The Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care and other departments that bring in armed-forces personnel to cover for striking staff are set to be billed £4,000 a week for each soldier deployed, MPs have been told.
Hundreds of services personnel have been trained up to fill Border Force roles ahead of strikes due to commence later this month and hundreds more are currently being trained to drive NHS ambulances. Others are on standby to cover for fire and rescue service roles.
But departments will face a hefty bill for their services to ensure they call on the miliary as a "last resort" and turn to the private sector first, Ministry of Defence permanent secretary David Williams said.
Williams told members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee yesterday that demand for up to 2,500 troops to cover essential services during public sector strikes was part of current contingency planning. That level of emergency deployment would cost £10m a week, based on the total number of staff being required all week.
Williams said that “MACA” arrangements – short for military aid to civil authorities – had seen around 600 personnel trained to support Border Force with passport-control activities at major points of entry to the UK. He said a similar number were being trained to drive ambulances at five NHS trusts in England.
Williams added that the MoD was “scoping support” for fire and rescue services and expected to provide around 200 specialist fire crew, and that the department was considering whether other general-duties personnel may also be needed if strikes take place in the new year.
Charlie Pate, the MoD’s director general for finance, said the existing arrangements would run into a cost of “several million” pounds a month for departments, depending on the duration of the industrial action.
Members of the PCS union who work for Border Force have confirmed eight days of strike action so far over Christmas and the new year.
Pate told MPs that the departments drafting in armed-forces personnel would be billed around £4,000 a week for each one depolyed to assist them.
Williams told the session that an extra 1,100 personnel on top of the 1,400 already identified could be called on if they were required in Scotland or Wales.
“It’s possible there may be some requests for assistance from the devolved administrations. We’ve notionally earmarked up to 2,500 troops, should they be needed,” he said.
“It depends on the requests they make and whether those are requests that we’re able to help out with.”
Williams and Pate were asked why departments were being billed for full-cost recovery for strike support when the personnel were already being paid and housed by the MoD.
The perm sec said a primary consideration was to discourage departments from reaching for military assistance when they could get equivalent support from the private sector.
“It also helps ensure that armed forces support are the support of last resort rather than the first choice,” he said.
“But it’s sort of consistent with our Managing Public Money Treasury budgeting guidelines. We have discretion in certain circumstances to waive that down to additional costs. Aspects of military support to other departments during the Covid pandemic, for instance, were charged on that basis.”
Pate said that the full-cost regime for departments was agreed with the Treasury. He said Treasury agreement would also be required if the MoD moved to cheaper “marginal support”, which had been the case in the pandemic and with some Brexit work.
“We’ve been charging at full cost since about last summer, I think, for all MACAs,” he said