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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We are not able to assess the effect that the potential recruitment of soldiers by security firms in Iraq will have on retention, because soldiers are not required to provide details of their future employment when they leave the Army. However, serving personnel are normally required to give 12 months' notice of their intention to leave, so we are not expecting such recruitment to have had a significant impact.
Mr. Dalyell : As it is the considered view of Correlli Barnett, writing in The Spectator this week, and that of many other thoughtful military commentators, that British troops will be stuck in Iraq for years to come, should not some thought be given to the problem of the haemorrhaging of highly skilled trained personnel to the infinitely more lucrative jobs that security firms are offering?
Mr. Ingram: The reality is somewhat different from what my hon. Friend is trying to present. The current recruitment and retention measures that we have introduced for the regular Army are starting to turn the 15-year downward trend round, and on 1 January this year the whole Army strength stood at 103,840, an increase of about 2,000 personnel in the last 12 months. That seems to contradict those who talk about a haemorrhage out of the armed forces; on current trends, the very reverse seems to be happening.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): The current requirement for the Army is 106,730 personnel. The Department's target is to achieve manning balance by the end of 2005 and to maintain it thereafter.
Mr. Caplin: I have to put the hon. Gentleman right about the Royal Anglian Regiment, because both its battalions are now slightly under strength, although that does not affect their ability to undertake their current roles. We expect both battalions to reach their establishment in the near future, once personnel currently undergoing basic training are incorporated into the regular Army. As for the future, we made our plans for future Army structures clear in the defence White Paper.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): But may I have an assurance that there will be no forced amalgamations of regiments that fully recruit up to strength? My hon. Friend paid tribute to the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, which has always fully recruited. It would be a tragedy if that regiment were amalgamated yet again.
Mr. Caplin: Obviously we are considering all the options that were before the House in the defence White Paper. I understand that a debate on the White Paper was asked for at business questions last week, and no doubt we will discuss it shortly. Proper consideration and debate of many of the issues will be carried out then. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear that if changes are needed, hon. Members will be consulted before they come about.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Many Opposition Members are concerned at the apparent complacency of Government Front Benchers when it comes to manning figures. Not only did we hear about the undermanning of the Territorial Army in response to my question last Defence Question Time but we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) today about the serious undermanning in Defence Medical Services. We now hear that the armed forces are undermanned by up to 5,000. Is it not time that the Government took those matters more seriously and came up with new initiatives to plug the gaps?
Mr. Caplin: This Government are certainly producing new initiatives, in particular in relation to the Defence Medical Services. The Defence Committee's third report "Defence Medical Services", published in February 1997the hon. Gentleman was a member of that Committeesays:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): Those servicemen and women who have currently served at least three years in the armed forces are eligible for job-finding support when they leave. This support is provided under the career transition partnership contract placed by the Ministry of Defence in 1998. RFEA Ltd.the regular forces employment agencyand the officers' association are also involved with much of the job-finding work under the career transition partnership contract. While all discharged personnel remain on the career transition partnership's books, for two years after discharge, the RFEA and officers association offer ex-service personnel support for the rest of their working careers.
John Robertson : I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but does he remember that on Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill he told the House that nine out of 10 armed servicemen and women found employment on leaving? That means that 10 per cent.well above the national average for unemploymentdo not get jobs. Does he agree that that is not good enough? Will he assure me that the Government will do their best to find jobs for that 10 per cent. of men and women who fight for their country on a daily basis?
Mr. Caplin: I certainly share my hon. Friend's concerns. Do I remember the Second Reading and Committee stage of the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill? Of course I do; it is fresh in my memory, as the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) will recognise.
As I said, although only service leavers who have served at least three years are eligible for resettlement provision, from 1 April the early service leavers initiative will be introduced into the new contract for career transition partnerships for all members of our armed forces.
The figure that I used before is that 90 per cent. of our armed forces leavers get good employment within six months of leaving the armed forces. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) explained, it is the 10 per cent. who are of considerable
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The European Union is working on a number of programmes to improve the defence capabilities of member states. These include the European capability action plan, the establishment of a European defence capabilities agency, the development of European rapid response capability including the battlegroups concept and the drafting of a new headline goal. We fully support all these initiatives.
Roger Casale : I am chairman of the all-party British-Italian parliamentary group, which, along with other hon. Members, has sought to encourage the commitment of successive Italian Governments to standing alongside British troops in peacekeeping missions in areas as diverse as the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, where losses of troops and police have been sustained. It is clearly in the national interest to build bilateral and multilateral defence co-operation in Europe. Will my right hon. Friend take every possible step to encourage other European countries to increase their spending on defence and their defence capabilities to allow them to work with us on the most important peacekeeping missions?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observations. The British Government's policy is to ensure that we encourage other countries to develop their military capabilities not only in our bilateral relationships but in our multilateral relationships, which not only benefits autonomous EU operations but is a crucial contribution that European nations can make to NATO.