On the campaign trail today Nick Clegg has been taking about defence issues, at least on the subject of the military covenant.
Forces Pay: Our proposals would bring the basic pay of the lowest paid soldiers in line with new-entrant police constables (£23,259). Pay increases will be tapered up through the lower ranks. A fully-trained Private’s pay will rise by up to £6,000. Our policy is focussed on the lowest paid personnel. In future we will continue to up-rate pay in line with recommendations from the Pay Review Body, particularly on retention measures for those in key “pinch-point” trades. Soldiers will continue to receive the additional bonuses, such as the operational allowance.
We absolutely support better pay for the armed forces because 1) they deserve it and 2) it is a valuable retention tool, but the issue of pay and allowances needs to be looked at across the board because by concentrating on a narrow band one creates a disincentive for career progression. As a soldier progresses through the ranks to more senior ranks they will be an uneven increment, for example, as a Corporal is promoted a Sergeant, with its attendant mess fees, there might be only a very small increase or even reduction in take home pay for that soldier if the steps in pay between ranks are not properly considered.
Would this create a disincentive for career progression?
Just increasing one section distorts the whole structure and if you had struggled, and struggle you would have, to get into the most exclusive club in the world, the Sergeants Mess, then you might feel a little uneasy about the Liberal Democrat plans for rewarding those in your charge. A good SNCO will always have the interests of their subordinates at heart so don’t expect anyone to say so, but this seems a little unfair.
We should also not forget the pay of Junior Officers, especially when comparing to the emergency services, who generally speaking do not have a 2 tier rank structure.
The Armed Forces pay and allowance structure is hideously complex and definitely needs streamlining, there also needs to be a recognition that the armed forces may have to seriously address the issue of technically demanding pinch point trades with something more long term than the current short term measures taken to date.
To get some idea of how complex the subject is have a look at the latest Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendations (all 88 pages of them) here or for an even longer spirit crushing read, all 725 pages, try and wade through JSP 752 (Tri Service Regulations for Allowances) here
People do not join the armed forces because the money is good, never have and never will, so the talk of the connection between the military covenant and pay is somewhat wide of the mark. What service personnel want is to be used only for the good of the nation and not political parties, to have decent equipment, the best care if they are wounded and a measure of quite respect.
We should also consider, though not giving too much weight, other benefits that service personnel receive in comparison with with public sector employees. Very few personnel exist on basic pay and the whole range of specialist pay, allowances and other factors increase actual remuneration. Operational and Long Separation Allowance can provide significant uplifts
So whilst the good intentions of the Liberal Democrats are laudable, we should be careful of knee jerk proposals because inevitably they will bite you on the arse somewhere else.
I would argue there are more pressing issues than basic pay, still, makes a good headline.
Forces’ Family Homes: We will double the number of family homes being refurbished every year until the job is done, ensuring all homes can be refurbished within 10 years.
No complaints here, but where is the money coming from and will it just mean extending the various PFI schemes?
Cutting Waste: The current structure of the MoD is inefficient and we believe savings can be found from natural wastage, as part of the Strategic Security and Defence Review. We believe that efficiencies can be found in various areas. There are 86,000 civilian staff in the MOD, almost 1 civilian for every 2 men and women in uniform. This is one of the highest civilian ratios of all NATO states.
There are 800 staff in the MOD communications and media section alone. The MOD ‘White Fleet’ of non-military vehicles costs £80m a year for 24,000 vehicles. Over 14,000 staff work in equipment procurement and support. We believe that there is significant scope for reform of these services. We believe that such has been the disastrous record of MOD procurement in recent years that there is much greater scope for closer cooperation with industry. Almost 20,000 civil servants are employed directly by the three services across the country. We believe that rationalisation of these dispersed roles would also bring savings.
The Armed Forces are also top heavy, with too many senior officers. Following the end of the Cold War the numbers of lower rank soldiers fell dramatically. But the axe did not fall so hard on the top brass. There are now more Brigadiers than there were in 1997 – 17 of them for every combat Brigade. The Navy has almost two admirals for every warship. The Armed Forces do not need so many senior officers.
We have commented before that no election campaign is complete without asking Flight Lieutenant Efficiency Savings and Corporal Civil Service Waste to get on parade, but what is the real picture behind the political rhetoric?
The Liberal Democrats have nailed their policy of increasing service personnel pay to reducing the civil service numbers at the MoD so by extension, if you want ‘our brave boys’ ™ to have a pay rise we have to cull the civil service.
Where to start with some of this nonsense?
Civilian Staff to Uniform Ratios
We looked at this in a previous post but to summarise and bring a little up to date.
The reason that the UK has a high civilian to uniform ratio is exactly because of what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do, save money.
A uniformed member of the armed forces manning a guardroom, stacking blankets or maintaining a gas turbine engine is more expensive than the equivalent civil servant, surely even the Liberal democrats can see that and if they want to give those junior ranks more money as they have stated by reducing civil servants those armed forces personnel are going to have to get used to doing more for it.
That pay rise is looking less attractive now.
The days of soldiers being happy with operations and training being rewarded with long periods of cleaning, working in the stores or stagging on at the gate are long over, this will just lead to retention issues and personnel turnover, great job Nick, you have just cost the MoD millions more.
The reasons other NATO nations have such a different ratio are as might be expected, complex.
Conscription distorts the figures, as do those issues highlighted above, service personnel doing the jobs that UK civil servants currently do. Many NATO nations include their paramilitary police forces in the defence figures as well.
The ratio comparison is nonsense, apples and aardvarks.
Of the 86,000 figure quoted by the Liberal Democrats nearly 10,000 of these are in cost neutral or profit making Trading Funds like the Met Office or Hydrographic Office that in the last set of figures contributed a profit of over £21 million to the MoD.
Another 10,000 are locally employed overseas. Nearly 2,500 are the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, providing a vital support role to the Royal Navy and deployed forces worldwide, nearly 8,000 are MoD police and the guarding service.
Accounting properly for these makes the picture look completely different.
Communications and Media
An easier target than most perhaps but I would be interested to see what the breakdown of this 800 actually looks like before making any comment. Does it for example, include internal communications and the production of training publications or safety instructions, changes the equation somewhat if it does.
White Fleet are civilian vehicles operated under a PFI scheme and whilst we may have some issues with the overall cost to the MoD there are sound reasons for using civilian vehicles. Is the inference from the policy statement is that the armed forces do not need such a large fleet or that it is poor value for money. The stated figure of £80 million for 24,000 vehicles works out at just over £3,300 per year each, not bad for a maintenance/tyre inclusive lease deal I think.
So to nip across the training area the Liberal Democrats would rather we use a Land Rover or other ‘painted green’ vehicle instead of a Ford Focus, I know which one is the cheaper to run. Are they saying they would reduce the white fleet, replacing it with what exactly?
Equipment Procurement and Support
Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) management group employ 14,000 staff down from 29,000 three years ago and includes not only the people that buy equipment but also maintain it, store it, issue it and move it. We do not have 14,000 people sitting behind desks brainstorming ever more inventive methods of wasting money.
There is no doubt we need a radical improvement in equipment acquisition but the way to do this is not by cutting back on the people you are asking to do it; remove political interference, think hard about defence industrial issues and a dramatic improvement in the skills of the people doing the job are the main means of making things better, not a slash and burn policy of staff.
In short, more of the right kind of civil servant and less of the wrong sort i.e. more engineers and less diversity coordinators.
Directly Employed Civil Servants
Most of these directly employed staff are overseas in Germany or Cyprus for example and are very good value for money. When and if we leave these areas the jobs will no longer exist or be transferred to the UK, there are no long term commitments and we pay at local rates, often cheaper than the UK. They do all sorts of vital support jobs so again, it might be worth seeing if there are any savings can be made but they will be limited, unless of course you want service personnel to double up which I am sure will be warmly welcomed in the ranks.
Others might include TA Centre civilian personnel that keep the place administered correctly or its vehicles maintained.
The Top Brass
Another easy target and we have also looked at this is the past
The reality is there are complex and well founded reasons for some rank inflation but there can be no doubt there are still some issues to resolve. It is not just senior officers but warrant officers where the proportions may seem wrong. Sorting the rank balance will be a time consuming task but the Liberal Democrats are right to highlight it, just don’t expect it to be a quick or easy issue to resolve.
So in what is a trend with the Liberal Democrats, they make the right noises and have a few good ideas, but when analysed fall apart at the seams.
Lets hope no one is being fooled