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Bob Russell (Colchester): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the reason why so many reservists have been required is the shortfall in the Regular forces? Will he inform the House what the current shortfall is in the Army?
Mr. Hoon: The use of reservists is not a result of the overall shortfall to which I have referred. It is a result of pressure on key specialisations and has involved, largely, the replacement of particular specialists. I know from my visits to the Balkans that the reservists who at any one time make up 10 per cent. of our forces there are often people with particular skills in the civilian world who have been able to make those available to the armed forces. They have done so not least because of the significant contribution that the armed forces are making to the rebuilding of countries in that region. We tend to have manning difficulties in those particular specialist areas, and I am not at all complacent about the importance
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Is it not a fact that the Territorial Army is at present about 1,300 below the strength anticipated at the time of the strategic defence review? Would the Secretary of State care to consider that one way of keeping the reserve forces up to strength would be to revisit what was done in 1999, when the reserve decoration and the territorial decoration were extended to all ranks, but nobody was allowed to put letters after their name any more? Would it not be a tremendous boost to the reserve forces and an incentive for people to renew their commitments if those people who get the volunteer reserve medals were able to put the appropriate letters after their names?
Mr. Hoon: I will certainly look at that practical suggestion, but I will refer later to questions of recruitment and retention. I will set out some of the efforts that the Ministry of Defence is making to ensure that we have the right numbers of people coming in and remaining in the armed forces for as long as we need them.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The Secretary of State has repeated the mantra that we so often hear about the principal requirement for reservists lying in specialists. Will he confirm that in every single year since the Government took office, by far the largest category of reservists used has been infantry?
Mr. Hoon: They tend to be infantry with particular skills, and it is important to recognise that. That is wholly consistent with what the Government set out at the time of the SDR, so that we have the kind of people available to us to do particular jobs. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from his own experience, being a member of the armed forces these days is an increasingly specialised role and the levels of skill and training that are required are increasing from day to day. That is something that every Government will have to face up to in the future.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): May I say quickly that being an infantry man is something of a skill in its own right? Can the Secretary of State give us some idea of the Government's thinking in response to the new chapter of the SDR? They began a consultation exercise on a possible new role for the reserve forces in responding to the events of 11 September. Is there any initial conclusion as a result of that consultation exercise?
Let me return to the use we have made of the specialist skills of our reservists, particularly in the continuing operations against international terrorism. The compulsory call-out of intelligence staff from the Territorial Army and movement operators from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has been vital in helping us to prosecute the campaign against the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban.
In addition, more than 1,700 members of the reserve forces are currently serving in full-time reserve service. This means that they have voluntarily entered commitments to serve full-time for periods ranging from a few months to three to four years.
Recent operations have proved beyond doubt that the 1998 strategic defence review and our further work on the changing strategic context have put the United Kingdom in a strong position to respond to the appalling events of 11 September. As the House is aware, however, we are looking at what more we might need to do in the light of those appalling attacks on the United States.
We are pressing ahead with our work on what has been termed a new chapter to the strategic defence review. In ensuring that we have the right defence concepts, forces, and capabilities, we are placing particular emphasis on the impact that any proposed changes might have on members of the armed forces and their families. I consider it very important that we do not make unreasonable demands on our service personnel. The strategic defence review put people at the heart of our policy. That is where they will remain.
Our emerging thinking on the new chapter was set out in the public discussion document that the House discussed during the defence policy debate on 14 February. There has been a positive and constructive response to the paper. By last month's deadline we had received more than 300 responses from hon. Members, local authorities, academics, and members of the public.
The responses cover a wide range of issues, but a number of key themes run through them. There has been strong support for the strategic defence review and the work on the new chapter. There has also been strong support for many of the emerging conclusions of our work, including the armed forces' focus on operating abroad; the recognition of the importance of rapid effect and high readiness; the armed forces' role in preventing terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and the contribution that the Territorial Army could make to home defence; the importance of cross-Government co-ordination; and the role that international organisations such as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union have to play in combating international terrorism.
We are taking account of the views, ideas, and opinions that have been expressed as we take this work forward. Although the formal deadline for responses has passed, this should not be the end of the public debate. These issues will face us for months and years to come, so we continue to welcome views and ideas.
Our intention is to publish conclusions from our work in the late spring or early summer, but I can assure the House that we have already taken the necessary steps to adjust the posture of the armed forces in response to the changing situation. We will continue to implement further urgent measures as and when required, in advance of the publication of our conclusions.
May I emphasise one fundamental aspect of this work? Our peoplethe service men and women on whom we make such demandsare our most valuable and important resource. We are giving careful consideration to the impact that any possible changes in the light of the events of 11 September may have on them and their families.
The fact that the armed forces are so busy serves as a reminder that the recruitment and retention of people is our most important task. We need to find people with the intelligence, courage, and commitment necessary to
I will not pretend that this burden of effort is always easy for the armed forces or the Ministry of Defence to bear. Our forces are, as we have acknowledged, currently undermanned. We are making considerable efforts to achieve what we call the manning balance. Achieving this balance is about recruiting and retaining the right people but getting and keeping them is not straightforward.
The current employment context is difficult. The size of the critical age group of those between 16 and 24 years declined in the past decade. The economy is relatively strong and many more are electing to stay on in higher education. It is, therefore, a tough job recruiting and holding on to the best people.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): Can the Secretary of State account for the extraordinary success of certain regiments in the Army that find no difficulty with recruiting? In fact, they often allow themselves to be overmanned or enabled to be overmanned, yet the recruiting group does not seem to take account of the particular styles of operation that these regiments follow.
Mr. Hoon: I have been concerned about the need to encourage much greater flexibility in the way we recruit. The hon. Gentleman is clearly aware that there are issues in relation to the allocation of recruits to particular areas of the armed forces. I have taken an interest in that, but I would welcome his thoughts and suggestions, based on his experience, on how best to resolve those questions, not least because of particular problems in certain specialist areas.
Civilian employers speak highly of the quality of those who have served in the armed forces, and particularly of their dependability and adaptability. When service men and women have particular skills and experiencesuch as pilots, signallers, logisticians, engineers and othersthey are doubly attractive to civilian employers. We face a huge demand for the best young people and we need some 25,000 new recruits every year. Clearly, we face competition for them from other employers. Attracting people to the armed forces can therefore be an uphill task.