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House of Lords Hansard
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Armed Forces: Battalion Strength
19 March 2009
Volume 709

Question

Asked By

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider augmenting from other units the actual strength of battalions to be deployed on overseas missions.

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My Lords, arrangements already exist for Army battalions deploying on operations to be augmented with manpower from other units where there is an operational requirement to do so.

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My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Figures given in Parliamentary Answers show that the Government have allowed the numbers in battalions and other essential units of the Army to fall so low that they can be deployed only by raiding other units to make up numbers—robbing Peter to pay Paul. Does she agree that, if we are to be fully efficient on operations at a time when the Army is so overstretched, we must have all units up to the establishment strength? What plans do the Government have to convert the huge numbers of recruits waiting in the pipeline into trained soldiers?

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My Lords, it is true that the figures are as the noble Lord suggests; they were outlined in a Parliamentary Answer in another place. However, it is wrong to suggest that this is creating difficulties that we cannot overcome. Even a fully manned structure might require tailoring when troops are deployed on operations, because they may be doing things that they would not be doing in their normal peacetime configuration. Any deficiencies outlined when there is a deployment are met by the reallocation of services from other battalions. Sometimes, there are missions such as the OMLTs—the operational mentor and liaison teams—which are rather small and create surpluses that can be deployed elsewhere. We are aware of the pressures, but recruitment is good at the moment and we are taking all the steps that we can, both on recruitment and on retention.

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My Lords, I have two questions for the noble Baroness. Is it true that there are 3,000 people in the pipeline, waiting to be recruited and, if so, what is the hold-up in getting them into training and then into units for active service? Secondly, does she agree that one great advantage of having larger infantry regiments—some of them quite large, with five battalions—is that, if any battalion about to go on active service is below establishment strength, it can quickly be made up from other battalions of the same regiment, with the same cap badge?

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My Lords, on the last point, of course I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, which is not surprising given his experience in these matters; he has far more experience than I have and his words should be listened to very carefully. As for how rapidly we can deploy new recruits, there is always a balance to be struck, whether with personnel or with equipment. We have to ensure that the people and equipment that we send into operations are fully ready for the task that they have. Therefore, it can take longer than some people would think ideal, but it would be wrong to try to hasten that process if it put anybody at risk.

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My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what quality of accommodation those returning from Iraq will find when they come back to this country? The recent National Audit Office report found that a third of service personnel’s families were dissatisfied with their accommodation and that it would take two decades to bring all service accommodation up to a certain standard. Would it not make sense to accelerate the improvement programme to help the local construction industries of this country at the present time and to provide appropriate housing for our service personnel when they return?

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My Lords, obviously we take housing for service personnel extremely seriously and are concerned about any deficiencies. However, the vast majority—around 90 per cent—of service family accommodation is at grade 1 or grade 2 level, which means that it is more than adequate. The improvements that we have made in recent years have been very welcome. We have upgraded 1,800 properties to the highest standard. We have carried out important improvements to kitchens, bathrooms and central heating boilers in another 4,500 properties. However, it is true that there is a legacy problem. Many of these difficulties date back not just to the period of this Government but to previous Governments over many decades. The agreement on the sale of housing that was reached in 1996-97 by the previous Administration did not help the situation.

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My Lords, are there any cash constraints whatever that extend the time between a young man or woman volunteering for Army service and their being deployed fully trained in the field?

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My Lords, I am not aware of cash constraints that cause that problem. Any recruit has to be properly screened and has to go through the proper processes. There are vacancies at the moment. It is well known that levels are not up to full targets, although we have been pleased with the increase in recruiting recently. The problem is not just recruitment, though; we have had to take measures on retention, which are showing some signs of success.

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My Lords, does the Minister recognise that, when establishing tour intervals, which is an important factor, one usually watches regiments or even battalions to see how often they are deployed for active service? Is she satisfied that when those battalions are augmented from other battalions, sufficient track is kept of the tour intervals of individual soldiers?

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My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the need to preserve harmony guidelines. It is true that on occasion some of those are breached, which is something that we work hard to minimise. There are certain pinch points in terms of the skills available and it is only in those circumstances that that particular difficulty is likely to arise. But we are aware of those pressures and we take measures to try to minimise them.

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My Lords, in her previous answer the noble Baroness mentioned that the manning level was short of the target. Can she say by how much it is short?

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Yes, my Lords. At present, the total strength of the Armed Forces is at 97.2 per cent.

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My Lords, the Minister said that there were constraints on training and equipment. I am not sure what the inference of that is. Does it mean that the battalions in the field are short of equipment for the recruits to bring, or can she assure us that all the battalions in the field are both up to strength and fully equipped?

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My Lords, I was referring to the fact that there has to be some time before new recruits can be deployed. When we have new equipment, we have to make sure that we have sufficient equipment on which to train people before they can take that equipment with them into operations. We cannot just send it into the operational field if people there have not had that previous training.