Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER 2000
SPELLAR MP AND
1. Minister, Air Marshal Pledger, again, thank
you for coming. We too are suffering from the Services' phenomenon
of overstretch. I presume some Members will be listening to the
Prime Minister, so I have no doubt our numbers will revive during
the course of the afternoon. We are coming to the conclusion of
our inquiry into personnel issues and we have touched upon some
really interesting subjects. Thank you for helping to arrange
our peripatetic visits to servicemen. They have been very helpful.
I suppose I was asking for it, going in front of the Staffordshire
regiment, whose personnel are derived from an area where expressing
your views in a forthright manner is something instilled early
in mothers' pregnancies and we got what we deserved: if you ask
people to express their views, they probably will if they come
from our area, Minister, as you know. It was a really interesting
session. What we will dobecause we know you have to leave
in two hoursis identify a dozen areas of questioning and
we will try if we can, though it will be difficult, to contain
each of the questions within a ten-minute segment, if that is
possible. We will start off with a few questions by Julian Brazier
on personnel management and the Armed Forces Overarching Personnel
Strategy. If there is anything you would like to say at the outset?
(Mr Spellar) Only that, as a fellow Staffordshire
MP, I can fully understand your reaction. Secondly, to say that
you seem to be suffering from the same problem as the Ministry
of Defence building in overheating, so, if you do not mind, I
am going to remove my jacket.
2. What can we do about the heating?
(Mr Spellar) Nothing whatsoever, is what
I have found, apart from changing global warming.
Mr Gapes: Nothing, except take our jackets
off in sympathy.
3. It is probably a disciplinary matter for Air
Marshal Pledger to do that.
(Mr Spellar) The military are made of
more robust stuff!
4. Do you have any introductory remarks?
(Mr Spellar) Not really. Obviously I
have been keeping track of the wide range of areas that the Committee
have been addressingmany of them are matters that we are
addressing inside the department and certainly I look forward
to sharing our thinking and hopefully also some of the progress
that we have been making with the Committee.
Chairman: Thank you. Julian Brazier?
5. Minister, on the Overarching Personnel Strategy
I really have two groups of questions. First, is it really right
to have a common strategy for three Services which are so different
and does it really allow enough flexibility to solve their particular
problems? I have a particular example. Do you want to answer in
general terms or look at a particular example?
(Mr Spellar) If you would put the particular
example, then I can deal with both.
6. It is particularly useful with Air Marshal
Pledger here. The Bett report recommended that there should be
an end to the principle of regular officers automatically getting
a pension on leaving and it is said that there should be two break
points in the Services. This was an idea which came from the Air
Force and, as recently as Tuesday of last week at RAF Cranwell,
a lot of young pilots were saying it was a good idea. It would
mean, effectively, that those people who left early would do less
well in the pension stakes, they would just get a deferred pension,
but it would free up a lot of money to improve the terms and conditions
of service of those who stayed on. For very good reasons this
was strongly opposed in the other two Services and so the idea
dies. Why should the Air Force go ahead with something that makes
sense in that Service but is completely unworkable in the other
(Mr Spellar) I understand that there
can be a concern that somehow you can be homogenising. That certainly
is not our intention, nor indeed is it our practice. We fully
realise the very clear advantages of the single Service ethos
and what that contributes actually to military capability. Indeed,
even within those overall principles on which we are working,
there is quite a considerable range of individual Service difference
in practice. In many cases that works, in some cases it creates
difficulties between the Services, particularly in areas where
Service personnel are serving alongsidethat is not necessarily
just to do with newly created units, like, say, the Defence Helicopter
Flying School or the new Joint Harrier Force, even the long-standing
operations such as Gibraltar. There are frictions that can be
there and they may well be management because there is no 100
per cent perfect solution. Indeed, you have to get a balance out
of this. More and more of our operations as we are seeing in Bosnia,
Kosovo, Sierra Leone and elsewhere, very closely involved, the
various Services, and, indeed, in any of the specialist areas
there is much closer working alongside between those from different
Services. Therefore, if you are creating anomalies, you do have
to recognise that you are creating them. You may say, "Well,
the advantage in the single Service is significant and therefore
we will be prepared to live with the consequences of that."
On the other hand, you may say that there is an impact. If you
take one example, flying pay we actually have a separate regime
to deal with the problems that arise there, and then there have
been other single payments made in Services in order to deal with
manpower problems. You can have broad principles that lay down
the general strategy for personnel but at the same time you have
to recognise that there may well be differences within Services.
7. Air Marshal Pledger, would you like to add
(Air Marshal Pledger) I think I would
also have to say that of course our abiding yardstick should be
operational capability and therefore all these possibilities are
tested very carefully against that principle, that they are made
up not in a directive way by the centre but in a collective way
with PPOs and you will not be surprised to know that again we
went around the particular debate you describe when we set about
the pensions' review, which of course you will be consulted on
in not the too distant future.
8. I must ask the second part of the questions,
which is much briefer, but I make an observation that were one
Service to adopt something like that, it would be not a difference
of emphasis but a completely different strategy. As the shortages
get worse and worse in the Air Force, as the airlines have now
started to recruit, I hope you will revisit it. It seems to be
a damn good idea, where there are manifestly excellent reasons
why the other Services cannot do it. The second half of the question
is: Do you think that there is a case for greatly enhancing the
personnel management skills of the various management areas of
the Armed Forces? Again to take an Air Force example, but it applies
to the other two Services, it was pointed out that the desk officers
in the manning branch change over at the same speed as everybody
else does in the Service. Is there not a case for making more
use of retired officers in these areas and/or having some people
on double length postings, so that there is a bit more continuity
of career development?
(Mr Spellar) I will let Air Marshal Pledger
deal with the RAF point and then I will come on to the more general
(Air Marshal Pledger) In direct answer to your question,
the Air Force, as an example, is now employing more retired officers
in the desk jobs that you describe at Innsworth, so there is greater
continuity. But that has to be balanced with an understanding
of today's pressures and of course those who stay in those kinds
of jobs for long lengths of time will tend to lose contact with
the real pressures of today. That is why we have to maintain that
kind of link.
(Mr Spellar) There is another aspect of that, which
is of course people's own individual career path and at the same
time getting that right balance between management of personnel
but also command experience. Again, we will never get a perfect
solution because you actually have competing pressures and interests
here between the individual career development, which is important
for the person, but also I think we do recognise that within the
Services we also need to get a slightly better balance between
human resources management but equally that very important, absolutely
vital and intrinsic skill of military command. Surveys that have
been done of opinions within the Services would indicate that
we need to rebalance that slightly but making sure that we certainly
do not lose the key element of command.
9. One of the problems we had expressed to us
in Tidworth was partly personnel was the enormous additional burden
that has been handed down to people in the Army which they are
finding, that lack of administrative support is putting more and
more work on them and they simply are not able to meet the requirements.
Is there any hope that something is being done in the other Services
as in the Royal Air Force, just to give the majors a little bit
more administrative back-up, to allow the majors to do the things
which they are more competent to do? I know this is always a complaint
of bureaucracy but one can certainly look to the tasks imposed
upon middle-ranking officers, particularly as a result of legislation
(Health and Safety, Equal Opportunities, etc). Have you had, Minister,
any complaints that this is becoming potentially quite a serious
(Mr Spellar) In some areas, where, as
a result of legislative or judicial changes, we have actually
then factored in some additional staffing support and I think
that is right. I am not entirely sure of the extent to which we
provided additional back-up in the more general terms of administration.
I would certainly be pleased to look at that.
10. Perhaps we could drop you a note.
(Mr Spellar) Yes, if you could let us
know your experience, we can look at that in the round.
Chairman: Thank you. Mike Gapes.
11. Can I ask you some questions about recruitment.
It is quite clear that there is a real problem with attracting
young people today into the Armed Forces. That is partly because
unemployment is very low, there are changing attitudes in society,
and the number of people in that age group is actually declining.
Do you need to be far more radical in your approach to recruitment
issues? Not just with regard to young people but also with regard
to other age groups or are we going to find that in fact we cannot
fill the places in the forces with the quality of people that
(Mr Spellar) We are very much alert to
the need to maintain recruitment, save that we should say that
last year we had our best recruitment year for 10 years. I think
that is a very considerable tribute to the recruiters in all three
Services, that, in the face of dramatic reductions in unemployment
and a million new jobs in the economy, they have been able to
maintain those levels of recruitment. Equally, we have to look
a little further down the track, where we are looking at a demographic
dip in the numbers that are available and also our requirement
for many people in technical and specialist areas. We now need
to be able to attract and recruit them. We have been doing some
work in individual Services on that, doing particular efforts
in areas of traditional high recruitment and looking at how we
can depend on that; looking, for example, in the Army at regiments
that have been particularly successful and seeing what the particular
factors are in those particular regiments; for example, is it
because they have very good relations with schools in the country
area from which they recruit. You will have seen on television
the recruitment campaign, the advertising campaign, which has
generated quite a bit of interest. We have been, I think quite
early and active in using the Internet, getting youngsters firstly
to register interest but also having an interactive chat line,
where they can be linking up with senior NCOs who are then able
to answer their questions. That has generated quite a degree of
interest. At the same time, obviously as part of our recruitment
campaign with the ethnic communities, we have been working very
strongly with them, partly in terms of direct campaigns but also
more broadly directed at the community. Only a week or so ago
I launched a new exhibition of the involvement of those from the
ethnic communities over the last 200 years, back to the Napoleonic
Wars in the Armed Forces of this country, in order to influence
not just youngsters but also the families and parents in the community
as well. Those are just a number of the initiatives which we are
taking, all of which are having some effectparticularly
the advertising campaign, which has generated a very substantial
number of additional inquiries.
12. Can I come on to ethnic minority recruitment
in a moment. I was at that exhibition. I think it was an excellent
initiative and I commend you for doing it, but I want to draw
attention to the statistics we have as to the strength of the
forces as at 1 October. According to the statistics we have, there
has been a net outflow of 26 per month from Army other ranks whereas,
to meet the targets, there would have had to have been a net inflow
of 35 per month. Are you concerned about this? What specific action
are you taking to deal with that problem?
(Mr Spellar) I would prefer that to be
better and of course net flow is a composite of recruitment and
of course of retention or failure to retain. There has been an
extremely good initiative by the Armyit started out in
one of the regiments and is now being more broadly spread with
a pamphlet saying, "If you are thinking of leaving the Army,
consider some of these facts"because there is a danger
sometimes that the grass can look greener on the other side of
the hilland, you do need actually to look at the current
benefits and the medium-term benefits of staying in the Forces.
It is quite interesting that that had an impact in those particular
areas, which is why we are rolling it out more broadly in the
Army to get that message across as well. Quite encouragingly,
we have been seeing some improvement in retention. Last year,
for example, paying the full award from the Pay Review Body, also
was a very welcome signal also which had a good effect in showing
our serious intentions towards the Armed Forces. I do not think
there is any one sort of magic talisman that we can rub and that
will solve the problem. I think you have to look at a number of
discrete initiatives. Some of them, I am sure, we will come on
to laterwhich is, for example, looking at accommodation.
It is probably even more important in terms of retention than
it is in terms of recruitment. Some of the areas that I have described
on initiatives of recruitment, a further area are ones where there
has been some publicity in the papers of actually working with
youngsters on New Deal and new opportunities. We have been doing
work in Newcastle and Norwich there. That has a role for the work
in the community and I think that is important in itself but it
also enables youngsters to have a taste of the Services and also
to get an idea by talking to Service personnel of the future prospects
that there might be. I think that is equally importantparticularly
in many areas, because of the change nowa change we see,
frankly, mirrored in the House of Commons as wellwhere
now many youngstersthe vast majority in facthave
no direct contact in their family with the Armed Forces. For many
of us that would have been quite different because nearly all
of our fathers would have been in the Armed Forces with the War
and National Service. That is why we had the Armed Forces Parliamentary
Scheme. But it also applies in many other areas and we have to
look at how we get people engaging with the Forces and understanding
the opportunities that there are.
(Air Marshal Pledger) You particularly mention trained
strengths and then linked it to recruiting. There is of course
that transition phase from taking the recruit and making him or
her into a trained soldier. I think, if I can recall the Adjutant
General saying that was also a particular area of focus because
we need to get as many of those recruits into the trained strength
in order to help with those figures and I think he gave you some
examples of where personally he is engaged in that process.
Mr Gapes: I visited HMS Collingwood last
week and talked to a large number of naval personnel and one issue
that was raised was the quality of information given at recruiting
offices to the young people when they first expressed the interest
to sign up. It was put to us that a number of potential recruits
are encouraged or persuaded or told to go in particular directions
which they subsequently find is not what they thought they were
going into and therefore you get drop out or disaffection, leading
to people in their later career in the Services not staying as
long as they might have done.
Mr Brazier: Could I just confirm that
exactly the same point was made to me by some of the other ranks
at RAF Cranwell.
13. My question is: How seriously are you looking
at the quality of the people who actually do your recruiting and
the advice they give? Are these people out of date? Are they in
touch with modern trends amongst young people generally and do
they really have a feel for the areas where the Services are short
or do they just have their own agenda of the quota they have to
get and therefore they put people through almost on a basis of
random allocation rather than meeting the interests of the particular
(Mr Spellar) The interest of the particular
individual, to a certain extent, coincides with the interests
of the Services because investing money in people for some period
of training and then to find that they are unsuited for it is
neither of benefit to the Services nor indeed to the individual.
Obviously we are looking all the time particularly at that sort
of fall-out rate, particularly in the training phases because
that is taking up space and it is also a considerable cost driver
for us. The Services are looking, if there are systematic patterns
on this, at what remedial action they can take. One area, for
example, was the fairly high level of people dropping out as a
result of lower limb injuries. This reflects in many cases the
lower standards of general fitness and hardiness in society, people
playing less sport, less walking to school and all the rest of
it. You can either say, we accept people are going to drop out,
or, indeedas the Army have donewhich is actually
to change the trajectory of getting to the required fitness level.
Not changing the final fitness level, because that is absolutely
vital to the operation of the Armed Forces, but actually maybe
having a smoother trajectory for getting there, which actually
means you have less injuries on the way. That is analysing a problem,
understanding it, and then actually taking remedial action. All
the time, if there are examples that colleagues pick up, extremely
importantly, as they go round, we are more than happy to look
at them in order to look at how we can improve practice.
14. I accept the fitness issue is important.
(Mr Spellar) That was just by way of
15. But these points were not about fitness.
(Mr Spellar) I understand that.
16. These were about the particular directions
that people were put into. Without going into all the acronyms,
basically it is a question of people being given an impression
that it would be easy to change from one side to another and then
finding that was not the case. People being given an impression
of the type of things they would be doing and then finding in
fact it was not quite the way it worked out. I would just emphasise
the very strong feeling that came through at Collingwood. I think
Mr Brazier has confirmed that from the RAF side. I hope that you
can look at that, because I think that might solve one of your
(Mr Spellar) I would be very interested
if both of you could let us have a bit more detail on that because
that is the sort of area we are very keen to look at and to improve
17. I am sorry if we appear to be whingeing on
our visits but that was one of the purposes
(Mr Spellar) It was the sole purpose
of encouraging you to go.
18. Bearing in mind they recruit from Walsall,
Dudley, West Bromwich, Wolverhampton, Tamworth, Newcastle-under-Lyme,
Stokea pretty good martial area, as a walk round any of
the towns on a Saturday night would revealyet they are
128 men short in one regiment of 600. That is one-sixth of the
complement. That seems to me rather worrying. I have no objection
to Fijians joining the regimentit would certainly improve
their boxing team and their rugby teambut I find it rather
embarrassing that our area cannot keep supplying the local county
regiment. I know they can go off and join lesser regiments, like
the guards and cavalry or the other Services, but does it cause
you the same anxiety as it does us? How are we going to get a
regiment which is kept up to adequate numbers?
(Mr Spellar) Sometimes, for all sorts
of different reasons, regiments' figures go up and down. One of
the areas that we do look at is where some regiments are being
particularly successful in meeting their numbers, others are being
less successful, to see if there are any factors that we can draw
out in order to improve practicethough, as you rightly
say, a number of the youngsters from our area go to the Royal
Engineers' TA in my constituency, a number going to Royal Artillery
and so on, I know some who have done that, but certainly we do
look quite regularly and quite rigorously at different regiments
to see how we improve. I noted that the Staffordshire Regiment
were down at the Temple in Walsall on Saturday.
19. I was there. An excellent morning.
(Mr Spellar) Even betterthey had
an apology from me and the presence of the Chairman. But I think
that shows the active work. Also the Staffordshire Regiment conducted
some excellent recruitment exercises in West Bromwich at the Job
Centre there. So there is quite a bit of work being undertaken
and maybe we need to talk to the regiment, to draw from their
experience and see what can be improved.