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As my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire has said, the most worrying thing with recruitment is that although there has been some increase—last year was the second-worst year in the past five for recruitment, rather than the worst, so there has been some progress off a very low base—there has been an increase in what the MOD spends on recruitment. Army recruitment costs have increased by 34 per cent. and now run at £89 million. The cost per recruit has also gone up: in 2001-02, we were spending just under £4,500 per recruit,
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but we are now spending about £7,000 per recruit, because recruitment has not risen in line with the budget.

The MOD has a central defence schools presentation team that does excellent presentations in schools across the country. The Minister himself has said:

That shows that there are benefits both in recruiting and in communicating to the wider world. It also relates to a point made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan about presenting the armed forces as an attractive career prospect to ethnic minority populations, thus bringing a double benefit.

Unfortunately, having said all of those fine words, the Minister has also announced that the defence schools presentation team is being wound up. Those presentations will no longer take place, but will, I am afraid, be replaced by an on-the-web solution. However good the penetration of the internet is, particularly with younger people, it is no replacement for having men and women from our armed forces physically going into our schools and doing all those excellent things that the Minister has acknowledged.

I want to pick up the points made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan about recruiting from our ethnic minority populations. When I pressed him in an intervention, I was genuinely trying to understand what some of the barriers are. I know that the MOD has taken steps in the past few years to try to recruit more widely from ethnic minority populations. My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire has mentioned recent efforts to recruit from our Muslim population. It is clear that we have not been as successful in recruiting from those groups as we had hoped, but at the end of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, I was not much wiser. I do not find the phrase “institutionally racist” at all helpful, and I am still completely unclear about what he believes we need to change in our armed forces. He has simply cast a slur on them. I know that he said that individuals in the armed forces are not racist, but simply branding the whole organisation as racist is not very helpful—it is an insult and it does not take us any further forward.

John Smith: This is a short debate, and perhaps I did not make myself clear. The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has suggested some possible solutions. We have to positively discriminate to get rid of this unacceptable anomaly, which we have not done up to now. That is what I propose.

Mr. Harper: We have a great deal of difficulty with recruiting, but I am still not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he saying that people are coming forward to join, but are not being recruited, because the evidence does not seem to bear that out? I absolutely agree with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on this. He has said that we must ensure that the armed forces are clear that there is absolutely no place for racism.

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I want the armed forces to be seen to recruit from across the whole population. I believe that they do so, but they need to be seen to recruit and promote on merit. That is the direction the Government want to go, and it is certainly what I want, but the problem is moving from that aspiration to specific policies. I am still unclear as to exactly what needs to be changed, but, as the hon. Gentleman has said, we do not have time to go into that in great detail. Will the Minister touch on some of the things that the Government are doing?

Moving briefly to retention, medical treatment has been mentioned. To be fair to the Government, the recent problem at Selly Oak was about not the clinical and surgical treatment that members of our armed forces receive, which is generally acknowledged to be very good, but the environment in which they recover and recuperate, which is a slight difference on which I hope the Minister will elaborate. The Chief of the General Staff has said that his aspiration and expectation for when that hospital is redeveloped in three years’ time is that there will be dedicated military wards on which armed forces personnel can recover.

At Prime Minister’s questions last week, however, the Prime Minister said that it would be wrong to have a military ward with empty beds that could be used by civilian patients. There is a problem here: if we want a dedicated ward on which our armed forces personnel can recover with comrades who can understand what they have been through in combat, we have to accept that that ward cannot be used as an overspill for the busy district general hospital in Birmingham. Given that the comments of the Prime Minister and the Chief of the General Staff are not reconcilable, will the Minister tell us which of them has the position correct, because I am unclear about what the Government are aiming for?

Finally, we need to return to the general issue of commitment, resources and what we ask our armed forces to do. The Government need to review their defence planning assumptions and consider what they require our armed forces to do and how large the forces need to be. They should then set proper recruitment targets and consider the whole package, including issues that we have discussed today such as housing and the operational welfare package—there has been some improvement with that, but there is more to do. If we do not get the big picture right about what we are going to ask our armed forces to do and what size they should be to do it, regardless of how well all the other things are done and policies are implemented, we will have the central problem of running the armed forces too hot and having very little “left in the locker”, as the Chief of the Defence Staff has said. In that case, we will find ourselves up against those problems time and again, and we will be unable to solve them.

In the 1998 strategic defence review, the Government said:

So far, the Government are failing that crucial test.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing this important debate, which has given us a
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good opportunity to go through several issues of recruitment and retention. Unfortunately, because of the time, I shall not be able to deal with all of the issues that have been raised, but I shall write to hon. Members about specific issues, not least regarding their constituencies or experiences.

I welcome the debate on this complex and challenging business. As hon. Members have said, the problem with recruitment sits against a backdrop of prosperity, high employment and a strong economy. Having to recruit against that backdrop is a challenge. The National Audit Office acknowledged in its report last November that it was wrong to suggest that the armed forces could not secure the right number of people to meet their needs.

I accept that we face challenges. As the NAO commented, we have a

Perceptions are also important, so we need to deal with the myths. I shall try to cover most of the main points in the time available, but I shall first discuss numbers for a moment or two.

The combined effects of recruitment, retention and restructuring gave a trained strength for the armed forces of 178,610 at the start of 2007. That figure is 97.1 per cent. of the full requirement—an increase from 96.6 per cent. in October 2006—and is a sign of steady improvement. The Opposition have acknowledged the improvement, but we want to do more.

We must bear it in mind that all three services are being restructured, to a greater or lesser extent, better to meet today’s strategic threats. The key point is that the services are striving to achieve a manning balance within 2 per cent. of the requirement by 2008. As hon. Members would expect, the Ministry of Defence is working closely in partnership with the services and continues to use a range of financial, professional and social measures to secure sufficient capable and motivated personnel.

I shall set out what we are doing. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommended a good pay award for 2007, as has been generally acknowledged. It includes an above-inflation increase of 3.3 per cent. for all service personnel, with the notable exception of the most junior ranks, who will receive more than 9 per cent. I should tell the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that the relevant salary with the increase from 1 April this year will be £15,677, which represents an increase of 9.3 per cent. For many, this represents an increase of £100 a month and is the largest military pay rise in four years. It is well deserved and a recognition of what our armed forces do. It gives a clear signal of the value that we place on the people who serve in them.

The pay award also specifically recognises those who serve their country on dangerous and challenging operations. Last October, we announced a new operational allowance, which is a tax-free bonus of £2,240 for six months’ deployment paid to service personnel serving in specified operational locations. The allowance is accumulated at a daily rate of £12.31 by all regulars, mobilised reserves and those on full-time reserve service for each day that they serve in those locations. It is paid as a lump sum at the end of the tour, giving a welcome and tangible reward for operational service.

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Mr. Lancaster: On the basis that I have not been paid my operational bonus from six months ago, will the Minister confirm that soldiers have been paid the allowance?

Derek Twigg: I can give that confirmation, unless the hon. Gentleman knows of someone who has not been paid it.

Mr. Lancaster: Me.

Derek Twigg: You have not been paid it. I shall personally look into the case. I went to Iraq and Afghanistan recently, visiting various bases and barracks, and found from my discussions that this had been paid. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman’s allowance has not been paid.

Mr. Lancaster: Mine is going to the Royal British Legion, but in any case—

Derek Twigg: I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I shall personally look into the matter.

The NAO’s report acknowledged that we needed to focus on encouraging people to stay longer in some particularly important areas. That point was raised by Conservative Members. We are focusing on the infantry, the Royal Marines and air crew, where we are using financial retention incentives to encourage people to stay. The cost will be about £17 million, securing a valuable return of service that will contribute directly to operational effectiveness. Of course, we also use a range of other measures.

Recruiting targets have been discussed this morning, and, in general, recruiting has increased. Although the armed forces offer a wealth of opportunities, not least in terms of training and education, the reality is that our recruiters operate in a very competitive environment, as has also been acknowledged. We need about 20,000 new entrants each year across all three services. Young people have more opportunities than ever before, given the strong economy and the Government’s encouragement to stay in education.

The hon. Member for Banbury mentioned recruiting younger people. We have been highly successful in recruiting 16 and 17-year-olds, and he may be aware of the Army foundation college in Harrogate. Places are available to school leavers aged 16 to 17 years and one month. He alluded to the fact, of which account is not often taken in the complaints that are made and the issues that we hear about, that the armed forces do a lot to improve young people’s education and skills. That leads me on to the specific point that being in the armed forces is a good thing for one’s future because it gives the leadership, skills, communications and teamwork that can be taken on when one leaves the armed forces. That is why so many people who leave the armed forces—they receive an excellent resettlement package when they do so—go on to gain a higher level of employment than those elsewhere and contribute greatly to their community.

The issue of the recruitment of ethnic minorities has rightly been mentioned. Although recruitment goals were not reached in 2005-06, the services continue to commit significant effort and resources to engaging and raising awareness among all of the UK’s minority groups to encourage their members to consider a career in the
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armed forces. It is important to say that ethnic minorities are beginning to progress through the ranks structure and reach more senior levels. Recently, an ethnic minority officer in the Royal Navy was promoted to rear admiral, becoming the highest ranking ethnic minority officer in the armed forces.

The armed forces regularly review their recruitment strategies and policies, with a view to engaging ethnic minority groups, raising awareness and promoting careers in the services. We have heard about the sums that are being put into recruitment. Recent results have shown an increase in the level of interest in armed forces careers among minority communities. The challenge now is to convert interest into recruitment.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) that I do not accept that the armed forces are institutionally racist. I have talked to the chiefs of staff—the people at the very top. They are very committed to improving the recruitment from ethnic minorities, and much time and effort goes into doing that. I shall not go into the comments made by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). We must ensure that the armed forces are moving on, that there is a clear strategy for recruitment and that there is encouragement of promotion and of the advancement of people’s careers.

By 1 January, we had recruited 96 per cent. of our requirement for the financial year. While recruiting is generally up on the previous year, there is still more to do, particularly for elements of the Army. That is why we have introduced recruiting incentives in shortage areas, such as the infantry and Royal Artillery. So far, the signs have been positive; there has been a 30 per cent. increase in potential recruits to the infantry and a 44 per cent. increase in respect of the Royal Artillery when compared with last year. The Army has launched “one Army recruiting” to bring together regular and reserve soldiers. I pay tribute to the hard work, determination and imagination of recruiters in reaching the young people we need. Young people will benefit from service.

I return to the question of retention. A healthy and thriving organisation has people joining and leaving it at various stages of their lives. The armed forces are essentially young organisations. Some people retire at the end of a full career, while others leave early voluntarily. The services well understand voluntary outflow and plan accordingly. Voluntary outflow from the armed forces has varied little over the past decade, and compares favourably with the outflow from the rest of the public sector and from the private sector. We cannot purely rely on transactional measures to secure retention. We also use a range of social and community measures that are aimed at maintaining the morale not only of our serving people but of their families. For the Royal Navy and the
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Army, the latest attitude surveys show significant improvement in the self-assessment of morale compared with previous surveys, although the Royal Air Force showing was slightly lower.

We have continuously improved the operational welfare package for those serving on operations. The package directly upholds our obligations to our people by providing extra support for their physical and emotional well-being when they are employed on operations. It was clear from the seven-day visit that I made to Afghanistan and Iraq a few weeks ago that morale was high; it was even higher among those involved in the front-line operations. While some issues to do with the welfare package were raised, the welfare package was broadly welcomed by most people. I spoke to hundreds of members of the armed forces during my visit.

The recent improvements made include an increase in the free weekly telephone calls from 20 to 30 minutes, and better internet access. Other benefits include: the free e-bluey, which is particularly popular; free forces airmail; free packages from families to personnel of up to 2 kg over the Christmas period; and up to 14 days’ rest and recuperation leave during a six-month tour. That, combined with the new operational allowance, means that there has been improvement. We continue to examine how we can improve the package.

The issue of accommodation was rightly raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) and others. I had the pleasure of visiting Colchester a few months ago, where I met the Paras and saw the new accommodation that has been built. I readily acknowledge that we need to do more in this area. There is a legacy of underfunding, but we must ensure that the right and proper accommodation is in place for our service people. It will take some time to deal with this issue. As I have seen on my recent visits, new accommodation for both families and single personnel is coming on stream all the time. In this financial year, we spent more than £700 million on accommodation and have upgraded many service houses. We plan to spend about £5 billion over the next 10 years, but there are no quick fixes because we need to address a legacy that goes back many years. We must continue our improvement in this area. Opening up the opportunities for home ownership is a part of our strategy.

I have gone on the record many times in recent weeks and months about the health service issue. Our people are getting the best world-class care possible. When people come back wounded from operations they receive first-class care in the Selly Oak facility and in the national health service; I have spoken to many service personnel and their families, and they all praise the care and treatment that they are receiving. There is also an excellent rehabilitation centre at Headley Court. We can always do more. One area in which we need to do more is mental health, and we are examining that as part of a partnership with the NHS and Combat Stress.

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