HL Deb 16 July 1996 vol 574 cc733-5

Baroness Strange asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, now stationed in Northern Ireland, is currently 91 men under strength.

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

My Lords, the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards is currently 51 under strength although there are also 25 men currently detached outside Northern Ireland for other duties or training who would return to the regiment if that were operationally necessary. That shortfall in personnel is typical of the manpower shortage affecting all the infantry regiments. We have introduced a number of measures to improve recruiting and retention with the aim of restoring the Army to full manning.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his usual courteous and informative reply. I should perhaps declare an interest in that my son served as a Grenadier, my father served as a Grenadier, my grandfather served as a Grenadier in the 3rd Battalion and my great grandfather also served as a Grenadier. Is my noble friend aware that for one month—four weeks—one company has to be on front-line duty and is brought up to strength by taking men from here and there in the other three companies? Does he agree that that is not a very easy way to run a battalion?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on her family's very proud record in the Grenadier Guards, and I am rather sorry that she herself did not have the opportunity to serve in that gallant regiment. The serious point made by my noble friend is well taken. Clearly, shortages in the Grenadier Guards are never welcome, and that applies across the Army as a whole. In the specific case to which she referred, it would be up to the brigade commander to assess whether the shortfall that he faced was significant in operational terms, and he has not in fact said that that is so.

Lord Grimston of Westbury

My Lords, will my noble friend tell us how many of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards were declared redundant when the battalion was disbanded a short time ago?

Earl Howe

Not without notice, my Lords, but I shall write to my noble friend.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, can the Minister say how many more regiments are under strength? Is it not because of the Government's policy of cut-backs that we have got into that position? Was it not disgraceful that the Ministry of Defence had to ask private soldiers to go out and recruit other soldiers and pay them money to do so?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not agree with the emphasis that the noble Lord places on our current incentives to redress the undermanning situation in the Army. I believe that the recruitment and retention bounties that we introduced have been very welcome. Indeed, there are already signs that they are showing results. The noble Lord asked about undermanning elsewhere across the Army. The shortfall is mainly in the Infantry, the Royal Armoured Corps and the Royal Artillery, although all arms are affected to some extent.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree with me and the Defence Committee in another place that it is of the highest importance for potential recruits to meet service staff in the recruitment offices? In the light of that, are the Government now abandoning, as I hope they are, the practice of using jobcentres, where people can look at the job advertised besides, say, a vacancy for a chamber-person?

Earl Howe

My Lords, with regard to the first part of my noble friend's question, I certainly agree with her. But jobcentres have never been seen as the be all and end all of the Army's recruitment difficulties. They provide a useful adjunct to the Army's efforts. Already we are seeing an encouraging level of inquiries coming through to the careers recruitment offices.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is not the problem a little more simple? When you cannot get people, you pay more.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. That is why we introduced the recruitment and retention incentives. As I said, the results are already looking quite promising.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Strange, I also declare an interest as the father of a serving officer in the Grenadier Guards. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the problem of retention has a great deal to do with overstretch, which in turn is significantly influenced by the amount of time that regiments, in particular the Grenadiers, spend overseas—or, to put it another way, the relatively little time that they spend within the United Kingdom?

Earl Howe

My Lords, it cuts both ways. When one talks to most soldiers, they express enthusiasm for working overseas. That is certainly the case with units serving in Bosnia. However, there must be a proper balance between operational duties and training and that is something that we constantly bear in mind.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Earl announced on Friday in our defence debate that on many occasions women were to be given a fully operational role in the front line of the Armed Forces. I hope the noble Earl and the House will agree that it will be a famous day when the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, is allowed to serve in the Grenadier Guards as indeed her ancestors have done with such distinction.

On a more serious note, can the Minister say where the 1,000 troops posted to Northern Ireland came from? From which units are they detached? Are they units? Are those units above strength, below strength or below establishment? What is the case?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am not sure that that supplementary relates to the precise Question on the Order Paper, though I shall try to help the noble Lord in so far as I am able. He touched on the real problem in that if there is undermanning which a brigade commander assesses as significant, other units must be tapped for manpower. That is a regrettable fact of the current situation. I shall write to the noble Lord with the specific details for which he asked.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can my noble friend say to what extent places are made open to members of the Territorial Army for short periods in order to make up numbers? It would greatly encourage recruitment in the TA if there were opportunities on occasion to do so.

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point. It illustrates the truth of the maxim that every cloud has a silver lining. For example, in Bosnia we have been able to call out quite a large number of specialist Territorial Army personnel. They have been delighted to serve in Bosnia and it has meant that we have not had to resort to the kind of measures to which I referred in answering the noble Lord, Lord Williams.

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