Ministry of Defence could "lose core expertise" through civil service job cuts, MPs hear

Defence committee takes evidence on the Strategic Defence and Security Review – with decision to axe 30% of MoD's civilian staff coming under fire from academics

By matt.foster

24 Nov 2015

Planned cuts to the Ministry of Defence's civilian workforce could lead to a "hollowing out" of the department's expertise, a committee of MPs has heard.

The government-wide Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was unveiled by David Cameron on Monday. As well as a £12bn boost to the defence equipment budget and increased support for counter-terrorism policing and the intelligence agencies, the SDSR also set out plans for a 30% reduction in the MoD's civilian staff by the end of the parliament.

Under the proposals outlined by the prime minister, total civilian employment at the MoD would fall to 41,000 by 2019-20, in a bid to make the ministry "leaner and more efficient". There will also be a 30% reduction in the MoD's estate.

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As MPs on the defence select committee began their inquiry into the SDSR on Tuesday, experts from both the Royal United Services Institute [RUSI] and King's College said they feared cuts to civilian staff could undermine measures announced elsewhere in the SDSR.

"Most of the improvements in capability, and the equipment programme that's going to be funded, are going to come from the MoD's own efficiency savings – and that means that MoD is going to have to lose its core expertise," said Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at RUSI.

He added: "It's going to shed its valuable and most costly people, and it is going to do so a time when it is increasingly saying that it is going to be pulling back in a lot of its corporate knowledge that it was previously giving out to other experts. 

"So at the same time that you're bringing in these responsibilities, you're going to shed – and not just hollow out, but cut – entire levels of corporate knowledge and expertise who are going to be responsible for delivering these major programmes over ten years. 

"We're going to be in a position where we're buying an enormous number of amazing capabilities, with no one with the expertise to run them [...] Some lovely platforms are arriving – but we don't know that there are going to be the skills and expertise to either bring them into service or operate them when they're there."

That view was echoed by Professor John Gearson,  professor of national security studies at King's College, London, who said he was concerned about the impact that the civilian workforce cuts would "inevitably" have on the MoD's "strategic thinkers, planners" and defence intelligence experts.

"I would like the detail from the MoD and hope the committee will have the chance to get that out them," he said. "Because the last thing we need to do is undermine our capacity to think about problems and where we send our armed forces, rather than just having the platforms."

As well as outlining the scale of planned civil service job cuts at the MoD, Monday's SDSR document also promised to boost training for those staff who were retained.

It said the ministry would "develop initiatives for the MoD workforce, including apprenticeships focused on science, technology, engineering and maths and entrepreneurial skills".

As a protected area of government spending, the defence budget is currently set to rise by 0.5% above inflation for the rest of the parliament.

"Critical roles"

Cameron was pressed on the decision to target reductions at the department's civil service workforce in the Commons on Monday, with Labour MP and defence committee member Madeleine Moon asking the prime minister how the government would ensure that "critical roles and tasks" including logistics, training support and maintenance, were not "lost to the Ministry of Defence".

Responding, Cameron stressed the "hugely important" roles played by MoD civil servants. He added: "We said to the military, 'Every penny you can save through efficiencies, you now know will go into extra capabilities.'

"That is why I can stand here today and talk about new squadrons, more members of the RAF and more people joining the Royal Navy.  But all of that should be done without damaging any of the vital capabilities that civilians provide."

The SDSR document itself also paid tribute to MoD officials, saying they made an "important contribution to our national security" including by "delivering some of the largest and most complex equipment and infrastructure projects found anywhere in government".

Unions have already lined up to attack the planned job cuts.

Prospect said the move would have an impact "not just for jobs and skills but also for the UK’s ability to deliver the capabilities it needs on time and on budget". The PCS union meanwhile argued that the scale of the cuts "seriously undermines the government's claims to be committed to defence".

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