Bishop of Portsmouth speaks about challenges of retention of armed forces reservists

On 22nd October 2015 Lord Freeman led a Lords debate “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the present and future strength of the reserves of the British Armed Forces.” The Bishop of Portsmouth spoke in the debate

14.04.09 Portsmouth maiden speech 2The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth:  My Lords, I share our gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for this Question for Short Debate. The Whole Force Concept is journeying from theory to reality. It is a tricky journey, it seems to me, not because the Government set the wrong course five years ago but because of the scale and complexity of the task. It is true that many essential defence skills, and especially many essential national security skills, reside in the private sector as well as in the Armed Forces. To bring these together coherently and effectively requires both strategic direction and effective management.

I will turn first to the scale of the challenge and then briefly to the complexity. The recruiting of reservists in substantial numbers, with a target of 35,000 across the three services, is frequently discussed. Less often, as far as I can see—here I echo one of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee—is the issue of retention addressed. However, it is surely the key not just to meeting the target for the numbers of reservists, but for delivering trained and skilled men and women to serve in defence and security. Can the Minister pay more attention to employer engagement to help with retention?

Despite our hope, which I know is very widely shared, that employers consider it good and beneficial as well as right and a source of pride to have reservists in the workforce, I would suggest that the reality is not always so encouraging. It has not been unknown in the past for reservists to hide their military service, using annual leave for training for instance, until circumstances demanded disclosure when deployment occurred. Even today employers need help, with better consideration of the challenges of timing and back-filling that arise when a reservist moves into active service. Particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises, but also with the household names at the middle management level, challenges are faced and pressures must be met. The risk of failing to pay attention to this engagement is that the reservist finds that he or she may be less inclined to remain available. They know their mobilisation is causing problems and that the military do not always appear to understand business needs and pressures, but that flexibility and consistency is essential. Late requests for training leave in the build-up to deployment, for instance, can aggravate the situation. Retaining recruited reservists demands more attention to employer engagement, especially as more frequent mobilisation exacerbates the complexities for the individual, the family and the employer. Can the Minister indicate what additional measures Her Majesty’s Government will take to improve retention?

The Armed Forces covenant has a central role to play in emphasising commitment across the community to all parts of the services, including reservists. Next month a covenant training day at Lambeth Palace will consider a variety of issues, including reservists, and I am delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will be speaking at it.

I will add a brief second point about the journey that we are taking. There are dangers in slipping into free-wheeling, as others have called it. Good intentions and motivation are not enough. Strategy and management must be robust. Two commentators have written that it is as if a new and exciting belief system has emerged without the enabling architecture of churches, priests and congregations. Your Lordships will appreciate that the analogy and argument attracted my attention. The point is clear, I hope, that the sheer complexity of blending Regular forces, reservists and civilian contractors will not just happen. The stated aims of reservists providing extra capacity at somewhat lower readiness, skills not otherwise available to the military, and rebuilding the connection with wider society are laudable, but the task of building this capacity is great and the risk of failing is a capacity gap that our defence and security must not bear.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) (Con): [extract]:…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth asked about the issues arising from working alongside regulars and contractors. Our recent experience in operations such as in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that reservists and regulars can and do work together seamlessly, and they both work very closely with contractors, as well as with allied forces and other government departments and agencies. Almost two-thirds of regulars who have served alongside reserves rate them as professional. That comes from the recent Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey.

However, we are not just making wider use of reservists on operational service; we are offering them more and better training opportunities as well. In the current training year, the services have planned more than 50 overseas training exercises involving reserves, including a series of Army exercises in Kenya involving integrated companies of regulars and reserves. We are also giving reservists more recognition for their contribution to defence. In June, the first ever Reserves Day was held as part of the build-up to Armed Forces Day. This provided an opportunity for the whole of the UK to celebrate our Reserve Forces and for reservists to show pride in their service. Reserves Day will be an annual event from now on.