HC Deb 23 April 2001 vol 367 cc8-11
6. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

When the Army will reach its full manning strength. [156932]

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

The Army remains firmly committed to achieving full manning by 2005. Although the current strength figures pose a very significant challenge to achieving that target, work is in hand across a wide range of initiatives.

Mr. Bercow

That was a risible response. With the Army 8,000 under strength and the extremely worrying slippage in the target date for full manning highlighted by the Select Committee on Defence, which concluded that insufficient energy and imagination were being applied to the task, why can the Minister not see that what he needs to do is tell the House whether he agrees with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in rejecting full manning? If the Minister is not big enough to stand up to the Chief Secretary, why does he not make way for my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who certainly is?

Mr. Spellar

I do not think that I should trade sizeist comments with the hon. Gentleman. Boomerangs are probably not the best choice of weapon that he could make in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman should accept that part of the reason for the gap between trained strength and liability is that we raised the level of liability: in the strategic defence review, we considered what the post-cold war requirement was, rather than stick to the previous figures. There was a gap of 7,736 in 1992, under the previous Administration, and when we came into power the gap was 5,597. His criticism of the Army recruitment teams is misplaced—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) must let the Minister answer.

Mr. Spellar

It is heroic to have achieved the current recruitment numbers in the face of the lowest unemployment for 25 years and the 1 million extra jobs owed to excellent management of the economy by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That does not mean that we are complacent. As I said, there are a number of initiatives under way, many of which are bearing fruit. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) should recognise that recruiting in the face of full employment is always more difficult than in the conditions of unemployment that the Conservative Government left us.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the range of measures introduced since 1997, including the service families taskforce and the recent announcement on service accommodation, will go a long way towards making life in the armed forces more attractive to recruits? Do they not clearly demonstrate the Government's commitment to overcoming the very difficult conditions for recruitment seen under the previous Government—

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Oh, so it is our fault is it?

Mr. Brown

There is no doubt that we have taken major strides forward while Conservatives have merely thrown bricks and barracked.

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is right, not so much about recruitment, although such measures have an impact in that respect, as about retention of experienced and trained members of the forces.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) asks whether it was the Conservatives' fault. The answer is yes, it was, to a significant extent. The Conservatives mismanaged the adjustment at the end of the cold war and considerably overshot the number of troops they forced out of the armed forces. The best advert for the armed forces is someone who goes back home and says what a good time he is having and what a worthwhile job he is undertaking as a member of those forces. The worst possible adverts were people who had thought that they had a career in the armed forces, but were made compulsorily redundant under the previous Government. The previous Administration sent a clear message that the Army was no longer recruiting, and it has been the subject of a major and successful effort by our recruitment teams to turn around that message and make it clear that we are open for recruitment and open for business.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Is the Minister aware that some infantry regiments are spending up to £40,000 of privately raised money on their recruitment? Should not that be the Government's responsibility and not theirs?

Mr. Spellar

We are spending considerable sums on recruitment. Individual regiments rightly and proudly undertake a lot of their own recruitment work, as they want to ensure that their personnel are as well recruited as possible. That is a traditional activity. We need to read across from the successes of some regiments in order to learn the lessons and to spread them to other regiments. A significant amount of work is being done to spread best practice in that regard.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Neither the Minister nor my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) need be sensitive about size. I am sure that we could arrange for the signing of a compact against sizeism in the forthcoming election. The problem with his figures is that they do not add up. Nobody doubts the success and determination of the adjutant-general's department in respect of recruitment and retention; indeed, they are beyond doubt. The problem is not that the Ministry of Defence lacks commitment, but that the Treasury lacks it. We have heard that there is a shortfall of 8,000 troops, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that it would cost £1.3 billion pounds to fill it. At the same time, however, the defence budget continues to fall as a percentage of gross domestic product. That is the problem. Will the Minister commit himself, and say that there will be no further reductions in county regiments, old regiments afoot, the Lancers or the Royal Tank Regiment? Will there be no further cuts?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman is weightier than his arguments. The situation is limited by the ability to recruit. We have had success in that respect, although there have been some retention difficulties. The measures that I outlined just now, and which we have announced previously, have improved matters, but circumstances are extremely difficult, as high employment—we have the lowest unemployment for 25 years—is a major challenge to recruiting. Our people are rising to that challenge, however, and all who meet the standard are being recruited into the armed forces. That is welcome and that effort is being properly funded. If he goes out into the streets of Salisbury to urge more youngsters to join the armed forces, as I hope that he will, they will be recruited and properly funded.