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Service Personnel: Recruitment and Retention

Volume 666: debated on Monday 21 October 2019

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. Those measures are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current operational commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

The Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency is proud home to the Army Foundation College, which has 1,100 junior soldiers in training. Last year, the college received an “outstanding” classification from Ofsted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the educational excellence on offer is a key part of the recruitment package for the college, and that the qualifications the junior soldiers receive set them up not just for their careers in the Army, but for the whole of their lives?

I thank my hon. Friend for being such a champion of this outstanding college, and he is absolutely correct. There are a multitude of excellent opportunities, of which the Ministry of Defence and the Army are extremely proud. These are reflected not just in the formal qualifications and apprenticeships but in the self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills the junior soldiers gain.

In Harlow, we have outstanding cadet forces and outstanding cadet leadership. They provide the training that young people need and they develop qualities of leadership. May I ask my right hon. Friend: what more can we be doing to support our cadet forces in Harlow and elsewhere to encourage young people into the services, and will he come and visit one of our great Harlow cadet forces?

How could I resist such a kind invitation? I should be delighted to visit. Indeed, I started life as a cadet, so I know the value of it. In accordance with the UN convention on the rights of the child, that is not a conduit for entry into the armed forces. However, it is a fact that while just 4% of cadet forces joined the armed forces, 20% of the armed forces were once cadets.

Our cadet organisations give young people an invaluable insight into the potential of a career in the armed forces, but they need places in which to meet. I understand that the Ministry of Defence will help to give financial support to buildings and other facilities for Army and air cadets, but not for sea cadets. Given that today is Trafalgar day, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can help to raise money for a new home for Chelmsford’s excellent sea cadets?

A training ship, Upholder, in Chelmsford is indeed an excellent base for the Chelmsford Sea Cadets. It is right that the sea cadets have a different funding formula from the other two services. They receive a mix of funding from the MOD and other sources. Each sea cadet unit is an individual charity. There has been much debate over the years as to whether or not that is the right way to move forward, but I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.

In the past, the MOD has offered a number of bespoke packages to recruit people whose skills they need—for example, qualified doctors when the medical services have been short. Does the MOD intend to offer more bespoke packages to get people with a range of skills into the armed services?

My hon. Friend makes a really interesting point. As we move forward there are different specialist skill sets that we need—cyber is an example, as well as medical services—and have to consider whether or not we should look at different models for joining the armed forces. One area that we are looking at is greater use of the reserves for those specialist skills and, equally, whether or not we should have some form of lateral entry, as we do with medical services.

For the past two years, I have been honoured to be part of the wonderful armed forces parliamentary scheme. I graduated only last week. I have visited all three services, which are engaging people with amazing work to keep the peace and keep us safe. Overwhelmingly, they get great satisfaction and lead interesting lives, but I was shocked to hear that some universities are resistant to those terrific people visiting and advertising that unique career path to students. I should like to ask my right hon. Friend what more can be done to get our young people to engage with an armed forces career?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments about the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust. Indeed, that is a scheme from which many hon. and right hon. Members have benefited. When it comes to young people, we are the largest provider of apprenticeships in the UK, and when it comes to encouraging university students to join, we have a bursary scheme as well as an undergraduate scheme. There is also the university officer training corps, the university air squadrons and university Royal Navy units, in which undergraduates can participate.

12. My question relates to the quality of living accommodation and local facilities that make Army family life attractive. Will the Minister update the House on the new £125 million leisure complex at Faslane nuclear base, dubbed the “supermess”, which is being dismantled to remove combustible materials? (900012)

It is normally family pressures that are the No. 1 reason cited by members of the armed forces for leaving the armed forces, which is why it is absolutely right that we get this whole package correct. Faslane, as the hon. Lady knows, will soon be the home of the entire submarine force for the Royal Navy. It has been subject to large amounts of investment, and it has some of the best accommodation for the armed forces. The mess itself has faced challenges, and I will happily write to her to update her on exactly where we are on that issue.

The respected and celebrated president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Mrs Madeleine Moon.

During visits with the NATO PA and, indeed, the Select Committee on Defence to Finland, Norway and Sweden, I have noted their highly selective and competitive attempts to recruit young people to national service schemes, to the armed forces, and Government defence agencies. Those are much sought-after schemes in all those countries, and are highly effective not only in recruiting young people but in retaining them in the reserves. May I ask the Minister to look at Elizabeth Braw’s excellent article on this in The RUSI Journal, and will he look at that as an example for the UK?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady—Madam President—for those words of advice, and indeed for that constructive suggestion. I am more than happy to consider any way we can encourage more people to join and, crucially—this is the other side of the coin—remain in the armed forces.

The north-east has traditionally provided a higher proportion of armed services personnel than any other region in England. Can the Minister confirm whether that is still the case following the recruitment shambles, and can he set out the improvements to pay and housing that he will make so that the sacrifices of our armed forces are in the interests of the country, not austerity?

The hon. Lady rightly highlights the important contribution that the north-east and the north-west have made to recruitment to all three services over many years. I am determined that our armed forces should reflect modern Britain, which is why we are trying to encourage more members from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to join the armed forces and, equally, more women—currently we are achieving 7.3% for the former and 12.2% for the latter. Last year we saw a decent pay increase of some 2.9%, and we continue to invest an awful lot of money in improving accommodation standards for our armed forces.

May I first declare an interest, as my son-in-law will soon be going on active deployment with the reserves? I also wish to point out the magnificent contribution made by the Carlton reserve base in my constituency. I want to ask the Minister a simple but really important question. The reserves are a crucial part of our armed forces—I know he knows that—but there are really significant problems in recruiting and retaining reserve personnel and integrating them into our armed forces, so can he say a little more about what the Government are doing about that?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. It will come as no surprise to him that, having been a serving member of the reserves for 31 years, I take reserve service very seriously. I think that maintaining that offer is absolutely key, which is one of the reasons why I have imposed a target to ensure that at least 5% of our reserve community have the opportunity to go on operations, as his son-in-law is doing. It is that offer that is so key.

I congratulate the Minister on holding his post, and I welcome the new team to the Government Front Bench. His boss is, of course, a Scot, and he will tell him that Scots do not take kindly to broken promises from Tory Governments. At the Scottish independence referendum we were promised that there would be 12,500 personnel in Scotland by 2020, but at the last count the figure stands south of 10,000, so will that not be another broken promise from this Tory Government?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to welcome the fact that Scotland will soon be home to all Royal Navy submarine personnel. I am sorry that he does not seem to recognise that there will continue to be an Army brigade based in Scotland. I am sorry that he does not seem to recognise the important investment in Lossiemouth, as the P-8 is soon to be based there.