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Armed Forces Recruitment

Volume 745: debated on Monday 19 February 2024

In a challenging labour market, we continue to apply an array of measures to support recruitment and retention and to refine the armed forces’ offer. These include the biggest pay rise in 20 years, flexible service and an improved accommodation offer. The Haythornthwaite review has a key part to play, and teams have been stood up across the Ministry of Defence to implement all 67 recommendations, working to establish a reward and incentivisation architecture that will attract and retain the skills we need.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but the quality of forces accommodation is also an important factor in both recruitment and retention. Will he consider giving local commanders greater agency in getting small repairs done locally if the national contractors fail to act quickly enough?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Heads of establishment can access an approved funding pot to address minor maintenance works, up to a maximum value of £25,000 per item, which is extremely helpful and gets away from some of the bureaucracy involved with the prime contractors.

Seven experienced personnel are leaving for each five recruited. Despite the diversity and inclusion policies, some of which are counterproductive in my opinion, and in addition to Capita’s initiatives, last year there was a net loss of 310 servicewomen. Falling retention rates are overshadowing operational effectiveness. Can the Minister outline what he is doing on retention?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and ministerial predecessor. Over the past two years, the Ministry of Defence has put servicewomen at the heart of developing and delivering a range of initiatives, from uniform policies to the provision of accessible sanitary products, mentoring, the introduction of flexible service, wraparound childcare, parental leave, and zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour. There will be further measures in response to the Wigston review, the Gray review and my hon. Friend’s report. I pay tribute to those who have been driving change, but it is far from job done.

The armed forces, including the 14th Signal Regiment based in Pembrokeshire, continue to provide fabulous career opportunities for young people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, now more than ever, we need to encourage Army visits to schools, and that the long campaign by nationalists in Wales to stop those visits damages social mobility and aspiration?

I share my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm entirely. The armed forces are a huge engine for social mobility. In the last year, the Army achieved over 5,000 school engagement visits across the United Kingdom, each at the school’s request. The British Army is the public’s Army. It is important it engages with the people it serves, despite the best efforts of some on the left and the nationalists, to whom he refers.

The London Borough of Bexley is home to several excellent cadet and reserve units that teach vital life skills. Will the Minister update the House on progress on the cadet expansion programme and what work is being undertaken to strengthen the pathways into His Majesty’s armed forces?

I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. The joint Ministry of Defence and Department for Education cadet expansion programme is progressing extremely well, with over 54,000 cadets in school cadet units. The cadet expansion programme has focused on growth in the state sector. Since its introduction in 2012, the number of cadet units in state schools has grown by over 400% to 268 schools. Some new units have also opened in independent schools, where there has been a 12% increase. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming that transformation.

Local service personnel routinely cite issues in service accommodation as a barrier to recruitment and retention, so I was disappointed to hear that the Government have no plans to improve the quality of the nearly 900 single-living accommodation bed spaces in my constituency at Chicksands that currently fall into the lowest grades. Will the Minister commit to revisiting that decision to ensure we do right by all service personnel serving on the base before it closes?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of service accommodation. He will be aware of the huge Government investment to improve the quality of both service-family accommodation and single-living accommodation. Our people deserve the best. It is public knowledge that they have not had the best for some considerable time, but we are committed to remedying that for his constituents.

Does the Minister not wake up in the morning sometimes and want to check in on reality? We have had seven Secretaries of State for Defence since 2010 and absolute turmoil in our armed forces. Why would people join the British Army when this Government have run us down to 72,000 serving personnel? I campaigned when the number went below 100,000! The Minister should wake up and invest in the defence of our country in a troubled world.

Those are interesting reflections. I suggest the hon. Gentleman has a word with the shadow Ministers on his Front Bench, particularly the shadow Chancellor who, to date, has failed to commit to the level of spending on the defence of this country to which the Government are completely committed.

The rise of so-called “woke” culture has been infecting our society for many years and it should be unsurprising that it is now infecting our military. Does the Minister think that the rise of “woke” makes it easier or more difficult to recruit the right sort of people into our armed forces?

I completely reject the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. If he is talking about increasing the number of women in our armed forces, Lord Etherton’s review into LGBT personnel in our armed forces historically, or our ambition to make our armed forces more reflective of the society from which they are drawn and that they serve, then I am guilty as charged.

The Minister and others will be aware that recruitment across Northern Ireland to the Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy has always been exceptional. However, the number of personnel in Territorial Army regiments is set at a figure that those regiments cannot go above. Will the Minister look at increasing the number of TA soldiers to ensure that recruitment in Northern Ireland can exceed the current numbers?

I pay tribute to the people of Northern Ireland who, as the hon. Gentleman says, have disproportionately contributed to the defence of our country. He will know that we are committed to growing our reserve forces across the United Kingdom.

We have 24,000 fewer troops, 4,000 fewer sailors, 200 fewer aircraft and the removal of one in five ships. The Conservatives have failed our armed forces over the past 14 years, missing their recruitment target every year since taking power in 2010 and hollowing out our military. Does the Minister honestly believe that he can look the public in the eye and claim that five more years will fix the mess that they have created, or is it time for a fresh start?

Oh, I think the hon. Gentleman knows what I am going to say in response to his question, and that is to invite him to have a conversation with the shadow Chancellor to see whether she will commit to the same level of spending on defence that this Government are committed to and, indeed, are spending right now. Will he make a spending commitment here and now in the House of Commons? If so, I am all ears.