Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



20.  I am not criticising the regiment; this is indicative of the problem of recruitment.

  (Mr Spellar) But not necessarily general. There are differences between regiments and we need to learn from those.
  (Air Marshal Pledger) It is patchy across the country, as you would recognise, Chairman, and that is why we are conducting many of these out-reach programmes to put the Armed Forces back into the public eye, even if not directly and deliberately recruitment in themselves, to restore that linkage.

  Chairman: Mike Gapes.

Mr Gapes

21.  If I may come back on two points. Firstly, one issue that was raised with me last week was the general perception—and I think it is probably true as well being a general perception—that attitudes to discipline amongst young people have changed, therefore sometimes some young people find it hard to adjust to the standards of strictness which are common or were common within the Services. There were two opinions: some people said that standards were therefore being reduced, so that fewer people dropped out, and others said that fewer people were being recruited because standards were too strict. Both arguments were put to us. I would be interested in your response to that issue.

  (Mr Spellar) One of the other arguments that is often put is that for many youngsters, who have never had any structure in their lives at all, in fact going into the Services actually provides structure in their lives for the first time.

Mr Brazier

22.  Hear, hear.

  (Mr Spellar) And it is actually hugely beneficial. It is really trying to ensure that there is that gateway there which enables them to go through that. Do you remember, we had some exchanges across the floor of the Commons about showing these opportunities to youngsters who had been convicted of relatively minor offences and in many cases there was a cross-party view from a number of colleagues, that in fact taking people through that gateway and enabling them to benefit from the structure that the Armed Forces gives to their lives could actually be hugely beneficial and they could be very good servicemen and women. So I think we need to look at that. Also, I do not think we should look at youngsters as being a homogenous group. I think there is a wide variety of differing views in there. For example, I am not sure if the Committee have visited—if they have not, I would encourage them collectively or individually to visit Harrogate—with the sort of junior training centre there. To meet several hundred—900 I think the figure is now—incredibly motivated youngsters who really are fitting into an army life and benefiting from it. That is just one example and I am sure as you have gone round you have also been impressed with the quality of many of the youngsters. So there is not actually a homogenous population out there which is all of one view. There have been changes and some of those in many ways mirror some of our requirements as well. For example, the trend towards being involved with computers and so on is not just something that is happening in the civilian world. It also is a huge requirement within modern armed forces now. That is quite a different attitude but we need to shape than then within a military environment as well.

Mr Gapes

23.  Is it possible, as you need those people with those computer skills and those technological literacy skills, that you will need to adapt your methods of recruitment, to make them more suitable for people with those skills, who might find the traditional training and induction more difficult?

  (Mr Spellar) That is one of the reasons why, as I said earlier, we have actually brought in an extremely professional website, and, indeed, a very considerable number of youngsters are actually accessing the recruitment system via the Internet and making their first inquiries, even making their initial application. Obviously we then have to see the applicant in order to assess their suitability, but a lot of that initial work now is operating through that. We have to look at that to see how we balance the investment we make in that sort of area compared, for example, with the traditional shop front, and that has to be a continual evaluation, because my recollection is—and either somebody will correct me or I will send you a note on this—we were moving up to a figure where something like one-third of initial expressions of interest which were actually moving into recruitment were started via the Internet.
  (Air Marshal Pledger) You started by specifically mentioning discipline and attitudes to discipline. One of the things we have done very carefully recently is to re-establish the need for that discipline and that structure within an armed Service and therefore we are able to convince these individuals through training programmes that this is not just because the Armed Forces has a disciplinary code and process, it is there by virtue of need in its employment terms. Each of the services has then reproduced and justified that kind of environment to each of their people. So we have re-established the need and then trained people and will apply it. We are not reducing the standards where they are necessary.


24.  Will you leave those papers behind?

  (Air Marshal Pledger) If you want.

  Chairman: And more, if you like!

Mr Gapes

25.  You specifically mentioned earlier ethnic minority recruitment and we know that you are putting a substantial amount of money and resources into that area. In fact, we were told that 11.5% of the RAF's annual recruiting budget was spent on ethnic minorities, which is a very much higher percentage than the return you are getting for the RAF, which is 1.5% according to the latest figures. Do you think that those figures are disappointing, given that, at the current rate of progress, it is going to take 30 years to reach the target of 5% which you intended to reach by 2001/2002?

  (Mr Spellar) I think our hope is that this process will actually be cumulative. That is that as we get an increasing number of youngsters in from the community who then are starting good careers and enjoying service life, and then actually they will be going back into the community and encouraging others to join and in fact—though in many cases they would hate this description—actually being role models in this regard. You are absolutely right, we are spending quite a bit in a wide variety of initiatives, but certainly from my experience the most effective recruiters in this are young men and women from the Services, from the communities, who are actually going back and describing their own careers and their own experiences. They are an extremely good group, but we do not expect this to happen overnight. We are also working very considerably, as I described earlier, on influencing the broader communities, particularly families, again in order to encourage them to see Service careers with the huge range of opportunities that there are, particularly for training and qualifications—which is a matter of considerable interest and concern to many of the communities—actually encouraging them to see the Armed Forces as a way also of fulfilling those aspirations as well. We are working very closely with the relevant media on this area. Obviously we would prefer it if we were going further and faster but we are seeing progress in an upward direction. We believe that this is a worthwhile investment, not least because we require the widest possible range of potential recruits for us to be able actually to fulfil our obligations of providing the forces that are capable of meeting the country's needs.


26.  You referred earlier, Minister, to a recruiting initiative in my constituency, which I attended. There was a very good team there at the Temple. It seemed a little incongruous, but the Army was invited. A Brigadier was there, he made an excellent speech, a Sikh Major, who could show that there are Sikhs in the Army. In a session afterwards, over tea and samosas, the issue for young men was the turban. They were shown the leaflet on cultural guidance, which seems quite complicated. There are 10 to 15 lines, which I could not completely understand, and the questions were not really answered by this document. I wonder whether you could send to us any of the research that has been undertaken on how you reconcile religious beliefs with military requirements and with health and safety requirements. I was very much involved—I think it was a little before you entered Parliament—in the campaign on Sikh motorcyclists being allowed not to wear helmets. It would be interesting to see whether it is possible to be even more flexible than this document lays down. I can understand why if you wish to be a fighter pilot: then you cannot really fit the headgear over the turban. But it seems to me it is not beyond the remit of DERA (if they are still at your disposal 12 months from now) to design some form of headgear that would be consistent with turbans. I would not expect an answer now, but if it was possible to give us information on what research has been done on exploring the synthesis of these two approaches. Certainly, although this document is very helpful, it does raise far more questions than are able to be provided for in a short paragraph.

  (Mr Spellar) We will certainly write to you.[1] We have been looking at this in some considerable depth and I do accept that there is this question from the community—save to say that my experience is that when I go to a Sikh wedding I am in the minority in having a beard and in the majority in not wearing a turban. There is a considerable section of the community who do not actually follow all of those tenets of the faith. We want to appeal to them as well but we do fully acknowledge the difficulties and we have been working on them and I will be happy to send you some paperwork on that.

  Chairman: Thank you so much. Julian Lewis, please.

Mr Lewis

27.  Overstretch, Minister. The Committee has been told that personnel in all three Services feel that they are being asked to do too much and spend too much time away from home. We have got a change in the orientation of the Armed Forces from a predictable Cold War stand-off to an unpredictable expeditionary pattern of deployment, and, if the EU-led force goes ahead as well, we can predict even more deployments which will not be easily anticipated. If we are going to see a sustained pattern of higher operational tempo of this sort, do we simply need to have more people in the Services? Have we in fact underestimated the implications of having a more active foreign policy commitment to being a "force for good" within the world?

  (Mr Spellar) I think there are a number of issues wrapped up within that. One is obviously the sort of tempo of operations and the level of commitment. There has actually been a quite substantial move back on that. At the height of Kosovo we were up to some 47% cent; the figures now for the Army are some 22% committed to operations and 15% currently deployed. But I also take your point about questions of predictability. In a lot of cases there is more acceptance of the unpredictability caused by external events compared with the unpredictability sometimes caused by administrative decisions. One of the areas that the Services are working hard at is to try and avoid, for example, if someone is being posted back to the United Kingdom, them then, quite unpredictably, being sent on to another duty, maybe even within the United Kingdom but in another area. I think that particularly impacts on those who have families and therefore are trying to plan family events and holidays and so on. In many cases those are more greatly resented than if they actually have to be engaged in a military operation for which there is a sort of comprehensible understanding of the reasons for it. It is also fair to say that we have made some improvements in reducing commitment levels. Average tour intervals in the Army have improved, and, while in some specialist areas these remain at around 12 months, our latest assessment of the average time between unit tours across the Army for this year is around 30 months, which is about the best figure for at least five years. So there is some level of improvement. Another area we do need to look at is in specialist areas. For example, with Signals, we have contracted some work to contractors in Bosnia which has enabled us to relieve some of the pressure on Signals. We also need to be alert where we are contracting work out that we are not actually removing all domestic billets that are available which enables some degree of harmony in people's lives as well. We have to get that balance right as well and build that into our equations. So, yes, we are alert to the difficulties, but I would also say to the Committee one of the reasons that people join the Armed Forces is actually to be engaged in military activity and people's response to some of this, apart from the unpredictability, is quite often also related to where they are in their cycle of life. For many youngsters who I meet, actually being engaged on operations is what they joined the Army for—and as much of it as they can get—but slightly later in life they want a more balanced approach. We have to look at how we can accommodate that as best we can, but at the same time as delivering that military output.

28.  I accept that you are taking all these steps to improve the situation, but the hard facts on the ground are that personnel still cite to us overstretch and its effect on their personal lives as the worst aspect of Service life. It is certainly the case that it is often spouses who put pressure on personnel to leave the Services, so I entirely agree with the last point that you were making in your reply to my earlier question. But, for all the efforts that you are making to reduce the level of overstretch and the halving, for example, of the Army's commitments from the peak of mid-1999, nevertheless people are telling us that the improvement in quality of life that this should bring is not being felt by the personnel and that this is one of the reasons why they are leaving the Services. So why is it, do you think, that even though you are trying to reduce commitment, whilst accepting that the new role of the Forces may mean that others may crop up rapidly and unexpectedly, that still people are not feeling the benefit of this reduction that you have been trying to put into place?

  (Mr Spellar) I think some are and some are not and it all depends on which individuals you are talking with. I think also there have been changes in aspirations of families in this regard and, as generally in the population, a much higher percentage of people in the work force. A subsequent change which has also taken place is that many more women are looking to have careers rather than jobs and therefore finding, particularly if they find they are being moved, that that causes career breaks which they find very disrupting, rather than if they were just slotting between one job and another. This is an area that the Army in particular is sensitive. It is less a problem, for reasons you will understand, with the Navy, who tend to be based on one or two major ports. It is a case of looking at if people can be spending longer periods in one location and how you would balance that. These are considerations that as a result of people's life patterns changing the Services are looking at whether and how they could accommodate those in the pattern of service life as well.

29.  May I give you one positive suggestion that was made to us—and this relates to the additional leave that is granted when personnel return from an operational tour. As we understand it, this amounts to 20 days over and above the normal leave allowance. However, the point that is being made to us is that leave can only be taken if your unit can spare you. Therefore it has been suggested that, because it is difficult to use up some of the entitlements that you could have the benefit of, personnel should be permitted to sell back unused leave dates to the services as is done in other countries. How do you react to that?

  (Mr Spellar) That sounds a bit like in the building industry, when people, when we tried to give them holidays, then said, "Yes, but we want to insist on our right to work." We said, "Well, actually this is the reason why we negotiated, so you could actually have some time for relaxation and going away with your family rather than accumulating some more money."

30.  It is not quite the same if their unit will not spare them.

  (Mr Spellar) But if the purpose of the additional leave is to recognise the impact that operational tempo has on families, and if therefore we are trying to ensure that families can actually spend sufficient time together to balance out those family commitments, then I do not believe that money just solves that and therefore we should be looking at the other side of the equation and if we have those problems therefore we should be addressing them rather than establishing that further practice that you are describing. We will look at it, but—

31.  I will not pursue this too much further, but surely the point is that this problem arises when perhaps people would like to take the leave on return, they have been told they are entitled to the leave, but their unit cannot spare them.

  (Mr Spellar) I am saying, remembering we already deal to some extent on the financial side, with the additional allowances that we brought in, we need to look at the individual examples to see if that is working actually against the broader policy.
  (Air Marshal Pledger) We do annually provide for the Armed Forces Pay Review Body a survey of leave taken and clearly that shows that in the majority of instances leave is being taken for the purpose for which it was granted. There will doubtless be occasions and inviduals who will quote that that was not practicable in their particular instances but I believe that they are in the exception rather than in the majority and the reports tend to support that. We have to make this work for its purpose, which is to restore that relationship with the family.

32.  I know Mr Gapes wants to come in, so I will just ask one more time. Are you absolutely satisfied that our targets are correct for the Services, given either the operational tempo which is expected as a result in the change from a static strategy to an expeditionary strategy and given the extra commitment that may result from an EU-led Rapid Reaction Force. Are our targets adequate?

  (Mr Spellar) The belief of the Services following the SDR is that those targets are adequate. When we reach those targets then we will assess that.

  Chairman: Mr Gapes.

Mr Gapes

33.  Can I take you back to this point about leave. This comes from discussions at Collingwood last week. It was put to us very forcibly that maintenance alongside ships often coincides with leave periods and, as a result, people like engineers would be busy at sea and then required to do the maintenance on the ship and therefore not able to take the leave, even though they have been given additional leave by virtue of the work they have been doing before. That is a real gripe that they have.

  (Mr Spellar) OK.

34.  If you are just going to say, "Well, they cannot sell all this extra leave back," then they feel, "Why have we been given it? It is meaningless."

  (Air Marshal Pledger) Absolutely.
  (Mr Spellar) We will have a look at that.


35.  What are the complications in working hours? How many hours a week do different units/Services work? I would not expect a figure of 43 hours—I am sure it is more complicated than that—but if there is such documentation, with all its complications, perhaps you would be so kind as to send it.

  (Mr Spellar) We will write to you on that.[2]

36.  It seems to me that, if we were invaded on a Saturday morning, we would be in dire straits, but there is emerging a culture of: "Well, the weekend is ours." I was rather less worried about often the pressures put on people if they do have the luxury of travelling back to their homes. Air Marshal Pledger does not seem to agree with that, but that is certainly the impression I have gained from talking to servicemen and women. I would be interested to see what the hours worked are.

  (Mr Spellar) Yes.

37.  The last government received an amount from Nomura, £1,662 billion. Was it good value for us, for the Services, for the Treasury, for Nomura. If you were Minister at that time, would you have negotiated that figure?

  (Mr Spellar) I think I am on record as to my views of the deal at that time. The problem we face as an incoming government was that that money had gone. It had been pocketed by the Treasury under the previous administration and we have to deal with the consequence of that. I am not in that sense being critical of Annington for the management of—

38.  Nomura, please. Let us get to the heart of the matter.

  (Mr Spellar) Of the management of the estate, but I am critical—as indeed Committees of this House have been—of the financial arrangements that were arrived at at that time. What we have to look at is the consequences or downstream effects on not just family quarters but also, what is sometimes neglected, single living accommodation. Although that was not included in the sale, it is still a matter of some concern to us, particularly with reference to previous exchanges on trained personnel who have been in the Services for a reasonable number of years, in whom we have put a fairly substantial investment and who also have a degree of experience and frankly require higher standards of accommodation than we provide. We also provide some accommodation that is, frankly, dreadful—marginally mitigated by not charging people for this, but still we believe unacceptable. Ministers are engaged in some fairly intense dialogue in the Department at the moment as to how we can bring forward a programme for rectifying this. That is partly about money but it is also very much about using best modern techniques for actually constructing a lot of this because in the private sector there is an awful lot of industrialised building taking place of accommodation units and we need to learn and to spread best practice on that.

39.  In Tidworth we saw some spectacularly good accommodation. It was phenomenally good—to such an extent that apparently people are driving in and looking around to see where the agent is who is putting the houses up. They are spectacularly good. Then we saw, a mile or so away, something you do not even have in my constituency—and the housing there is pretty awful—and that is coming down. We have seen the best and the worst. It would be disturbing if the dosh that the MoD received has now disappeared because a lot of the problems can be dealt with by a further allocation of money. If the MoD or if the Treasury has been given the money, it seems rather unfair, if the money was paid, it has not been properly doled out to improve the quality and quantity of housing because the completion date for the planned upgrade of Service family accommodation to grade one was originally going to be 2003. Now it is going to be 2005. Bearing in mind how important the accommodation is for retention, is there any way in which the already strapped MOD budget, or, as the Treasury is in now National Lottery mode, is there any way in which the money can be taken back from the Treasury which they received in 1996 to help speed up the process of upgrading accommodation? Because, when people hear it has been delayed even further—and you know how important accommodation is—it does seem a little unfair. I wonder whether there is any flexibility in the system to speed up the very, very good work, the very good work, that is being done on improving housing accommodation.

  (Mr Spellar) I fully understand the Committee's feelings on this, they are ones that Ministers share. The slippage from 2003 to 2005, I should point out, was as a result of an underestimate at the time of the sale as to the scope of the problem. My impression is that this was very much a back-of-the-envelope calculation, which subsequent rigorous analysis showed to be a serious underestimate. That is reflected in the programme extending through to 2005. There are considerable amounts of money being spent. On the upgrade for 2000/2001 £61 million is being spent, apart from the maintenance and also some of the new buildings under PFI. That still does not detract from the fact that a lot more needs to be done. Part of the area of difficulty is that we could get a lot more immediately satisfied customers by spending money on more minor modifications, for example on category 2 property bringing it up to category 1. However, and I think quite reasonably, the Services have taken a policy of doing the worst first. Some of the absolute worst is being either demolished or being transferred to Annington for subsequent refurbishment and resale. Some people are living in unacceptable conditions. The only caveat I would put on all this is not with regard to that programme but obviously, as the Committee is aware, and we are aware as well, that this programme covers the properties within the United Kingdom. We should not be forgetting our properties in Germany and Cyprus as well. Gibraltar is another location, where some work is being done. Some of the new properties I have seen are extremely good, not only good but well designed and well thought out for the requirement of Service personnel. We still have some very unsatisfactory property in those areas as well.

  Chairman: On the single living accommodation, as you know, and you said, it is probably worse than family accommodation. Could you just amplify slightly on what you are doing to ensure that adequate funds are devoted to the upgrade of single living accommodation? Often people tend to think, "They are just young squaddies, they are used to living in pretty awful accommodation". That may be true five or ten years ago but they are entitled to decent accommodation. We saw some fairly good accommodation and we saw some pretty lousy accommodation.

1   See Appendx 9. Back

2   See Appendix 9. Back

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