HL Deb 16 July 1996 vol 574 cc735-8

2.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to improve recruiting to the Armed Forces.

Earl Howe

My Lords, a number of measures are being taken to improve Armed Forces recruitment. Those include targeted recruitment advertising campaigns, payment of a recruiting bounty to marines and soldiers who persuade others to enlist, and the recently launched initiatives with the Employment Service to use the jobcentre network and the careers service to aid recruitment.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as was brought out in last week's defence debate, the numbers in all three services have steadily fallen year by year and last year were at their lowest ever? Is he prepared to say what the Government are doing to secure that that trend is drastically reversed?

Earl Howe

My Lords, there are already small signs that the situation is improving. There was a much better level of recruitment in the final quarter of 1995–96. That continued in the current year. In the first quarter of this year there was a 53 per cent. rise in enlistment compared with the same period last year. Therefore there are signs that the measures we are taking are achieving some results.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that the manpower shortage would probably be improved if the Government improved their handling of issues of importance to service families?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we had a long and interesting debate about that issue last week and I made the Government's position clear. We have made considerable efforts to convey to Army families not only the details of our policy, but also the reasons for it. Naturally, it is regrettable that that message has not permeated as far as it should have done. There is no doubt that undermanning is causing difficulties. However, we should not exaggerate the operational effects.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the Government's ridiculous and dangerous decision to sell off Ministry of Defence houses acts as an inducement for increasing numbers of people to join the forces?

Earl Howe

My Lords, yes. Housing will improve in standard as a result of what we plan to do and I should have thought that that would act as an incentive.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that one of the principal reasons for undermanning is the instability and insecurity caused by a series of defence reviews, redundancies and all that goes with that? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government intend to stand by and honour the Prime Minister's pledge that the services should now have a period of peace and stability?

Earl Howe

My Lords, Ministers have repeatedly said that a period of stability is desirable and that is what we aim to achieve. A number of factors have contributed to undermanning, one of the main ones being a false perception among many people that because some servicemen recently faced redundancy the Army no longer offers a worthwhile career. That kind of perception is one that we are trying hard to overcome.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, following from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, can the Minister say what the career prospects are that are held out to young people joining the Armed Forces? Are they good and positive during their service in the Armed Forces, and are the recruits trained adequately for their return to civilian life?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, touches on some important points. We endeavour as far as we can to convey to every new recruit that the Army offers a worthwhile and fulfilling career. We are laying particular emphasis on the encouragement of soldiers in particular to undertake courses of training which will give them transferable qualifications that they can use after leaving the service when they move into civilian life.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said, recruitment depends on the career opportunities which are offered in the services. Therefore, can my noble friend say now when the Government are going to adopt the recommendations made in Sir Michael Bett's report, which will show what the real opportunities in the services will be?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend touches on another important issue. The review carried out by Sir Michael Bett has been carefully studied over the past year and more. We hope to make an announcement shortly on our conclusions. My noble friend is quite right in that the areas that Sir Michael looked at are the key to ensuring that we can recruit and retain the right personnel in future.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo

My Lords, does the Minister agree that some of our finest servicemen have come direct from school into service life? Will the Government consider the reintroduction of the apprentice system and the junior leader system and say what they are doing to right the major deficiency that we have all heard about?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we are considering the possible advantages of reintroducing some form of junior entry, but that would be expensive to set up. For the time being we propose to watch the success of the other measures that we have already implemented before taking a decision about junior leaders. In particular, we want to see whether our initiative, in partnership with the careers service, delivers the kind of results that we hope for.

Lord Wedgwood

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware that the Army has recently introduced a recruiting drive through the Internet. Does he agree that not only should we strive to recruit junior leaders, but that we should also consider and focus on our cadet forces across the country?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I believe that the increase in the advertising budget will yield results. As I have said, there are signs that it is already doing so. As regards cadets, we have always felt that while it is very useful that the cadet movement yields recruits for the three main branches of the services, it should not by itself be regarded as a recruitment conduit. I believe that that would be retrograde.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that I asked him a question about the proposed statement on the Bett report a short time ago. Is he further aware that we are all now expecting, as the noble Earl said, a statement to be made shortly? Can we have the noble Earl's assurance that it will be made before the House rises for the Long Recess so that it can be properly considered and debated?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am very much in sympathy with the wish expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. I can only tell him what I said the other day, which is that we are endeavouring to ensure that that happens, but I am not in a position to promise it.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that all local authorities give free access to the military to recruit in schools and colleges and that they are not influenced by some Left-wing authorities who may not allow the military to recruit at all?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. I would like to be able to reassure him that all local authorities have the same constructive attitude towards recruitment into the Armed Services. However, I am unable to do so, but it is something that we keep constantly under review.