20 Jan 1998 : Column 1369

House of Lords

Tuesday, 20th January 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

The Lord Bishop of Salisbury

David Staffurth, Lord Bishop of Salisbury--Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Oxford and the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.

Armed Forces: Recruitment

2.41 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What special steps are being taken to recruit entrants specifically from the unemployed to fill the estimated 10,000 vacancies in HM Armed Forces.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, we are committed to recruiting high quality, well motivated personnel, irrespective of their employment history, to meet the Armed Forces' manpower requirements. The Armed Forces are participating fully in the Government's New Deal initiative. We are confident that we will in that way be encouraging young unemployed people to consider a rewarding and worthwhile career in the Armed Forces.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that helpful reply, especially in relation to the New Deal. Given the difficulties expressed by the Armed Forces about applicants failing to satisfy recruitment criteria, is my noble friend prepared to consider some more flexible approaches to bringing unemployed people into the forces? Would he be prepared to consider bridging courses, access courses, or using short-term trial engagements? Vacancies have doubled during the past two years, during which time there seems to have been increasing criticism of the forces' image and human resources management practices, especially in relation to race, gender, and promotion issues at all levels. Is he confident that there are mechanisms in place to promote organisational and cultural changes by which recruitment may be assisted rather than hindered? If not, what proposals for change does he have?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am happy to bring to the attention of my honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces the interesting suggestions that my noble friend has put forward. The Armed Forces are already engaged, in the sense that all three services have identified two New Deal pathfinder areas. They have tri-service initiatives in areas of London and the West Midlands. Each service has started a dialogue with some colleges of

20 Jan 1998 : Column 1370

further education in their selected pathfinder areas to see whether there may be some courses that they can help to develop to assist recruitment. With respect to the other points made by my noble friend in relation to harassment on the basis of gender and colour, of course we have never got things perfectly right, but I can assure him that those matters are taken most seriously in the MoD, and at the highest level in all three services.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, does the Minister agree that recruitment and retention are part of the same coin, and that were the Armed Forces to retain personnel, recruitment would be less of a problem? Will the Minister assure the House that Her Majesty's Government put the right stress on pay, conditions of service, accommodation, time between operational tours, and adventure training, so that our highly trained and highly motivated service personnel will stay in the Armed Forces?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, the noble Earl is right to identify recruitment and retention as being two sides of the coin. We are doing everything we can to improve retention. To that end, we have introduced many new arrangements; for instance, trial engagements and assisting people by extending the period of training for those who do not move quickly through the early stages. I am afraid that the problem of over-stretch has been with Her Majesty's Armed Forces for many years and I wish that I could see an answer to it.

Lord Renton: My Lords, in recruiting for the Armed Forces, will the Government stress three advantages for young people who join? They are, first, that they will be serving their country; secondly, that they will learn valuable skills; thirdly, that they will have an interesting and enjoyable life.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord. Those thoughts are uppermost in our minds as we attempt to recruit unemployed people. I am sure that what he says is right. Our problem is not only in convincing young people but also their parents.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, will the Minister--

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords--

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, there is probably time for both my noble friends to ask a question.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that 10,000 below establishment is a significant figure? Will he confirm that the fighting efficiency of our forces has not been reduced as a result of that shortage?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, Ministers in this Government, as in preceding governments, take a shortfall in the establishment seriously. Our fighting fitness would be improved if we could make that up, and it is one of the Government's main priorities to do just that.

20 Jan 1998 : Column 1371

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the purpose of Her Majesty's Armed Forces remains the defence of the realm rather than the advancement of social engineering?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord has such a subtle mind that I do not follow the second part of his question. However, I agree with him in the first part.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that I have nothing against Her Majesty's Armed Forces? However, as we approach the millennium, is the situation not reminiscent of the 1930s when we urged our youngsters to join up in order to leave the dole queue? Have we not failed a whole generation, because Britain is a wealthy country and by now such youngsters should have been well trained and in gainful employment?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that my noble friend has nothing against the Armed Forces of this country. I am sure that that is true of every other Member of this House. As regards the 1930s, I am sure my noble friend will agree that we should bear that sad period in mind as a lesson to us all that we should not necessarily disarm too much just because there is no immediate threat on the horizon.

Lord Ironside: My Lords, can the noble Lord say what has been the result of the crash recruiting courses for the unemployed which were started quite recently at Catterick by the Army? Has any recruiting been achieved and are the courses still continuing?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, certainly the courses still continue but, without notice, I cannot give the noble Lord the figures in answer to his question. However, I shall try to pass that information to him as soon as I can.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, is my noble friend prepared to consider raising those matters with the appropriate employers' organisations and the trade unions? I feel sure that those bodies would be able to give him extremely useful advice on this important subject.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, as always I am grateful to my noble friend for his imaginative suggestion. However, I am fairly confident that my right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is already doing just that.

The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House about the success or otherwise of the "gender free and gender fair" programme for the introduction of recruits into the services?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, we operate a totally gender-neutral recruiting policy in all the services. The opportunities for females to serve in different parts of Her Majesty's Forces is being extended every month.

20 Jan 1998 : Column 1372

Asylum Seekers

2.51 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their estimate of the number of asylum seekers who have entered the United Kingdom from abroad and who cannot now be accounted for or traced.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, approximately 14,000 asylum applicants are currently recorded as having breached the conditions of their temporary admission, temporary release or restriction order, or having lost contact with the Home Office. The available information relates only to those asylum seekers who made their application at the port of entry, and those in-country applicants against whom enforcement action has been initiated. No equivalent information is available on in-country applicants who have not been subject to enforcement action, some of whom may also be found to have lost contact with the Home Office.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his reply which helps to clarify the situation in view of the press report that the figure was about 55,000. Together with illegal immigrants who have managed to slip into the United Kingdom undetected, are not all those persons concealed in the community providing business for the underground industry which supplies false identities and documents for activating social security benefits and false addresses?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page