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Armed Forces: Recruitment

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 12 February 2009

Question

Asked By Lord Lee of Trafford

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the rising level of unemployment and the current economic circumstances have been reflected in the latest recruitment figures for the armed forces.

My Lords, recruitment to all three services has improved over the past few months, primarily as a result of targeted national, regional and local-level recruiting campaigns. There has also been a significant increase in expressions of interest through the Armed Forces recruitment offices and through online applications, which is attributed in part to the current economic circumstances and rising unemployment.

My Lords, since they came to power in 1997, the Government have presided over a 12 per cent reduction in the size of our Armed Forces. Only they believe that our troops are not overstretched. Yesterday, I received an e-mail from the British Medical Association, which states that the UK harmony guidelines work well when they are adhered to but that when they are not there is an increase in post-traumatic stress and in subsequent alcohol problems, and that what has been shown to be particularly detrimental is where the actual tour length exceeds the expectation. Does not the encouraging recruiting picture, to which the noble Lord referred, give the Government a real opportunity to right a wrong and rebuild our force levels both for obvious military advantage and, in terms of their moral responsibility, for the welfare of those who bravely and daily put their lives on the line for us?

My Lords, I will refer particularly to the harmony guidelines, which are important, and recruitment will help. Presently, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines are meeting their figure and there is a significant improvement in the Royal Air Force. The last figure we have faith in for the Army is about a 10 per cent failure. The recruitment will help but so will our commitment to the drawdown in Iraq, where we have 4,100 troops. We hope that their activities will conclude by the end of May and that they will leave Iraq by the end of July. Only a limited number of service personnel will remain in Iraq for training and administrative purposes. That will help with the harmony guidelines, which I agree is a good thing.

My Lords, the specific manning pinch points are important. There is very careful tracking of all pinch points, which are being addressed by a series of actions; namely, restructuring and reducing some of the operational commitment. We are trying to reduce the voluntary outflows through financial retention incentives, which is having a positive effect. There will also be changes in the outside world. For example, pilots are a specific pinch point and the market for pilots is not nearly as hot as it was. But they are a problem and they are being very carefully monitored to make sure that their operational impact is mitigated.

My Lords, decent salaries are crucial to successful recruitment and retention. However, what is far more important to the Armed Forces is the public recognition that decent salaries provide for them. We hold our Armed Forces in high regard, and that is reflected in those salaries. Last year the Armed Forces were singled out and awarded an above-inflation pay settlement. This was widely welcomed throughout the country. Will the Minister confirm that this year the Government will follow last year’s admirable precedent?

My Lords, it was quite nice to agree with everything the noble Lord said until he made his last point, when he asked me to pre-empt a government decision. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body will meet and make recommendations, and the Government will act in the light of those recommendations.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that while recruitment is important, the issue of the retention of middle-ranking and non-commissioned officers who are the high-quality backbone of our Armed Forces is absolutely critical? In that connection, while he mentioned the imminent reduction in numbers in Iraq, which is hoped for and would be welcomed, what remains pending is the question of further forces being assigned to Afghanistan in response to any request by the new President of the United States. Against that background, if people have to make frequent tours to Afghanistan because of shortages, that will have a serious effect on retention.

My Lords, as yet, the Government have not come to a view about changes in Afghanistan. As my noble friend Lady Taylor said last week, we are initiating a review of our Afghanistan policy. The numbers coming out of Iraq will have a significant impact on meeting the harmony guidelines. The noble Lord is right to say that frequent tours have a negative impact, but the Army is extremely cognisant of that and is working very hard, right down to the level of individual groups of soldiers, to try to mitigate the effects. The changes being made in Iraq will have a considerable positive effect.