HL Deb 20 November 1969 vol 305 cc1071-80

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Draft Army Act 1955 (Continuation) Order 1969, laid before the House on October 28 last, be approved. A similar Motion in respect of the Air Force Act 1955 (Continuation) Order 1969 also stands in my name on the Order Paper. With the leave of the House, I propose to speak to both Motions together, in the hope that at the end of our debate we may take the Air Force Motion formally.

As I had the opportunity of explaining to the House on a comparable occasion nearly a year ago, in the early days of my present appointment, the Army and Air Force Act 1961 and the Armed Forces Act 1966 continued the system of annual Orders in Council and quinquennial Acts provided for by the Army and Air Force Acts 1955. The Orders of which the drafts are before the House to-day will be the third pair to be made under the 1966 Act. The Acts themselves, of course, will be due for renewal in 1971. By tradition, our short debate on the Orders gives us an opportunity to discuss personnel questions in the two Services. I propose to speak mainly about discipline, with which the Acts are so extensively concerned, and recruiting, to which I referred last year as the Army's most difficult preoccupation.

The importance of military discipline and an organised force has been demonstrated particularly powerfully in Northern Ireland. I would not wish to divert the attention of noble Lords to the wider issues of the problem there; we had a full debate on the subject here only last month, and we shall shortly be debating the legislation which is to follow on the Report of the Committee which sat under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. But it is not inappropriate for me to record to-day that the troops in Northern Ireland have been required to face a uniquely difficult situation and they have overcome it magnificently; their skill and restraint have been exemplary. The purpose of military discipline is, in a sense, to instil self-discipline, and it is this quality which has stood out.

The Army Act imposes restraints on the liberty of the individual which would not be accepted in civilian life. It is because troops may be required to deal with situations which only disciplined bodies of men could control that they accept these restraints on their liberty as part of their way of life. Service discipline is not merely a matter of petty restriction: it is training for tackling dangerous and unpleasant tasks, and surmounting the handicaps of poor accommodation, fatigue and provocation. Noble Lords will, I am sure, recognise that there could be no more telling justification for the continuation of the Army Act than the behaviour of our troops in Northern Ireland.

As regards discipline in the Royal Air Force, I have satisfying statistical evidence. The number of minor offences dealt with summarily by commanding officers has again shown an encouraging decrease. The number of courts-martial continues at a very low level, although the figure of 252 for the twelve months to September 30 this year was slightly higher than the 240 in the previous twelve months.

My Lords, I can assure the House that the disciplinary system within the Armed Forces continues to operate in a fair and efficient manner. Much of the credit for this satisfactory state of affairs is due to the individual commanding officers, and it is on their leadership, judgment and sense of justice that discipline and morale in the Services depend.

I turn now to recruiting. There has been some improvement this year, particularly in the month of September, when we recruited to the Army and the Royal Air Force 1,350 more than in the same month last year. In 1968–69 we recruited about 24,000 male other ranks to the two Services. In the first six months of the current financial year there was an increase of about 2,500 for the Army and 480 for the Royal Air Force over the performance in the same period last year. If this improvement continues, we shall be able to repair, to some extent, the defects of last year's shortfall which, together with this year's requirement, amounts to about 40,000 men for the two Services. The problem is that the Services, by the very nature of the active and sometimes combatant role which they have to play, must recruit men young, and they are mainly interested in the 15 to 20 age group. And there are important trends affecting this. The number of young men available for employment in this recruiting age group of 15 to 20 is declining because of later school leaving and the expansion of higher education. This trend will continue until the mid-1970s. Again, the effects of the Industrial Training Act, which aims at increasing the quality of industrial training, will be to reduce the traditional attractiveness of the Services' schemes of apprenticeship. The tendency to marry younger may also affect recruiting, although the recent decision by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, following the report of the National Board for Prices and Incomes, to extend the full range of marriage and associated allowances to all officers and men, without regard to age, should offset many of the disadvantages which previously deterred some young men from joining the Services.

There is still some misunderstanding arising from the contraction of the Services. We have to convince young men, and those who influence them, that they can look forward to an interesting and worthwhile career, and that the future role of the Forces poses new challenges demanding high qualities to match first-class equipment. To keep forces balanced in age, rank and promotion prospects, although reduced in size, requires a steady infusion of fit young men—and perhaps naturally this is not generally appreciated. My Lords, having stressed the importance of the 15 to 20 age group, perhaps I should digress for a moment to mention that, as my honourable friend the Minister of Defence for Administration announced in another place last week, he is setting up a Committee which will inquire into the conditions of Service life as they affect boy entrants and young Servicemen.

Turning to the specific question of Army recruitment, I hope the House will bear with me if I tend to dwell to some extent on the statistical side of this problem. From the figures I hope to show that, so far as soldier recruiting is concerned, there are signs that we may have passed the most serious period, though I must urge that there is no reason for complacency. Taking first the problem of officer recruiting, I am sure that noble Lords are aware that our re-shaping of defence policy has resulted in the need for a smaller Army. An Army which comprised 180,000 adult males in early 1967 will reduce to about 152,000 in 1974. The smaller Army will require fewer officers. Since it takes some years to train an officer, we are now recruiting for the Army of the early 1970s, and so we need fewer officer cadets to meet our target number of young officers. We are just about holding our own. Even allowing for this decreasing requirement, however, the Army will have a difficult time in reaching its target next year, since the trends may be running against it. This year the number entering Sandhurst as cadets for permanent Regular Commissions was 259, only 26 less than the target. This year has also seen the first entry to Sandhurst of cadets to be trained for Special Regular Commissions—32 in all. The universities are valuable sources of officers. The Army has also a university cadetship scheme. Twenty-three cadetships were granted in 1968, the same number as the year before. This year we have granted 29 and we have received more applications than ever before. We should like to commission more university graduates with the necessary qualities. Even so, we expect to commission at least 31 this year.

Non-permanent officers form a very valuable part of the Army's officer cadre. We require 460 non-permanent officers each year. They are granted commissions of two types: Special Regular Commissions, granted for a minimum of 16 years; and Short Service Commissions for 3 years which may be extended to a maximum of 8 years. We require 300 Special Regular Commissioned officers of various ages each year; and in 1968 we were able to commission only 219. Better results have been obtained with the Short Service Commission. There was a shortfall of 26 in the number commissioned last year, but the trend towards the end of the year was encouraging. There has been a continuing improvement in 1969, mainly as a result of an imaginative joint scheme which we have been promoting with industry. This scheme allows a young man who obtains a Short-Service Commission to meet and negotiate with his future civilian employers before he begins his Army career, or at any time during it. This arrangement benefits all the parties to it—the Army, the civilian employer and the young man himself. Through this scheme, the number of inquiries for Short Service Commissions has risen by 60 per cent.; 157 applicants for the scheme have so far passed the Regular Commissions Board, 68 of them have already been commissioned, and a further 25 are under training at Mons Officer Cadet School. The success of the scheme is having a snowballing effect among employers too; the original 90 participating companies have now been joined by a further 32.

For soldier recruiting, there is no doubt that 1968 was the worst year that the Army has experienced, though the falling off in the recruiting of boys was much less serious. There are, however, signs that that year may prove to have been the nadir. The indications are that 1969, after a poor January, will show that there has been a recovery. The Army has, in fact, recruited nearly 20 per cent. more adults and young soldiers (excluding boys) this year than by the same time in 1968. This improvement is most encouraging. Some of it results from our amendment of the Regulations from April 1 last to allow more men to enlist on a three-year engagement, although one must recognise that we do not yet know what proportion of those young men who come in under the scheme are prolonging their engagements. Recruitment of boys has also improved. We have obtained 900 more in the period from April to September this year than we did in the same period in 1968.

Noble Lords may recall that we said in this year's Statement on the Defence Estimates that the Army was making efforts to improve its methods of selecting recruits and so to reduce wastage. To this end, it had started pilot schemes for the centralised selection of adults and junior recruits. We hope that the improvement of selection processes will have a significant effect on the job satisfaction of recruits and on the wastage figures. Since the pilot scheme for adults was started in October, 1968, 1,914 men have been put through the new selection process. Of these, 300 have been rejected. This figure may seem high, but it shows that unsuitable men have been weeded out early rather than being passed into the training machine where they would increase the handicap to themselves and to the Army. The remaining 1,614 have been placed in Corps and trades to which they are most suited. A number of these men have expressed surprise at the care that the Army is taking to ensure that each individual finds his most suitable niche. The pilot schemes have made an encouraging start, and we are now studying ways in which we might extend this method of selection.

I should like to refer next to the Army Cadet Force which clearly has a contribution of special importance to make to Regular Army recruiting. Twelve years have passed since the Army Cadet Force was last reviewed and in that time there have been considerable changes in both the Army and the Youth Services. A committee under the chairmanship of my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army has therefore been set up to review the aim, organisation and equipment of the Army Cadet Force and to make recommendations.

To complete my review of Regular Army recruiting, I should like to say a word about prolongation. The Army depends on a fair proportion of men to extend their service to provide it with senior ranks and the more technically qualified. The prolongation rates for men joining on six-year engagements have risen from 36 per cent. in 1966 to about 50 per cent. in the last two years. I find this most encouraging. It is also pleasing to note that the number of voluntary retirements of officers has fallen off from a high peak reached last year. For me, these facts seem to point the lesson that there is nothing wrong with the Army as a career and that the men now serving realise this.

Before I turn to the Royal Air Force, perhaps I should mention the TAVR in which several noble Lords have a very active interest. As the House is aware, the TAVR was recently the subject of a review which led to changes designed to strengthen its role in support of our Regular forces. These changes have been consolidated over the last year. Recruiting has been satisfactory and the strength—disregarding the Territorials (TAVR III), who have been disbanded—has increased from about 40,500 in December last year to nearly 47,000 at the end of September.

Now may I turn to the Royal Air Force? As in the case of the Army, recruiting to the Royal Air Force has not been either easy or satisfactory, in terms of meeting our needs, during the last year or so. This is the pattern for both officers and airman recruiting. On the airman side, however, I am glad to say that we have done noticeably better in the six months up to September 30 last, with the numbers of men up by 5 per cent. on the previous six months' results, and those of airwomen up by 35 per cent., while in the field of apprentice recruiting things are even more encouraging. Although we are still not getting all the men and women the Royal Air Force needs, we are doing considerably better than we should have dared to hope twelve months or so ago. It is the shortages caused by the lean years of the past which we now have to make good, and this will take time and the effort of all concerned.

As with the airmen, officer recruiting is also stronger this year, and we are encouraged by the response to our publicity, in terms of inquiries about commissioned service, especially in the ground branches. If we can convert enough of this renewed interest into actual applications for commissions, we shall not be far from our targets this year, except, of course, in areas such as the Medical and Engineer Branches where recruiting is to some extent affected by national shortages.

The progress of the R.A.F.'s new Graduate Entry Scheme for officers is encouraging. We have achieved what we set out to do at the beginning of the year; namely, to award as many university cadetships as possible in lieu of Cranwell cadetships. In the round, we have achieved the same number of cadetship entrants as in 1968 but with a much increased university element. In addition to this year's university cadet awards to direct applicants, 48 Cranwell cadets transferred to universities after one year at the College. By the end of the year, the number of cadets up at university will be about 140 more than we had at the end of 1968—a sound start towards getting the flow of graduates to full career commissions which the Graduate Entry Scheme requires. But once again the field of Royal Air Force officer recruiting is one in which we cannot afford to relax our advertising and other positive recruiting efforts if we are to meet our requirements in terms of both quantity and, even more important, quality.

The modest but encouraging improvement which we have already achieved in Royal Air Force recruiting overall is the result of a number of factors, but the efforts made by the Royal Air Force recruiting organisation have played a significant part. We have, for instance, reorganised and expanded the Careers Information Services, under the Inspector of Recruiting, so that we now have some 60 careers information officers throughout the United Kingdom, backed by a mobile network. These offices are staffed by regular officers and N.C.Os who have undergone special training for the purpose; they do these jobs as normal Royal Air Force postings and so are well in touch with the needs of the frontline Royal Air Force. We have taken a critical look at our recruiting techniques, and have launched special publicity and recruiting campaigns in particular areas with considerable success. For instance, the significant rise in apprentice recruitment follows the special campaigns we have mounted featuring an Apprentice Fortnight followed by a two-day Apprentice Symposium attended by headmasters and others eminent in the educational field. Similar campaigns are in prospect. For example, one for mechanics has just ended, and another for the electrical and electronic trades is planned for early next year.

Despite these encouraging trends, recruiting in the ground trades continues to be a challenging prospect. We still have to bridge a 25 per cent. shortfall on recruiting requirements, and the market in which we compete is becoming ever more competitive. Would-be recruits nowadays are more selective and discriminating in committing themselves to a future career and are thereby harder to get. But the number of airmen already in the Service and wishing to make it a lifelong career is such that the numbers of applications for extensions of service and for pensionable engagements continue to show healthy increases, and we are of course encouraged by this and other evidence that men and women who have sampled life in the Royal Air Force are keen to stay.

To sum up, my Lords, I am sure that, having looked at the recruiting picture in both Services, noble Lords will agree that the satisfactory rate of re-engagement shows that those who have experienced Service life find it a career worth following. It remains for us to convince those with no experience of Service life, or whose information is outdated, that the life and activities of the modern Serviceman offer an interesting and challenging career, with good pay and prospects of promotion. Satisfying as the re-engagement rate is, it is not possible to regard it as a substitute for new recruits.

I have already referred to some of the considerable improvements which are being made in our processes of selection and in the use we make of manpower. The Forces are increasingly technical, and it is essential that all the most modern management techniques should be used in determining aptitudes and in training a man for a job which is satisfying and which improves his personal and technical qualities, and in the course of this prepares him for his second career. Naturally, entry standards are continually examined to ensure that the optimum use is made of young men who wish to adopt a Service life.

We are also studying the relationship between the current role of the Services and the personal way of life of the Serviceman and his family in order to analyse and implement whatever possibilities there may be for improving the conditions in the Armed Forces with particular reference to family life. Efforts in all these areas must be supplemented by effective external publicity on an adequate scale. We are spending an additional £1 million in 1969–70 on a really high-pressure recruiting publicity campaign.

Not only must we go out to the young men in order to convince them of the worthwhileness and challenges of a Service career. We hope also to bring the public to the Services by organising "at homes", open days and similar arrangements to enable the community to see the Services close at hand. In the current year we have increased funds for this by some quarter of a million pounds. We do not expect dramatic results from all these measures. We recognise that it may be a slow haul before the competitive pull of the Armed Forces begins to show a sustained and steady improvement. It is however a fact that, even in these difficult times, there is a really good career— testing as well as rewarding—for anyone who joins the Services. It is also a fact, but one little better recognised in many circles, that the Services are essential to the real interests of our nation. I welcome the opportunity of our debate to-day to invite noble Lords to join me in making all possible efforts to convince leaders of opinion everywhere of both these facts. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Army Act 1955 (Continuation) Order 1969, laid before the House on October 28 last, be approved.—(Lord Winterbottom.)