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Armed Forces Personnel Numbers

Volume 648: debated on Monday 22 October 2018

We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces. We have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention, and these are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body reports that the outflow rates—personnel leaving the armed forces—are at “historically high levels” under this Government. Why does the Minister think that is?

Retaining our service personnel is always a challenge, and that is precisely why we are focusing hard on the offer—the opportunity to train and to serve overseas. Only this month, some 5,500 personnel are serving on Saif Sareea 3 in Oman; equally, we have servicemen serving in Estonia and on Exercise Trident Juncture in Norway. We have perhaps not previously had those opportunities to train and to serve overseas, which are key to retention.

The latest armed forces continuous attitude survey shows that 67% of personnel perceive the morale of their service as low. That clearly impacts on the retention of those who serve. Did it concern Ministers to read that, and when can we expect it to get better?

I am confident that it will get better, partly for the reasons I have just outlined. We are focusing very hard on the offer to our service personnel to ensure that people stay. That is not only about pay—we have talked about the pay award—but the opportunities we give to our service personnel and the training they receive. There are very few professions in this country where one can join with limited qualifications and then leave with a degree-level apprenticeship. That is the sort of offer we make in the armed forces, and we are determined to continue.

Capita’s Army recruitment contract has been an unmitigated disaster, so as a member of the Select Committee I was very relieved to hear the Secretary of State say in evidence to us last week that if necessary he would be prepared to sack it. The sooner the better. May I ask the Minister of State, who we all respect, whether there is any good news at all on Army recruitment that he can share with the House today?

As my right hon. Friend says, the Secretary of State was very clear, in the evidence he gave to the Select Committee, that there is always the option of ending the contract. I am pleased to say that there is good news. This is a long process, from application stage to delivering a soldier who is trained perhaps a year later, but we are now seeing applications at a five-year high, so the hopper is being filled at a rate not seen for the past five years. Equally, the conversion rate—managing to get applications converted and on to training—is also improving. At the start of the pipeline there are very positive signs indeed.

It is a regrettable fact that the legal pursuit of our veterans is a significant deterrent to recruitment. What concrete steps is the Department taking to bring it to an end?

I have not seen any evidence that supports what my hon. Friend has just said, so I would be grateful if he could supply it. None the less, the point he makes about our veterans being pursued legally is an important one. I can only refer him back to the Adjournment debate, I think on 25 June, when over 50 right hon. and hon. Members came to the House to discuss the matter. There is a consensus across the House that this is an issue we simply must address. He will be aware that the Government have consulted on the issue and we intend to publish the results of the consultation shortly.

A scathing report by the Public Accounts Committee has found that the Ministry of Defence lacks the strategy to remedy, before 2023, the skills shortages now apparent in over 100 critical trades. Those shortages are putting an unprecedented strain on servicemen and servicewomen, with morale in freefall. When will the Government face up to the fact that personnel numbers have been plummeting on their watch, and what specific action will the Minister take to respond to the recommendations in the Committee’s report?

We have already discussed some of the actions we are taking, but equally it is important to say that, while the hon. Lady likes to project a picture of gloom, the Army, for example, is actually over 93% manned and fulfils all its operational commitments. Our service personnel are getting opportunities today—the opportunity to train overseas, or, crucially, through training itself—that they may not have had five or six years ago. I have already talked about the fact that the Ministry of Defence is the largest provider of apprenticeships in the United Kingdom. These are some of the things that the hon. Lady might like to champion and praise for a change.

21. In terms of making a career in our armed forces a positive choice, many young people get their first taste of what life might be like in the armed forces by joining the cadets. The Scottish Government make it as difficult as possible for the cadets to recruit in Scottish schools. What will the Minister do to make it easier for young Scots to have the opportunity to join the cadets and gain the advantage of that experience? (907180)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that in England and Wales, we will be increasing the number of schools with cadets, and I like to think that this is a good example. We do not recruit directly from the cadets—let us be absolutely clear. None the less, it is a fact that a large percentage of members of the armed forces were once cadets, and not only that—although the vast majority will not go on to joined the armed forces, the sorts of values that they are taught as cadets will set them up well for life.