Select Committee on Defence Second Report


The Defence Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. The United Kingdom's Armed Forces are acknowledged to be amongst the best in the world. It may be a truism to say that their quality depends vitally on the volunteers who constitute this country's Armed Forces, but it is a truism which is worth repeating. A central element of the Strategic Defence Review (SDR), the results of which were announced in 1998, was the 'Policy for People', intended to put people at the centre of the Ministry of Defence's plans and to provide a more strategic approach to personnel issues.[8] Elements of this policy were developed into the Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy (AFOPS), published in February 2000. We have more to say about the tension between single-service and overarching prescriptions for addressing personnel questions below. That strategy had as its guiding vision: 'to generate and maintain modern, joint, battle winning forces, by placing Service personnel and their families at the centre of our plans, investing in them and giving them confidence in their future'.[9] In our Report on the SDR, we commented—

    The challenge of eliminating under-manning in our Armed Forces is one of the most intractable problems the Review has had to address. If its policy for people fails to deliver, then the vicious circle of declining morale, reduced recruitment and retention, and increased overstretch, will return.[10]

We have examined issues relating to personnel in a wide variety of contexts in the period since the SDR was published. Of course, there is more to generating 'battle-winning forces' than people alone. But in undertaking this wide-ranging inquiry our intention was to examine the extent to which the MoD is doing what is necessary to ensure that the United Kingdom has sufficient and appropriate people in our Armed Forces, and is providing them with the leadership, training and support necessary to deliver its defence policy now and in the medium to long term.

2. The Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) said recently that 'Manning is the single most critical element to shaping the Armed Forces of the 21st Century'.[11] We agree: if the current manning situation in the UK's Armed Forces cannot yet be described as a crisis, it is certainly a chronic problem which shows little sign of responding to treatment. The trained strength for all three Services at 1 November 2000 was 189,318 against a trained requirement of 198,043. Most of the deficit, nearly 6,000 people, is in the Army and this is compounded by the SDR requirement to increase the strength of the Army by a further 2,000 by 2005.[12] These total figures mask some particularly acute problems in key specialist areas, and are accentuated by the high proportion (almost 8%) of service personnel who are at any one time medically unfit for active service.[13] As we have commented before,[14] recruitment is not the main problem at the moment: it is retaining personnel which is the greatest battle. It is one which the Armed Forces have yet to prove they can win.

3. There are many factors, political, economic, social and cultural, which have changed the context in which Armed Forces recruitment and retention policies must operate. The Services must adapt themselves to these changes if they are to remain viable. With a strong economy, there are plenty of other employment opportunities for those who might previously have considered joining the Services. This is equally true for serving personnel who can see attractive alternative careers outside the Services, making the security offered by the Armed Forces less of an anchor than in the past.

4. In the post-Cold War world, the role of the Armed Forces has changed dramatically. Transforming themselves into an expeditionary force has presented the Services with a very different, and many would say a more difficult, set of demands to which they are still adjusting. A changing role for the Services is running parallel with rapid changes in society which contribute to making the values of the Armed Services seem less relevant and less acceptable both to many of those looking in from the outside and many of those inside looking out. Along with these cultural changes, the disappearance of the 'cradle to grave' ethos of the Armed Forces may mean that the perceived benefits of life in the Services may no longer be enough to outweigh the attractions of civilian life.

5. The battle to achieve and maintain full manning must also take place against a background of a defence budget which is broadly static and seems unlikely to increase significantly. Achieving full manning will put further strain on an already stretched financial situation. In this context, the MoD has to be prepared to think radically about how it achieves its capability — there are, for example, trade-offs to be struck between investment in capital equipment and in personnel, and between the use of Regulars and Reservists. Nibbling at the edges of the problem will ameliorate the situation, not resolve it. That resolution will require adequate finance and strong leadership. At the same time as providing the vision, Ministers must also be ready to allow the freedom necessary for the individual services to pursue imaginative and radical ideas matched to their special needs.

6. The Armed Forces must find ways of overcoming or adapting to the challenges they face if they are to continue to meet the demands placed upon them. In this era of 'joined-up government', other government agencies also have to recognise that they have a role to play in adapting the world to the needs of national defence.

7. The Defence Committee has tracked personnel issues, and the various government initiatives designed to address them, since its inception. This has often been in the context of our predecessors' annual reports on the Statement on the Defence Estimates. They particularly studied the implementation of the reductions following the end of the Cold War.[15] Most recently, we ourselves discussed personnel issues at some length in our Report on the MoD's Annual Reporting Cycle.[16]

8. Our current inquiry has involved oral evidence from a wide range of Ministry of Defence witnesses, including the three Service principal personnel officers, the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Personnel) and the Minister for the Armed Forces, as well as those specifically responsible for military training and for housing. Oral evidence sessions were also held with an panel of academics, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, the three Service families' organisations, and SSAFA-Forces Help. We put a number of written questions to MoD at the start of the inquiry and received a very substantial memorandum in response.[17] Written evidence has been received from a number of other organisations and is published with this Report.[18] We are grateful to all those who have contributed. We also undertook informal visits to the Royal Navy's School of Communications and Weapon Engineering at HMS Collingwood; 1st Battalion, The Staffordshire Regiment at Tidworth and 3 (UK) Division, Signal Regiment at Bulford Barracks; and the officer training college at RAF Cranwell. We are grateful to all the military personnel who gave up their time to speak to us and to the MoD for help with these visits, which were invaluable.

9. We have examined in some depth the ways the Armed Forces are tackling the task of recruiting and, most important, retaining the personnel they need; and what further measures they are planning for the future. The Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy categorises its aims as being to—

  • Cultivate: prepare the ground for obtaining personnel

  • Obtain: attract, acquire and train high quality, motivated people

  • Retain: provide personnel with a rewarding career which stimulates and develops them and provides the foundation of a second career

  • Sustain: provide an environment in which Service men and women and their families will be willing to maintain their commitment

  • Remember: provide ex-Service personnel and their dependants with help and support, particularly with resettlement back into civilian life.[19]

We have used these aims to assess the extent to which the Policy for People, the AFOPS, and the individual Service strategies are meeting the personnel needs of the Armed Forces. We have also sought to identify where they conflict with, as well as reinforce, each other.

10. The MoD witnesses discussed in their evidence the concept of 'tolerable variation'—that is, the extent to which the special circumstance of each Service or different branches should be recognised by divergences from the prescriptions of the overarching personnel strategy.[20] We recognise the value of an overarching strategy in setting high standards and demanding targets, and eliminating obtrusive inequalities in treatment. In an era of ever-increasing 'jointery' between the three Services, it answers a particular need. But we also approach our consideration of the policies in the spirit of an underlying conviction that there is much to be said for subsidiarity in the application of personnel policy—excessive centralisation and uniformity in its application could stifle imaginative and innovative approaches to the particular needs of particular groups of personnel.

11. The Policy for People (but not the Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy) also addressed the needs and expectations of the many thousands of civilian personnel who support the UK's Armed Forces and make their work possible. The issues affecting these personnel are in many ways distinct from those which the Services must address. In this Report we have concerned ourselves exclusively with personnel issues relating to the Armed Forces. But the vital role played in our defence by the civilian workforce should not be forgotten, and we take this opportunity to acknowledge it.

8  Strategic Defence Review, Cm 3999, July 1998, para 138 Back

9  Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy, February 2000, p 16 Back

10  Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1997-98, The Strategic Defence Review, HC 138-I, para 433 Back

11  Speech to the Royal United Services Institute, 19 December 2000 Back

12  HC Deb, 16 January 2001, c 145w; UK Armed Forces Strengths and Requirements, TSP3, Defence Analytical Service Agency, 9 January 2001.  Back

13  In February 2001 the figure was 15,900 (out of a trained strength of nearly 190,000). This figure includes those who are ignored or ill but do not require hospital treatment, those who are pregnant, those who have been treated and those are recuperating, and those who are permanently downgraded but who have been retained with limited employability. Back

14  Second Report, Session 1999-2000, Ministry of Defence Annual Reporting Cycle, HC 158, para 87 Back

15  See eg Third Report, Session 1991-92, Options for Change: Army: Review of the White Paper Britain's Army for the 90s, HC 45; Fifth Report, 1994-95, Defence Cost Studies Follow-up: Defence Medical Services, HC 102; Second Report, 1995-96, Manning and Recruitment, HC 69; Sixth Report, 1995-96, Future of the Married Quarters Estate, HC 424; Third Report, 1996-97, Defence Medical Services, HC 142 Back

16  Second Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 158 Back

17  Ev pp 25-54 Back

18  Ev pp 233-264  Back

19  AFOPS, p 16; see also Ev p 25 Back

20  QQ 76 and 77 Back

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Prepared 23 February 2001