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Forces (Manning Levels)

3. Mr. David Cameron (Witney): What progress has been made in reaching full manning levels in the RAF; and if he will make a statement. [40899]

5. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): If he will make a statement on trends in manning levels of regular forces since 1997. [40901]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): At 1 May 1997, the deficit for the Royal Air Force stood at 4.8 per cent. At 1 February 2002, that deficit was 2.4 per cent. By any standard, that is good progress. Turning to trends overall, there continues to be a shortfall in trained strength against trained requirement. However, I am pleased to report that, across the services overall, recruitment is favourable and retention is holding steady.

Mr. Cameron: I thank the Minister for that answer, but perhaps the raw figures should be considered instead of the percentages, and they show that the RAF was short of 1,149 personnel in January. Is he aware of the widespread concern that the Government plan to reduce the shortfall between actual and total manning strength by closing bases and scrapping squadrons, rather than by improving recruitment and retention? What assurance can he give to the many thousands of my constituents who work at or around the RAF base at Brize Norton that the Government will make an effort with recruitment and retention, rather than closing the squadrons in which they serve?

Mr. Ingram: I am surprised at such criticism from the hon. Gentleman about the RAF base in his constituency. In the past few weeks, we have made a major announcement that will have a significant impact at Brize Norton. Clearly, we have to ensure that all our recruitment and retention strategies are as well focused as possible. He will be aware of the significant effort that is put into that, particularly in relation to RAF aircrew retention packages, about which a major announcement was made on an improved enhancement structure. We are conscious of all those issues and considerable effort will continue to be made to ensure that we not only retain our skilled crews, but recruit people into the RAF.

Mr. Syms: Overstretch and undermanning seem to be the most serious problems. We know that the Army is 8,000 under strength and will perhaps only reach full manning by 2008, yet we are taking on new commitments daily. What new initiatives do the Government have to recruit more troops now?

Mr. Ingram: Again, we recently announced a significant uplift in the remuneration package for the services. Having said that, part of the assessment of how we intend to encourage people to join the forces is not necessarily based on remuneration. There are many other pulls and draws to encourage people to join the different

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services, including the Army. A wide range of initiatives is in place, including the remuneration and operational welfare packages. We are also considering how to deal with family welfare. The taskforce that I chair, which goes across Government, is examining ways to improve on some of the stresses and strains experienced by service families. As I said, recruitment is doing well in current circumstances with a significant increase in Army strength of 800 in the past six months alone.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): In light of the changing nature of the threat facing us, what consideration has my right hon. Friend given to stationing regular forces in different parts of the country, such as the north-west, which is a major recruiting ground for the armed forces?

Mr. Ingram: That is one issue that we need to address. It is important to consider the imbalance throughout the country in terms of the footprint of where bases are located. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is on record as saying that the problem needs to be tackled. The focus has been on the south-east for a variety of historical reasons. As we rationalise and improve the focus of some of our basing activities, we are considering how to improve that footprint across the whole country, including the north-west.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): I share some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Poole(Mr. Syms) on recruitment. South Tyneside has traditionally been a great area for armed forces recruitment. Is the Minister aware that there were 826 recruits from the region in 1997 and 902 in 1999, but that last year the figure plummeted to 420? Is that because youngsters think that they are more likely to be shot in Baghdad or Kabul, or is there a budgetary crisis? If there is not a budgetary crisis, will the Minister work with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to discover why recruitment is so low?

Mr. Ingram: It is for neither of those reasons. People who serve in our armed forces do so with great pride. They recognise that they may have to make the ultimate sacrifice in defence of their country, and they do so. I said that overall Army strength has increased by 800 in the past six months alone. Substantial recruitment is taking place in some parts of the country, although we are not doing so well in other areas. That is why we are involved in various initiatives to discover why there is a recruitment shortfall in some areas and, if recruitment has dropped off, why. We also want to know what additional commitment we could make to particular areas to increase the levels to at least what they were before. I referred earlier to the range of initiatives in place to encourage people in the north-east to join all parts of the armed forces, not just the Army.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Minister is putting what could be described as either a brave face or a complacent face on an extremely worrying situation. The truth of the matter is that we are short of 131 pilots in the RAF, 8,000 soldiers and hundreds of people in the Royal Navy. We simply do not have enough soldiers, sailors and airmen to carry out the difficult tasks that they already have, and the statement this afternoon by the

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Secretary of State may, for all we know, add more tasks to that list. When does the Minister intend that all three services should be fully manned? Will he put his job on the line and guarantee that they will be fully manned so that they can carry out their difficult tasks?

Mr. Ingram: It would be a brave Minister who put his job on the line over such a question. I have indicated the range of initiatives that we are taking. We could spend considerable time looking at some of the RAF's problems with the training of pilots and at the reasons for the shortfall, which goes back several years to when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power. There was great demoralisation in the 1990s. This party addressed that in 1997, and we have given greater focus to the armed services. We have now embarked on major procurement strategies to lift the quality of equipment, some of which is inadequate for the job. We inherited that problem too, and we are having to address it, so any criticism from Opposition Members is grossly misplaced.

The whole strategic defence review and the operations to which we have committed our troops in recent years have proved highly successful. The hon. Gentleman should know that his party was critical of our Macedonian deployment. We said that we would be in and out in30 days, and we were. Not once did we hear from the Conservative party any acknowledgement of that success; not once did Opposition Members say, "Well done. The Government got it right." All we get is carping and criticism—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): At RAF Stafford, there are more civilian workers than services personnel. Will my right hon. Friend keep a watchful eye out for opportunities to base more service personnel at Stafford? Will he acknowledge the tremendous contribution of the civilian work force, who enable our services to complete their full range of duties?

Mr. Ingram: The civilian staff, who number about 100,000, against an overall strength of about 200,000, clearly make a major commitment to the wide range of services that our armed forces are called on to deliver.I pay tribute to all who serve, either in the armed forces or in support of them, and to their efforts, especially when our forces are deployed in the dangerous circumstances that apply in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world.


4. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): If he will make a statement on troop deployments in Afghanistan. [40900]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Around 1,600 United Kingdom service personnel are currently deployed with the international security assistance force in Kabul. I will make a statement to the House later today on our plans for future deployments.

Hugh Robertson: Given the difficult security situation, which is likely to continue for some time, and the desire of the Afghan Government and their people for troops to remain in Afghanistan for a protracted period, does the

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Secretary of State foresee an extension to the deployment beyond July? Will British troops be part of that? What will trigger a withdrawal?

Mr. Hoon: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the current United Nations mandate is scheduled to last only until June. However, I would be being less than honest with the House if I did not anticipate an extension. It is a matter for the UN, but any reasonable person looking at the situation in Afghanistan would have to say that there was a likelihood—I put it no stronger than that—of the UN wanting to extend the mandate. Obviously, any British participation will be contingent on the situation of our armed forces at the time, and on whether we feel that we can make a contribution to what will still, I am sure, as the hon. Gentleman has conceded, be a dangerous, difficult situation.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is reported that President Bush said last week that there is no place for politics in fighting the war. Does my right hon. Friend agree that politics is integral to fighting the war against terrorism because it ensures that military action is directed towards justice and not revenge? In that context, does he agree that there should be no extension of hostilities towards Iraq, and that an attack on Iraq should not be countenanced without further authorisation—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The subject is Afghanistan.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Secretary of State will recall that when he made his statement to the House three months ago announcing the original deployment, he intimated fairly strongly that, with the exception of headquarters troops, three months would be the maximum period. We are now told that it will be six months, and he has just intimated that it could be even longer. When will the Ministry of Defence take effective action to make sure that other European partners bear a fair share of the burden, because our armed forces are overstretched enough as it is?

Mr. Hoon: I apologise to the House and to the hon. Gentleman if I gave him that impression. If he reads my comments more carefully, I am sure that he will see that I did not commit the United Kingdom's armed forces to anything at all. I indicated the importance of considering the situation at the time. If he had to deal with those situations, I am sure that, being fair-minded and reasonable, he would come to precisely the same conclusion.

Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): Would the Secretary of State consider visiting Royal Marine headquarters in Portsmouth in my constituency to pass on the nation's grateful thanks for what the Royal Marines are doing, with our special services, in Afghanistan? Their contribution is unheralded and unpublicised, but efficient and very effective.

Mr. Hoon: I will certainly be willing to do that. I am sure that if my hon. Friend has the time to stay for my statement to the House later, he will learn still more about the plans for the Royal Marines.

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