Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




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 do—because we know you have to leave in two hours—is 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 addressing—many 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?

Mr 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 two?

  (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 alongside—that 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 anything?

  (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 one.
  (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 problem?

  (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.

Mr 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 we need?

  (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 effect—particularly 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 Army—it 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 hill—and, 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 later—which 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 important—particularly in many areas, because of the change now—a change we see, frankly, mirrored in the House of Commons as well—where now many youngsters—the vast majority in fact—have 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.

Mr Gapes

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 individuals?

  (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, indeed—as the Army have done—which 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 example.

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 problems.

  (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 best practice.


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, Stoke—a pretty good martial area, as a walk round any of the towns on a Saturday night would reveal—yet 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 regiment—it would certainly improve their boxing team and their rugby team—but 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 practice—though, 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 better—they 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.

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