Labour has complained that the British army is being used to “bail out failing services” in the UK, at a time when the threat from Russia remains acute and British forces are being withdrawn from Estonia.
John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, has written to the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, to warn that troops “may be diverted from essential defence tasks” to plug staffing gaps caused by strikes in Border Force, the NHS and elsewhere.
The opposition MP’s letter comes in response to Guardian revelations that 600 uniformed soldiers were being trained to cover for immigration staff this winter, after the PCS union voted to take industrial action.
Healey notes that the “600 more personnel reportedly being requested by the Home Office is comparable to the 652 who were deployed to reinforce Estonia’s border with Russia and who are now due to return home by Christmas”.
Other reports have suggested that the military could drive ambulances and stand in for frontline hospital staff under emergency plans being drawn up by the government to deal with a winter of strikes in the NHS.
Healey called for greater transparency in the Maca (Military aid to the civil authorities) system, under which the military can be called in by ministers as emergency cover in a crisis situation in the UK.
Maca protocols say military help can be authorised by Wallace or a junior minister “when there is a definite need to act” and when other options “have been discounted” – but Healey asked if the military was being overused at a time when army numbers are already being cut.
“According to a string of media reports this week, Macas are now being considered to provide cover for winter pressures in the NHS, for a Covid resurgence and for public sector strike action,” Healey wrote.
The Labour MP questioned whether the deployment of troops was always appropriate and asked whether “our armed forces are being used to bail out failing services, rather than provide emergency back-up”.
At the same time, cuts in day to day defence budgets mean that the British army is in the process of being cut to its smallest size for over 300 years. The number of troops is set to drop by 8,000 over the next two years to reach 73,000.
European security, however, has been at its most uncertain since the end of the cold war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, prompting a wave of extra military deployments by the UK and other Nato allies in eastern Europe.
Last February, just before the war started, the UK said it would deploy a second battalion in Estonia, in response to the Russian troop build-up.
But earlier this autumn it emerged those forces would be withdrawn back to the UK, where they would remain at “high readiness” to fly out in the event of threats to the Baltic country, prompting concerns about Britain’s military strength.
Healey asked Wallace to provide details of how many requests for military help had been received and “what is the total number of service personnel deployed or on stand-by” under each of the agreements currently in place.
Defence sources said, in response, there was always a balancing act when it came to requests for help from the rest of government, but said that they would not help out if they felt the military did not have the resources to do so.