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The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): In the last financial year, 23,578 people were recruited to the armed forces. That equates to 95 per cent. of the overall recruitment target. Although improvement is still needed, this figure represents a significant advance over the previous year's achievement, when intake levels reached 90 per cent. of the tri-service target.
Chris Grayling: A moment ago, the Minister was praising his own recruitment and retention initiatives for the armed forces, yet despite those new entrants, the number of people in the armed forces fell again in the year up to last February. What will the hon. Gentleman do to stop this haemorrhage of experienced, trained personnel from our armed forces?
Mr. Ingram: We will continue to ensure that we provide the best quality of life and conditions in the armed forces. Major improvements have been made in the past few yearsa big step up on what happened when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government. We seek to give personnel the best equipment available, which is why we have a major series of procurement programmes; we value all that we ask them to do for us. Of course, we must recognise that recruitment and retention are difficult against the background of a successful economy. That is part of the issue that we are having to deal with. The Opposition may not want a successful economy, but I think that this country does.
Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): When considering recruitment to Her Majesty's forces, will my right hon. Friend have regard to the many people in Nepal who are anxious to serve in the Gurkha regiments? Will he explain the future of the Gurkha regiments?
Mr. Ingram: The Gurkhas have given us good and loyal service for many years, and we anticipate that they will continue to do so for many years to come. We have recently rebrigaded the Gurkhas and I know that that has gone down well in the regiments. I pay fulsome tribute to all that they have done and will do in future.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): With today's spending review setting new targets for the Ministry of Defence over the next three years, will the Minister explain why the Ministry has yet to meet the manning targets that were set for it three years ago?
Mr. Ingram: I think that I have explained some of the difficulties that we face. Every time Opposition Members say something negative about the armed forcesmost of the negatives are based on press speculationit can be a drag on recruitment and, indeed, retention. The language that is used must be chosen carefully. All of us must recognise that, with a successful economy, it is difficult to recruit and retain personnel in the armed forces. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is the reality. I hope that he will also accept that, because of all the initiatives that we have taken in recent years, the downward trend of the past 15 years is now being
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The armed forces are committed to diversity in general and recruiting from ethnic minority communities in particular. All three services have established ethnic minority recruiting teams or diversity action teams and located them in areas of high ethnic minority population. The services undertake numerous initiatives aimed at encouraging ethnic minority personnel to join the armed forces. They have put in place a wide range of measures to promote equality and eliminate racism. Through strong leadership, education and training at all levels there is a determination to root out any form of unacceptable behaviour. While much has been achieved, it is recognised that there is still more to do.
Kevin Brennan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Three years ago to the day, the son of a constituent of mine was sentenced to 112 days' detention for being absent without leave from the Royal Welch Fusiliers, having been subjected to a catalogue of racist abuse in his platoon, including physical assault. This young man had been awarded an engraved tankard for being the finest of his group of recruits in the armed forces. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that institutionalised racism will not and is not being tolerated in today's armed forces?
Mr. Ingram: I do not know about the specific instance of which my hon. Friend speaks, but I can say that there is an absolute commitment to zero tolerance of racism in the armed forces. Indeed, since 1998, more than 4,000 senior officers and equal opportunities advisers have been trained in equal opportunities by the tri-service equal opportunities training centre at Shrivenham. Equal opportunities training is also undertaken widely across all three services. We clearly have to ensure proper education throughout all ranks of the armed forces. As I said, the best assurance that I can give him is that zero tolerance is the watchword.
Simon Hughes: Ministers will be aware that although the Army has recently done very well in increasing the numbers of people it recruits from ethnic minorities, the Navy and the Air Force are still on only about 1 per cent., and officer levels in respect of those with ethnic minority backgrounds are still just over 1 per cent. What is being done to ensure that the Navy and the Air Force move quickly to achieve their targets and to ensure that
Mr. Ingram: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's general point, and more has to be done. The more commitment that right hon. and hon. Members bring to that through highlighting the issue and trying to encourage more people from the ethnic communities into the armed forces, the better served we will all be. That said, I point out to him that some 14 events have taken place in his constituency. We have particularly targeted not only his constituency, but London in its entirety, because of the large concentration of ethnic communities in the city and surrounding areas. I hope that we can play out to the RAF and the Navy the lessons that have been learned from the success of the Army, which has exceeded its targets. A lot of commitment is put into the matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can engage in the work that is done in his constituency, where we have been particularly active. I shall make sure that he is invited to some of those events.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): None. Discharge as of right is exactly thata right. No valid applications from soldiers seeking such discharge are refused, although commanding officers may seek to persuade individuals to stay if they feel that they have the potential for a good career.
Mr. Williams: I thank the Minister for that reply and for the help that he has given me in dealing with a case in my constituency whereby a young soldier committed criminal offences in an attempt to leave the Army because discharge as of right was not readily available to him.
Does the Minister agree that many young men and women join the Army with great enthusiasm, only to realise that it is not their career of choice? Would not it be better for the morale and effectiveness of the armed forces if discharge as of right was available to all young people up to the age of 18, regardless of whether they had completed their training?
Dr. Moonie: Up to the age of 18 no application is refused once it is clear that the alternative of trying to keep someone in will not succeed, although that is clearly a difficult step to take. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Many people adjust very badly to leaving home and joining the armed forces, but many of those who leave subsequently rejoin.
Angus Robertson: I am certain that the Minister shares my concerns about matters of fire safety at RAF bases, especially bearing in mind last week's report by the Civil Aviation Authority into the near collision of three Tornadoes based in my constituency at RAF Lossiemouth. Given that he is unable to name one single supporter of the privatisation of the defence fire servicenot even among Labour Members or from the trade unionwill he reconsider what even the leader of the Conservative party described as "a privatisation too far"?
Mr. Ingram: We do not need to take any lessons from the leader of the Tory party on that matter. It is interesting to note the new collusion between the interests of the independent nationalist party and the previously self-proclaimed unionist party.
The hon. Gentleman uses terminology that I do not recognisethat is why I gave the answer that I did. We are considering the delivery of services across the whole of the air support services. Some areas already use private contractors. There is a mixed economy. The bids that are put in are subjected to in-depth analysis to ensure that we get best value for money and retain the integrity of the vital support that is required from the work force at those bases.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is campaigning for part of the airfield in his constituency to be used by private commercial operators. Who does he think would give support to those commercial operatorsprivate companies or the RAF? He has to get his argument sorted out.
Jim Knight (South Dorset): When considering the matter, does the Minister differentiate between fire services in support of deployed forces and those that are based permanently in the United Kingdom? I have observed fire services at the secure site at Aldermaston acting effectively. With right my hon. Friend, I have also observed the fire service that was deployed at Kabul airport operating successfully, but clearly not in the private sector. Such differentiation is important.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Before the Government proceed with that further privatisation, will they consider carefully the alarming anxiety caused in Shoeburyness by their decision to abolish the Ministry of Defence police in September and replace them with a civilian force? Is not it irresponsible and dangerous to place civilian police, who cannot provide an armed response to protect the public, in charge of a site where a lot of ammunition is stored?
Mr. Ingram: I was enjoying that question so much that I did not want to rise. I note that the leader of the nationalist Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), has just entered the Chamber. Perhaps he would like to intervene to explain his party's policy on NATO. Under it, Scotland would not be an aspirant country. Clearly, an independent Scotland would put at risk much of the defence footprint there, which is provided through the United Kingdom.