§ 8. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
If he will make a statement on recruitment to the armed forces since January. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)
Audited recruitment figures since 1 January 2003 are not yet available. However, armed forces recruitment is progressing well, and the early indications are that the level of interest being shown by young people in pursuing an armed forces career reflects no discernible difference when compared to the same period last year.
§ Mr. Boswell
Is it not odd that at this of all times, and when recruitment shows encouraging signs of increasing,Soldier magazine has confirmed the fears of many of us that some recruitsare to have their initial training courses deferred because recruiting has exceeded current funding levels"?Are the Department's finances so dire that such deferment has to take place, and do not the Minister and his colleagues appreciate that invaluable training momentum is being thrown away?
§ Dr. Moonie
No, it is not. As a former Minister, the hon. Gentleman will know that Departments always make certain planning assumptions for the year. To ensure that the training pipeline is able to cope with the number of recruits, some training periods are being deferred from March to April or May, which hardly amounts to much in the great scheme of things. I should have thought that it would be a matter of joy, rather than condemnation, in the House that recruitment levels are exceeding expectations.
§ Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)
Is the Minister aware that since 1997 recruitment to the armed forces in south Tyneside has more than halved? Does he have any observations on that dramatic decline? More importantly, what measures does he intend to introduce to make recruitment to the armed forces more attractive to young people?
§ Dr. Moonie:
I should like to say that it is a tribute to the Government's economic policies that job opportunities in the north-east of England are looking up. Without appearing facetious, however, I am concerned when areas show a diminution in recruitment. I will consider that with those responsible to see what can be done to improve the situation.
§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
I am sure that the Minister would agree that an important part of the appeal of the recruitment package is the armed forces pension scheme. Will he take the opportunity to quash rumours expressed to the Commander-in-Chief of Strike Command at RAF Lossiemouth last week that under Government plans, any length of service that terminates 575 before an individual reaches 55 would result in a deferred pension to a new public sector retirement age of 65?
§ Dr. Moonie
Until the report is received and published, I cannot give that confirmation. However, those who complete their service, according to the rules, will suffer no deferment of their pension.
§ Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
Is the Minister on target for the recruitment of more black and Asian people into the armed forces? Is he as concerned as I am about the number of claims of racial discrimination that have been made against the armed forces? If he is, what practical steps are he and his colleagues taking to ensure that racism is eradicated from our armed services?
§ Dr. Moonie
We show zero tolerance to racism in the armed forces. The figures have increased dramatically over the past year, which shows that our policies on the recruitment of ethnic minorities are paying off and that those within our ethnic minorities are beginning to realise that they have nothing to fear from racism in the armed forces.
§ Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)
Given the evident problems with recruitment and manpower generally, why does the Ministry of Defence believe that our armed forces should be 4,000 fewer in personnel now than just two years ago?
§ Dr. Moonie
As I think I explained in an earlier answer, defence planning assumptions are not set in stone and vary according to the requirements that the armed forces tell us about. We are not the experts in that; they are. If the experts whom we employ, and our service personnel in particular, tell us what the requirements are, naturally we pay heed to them. What on earth would the hon. Gentleman do in the same circumstances?