HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc673-6
2. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

If he will make a statement on the manning and recruitment targets for the armed forces. [96123]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

Achievement of full manning is a key objective of the strategic defence review. The Navy expects to achieve full manning balance by April 2002, the Army by April 2005, and the RAF by April 2001. Recruiting across the three services is buoyant. The Royal Marines are having their best year since 1994, and all services report that they are on course to hit targets.

Mr. Syms

Following the SDR, we have had reductions in manpower and money for regular and reserve forces. The armed services are clearly suffering from overstretch, and the resulting pressures are causing many people to leave early. We now hear that the Government's magic solution is the recruitment of young offenders. Is it not a sad commentary on the Government and an indictment of their policy that they have to scour prisons for recruits for the next century?

Mr. Spellar

I find it surprising that the Member of Parliament representing Poole did not welcome the good figures for the Royal Marines, which are positive news for his area. Current recruitment figures are the best for a decade. That is partly due to the excellent advertising campaign, the very good recruiting being undertaken on the ground, and the clear messages being given to a range of possible audiences about the attraction of a career in the armed forces. That should be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman made some facile comments about stories in the press today. He should welcome the fact that, when appropriate, properly selected individuals will be given a second chance in life. Allowing them to serve their country will be good for them, good for the country and good for the armed forces. I think that it is good news, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so churlish about it.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

My hon. Friend has talked about the general recruitment targets. He has also set some demanding targets for the recruitment of ethnic minorities. How are those targets being met? There are also demanding targets for the recruitment of women. What progress is being made on those targets?

Mr. Spellar

We have set a target of a 1 per cent. increase per year in recruitment from the ethnic communities. That means 3 per cent. of total recruitment this year, 4 per cent. next year and 5 per cent. the year after. The Army looks to be on course to hit those targets. The other two services may not, but the Commission for Racial Equality is enormously enthusiastic about the success that we are having and encouraged by it. All the services have run ethnic recruitment operations around the country, including some run on a tri-service basis. The ethnic recruitment teams have shown enormous enthusiasm and have achieved a good deal of success with their target audience. We do not have a target figure for the recruitment of women, but it is pleasing that 13.2 per cent. of new recruits this year are women. That is an increase in the percentage, which means that we are drawing from a larger pool to get the best of our young people for our armed forces.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Is the Minister aware that figures supplied by the House of Commons Library show that in only two of the past eight years have the targets for Army recruitment been met? Is it not clear from those figures, for which the previous Government must take some responsibility, that the failure to recruit adequately is a factor in current overstretch? In those circumstances, is it not unimaginative to reject out of hand the proposal to recruit young offenders, as long as there is no compulsion; those selected demonstrate a genuine desire to lead a more constructive life; and there is careful screening and selection?

Mr. Spellar

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is unfortunate that some people have so cavalierly rejected an initiative that could give some youngsters who have taken a wrong turn in life an opportunity to make the right turn and become useful citizens who contribute to this country. The armed forces will implement all the safeguards that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has outlined. The scheme could give people a second chance and would be good for the country, good for the services and good for the individuals.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth)

Will my hon. Friend send my congratulations, and those of many hon. Members, to the various recruiting departments for the innovation to which he has referred? He knows my involvement with young people, particularly in our cadet forces. What appalled me for many years was the reluctance to take on youngsters who had committed a misdemeanour in the past. Youngsters sometimes go astray because of their environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that the very structure to which those youngsters can now look forward will give them a second chance and will help them to take the path that we as a society would most welcome, rather than the alternative to which some appear willing to condemn them?

Mr. Spellar

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments, and I want to stress the restrictions and careful safeguards in the exercise. Certain offences will not be ignored. The rules were changed a few years ago to enable people who had served a limited prison sentence to join the armed forces. These proposals, which have been worked out carefully with the Prison Service, would enable those concerned to take courses to show them what life in the services would be like after they have served their sentence. That is encouraging, and shows that the armed forces are taking an imaginative approach. At the same time, it offers a real opportunity to youngsters who may have had an unstructured life to get into the structured life of the armed services, to make something of themselves and to contribute to this country. The forces are warmly to be congratulated on their initiative in this respect.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Despite the Minister's bluster, the reality is that, since the Government came to power, the commitment of Her Majesty's forces is at a level unprecedented at any time since the second world war. Even on best estimates, the level of commitment will be significantly higher than that which the Government inherited. It is not just a matter of recruitment, but of retention of service personnel—between 900 and 1,100 men are leaving the Army alone every month. The situation has got so bad that the Government have had to produce a document for service families which says: We want to make it easier for them to keep in touch with their families, and give them more time together when they return. Their time spent together gets less and less because of Government policies. What are the Government going to do about it?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman should tell the House and the nation which of those commitments he would not have undertaken. Would he pull our troops from the streets of Northern Ireland? Does he think that we should not have participated in the NATO operation in Kosovo? The Opposition's foreign affairs spokesman thinks that we should not have participated in East Timor, and that we should have left our friends and allies from Australia in the lurch. Those are our commitments. When we came into office, the level of commitment was 29 per cent., which increased to 47 per cent. at its peak. It is now back down to 35 per cent. We are taking measures in Kosovo and Bosnia to reduce that level, and we are implementing a welfare package. We get no answer from the Conservatives as to which commitments they would cut and which operations they think we should not have undertaken. Theirs is a facile view, and there is no joined-up thinking between the Opposition's foreign affairs and defence spokesmen.

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