Factometer: fact

The claim
“There is currently one civilian at the ministry of defence for every two men or women in uniform, 800 of them alone are working in media and communications. This is the highest ratio of civilian to uniform staff in Nato. We will cut back, over two years, the number of civilian staff by 15 per cent.”
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, 26 April 2009

The background
The battle of the cuts has been one of the defining themes of the election so far. Today Nick Clegg used a press conference in Scotland to promise a pay increase for the lower ranks of soldiers and more homes for forces’ families being refurbished. And all paid for by cutting waste.

One of the areas he pointed out for cuts was civilian staff. We will cut the numbers by 15 per cent in two years, he said. And the Lib Dems say this will be done through natural wastage and as part of a strategic defence review. But is it as easy as all that?

The analysis
Mr Clegg is quite correct to say we have one civilian for every two uniformed staff at the MoD. The latest numbers show that on 1 March 2010 the trained strength of the armed forces was 176,920, around 3,000 stronger than 1 April 2009. There was also another 19,620 untrained staff.

At the start of April 2009 (the latest statistics that are available), there were 86,600 civilian staff employed by the MOD, roughly half the number of personnel in the armed forces – so the 15 per cent that the Liberal Democrats want to reduce this number by would amount to just short of 13,000 staff.

And the Liberal Democrats refer to research by the Daily Telegraph to back up the claim that this is the highest ratio in Nato.

But these are not all pen-pushers. In December last year, the Permanent Under Secretary of State for the Ministry of Defence, Sir Bill Jeffrey, gave a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) where he said only two per cent of the 86,000 civilians were employed at the Head Office in London.

He said: “Of the MoD’s 86,000 or so civilians, around half directly support the front line commands. These include about 1,000 firefighters, 1,400 teachers, nearly 2,000 instructors and 1,800 scientists, engineers and technicians.

“Around 11,000 are industrial staff, many of them like the Defence Support Group staff I met at Donnington a few weeks ago overhauling tanks to be returned to Afghanistan, doing manual work which in many other countries would be done by uniformed military staff.

“Almost 10,000 are locally engaged overseas, 9,700 are in trading funds like the Met Office which generate income and pay their way, 2,300 are in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, providing essential support to Naval warships at sea, a role undertaken by Naval personnel in other countries.

He also defended using civilian personnel in some of these roles instead of military personnel: “Just as in the police, it has to make sense in defence for expensively trained uniformed staff to be able to focus on the core military work they were trained to do.

“The involvement of civilians in key enabling tasks such as the maintenance of aircraft and the delivery of strategic communications to the front line are good examples of the benefits of civilianisation.”

However, Sir Bill did point out that the MoD has already made efficiencies in their use of civilian staff, cutting the number by more than 45,000 in 12 years. “Some of these represent jobs outsourced to private sector providers, but most reflect change in the way we do business,” he said.

The Liberal Democrats told FactCheck the target to cut 15 per cent of the civilian workforce was “ambitious but possible, given MoD natural wastage rates”.

They said: “The necessary restructuring would be planned for as part of the Strategic Security and Defence Review that we would hold.

“Given that MoD civilian numbers are set to fall further by 2011, the target will actually be closer to 12,000.”

The verdict
So Mr Clegg’s statistics are accurate – there is indeed one civilian at the MoD for every two uniformed staff.

But many of these are far from the pen-pushers the term “civilian staff” might imply. A significant number are performing vital support tasks that other countries would assign to military personnel.

So Nick Clegg’s statement, while factually correct, is extremely misleading as it gives the impression that there are thousands of unnecessary staff employed within the MoD.

FactCheck also raises an eyebrow over his claim that he could draw down the civilian staff headcount by another 12,000+ within two years.