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British Armed Forces: Knowledge and Experience

Volume 644: debated on Monday 9 July 2018

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that knowledge and experience are retained in each rank of the British armed forces. (906318)

The threats Britain faces are getting complex and more diverse. We are entering a phenomenon of constant confrontation by state and non-state actors. We are not at war but we are not at peace. If we are to continue to play a role on the international stage, we need to advance our defence posture, which involves investing in our three services and at all ranks.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but my question was really about the retention of skilled personnel. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I was proud to attend the armed forces celebrations in my constituency, where I chatted to a number of former and current service personnel about the consequences of accelerated promotion within the armed forces. I am told that service personnel are being pushed through the ranks to cover gaps created by a retention crisis, which in turn is placing other pressures on recruitment. What is the average length of service today compared with what it was 10 years ago?

First, let me join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Armed Forces Day, which is growing in status. It is important that we strengthen the bond between society and the armed forces, as it is from society that we recruit. The challenge we face is in recruiting people—we need to recruit 18, 19 and 20-year-olds who are fit and able then to meet the criteria.

The quality of service housing and the cost of private sector housing around RAF Brize Norton in west Oxfordshire are major factors affecting retention. What are Ministers doing to address those two factors?

I have visited Brize Norton—I was trying to weave that into the end of my answer to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris)—and with the future accommodation model, we are trying to provide greater opportunity for those who want to live on the base, rent accommodation or, indeed, live outside and get on the housing ladder. I hope that that will lead to greater retention and recruitment.

I acknowledge Ministers’ work to retain knowledge and skill in the ranks of our defence forces; it is just a pity that they do not apply the same effort to our defence industry, instead of giving a billion-pound taxpayers’ order to improve skills and jobs in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

As I said, the art of war is changing, and we need to diversify, which means recruiting a wider range of skillsets. Not everybody can come up through the ranks with all the capabilities that we need. We need to be cleverer at inviting people in at a higher rank, which is part of our enterprise approach to bringing in skillsets from civilian street at a much higher level.

One factor that affects retention is esprit de corps. The Royal Marines have a unique training system whereby officers and those of other ranks train together on their core programme. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to other branches of the armed forces doing that?

I have visited Lympstone and the operation there is fantastic for recruiting some of the brightest, the best and the fittest. My hon. Friend puts a question for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who I am sure would be delighted to have a cup of tea with him in the Tea Room.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

An unfortunate aspect of the modernising defence programme debate is that we focus so much on kit and platforms and not enough on our real deterrent: the men and women of the armed forces. When the document eventually sees the light of day, will the Minister confirm at the Dispatch Box that it will allow the Ministry of Defence to lift the 1% pay cap?

The lifting of the 1% pay cap has already advanced because the Chief Secretary to the Treasury liberated that ceiling last year when she made her statement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is pushing forward with the MDP. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that this is not just about equipment and training; it is about the people. It is the people who make our armed forces the most professional in the world.

Thinking of the defence community in the round, which is of course the Minister’s brief, perhaps he can tell us why the Government are pressing ahead with the privatisation of the defence fire and rescue service. It is another windfall for the cowboys at Capita, despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence’s internal documents have given it the highest possible risk assessment. Why on earth is he going ahead with it?

I made a full statement to the House on this issue. Capita won the contract fairly and squarely. This is not the first time that the private sector has been used. A number of airfields already have a set up in place. We need to make sure that we provide the best safety for airfields, and I think that Capita will be able to provide that.