HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc1-4
1. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

If he will make a statement on the impact of current military operations on recruitment and retention in the armed forces. [75964]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

Although the current level of operational commitment of our armed forces is high, recruitment remains buoyant, particularly in the Army. However, retention remains a concern—although there does not appear to be a direct link between retention and commitment. Retention remains a key priority for this Government and we are pursuing a number of important initiatives to address the issue.

Mr. Brazier

Does the Secretary of State agree with the recent remarks by the Chief of the Defence Staff? He said that, even if recruitment and retention were at target levels, we could sustain only two medium level operations, such as we are doing in Bosnia … one … with fighting ending in six months. The Chief of the Defence Staff continued: I do not think we could sustain two for longer than that. Does the Secretary of State agree with his principal professional adviser? Would we give up our operations in Bosnia or in Kosovo after six months?

Mr. Robertson

My senior military adviser gives me guidance all the time and he is happy with the current proposals. Clearly, our commitment in Kosovo—which is considerable—involves a number of troops serving for only the first six months if they are deployed as part of an implementation force into Kosovo as members of the allied Rapid Reaction Corps. We are already seeing a reduction in the number of troops in Bosnia and I hope that that trend will continue as progress is made in that country.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Does my right hon. Friend think that recruitment and retention in the armed forces might be affected if we do not take action and send a clear message to President Milosevic that he must sign the Rambouillet settlement or face the prospect of air strikes? Although military action is difficult and unpalatable, does my right hon. Friend believe that it is better to take that action rather than to risk further bloodshed in the Balkans?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am well aware of the strain that our troops are under at present, and never a day goes by without our considering how best to deal with that problem.

My hon. Friend is right: we are perhaps on the brink of a real humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo. Our choice is either to stand by as the blood and the refugees flow or to take on the aggressor with determination and with a will to stop the carnage. As to the number of troops potentially committed to the operation in Kosovo, the House may wish to note that the Government have decided to make HMS Splendid—the Royal Navy's first submarine to be equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles—available for operations in connection with the Kosovo crisis. That is a further measure of the Government's resolve.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

It was good of the Secretary of State to give us that information, but his Department told the press before the weekend. So it was kind of him, but we knew already. Does the Secretary of State agree that, as a consequence of deploying about 8,000 British troops to Kosovo, it will be impossible for him to deal with the overstretch problem, which will inevitably worsen recruitment and retention?

Mr. Robertson

First, my Department did not tell the press about HMS Splendid. A Pentagon spokesman inadvertently made that information available before I could tell the House. That was perfectly clear from all the newspaper stories about the issue. I intended to tell—and have told—the House of Commons before anyone in the press received confirmation of that story.

Secondly, soldier recruitment to the Army has increased by 17.6 per cent. compared with this time last year. Although retention levels are still disturbing, they are better than they were in any of the years of the Conservative Government.

Mr. Maples

In fact, an answer to a parliamentary question reveals that retention rates deteriorated in 1998–99 for the first time in several years. Another answer tells us that 86 per cent. of land command personnel are currently committed to operations or warned to deploy. Is not an inevitable consequence of this—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State questions that figure. However, information was provided that 55 per cent. of land command personnel are committed to operations and 31.3 per cent. are warned to deploy, which totals 86 per cent. As a consequence, is it not inevitable that tour intervals will get shorter, periods spent abroad will get longer, training will suffer and retention rates will get worse? If we are to commit 8,000 troops to Kosovo, is it not time to review the assumptions underlying the strategic defence review?

Mr. Robertson

The assumptions underlying the strategic defence review have not been altered because they are global assumptions that will allow us to do less or more for specific periods. Although senior military commanders in the Ministry of Defence recognise the strain on individuals and the price that must be paid in short-term training, they are content that we can discharge our responsibilities without paying too heavy a price. I am conscious of overstrain, and I will be aware if it becomes a serious factor in training.

I visited our troops in Macedonia two weeks ago, and morale is high and training is going ahead. I hope that they will be there for a limited time, but while they are there they will be doing a job that can be done by few others in the world. They are proud of what they are doing and the country is proud of them.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Having been in Kosovo last week—I left on Friday—I must ask the Secretary of State whether, in the absence of a settlement, we have the option of walking away and saying that the situation is none of our business, or whether we are willing to consider the costs that would be involved in a military operation with our allies, opposed or unopposed, that would save tens of thousands of lives that, without us, would be lost.

Mr. Robertson

I read the articles that were written by the hon. Gentleman when he came back from Kosovo. I have strong views about the situation there, and he makes good points about it. That is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spent so much time at Rambouillet bringing the two sides together and getting close to agreement. That is why, last week, the Kosovar Albanians signed up to the Rambouillet text and why the Yugoslav Serbs have been told that they, too, must sign up to it. There is no question of our walking away from a part of our continent that, if it goes up in flames, will burn many people far from the immediate surroundings. That is why we have put President Milosevic and those who make decisions in Belgrade on notice that, unless they heed the demands of the international community, swift and determined action will be taken.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will the Secretary of State ensure that, if troops are sent into Kosovo, they will not have redundancy notices tucked into their top pockets—which is what happened to the Cheshires when they went into Bosnia?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We are trying to increase the strength of the Regular Army because they have a job to do and, under the strategic defence review, we have reconfigured our forces to make sure that they can do it. Partly because of the revitalisation of our forces, which is thanks to the defence review, Army soldier recruitment has risen by 17.6 per cent. since the same time last year. I know that those who are in that part of the world are determined to make sure that the potential catastrophe is averted and that the majority of the people of Kosovo are given the chance to get on with their lives in the political framework that was so ably negotiated at Rambouillet and which the Kosovar Albanians have signed up to.

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