It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Morgan on making his second maiden speech. His eloquent words show strongly that he is a stout supporter of the interests of his constituents—particularly the armed forces and the Navy. It is particularly appropriate that we are holding this Westminster Hall debate today, because tomorrow is Battle of Britain Day and today is Support Our Soldiers Day. I have seen people taking to the streets of London to raise awareness of and funds for ABF The Soldiers Charity.
There can be no doubt that today, sadly, our armed forces as a whole face a crisis of recruitment and retention. In figures from the Ministry of Defence published only this morning, we are told that there are a total of 142,100 full-time trained personnel in all the services combined. That figure represents a stark reduction: on
A few months ago there was a good report, commissioned by No. 10 Downing Street, from Mr Francois, a former Armed Forces Minister. He reported that there was a crisis. That is my word, not his, but nevertheless he noted a severe reduction in the number of personnel in the armed forces. His figures were slightly different from what the MOD said this morning, but nevertheless the trend is quite clear. He said:
“The Regular strength of the UK Armed Forces is currently 138,350, 4.8% below the required number…In the year to April 2017, 12,950 people joined the UK Regular Armed Forces but in the same period 14,970 left.”
I share the regret that has been expressed that no Conservative Back Benchers are here for this important debate.
We must ask the reason for this unfortunate trend, and, as the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford said, there are several clear reasons. He comments that
“while more personnel continue to leave each year than to join, the recruiting organisations across the Services are increasingly ‘running to stand still’
to try to fill the widening gaps in the ranks. Whilst the most serious problems remain in the Army, this is also likely to prove an increasing challenge for the Royal Navy and the RAF as their liability will increase by several hundred over the next few years”.
He hints that the problem can be put down, in part, to concerns about the future prospects that the armed forces offer, and declining standards of accommodation, with quite minimal improvements, in many areas. There is also real concern about the levels of remuneration available—or not.
The findings and recommendations in this year’s report by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body are governed by Government diktat, but it is nevertheless obliged to paint the picture that it sees, objectively. It states:
“On levels of pay generally, our visit programme made clear that Service personnel are becoming increasingly frustrated with public sector pay policy. They feel their pay is being unfairly constrained in a period when costs are rising, private sector earnings are starting to recover, and the high tempo demands on the Armed Forces have not diminished.”
I think that that is objectively correct, and it underlines the unfairness of the Government’s policy and attitude. It is essential to provide an objective facility so that honest recommendations can be made. Unless the Government have real reasons to reject those recommendations, they should be obliged to accept them. New figures from the House of Commons Library show that, for example, the starting salary of an Army private is down 5.3% in real terms since 2010. That is a cut of more than £1,000 a year.
We all want young men and women to join the armed forces in greater numbers, but—hand on heart—how on earth can anyone be persuaded to go into something with limited career prospects, where the living conditions for them and their family would be far from good, and where they would be likely to see a continuing fall in their standard of living? It is clearly unacceptable, and we strongly urge the Government to take a comprehensive approach to lifting the 1% public sector pay cap and to allow the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to make recommendations on pay rises for the armed forces. The Government should allow it to do so without restriction.
That seems to be a perfectly reasonable request, and it is one that many in the House support, including, I suspect, many Conservative Members—that is why they are not here to support the Government this afternoon. It will be warmly welcomed by the armed forces and those proud men and women who defend our country, sometimes in the most difficult circumstances. A point was made earlier about how the armed forces do not have a trade union to speak for them and are constrained in their access to the media to get their message across.