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Armed Forces Personnel

Volume 654: debated on Monday 18 February 2019

11. What steps his Department is taking to improve recruitment and retention in the armed forces. (909275)

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

Many people may see it as an incompetent accident that the Government continually fail to hit their supposed targets on Army recruitment, but is it not the truth that this is a Government without any sort of strategic vision for what they want our Army to do in 2019, and that their failure to get Army numbers up saves budget for the parts of the MOD that they do have a plan for?

I could not disagree more. I think we have a clear vision as to what we want our Army to do in 2019. Equally, the hon. Gentleman should be encouraged by the fact that as of January we have had the highest number of applications to the Army in five years.

I suggest that the Government should not take any lessons from Labour about manpower shortages, given today’s news about desertions.

The National Audit Office has recently confirmed that Capita has not recruited the required numbers of regulars and reservists in any year since the contract began in 2012. Clearly, extra resources are needed. May I also suggest that the Government consider reinstating 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which was the best recruited unit in the Army when it was disbanded?

I have been here long enough to be able to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his consistent defence of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The same National Audit Office report states that the Army has already conducted a full review of the current recruitment strategy. As a result, the contract with Capita was realigned and a comprehensive improvement plan introduced. That will take time to bear fruit, but as I said in answer to the previous question we are now beginning to see early signs of the improvement plan bearing fruit.

Will the Minister update the House on the results arising from the Army recruitment poster campaign last month? Has it enticed more women to apply? Has it enticed more people from ethnic minority backgrounds to apply to join the Army?

The Army’s new campaign builds on last year’s successful “Belonging” adverts, which, as I said, took recruitment to a five-year high. The early signs are positive. At the moment, 12.4% of recruits are women and 6.5% are from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. We are yet to see the audited results for the campaign, but we are confident that progress is being made.

The Public Accounts Committee has been looking closely at what skills we have in our armed forces. We know there are real shortages, particularly in cyber, with people leaving early. Will the Minister explain to the House how he is working with others across Government to ensure that we have the cyber skills we need in our armed forces?

That is a very important question. The hon. Lady will be aware of the £1.9 billion investment in cyber across Government. I have taken a particular personal interest in this issue. I want to ensure that the career structure we offer in the armed forces matches these 21st century skills. Historically, it has not done so.

In the past few years, Capita has been 3,000 recruits short. The chief of defence personnel, Lieutenant General Nugee, told the Defence Committee a couple of weeks ago that this year it will be over 4,000, maybe nearly even 5,000, recruits short. Applications are up, but enlistments—those actually joining—are down dramatically. The Secretary of State called its performance atrocious and it is. The Scots Guards are barely at 50% manned. I believe that Capita is so awful that its performance is becoming a threat to one element of our national security. When will the Government come out of denial and sack this useless, hopeless company?

My right hon. Friend is entirely consistent in his views on Capita and I respect that. However, I would say that once again the signs are positive. Sandhurst is now 100% full in terms of young officers, an improvement on the past two years. The infantry training centre at Catterick is now 80% full. Yes, that is 20% lower than we need, but that is a significant increase and improvement on where we were last year. All the signs are pointing in the right direction.

Yes, they are. The challenge we face is that while applications are up, the conversion rate is getting better and that will take time to feed through into the strength of the Regular Army.

Having known the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for 35 years, I hope he will take it in the right spirit if I say that I really do wish he would tell us what he really thinks.

Following on from what was said by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mark Francois), the reality is that the size of the Army has fallen in every year since the Conservatives came to power. For all the talk, the fact is that the initial applications are not turning into enlistments. Will the Minister tell the House what the trained strength of the Army will be at the end of this Parliament if the current trend and record we have seen so far continues?

I am confident that at the end of this Parliament, assuming that that is 2022, the trained strength of the Army will be higher than it is now.

I do not think that gives us very much reassurance. Let me tell the Minister now that, if the decline continues at the same rate it has been over the time the Conservative party has been in government, by May 2022 the Army will be down to just 68,000. Given that the promise to reach 82,000 soldiers was unceremoniously dumped from the Conservative manifesto at the last election, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government are still committed to reaching that number? If so, what is his plan for how to do so?

With respect to the hon. Lady, she talks about “the Army”. I assume that by that, she actually means the Regular Army—when she talks about 68,000. As far as I am concerned, the Army also includes the Army Reserve, giving a combined force of about 112,000. It also includes the approximately 3,500 soldiers who wear a uniform and are proud to call themselves soldiers but are currently under training. I think she needs to think about what definition she is using.