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Armed Forces: Future Force 2020

Volume 769: debated on Thursday 25 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what specialist skills have been recruited into the Armed Forces as a result of the Future Force 2020 programme.

My Lords, Future Force 2020 has delivered a wide range of specialist skills and capabilities to the Armed Forces. In the Army, this includes the creation of 1st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Brigade and 77th Brigade, comprising integrated regular and reserve units capable of delivering specialist capabilities such as cyber, linguists and cultural experts. We continue to recruit the individuals we need with specialist skills and, through our world-class training programmes, train both new and existing service personnel to meet military requirements.

As ever, the noble Earl comes to the House displaying a sense of calm and confidence, for which he is greatly admired and respected.

Truthfully. But I have to tell him that the Government have admitted that there is a skills shortage in Britain’s Armed Forces. Indeed, they spelled out their preferred solution for solving the problem. In a debate on the Defence Reform Bill in 2013, the then Defence Secretary, Mr Hammond, said that the recruitment of reserves was intended to add specialist skills to our Armed Forces because they were easier to recruit from among the civilian workforce. Can the Minister name another country in the world that depends on civilian trained reservists to fill the skills gap in our Regular Armed Forces? Is it still the Government’s intention to pursue this policy? If it is, how is it going?

My Lords, it makes absolute sense to look to our reserves to house some of the deep specialties that the Armed Forces are looking for. It makes sense because the reserves can deliver capabilities that can be safely held at lower readiness, which provides access to skills that are best developed and maintained in the civil sector or are not practical or too costly to retain in full-time military service. A good example of that is cyber, although there are others, such as language intelligence analysts. We are seeing the success of that policy. Indeed, on recruiting reservists more generally, we are on track to achieve our targets.

My Lords, now that the recent period of high operational deployment has concluded—at least perhaps temporarily—will the Minister reassure the House that, within Future Force 2020, progress is being made towards recruiting sufficient regular and perhaps reserve medical specialists in order that the Defence Medical Services can meet their obligations in the future, and in particular that we are recruiting sufficient mental health specialists so that our serving soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have 24/7 mental health cover?

My Lords, there are a number of pinch points in the armed services, but, broadly speaking, they are in areas where there are skills shortages in the wider economy. Medical expertise is one of those skills, but there are also areas specific to military organisations, such as logistics and intelligence. We are taking a multifaceted approach to tackling those shortages—for example, financial retention incentives, extensions and continuance of service, targeted recruitment incentives and a direct entry scheme—but there is no single bullet. I am aware that medical services represent a challenge, but one that I think we are slowly winning.

My Lords, it no doubt makes sense to leverage the private sector, especially in a fast-changing environment such as cyber, as the Minister said, but it raises a question, does it not? If we are relying on reservists, who by definition are not always available, to provide essential skills, who is providing the skills for the skills gap when they are not available?

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord will know, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines have an approach whereby they tend to train those already in regular service, but there is also a reliance on reserves. It is a question of getting the balance right in each discipline.

My Lords, surely the answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Touhig—about which country is making use of specialist reserves—is the United States. The National Guard makes very great use of reserves—far greater than we do.

I am grateful to my noble friend. Of course, at the moment we have a much more flexible set of arrangements to integrate regulars and reserves than we did in the past. We can call up reservists at very short notice. Cyber is, once again, a good example. It is a discipline that often allows lateral entry at a more senior rank than would be the norm for general applicants on first joining. Indeed, the Royal Marines have a cyber specialisation to provide the maritime element of the joint cyber unit. That specialisation is formed from qualified practitioners recruited from industry and academia.

My Lords, we all recognise that cyber poses a great threat to our security. Will the noble Lord tell the House how many cyber experts and trainees have been recruited to the Reserve and Regular Forces, and whether their recruitment is on target?

I am afraid that I cannot give the noble Baroness the precise figures. Broadly, recruitment to the reserves is on target, but I will have to get back to her on the specific numbers associated with cyber.

My Lords, a skill set for which there is an ever growing need is, of course, engineering, especially nuclear engineering. Will the Minister say what progress has been made with industry to ensure a flow of that talent between industry and the services, particularly for those who have left the services and joined industry and then been brought back into the services to help out?

The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right. On nuclear engineers, we have adopted what we call an enterprise approach, which essentially means working with the wider defence industry to better share experience and best practice and to develop career management, manning and access to the key skills that we need to create a more attractive career path for nuclear engineers. There are other elements as well. We need to have proper staged financial incentives, and we have retention incentives for those already working for the Royal Navy. There is no single answer, but I think that this is the way ahead—in particular, working closely with university and technical colleges to support the development of those skilled individuals.

My Lords, will the Minister write to the House about the recruitment of people with desperately needed modern language skills—linguistic skills—which he mentioned in his first reply? This area is neglected, but it is important that we improve our language skills in our engagement.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. It is one of the areas that has been significantly developed since the SDSR 2010, but we know that we have to do more. I would be glad to write to the noble Lord on where we are.