If the MoD is serious about an increased role for Reservists it must start listening to the concerns of employers
The Secretary of State for Defence has set out his plans for increasing the number and role of Reservists in our Armed Forces. Ahead of the publication of a Green Paper later this month, John Wright CBE, writing exclusively for Endeavour Public Affairs, states that if the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is serious about an increased role for Reservists then it must start listening to the genuine concerns of the employers, and in particular small businesses.
John Wright is a businessman and the former National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), the largest business organisation representing small businesses in the UK. During his National Chairmanship he represented the FSB on the BIS Small Business and Finance Forums.
John served on the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group and was the only person representing small businesses in the Group. He also serves on the National Employers Advisory Board for Reservists and Cadets for the MoD and in this role visited troops in Afghanistan.
The Future Reserves 2020 (FR20) Commission was set up to examine and make recommendations for the future shape and role of the UK’s Reserve Forces. The latest recommendations, announced earlier this year, will have a dramatic affect on the MoD, the Regular Forces, Reservists, and employers. The recommendations have identified the need for more specialists, increased training and an emphasis on recruiting from the public sector and larger employers.
Since 2003 there have been more than 27,000 Reservist mobilisations to support current operations. Currently there are 23,000 Reservists. And the FR20 recommendations envisage a target figure of 35,000 Reservists by 2018. With a commitment from government this figure is, I believe, achievable but there is no doubt that it will place an even greater burden on employers during difficult economic times. The MoD has already mobilised up to 13,500 military personnel for the 2012 Olympics and Reservists made up around 15 per cent of the MoD’s contribution to security during the Games.
One of the immediate challenges that the MoD will face is a greater reluctance by employers to release Reservists. Presently a large proportion of Reservists come from small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) or owner managers. There is a commitment in the recommendations to give Reservists more training. More Reservists means, if the recommendations are to be fulfilled, more training. Consequently, more training personnel will be required. However, the demand for more Reservists and more training personnel to train them is set against a background of deep cuts in the MoD and Regular Forces.
The Commission has said that there will be a greater need for more specialists e.g., medical, cyber experts, homeland security etc., but these are precisely the same specialists with the same skills that are needed by employers who themselves are facing huge economic challenges to stay in business.
The Commission identified that there will be a greater need for the release of personnel from the public sector e.g., police, prison service, national health service, local authorities, etc., all of which are facing severe cutbacks. Some sections of the public sector have, in the past, shown a great reluctance to release Reservists or to encourage their employees to become Reservists. Currently there are no proposals in the Commission’s recommendations to encourage public authorities to support or enable more of their employees to become Reservists. There are also no recommendations to penalise those public authorities who do not do this.
Although 99 per cent of employers in the UK are SMEs, the Commission has said that it wants to encourage larger employers to commit to encouraging their employees to become Reservists. Whilst many of our large and small employers are extremely patriotic I do not believe they will be willing to do this without some additional economic incentive or reward, notwithstanding that any increased training could be of benefit to them, especially if it is linked to the skill requirements needed by employers.
One ‘reward’ would be to ensure that the training carried out by our Armed Forces, be it by Regulars or Reservists, is aligned to nationally recognised skills, with nationally accredited qualifications. This would be seen by employers as real and tangible benefit, if correctly implemented, with such qualifications benefitting Regulars, Reservists and employers. Another reward would be a more generous compensation award to employers to encourage them to release personnel to become Reservists and to help mitigate the loss of specialists in the workplace.
It is quite apparent from the Commission’s recommendations that Reservists would not only be used internationally but also for domestic defence and civil emergencies. Whilst an employees absence could be for a short or longer period the withdrawal of staff, often at short notice, is disruptive and can make it difficult for employers to cope with. Therefore, the period of notice should, wherever possible, be longer than at present in order that the employer can make appropriate arrangements. Obviously, this may not always be possible if the Reservist is being used in civil internal national emergencies e.g., to deal with unforeseen emergencies such as floods, security matters etc. However, more consideration needs to be given to this aspect in respect of the impact on employers.
I can understand the economic arguments that the MoD would like to be doing the same as in the private sector and only call in specialist Reservists when there is a need for them. It is expensive to employ, on a permanent basis, full time specialists. That is why many businesses in the private sector choose to have a reduced number of full time employees and bring in specialists/consultants on a part-time basis only as and when they are required.
So it would seem the MoD, the employers, and the Reservists all want the same thing, immediate availability to do a job as and when required, with appropriately trained and qualified personnel to do it. To achieve this will require some fundamental changes by the Government to fulfil the expectations and aspirations of all three. There is no doubt that the Government will have to give more support than it has at present if the recommendations are to be fully implemented.