Worrying armed forces exodus triggers inquiry
A review of the armed forces’ retention crisis has been ordered by the prime minister to stem the flow of thousands quitting each year. Theresa May’s top military adviser has commissioned Mark Francois, a former defence minister and member of the Commons defence select committee, to lead a report into the problem, which is compounding the forces’ personnel shortage.
It comes after 5.6 per cent — 7,500 personnel — quit the military in 2017, the latest year for which there are official figures, up from 3.8 per cent in 2010. The trend correlates with a decreasing proportion of personnel recording satisfaction with service life: from 60 per cent in 2010 to 41 per cent last year, according to the annual armed forces continuous attitude survey. The top five reasons for quitting cited by leavers in 2017 were the impact of service life on family and personal life (55 per cent); pay (35 per cent); opportunities outside the forces (34 per cent); job satisfaction (33 per cent) and morale (32 per cent).
In five years the Ministry of Defence has paid more than £107 million in retention bonuses and “transfer bounties” to 4,780 personnel in key roles that face severe shortages. The National Audit Office (NAO), Whitehall’s spending watchdog, said last year that although this had been effective in reducing the number of leavers, the use of financial incentives was not sustainable. “The department is aware that it cannot continue to rely on reactive financial measures to stabilise levels of personnel but there is a risk that voluntary outflow may increase if payments are removed,” it said.
Mr Francois described the retention problem as the other side of the coin of the recruitment crisis blighting the army, which is about 5,000 personnel below its 82,000 target. The army has faced problems since outsourcing recruitment to Capita, which has failed to hit its target every year since 2012. Complaints about the enlisting process, for which army chiefs and company executives have accepted blame, have included year-long waits to join and making applicants duplicate online forms. The RAF and Royal Navy have kept most aspects of their recruitment in-house and achieved better results.
Mr Francois will conduct the review across the three services with his parliamentary researcher and Brigadier Simon Goldstein, a reservist. They will present initial conclusions in July and the full report by the year’s end. They initially investigated the army’s recruitment problems and the report, published in July 2017, prompted inquiries by the defence select committee, NAO and public accounts committee. Mr Francois was called to update Mrs May on the situation last October. His new review will focus on the first six years of service when turnover is high. He said that he would welcome input from interested parties and charities, adding that he was likely to steer clear of recommending a pay rise.
The vast majority of roles in the armed forces are not eligible for “lateral” recruitment; instead, staff must work their way up. Replacements, therefore, cannot always easily be recruited externally and departures can leave critical gaps. General Sir Nick Carter, head of the armed forces, is trying to change the opposition to lateral entry.