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In many ways, the real judges of the quality of what we do are the recruits themselves. I have placed in the Library of the House today the results of an independent poll of recruits recently received from MORI and referred to by the Adult Learning Inspectorate in the “Better Training” report. More than 24,000 questionnaires were returned. The headlines are that 89 per cent. of trainees
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would recommend others to join their service, 88 per cent. said that they felt a sense of achievement at completing their training, and 84 per cent. felt that the staff had done all that they could to help them. I accept that not all the feedback was positive. There is scope for improvement and we have already taken steps to improve areas highlighted within it. But this grass-roots report is further evidence that we are listening to the views of recruits and using the information to improve our training environment.

We are also acting to improve the status and quality of our trainers. Much of our training is acknowledged as world class. We want to make sure that all of it is. A few weeks ago, the new Army staff leadership school officially opened in Pirbright. It will promote, teach and disseminate best practice among instructors and trainers in the armed forces. Our training needs to move with the times. That is one of the key points behind the defence training review, which we are now implementing. This will ensure that our services which fight together also train together, where that makes sense, and that they do so in modern facilities. But it will also ensure that initial training, which is key to service ethos, remains in the hands of the single services. The proposed world-class academy for specialist training at St. Athan, scheduled to be opened in 2011, is a prime example of the high standards that we set for our training requirements.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): A few of us were privileged this week to attend a course at Shrivenham. One of the interesting topics that we discussed was the overlap in the training arena between officials and experts in other Government Departments—for example, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. What discussions does my right hon. Friend have with his colleagues in those other Departments to ensure that a proper, integrated approach is taken to enable officials in the Departments to contribute properly to our war-fighting efforts?

Mr. Ingram: That is one of the great successes of the defence academy at Shrivenham. It is truly multinational, as I am sure my hon. Friend saw, and that involves integration among not only NATO allies and associated friendly countries but other countries with which we want to share a global interest. All those countries can participate in the courses. My hon. Friend asked about other Government Departments. In any post-conflict situation, whether related to peacekeeping or something short of peacekeeping, there has to be a comprehensive approach that involves all the agencies of Government having the best possible understanding of each other. We are encouraging that approach. I know that those who participate in the courses find them of great benefit, as do those who serve in the armed forces. I do not know which course my hon. Friend undertook, but whatever the level, participants increasingly understand that they must work in concert with other Departments. That is one of the key areas of improvement.

There is no doubt that we currently face a difficult recruitment and retention environment. Our manning strategies focus on four aims: attracting more recruits, encouraging more to stay, using those whom we have more effectively, and reducing the commitments that they face.

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On the first of those aims, I can report some success. In 2006-07 we recruited 97 per cent. of our increased target—an increase of more than 1,000. That equates to 1,210 extra people, including 300 more female recruits, and compares to a 96 per cent. success rate in the previous year. This year’s Army recruitment figures are up 12 per cent. on last year’s figures. Infantry and Royal Artillery specific recruiting initiatives during 2006-07 have paid dividends, with 25 per cent. more enlistments for each arm than last year.

While recruitment is important, retention is equally important or more so. Turnover is healthy for any organisation, but we do not want to lose highly skilled and experienced people. Owing to the quality of our service personnel, they are in high demand throughout industry when they leave the services. We must ensure that we have measures in place to encourage our people to stay.

According to the latest figures available, on 1 May the total full-time strength of our armed forces was 176,920, some 96.4 per cent. of the requirement. The Royal Navy was manned to 94.7 per cent. of its requirement, the Army to 97.5 per cent., and the Royal Air Force to 95.1 per cent. I do not think that we have hit 100 per cent. in the modern armed forces. It certainly has not happened in my time, and it had not happened for some time before that, if ever. It would be an unusual development, for reasons that I will give shortly.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is interesting that the Minister gave percentages rather than the actual numbers. Is it not the case that the targets have changed over the past few years? While the Minister may indeed be achieving percentages of 95, 96 or 97 per cent., the goalposts have moved in order for him to do so.

Mr. Ingram: That is true. That is why I said that we had probably never achieved 100 per cent. Whatever the target, it is bound to be difficult to meet. The size of a service will be defined by the military requirement, and those targets can vary. In this instance they have clearly moved downwards on the basis of best assessment.

Although the targets were lower, hitting them proved difficult for a variety of reasons, not least the strong base of the economy and demographic factors which can have an adverse impact. More young people are going into higher and further education. A number of other related issues made it difficult to achieve maximum recruitment.

Mr. Ellwood: I agree with much of what the Minister has said. It is true that we are trying to recruit in very different circumstances from those of 15, 20 and certainly 50 years ago. Perhaps, however, the Minister could elaborate on the difference between recruitment and retention. The huge effort to get people into the armed forces is generally successful, but unfortunately it is much tougher to keep them there. The Government, and indeed the House, must focus on that.

Mr. Ingram: I am coming to the issue of retention. Voluntary outflow from the armed forces has remained steady for the past few years. It has always been feared
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that a haemorrhage will follow any conflict, and two conflicts are taking place concurrently at the moment. I have mentioned tempo and the breaching of harmony guidelines, but we have not experienced the haemorrhage that we feared. I am not saying that problems do not exist within specific trades—they do, and we must deal with them—but the voluntary outflow has remained steady, which must be an indication of something. Of course it must be monitored carefully and constantly in case it moves in the opposite direction.

For that reason, we have financial retention incentives for the infantry, the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy, RAF air crew and certain medical posts. For instance, we have one for specialist nurses. There are also “golden hellos” for medical and dental officers and specialist nurses. All those will have to be kept under review. Sometimes problems arise before they can be dealt with. We aim to be alert enough to pick up indications that a change is taking place and introduce incentives in advance. However, we must ensure that neither “golden hellos” nor financial incentives distort other aspects.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Retention often involves those in middle management such as sergeant-majors and staff sergeants, who are invariably married with children. As one who represents a not insignificant military community, I can tell the Minister that housing is crucial. I know that he is about to talk about this subject.

Wives and children put great pressure on such middle-management personnel if their housing is not up to scratch. A constituent who came to see me the other day, a staff sergeant, had waited six months for important structural repairs to be carried out in his children’s bedroom. If that had happened to another constituent with a registered social or local authority landlord, we would be jumping up and down. It is not fair or acceptable for armed forces personnel to be in such a position.

Mr. Ingram: I agree, and I shall say something about the state of accommodation shortly.

We need to use our people as effectively as possible, which means freeing up as many as possible for the front line and cutting bureaucracy and overheads. We now have an excellent record in that regard. All three services are rationalising their headquarters staff. The headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet and the Second Sea Lord have merged, saving 450 posts, and the planned merger of the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Land and the Adjutant-General will save about 340. The creation of the new air command will save 1,000 posts by this time next year.

Implementation of the future Army structure continues to make good progress. A good example is the formation of the Rifles Regiment. The restructuring is on track to be completed by the end of 2008. It will provide more people for the specialisms that are in greatest demand, and more stability for Army personnel and their families.

Although our people do not join for the money, we must ensure that they are rewarded fairly for the work that they do. About £350 million more will be spent on military pay and allowances this year than last. The total amount for pay and allowances is about £7.5 billion per year. This year’s armed forces pay award was the
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highest for four years, and was worth 3.3 per cent. across the board. We concluded that a much larger increase was needed for the lowest-paid. Their pay rose by 9.4 per cent., giving them an extra £1,350 per year. For those in the next-lowest pay range, the increase was over 6 per cent. The pay increases were well received by serving personnel, and were entirely justified.

Let me now deal with the issue of accommodation. Ensuring that our people and their families have a decent standard of accommodation is extremely important to sustaining their morale, and to recruitment and retention. We have an increasingly good story to tell, at Colchester, Tidworth, Glencorse and other areas where modern facilities have been provided, and more are planned. Nevertheless, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), too many remain substandard.

Under investment goes back decades, and improving the position is now a priority. Some £700 million was spent on improving military accommodation in the last financial year, of which £500 million was spent on maintenance and improvement. This year we expect to spend £870 million, of which some £630 million will be spent on maintenance and improvement. The challenge is huge. There are 71,000 houses on hundreds of sites in 16 countries around the world, 49,000 of them in the United Kingdom. Obviously we cannot put the position right overnight, although that does not justify examples such as that given by the hon. Gentleman. As any householder knows, the need for maintenance never stops: maintaining all those estates is like painting the Forth bridge.

Ms Dari Taylor: We hear, very clearly, how money is being invested, but what the armed forces in my constituency want is a permanent home base. They do not want to be moved around, and they do not want their children to be moved around. In what way are we accommodating that requirement?

Mr. Ingram: The restructuring of the Army—for example, the restructuring of regiments—will create a change in roles. Previous Administrations and chiefs of staff ducked ending the arms plot; although it was transparently obvious that that needed to be done, they did not do so, but we have tackled that. That can be embedded by establishing larger garrisons or super-garrisons, but it will take time; large investment is needed to establish them. As we begin to examine the totality of our estate, that will free up areas of opportunity which will allow us to set up super-garrisons. That will not happen overnight, but it is essential that it does happen and we are committed to doing it.

Ms Dari Taylor: Is no consideration at all being given to allowing members of the armed forces, like other citizens, to have part-ownership of their property, so that they can take that capital with them when they retire?

Mr. Ingram: I am about to come on to that point, but let me say for now that I agree that we have to come up with imaginative solutions to such questions. The work/life balance must figure highly in our considerations on what we do for our armed forces.

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On accommodation, in the past six years we have raised the proportion of service families housing at the top standard from 40 per cent. to 59 per cent. Only 138 of some 49,000 family properties are now at the lowest of the four standards, although that is 138 too many. Of those, 60 will be upgraded as part of this year’s programme, 25 are planned for future upgrading, and 14 are due for disposal. The remainder will be addressed as part of wider plans to be determined in consultation with the services.

More than 20,000 new single living-bed spaces have been delivered in the past six years. Another 20,000 will follow in the next three years. Much of that provides single rooms with en-suite facilities.

We are helping people who want to buy their property to do so. We have secured key worker status for service personnel in London, the east and the south-east. The first soldier moved into her new accommodation under the key worker scheme at the end of May.

I also wish to refer Members to the statement made earlier today by the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), announcing that the Government have decided to change the legislation on the use of the “local connection” at the earliest opportunity. We recognise that current legislation can disadvantage personnel in terms of access to social housing by preventing them from building up “local connection” points. Many Members have expressed concern about this issue, and today’s announcement underlines our determination to ensure that our personnel are treated fairly.

Our reservists are an important and valued part of our armed forces. They are playing a distinguished role in current operations. About 300 reservists are serving in Afghanistan, and 400 are serving in Iraq. I am most grateful to them and their employers for their support. Having reservists serving alongside our regular forces provides some of the best leadership training on the market. Reservists from the NHS play an important role in providing the first-class medical care that our personnel receive in operational theatres.

The budget assigned to our Territorial Army has slightly decreased—I did say that I would not deny that. That was not an easy decision to take, but it must be put in context. Last year, we spent about £350 million on the TA. We plan to reduce that by £2.5 million this financial year and by the same amount in the next financial year. I am advised that that will in no way adversely impact on the operational ability of the TA or its support to current operations. The savings are against areas such as recruiting of some specialist units and the running of annual conferences, and savings will also be made by reducing the number and frequency of TA competitions.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I intend to explain at length to the Minister how that will adversely impact on the TA. Will he at least acknowledge that, because of the nature of the TA, a £5 million cut in its budget is equivalent to a £50 million cut in the budget of the regular Army?

Mr. Ingram: I will listen to, and then read with interest, what the hon. Gentleman has to say, as he has personal experience in this matter. Ministers make
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judgments based on the best advice they receive. There are financial pressures which must be addressed if we want to do certain things; it is often the case that if we want to do something, we therefore cannot do something else. The hon. Gentleman has already upbraided me on this issue. I am sure that he will make a strong argument in our debate, and what he has to say will be absorbed. If there is a case to answer, it will be answered.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Leaving aside the practical implications of the cut to the TA budget that the Minister is announcing, what signal does he think he is sending out to it by doing that at a time when we are using the TA for operations more than we ever have in the past?

Mr. Ingram: I am conscious that that might send out a negative signal. As I have said, we must carefully consider all such issues. However, we are making changes across the board and any one of them—such as one involving the Royal Navy, for example—could be construed as negative. Our overall aim is to improve the quality of delivery in its totality. That is why I am explaining our plans at length. It is interesting that no Member has intervened to congratulate us on any of the good news that I have announced. However, I do not wish to disregard the negative comments that have been made.

I will keep a close watch on what happens in respect of the TA. We have restructured it following an extensive consultation process, to try to make the TA more properly integrated into the one Army concept. Over time, that will play out greatly to our advantage. The advice that I have received does not suggest that this will negatively affect recruitment. If it does, however, that will have to be attended to—although it must be said that other factors might also be responsible for any decrease in recruitment. I am sensitive to the comments that have been made, and this decision was not easy to take.

Operational medical care is first class. We have recently opened a new field hospital at Basra, and another at Bastion will follow in July. Their facilities would not be out of place in any modern district hospital in the UK. The dedication and commitment of the people in the Defence Medical Services is outstanding. The priority for our wounded personnel is that they get the best possible treatment. That is why the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, based at the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is the main receiving unit for casualties evacuated from operational theatres. In the Birmingham area, they can benefit from a concentration of five specialist hospitals, including Selly Oak, which is at the leading edge in the care of polytrauma, one of the most common types of injuries that our casualties sustain.

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