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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 20 March 2007

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Armed Forces (Recruitment and Retention)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

9.30 am

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of recruitment and retention in the armed forces, and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. This debate is particularly timely, as today marks the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, an event that provides the context and backdrop to almost every issue relating to our armed forces that is currently discussed in the House. It is absolutely central to the topic that we are discussing this morning. Iraq is at the heart of the problems of overstretch, and it causes and exacerbates recruitment and retention problems.

Furthermore, this is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate the issues raised in the National Audit Office report, “Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces”, which was published in November. It highlighted some of the enormous challenges and made several specific recommendations for the Ministry of Defence to take on board in order to improve recruitment and retention.

Earlier this month, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body published its 36th report, which made recommendations on pay, allowances, accommodation and other charges. In strengthening and examining the evidence base for its report, the pay review body made some specific observations about the recruitment and retention problems that exist in the armed forces. It reinforced much of what was said in the NAO report, especially in respect of the impact that operational commitments, and the tempo of those commitments, are having on our servicemen and women, and the imbalance between commitments and current manning levels.

The debate is timely, and I hope that the Minister will welcome it as a good opportunity to outline his thinking on the issues raised in the reports to which I have referred, and to update hon. Members on his efforts to address recruitment and retention challenges in the armed forces.

In a tight labour market such as that in the United Kingdom, there are recruitment and retention challenges across the full range of employment sectors, and some of those challenges are particularly severe for certain categories of work. I shall not digress into areas that may be covered in the debate in the main Chamber tomorrow afternoon, but it is worth acknowledging what is driving the tight labour market. Demographic change means that a decreasing cohort of young people enters the labour market each year, which, when combined with the general strength of the economy, means more intensive competition to attract workers. There must be few hon. Members who do not regularly receive comments
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from local employers about how difficult it has become for them to find appropriately skilled and motivated staff to fill vacancies.

Skill shortages, recruitment difficulties and the challenge of hanging on to good workers are raised at any gathering of employers in the country, but what we are discussing when it comes to recruitment and retention challenges in the armed forces is not only one subset of a broad trend. The issue is fundamentally different, because the work carried out by the men and women who serve in our armed forces is unique and not directly comparable with anything in civilian life, and because the consequences of recruitment and retention difficulties, which result in added pressures on the service person in post and, ultimately, affect our ability as a nation to meet strategic military objectives, could be very serious indeed.

As I have said, the operation in Iraq forms a backdrop to many of the current challenges facing our armed forces, and that is certainly true when it comes to recruitment and retention. However, I do not for one moment go along with the crude line that I have heard expressed by some hon. Members that Iraq has somehow been a catastrophe for military recruitment and retention efforts. Yesterday, an officer described to me the challenge presented by the so-called mum factor—parents not wanting their sons and daughters to be killed or injured in Basra—which I do not dispute, but it is also true that the war in Iraq, our role in the invasion four years ago and the ongoing security operation have time and again thrown the spotlight on to some of the very best aspects of our armed forces, which can create heightened levels of interest among potential recruits. However, that also cuts the other way, in that our heavy commitment in Iraq has created new and additional pressures on our serving troops, which, in combination with other factors, have served to reinforce some negative retention trends.

The fact is that since 1997 the British armed forces have been operating at a much higher tempo than that envisaged by military planners. They have been deployed in the Balkans, Africa, the middle east and Asia, and they have supported other United Nations missions around the world. Most significant, of course, have been the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2001, the armed forces have consistently operated at or above the most demanding combination of operations envisaged by the defence planning assumptions.

The NAO report observed that:

I think of the men and women of the 14th Signal Regiment, who I met recently at Cawdor barracks in my constituency. They are heavily in demand for their technical and linguistic expertise, and their regiment is currently engaged in three theatres—Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. Some of the soldiers were getting ready for their third deployment to Iraq, and, although they approach the mission with the utmost professionalism and dedication, it would be entirely understandable if their motivation levels and enthusiasm were perhaps not as high as they were when they were preparing for their first deployment, and if thoughts of the long period of separation and the pressures on their young families now feature more strongly in their minds than thoughts of the novelty and excitement of a new mission.

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The problem of targets for manning requirements not being met, requirements which themselves are not accurate for the scale of operations demanded of our armed forces, is at the heart of the problem of overstretch, which feeds powerfully into the mix of factors currently affecting recruitment and retention. The manning requirements published by the MOD do not reflect the level of operations that the Army and rest of the armed forces are undertaking. Put simply, manning requirements fail to reflect the true demands being placed on the Army.

The NAO report stated:

When one considers that even the understated manning requirements are not being met, one can begin to appreciate the seriousness of the personnel challenges facing the armed forces.

The NAO report refers to a shortfall of some 5,000 personnel, but states that

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I am very interested in the report to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, which points out that there is a shortage of approximately 5,000 troops. Is he aware that if the recruitment policy of the Army, Navy and Air Force were colour blind—that is, if they were recruiting a similar proportion of the ethnic minority population as exists in the community at large—they would recruit an additional 10,000 personnel? Indeed, if we were recruiting ethnic minorities at the same levels as the United States army, navy and air force, we would have almost 20,000 additional recruits and no problem with recruitment or retention.

Mr. Crabb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention. I was not aware of the point that he has raised, although I shall make a few remarks about recruitment among ethnic minorities later.

Manning shortfalls in the pinch-point trades examined by the NAO were as high as 70 per cent. for intensive therapy nurses and 68 per cent. for accident and emergency nurses. The report recommends that the MOD review overall manning requirements within individual operational pinch-point trade groups to determine whether they are set appropriately. I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that specific point and on the extent to which he thinks that the stated manning requirements are realistic.

Although broad recruitment figures across the three services may not demonstrate an overall crisis, and some successful measures have been taken to improve recruitment to pinch-point trades, I maintain that the challenge to the Army of recruiting new soldiers has become severe. Over the past few years, Army recruitment has dropped significantly, and in 2006 more troops quit than signed up. Recruitment was slightly up last year, but I understand that it was still the second-worst year for recruitment in the last decade. Whereas in the past the Army might have expected to recruit nearly 17,000 people a year, the number has now dropped to well under 13,000, and it was as low as 11,700 in 2004-05.

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The decline in recruitment has occurred despite a 34 per cent. increase in the Army recruitment budget. Given that the Army is currently thousands under strength, it is vital that recruitment efforts are sustained and increased. I invite the Minister to explain what will happen to the Ministry of Defence recruitment budget and recruitment activity and to comment on the observation in the NAO report that recruitment has been deliberately reduced by the MOD, at least in part, to make short-term financial savings that may not represent value for money in the longer term.

Will the Minister expand on his recent comments to the press about the disbanding of school recruitment visits by the MOD? In my constituency, many teachers believe such visits are useful and welcome. The only complaints that I have heard are from some members of Plaid Cymru, who do not consider such activities to be appropriate in Wales.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument for the need to increase recruitment. One of the problems is the recent change in dynamics regarding the type of soldier leaving the Army and the other two armed forces. Traditionally, a private solider who had been in the Army for three or four years would be more likely to leave, but now it is the more senior ranks—corporals, 12-year sergeants and 15-year staff sergeants, who simply cannot be replaced by a new recruit coming in at the bottom. The retention of senior soldiers is key to managing the recruitment process.

Mr. Crabb: That is an extremely valuable point, and my hon. Friend speaks with considerable experience of the subject. Replacing school visits with a beefed-up online recruitment effort for young people will not seriously improve recruitment rates in the target group. I support as much interaction as possible between service personnel and schools. Last year, I spent half a day at a local secondary school, where a team from the MOD that specialises in citizenship education looked at a disaster scenario with a year group and involved teams of young people in designing hypothetical responses to an international disaster. The group operated extremely effectively in the school and, although it was not there specifically for recruitment purposes, it was, no doubt, an excellent advert for a career in the armed forces.

One area of recruitment where the Government have taken steps to improve performance, but where much more needs to be done, is the recruitment of soldiers of Muslim faith. Last November, I attended the memorial service held in St. Davids cathedral in my constituency for Corporal Peter Thorpe and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, who were killed earlier in the year in an attack by Taliban fighters in Helmand, Afghanistan. Both men had been serving with the 3rd Para battle group, but were either part of or attached to the 14th Signal Regiment, to which I referred earlier. It was a privilege to meet members of their families and the Army imam who participated in the memorial service. One of Lance Corporal Hashmi’s officers told me that they desperately need more men and women like him in the regiment, because of the value and commitment that he brought and the skill set that he possessed— specifically his expertise in Arabic. Having grown up in Pakistan, Lance
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Corporal Hashmi had a knowledge of the culture, religion and language of the region, which made him an extremely important and valued member of the team.

A written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) revealed that the number of Muslims recruited to the forces is statistically insignificant and, for each month last year, barely reached double digits. I would be interested to hear what further steps the Minister thinks that his Department can and should take to improve recruitment among such an increasingly important demographic group.

On the problems and challenges of retention, if one of the challenges is improving the inflow of new recruits, the other side of the equation involves hanging on to good, experienced personnel who have benefited from expensive and extensive training and who occupy vital roles. Some degree of churn is welcome in any organisation, as it enables younger guys to come through, have a chance and make steady progress in their careers as well as fostering the spread of new skills and experiences within the organisation—we are perhaps learning some of that in the Conservative party. In certain sections of the armed forces, however, the rates of exit are too high and represent a net loss to the services. The Royal Marines other ranks exit rate is more than 7 per cent.; the average exit rate for Army general practitioners is 10 per cent.; and the figure for Army nurses is more than 8 per cent. Those figures are above the guidelines set by the Department and surely represent a challenge to ongoing efforts to hang on to valued and good personnel.

At the heart of the retention issue is the importance of making service personnel feel valued in their roles. For each individual and service family, a different mix of factors will make them feel valued in the career and lives that they have chosen. For many, the issue of accommodation is extremely important, and thanks to the comments of some senior officers it has recently received a lot of attention in the press. Clearly, accommodation issues present a major challenge that needs to be addressed. In its recent report, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body stated:

However, it also noted that

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body reiterated its disappointment with the cuts made by the Department to accommodation budgets over successive years. Urgent action is required regarding the issue of accommodation. It is not enough for the Minister simply to refer to the amounts of money being pumped into service accommodation; he needs to demonstrate that he and his team genuinely understand the grievances expressed and are committed to seeing the problems addressed.

On accommodation, when I visited Cawdor barracks to meet the 14th Signal Regiment, personnel generally expressed satisfaction with the quality of their accommodation, but the issue of broadband access was raised again and again. Despite those men and women being experts in electronic warfare, they do not have broadband access—access to the internet—in their barracks, which would really improve their quality of life. I have previously corresponded with the Department about that issue and did not receive an entirely satisfactory response. I ask the Minister to look at that issue again and find some way of connecting
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up Cawdor barracks to broadband internet access, because it would make a significant improvement to the quality of life of many excellent soldiers.

I have received numerous e-mails and letters from the spouses of some of the soldiers in my constituency about the quality of health care services locally. They have informed me that they enjoy the quality of life on offer in Pembrokeshire for service families, but are totally exasperated by the fact that they cannot access a dentist. As many hon. Members are aware, Pembrokeshire is a rural, peripheral area of the country where NHS dentistry has been all but decimated over recent years. Some service families moved from areas where there was good NHS dental provision only to find that the service barely exists in Pembrokeshire, which affects their outlook on the military lifestyle.

For some servicemen and women, what counts is access to training and the opportunity to acquire and develop new skills and improve their education, which will help them to get ahead in their military careers or when they return to civilian life. What are we seeing currently in that area? Well, more than 60 training exercises were cancelled last year out of a planned total of 548 separate exercises, which means that one in nine training exercises were suspended as a result of general issues associated with overstretch in the armed forces. Those cancelled exercises and courses represent lost opportunities for service personnel to develop vital skills and, for some, it will shape their perception of life in the armed forces, again, in a negative way.

Our armed forces have a superb track record in getting on with the job no matter what circumstances they face; they do not moan, whinge, or down their tools—there is no British Leyland tendency in the armed forces. More than anything, they want to be valued and properly resourced to do the job that they are asked to do. Recruiting and retaining high quality personnel in our armed forces is a serious and growing problem, and a significantly under-strength Army is being asked to operate over and above the level for which it was designed. That situation can only be maintained for so long before real pressures emerge that will cause lasting damage to the institution, and we are getting dangerously close to that point. I look forward to hearing the Minister explain how such problems can be effectively addressed.

9.49 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I want to make four points. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) has made an excellent speech and I do not wish to repeat anything that he has said. However, as a starting point, I must state that it is true that the Ministry of Defence is having to recruit in a tight labour market. I joined the Territorial Army back in 1970—35-plus years ago. At that time, the armed forces were “benefiting” from structural unemployment around the country. Heavy industry was changing, coal mines in south Wales were closing, manufacturing industry in the west midlands was being lost, and men saw opportunities and better long-term careers in the armed forces. Today, even with the pay increase, a new recruit—a private, a gunner or a sapper—will earn not much more than £11,000 a year, or just short of £12,000. That is not a lot of money. The Minister looks at me quizzically, but I visited a Pioneer regiment in my patch the other day and was told that recruits earn about £11,000.

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