The Ministry of Defence's bid to replace Army regulars with part-time reserves has been given a "red" rating by the major projects watchdog, amid concern it is not doing enough to boost recruitment.
The MoD set out plans in 2012 to cut the number of Army regulars by 20,000, with a recruitment drive for reservists – dubbed "Future Reserves 2020" – launched to try and make up the shortfall.
Ministers want to double the size of the Reserves to 30,000 by 2018, but the programme initially struggled to oversee a significant rise in the number of Army reserves.
Figures published last year showed that the total number of Reserves had risen by just 20 year-on-year, prompting criticism of the scheme by Labour. The latest figures released by the Ministry show an improvement, with a rise of 1,270 personnel on the previous year, and an increase of 1,671 on the programme's April 2012 baseline.
In its latest annual report, published on Thursday evening, the Major Projects Authority – set up by the coalition to improve transparency and track the progress of big government schemes – confirmed that Future Reserves 2020 had slipped from an "Amber/Red" to a "Red" rating. Its assessment is based on the state of the programme in autumn last year.
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According to the MPA's description of its ratings system, a "Red" rating means that the watchdog now believes delivery of the project "appears to be unachievable".
Of Future Reserves 2020, the MPA said: "The purpose of this project has been to increase the UK’s Reserve forces in line with the commitments set out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, however the project has not, thus far, met its published recruitment targets, in particular for Army Reserves."
In an explanation posted alongside the MPA's report, the MoD acknowledged that it had received the rating because of "significant... concerns over whether the Army would meet its manpower growth targets".
However, it said the programme remained "on schedule to realise its benefits" within the timeframe allocated.
The MoD said it had taken steps to deliver a "significant improvement in the coherence and effectiveness of communications and marketing strategies", and had "instigated a number of measures to increase inflow and reduce the time it takes for new applicants to be processed, and improve applicant experience".
These included removing a requirement for civil servants and public sector employees to get consent before joining the Army reserve, the ministry said, as well as "increased responsibility by and empowerment of the Chain of Command in nurturing applicants through the process".
In an interview with Civil Service World published earlier this year, the MoD's permanent secretary Jon Thompson acknowledged that the programme had faced setbacks, but defended its overall progress.
“The Reserves programme I think has improved in the current year," he said. "It had a bit of a slow start, which is probably an appropriate way of putting it, but it’s gathered some momentum.
"The quarter two intake of recruits for the Army – quarter two 2014-15 – was the best in recruitment we had in that quarter for many years, and you can see from the national statistics in February that there was a further improvement in quarter three. We have to continue that momentum that the programme’s now got. There’s a great new advertising campaign, running right now."
Update: This article was amended on June 26 to reflect the fact that the MPA's latest assessment is based on the state of the programme in September last year