HC Deb 14 July 1997 vol 298 cc5-6
2. Mr. Bayley

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on recruitment to the armed forces. [6508]

Dr. Reid

Because of the legacy of shortages left by the previous Government, this Government have made recruiting to the armed forces one of their top priorities. It is of particular concern that manning shortages exist in all three services and, in some areas, are set to get worse. We are therefore examining, as a matter of urgency, new ways in which recruitment to the armed forces can be improved in order to reduce the significant shortfalls left by the Conservative Government.

Mr. Bayley

This weekend, I visited 2 Signal regiment on exercises at Otterburn. That York-based regiment has recently served in the Falklands and in Bosnia, yet I learnt that it is 25 per cent. under strength as a result of the mismanagement of the defence draw-down under the previous Government. I was impressed by the commitment of the officers, men and women of the regiment and of the Gurkhas, who also serve in the regiment now. What further steps can the Labour Government take to reduce those manpower shortfalls in our regiments?

Dr. Reid

I assure my hon. Friend that, over the past two months, I have become only too well aware of the significant problem of undermanning, which is a legacy of the previous Government's incompetence. It is a deplorable and unacceptable legacy, which is being experienced by all three services. It is especially acute in the Army, where there are significant shortfalls in the infantry, the Royal Armoured Corps and the Royal Engineers. We are committed to reversing that problem and the recruitment and retention of service personnel lies right at the top of our priorities. I take this opportunity to say to anyone outside the House who thinks that the services are in decline that that is not the case: in the armed forces there are very many opportunities for young men and women to be equipped with skills, training, discipline and character, which will not only serve their country well, but will serve them well in their future careers.

Mr. Colvin

The comments of the Minister of State are of a party political nature: I do not think that they do him credit, nor are they entirely consistent with the Secretary of State's calls for consensus on defence matters. Does he acknowledge that numbers in the armed forces have as much to do with retention as with recruitment? If the armed forces and his Department were given the resources that they require to meet their current commitments, the question of tours of duty could be addressed and morale in the armed forces—especially in the infantry—could be increased. Soldiers could thereby be retained by the armed forces: something that they want to happen, but which morale—often at home—prevents.

Dr. Reid

Yes, indeed. As a statement of historical fact, I would alert the hon. Gentleman to the fact that I have already referred to retention as well as to recruitment. As a statement of objective fact, I draw to his attention the fact that the Army is already almost 5,500 short and that the problem is due to worsen, possibly to as many as 7,500 short. As a statement of consensus, I hope that he will give the Government full backing in their attempt to turn that situation around.

Mr. David Heath

I am glad that the Minister drew attention to the scale of the figures. A shortfall of 5,500 or 5,800 below regimental complement—which he might have spoken of—is very serious and places a great deal of strain on individual units and individual soldiers. Will the Minister give a clear commitment that he will seek to increase recruitment to meet complement instead of reducing complement to meet current recruitment levels?

Dr. Reid

I shall give the hon. Gentleman a clear commitment that recruitment to the armed forces will be among my highest priorities. However, in the spirit of consensus, I draw attention to the points made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), who said that, in the armed forces, retention is as big a problem as recruitment. It may well be that the way in which we attempt to retain people, especially early in their time in the services, has not taken account of the 30-year drift separating the culture and fitness of civil society and that of military society. Those matters will be among my highest priorities.