Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 619)

WEDNESDAY 19 JANUARY 2000 [Morning]


  600. No. Let us start with the broad figures.
  (Mr Spellar) I say that it is important because in some senses if we talk about full manning as being every arm and every speciality being fully manned, then that is like a constantly receding target. You will never actually achieve that. It depends where you want to start. Perhaps we can start with the Navy.
  (Commodore Wykeham-Martin) On the basis of trained strength to requirement—rather than overall numbers—which I think is an important issue, the answer is that the Navy manning is just over 95 per cent.
  (General Sir Alex Harley) If we do not count Gurkhas, reservists and the Royal Irish, and if we are talking about trained adult United Kingdom personnel, against an establishment in the Army of 102,389 we have 96,662, which is minus 5,727 or minus 5.6 per cent. That is the manning figures as of 1 December. I can go on about the whole Army strength and the Gurkhas and the Royal Irish and so on if you want.

  601. No, at this stage, that is sufficient.
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) In the case of the Royal Air Force, we are about 580 people short which represents 99 per cent manning against our requirement. That is a significant improvement on a year ago. Within that there are some key areas of shortfall such as pilots.

  Mr Blunt: We shall want to come back to that.

Mr Hancock

  602. What are the key areas that you have identified for the continuous haemorrhage of trained personnel leaving the three services? What are the main factors that you have identified? When will the initiatives that you have put in place to combat that be available to the personnel in the three services?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) We have our own continuous general attitude survey. The trends that have been apparent for some time are time away from home, separated service and operational tempo to use the phrase used earlier. In the case of the Royal Air Force, we have taken a number of measures. I talked about some of them earlier when dealing with people in the Kosovo campaign. Now, we have our forces back home, although some are clearly on operations and getting ready to go on operations. On the way in which we manage our people and the way in which we look after them and their families, I am optimistic that we have turned the corner in terms of retention although we still have some way to go.
  (General Sir Alex Harley) We have talked about overstretch, but undermanning is a contributory factor to overstretch. Undermanning and overstretch are our most important priorities. The overstretch is the most worrying to soldiers and families because those who are married do not get enough time with their families and those who are single do not get enough time to live a normal life and indulge in their own pursuits such as sports or seeing girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever. However, there is another difficulty in that they are not always able to pursue their own educational or career qualifications, so they get behind. Of course, such qualifications are required for their career structures and their trade training and so on. I would say that the overstretch is an unhappy thing for families. Families say that they do not see their husbands and so on which contributes to encouraging people to leave. The next most important area is the standard of accommodation. For people in the forces those three matters—overstretch and undermanning, the effect on people's careers and accommodation—are at the top of the list in the continuous attitude survey and those who leave are always debriefed.
  (Commodore Wykeham-Martin) It is fair to say that the problem of the deficit of manpower that we have had in the Navy goes back to about 1993-95 when we capped recruiting. Whatever one does now, there will always be that hole in the numbers that will flow through the system. Currently, recruiting is buoyant. Of course, we have an endemic shortfall because of that capped recruiting and it is particularly prevalent in the case of operator mechanics, engineer officers and junior officers. At the moment I would reinforce what the other two services have said that we now are recruiting the right people and given the right conditions of service we shall be able to retain them and get into manpower balance. For us the target is 2002.

  603. I am amazed by your answers. Not one of you has mentioned an issue that is raised time and time again when I meet service personnel—I am sure it is the same for others, as I know it has been when I have been with defence ministers in the past—the lack of promotional opportunities whether for enlisted personnel or a log-jamming for officers and the lack of financial incentives to remain. None of you has offered a timescale for the initiative of which the Minister has spoken and Parliament has been informed of to tell us when they will be in operation. I am depressed. I have a constituent, a young RAF officer, who was university-educated by the RAF and trained to fly and who has had a very interesting career, but she has decided to leave. That decision will cost her £10,000 to pay back the educational facility, but you have done very little to encourage her to stay in a trade which I was told was vital and in which there is a shortage of well-qualified ground engineers. I am amazed at what all three of you have said. None of you has mentioned that point. I cannot believe that the test that you carry out or the questions that you ask your servicemen and women give you the right answers. You cannot be asking the questions because they tell us totally different things.
  (Mr Spellar) One point is that you asked why people were leaving. I presumed you were moving on to "remediation" and what was being done in response. Secondly, on issues such as promotion, ironically if there is a greater level of retention for some people that can have an impact on their promotion prospects as gaps do not open up further up. That is slightly more difficult and we shall have to look at other opportunities for people, in particular how we reward skills within the services.

  604. This Committee stood in a military hospital in Frimley and young corporals who had probably done eight years' service in the medical services told us that there was no chance of promotion. They were qualified to be promoted but they have no chance of getting any more money and they might as well take a civilian job in the same hospital for substantially more money. They were going nowhere. There is no answer yet from anyone about how we can retain pilots and give them a better package and how in critical areas we can retain nursing and medical services where there are deficiencies. Some deficiencies are in excess of 20 per cent of what is needed. That cannot be right for the Armed Forces of this country.
  (Mr Spellar) Let us start with pilots, as that is a good example and one that is driven by the current state of the civil airline industry which firstly, is experiencing rising traffic and, secondly, quite a number of those pilots, whom the airlines do not train because they poach from all the world's air forces, are coming up towards requirement age. That causes a pressure and one to which we have responded. I shall ask Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall to describe the way in which we have responded to that with measures that enable our people to take the necessary qualifications and to remain for a longer period within the Royal Air Force.

Mr Hood

  605. It is the truth that it is near impossible to compete with the private sector in the circumstances that you have just described? We met engineers in the Falklands who said that they had been offered jobs at £30,000 a year if they leave the services. There is no way that you will be able to compete with that. Is that the problem?
  (Mr Spellar) It would be in that context. We shall come on to pilots. This is a broader national problem of companies not necessarily training sufficient people for their needs and relying substantially on services training. I alluded to that when talking about signals as well. That is not entirely a negative issue. At the end of their period of work for us in the services, it is a good thing that our service personnel are able to take the skills that they have developed in the services into proper, long-serving civilian employment. That is a good thing. We have to look at the balance. We have to get a proper relationship with the outside firms so that we get a longer period of return on our investment in the training that we have undertaken. Of course, one of the temptations, understandably, very often is that if at this stage of the economic cycle particular jobs are available, people will want to take them now because they may not be available in another period of time. That is one of the drivers in relation to the airlines. We have been involved in discussions with the airlines as to the availability of those positions. I shall ask Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall to describe the more technical side of the scheme and the training provided.
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) Before I do that perhaps I may respond to your point, Mr Hancock? You put your finger on a crucial issue. We have to retain the people who are in the Royal Air Force today and that means looking at every factor. I touched on the headline reports that I see on the attitude surveys. I spend one, two or three days a week out and about listening to people; not talking to them but listening to them. In that way I can identify the concerns that they have whether it is in the DHE or the way in which their careers are managed and so on, so that we can introduce the flexibility so that we can respond to the situation. In the case of the young lady that you have mentioned, if there were a particular issue—an elderly parent or career development aspirations—I do my very best to meet that, so balancing the needs of the service against the needs of the individual. In terms of the outside market, people do not join the Royal Air Force, the British Army or the Royal Navy to go and work for an IT company; they join the Armed Forces. We have to convince them that it remains a career of first choice, with through-life career development, sensible promotion prospects, sensible accommodation and sensible pay. The difficulty is that when you get a sector like the IT world that is overheated at the moment, it is desperate. Aerial erectors are being poached and IT people are being poached for salaries that are extremely attractive. We have to look at the whole package of opportunity that we give our people and their families in order that they stay with us. In the case of pilots, the writing has been on the wall for two or three years. The position as of now is that we are 95 fast jet pilots short of our requirement. That is masked by a surplus of multi-engine junior pilots so the global shortage is around 61. Thankfully, that translates into only nine holes in actual cockpits because we have made use of people with other skill sets to fill jobs on the ground that would otherwise have been filled by skilled aircrew.

Mr Blunt

  606. Does that mean that there are nine multi-million pound aircraft not being used?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) Potentially, but they will be used. All I am saying is that against the 100 per cent requirement there are those holes right now.

  607. What is your shortage in junior officer fast jet pilots?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) Ninety-five.

  608. What is your percentage
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) Ninety-five out of 500.

  609. Of the order of 20 per cent.
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) Yes.

  610. Do you expect that position with the measures that you are taking to get better or worse over the next three years?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) Perhaps I can continue, but I shall come back to that point. In recognition of this, we have done a number of things. The first is to try to extend the period for which people remain available for flying duties. This comes back to the example of the young lady. Because of the drawback of the Armed Forces we have a backlog of people—university cadets to whom we were committed to offer training—and some of them will not join their frontline squadrons until they are 25, 27 or 29. You will have seen that. We have set ourselves a target to increase the number of direct entrants so that we will get them in the cockpits at 20 or 21. Already the backlog has gone and the age spread of those moving into flight training is dropping which will increase the time that they spend with us. Beyond that, 500 posts that hitherto have been filled by qualified pilots have been transferred to the new operational support branch that is now up and running. We are grooming people within that branch. To increase the return on service—the amount of time that they remain with us—we have looked at the other end of the pipeline, the people in their mid to late 30s who are leaving us. We have gone back to career management. If someone has a working wife and they wish to stay at Leuchars for five years, now we shall try to leave them at Leuchars for five years rather than move them. The PVR rate has stabilised and is showing signs of decreasing for aircrew which is an indication, as is the feedback that the Secretary gets, that the personnel management measures are working.

Mr Hancock

  611. What you are saying is very interesting, but it is true, is it not, that a fast jet flight lieutenant pilot who seeks to leave the RAF to go to a civilian airline will start on less money?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) In the civil sector?

  612. Yes. A flight lieutenant fast jet pilot, leaving the RAF, will start with a civilian airline on less money that he gets in the RAF? They leave, do they not, because they enter a structure that will give them promotion and good potential earnings in the future, which they do not see in the RAF? Is it not also true that in some of your squadrons every single pilot is seeking a civilian licence?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) There are a number of points there. The entry salary will probably be lower, but almost certainly the individual concerned will have a pension and a lump sum of money in his pocket. It is indeed the case that a lot of people are doing their civilian licences. The RAF, indeed all three Armed Forces, have introduced a scheme whereby we will pay for the cost of the civilian licence in return for the individual remaining in the cockpit until the age of 38. If they start their flying career at 22 or 23, and remain there until the age of 38, I am not concerned whether some wish to leave at that stage. We shall have had an excellent return on the investment. If you look back at the last year or so, such people were not getting into the cockpit on the frontline until they were 27 or 28 and some of them were leaving at 38, a mere eight or nine years return of service. Returning to Mr Blunt's specific question, I do not know precisely whether the situation will be better or worse. All the levers that we have pulled are retention positive. All the indicators are that people are responding to those levers: the flying pay rates, people who have decided to stay in the Air Force as a result of—

Mr Blunt

  613. Is it your current forecast that the position regarding junior officer pilots on fast jets will get better or worse over the next three years?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) My current planning assumption is that the problem will increase by about 40 people.

  Mr Blunt: All I want you to do is to put the problem that you have to deal with over the next three years into perspective. It will get worse over the next three years from a position that is already dire. Over the last 10 minutes you have gone over, in detail, the measures that you are trying to take to ameliorate the position. We understand them. As time is limited, I want to move on to the Army.


  614. In fairness, you said that it was going to get worse, full stop. What was the next sentence?
  (Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall) Thank you. Those assumptions or that modelling does not take account of the Link-Up scheme because it was introduced only last year. At the moment we have 74 people on the register. Some are giving us six months extension of service and 12 months extension of service. They are in the bag right now. If that continues to be successful and the operational tempo, which is a factor, as are flying pay rates, continues on a positive trend, in a year's time I hope that I can sit here and tell Mr Blunt that the prognosis is much better.

Mr Blunt

  615. I want to turn to the Army as the position in the Army is worse than in the other services. Brigadier Ritchie wrote an article in RUSI in which he said that the net inflow now is 24 people a month into the Army. For how many months has that average figure been sustained?
  (General Sir Alex Harley) We have seen a turn round in those figures since about November or December last year.

  616. It is very recent?
  (General Sir Alex Harley) It is recent. Those better figures started to appear at the back end of the summer.

  617. They have ceased to be negative and have started to become positive.
  (General Sir Alex Harley) The year before we were running at a net permanent loss of about 100.

  618. The sad thing is that on those rates it will take about 31 years to meet the manning targets, will it not?
  (General Sir Alex Harley) You are quite right. For the remainder of this year we seek to get that figure up to about a 58 net gain and for the next four years we hope to get 140 a month net gain. Then we shall achieve our target.

  619. Is that why the Army manning target has slipped a year from the date given in the SDR?
  (General Sir Alex Harley) You will have to ask the Secretary for that. It will be done by the year 2005.
  (Mr Spellar) Perhaps I can clarify that. Mr Blunt is absolutely right that the SDR said 2004. Subsequent PQs have made it clear that that means the financial year 2004/5. So the manning date is by the 31 March 2005.

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