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Army Career Offices (Wales)

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and to discuss the vital role that that Army recruitment offices play in Welsh life. One of the main features of many high streets, not only in Wales but all over the country, is the Army recruitment office. Indeed, I can recall many family and friends joining the Army as a result of a visit to one of them. Many people will have joined because they were able to talk face to face with someone who had served in the forces. I have no doubt that such expertise allowed potential recruits to go into forces life with their eyes wide open. However, as recruitment offices close across Wales and beyond, this vital advice could be lost for ever.

The armed forces have a proud history in Wales. The Royal Welsh was created in 2006 by the amalgamation of the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Both of the original regiments trace their history back to the 17th century. The Royal Regiment of Wales became the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, while the Royal Welch Fusiliers became the 1st Battalion. The 2nd Battalion can boast of having been involved in many of Britain’s most famous battles, including the defiant stand at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu war in 1879, when it was the 24th Regiment of Foot.

Anyone who finds themselves in a town centre on Remembrance Sunday will see young and old come together to honour our war dead. They will know of the very special link between Wales and our armed forces. If further evidence of that link was needed, it came when I was proud to stand with many parliamentary colleagues and former members of the Welsh Cavalry last year, as we successfully battled to save one of the oldest and most distinguished regiments in the British Army from closure. One of the arguments that we used then was that the south Wales valleys have historically been an excellent recruiting ground for the armed forces, and in particular the Welsh Cavalry.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that communities such as those that we represent have always looked upon the armed forces as a clear career path for them and that we should be offering young people—young men and young women—who need the opportunities to go forward in their career this service on our high streets. We should make it easier for them to get a trade, get a career and move on in their lives.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know so many ex-servicemen, veterans and people who have had something to do with the forces, and they all think that it was a wonderful opportunity and that they were given opportunities that they probably would not have had in civilian life.

I went to visit the recruiting office in Carmarthen and was surprised that the soldiers—Welsh soldiers—in that office said, “Actually, we don’t need a high street location any more. What we rely on is people joining through the internet, and what we need is a different facility to the one that we had years ago.” Were they wrong?

If the hon. Gentleman allows me to develop my argument further, I will come to that point as I go through my speech. That is the point of this debate; I could answer him in 30 seconds, but I will go through the whole debate.

With the closure of Army recruitment offices, it is my sincere belief that this vital link between Wales and the armed forces could be broken. Like many right hon. and hon. Members from all parties, I value highly the role that the men and women of the armed forces play in our national life. I worked for my predecessor as the MP for Islwyn—Lord Touhig, who is himself a former Minister with responsibility for veterans—and I well remember how keen he was to press home the message right across the country that joining the forces is not like going to work in Asda, Tesco or Barclays. The brave men and women in the forces risk their lives every day, risking serious injury and death.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—a Conservative Member—who said, and I quote him exactly:

“Joining the Army is not a career you can just research on the internet. You really need to sit down and talk with someone about it”?

Basically, that is a very sound statement and sums up very well how important these recruitment offices are.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who has, in a nutshell, summed up the debate—perhaps I should sit down now—and that is the reason why I have secured it. Put simply, the sacrifice is unique and special. In Wales, we value the contribution that the armed forces make to our freedom. Joining the forces is not a decision that we can take lightly, as my hon. Friend has just said. It is a way of life. It will affect family and friends. Therefore, it is vital for those who seek a career in the armed forces to have all the information and advice possible available to them.

When I visited the careers office in Cardiff, my experience was that young people, particularly those from the valleys, see the careers offices in places such as Abergavenny and Pontypridd as opportunities to learn lots of information about the great jump that they will make in joining the armed services.

I thank my parliamentary neighbour; I am pleased that both my parliamentary neighbours have intervened on me. On the flip side, people who are not sure might think that the armed forces are not for them, so careers offices are a good facility to ensure that we recruit exactly the right people. I agree with my hon. Friend.

As I said, the armed forces are not something people sign up to online after half an hour of looking for jobs on Google or any other, job-related website and thinking, “Ah, that’s a good idea.” No, it is much more serious than that. Having a point of reference on the high street is vital. Over the years, Army recruitment offices have served Wales and the UK. Also, for the parents of potential recruits, it can be comforting to know that they will have someone to talk to about the career choice that their son or daughter is about to make. Army recruitment offices are familiar and proud features of our high streets right across Wales and Britain. They are a focal point for any young person considering the armed forces as a career.

The Ministry of Defence recently revealed that seven out of 12 Army careers offices in Wales have closed or will close by the end of next month. We are now without an Army careers office in Pontypridd, Abergavenny, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest, Rhyl, Aberystwyth or Bridgend. If we spoke to people in those communities, I am sure that the majority would know where their Army careers office was based. They might walk past it on their way to work, but it was always there. Some of them may even have popped in for a chat about what life in the armed forces is like.

As we move through life, national service becomes a dim and distant memory. Our forces’ footprint is getting smaller all the time. The closures mean that Army life is becoming much more remote. Recruitment offices in south Wales are now consigned only to major areas such as Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. In north Wales, only the offices in Bangor and Wrexham remain open. The thing that I find most disappointing is that the closures were carried out with no formal ministerial announcement and were discovered only following parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith).

Does my hon. Friend agree that today could be a great day? The Government once proposed abolishing the post of chief coroner, but thanks to more consideration and wide-scale opposition, they changed their mind. Does my hon. Friend agree that today could be the day when the Minister changes his mind on this matter and that that would be a great day for all concerned?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think that it is a sign of weakness for someone to say that they were wrong about something or a flip-flop to say that they have changed their mind. They would have analysed the facts, seen that their decision was wrong and gone about rectifying it. I would like to see more of that from the Government. There is no real worry in saying that they were wrong about something, and often it is a display of strength.

The Government have outsourced Army recruitment to a private firm called Capita. It seems perverse that Capita has secured a contract for recruitment worth £440 million, while the armed forces are shedding staff left, right and centre. Some 20,000 regular troops have been axed. Capita had promised to save the Army hundreds of thousands of pounds in recruitment costs when it won the contract. It also tells us that 80% of recruits will be less than 40 minutes away from an Army recruitment centre. Have its staff ever travelled on a bus in rural Wales or tried to get to Cardiff from the valleys during rush hour? We have seen campaigns to save our high street, yet the Government sit back and allow Capita to close recruitment offices. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that, no sooner have the Government privatised armed forces recruitment, anyone considering a career in the Army has been directed online and lost the face-to-face contact that made careers offices so valuable.

Not only Wales is being affected by the closures; across the UK, 83 out of a total of 156 offices will close, leaving just 73 open. Army careers offices were once the first port of call for young men or women who wanted to find out more about making the unique sacrifice and joining our armed forces.

The Minister will come to the point that I made, so I will deal with just Carmarthen. The fact is that people were not using the careers office. The soldiers who manned it did not think it was worth keeping open, let alone what I said. Furthermore, Army recruitment has been high, not just numerically but in terms of standards. I am not quite sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s point has the grounding that he suggests.

Some hon. Members are known for not speaking with notes, but I have prepared this speech. If the hon. Gentleman waits, I will give him the answer.

I want to touch on how valuable the offices are to recruitment. Taking the example of Pontypridd, 73 people were recruited to the armed forces through that office last year. That office is now closed. In Rhyl, some 72 people were recruited; in Carmarthen, 33 people were recruited; Abergavenny, 28; and Haverfordwest, 34. They are all members of the armed forces who might not be in the Army today had they walked down to their local high street to chat to someone, only to find that the office had been replaced by an empty shop unit and a sign telling them to search online for more information.

The Government are defending the closures by saying that more and more people are looking for information about the forces online. That is not surprising; they have nowhere else to go for information. Furthermore, the assumption is that all young people have the resources to look online. Somehow, all kids these days are thought of as computer whizz kids. We hear all the time from hon. Members who represent more rural parts of the country that their constituents have problems with reliable broadband connection.

In my constituency of Islwyn, the lack of a reliable and speedy broadband service is a problem that I have encountered over and again. Internet connection in parts of Wales is not as reliable as in other parts of the UK. Many households in my constituency choose not to use the internet simply because of the cost. It is all very well saying that young people are active online, but if they are living at home with their parents or grandparents, they may not have internet access. If people have grown up without broadband, they are much less likely to search online for jobs or look up information from a laptop or computer. It is to such people that an Army careers office makes a difference.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a hard-fought campaign to save the Welsh Cavalry last year. What that campaign showed was just how much we value our servicemen and women in Wales. I remember receiving hundreds of letters, e-mails and postcards calling for the Welsh Cavalry to be retained. In the end, it was a bittersweet victory, as we lost some 600 jobs from the historic Royal Welsh Battalion. I seriously hope that the closures are not another sign that the armed forces are being affected by the Government’s cost cutting.

Quite simply, the Army means a lot to people, not only in my constituency but across Wales and the country. We are fiercely proud of our heritage and history, which for ever binds Wales and the armed forces together. I sincerely hope that the closure of Army recruitment offices will have little or no effect on that vital relationship. Many potential recruits, serving personnel and families will look with interest at what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bayley, not least because you yourself come from a constituency with strong military connections. I am sure that you have some empathy with some of the points that we are debating this afternoon from both sides of the argument.

I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate. I assure him that the Government place a high value on the quality and dedication of Welsh recruits who join our armed forces. I want to pay tribute to members of the armed forces from Wales who have made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the security of the United Kingdom—a sacrifice that we will never forget.

I am delighted to be joined in the Chamber by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb). I know that he takes a keen interest in the matter, and he has discussed the issue with me before the debate.

The Whips Office, in which I, too, have had the privilege of serving, is a noble estate. Remember our corporate motto: “We are from the Whips Office, and we are here to help.”

Wales and the Welsh people play a large and important part in our armed forces. From a population that represents just under 5% of the total UK population, Wales has consistently provided between 6% and 7% of total recruits to the British Army each year, so it is fair to say that Wales punches above its weight. Additionally, 10 of the 22 local authorities in Wales have already shown their support for the armed forces and veterans by signing up to community covenants, and the remainder are expected to sign up this year. I am sure you would welcome that as much as the rest of the House, Mr Bayley.

We ask a great deal of the men and women who join our armed forces, and we need the right young men and women to join up. Although the regular armed forces are reducing, they are still very much open for business. The Army, for example, continues to require 7,500 new recruits a year, yet over the past decade the Army has missed the recruiting targets necessary to meet its operational requirements. To address that, the Army has entered a partnering arrangement, known as the recruiting partnering project, with Capita, which seeks to improve Army recruiting by exploiting the expertise of the private sector while retaining a strong military interface with potential recruits at key stages. The contract covers the entire recruiting and selection process for both the Regular Army and the Territorial Army and will transform the way the Army recruits officers and soldiers. In doing so—this is an important point to stress—the contract will release more than 1,000 military recruiters back to the front line, where they are needed, and deliver some £300 million in benefits over 10 years.

The recruiting partnering project will also provide a centralised recruiting operation delivered through a five-region structure using 73 Army careers centres, of which 38 are embedded within tri-service armed forces careers offices. The five current selection centres, including the Army Officer Selection Board, will be retained. To co-ordinate all recruiting activities, a national recruiting centre will be set up in the headquarters Army recruiting and training division, which is based in Upavon, Wiltshire. The centre will provide an initial point of telephone and on-line contact for early inquirers and will provide recruiting teams to co-ordinate and control recruiting activity and liaise with regional recruiters. Importantly, the centre will take on back-office administration tasks, such as reference and security checks and arranging medical screenings, thereby removing the burden of much of the administrative activity from front-line military recruiters in the regions, leaving them free to concentrate on face-to-face liaison with potential recruits.

Over the years, the Army has continually reviewed the location of its recruiting offices, and the number of offices has ebbed and flowed to meet the changing demands of the recruiting environment and the needs of the armed forces. However, the approach that is now being introduced marks a major change in our marketing methods. Following extensive consultation with the Army, the number of recruiting offices will reduce by about half to 73, which reflects that times have changed since the hon. Member for Islwyn and I left school and began looking for work. Experience tells us that today’s young people are much more likely to look online for careers guidance and advice using the many electronic devices available to them.

The UK Government have provided the Welsh Government with almost £57 million to help bring broadband to everyone and super-fast speeds to 90% of homes and businesses. The figure is more than double the amount Wales would have received had the measure been a Barnett consequential. Considerable resource has been invested to try to increase broadband capability in Wales.

That is an important point, but a tremendous number of people in Wales are still not connected to the internet. In the Caerphilly borough, for example, 37% of households have no access to the internet, which is a real problem in some of the most deprived communities, and it will not be solved overnight.

I listen to what the hon. Gentleman says, but the programme is due to accelerate in 2013, and we will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government through the Wales Office and Broadband Delivery UK so that sufficient and appropriate measures are in place to ensure the funding is ring-fenced and monitored in order to try to achieve the objective. Further progress is needed, and I hope by referencing those points I have demonstrated that we are determined to make progress where needed.

The alternative ways in which potential recruits may now gain information about joining the Army, coupled with the national recruiting centre, will to some degree reduce the reliance on a high street presence. Capita will introduce a wide selection of contact channels to Army careers centres, including access to digital communication through social media, to meet that need.

Of course, at times there is no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, particularly for a life event as significant as choosing a military career in the service of one’s country, which is why the 73 Army careers centres will be retained. The centres will be spread across the United Kingdom to ensure that more than 90% of the population is within reasonable travelling distance, which is assessed to be less than an hour by car.

The hon. Member for Islwyn asked how we will address particularly rural locations, which is a fair point, but each of the Army’s regional brigades will have its own mobile recruiting unit to provide additional cover for rural locations in situ if there is assessed to be a particular need. So we are not relying purely on modern IT and the fixed Army careers centres. As part of the package there will be mobile teams that can take advice out to potential recruits, rather than asking them to go online or physically go to a centre. I hope he accepts that we have thought about that in some detail.

Army careers centres will be used for walk-ins off the street, for nurturing and supporting personnel as they proceed through the recruiting process and for formal interviews for both Regular Army and Territorial Army candidates.

I hear what the Minister is saying about recruitment via the internet. Blaenau Gwent in the heads of the valleys is a good recruiter for the Army in particular, and it is about an hour’s drive down to Cardiff, depending on the route, I seek assurance that there will be a sustained campaign from the mobile units to ensure that young people in the heads of the valleys get a good chance to join the services.

I believe we will still be able to give people a good chance to join the services, which, after all, is what we want. We will have what one might call modern IT methods for gaining information and registering interest. There will still be fixed Army careers centres where people can go to talk about recruitment face-to-face, and there will also be the mobile teams. Where those mobile teams are deployed will be partly down to the experience of recruiters, but the capability is available to go out to people where we believe that that would benefit both them and the Army. If we did not have that capability, the hon. Gentleman might rightly criticise us for not having it, but the fact is that we have it and we intend to deploy it to good use.

The fixed Army careers centres will be manned by a mix of military and civilian staff, whose combined roles will include visits to education establishments and other local liaison activities. That will allow military personnel to spend most of their time face-to-face with potential recruits, rather than on administrative tasks that can be best managed on a centralised basis. Service personnel will continue to be at the front end of the recruiting process. It is less an outsourcing of recruiting, as some have characterised it, and more of a partnership between the Army and Capita. The Army will still be an integral part of the process.

We have heard during this debate that offices in Abergavenny, Pontypridd, Bridgend, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest, Aberystwyth and Rhyl will all be closed by the end of next month. Indeed, some of them have already closed, although not all the closures were due to the recruit partnering project per se. Army careers centres will continue to exist in Bangor, Wrexham, Swansea, Cardiff and Newport to provide guidance and advice as required.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the closures have been managed properly and in accordance with best practice. About 300 civilian staff employed in the old offices across the United Kingdom had the opportunity to transfer to Capita, and many chose to do so. Others chose to apply for the Ministry of Defence’s voluntary early release scheme. Full and proper trade union consultation took place throughout the process. As I know that he has a background as a trade union official, I am happy to assure him, before he asks, that TUPE applied.

Members will know of the Army’s intent to raise the trained strength of the Territorial Army to 30,000 by 2018 as part of the Army 2020 transformation. I have a particular interest in the process as the Minister who will effectively be in charge of it on a day-to-day basis and because I served in the Territorial Army in the 1980s as a young infantry officer. We trained for a different war in those days—really for one scenario, world war three—so I was never mobilised for active service, I was never shot at other than in training and I have no medals, but I have the Queen’s commission on my wall at home, I have worn the uniform and I understand the ethos. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is personally important to me.

The recruit partnering project is key to success, and I assure hon. Members that I have been taking a personal interest in how the Army are gearing up to meet the challenge. I am keen to ensure that all measures are taken to create the right conditions to grow the Army’s reserve. On Monday, I met with the Adjutant-General and his team at Pirbright as well as with senior officials at Capita, including Shaun King, its business director, to be briefed on how the process will operate. I spent some hours going in detail through how it is intended to work, so that we can meet our objectives, including having 30,000 trained members of the Territorial Army by the target date of 2018.

I fully support the reform programme that the Minister is describing. It was good to have him in my constituency at Pirbright for that meeting the other day. It is important not only to get money to the front line but keep it in top-notch training. Can he reassure me that the Army training camp at Pirbright will continue to train young soldiers from across the country?

As my hon. Friend knows, a basing review is under way at the moment; that might underlie part of his question. We hope to make the conclusions of that review available soon, but speaking personally, I was very impressed by what I saw at Pirbright. It is a good facility delivering high-quality training to members of our armed forces, and as the local MP, he has a right to be proud of it.

I recognise the concerns of the hon. Gentleman, but I assure him that although the changes that we are making will deliver efficiencies, they are also appropriate to how society is changing and how young people communicate and access services. I am sure that many young people of Wales will continue to choose a career in the armed forces and will serve with the same bravery and distinction that generations from Wales have shown before them.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.