A plan to save more than £5bn by replacing Army personnel with reserves is behind schedule and could cost taxpayers more than it saves, spending watchdogs warned today.
Under the Army 2020 scheme, the number of regular soldiers is due to be cut from 102,000 to 82,500 by 2019, while the number of trained reserves rises from 19,000 to about 30,000. This is supposed to contribute half of the £10.6bn of planned savings in the Army budget over 10 years to 2022.
In a scathing report, the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for not road-testing whether it was feasible to recruit and train the required number of reserves. There are currently only 19,400 reserves and the programme could be six years behind schedule. Meanwhile, the Army is ahead of schedule on cutting regular soldiers, whose numbers have already dropped to 87,200.
Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: “The MoD and Army must get a better understanding of significant risks to Army 2020 – notably, the extent to which it is dependent on other major programmes and the risk that the shortfall in recruitment of new reserves will up the pressure on regular units.”
Margaret Hodge, Labour chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee which has launched an inquiry into the Army shake-up, said it was “just too important to get wrong.” She said: “It is scandalous that the MoD is paying out an additional £1m per month to cover the cost of this incompetence.”
Mrs Hodge added: “The MoD’s recruitment contract has been plagued by unreliable data and failure by the Department to provide the necessary IT infrastructure. The MoD cannot tell how much of the recruitment problems are down to its own failings or to Capita [the private firm running an online recruitment scheme].”
Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, rejected the criticism. He said: “The MoD has always been clear that the numbers in the reserves would fall before they increased, but we have now seen the trained strength of the reserves climb for the first time in nearly 20 years. While there is much still to do, we are confident of achieving the target.”
But Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, said the policy was “based on hope rather than any science". He told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "For Philip Hammond to say that he has every confidence that this will succeed, I think that confidence is based on a certain degree of wishful thinking. I'm not alone in being doubtful."