Sunak under fresh pressure over national service plan as Tories accused of ‘making it up as they go along’

Exclusive: Defence secretary Grant Shapps has been accused of plunging the promise into chaos with multiple TV appearances in which he appeared to change course on how the military aspect would be implemented

Archie Mitchell
Tuesday 18 June 2024 18:42 BST
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Ed Balls challenges Grant Shapps over Conservative's national service pledge

The Conservatives are facing fresh questions over Rishi Sunak’s flagship national service policy amid increasing confusion about how the scheme will work.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps has been accused of plunging the promise into chaos with multiple TV appearances in which he appeared to change course on how the military aspect will be implemented.

And shadow defence secretary John Healey has written to Mr Shapps demanding answers about whether the scheme is “fully costed, fully funded, deliverable and clearly set out to the public”. He said ministers are “making it up as they go along” and called the plan a “distraction from their failures in defence over 14 years”.

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In a letter seen by The Independent, the long-serving Labour MP said Mr Shapps had thrown the general election pledge into confusion and called for him to come clean.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps has sown confusion about the policy
Defence secretary Grant Shapps has sown confusion about the policy (PA)

The Tory manifesto sets out that every 18-year-old in the UK will be given the choice between a year of civic service or military service.

It promised a “year-long full-time placement in the armed forces or cyber defence” for 30,000 18-year-olds, while others will be forced to volunteer for one weekend each month with organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

The military service option promises to be “competitive and paid, so our armed forces recruit and train the brightest and the best”, taking up much of the estimated £2.5bn cost of the policy.

But last week Mr Shapps plunged the policy into chaos by claiming 18-year-olds will only take placements in the armed forces for 25 days per year, not the year-long placement originally promised.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “It’s not, as you presented, 30,000 people over an entire year, it’s 25 days a year for those 30,000.”

Speaking on the same programme a week later, Mr Shapps said he was “referring specifically to the accommodation element”. He added that those taking part would not need to be in accommodation for the year, but for 25 days of training.

Mr Healey said the claim raised several questions, most importantly what the service personnel would do for the remaining 340 days of the year when they do not have accommodation.

Shadow defence secretary John Healey has demanded Grant Shapps answers questions over the scheme
Shadow defence secretary John Healey has demanded Grant Shapps answers questions over the scheme (PA)

He also demanded to know the difference between the 25-day training course for 18-year-olds and the 14-week basic training course required of all other new recruits.

“After that 25-day training course, what happens to them for the rest of their 12 months in service?” he said.

He added: “The confusion you have created has raised serious questions as to what level of involvement there has been in the design and costing of this proposed scheme among ministers and officials at the Ministry of Defence.”

Mr Healey lashed out at the £2.5bn costing of the scheme, saying the confusion reinforced doubts about whether the figure was a realistic estimate.

“This is the flagship policy of the Conservative manifesto – the very first announcement that Rishi Sunak made during the election campaign – so we would expect the government to be absolutely clear how much it will cost, and how it will work, rather than both those questions being thrown up in the air by your comments over the last week,” the senior Labour figure said.

“The Tories National Service pledge is an undeliverable plan and a distraction from their failures in defence over the last 14 years. With confusion over where people will be accommodated and how long they’ll serve, the Tories seem to be making it up as they go along,” he added.

It is only the latest criticism of the policy, which has been panned by the former head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord West, and other senior military figures.

Lord West, who was first sea lord from 2002 to 2006, warned that “anyone with the most basic experience of how much it costs, and what it entails, to turn a new recruit into someone that can usefully serve in our armed forces would not need a royal commission to tell them that the proposal as currently presented is utter nonsense”.

“This ill-thought-out conscription scheme will increase pressure on defence and waste money,” the former Navy chief wrote, adding: “Rather than enhancing our defence capability, it would further reduce it.”

The Conservatives were asked to comment.

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