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July 2, 2014 12:04 am
David Cameron is turning to the men in grey suits in his hour of need, urging 1 per cent of Whitehall staff to sign up as reserve troops to plug looming gaps in Britain’s military forces.
The prime minister told his cabinet colleagues on Tuesday they should encourage more departmental staff to join up as reserves, with recruitment lagging well behind target.
Mr Cameron asked ministers to make sure their departments “set an example” to employers in the private sector, who have been reluctant to grant staff extra time off to be a part of a new, more professional, reserve force.
Downing Street said: “The prime minister thinks the reserve programme is very important, and wants the public and private sector to be fully involved. The 1 per cent challenge has been part of our approach.”
The government is overhauling the army, cutting the regular forces by about a fifth and hiring 11,000 reserve troops to help replace the lost capacity.
The scheme is not working, however. While the cuts are proceeding even more quickly than planned, the Ministry of Defence has struggled to recruit enough reserves.
In the year to April, the reserves grew by just 170 troops to slightly more than 19,000, well short of the 30,000 that are meant to be available in four years’ time.
A recent report by the government’s spending watchdog found the overhaul had been badly planned and could end up costing the taxpayer money if funds have to be diverted from the Treasury to plug the gaps.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, in 2012 unveiled incentives for mandarins to join up, including a guarantee of 10 days’ extra paid leave for training, having set departments a target of 1 per cent of employees serving by 2018. Mr Hammond said at the time: “Success will depend on the commitment of employers, and government is one of the biggest.”
But nobody in the government knows how much progress has been made. One defence official said: “The first step is getting departments to figure out how many people they currently have serving.”
The department said: “We know this won’t happen overnight but we are confident this target will help us get to 35,000 reservists by 2018, and set a better example for other employers.”
The move has sparked concern among unions, however. Richard Simcox, a spokesman for the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “The government is expecting far more of its own staff without showing any goodwill towards them . . . It is cutting jobs, pay and pensions but at the same time asking them to do voluntary activity.”
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