Army had 'naive' approach to Capita's £1.3bn recruiting IT contract, MPs told

£26m 'deducted' from payments but Public Accounts Committee remains sceptical

army

Senior British Army generals have defended Capita's disastrous Recruiting Partnership Project (RPP) IT contract – despite confessing that the military will miss this year's recruiting targets by 40 per cent.

Lieutenant General Tyrone Urch, the general officer commanding (GOC) Home Command, told Parliament's Public Accounts Committee yesterday that the £1.3bn RPP contract, signed in 2012, was hamstrung partly because the Army initially insisted that Capita used the ancient, creaky Defence Information Infrastructure (DII) IT system to deliver recruits to the armed forces.

"We would take equal blame" with Capita for the contract's failure to ensure a steady flow of recruits, Lt Gen Urch continued. "At the end of this recruiting year, so March, we'll be at 60 per cent of the demand we need to fill the Army's ranks. My own personal colloquial way of describing success is that's a minor miracle without a computer."

After the first few years of RPP's operation, Capita persuaded the Army to let it build a bespoke IT system instead of using DII. This was called the Defence Recruiting System, or DRS. That was switched on in November 2017.

An angry Gareth Snell MP (Labour, Stoke-on-Trent), asked yesterday’s panel of generals and civil servants, who were accompanied by Capita chief exec Jonathan Lewis, to explain "the benefit of having Capita" take over recruiting. Lt Gen Richard Nugee, Chief of Defence People, replied: "What they brought was an expertise we didn't have."

Snell replied:

Capita... in my opinion has failed significantly to meet the demands not only of the contract but in doing so has left our army with one of the fewest numbers of soldiers we've had in a long time, which I think is quite a dangerous position to be in.

Unimpressed, Urch told the MPs that the head of the Army and the chief of the Defence Staff, the most senior military officer in the UK, were "very clear: the British Army has enough soldiers to keep the country safe and meet our demands."

A Ministry of Defence paper published in November revealed (PDF, 14 pages, see page 6) that in October 2018 the Army was 7.5 per cent short of its "workforce requirement" of 82,320 soldiers.*

Lt Gen Urch added that the contract had released 900 soldiers back to the front line back when the UK was still heavily involved in Afghanistan, while admitting that the MoD had had a "naive approach" to the idea of subcontracting out "the idea of an Army recruiting sergeant".

Labour MP Caroline Flint asked the generals: "Was [RPP] led by military personnel or civil servants… was it led by military incompetence or civilian incompetence?"

Stung, Urch shot back: "It's not incompetence in any way, shape or form… it was led by the military."

In response to questions from SNP MP Douglas Chapman, Stephen Lovegrove, the MoD's top civil servant (permanent secretary), said that £26m had been "deducted" from payments due to Capita under the contract. A stony-faced Chapman responded: "Six per cent of the overall contract? Is that something that could be altered?"

Capita chief exec Jonathan Lewis, who was part of the panel being grilled by the MPs, chipped in: "That's close to 100 per cent of the margin on the contract. And if you add the incremental investment we've had to make, which is somewhere in the order of £60m, to deliver on that, over the term of this contract we will lose a very considerable sum of money," adding that the army would save "£200m" over the lifetime of the RPP contract.

Snell also accused Capita of meeting just four key performance indicator targets out of a total of 228, while Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said that for 54 per cent of people trying to join the Army, Capita's process "takes over a year" to navigate. Responding to the last point, Lovegrove said: "I'm very clear; time of flight is too high for the Army in particular."

A year ago, defence minister Mark Lancaster admitted DRS had “glitches”, while we revealed that the system was so buggy it had almost completely halted RAF recruiting in December 2017. ®

Bootnote

* The Army is well below its trained strength requirement and has been for years, in part because of Crapita's woeful record with military recruiting. To massage its figures, the Ministry of Defence moved the goalposts and started counting part-trained soldiers – those who had passed Phase 1 training but not Phase 2 trade training – towards its manpower targets.

Phase 1 training is basic training that all military personnel pass through; the result of Phase 1 is you have soldiers who can live in the field, use rifles and perform basic military tasks, though you wouldn't send them to war unless the country was being invaded. Phase 2 is where that fresh military material is trained to do a useful job. Infantrymen must pass the Combat Infantryman's Course to complete their Phase 2 training, for example. In the MoD stats publication above, Phase 2 trained soldiers are referred to as FTTTS: Full Time Trade Trained Strength.

Compare a fresh graduate trainee in your company to a grad trainee with a years of practical experience of working on production IT systems. That is the level of difference here.

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