Britain's armed forces being 'hollowed out' as recruitment stalls, Government-commissioned study finds

Review by former Armed Forces minister Mark Francois comes weeks after The Independent was told the Army faces a 'recruitment crisis' linked to a 'flawed austerity drive' introduced by Philip Hammond

Adam Lusher
Monday 04 September 2017 18:56 BST
The report stated that while some elements of the armed forces maintain a high tempo of operations, the recruitment problem was 'likely to become increasingly difficult to sustain in the medium to long term'.
The report stated that while some elements of the armed forces maintain a high tempo of operations, the recruitment problem was 'likely to become increasingly difficult to sustain in the medium to long term'. (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

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Britain's armed forces are "hollowing out" due to low recruitment levels, according to a new report by a Conservative MP.

The study by former Armed Forces minister Mark Francois, which was commissioned by Downing Street, says all three branches of the military are "running to stand still" as they struggle to replace the numbers leaving.

The report comes weeks after The Independent revealed how the latest armed forces personnel statistics had led to claims that a “flawed” Government austerity drive had left the Army facing a recruitment crisis.

In his report, Mr Francois confirmed that the Army faced the biggest problem, pointing out that it needs to recruit 10,000 people a year to maintain its strength, but only managed to attract 7,000 entrants last year.

Mr Francois further reported that all three branches of the armed forces were struggling to replace personnel who were leaving.

Mr Francois said that in the year to April 2017 12,950 recruits joined the regular armed forces, but 14,970 service personnel left.

The Filling the Ranks report states: "The Royal Navy and the RAF are now running at around 10 per cent short of their annual recruitment target, whilst for the Army the shortfall is over 30 per cent.

"Constant pressure on recruiting budgets has only compounded the difficulty.”

"This continuing process of 'hollowing out' in the ranks,” the report adds, “While costing the armed forces valuable experience, also threatens to compound the problem by increasing the pressure on those personnel who remain.

“While some elements of the armed forces maintain a high tempo of operations, this problem is likely to become increasingly difficult to sustain in the medium to long term."

In his report Mr Francois also expressed concern about controversial outsourcing company Capita, which in 2012 took over Army recruitment in a partnership contract said by the firm to be valued at around £44m a year for 10 years.

Echoing earlier criticism, Mr Francois said: “The Army’s recruiting problem is exacerbated by an outsourcing contract with Capita which is performing badly”.

Mr Francois, who had “sought to be a candid friend” to the Ministry of Defence, also said the MoD needs to do "far better" at recruiting people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds who currently make up only 7 per cent of the armed forces.

Mr Francois pointed out there is no BAME officer of two star rank, major general level, or above, in the military.

With women making up just 10 per cent of the armed forces, more effort needs to be put into attracting female applicants, the report says.

It urges the armed forces to give "maximum publicity" to the fact women are now able to serve in ground close combat roles alongside men – despite this move having by being vehemently criticised by some former senior officers.

Mr Francois, the Conservative MP for Rayleigh and Wickford in Essex, also called for schoolchildren to be educated about the importance of the armed forces as part of the national curriculum – despite possible resistance from “left-wing teachers”.

He called for more school cadet units so children from all backgrounds could get "a greater opportunity to experience the military ethos and to benefit from it", and suggested pupils could be taught about the role of the armed forces in citizenship lessons.

He told The Telegraph: "You have to make it a formal part of the curriculum to ensure it will be taught. There is a risk you could encounter resistance from some left-wing teachers to the idea.

“Research shows that young people today don't necessarily have much familiarity with the armed forces unless they served in a cadet unit or someone from their family served in uniform.

“You have large numbers of people leaving education with no real understanding of the armed forces and why it's important to them."

The report also states that the MoD's health assessments need to be externally reviewed because in the year to February 2017 more than 14,000 candidates for the Army were rejected on medical grounds – often for "relatively minor ailments" such as asthma or eczema.

As reported by The Independent in July, some critics have suggested that the Army’s recruitment problems stem from 2012 when Philip Hammond, then the Defence Secretary, unveiled a plan to cut 20,000 soldiers from the regular Army by 2020.

At the time Mr Hammond insisted that cutting the full-time Army to its smallest size since the 19th century would be possible because this would be offset by increasing the strength of the Army Reserve from 19,000 to 30,000 part-time soldiers by 2020.

He also justified reducing regular soldier numbers from 102,000 to 82,000 by relating it to the need for austerity and citing the “massive overspend” inherited from the previous Labour Government. But from the beginning, the plan was dogged by claims that the target of increasing reservist numbers by 58 per cent was unrealistic.

In June 2015, the independent Major Projects Authority gave the Army Reserve plan a red rating, for schemes that appear unachievable.

But The Government pressed on with the Army 2020 plan, insisting it had taken “significant steps” to address issues raised by the red rating.

In July the MoD responded to suggestions the Army was facing a recruitment “crisis” by telling The Independent: “Armed forces recruitment and retention has, in general, held up well.”

An MOD spokesman said on Monday: "We thank Mr Francois for his report and agree that recruitment is one of the MOD's top priorities.

"Joining the military offers the opportunity for a great career, learning new skills and gaining unique experiences not available in civilian life.

"We're aware of and working on the issues outlined in the report, including investing in recruiting the next generation of talent, diversifying our workforce and increasing our reserve numbers."

In July Capita told The Independent it flatly rejected suggestions its Army recruitment scheme was failing, and insisted it was “performing strongly”.

A Capita spokeswoman said: “Total applications to join the British Army have increased significantly in recent years, and application performance remains strong, thanks to the improvements made to the recruitment process.”

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