment in which they recover and recuperate, which is a slight difference on which I hope the Minister will elaborate. The Chief of the General Staff has said that his aspiration and expectation for when that hospital is redeveloped in three years’ time is that there will be dedicated military wards on which armed forces personnel can recover.

At Prime Minister’s questions last week, however, the Prime Minister said that it would be wrong to have a military ward with empty beds that could be used by civilian patients. There is a problem here: if we want a dedicated ward on which our armed forces personnel can recover with comrades who can understand what they have been through in combat, we have to accept that that ward cannot be used as an overspill for the busy district general hospital in Birmingham. Given that the comments of the Prime Minister and the Chief of the General Staff are not reconcilable, will the Minister tell us which of them has the position correct, because I am unclear about what the Government are aiming for?

Finally, we need to return to the general issue of commitment, resources and what we ask our armed forces to do. The Government need to review their defence planning assumptions and consider what they require our armed forces to do and how large the forces need to be. They should then set proper recruitment targets and consider the whole package, including issues that we have discussed today such as housing and the operational welfare package—there has been some improvement with that, but there is more to do. If we do not get the big picture right about what we are going to ask our armed forces to do and what size they should be to do it, regardless of how well all the other things are done and policies are implemented, we will have the central problem of running the armed forces too hot and having very little “left in the locker”, as the Chief of the Defence Staff has said. In that case, we will find ourselves up against those problems time and again, and we will be unable to solve them.

In the 1998 strategic defence review, the Government said:

“We must also deal with the underlying problems of undermanning and overstretch…A crucial test will be whether we can solve these problems.”

So far, the Government are failing that crucial test.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this important debate, which has given us a good opportunity to go through several issues of recruitment and retention. Unfortunately, because of the time, I shall not be able to deal with all of the issues that have been raised, but I shall write to hon. Members about specific issues, not least regarding their constituencies or experiences.

I welcome the debate on this complex and challenging business. As hon. Members have said, the problem with recruitment sits against a backdrop of prosperity, high employment and a strong economy. Having to recruit against that backdrop is a challenge. The National Audit Office acknowledged in its report last November that it was wrong to suggest that the armed forces could not secure the right number of people to meet their needs.

I accept that we face challenges. As the NAO commented, we have a

“good understanding of what leads individuals to join the Services and of the increasingly challenging recruiting environment it operates”.

Perceptions are also important, so we need to deal with the myths. I shall try to cover most of the main points in the time available, but I shall first discuss numbers for a moment or two.

The combined effects of recruitment, retention and restructuring gave a trained strength for the armed forces of 178,610 at the start of 2007. That figure is 97.1 per cent. of the full requirement—an increase from 96.6 per cent. in October 2006—and is a sign of steady improvement. The Opposition have acknowledged the improvement, but we want to do more.

We must bear it in mind that all three services are being restructured, to a greater or lesser extent, better to meet today’s strategic threats. The key point is that the services are striving to achieve a manning balance within 2 per cent. of the requirement by 2008. As hon. Members would expect, the Ministry of Defence is working closely in partnership with the services and continues to use a range of financial, professional and social measures to secure sufficient capable and motivated personnel.

I shall set out what we are doing. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommended a good pay award for 2007, as has been generally acknowledged. It includes an above-inflation increase of 3.3 per cent. for all service personnel, with the notable exception of the most junior ranks, who will receive more than 9 per cent. I should tell the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that the relevant salary with the increase from 1 April this year will be £15,677, which represents an increase of 9.3 per cent. For many, this represents an increase of £100 a month and is the largest military pay rise in four years. It is well deserved and a recognition of what our armed forces do. It gives a clear signal of the value that we place on the people who serve in them.

The pay award also specifically recognises those who serve their country on dangerous and challenging operations. Last October, we announced a new operational allowance, which is a tax-free bonus of £2,240 for six months’ deployment paid to service personnel serving in specified operational locations. The allowance is accumulated at a daily rate of £12.31 by all regulars, mobilised reserves and those on full-time reserve service for each day that they serve in those locations. It is paid as a lump sum at the end of the tour, giving a welcome and tangible reward for operational service.

On the basis that I have not been paid my operational bonus from six months ago, will the Minister confirm that soldiers have been paid the allowance?

I can give that confirmation, unless the hon. Gentleman knows of someone who has not been paid it.

You have not been paid it. I shall personally look into the case. I went to Iraq and Afghanistan recently, visiting various bases and barracks, and found from my discussions that this had been paid. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman’s allowance has not been paid.

I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I shall personally look into the matter.

The NAO’s report acknowledged that we needed to focus on encouraging people to stay longer in some particularly important areas. That point was raised by Conservative Members. We are focusing on the infantry, the Royal Marines and air crew, where we are using financial retention incentives to encourage people to stay. The cost will be about £17 million, securing a valuable return of service that will contribute directly to operational effectiveness. Of course, we also use a range of other measures.

Recruiting targets have been discussed this morning, and, in general, recruiting has increased. Although the armed forces offer a wealth of opportunities, not least in terms of training and education, the reality is that our recruiters operate in a very competitive environment, as has also been acknowledged. We need about 20,000 new entrants each year across all three services. Young people have more opportunities than ever before, given the strong economy and the Government’s encouragement to stay in education.

The hon. Member for Banbury mentioned recruiting younger people. We have been highly successful in recruiting 16 and 17-year-olds, and he may be aware of the Army foundation college in Harrogate. Places are available to school leavers aged 16 to 17 years and one month. He alluded to the fact, of which account is not often taken in the complaints that are made and the issues that we hear about, that the armed forces do a lot to improve young people’s education and skills. That leads me on to the specific point that being in the armed forces is a good thing for one’s future because it gives the leadership, skills, communications and teamwork that can be taken on when one leaves the armed forces. That is why so many people who leave the armed forces—they receive an excellent resettlement package when they do so—go on to gain a higher level of employment than those elsewhere and contribute greatly to their community.

The issue of the recruitment of ethnic minorities has rightly been mentioned. Although recruitment goals were not reached in 2005-06, the services continue to commit significant effort and resources to engaging and raising awareness among all of the UK’s minority groups to encourage their members to consider a career in the armed forces. It is important to say that ethnic minorities are beginning to progress through the ranks structure and reach more senior levels. Recently, an ethnic minority officer in the Royal Navy was promoted to rear admiral, becoming the highest ranking ethnic minority officer in the armed forces.

The armed forces regularly review their recruitment strategies and policies, with a view to engaging ethnic minority groups, raising awareness and promoting careers in the services. We have heard about the sums that are being put into recruitment. Recent results have shown an increase in the level of interest in armed forces careers among minority communities. The challenge now is to convert interest into recruitment.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) that I do not accept that the armed forces are institutionally racist. I have talked to the chiefs of staff—the people at the very top. They are very committed to improving the recruitment from ethnic minorities, and much time and effort goes into doing that. I shall not go into the comments made by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). We must ensure that the armed forces are moving on, that there is a clear strategy for recruitment and that there is encouragement of promotion and of the advancement of people’s careers.

By 1 January, we had recruited 96 per cent. of our requirement for the financial year. While recruiting is generally up on the previous year, there is still more to do, particularly for elements of the Army. That is why we have introduced recruiting incentives in shortage areas, such as the infantry and Royal Artillery. So far, the signs have been positive; there has been a 30 per cent. increase in potential recruits to the infantry and a 44 per cent. increase in respect of the Royal Artillery when compared with last year. The Army has launched “one Army recruiting” to bring together regular and reserve soldiers. I pay tribute to the hard work, determination and imagination of recruiters in reaching the young people we need. Young people will benefit from service.

I return to the question of retention. A healthy and thriving organisation has people joining and leaving it at various stages of their lives. The armed forces are essentially young organisations. Some people retire at the end of a full career, while others leave early voluntarily. The services well understand voluntary outflow and plan accordingly. Voluntary outflow from the armed forces has varied little over the past decade, and compares favourably with the outflow from the rest of the public sector and from the private sector. We cannot purely rely on transactional measures to secure retention. We also use a range of social and community measures that are aimed at maintaining the morale not only of our serving people but of their families. For the Royal Navy and the Army, the latest attitude surveys show significant improvement in the self-assessment of morale compared with previous surveys, although the Royal Air Force showing was slightly lower.

We have continuously improved the operational welfare package for those serving on operations. The package directly upholds our obligations to our people by providing extra support for their physical and emotional well-being when they are employed on operations. It was clear from the seven-day visit that I made to Afghanistan and Iraq a few weeks ago that morale was high; it was even higher among those involved in the front-line operations. While some issues to do with the welfare package were raised, the welfare package was broadly welcomed by most people. I spoke to hundreds of members of the armed forces during my visit.

The recent improvements made include an increase in the free weekly telephone calls from 20 to 30 minutes, and better internet access. Other benefits include: the free e-bluey, which is particularly popular; free forces airmail; free packages from families to personnel of up to 2 kg over the Christmas period; and up to 14 days’ rest and recuperation leave during a six-month tour. That, combined with the new operational allowance, means that there has been improvement. We continue to examine how we can improve the package.

The issue of accommodation was rightly raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and others. I had the pleasure of visiting Colchester a few months ago, where I met the Paras and saw the new accommodation that has been built. I readily acknowledge that we need to do more in this area. There is a legacy of underfunding, but we must ensure that the right and proper accommodation is in place for our service people. It will take some time to deal with this issue. As I have seen on my recent visits, new accommodation for both families and single personnel is coming on stream all the time. In this financial year, we spent more than £700 million on accommodation and have upgraded many service houses. We plan to spend about £5 billion over the next 10 years, but there are no quick fixes because we need to address a legacy that goes back many years. We must continue our improvement in this area. Opening up the opportunities for home ownership is a part of our strategy.

I have gone on the record many times in recent weeks and months about the health service issue. Our people are getting the best world-class care possible. When people come back wounded from operations they receive first-class care in the Selly Oak facility and in the national health service; I have spoken to many service personnel and their families, and they all praise the care and treatment that they are receiving. There is also an excellent rehabilitation centre at Headley Court. We can always do more. One area in which we need to do more is mental health, and we are examining that as part of a partnership with the NHS and Combat Stress.