Jamie Stone MP: Armed Forces Day reminds Gov't to urgently address the recruitment & retention crisis
Former Territorial Army serviceman, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesperson Jamie Stone writes to mark Armed Forces Day which offers an opportunity to “thank and celebrate the incredible men and women across our Armed Services”.
Armed Forces Day is an opportunity to celebrate and thank the people who serve in our Armed Forces. Most of us will know someone serving in the Forces and it’s difficult to put into words how grateful we are to them. Currently nearly 200,000 UK Service Personnel are responsible for defending those of us living across the UK, as well as those in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. No small task. They also have a vital role in providing humanitarian aid. The part these men and women play in improving and defending lives may often be behind the scenes but cannot be understated.
Armed Forces Day is a stark reminder that giving thanks must be about more than words. The Conservative government must properly support and invest in our Forces if people are to feel valued and able to do their jobs properly. Any day now we are supposed to be getting the initial findings of a report into recruitment and retention, commissioned in February after a shocking exodus of 7,500 personnel in 2017.
The number of those leaving our armed forces has also been accompanied by an increasing level of dissatisfaction with service life. One of the top reasons for leaving cited in 2017 was the impact on family and personal life (35%). The Armed Forces Flexible Working Bill, which passed through Parliament last year, was meant to address this. But as my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I made clear then, the Bill did not go far enough in addressing the myriad of issues that lead to such poor recruitment and retention rates. Recruiting and holding onto a diverse pool of talent is a key part of this. As we highlighted at the time, only 10% of armed forces personnel are women, a figure that is simply not good enough.
If our Armed Forces are to hold onto talented personnel, the Conservative government must do more to make the services fit for 2019. That means investing in new equipment, it means providing good accommodation, it means facilitating a culture shift across all levels. This shift must include the breaking down of barriers and prejudices. Earlier this year former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in Parliament that “there is no glass ceiling” for women in the Armed Forces, yet in 2017/18 the Army saw just 20 women promoted compared to 320 men.
The need to improve gender equality and diversity in the armed forces spans across all aspects of military life. For example, the husband of a serving Major recently pointed out that there is often an assumption that military spouses are women married to serving men: there are few support groups for military husbands, and most spousal events are described as events for wives. These may feel like small-scale issues, but if the Conservative government are serious about attracting and keeping talent, they must address the barriers that stop people from pursuing a career in the armed forces.
It has been encouraging to witness the appointment of the first female Defence Secretary, the first female Chief Scientific Adviser to the MOD, and the first woman to transfer to a British Army infantry unit: all milestones reached this year. At a time when Trump has regressively moved to block trans people from serving in the US military it was also encouraging to see Captain Hannah Graf, a trans former Army Officer, receive an MBE for services to the LGBT+ community in the military. Diversity in the armed services will only serve to strengthen our Forces.
This Armed Forces Day let’s thank and celebrate the incredible men and women across our Armed Services. From veterans to currently serving personnel, the contribution they make is immeasurable. But let’s also remember that words mean little if our armed forces don’t have the necessary support and funding. I hope this Armed Forces Day also serves as a reminder to the Conservative government that they must urgently address the underlying causes of the shameful recruitment and retention crisis that continues to loom over our Armed Forces.
Jamie Stone is the Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Defence & MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross