Mark Francois is a former defence minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.
Our Armed Forces are the Best of British, but they are under pressure. In the year to April 2017, 12,950 people joined the Regular Armed Forces, but 14,970 left. This is leading to a gradual process of “hollowing out”, with the recruiting organisations in all three services struggling to attract sufficient recruits to make up for those who are leaving. The problem is worst in the Regular Army, which needs to recruit 10,000 people a year to maintain its strength, but which last year managed less than 7,000 new entrants.
Against this background, as a former Armed Forces Minister at the MoD, the Prime Minister asked me to conduct a review of recruiting into the British Armed Forces. My report, entitled Filling the Ranks was submitted in July, and is published this week. In it, I have sought to be a candid friend to the MoD, including criticism of where the Department needs to do better.
Unfortunately, the current recruiting environment represents something of a “perfect storm”, with record employment in the economy; an ageing population; the loss of operations in Afghanistan as a “recruiting sergeant”; a shrinking military footprint across the country and more young people now staying on in education until eighteen. Taken together, these factors make it particularly difficult to recruit, so how can we do better?
To begin with, the MoD needs to attract more women to serve. Currently, around one in ten service personnel are women yet they make up half the population. The MoD has a target of 15 per cent of its recruits being female by 2020 and is on track to meet it. The new “Flexible Engagement Strategy” (which allows personnel to vary their commitment during their careers) will help female candidates juggle service and family pressures. In addition, from next year, women will be eligible to serve in the frontline, and even in the Special Forces – providing they can pass the same tests as the men. The bravery of female medics in Afghanistan has already shown what women can achieve.
The Armed Forces also need to find more recruits from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community, who currently only make up only some seven per cent of the Regular Armed Forces (against a target of ten per cent of recruits by 2020). In this the MoD has sometimes been its own worst enemy, with BAME recruitment campaigns begun, only to be cancelled due to budget cuts. There is still no officer of two star rank (major general) or above from a BAME background in the British Armed forces and more work needs to be done to nurture talented BAME personnel if others are to follow them into the ranks in future.
The arrangements for medical testing of recruits also need to be closely looked at, to ensure that willing recruits are not being failed for relatively minor ailments such as asthma or eczema. In the twelve months to February 2017, 14,269 candidates to join the Army (Regular and Reserve) were failed for medical reasons – over 90 per cent of total failures. This is in stark contrast to the 3,000 recruits the Army is short. The medical testing system now needs to reviewed, ideally by an occupational health expert from outside the MoD, to ensure that the system is working as efficiently as it might. The MoD also needs to consider greater use of “lateral recruitment” (bringing in specialists from outside directly into the Armed Forces to fill particular shortages).
After a shaky start, recruitment into the Reserves, under the Future Reserves 2020 programme, is showing solid progress and targets are now being met. Providing the budget for this programme is not raided for “in-year savings”, further success seems likely. Unfortunately, the outsourcing of the Army’s recruiting effort to Capita has not been so successful. The Army has been renegotiating the contract to improve performance, but the service rapidly needs to develop a Plan B in case the revision does not work. This should include re-letting the contract or even taking recruitment back in-house (as remains largely the case with the Royal Navy and the RAF).
Finally, we need to ensure that young people are educated about the Armed Forces and their role in society. Studies have shown that unless they have served in the cadets or come from an existing military family, young people increasingly lack any real awareness about the Armed Forces or their role. One way to correct this would be to include the Armed Forces as part of the National Curriculum, in much the same way that we teach pupils about Parliament and the workings of our democracy. If defence of the realm is the first duty of Government then educating young people about those who provide it should be important to us all.