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Military National Service

Volume 836: debated on Thursday 7 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to implementing a form of military national service.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare an interest in that 67 years ago this month I was awarded RAF Wings to fly jets in defence of my country.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to reintroduce national service or any form of conscription. Since 1963 it has been the policy of successive Governments that the best way of providing for the defence of our country is by maintaining professional Armed Forces staffed by volunteers. The demanding nature of defence today is such that we require highly trained, professional men and women in our regular and reserve Armed Forces who are fully committed to giving their best in defending our country and its allies.

I am grateful to my noble friend for his clear Answer, but many of us feel that at this point in time the warning signals are flashing red. In my conversations with our young people, particularly my grandchildren, there is a willingness to consider some form of training, either of a military reserve nature or possibly even of a national service nature. I took my oath in the other place 50 years ago today to serve the country. I believe our young people want to serve our country. Is my noble friend aware that as far as NATO is concerned, we are one of only two countries that have nothing in the way of training our young people in the challenges that arise in today’s world?

My Lords, my noble friend makes some very good points, a number of which we can all relate to. The Armed Forces continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe. The Government remain committed to ensuring that this country has the world-class Armed Forces that it needs, deserves and has held in high reputation across the globe. We can rightly be very proud of our forces.

My Lords, I really hope that the Minister’s Answer is not accurate. We know that there is a serious risk—not a probable risk but a serious risk—of a ground war breaking out in Europe, and we may become involved in it. This is being said by serious people such as generals, Mr Shapps and so on. Surely the military would be derelict in its duties if it was not considering that risk. Ukraine has shown that modern warfare, once again, is people-intense. The numbers in our Armed Forces are something like half what they were at the end of the Cold War. Surely the military is developing multiple scenarios, almost certainly short of conscription, to make sure that a rapid increase in resources can be achieved.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes some very good points but, as I have said before, increasingly it is about capability rather than pure numbers. We are facing some widely known recruitment issues that are not peculiar to the forces or to the country and that are giving us a bit of a challenge, but while we have smaller forces than previously we are applying all sorts of issues to attract and retain forces across all three services.

My Lords, the noble Lord asks for consideration of

“a form of military national service”.

As one of the last national servicemen in the 1950s, I think he is wise to put it that way. I have no personal complaints, but I observe that not everyone had happy memories of this period. Otherwise, you would not have had conscripts keeping lists of days and hours left to do, and the most popular recording on British forces radio in Germany for those nearing discharge would not have been “Happy Days Are Here Again”. I agree with the noble Lord that there is a strong case for looking at this again, but if we do I hope we will find something better than the 1950s model.

I cannot disagree with the noble Lord, but we have to rely on the fact that all three forces have a global reputation and are professional, highly trained and the envy of many. To dilute them with unwilling recruits, to a certain degree, can lead only to a slight dilution of that reputation.

My Lords, on these Benches I will not call for military service to be reintroduced, but we are hearing from across the Chamber that this country and His Majesty’s Government need to prepare for a different security context from the one we have enjoyed for the last 30 years. Can the Minister tell the House what plans His Majesty’s Government are making to reinforce the services, including increasing the numbers of reserves and making sure our that recruitment deficit is overcome?

My Lords, the way we address the threat is a constantly changing situation. Whether through procurement or through individual members of the forces, there is a constant ratio of training, retraining and readdressing the threat. I really believe that we have the right quality of forces in place. We know that we do not have as many as we had planned, and there are some prevalent recruitment issues. Encouragingly, applications have been well up in the last few months. We had more than 10,000 applications for regular soldiers in January; there were 53,000 applications in the period from June 2021 to 2022 and just shy of 70,000 from June 2022 to 2023.

On those words, professional, regular and reserve, my understanding is that for some years now we have been vigorously building up our whole reserve—what used to be called the territorials—including a number of combat units trained to semi-professional standards and readiness. Is that process increasing? Is it reinforcing the number of troops we really have available? Are we following some of the patterns that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, hinted at?

My Lords, we are. The current mix that we have in the Army is about 70,000 ground troops and about 30,000 reserves. The 100,000 target is where we are focused at the moment. The full size of the forces, currently at about 131,000, is an issue. The outflow is also an issue, as everybody is aware, and we are taking action to improve retention.

My Lords, I agree entirely with the Minister’s remarks about conscription. One area where the Government could do more is in support for the cadet organisations. Although it is certainly not a recruiting arm of the military, the Air Cadet organisation already offers challenge, excitement, adventure and a sense of service to more than 43,000 young people from all backgrounds and communities across the UK. Can the Government ensure that they not only support this organisation in its current work but do their best to expand it?

My Lords, I entirely agree. In a past life, I had something to do with cadets and I also trained Junior Leaders soldiers. There is no doubt that the success of those particular intakes into the Armed Forces pays dividends time and again.

My Lords although I cannot possibly match the glamorous nature of the questioner’s service, when I joined the British Army 60 years ago in the hope of being able to drive steam locomotives on the Longmoor Military Railway, the recruiting sergeant in my hometown of Stockport offered to swear me in that same afternoon and send me on my way to the Royal Engineers depot the following morning. As I understand it, these matters of recruitment are now dealt with by a company called Capita, and I read that it takes nine to 12 months for each individual to join a regiment. Does the Minister agree that, by the time we had recruited a whole regiment of these reluctant conscripts, most of them would be too old to serve?

My Lords, the Government are doing all they can to speed up the process. The situation is improving, but the point is very well made. The sooner we can get enthusiastic men and women into the forces, the better.