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The Navy, Army and RAF continue to make strenuous efforts to recruit and retain the right number of people. The Army's substantial investment in marketing over the past 12 months is bearing fruit, with applications now up to the required level. Indeed, in Scotland, where it is sometime argued that the changes that we are making are having a detrimental effect, the recruitment figures make salutary reading. Numbers for the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Royal Highland Fusiliers are up compared with the same time last year. That is hardly an indication that the new Royal Regiment of Scotland is proving to be the problem that some claim[Interruption.] That information shows that those who try to run the scare that the Royal Regiment of Scotland will be a deterrent are not proven by the raw facts of the matter.
I have given the ones that are doing well[Laughter.] No, we must be realistic about this.
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The deterrent factor is not uniform. The extent to which numbers are up for the Royal Highland Fusiliers is significant, but the situation is more difficult in other areas. I am conscious of something that the regimental sergeant- major of the King's Own Scottish Borderers said to me not too long ago. I will not go into all the graphic details of it, but he said that the change had to be made, even though he wished that that was not the case. He is a proud member of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, but when he goes back to his village, he finds it almost impossible to encourage young people to join up. He is a prime exemplar of whom people should be proud, so that is not right.
The highlands is another area in which it is difficult to recruit, and there are a lot of reasons for that. However, I am painting a picture of a situation that is not uniformly adverse. What we are doing is not working against recruitment. Those who say that the situation is a disaster and that we will never recruit again to the Royal Regiment of Scotland must take account of the raw information. I think that the same situation will apply throughout the country as the new regiments begin to bed down.
We have sufficient members of the reserve forces to meet our current requirements. None the less, major efforts are under way to increase recruitment. It is also important to ensure that we retain the skills and expertise of those already in the reserve forces, which is why we have made a number of improvements to the support packages available. They include improved financial support for reservists and employers, greater access to training courses, intelligent selection for mobilisation, improved redeployment training, improved welfare support and a new reserve forces pensions and compensation scheme. They are just some of the measures that we are implementing to deal with the difficulties of recruitment into the Territorial Army and the reserves.
Mr. Ingram: We need to look at things proportionally. We could have party knockabout[Hon. Members: "Why not?"] I have been advised that it is not the desired way to proceed. Under the previous Conservative Administration, there were massive cuts[Interruption.] I have just indicated that there are issues we must address and we are trying to do that by putting into place a range of packages. I could ask Opposition Members why those packages were not already in place. If they were so valuable, why were they viewed as secondary? The reality is that we are using the TA and the reserves to a considerable extent. As I said on Monday, one cannot tell the difference in the field: they are thoroughly professional members of Her Majesty's armed forces and we are trying to make sure that we increase their number. Members could help us to recruit even greater numbers by highlighting the qualities that the TA brings to the strength of the British armed forces.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con):
As someone who served in the Territorial Army when the last cuts were being made in the 1980s and early 1990s, may I
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remind the Minister that we had just seen the end of the cold war and there was a genuine belief that we did not require the military capacity that we realise we need now in the face of new threats? Is not it the case that his argument about the last Government cutting back on the Army is not really valid as we now have a serious security situation?
Mr. Ingram: I do not know who was giving advice at that time, but there was major mismanagement of the economy, so there were major cuts across public expenditure. At that time, there was a proposal to cut the TA to 10,000 and there was a major campaign to retain the strength at 40,000. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was in opposition, he took part in the campaign to retain a bigger TA against the then wishes of the Conservative Government, so I shall take no lessons from Opposition Members about that.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I supported the changes taking place in Scotland and am pleased that recruitment is increasing, but one issue is that, as employment is at 2.5 per cent., there is competition for jobs. Councils have the authority to allow members of the armed forces to go into schools, but many do not use it, so will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to talk to the Education Minister in Scotland about the possibility that there could be recruitment in schools as there is for other industries?
My hon. Friend is right: one of the barriers we face is our successful economy. Young people have many other choices. That is one reason for not doing away with the recruitment of under-18sthe number is about 7,000 a year. If we did away with that recruitment, those young people might enter further or higher education and make other life choices, so recruitment would suffer grievously. That is why I resisted the proposal. My hon. Friend made a good point.
I have already touched on our recognition of the importance of family welfare for the morale of our forces. That is why we are investing in modernising accommodation and revolutionising repair and maintenance services. It is why, by the end of the year, the combined upgrade programmes for single living accommodation will have delivered high-quality accommodation for nearly 9,000 people. It is why we are helping our people to take the first step on the housing ladder, by making the long service advance of pay available to people earlier in their careers, and it is why we place so much importance on getting the operational welfare package right.
From visiting our forces around the world, I know that they are committed to what they do and proud of the difference they make, but they also value time with their friends and families at home. Inevitably, we shall
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continue to expect our people to be away from home for lengthy periods. Enabling them to keep in touch with families back home is central to their well-being and to the operational welfare package.
Last year, the Prime Minister announced free postal packets for Christmas for personnel serving overseas. We have decided to make that a permanent part of the operational welfare package. For a month before Christmas, family and friends will be able to send small gifts free of postal charges to service personnel on operations. I am pleased that we can take that additional step to help maintain morale at a special time of year.
It is not enough to recruit our forces into the right structures. Good training is central to ensuring that they are not only available, but effective. The defence training review programme will modernise, improve and increase the efficiency of our training system, through the provision of rationalised defence-wide training on a reduced training estate. Delivery will be realised through public-private partnership contracts with industry. It will bring significant benefits by providing our people with the best opportunities, training and living environment that we can supply. It will underpin our aspiration to recruit and retain the servicemen and women we need to meet our current and future operational challenges.
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