Select Committee on Defence Second Report



171. As we noted in our introduction, the twentieth century was dominated by the experiences of total war followed by that of the Cold War. In 1945 there were nearly 5 million men and women under arms in the UK. By the time conscription ended, that had fallen to less than half a million. By the end of the Cold War the number had fallen again to 300,000.[307] It is now around 200,000—the same level approximately as during the Napoleonic Wars.[308]

172. In the twenty-first century, the Armed Forces are much less prominent in our society, and personal experience of them is much rarer. This profoundly effects the way in which they have to recruit and retain all-volunteer forces. There are many other factors at play which will shape the context in which the Services will have to operate in the future: the pace of technological change and developments in strategy; the changing nature of the threats to peace; shifts in the government's foreign policy priorities; the state of the economy and the employment market; and wider cultural shifts in society. Many of these issues were explored in the MoD's recently published paper, The Future Strategic Context for Defence.[309] What is certain, however, is that the quality of the people who serve in the UK's Armed Forces will be fundamental to our success in maintaining peace and security.

173. As we said at the outset of this report, manning levels in the Services are not, overall, in a critical state. But there are areas, and aircrew and the Defence Medical Service are probably the most striking examples, where there are severe localised crises. At a more agglomerated level, the Services are barely advancing towards their long-term establishment targets, and recruitment is regularly, on a month by month basis, falling behind outflows. Because of the length of time it takes for a new recruit to become fully trained and useful, the pressure on the trained strength of the Services is more acute even than these headline figures suggest.

174. It is in this context that the MoD's overarching personnel strategy for the Armed Forces must be evaluated. No-one should accuse the MoD of complacency in the face of these challenges. Ministers, senior officials and senior officers are aware of the magnitude of the task they face in achieving the SDR's targets for trained strengths. But it may be that they are guilty of a lack of imagination: particularly in a 'one size fits all' approach to the three Services, in a balance between full and part-time personnel and above all in a lack of imagination in harnessing existing civilian assets. The evidence that we have so far seen has not convinced us that the right prescription is more of the same.

175. We have given some pointers to the direction in which we believe the MoD may have to search for more effective solutions. But a great question mark hangs over the whole issue, and it is the usual one of resources. In choosing to seek to be a force for good, and to use the UK's Armed Forces in pursuit of that aim, the government has chosen a policy which cannot be had on the cheap. An example is the recent announcement of Financial Retention Initiatives for certain categories of aircrew, which will cost £16.8 million in 2001-02.[310]

176. Spending Review 2000 announced a modest, but welcome, increase in the defence budget over the new few years. But it hardly amounts to a major shift in resources. Within the context of a broadly static budget, the MoD will not be relieved of the need to make some hard choices about what it can afford to do, what it can afford not to do, and how it will prioritise or trade-off the many claims on its resources to achieve the outputs it is required to deliver.

177. Amongst the many particular initiatives, both large and small, which are gathered under the Policy for People, we have found little to criticise—indeed we applaud most of them. But, as yet, we remain to be convinced that taken as a whole they are going to solve the problems the Armed Forces face on the personnel front. Some, we believe, will need more leadership and energy to be effective. Some, frankly, will need more money to be effective. In some problem areas there will have to be a lot more money and a lot more imagination and leadership applied if particularly severe shortages are to be remedied.

178. We hope our successors in the next Parliament will return to the examination of these questions early and regularly. If the evidence suggests that the measures which have been put in hand are not producing the goods, then they will have to play a part in ensuring that something more is done. That may involve the government, Parliament and the taxpayers of the UK confronting some tough decisions about what it can ask the Armed Forces to do within the resources they are prepared to make available.

307  Defence Statistics 2000, p 68 Back

308  ibid, p 66 (the population of Great Britain in 1801 was around 14 million) Back

309  MoD, 7 February 2001 Back

310  HC Deb, 9 February 2001, c 707w Back

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