Committee of Public Accounts Press Notice

Recruitment and retention in the Armed Forces

34th PAC Report 2006-07

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“The MOD has been relying for too long on the goodwill and courageous spirit of our service men and women to compensate for the increasing shortages of personnel in all three Services. The staffing situation has reached the point where there are simply not enough service people to meet levels of military activity planned some years ago - let alone the heightened demands now being placed on them by commitments such as the Iraq and Afghanistan operations.

“It is no surprise that increasing numbers of service men and women are deciding to quit the Armed Forces, many unwilling to accept ever more frequent overseas deployments and heavier workloads in the UK, with the impact both have on family life. A number of measures can be taken to provide more certainty about work patterns and ease overstretch in specialist trades. But the MOD has no long-term strategy to deal with the outflow, especially among highly qualified specialist personnel.

“The MOD must think hard when it makes cuts in recruitment about the consequences for manning levels some years along the line. The consequences to manning levels are almost impossible to rectify speedily and any measures taken seem to cost more than was saved by the original cuts.

“The MOD does not consider our Armed Forces with their current numbers of service personnel to be ‘overstretched’. Let us fervently hope that it will not take some future operational failure on the battlefield for the department to change its mind.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 34th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Ministry of Defence, examined three main issues: the level of commitment and whether the Armed Forces are overstretched, measures to improve recruitment and retention, and social and educational diversity.

The Armed Forces are short of Servicemen and women. At April 2007, the overall shortfall was 5,850 personnel, or 3.2%, and none of the three Services were within their targets, known as ‘manning balance’. Pinch point trades, including many highly specialised areas, have larger shortfalls.

The impact of continuous downsizing, pressures and overstretch is affecting the Department’s ability to retain and provide a satisfactory life for Armed Forces personnel. Numbers leaving early have risen in the last two years, and are now at a ten-year peak for Army and Royal Air Force Officers and for Royal Air Force Other Ranks. The frequency of deployments is creating pressure on some personnel, with large numbers exceeding the guidelines on time spent away from home.

The Department has operated above the most demanding level of operations under Defence Planning Assumptions since 2001, but has not adjusted its manning requirements. The Department accepts the Armed Forces are significantly stretched by the current level of commitments, but does not consider that they are overstretched.

The Department’s short term financial measures to improve retention have had some success, but do not address the key drivers for leaving such as Servicemen and women’s inability to plan ahead and the impact on their family life. The Department also lacks basic information on the costs of its measures which would enable it to make more informed judgements on incentives to improve recruitment and retention. The Department has introduced more fundamental changes for a small number of specialists, for example separating pay from rank.

Past cuts in recruitment activity have had a damaging longer-term effect on manning in some areas. Such cutbacks are almost impossible to recover as budget and capacity constraints prevent the Department from over-recruiting to make up for shortfalls in previous years.

The Department collects and monitors information on many aspects of diversity, but does not do so for social and educational background and cannot therefore be sure whether the Armed Forces are truly representative of the society they defend.