Defence Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 185

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Defence Committee

on Tuesday 23 April 2013

Members present:

Mr James Arbuthnot (Chair)

Mr Dai Havard

Adam Holloway

Mrs Madeleine Moon

Penny Mordaunt

Sandra Osborne

Sir Bob Russell

Ms Gisela Stuart


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Rt Hon Mark Francois MP, Minister of State for Defence, Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, Rear Admiral Simon Williams, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff (Personnel and Training), Ministry of Defence and Colonel Carolyn Johnstone, Assistant Head, Holding to Account, Training Education Skills, Recruiting and Resettlement.

Q46 Chair: Thanks very much for appearing before us again. You do not need to introduce your team this time, because they are the same team as were here in front of us last week. I would guess that this evidence session will take about 40 minutes. Can I begin by asking what is the purpose of education in the Armed Forces?

Mr Francois: I would say that the purpose of military training and education is to prepare personnel for their role in operational capability. Given that that training is progressive and continues throughout an individual’s service, the military requirement is paramount-after all, these are people in the Armed Forces-but where there is a comparable civilian qualification, we accredit the military course so that our people are awarded nationally recognisable qualifications. It is worth adding that the Ministry of Defence also supports elective learning and provides training to facilitate the eventual transition back to civilian life.

Q47 Chair: I would rather hope that there was also an element of attracting into the Armed Forces and retaining those who might find the value of the education provided by the Armed Forces necessary for the provision of military quality.

Mr Francois: I do not decry that for a moment, Chairman, but I was tipped off that you do not like long opening statements or wordy answers to the first question.

Chair: Ah, I see. Well then, we are second-guessing each other.

Q48 Mrs Moon: I wonder whether you have been tipped off about my question, Minister. Last week, we asked about the legal and educational requirements placed on the MOD in relation to the recruitment of children.

Mr Francois: Yes.

Q49 Mrs Moon: We were told that the costing of the value for money and cost-benefit resulting from that had not been carried out-the analysis has not been done. You will be aware that there continues to be concern about the UK recruiting children as soldiers. Is that a value, or is it something that we should reconsider?

Mr Francois: I am told that there is concern in some quarters. We are not concerned about it because we believe it is the right thing to do. Under-18s, who for instance join the Army, sometimes do cost a bit more to train initially, but they usually stay longer in the service-in some cases quite a bit longer-so we believe that the higher investment is worth it. I know that the Admiral has been looking at this quite closely, including this morning, so I thought I might ask him to amplify.

Rear Admiral Williams: Mrs Moon, since the last meeting, Child Soldiers International has produced a report, which I have looked through. I don’t know if you have had a chance to look at it, but it makes a number of claims that I think are rather difficult to square with reality.

We told you accurately last time that we had not done a full cost-benefit analysis of recruiting those under the age of 18, but we did stress, in terms of operational deployment and of whether they were deployed in combat, that we did not deploy those individuals in combat, and therefore I see them through the lens of individuals training for their eventual employment, under formally recognised apprenticeship schemes. I guess I focus on what these individuals would be doing if they were not being trained in an Army, Navy or Air Force training establishment.

Something has been made of the fact that those individuals are no longer in state education and therefore would not be retaking GCSEs, for example. Clearly, the individuals we would recruit have already had a chance to take GCSEs at the normal stage. And something has been made of the issue that I know Professor Alison Wolf has looked at-education-and would argue that GCSEs are a better indicator than some of the functional skills that we use. One could argue that that might be the case, but we are dealing largely with individuals who would not be in the bracket of being able, certainly at that stage and age, to pass a GCSE at grade C or above, as Professor Wolf would advocate. Therefore I go back to looking at what the individuals would be doing had they not had the opportunity to take their apprenticeships and train within their chosen career. I am not sure I have an answer to that, and I am not sure that Child Soldiers International has either.

Q50 Mrs Moon: Can I go back to my questions in relation to child protection? Are you satisfied that you are able to protect those child soldiers from sexual harassment, which we know is 100% experienced on a daily basis by adult females serving in the Armed Forces? Are you happy that you are able to protect youngsters-16, 17 and 18-year-olds?

Mr Francois: I do not think we accept that that is experienced on a 100% basis by all females in the Armed Forces on a daily basis. I have to push back at that. We do not accept that. I believe that we have procedures in place to protect young people from those sorts of issues when they are training in the service, but again I will allow the admiral to amplify.

Rear Admiral Williams: The Armed Forces have come a long way. In fairly recent times they have come a considerable way. My experience of the Armed Services is that some of the things we would have dismissed as being okay-sort of banter-perhaps 10 or 20 years are absolutely not allowed, and not expected to be allowed, in the Armed Forces of today.

Looking to your specific question of whether I believe that we have put in place in our training establishments the necessary procedures to protect those individuals who are under 18, I think we have. I think we have put an enormous amount of effort into looking at and training people in the right kind of behaviours. Some people grow up in parts of our society where they do not learn how to act appropriately, and therefore they need instruction. I think that that instruction is available-very readily available. I think that if you walk around our establishments you will see posters and all manner of areas where we try, via the web and via everything they see around them, to get an understanding of the ethos of the Armed Services, and that includes respect for the individual. I think that respect for the individual is not a sex issue.

However, I probably ought to hand over, if I may, to Colonel Johnstone, who has a female perspective as well as a professional military one.

Colonel Johnstone: I did not join as an under-18. We have specific policies concerning under-18s for those who run training establishments. Our duty of care to all our trainees is very important to us. For those who are under 18 there is a specific instruction to the commanding officers which covers the law as it applies to those under 18s, and some additional things that they could do to look out for vulnerable individual trainees. It gives specific direction on alcohol, smoking, gaming machines and so on. The levels of supervision are also specified for those who are under 18. In many cases, the training establishment chooses to extend that level of supervision to everybody, so they raise the level and treat all their trainees as one group. To confirm that under-18s are being properly looked after we commission Ofsted duty of care and welfare inspections of our training provision.

Q51 Sandra Osborne: Is it the case that many of those who are recruited under 18 drop out by their mid-20s, as the Child Soldiers International suggests?

Mr Francois: Briefly, some may do, but people recruited over the age of 18 can drop out by their mid-20s. I do not think it is a phenomenon particular to those who joined under 18. I will let the admiral amplify, but anecdotally quite a lot of those people who joined slightly younger often stay in slightly longer. They are very keen and enthusiastic about joining the forces, and they really make quite a career of it.

Q52 Sandra Osborne: So there is not a big disparity between the age groups, with under-18s dropping out in much bigger numbers than older recruits? They say they are using MOD figures.

Rear Admiral Williams: Yes, they are. The equation is more complex than you would realise by looking at the way that Child Soldiers International presented its figures. I think that would be the best summation. Although a slightly higher percentage of individuals do fail the training in the under-18 cohort, some of them stay for about twice as long. If those who manage to complete the training stay twice as long-and very many of them reach very senior NCO status, or senior rank in the Services-the equation starts to look a little bit different.

Our assessment has a number of levels. One is the question of whether we could run the Army and recruit enough people if we did not recruit those who were under 18 and wished to join the Army. Our evidence so far, although it is not complete, is that we could not do that. We did stop junior recruiting at one stage before we built Harrogate, and we did not get enough recruits coming in to the Army during that interim period of a couple of years. We have some evidence, but I am not sure that it stands up. It was not a properly analysed piece, it was just that we experienced a drop in recruiting.

I think that there is a real question of whether we would be able to run the Army and recruit enough people. There is also the issue that those we do recruit at that young age, if they stick with the Army or the Navy or the Air Force, tend to stay a lot longer. The calculation is just not simple.

Q53 Sandra Osborne: Do you think that, as with children of serving personnel, children who join the Armed Forces should get the same level of education as children who stay on at school until they are 18?

Rear Admiral Williams: I guess that they have made a different career choice at that stage. They have chosen not to stay with the GCSE and A-level track; they have in a real sense chosen to go and do what is effectively an apprenticeship. They have chosen a different career. I think we fulfil our statutory obligation if we ensure that they complete a structured apprenticeship. I think this is now the case for 100% of people who join the Armed Services; they get either an apprenticeship or higher. If they have a higher level of education to start with, there is no requirement for them to follow the apprenticeship scheme. Looking at it from a national perspective, we contribute on that educational stage as much as we would if they had gone to an apprenticeship in another area. I keep coming back to the fact that the individuals we are talking about are largely those who have not, for whatever reason, got traction in the GCSE line, and need something else. Sometimes the foundation skills and the way in which things are taught in the Armed Services gain better traction with them. Certainly, when we have been externally analysed it would seem that that is indeed the case, and that some people who simply did not get the literacy and numeracy piece in standard education have found an ability to do that given the different approaches we have taken in the Armed Services. We have got fairly positive feedback from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

Ms Stuart: I would like to follow up a point that has been raised about the recruitment of 16-year-olds. I understand that the report hit the papers, in a sense, this morning. Could you, in a written answer, try to square for the Committee the circle about why the drop-out rate for 16 to 18-year-olds is higher than it is for adults? You are quite right that the 16 to 18-year-old is likely to serve 10 years compared with the seven and a half years an adult serves, but the report seemed to suggest that training a 16 to 18-year-old costs us twice the amount for an adult. That needs some explaining, and I would ask you to do that in writing. Equally, I would like some suggestion as to why none of the EU countries and none of the P5 actually recruit from 16 to 18, but we are still doing it. You must have some thoughts on the rationale behind that, other than the Minister’s assertion that it is the right thing to do.

Chair: Mind you, we would not necessarily want to take military lessons from the European Union.

Ms Stuart: Or the P5, or the rest of the world.

Q54 Sandra Osborne: Not all 16 and 17-year-olds who stay on at school get GCSE or the equivalent-in Scotland, it is a different exam. Do you think that you should raise the basic entry level requirement for recruits, or do you think it is okay as it is?

Mr Francois: We think we have the entry level requirements set about right in order to be able to recruit the sort of numbers that we need to man the Armed Forces. I will take this opportunity to make the point that, because we recruit from the bottom up, even with the tranches of redundancy that we have had we are still recruiting, and the Army will be running a big recruiting campaign in the next few months. If I may, Chairman, as we have talked about the importance of careers, I will get that firmly on the record while I have the opportunity-if you will allow me, Mrs Osborne. We think we have the entry levels set about right to meet our manning requirements, but I think the admiral will want to amplify.

Rear Admiral Williams: I think that many of the kinds of skills we require in the Armed Services do not require GCSEs and A-levels or their Scottish equivalents, which are an academic description of how far an individual has come. Many of the individuals we are talking about would not be able to attain that level, so we are effectively talking about whether we should exclude them from joining the Armed Services. We have proven that those individuals who cannot manage the full academic piece can actually deliver as members of the Armed Forces. They will get leadership training while they are in there, they get functional skills training and they get an enormous amount of support behind them. Looking at them as individuals, very many of them have not had that support from their families or in their personal circumstances-perhaps that is why they joined the Armed Services in the first place-and they are able to use the Armed Services to move on in a way that they would not have been able to move on in the state system. It would be a mistake to set our entry standards higher, given that we can, as the Minister has said, deliver our job and make sure that individuals pass to the requisite levels for those individuals who perhaps are not able to get those GCSEs.

Chair: Okay. I want brief and snappy questions and brief and snappy answers, because we have a lot to get through today.

Q55 Sandra Osborne: How long do you anticipate it will take before all the establishments achieve a good ranking from Ofsted inspectors?

Mr Francois: I think we are not far from publishing the new set of rankings, are we, Colonel?

Colonel Johnstone: The Ofsted report for the current cycle will be out in the summer.

Mr Francois: I do not think that we can pre-empt that, but I think that you will find that the gradings in the report that will come out in the summer will be better than those we had last year.

Chair: To a certain extent, that is a repeat of the evidence that we had last week. In a sense that is reassuring, but I do not want to go through all the same questions and answers that we had last week, so I will move on to Penny Mordaunt

Q56 Penny Mordaunt: Shouldn’t we be doing more to encourage recruits to do English and Maths GCSEs as part of their basic training?

Mr Francois: We recruit across a whole range of skills. In some areas-for some particular technical trades-we already require GCSEs in order to qualify. In others-for instance, in the infantry-we do not necessarily do that.

Every new entrant, and whichever trade that they go into, is effectively enrolled on an apprenticeship, so we are trying to provide a qualification, or the equivalent of a qualification, for every single recruit who comes in. Not all of them necessarily need English and Maths GCSEs for the role that they will fulfil in the military, and ultimately we are there to fulfil an operational requirement.

I do not think that we would want to make that de rigeur in every case, but it is worth restating that every entrant is put on an apprenticeship or equivalent qualification; that is not necessarily equivalent to English and Maths GCSEs in every case and, in some cases, some of those recruits would struggle to get GCSEs in English and Maths, though not necessarily all of them, by any means.

Colonel Johnstone: The key point I would make is that, often, the functional skills we give them give them the confidence that they can achieve some things in an educational context that they have never experienced before. Our progressive approach, and the support that we give through elective learning, means that many people who possibly did not get GCSEs at school will get them through elective learning in the forces. That would be paid for through the standard learning credits scheme.

We also have arrangements whereby the individual can do the exams in all kinds of contexts: we have the defence exams board, which allows people to sit exams in all kinds of strange places. Over 20 years, I was invigilating-in those days it was not GCSEs-in some fairly strange places in Northern Ireland.

Chair: Our Northern Irish member is not here today, so you can get away with that.

Q57 Sir Bob Russell: Minister, do personnel have enough time to participate in education?

Mr Francois: I believe we encourage them to do so wherever it is practical. Again, I make the point that ultimately we are training personnel to be able to conduct operations in defence of the realm. But we do encourage people to study where they can and we do our best to try to advance all of our people as far as practical bounds allow. I am sure that people will always want to have more time in some contexts, but we have a fairly good crack at it.

Q58 Sir Bob Russell: Clearly, operational duties and deployments overseas will impact on that, but do you think that the three Services are doing enough to encourage our serving personnel to pursue education outside of what they would be doing for their military activities?

Mr Francois: Yes, we have a number of learning credits schemes that we can use to help to encourage personnel to do this. I am conscious that you want short questions and answers, Chairman, and some of these schemes are admittedly a little bit complicated, but I will ask the Colonel to run through them quickly for Sir Bob’s benefit.

Colonel Johnstone: We can give you, in writing, how the different schemes work if you would prefer that detail. It is useful to point out that we tend to link the education opportunity to something that they are doing in their military training. People in the military are no different from the rest of the population; if they can find time to do an Open university degree or go to get an additional professional qualification while they are holding down a full-time job, looking after families and having a social life, it is a big commitment and it is challenging.

What we do in the Services, which is a little bit different-I think it is an advantage-is that we try to get as much educational benefit from the training that they are doing in service anyway, through the accreditation scheme and so on. We then encourage the individual to do the additional learning that might be needed. We actively say to people, "You have done 80% of this qualification through the military course you have just completed. If you now want to get the full qualification, it will take this many credits at university, and here is the military funding system that will give you a refund towards it." There are also learning advisers to help them.

Q59 Sir Bob Russell: I think you have almost answered my last question, which is, are education support schemes sufficiently well understood?

Colonel Johnstone: Sorry.

Q60 Sir Bob Russell: Your answer indicates that they are, but could more be done?

Colonel Johnstone: We could do a blanket publicity drive. The information is available to everybody, but we do it on a push basis rather than a pull basis because it is done in a context in which it is more likely to be taken up.

Q61 Chair: Moving on, what do you see to be the value of higher education for senior officers in strategic studies, for example? Do you think it is an important part of the nation’s strategic capability?

Mr Francois: I declare an interest as a graduate of the MA programme in war studies at King’s College London, although it was admittedly back in the last century.

Chair: Respect.

Mr Francois: There have been studies undertaken into the intellectual support needed in the Armed Forces, and into how higher levels of training and education help us to develop people and our competitive edge, both operationally and in other areas. Clearly the ability to train our senior leaders in the right way and to the right standard is as important to the Armed Forces as to any other organisation. But of course there is the additional element of military and strategic training on top of that.

Rear Admiral Williams: There has been a more or less constant evaluation and re-evaluation of the educational input that we give our individuals, our officers and our senior officers. The Advanced Command and Staff Course, which takes place in the middle of an officer’s career, is structured so that an MA is possible-and indeed recommended-on it. We are looking at the characteristics of that course and whether it delivers sufficiently the level of strategic studies required. It does contain a considerable proportion of strategic studies, and we continue to look at it. Only a month ago, the Defence Training Board commissioned me to do another review of our Higher Command and Staff Course, the relationship between that and the Royal College of Defence Studies, and that which we give our individuals on both those counts. There is also a Pinnacle course for officers of a high calibre to help them get strategic jobs in the Ministry of Defence. So this is a much reviewed, focused area of our capability. I do not think we would ever sit back and be complacent and say that we have got it right. We have got to be restless, and we have got to look at getting it better. Indeed, I think we are.

Mr Francois: As part of being restless, I am going down to Shrivenham on Thursday.

Q62 Chair: I hope that the review that you are just about to do is not with a view, in these financially stringent times, to cutting it.

Rear Admiral Williams: It is capability-focused. It is about using the current resources as well and as consistently as we can between something like the Higher Command and Staff Course, which is an operationally focused course, and the Royal College of Defence Studies, which is much more of a strategic piece. It is designed to make sure we get the optimal output out of all those things.

Q63 Sir Bob Russell: This is a small supplementary to the question on uniformed officers. I attended a breakfast-lunch this morning about part-time further education and part-time university courses. It was said that the number of applications had gone down by 40% over the last year or two. Bearing in mind that what you provide is part-time, have you noticed any falling-off of people wishing to participate in part-time higher education courses?

Rear Admiral Williams: I am not aware of that, and I think one would notice that. We put a lot of effort into providing our core defence academy qualifications. I mentioned the MA that is available there, and there is an MA available at the RCDS. It may be that our in-service provision means that people do not have to go outside our core providers, with which we have contracts and which provide us with a pretty high-quality service.

Colonel Johnstone: By coincidence, I was at a coffee morning where that same statistic was discussed. I think that that is only very recently, or within the last 12 months, so we do not have the statistics. We collect them on an annual basis from across the three Services. Between ’10–’11 and ’11–’12, we actually saw an increase in those qualifications at higher education level.

Sir Bob Russell: We are clearly doing something right. Thank you for those encouraging responses.

Chair: We will move on to the provision of civilian qualifications.

Q64 Sandra Osborne: If you have any evidence on whether the provision of civilian qualifications aids retention, that would be useful. Are there still some areas where it is not possible for forces personnel to acquire a civilian qualification? The Naval Families Federation cited the example of naval medics.

Mr Francois: May I take that first? I have reasonably regular meetings with Dr Dan Poulter in the Department of Health, when we discuss issues between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health. To give a quick example, we work very closely on the whole prosthetics issue about new legs for wounded service personnel.

We had a meeting yesterday where this was on the agenda. Part of the issue is that being a paramedic in the national health service is effectively a degree level qualification now. People coming out of the Armed Forces who have very good medical qualifications and who may have served in theatre, do not necessarily have a degree, but would be extremely useful in the back of an ambulance. We are therefore looking at ways to try to provide some form of conversion to allow ex-medics to convert to work, for instance, as paramedics in the ambulance service. Some pilot programmes are under way actually at the moment, with a couple of ambulance trusts. We are looking to learn lessons from that to see how we could roll it out.

Forgive me if that is a slightly long answer, but I was literally talking about that with a ministerial opposite number yesterday. That is one practical example of how we are trying to look at this, but perhaps the Admiral would like to give some more breadth on it.

Chair: I will just bring in Gisela Stuart.

Q65 Ms Stuart: Just to add to that example, what about the Air Force-pilot qualifications and their transferability? The thinking used to be that the MOD did not want to train its personnel only for them to go to civvy street and use their qualifications. Are you making any progress on that?

Rear Admiral Williams: Yes. I am pleased to report that we have taken a different line on private pilot qualifications. We took a risk: we decided that we would accredit fully all the flying in-service, and help pilots to get that qualification. It has resulted in a very positive outcome. Many fewer than we expected left the service. It simply took away a concern they had that they were falling behind their civilian partners. That is therefore a really good example of why it is sensible to give civilian accreditation.

We give civilian accreditation to just about everything we do when we can do it. In the Navy, if you drive a boat, where there used to be a bespoke military course, we now get the RYA to accredit it, so that is something you can take outside when you leave the service. We are allowed to spend up to 10% more on a military training course in order to ensure that we get a civilian accreditation at the end of that course, and I think that it is an entirely positive thing. It is also being incorporated into the new NEM.

Mr Francois: It is worth reiterating the Colonel’s point that if you have done something that takes you 80% to a civilian qualification, we have packages and resources available to help you to top up in order to add that on.

Q66 Sandra Osborne: Do you think that the education that personnel receive helps or hinders them in readjusting to civilian life?

Mr Francois: Broadly, it must help them. We do not do a GCSE in character formally, but I believe that we help to engender character in the Armed Forces in a way that is attractive to employers.

If you have served for six years or more, when you leave the forces you get a support package called the Career Transition Partnership-the CTP-and the statistics on this are quite impressive. If you leave the forces, you are looking for work and you have been through the CTP programme, 90% of those people get a job within six months, and 95% of those people get a job within 12 months. We know that because we do tracking surveys that follow their progress.

Q67 Sandra Osborne: Even at the moment with high unemployment.

Mr Francois: That holds up now, yes. If you have been in six years or more, you get that package.

I will add, if I may, that when I have had discussions with American colleagues about this, they are quite impressed by those numbers. There are some areas where the Americans are ahead of us, but in terms of resettlement I think that they would admit that we are probably ahead of them in actual fact. Whenever I have pitched the CTP to American colleagues, the pens come out and they start taking notes pretty copiously.

Chair: I think that we are done. I would like to thank all of you very much indeed for an excellent evidence session and particularly you, Minister, for giving evidence in two evidence sessions on the same afternoon. You have shown an impressive grasp of your subject matter, if I may say so, and an admirable approach to parliamentary accountability. We are most grateful.

Prepared 16th July 2013