The Royal Navy is growing, with 400 more personnel, more ships and new submarines. The Royal Navy remains on track to achieve its manning levels for 2020 and will have sufficient manpower to continue to meet all its operational requirements. That includes ensuring that the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers can always operate safely and effectively.
Given concerns that we are hollowing out our armed forces’ manpower in favour of big-ticket items, what is the Minister, and indeed the Government, doing to ensure that we not only have the manpower to operate those big-ticket items but the ships to protect them when at sea? Global uncertainties abound, and over 90% of our trade is maritime borne.
My hon. Friend highlights the challenges we face in recruiting in our growing economy, and I am pleased that the Navy’s efforts to address shortages of engineers are beginning to show dividends, through the personnel recovery programme. He will also be aware of our investment in offshore patrol vessels, five of which are currently under construction, and in the new Type 26s—we will cut steel later this month.
In March 2017, total Royal Navy numbers were 710 below their liability, and it is reported that currently only six of our service escort platforms are at sea or fully operational. Given that last year we had a net manpower loss of 750, how can we be assured that we have the right retention policies to operate all of our platforms, when they are so desperately needed?
The Royal Navy is growing; I am pleased that for the first time in a generation the establishment of the Royal Navy will grow, by 400, as I said. I have mentioned the personnel recovery programme, an excellent programme that has sought to address the shortages of engineers through apprenticeships and through affiliation with university technical colleges. It is a long-term programme, but it is working.
The truth is that the Royal Navy has experienced catastrophic cuts in personnel over the past seven years and now the chickens are coming home to roost; the Navy is even asking 55 to 60-year-olds to rejoin on short-term contracts. Will the Government now recognise the error of their ways and recruit, on good wages, the personnel we need? The Prime Minister has asked for ideas from the Opposition, so will the Minister pass my suggestion on to the Prime Minister?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, may I say that this seems to be a common theme when we come to the Dispatch Box: he is always terribly negative? I am determined to try to support our serving personnel and, as I have tried to explain, an awful lot of effort is going in at the moment. This really is the year of the Navy, with more than £3 billion invested in the Royal Navy. We are seeing two new carriers; the fourth Astute class was launched recently; and we are seeing the contract launch for three Type 26s. The future is bright for the Royal Navy and I wish he would stop talking it down.
There is no doubting the comprehensiveness of the replies, but if we could make slightly more timely progress, that would be appreciated by Back Benchers.