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Armed Forces Recruitment and Retention

Volume 657: debated on Monday 25 March 2019

We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces and a range of measures are under way to improve recruitment and retention. The challenge is kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all of their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

Having served in the Royal Air Force, I know how rewarding a life in the military is, and also how demanding it can be. I also know how difficult recruitment and retention is, particularly retention. Has my right hon. Friend considered free wi-fi for military personnel to help them and their families feel less isolated when they are serving away from home?

We recognise the importance of connectivity for our personnel. I reassure my hon. Friend that for those serving on operations, the Ministry of Defence will pay for internet connection to enable them to connect with family and friends. For those on non-operational tours abroad, the wi-fi costs are also covered through a welfare package.

One way to retain more Royal Marines is to ensure that their accommodation is of high quality. As Plymouth is no longer getting the superbase we were promised, could the Minister set out how the facilities at Stonehouse barracks will be increased, including making sure that all the accommodation blocks have hot water and good heating?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a complex programme was announced through the better defence estate strategy. On the specific issue he raises, I am told that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), intends to visit shortly.

The chief executive officer of Capita says that it will lose a lot of money on its recruitment contract on behalf of the MOD. In that case, I presume that the Government have a strong legal case for simply terminating the contract without compensation and taking it back in-house and doing it properly.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has certainly made it clear that he has not ruled out the option of terminating the contract. However, in recent months we have seen dramatic improvements in the performance of that contract, partly because of the money that Capita has put in—its own money—to ensure that that is the case.

Every year my home town of Tain in the highlands hosts the Tain highland gathering. It has been a good number of years since I have seen any armed forces recruiting stands at the highland games. These stands have been very successful in the past—children and young people love them—but frankly, as has been said, Capita is not doing very well. May I encourage the Minister and the Secretary of State to get the stands set up again? In my own case, those people would be rewarded with a very large glass of our local amber nectar, Glenmorangie.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that recruiting opportunity. I might visit myself, given what is on offer. He makes a very sensible suggestion and I will ensure that it is fed into the system.

The size of the Army is in freefall under this Conservative Government. The number of fully trained regulars has fallen from 78,000 to 75,900 on this Minister’s watch. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has responsibility for defence people, is reported to have said that he will resign if that number falls below 70,000. What about the Minister for the Armed Forces—is he prepared to make that same commitment?

I am certainly not prepared to resign from my role as a member of the Army Reserve, because that would really not help matters, would it? The hon. Lady over-eggs the pudding slightly by saying that the numbers are in freefall. Yes, numbers have fallen but, with the highest number of applications on record in January, we have already explained why we are confident that the numbers will increase. Crucially, the Army remains at 93% manning and can meet all of its operational commitments.

Does that not say it all? The Minister does not even have the courage to put his job on the line. Time and again, he comes here and bluffs his way through with empty rhetoric, but the simple fact is that he has failed completely and Army numbers are falling month after month. At best he is complacent; at worst he has junked the stated target of 82,000 and does not have the guts to tell us. When is he going to accept that it is his responsibility to end this failure and get a grip?

I have been accused of many things in my life, but lacking courage is probably not one of them. If the hon. Lady knew anything about me, she would probably realise why that is the case. None the less, the issue remains a challenge and I am confident—as I have just said, recent figures show the highest number of applications on record in January—that the situation is improving.