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Volume 477: debated on Monday 16 June 2008

The armed forces are stretched, but the chiefs of staff advise me that the current situation is manageable. Some of our people are working harder than is the ideal. We are, however, taking steps to alleviate the pressures on individuals through a number of financial and non-financial measures aimed at improving retention and balancing manpower in areas of current risk.

This weekend, President Bush stressed the importance of listening to our generals when making decisions about troop deployment. Has the Minister listened to General Sir Richard Dannatt’s warning that overstretch has left us with “almost no capability” to deal with the unexpected? Does the Minister agree with the general?

I just said that we talked to the chiefs of staff, and they have assured us that, although there is stretch in the armed forces, the situation is manageable. The Chief of the General Staff is one of those chiefs. He is part of those discussions. Of course he has been consulted; of course he continues to be consulted. The opinion that I have just given is the opinion that is expressed by the Chief of the General Staff as well as the other chiefs.

Our armed forces would be stretched beyond breaking point had it not been for the dedicated and courageous service of non-UK nationals. A decade ago, there were just 600 non-UK non-Nepalese soldiers in the British Army. Today, there are around 7,000 and rising. Will the Minister be sorting out his manning difficulties by making a career in the Army more attractive to young people or will he continue to buck the UK labour market in favour of overseas recruitment?

Our recruitment in the last couple of years has been pretty buoyant. We are able to get people into the armed forces. Recruitment figures achieved in 2007-08 were nearly 1,500 higher than in the previous year, but we know that retention is a problem, which is why we have brought in the various allowances—most recently, the commitment bonus of £15,000. It is not the intention to depend on overseas recruits. It is the intention to be able to recruit within the UK. Let us make it clear: the package available to a young infantryman is worth, by any estimate, £25,000, which is more than that for a parking attendant.

Following on from that, about 10 days ago I was privileged to be on HMS Bulwark, where morale was exceptionally high, and I want to use this opportunity to send my congratulations on that to Captain Jeremy Blunden and the ship’s company. We came across a number of Commonwealth citizens—some on secondment, some direct recruits. What assessment has the Department made of the extra training that we can give to increase the strength of the Royal Navy among our allies and thus help the campaigns that we have to face?

The Royal Navy co-operates with all our allies in trying to assist whenever it can. Anyone who goes down to Flag Officer Sea Training at Plymouth will invariably see other navies participating alongside our own and trying not only to develop their interoperability, but to learn any lessons that they can from us, as we should learn any lessons we can from other nations.

Does the Minister not accept that retention is a serious problem and that many experienced, trained soldiers are leaving the forces early, for whatever reason? That was highlighted to me recently when my wife and I attended beating the retreat on Horse Guards as guests of the Army Benevolent Fund. Those soldiers said to us both that retention is very difficult. Can we not do more to try to retain those whom we have trained at great expense and who are of huge value to our armed services?

Retention is a huge issue—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—but pay in itself is not the only answer to it. There are many complexities to the retention issue. We lose an awful lot of people during training and the Army is actively considering whether it can lose fewer during that process—without lowering standards, but by looking at its procedures.

There is also the issue of the soldiering that our people do today. They willingly face complex and dangerous circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if one talks to them in theatre, they say that they enjoy what they do. But they get their soldiering experience much quicker, over a shorter time scale, than previous generations. Therefore, retention will remain a difficult, complex issue. We must continue to strive to do everything that we can to meet that challenge. The hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot afford to lose the skills in which we have invested so much.