Army Personnel

Defence – in the House of Commons on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of Army personnel.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

Halfway through the recruiting year, approximately 70% of the Army’s regular soldier requirement have either started training or are due to do so. In addition, direct entry officer and reserve recruitment targets are all expected to be achieved.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he must be aware that since 2010 the number of service people has declined each year. The latest figures, which I believe are from 1 July 2019, show that the Army has 74,440 personnel against a target of 82,000; the Royal Air Force has 29,930 against a target of 31,750; and the Royal Navy and Marines have 29,090 against a target of 30,450. What will the Government do to address the shortfall?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I think we are doing a lot, actually. As I said, we need only look at this year, where all the signs are very positive. The real challenge we have faced recently has been in the other ranks in the Army. Officer entry is full, and the Army reserve is growing. The target for other ranks in the Army is 9,404. We have already achieved 70% of that target in the first six months. The second we get to 80%, Army numbers, assuming that outflow remains constant, will remain the same and will not reduce. In every single other rank where we manage to recruit over 80%, that will mean an increase in Army numbers. Within the first six months, we have already achieved 70%, so we have 10% more to do within the next six months to maintain numbers, and everyone after that will represent an increase in Army numbers.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

What progress has the Army made towards getting female soldiers into frontline units such as rifle platoons in an infantry battalion?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am very proud that there are now no roles in the British Army that are not open to women, so all ground and close combat roles are open. We have seen the first women join the Royal Armoured Corps. We also have women in training to join the infantry. I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact number, but I will write to him with that detail.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Is the Minister aware that in 1982, at the time of the Falklands conflict, we had 327,000 people in the armed services and now we are below 100,000? Is it not a fact that if Mr Putin came steaming towards us tomorrow we would not be able to defend this country?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

No, that is certainly not the case. It is certainly true, to quote Stalin, that:

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

However, the modern armed forces are very different from those of the 1980s. We need only look at the Queen Elizabeth, our new carrier, which, compared with Ark Royal, her predecessor, has a complement that requires just one quarter of the number of crew.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

Kent is proud to host a number of Gurkhas across the country, including within the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, currently located at Invicta Park barracks just outside my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the number of personnel in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which has increased by 25% in the past four years?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I have to declare my interest: the first Army unit I joined was the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers back in 1988 in Hong Kong. I am delighted that, speaking off the top of my head, we currently have 69 and 70 Gurkha Field Squadrons serving in Invicta barracks in Maidstone. I am also pleased to be able to announce that the aspiration is to create 67 Squadron from 2021, and a second further Gurkha engineers squadron, 68 Squadron, from 2023, so the Brigade of Gurkhas continues to grow.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence)

We all know about the Government’s disastrous record on recruitment of UK personnel, with the fully trained size of the Army, as we have already heard, having now just fallen to 74,000 personnel. But the Government are failing to recruit enough Commonwealth troops, too, and we now hear that they are cancelling plans to proactively recruit from overseas. Can the Minister explain how this decision guarantees sufficient recruitment to our armed forces, and how on earth he plans to meet the stated target of 82,000 soldiers?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I have already explained part of what we are doing. I sense that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before listening to my answers and has not been able to adapt it, which is a shame but often the case in this House. Equally, I think he has fallen into the trap of reading a Daily Express or Sunday Express article which is factually not the case. We have always recruited from the Commonwealth, and over the last two years we have been increasing our recruitment from the Commonwealth.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

I have listened to the Minister’s answers, and he intimated that we are replacing quantity with quality. Much of this problem goes back to the Capita contract for recruiting soldiers, sailors and airmen, which was massively criticised in a Public Accounts Committee report earlier this year in terms of both quantity and quality. Today, 10% of our troops are incapable of deployment abroad for medical reasons. What can he do to fix those problems?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

Let us be clear: the House is absolutely right to scrutinise this Government over recruiting into our armed forces. I welcome that, because it enables me to put pressure on our service chiefs. While there were, without doubt, challenges with that Capita contract, I have explained today how we have already reached 70% of our target within the first six months of this year. That contract is now performing in a way that it was not before. My right hon. Friend is right about medical standards, which is why there is a series of reviews at the moment about how we can prevent those injuries from happening in the first place.