HL Deb 05 June 1996 vol 572 cc1245-7

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether any of Her Majesty's Armed Forces were under strength at 30th April 1996; and, if so, whether these shortages are expected to continue into 1997 and what steps are being taken to overcome them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)

My Lords, the most significant shortfall in manpower was in the Army. There was also a shortage in the Royal Marines General Duties and for certain specialisations in the RAF. All are expected to continue into 1997 but at a reduced level. Steps taken to overcome the shortfall include the introduction of a retention incentive bonus and recruiting bounty in both the naval service and the Army, an initiative launched in January to use the Employment Service Jobcentre network for Armed Forces recruiting, and increased recruitment advertising activity.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. However, does he agree that the situation is slightly worse than he indicated in his response due to the shortage of trained skilled personnel and recruits of the correct age group, and the habitual overstretch to which we have become used in the Armed Forces?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Army is currently 4,000 trained troops under strength, primarily due to the problems of recruitment and retention in the Royal Armoured Corps, the Royal Artillery and the infantry. That is a source of concern, but I must point out that the Army's numerical size is not a full guide to its front-line strength, as the noble Viscount will appreciate. Its structure, readiness, capability and ability to sustain itself on operations must also be considered. Administrators are confident that the Army can meet its commitments.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us on this side of the House are anxious about the strength of the Armed Forces? Can he give a firm assurance that the measures to which he referred in the course of his reply will definitely restore the Armed Forces to their full strength in a limited time?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and the answer is "yes". We are confident that the initiatives we now have in train will enable the Army to correct its manning shortfall by the year 2000 at the latest and will certainly improve the situation considerably before that time. One of the measures that I did not mention was that the programme of closures of the Army careers information offices has been halted. We intend to ensure that 84 such offices remain open, including five new ones, and that 39 Armed Forces careers offices are up and running by 1st April next year.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I listened with interest to the noble Earl saying that the Army may be up to some sort of full strength by the year 2000. What happens between now and then to the commitments that the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have? Is the noble Lord able to say what is the present level of recruitment to the Armed Forces as opposed to the level of 20 years ago?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I emphasised that we are confident that the Army can meet its commitments, and the same applies to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. There is no difficulty of manning in the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force is only marginally under strength. The main difficulty is in the Army. But that does not impact on its operational effectiveness. The noble Lord asked about recruitment into the Army. We need around 16,000 new recruits into the Army each year. That target is not quite being met, but the initiatives I mentioned will redress that position shortly.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the Minister aware that from the start there were different opinions in this House about the planned overall reductions in service manpower? But I believe I am right in saying that there has been unanimity in every part of the House that the planned reductions of Army manpower were excessive. Is the noble Earl aware that, although the remedies being taken by the Government are welcome, it is a problem that Ministers have brought on themselves?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord. The reductions that we have seen in the Armed Forces are a direct result of a reduced threat. That is a point that is well appreciated by noble Lords throughout the House. Where I do agree with the noble Lord is that one of the difficulties of recruiting is that we are in a real sense the victims of our own success in another field. More young people than ever are entering further education. One in three pupils now stays on for some form of further education compared with one in eight 15 years ago. Both of those developments have greatly reduced our pool of potential recruits.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those of us who went to war in 1939 with an ill-equipped, undermanned and wholly inefficient Army read with dismay the debate, as reported in the Official Report, in which the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Bramall and Lord Craig, and others explained the deficiency of our forces today? Is it not really a shame on any government that we should be in this position now?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I really must take issue with my noble friend, much as I respect him in all that he says. I believe that our Armed Forces are the best armed forces in the world. I believe that they are the best qualified. They are certainly better equipped now than they have been for very many years. My noble friend does not need to take my word for that. He can talk to any soldier in the British Army and he will be told the same thing. Motivation is high and I believe that our Armed Forces do credit to us wherever they are seen around the world, especially in their operations in Bosnia.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, in his answer to the first supplementary question the noble Earl said that the Ministers involved are satisfied with the situation. However, have not the exchanges in the House today shown that people with experience of the defence of the realm are certainly not satisfied? My noble friend on the Front Bench asked about recruitment. Is it not the case that only a few years ago the Armed Forces accepted only one in three applicants? What has happened to reverse the situation; or are we still refusing people who could be recruited and trained?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I made a particular point of saying that we were not satisfied with the situation. We were satisfied that the Army could meet its operational commitments but we were not satisfied that we had done enough about recruitment. Hence we have introduced all the measures I have set out. The noble Lord referred to acceptances and enlistments. One of the main problems in carrying through inquiries to enlistment is physical fitness. One of the initiatives we have recently taken is to put new recruits who just fail the physical fitness test through a course to enable them to bring their standards of physical fitness up to par. I am pleased to say that that has proved a success.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, is not retention also a serious issue? Is the Minister aware that 11 of 12 Tornado flight commanders in Germany intend to exercise their option to retire at the early age of 38? These officers provide future station and squadron commanders. What measures do the Government believe are necessary to correct this very worrying situation?

Earl Howe

My Lords, many RAF officers have taken voluntary redundancy. As the noble and gallant Lord will know, the draw-down from the RAF has been a managed and carefully planned operation which should ensure that the RAF can meet its commitments quite readily. However, I take his point. We want to ensure that once the RAF is reduced to the target strength we do not lose the people that we would like to keep. We are therefore giving consideration to a number of measures which will ensure that that will not happen, including bonuses and retention bounties.

Back to