HC Deb 11 March 1997 vol 292 cc131-3
6. Mr. Norman Hogg: T

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the current establishment of the Army. [18040]

Mr. Soames

The current trained manpower establishment of the Regular Army, including Gurkhas but excluding the Royal Irish Regiment (Home Service element), is around 106,000.

Mr. Hogg

Is it not true that the Minister spent £500 million and reduced the Army by 50,000, but wound up with a 5,000 shortfall? How did the Minister get misled into such a muddle?

Mr. Soames

I saw the hon. Gentleman being given a run-through of his question—he did not look overly confident then or as he asked it. He is correct when he says that the Army is currently under strength by 5,339 men and women; however, I have some bad news for him, which means that there is good news for the Army. The Army has already recruited 664 officers from a target of 730 for the year and 13,650 soldiers from a target of 15,100—a 50 per cent. increase on the year. We are devoting huge and valuable resources to recruiting; we have a lot more to do and the hon. Gentleman may be assured that we will do it. The Government are hugely proud of the Army. We have throughout had the clear objective that the Army should be brilliantly trained and properly equipped for future wars and operations, and I am glad to say that that is now the case.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Will my hon. Friend give me the assurance this afternoon that the Cheshire Regiment is safe under a Conservative Government, and that there is every chance that the Cheshire Regiment would be in jeopardy under the review that the Labour party would carry out?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is perfectly right. No cap badge in the British Army would be immune from the type of defence review that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) plans; indeed, the hon. Gentleman has already said that such a review would not be free of pain.

I give my hon. Friend the following assurance: for as long as I am Minister of State for the Armed Forces, for as long as there is a Conservative Government, the Cheshires will be a valued and valuable part of the order of battle of the British Army. Opposition Members would have been proud if they had been able to see, as I did, the way in which the Cheshires conducted themselves in Bosnia.

Dr. Hendron

The Secretary of State is aware of the difficulties for young soldiers patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland, and of the brutal murder by the IRA of Stephen Restorick. Bearing that in mind, does he agree that, difficult as it is for soldiers in Northern Ireland, it is extremely important that at all times they do not inadvertently in some way act as recruiting sergeants for the Provisional IRA in their treatment of young people in the streets?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valuable point. In my judgment, the British Army's conduct in Northern Ireland during the past 25 years will be one of the most glorious chapters in the annals of this country's military history. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the British Army has comported itself with great discipline, great skill and great courage on the streets of Belfast, and I wholly endorse exactly what he said.

Mr. Key

Does my hon. Friend agree that it has always been more difficult to recruit for the Army at times of prosperity and falling unemployment? Will he accept my congratulations on the superb advertising campaign run by the Adjutant-General in cinemas and elsewhere? Will he take it from me that, on my last visit to the Army careers office in Salisbury, it was up to target and recruitment was going very well indeed?

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—as always—for his support for the armed forces and the Army in particular. I agree entirely that the recent advertising campaign has been a great success. It has won many awards in this country and abroad and we are extremely pleased with it.

I am glad to hear how well recruiting is going in Salisbury. My hon. Friend is right that it is hard, in the south particularly, to recruit when unemployment is falling. We must make greater efforts to give people who enter the Army qualifications that they can use when they leave. We have still a great deal to do, but we shall do it. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support.

Mr. Murphy

Why cannot the Minister accept that although, since the last general election, the Government have spent £500 million on recruitment schemes and £1.5 billion on making service people redundant, he still manages to get it all wrong, with a shortfall of more than 5,000 in the Army alone? Does not he personally accept responsibility for that fiasco, or is it all the fault of some nameless civil servant?

Mr. Soames

No, it is not the fault of a nameless civil servant; it is the result of a combination of circumstances and events. Recently, we have been in a demographic trough. When the Government came to power, one in eight young people went on to further and higher education; now, one in three do. We are fishing in a much smaller pool, and we need to work much harder to get the high-quality young men and women we need.

For all the hon. Gentleman's bleating and harping on about the failure to recruit the numbers, if he could see the quality of the people we are getting, he would revise his view and understand that we need to continue to invest in giving those young people the skills that they need in the Army, and train them in the Army so that they can go out into a useful civilian career afterwards.

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