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This morning, along with 20 other MPs and peers, I attended a brief act of remembrance at the Guard’s Chapel in Wellington barracks, where we paid our respects to the fallen. I think that it is an underappreciated fact that over 30 Members of this House have themselves served in the armed forces, in either the regulars or the reserves, including myself, the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood. Another of those people is my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, who served in the Royal Naval Reserve and who was present this morning. However, he has asked me to offer his apologies to the House because he had two unbreakable commitments this afternoon and therefore could not, as he usually would do, contribute to this debate.
Our armed forces are currently under pressure. As of May 2017, the total strength of the regular armed forces was 138,350, some 5% below their establishment strength, and the shortages are far worse in specialised trades. In the year to April 2017, over 2,000 more people left the regular armed forces than joined.
As I argued in the House recently, a combination of lower retention than expected and failure to achieve recruiting targets means the under-manning in the armed forces is worsening. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are now running at around 10% below their annual recruiting target, while for the Army the shortfall is, unfortunately, over 30%.
This continuing process of “hollowing out” in the ranks also threatens to compound the problem by increasing the pressure on those personnel who remain. In order to address these problems, the Ministry of Defence needs to improve its recruiting performance, particularly among black, Asian and minority ethnic personnel and female personnel. The MOD has a target, set by the Minister for the Armed Forces, for 15% of all recruits to be female by 2020. In the year to
The RAF, which for some time has had a programme devoted to nurturing female talent, has three female officers of two-star rank, and there is one female officer of two-star rank in the Army, but, unfortunately, there is none in the Royal Navy.