Speaking in a debate ahead of the annual vote required for Parliament to give its consent to the existence of the armed forces, James Cleverly highlights recruitment difficulties and calls for the recruitment process to be speeded up and welcomes the fact that now all roles in the military are open to both men and women.
The Minister made the point that this renewal—this continuation statutory instrument—is not normally discussed on the Floor of the House, but being able to do so is a great opportunity. The SI goes to the heart of the existence of our armed forces, because the British armed forces quite simply cease to exist without it. The Bill of Rights 1689 contains an assertion that the Army, and by extension the RAF and Navy, cannot exist without the explicit consent of Parliament. Provisions within this SI also enable the chain of command to deliver good governance within the armed forces themselves.
I do not intend to rehearse the arguments that may come about during the proceedings on the Armed Forces Representative Body Bill. It is an interesting idea that has been taken up by other armed forces around the world, but I think that the responsibility and the nature of the relationship between the chain of command in the British armed forces and the soldiers, sailors and airmen and women that they command is dependent on a fundamentally different relationship, which I think a representative body would be in danger of undermining.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at how representative bodies work in other NATO countries.
I have, and I do not like it.
Also inherent in this SI are provisions for enlistment, pay and the redress of complaints, and all those things at heart are J1 considerations, so I intend to restrict my short speech to the people carrying out the J1 function—the men and women who serve in our armed forces—and our responsibility and, as the Minister mentioned during his opening speech, our offer to them.
The armed forces currently face a challenge with regard to recruitment and retention. Ironically, it is a challenge that has been brought about through good news. The British economy currently has record low levels of unemployment, including record low levels of youth unemployment. It is the sad truth that it is a lot easier to recruit into the armed forces when there are few jobs available in the civilian world. Therefore, because actually unemployment is at a record low, the talented young men and women that we seek to recruit into our armed forces have other credible options.
The shadow Minister mentioned that the delay in the processing of recruitment applications through Capita has had a detrimental effect on our ability to recruit the brightest and best young people whom we need and want in our armed forces. People who are credible—people who have other employment options—are exactly the people we want to recruit and exactly the people who will be snapped up by civilian employers, who are currently competing with our armed forces to recruit them. We have a duty to improve and speed up the recruitment process—not just a duty, but a self-interest.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must ensure that we change part of the medical assessment program for recruitment? Those who are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder—often Asperger’s—should not automatically be disbarred from applying. We are looking to select young men and women who have that sort of skill set—that particular unique kind of mind—and we need to find a way to ensure that the system is changed so that those people make it through the system.
My hon. Friend makes an important point—one that I will touch upon briefly later in my speech—about the changing nature of conflict and the skills mix that we require from young people coming into the armed forces. We need to ensure that we are able to be a meaningful and relevant set of armed forces in the here and now, rather than think about the conflicts that we have had in the past.
I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman is saying about recruitment, but that is only one side of the picture. The other side is the huge number of people who have left the armed forces in the past few years, and people left because they were kind of encouraged to do so by the Government, who made it absolutely clear that they were looking to reduce the size of the British Army. This is not just about recruitment, but about the skills we have lost.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the loss of skills, and that is particularly true of what may be thought of as legacy skills. We have been very focused on two main conflicts over the past decade or so—Operation Telic and Operation Herrick—but it is important that we are able to be active in a whole range of future potential scenarios or conflicts. This is not necessarily true of the old cold warriors, but we do not want to lose the skills of people who were trained in a more diverse range of potential conflicts. We must ensure that they are able to pass on that knowledge and experience to new generations.
I turn to recruitment. The British Army advert that was rather lazily described as the “snowflake” advert was greeted with a degree of derision. In my experience, that was unfair, and this goes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan). There was a time in the not too distant past—about a century ago—when there were passionate advocates for the retention of the horse as the main method of conducting conflict, and they fought hard against the mechanisation of the British Army. We have a habit—this has also happened in militaries around the world and throughout history—of fighting the last war, rather than gearing ourselves up to fight the next war.
The definition of a snowflake—I had to look this up—is apparently someone who whinges a lot. I did 28 years in the Army, and I have never known a soldier who did not whinge, so the snowflakes outside will be joining the snowflakes inside the armed forces.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. I was once told by my commanding officer that I did not need to worry about much, but if my soldiers stopped moaning, I needed to start worrying. However, the point about the recruitment campaign is that it highlighted the need not only for people who are physically robust and self-reliant, but for people who have empathy and are able to develop and deploy soft skills. When the toughest soldiers in the British Army, the Special Air Service, were deployed during the Malaya insurgency, they really understood the requirement for hearts and minds. Winning conflicts through kinetic means—through bombs and bullets, to pick two words at random—is one way to do it, but doing it through hearts and minds really matters.
I am getting those looks again, so I will draw my remarks to a conclusion shortly. We must make sure that the skills of the young people we recruit and retain in the armed forces match the threats and risks presented not just in the here and now but in the timeframe of their service. The people we are recruiting in the here and now have to be ready, able and capable of matching the threats that could present themselves in 10, 15 and 20 years’ time. That means people with adaptability as a core skill and who have the intellectual flexibility to take on new skills. Lifelong learning should not just be available to people in the civilian world; it should be available to people in the armed forces, too.
I am particularly proud of two things that my party has introduced in government. The first is flexible working throughout the armed forces. It would be unacceptable if talented, well-trained, experienced soldiers, sailors and airwomen were prevented from fully reaching their potential because they have taken maternity leave. Soldiers, sailors and airmen who also wish to make good on their family commitments should also have the opportunity to take periods out of frontline service so they can discharge their familial duties as well as their military duties and not feel that their promotion will be held back because of it. We do not have the luxury of seeing such talented people as disposable items, and we have to make sure they are valued throughout their time of service.
Finally, allied to that is that all roles in the military are now available to any woman who is good enough to discharge them. Quality should be the only metric against which selection is made. The fact that we have now done that and that our armed forces are now gender blind and focused purely on quality is a step in the right direction.