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Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

Armed forces recruiting remains a top priority within the MOD, and a new multi-media recruitment campaign was launched on 11 January. As I have previously announced to the House, there has been a series of issues affecting the management of the recruitment process, including IT problems. Action is in hand to address these issues. The recruiting element of the Army website was updated in December, a simplified online medical questionnaire was launched last week, and a new simplified mobile and tablet-compatible application form will be launched later this week. Although it is early days, there is evidence that the principal objective of the national media campaign—to raise awareness of armed forces recruiting—is being achieved, with visits to the Army recruiting website up by over 50% compared with last year’s weekly average.

I thank the Secretary of State for that candid answer. Will he confirm that he has no idea how many applications to join the reserves have been lost as a result of the IT fiasco over which this Government have presided, and will he explain how he plans to make potential reservists aware that their applications might not have been processed?

I think I have dealt with this on a previous occasion. We are aware from anecdotal evidence that some applications have been lost in the system—

By definition, we cannot answer that question. Every effort has been made by the application of additional manpower to the system, going back manually checking records, to make contact with anybody who may have got lost in the system during the past year, and I welcome the opportunity to place it on record that we would welcome being contacted, as my office has been, by anybody who is so affected who wants to pick up the threads and re-embark on the process. We will make sure that that happens.

With the fiasco of the failed recruitment system costing, I think, £6.7 million and the failure to recruit reservists to plug the gap from redundancies, will the Secretary of State now admit that he is gambling with the nation’s safety?

No, and I would not gamble with the nation’s safety. The £6.7 million has to be seen in the context of the overall budget for the reserves and regular recruitment process, which is £1.36 billion. As the hon. Gentleman will know, because I have said it many times before, the project to increase the size of the reserves is not to backfill for the regulars as the Regular Army is reduced in size to 82,000; it is part of a broader restructuring of our forces, making different use of regulars and reserves, additional use of contractors and more effective use of civilians.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that the size of the armed forces is important in relation to not only initial deployment but the resilience that will allow that deployment to be sustained over a period. In the light of the speech he made at Munich, which has been extensively reported, what assessment has the Ministry of Defence made of the time that the United Kingdom could sustain, for example, a brigade or a division?

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the SDSR 2010 sets out a clear level of ambition. We have defined what we will be able to deploy on a sustained basis, and over time the increase in the size of the reserves will be essential to provide that resilience on a sustained operation. The point that I was making at Munich, which I have made before in the House, is—I think most Members would agree—that the mood of the public after 10 years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan is unlikely to be supportive of a sustained deployment at scale in the near future.

Although I welcome the progress at Recruiting Group since General Tickell took over there, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the two areas of reserve recruiting that do not come under its processes—the recruiting for the officer preparatory course and transfers from the Regular Army to reserves—are both running at healthy levels?

My hon. Friend is right. As he knows, one of the things that I am trying to do is see what lessons we can draw from the relative success in those two areas and apply them to the broader reserves recruitment agenda.

22. My local artillery Territorial Army unit in Abertillery plans a recruitment surge shortly. Given the self-inflicted problems for Army recruitment over the past year, will the Minister publish figures on how many applicants there are from Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively? (902335)

I do not believe that we maintain those data on the basis of the component nations of the United Kingdom, and the data that are published are a matter for the defence statistician, who is answerable to the national statistician.

The challenge of meeting the reserves target is well rehearsed, but recruiting to the Regular Army is also in difficulty. Will the Secretary of State give his assessment of this and will he explain the role of regular regiments in assisting with their own recruiting? What continuing role will they have?

I think this point applies equally to the regulars and reserves. There are things that can be done nationally. Support for the process of managing recruitment nationally is certainly a key part of our plans for the future, but that does not mean that individual units will not have a critical role to play in the attraction function—bringing in people in the first place and getting them to commit to joining the armed forces—and we will give an appropriate focus to that activity.

23. Will the Secretary of State tell us how often he personally reviews the recruitment figures and, more importantly, whether there will be independent scrutiny of them by, for example, the Defence Select Committee or the Intelligence and Security Committee? (902336)

I have given a commitment to publish them, so I have no doubt that, whether I say so or not, they will be subject to external scrutiny. However, just to reassure the hon. Gentleman, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for defence personnel, veterans and welfare, is holding weekly meetings with the senior military personnel responsible. I am holding formal monthly meetings—in fact, regular meetings over and above that—to monitor what is going on. We are absolutely clear that this is our most immediate priority for action in the Department at the moment.