Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson recently announced that rules regulating recruiting personnel from Commonwealth countries into the British armed services are to be relaxed.
Stuart Crawford was a regular officer in the Royal Tank Regiment for twenty years, retiring in the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1999. Crawford now works as a political, media, and defence and security consultant in Edinburgh and is a regular commentator and contributor on military and defence topics in online and other media, including the UK Defence Journal.
Hitherto, with various exceptions, potential recruits from Commonwealth countries had to prove five years residence in the UK before being eligible to join. No longer.
Just to be clear, there is nothing new about Commonwealth subjects serving in Britain’s armed services (as opposed to being attached temporarily or on exchange programmes). During my own army service in a Scottish armoured regiment we had a couple of Canadians and two Kiwis in the Officers’ Mess, with British army commissions – or more properly the Queen’s Commission – and there have been longstanding derogations to allow citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Ghurkas from Nepal to serve.
But the new relaxing of the rules comes at an interesting time. Back in April this year, a National Audit Office report found the number of full-time military personnel in the armed forces was 5.7%, or 8,200 people, short of the required level, and that it would take at least five years to close even part of the gap. The army in particular was reportedly over 5,000 personnel short of its target man/womanpower target of 82,000 last month.
The recent opening of the so-called combat arms to women is probably one reaction to the shortfall, but much of the blame for poor army recruitment figures has been laid at the door of “international business process outsourcing and professional services company” Capita, to which the contract for army recruitment was awarded in 2012. It would appear that interest to join the army remains strong but the company is failing to convert this interest into recruits in anything like the required numbers. Why Capita has not been sacked by the MoD over this remains a subject of some conjecture; possibly alleged penalty clauses in the contract of around £50 million (figure from fours year ago) might have something to do with it?
Be that as it may, there seems to be little doubt that the new impetus for attracting recruits from the Commonwealth results from the need to fill the man/womanpower shortfall. Which begs the question: what does the British army (the service I know best) have to offer these days to attract potential recruits from across the seas?
Pay might be one, although few people enter a military career purely on the basis of how much they might earn. Here the attractiveness of the offer varies with which Commonwealth country is being considered. If we look at what we might call “white” Commonwealth countries – if I can use that description without being immediately accused of being an alt-right, neo-con, racist white supremacist by the usual suspects – then British army remuneration, for example, may not be much of an incentive.
A quick perusal of New Zealand and Canadian army pay rates, to pick but two, shows that their remuneration compares very favourably with the British army. A NZ private earns roughly £23,500 per annum, a Canadian approximately £21,600, and a British private £19,025. A NZ 2nd Lieutenant receives approximately £30,000 per annum, a Canadian of the same rank £29,520, and the British equivalent £26,737. Finally, a NZ major might earn an annual salary of £48,750, a Canadian £64,200, and their British counterpart £51,879.
So pay alone is unlikely to persuade recruits from these countries to join the British army. Of course, there are lots of other reasons they might wish to do so – travel overseas, different or more sophisticated equipment, family connections, more opportunities in a larger organisation etc – which are all perfectly understandable and valid.
However, when you look at the lesser developed Commonwealth countries there is a different picture. Using just the one example of the Indian army, where a private soldier earns approximately £4,380 per annum and a Lieutenant £8,580, it’s easy to see that pay might well be an important part of the offer. Others will be better qualified to comment on whether the same applies to the other services, and I hope they might do so.
So what are we saying here? Basically, it looks like the British armed services will have to think hard about what might attract Commonwealth recruits now that the residence rules have been removed. Other questions remain; will service bring automatic British citizenship, a UK passport, and the right of residency in the UK, for example? It seems only fair to me that it should, but others might disagree. And what about families, and housing, and other benefits? Again, I think these would probably follow automatically, but I’m not sure.
One thing’s for sure. The new aspiration to recruit from overseas is, like the opening up of all arms and services to women, everything to do with drastically poor recruitment figures and nothing to do with gender balance or diversity. For this the government and MoD have only themselves to blame, for their criminal reluctance to fund defence properly and crass decisions like the outsourcing of military recruitment to civilian organisations which are clearly not equipped to do the job.
But, as we are always reminded, there are no votes in defence…