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20 Mar 2007 : Column 196WH—continued

I want to touch on Territorial Army recruitment and retention. I have great concerns about the direction in which we are heading. I had the honour to command a Royal Engineers TA squadron just up the road in Holloway. I think that, by the time I left, of the 119 men and women on that establishment, 104 had been mobilised on to an operational tour at some point or another. That is a tremendous rate. We have clearly reached the point at which the Territorial Army is no longer being used as a reserve; it is being taken for granted. It has been taken for granted that the establishment of the Territorial
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Army will be there the whole time to support our regular forces. Indeed, I think that between 10 and 15 per cent. of our armed forces on operations at the moment are serving in the Territorial Army.

The point has not been grasped that that is simply not sustainable. Members of the Territorial Army join and are delighted to be mobilised to go on operational service. There is no doubt about that. People volunteer time and again, as indeed I have. I was amazed this morning to receive a text message from a very good friend of mine who at 44 is very excited about the fact that he is going off on an operational tour to Afghanistan for what will be the fourth time.

The problem, which the Government have not really grasped, is that members of the Territorial Army are not prepared to sacrifice their primary career for their secondary career. Under the Reserve Forces Act 1996, the jobs of members of the Territorial Army are protected, so that when they come back their employer is obliged to give them their job back. However, the employer is not obliged to promote them. Let us say that someone has had six months away. There is no guarantee that within the next four years, he will not go away again. The employer will look at their two employees and think, “Well, this chap has been loyal. This chap has been away for six months. What he learned over that six months has been very valuable, but I have no guarantee that he will not be sent away again for another six months.” So who will the employer promote? Whom will he tell, “I can rely on you”? Whom will he tell, “I value your time in the TA, but your being away is difficult because this is a small company”? Again and again, members of the TA who have been given their jobs back on their return realise that that they may well lose them if they stay in the TA and run the risk of repeated mobilisations. They are simply not prepared to do that.

Tony Baldry: Years ago, when members of my generation joined the TA, we knew that we would all mobilise as a unit following an Order in Council. To echo my hon. Friend’s point, however, it became clear to me when I was an honorary colonel of a Royal Logistic Corps unit that people were happy to do one six-month tour, but that a second such tour was almost too much for their employers or their families. Once people have done a six-month tour, therefore, their effectiveness in the unit will be very limited if the same demands continue to be made on them.

Mr. Lancaster: Absolutely. My hon. Friend sums up the point far better than I did. Indeed, the situation is worse than that because people are not allowed to train with their TA unit during post-operational tour leave—they are literally not allowed to go in. I should be fascinated to see the figures for the number of soldiers who have resigned from the TA after they have come back from their first or second operational tour.

The point that I am attempting to make is that the Government have still not got the message that the TA is there to be used and wants to be used. We should remember that the TA is rather like a shotgun: we can fire one barrel and then the next, but it will take an awfully long time to reload.

Let me touch now on the debate about ethnic minorities. As I mentioned, I commanded a TA squadron in Holloway and I think that it was the most multiracial in the British
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Army—soldiers who were not from the ethnic minorities were in the minority. We had a tremendous record of recruiting ethnic minorities, simply because we had that gravity in the unit. Members of the ethnic minorities who came to recruitment evenings found that there were already significant numbers of ethnic minorities in the unit, so they felt comfortable with it.

When I was a regular soldier, I was the ethnic minority in many ways, because I served in a brigade of Gurkhas, which was a fascinating experience. We shall need to look carefully at how we organise our units, however, if we are to make the most of such situations. I am not suggesting for one second that we should have ethnic minority units—far from it—but there are advantages in having such numbers, because they give entirely the right impression that the British Army is not—to be controversial—a white man’s army. That is certainly not what it is, and the TA units in London that are recruited from their local area are good examples of how the recruitment system can work.

When I served in Afghanistan, I had the honour of sharing a room with Corporal Charlery, who was recruited from Antigua. He is part of a growing cohort of foreign and Commonwealth soldiers in the armed forces, but there is great unease among its members, who feel let down by the Ministry of Defence. When Corporal Charlery was recruited in Antigua, he was told that he would be allowed to apply for a British passport within five years of service. That was absolutely not the main reason why he joined the British Army—like so many others, he wanted to serve the Commonwealth—but it was a factor. When he went on operational service, however, he discovered that his time on operational service would not count towards residency in the UK, and nor would his time in Germany. That was a major demotivating factor—he felt very strongly about that. To the Government’s credit, the issue was looked at towards the end of 2006, but I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that it has now been fully addressed and that time on operational service counts towards residency when Commonwealth soldiers serving in our armed forces apply for a British passport.

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Before I call the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), let me remind the Front-Bench spokesmen that they should each take up to a third of the remaining time so that we can have a full reply from the Minister.

10.24 am

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I note your comments, Mr. Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate. I also congratulate those hon. Members who have taken part on the way in which it has been conducted. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Retention and recruitment are two sides of the same coin and include issues such as the conditions and care of personnel, the standard and quality of equipment, the provisions available in conflict zones, levels of training and preparedness and the needs of soldiers’ families.

To follow up the point about ethnic minorities, it is interesting to note that 10 per cent. of the British Army is not British, with one in 10 soldiers belonging to one of
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57 other nationalities. That must be because there has been a decline in the number of young British men and women who wish to join Her Majesty’s armed forces, although I welcome the increase in the percentage of young ladies who join the Army, in particular.

Fiji leads the way on this issue, providing 2,000 of the 6,700 soldiers who come from the Commonwealth countries. In one sense, we should rejoice that so many people from other countries wish to join our armed forces, but what percentage does the Minister think that the British Army can go to given that the figure is already 10 per cent.? What is being done to encourage young men and women from this country to join Her Majesty’s armed forces?

As I said, Fiji leads the way with about 2,000 soldiers, but the A to Z roll-call of countries with citizens in the British Army goes from Australia, with 75, to Zimbabwe, with 565. There are also 660 soldiers from Ghana, 975 from Jamaica and 720 from South Africa. Even tiny countries such as St. Lucia and St. Vincent have provided 225 and 280 recruits respectively. Two weeks ago, I visited Bassingbourn as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme and had lunch with three young men—one from India, one from Ghana and one from Nigeria—and the members of their cohort were predominantly Ghanaians.

What incentives are there for joining the armed forces? Although the higher ranks seem to be doing quite well, there appear to be limited incentives otherwise, and the basic rate of pay for privates and recruits is not in line with that for other professions. I do not usually quote Williams Rees-Mogg, but he recently reported in The Times that the average Army recruit is paid £10,000 less than a Metropolitan police recruit.

It could be said that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved more challenging and often more hostile than anticipated. It is also fair to say that the impact of the Iraq war and our intervention in Afghanistan is taking its toll on the retention and recruitment of troops. It is therefore important that our troops feel valued and supported in their missions; after all, they are the backbone of our fighting forces. The Government therefore need to prioritise their welfare, fair treatment and conditions of service. Regiments and individual soldiers are being asked to do too much too often without proper regard to their welfare needs.

If we send our troops overseas, they will obviously need to be well prepared and protected. At home, however, the situation may be little better, with nearly half of armed forces accommodation considered substandard and the quality of medical care at times questionable, as recent reports have indicated. Those are just prominent examples, but there are others.

We also need to focus on the needs of armed forces families and the issues facing them to ensure that they get a good deal and are looked after while their loved ones are away, and I shall return to that in a minute. There is also a link to issues such as education for armed forces children.

Another issue is tax. It is ludicrous that men who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have to pay council tax back home.

Married quarters often leave a lot to be desired. There is also the issue of the time that families do not spend
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together because of increasing deployments. Overstretch means that troops are spending longer away, and anybody who says that overstretch is a myth is not living in the real world.

I pay tribute to all those who provide Her Majesty’s armed forces with welfare and medical services. However, they are in short supply, and we have already heard about dentists. I had an Adjournment debate on education for armed forces children a few years ago, and I invite the Minister and his officials to look at what was said and at what the then Minister promised in response to see whether it has been delivered.

Welfare is important for the well-being of families back home, particularly when troops are serving overseas, but also when they are on training schedules elsewhere. We pay tribute not only to the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, but to others including the Royal British Legion.

On schools, I have the great privilege of representing one of the super-garrison towns, and we have several garrison schools. However, the turbulence factor is not taken into account in the funding of those schools. Indeed, it has got worse in recent years because the hot-school-meals service that those schools used to receive has been withdrawn by Essex county council. It is fair to say that in many parts of the country things have improved dramatically for single men, not least in Merville barracks in Colchester, where the accommodation is superb. However, that is not the case everywhere, and certainly not the case with family housing.

As an aside, the number of MOD police has been cut by 40 per cent. in my garrison, and I believe that there have been cuts in other parts of the country as well. That is related to welfare and the feel-good factor. If there was a 40 per cent. cut in the police service in a neighbourhood, it would be noticed. That is exactly what has happened.

I said that I would concentrate on the housing side of the matter. I appreciate what the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said about housing, but let us go back to 1996, when the previous Government sold the entire MOD housing stock—57,428 houses—for £1.66 billion. Interestingly, they have ended up in the ownership of Annington Homes, which has made quite a financial killing. I shall come to that in a minute.

I have tabled parliamentary questions about the decent homes standard and, in reply, I was told that the MOD has even higher standards—the standard for condition, bands 1 to 4. That is the good news. However, then we discover that all is not well. Indeed, I raised that matter previously and received a letter from the chief executive of Annington Homes in which he informed me that the MOD

My question to the Minister is: why has that £145 million not been ploughed back into increasing the housing stock? A very illuminating passage in that letter informed me:

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Annington is saying that the ball is very firmly in the MOD’s court. I ask the Minister to dwell on that.

I shall quote from an article in the current edition of Private Eye—a magazine that we all read fondly—under the headline: “All MoD cons”. That is one of the best headlines that I have seen in relation to this story—the words “MoD” and “cons” slip nicely off the tongue. It reads:

Now, there is a bit of a variation there, but the general picture is the same and virtually confirms what Annington said. It continues:

Let us bear in mind that the 57,428 houses were sold for £1.66 billion. One does not have to be a mathematician to work out that Annington has made a fantastic financial killing already.

The article continues by stating that that £500 million

I invite the Minister, his colleagues and the Government in general, to look again at what went on and what can be done to retrieve the biggest rip-off, I believe, of all the privatisations under the previous Government.

Much more needs to be said, but I appreciate that the clock is moving on. I hope that the Minister will take very seriously the housing issue because it is very important to retention, along with welfare, education and MOD policing. I hope that he will also look at what is not working in recruitment because quite clearly it is not right that 10 per cent. of people serving in the British Army are not British. However much we welcome members of the Commonwealth serving in the British Army and, to a certain extent, Air Force and Navy, the simple fact is that something is not right if we cannot encourage a sufficient number of our own young men and women to join Her Majesty’s armed forces.

10.36 am

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr. Williams, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this debate and for the excellent opportunity it has given us. We have heard contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) which touched on a number of important issues.

The root problem, which a number of hon. Members have identified, with the difficulties in recruitment and retention and the general overstretch of the armed forces comes down to a central question. In 1998, the Government did a good piece of work on the strategic defence review,
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out of which came the defence planning assumptions, which underlie the size and shape of the armed forces. Those assumptions were that we could undertake a certain level of operational activity, but, as the NAO has noted, we have exceeded that level in each of the past five years.

As far as I can tell, there is no sign that that is going to change in the near future. I know that we only signed up to a three-year Afghanistan operation, but it is clear from talking to NATO planners and from the state of that country that realistically we will be there for a decade or so. It is also clear from recent announcements on the Iraq deployment that although we have been able to reduce troop levels, we are going to retain several thousand troops, again, probably for the medium term. We will continue, therefore, to run our armed forces “very hot” to quote the phrase of the Chief of the General Staff, which will bring with it a continuation of the problems with retention and recruitment.

I have raised that matter because, as we all know, this summer, or possibly, autumn, the Chancellor will announce the comprehensive spending review settlement for the MOD, which will set out the spending plans for the next three years. It would have been sensible for the MOD to review its defence planning assumptions ahead of the comprehensive spending review in order to make the case to the Chancellor for the appropriate budget settlement. It is disappointing that that review will not be concluded until next year. If those defence planning assumptions are that we will be running at the current level and that we will have to recruit and retain more members of the armed forces, it is going to be a bit late if the funds are not in place to do so.

That can be seen clearly from looking at our current manning levels. The Government’s own requirement for the armed forces is 183,950 personnel, and the latest figures are that we have only 178,610. On the Government’s own figures—a requirement based on defence planning assumptions that themselves are too low—and based on the level of commitment, we have a shortage in the armed forces of more than 5,000 personnel.

The situation is getting worse, because the level of exits from the armed forces is exceeding the number of those recruited, which will increase the problems with recruitment, retention and the level of deployments in both the regular forces and the Territorial Army, which we have heard about. Indeed, the Chief of the Defence Staff recently told the Select Committee on Defence that the most important thing for the armed forces was to achieve full manning—to get to the required level set by the MOD. Given the figures and trends and what hon. Members have said, that does not strike me as being at all likely. Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to get back to that manning requirement level? How does he plan to do that?

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