Rishi Sunak's National Service policy branded an ‘unfunded gimmick’ to distract from disastrous Tory election campaign

Rishi Sunak announced the policy around National Service on Saturday evening

Tory plans to bring back National Service are an “unfunded gimmick” to distract from Rishi Sunak’s disastrous start to the campaign, critics have claimed.

Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar ridiculed the proposal, which will cost £2.5 billion, and argued the policy was a waste of money.

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He delivered the attack as political opponents in turn accused Mr Sarwar of “hypocrisy” after he was forced to admit not all employees at his family’s wholesale company were being paid the real living wage.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to reintroduce National Service if the Conservatives are re-elected in the next general election. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA WirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to reintroduce National Service if the Conservatives are re-elected in the next general election. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to reintroduce National Service if the Conservatives are re-elected in the next general election. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The Scottish Labour leader is not involved in United Wholesale, which was founded by his father, but his wife is a shareholder.

He said his party’s proposals for a “genuine living wage” would apply to all businesses, including his family’s wholesale company. The Conservatives said Mr Sarwar had been left in a “humiliating position”.

Under the Prime Minister’s plans, those aged 18 would either join the military for 12 months or spend one weekend a month for a year volunteering for civil agencies like the police, fire service and the NHS.

Mr Sunak said the policy would help unite society in an “increasingly uncertain world” and give young people a “shared sense of purpose”.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar called the National Service proposal a "gimmick".Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar called the National Service proposal a "gimmick".
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar called the National Service proposal a "gimmick".

But Mr Sarwar told the BBC: “It’s another gimmick and another unfunded spending commitment from the Conservatives. I think, to be honest, it’s a policy they’ve announced to try and distract away from both their record and also their disastrous election campaign so far.

“It’s a £2.5bn commitment and they haven’t said where the money is going to come from. If there is £2.5bn available, that should be spent on stabilising our economy, it should be spent on delivering for our NHS. It should be spent on changing and transforming our public services. I think this policy is going to go the exact same way as this Tory Government – in the bin.”

There was also criticism from SNP deputy party leader and veteran Keith Brown, who labelled the policy a “sticking plaster to cover up the disinvestment in the armed forces”.

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He said: “We’ve said since 2005 when the Scottish regiments were amalgamated, we are going to have a problem, and the recruitment and retention in the armed forces in the UK has been abysmal, with the smallest armed forces since Napoleonic times.

“It’s because they don’t have the salary, they don’t have the housing and they don’t have the training that they used to as well. The way to address this is to properly fund the armed forces.”

The Scottish Greens called the proposals “absurd, immoral and desperate". Party co-leader Patrick Harvie said: "Even by Rishi Sunak's standards, this proposal is absurd, immoral and desperate. It has no place in a modern democracy, let alone in the manifesto of a party that is serious about governing."

Mr Harvie added: "The noise that people can hear is the sound of a barrel being scraped by a Prime Minister who is out of time and out of ideas and will soon be out of Downing Street.”

Mr Sunak’s plan involves a royal commission to bring in expertise from across the military and civil society to establish the details of what he described as a “bold” national service programme. The Conservatives said this commission would be tasked with bringing forward a proposal for how to ensure the first pilot is open for applications in September 2025.

After that, the party would seek to introduce a new National Service Act to make the measures compulsory by the end of the next Parliament.

The military option would be selective, with some 30,000 placements for “the brightest and best” while everyone else would carry out volunteer work instead, the Conservatives said.

Since 2000, the number of personnel across the UK's three military services has plummeted by almost 32 per cent due to cuts and recruitment challenges, the Ministry of Defence has said.

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The party estimates the programme would cost £2.5bn a year by the end of the decade, with a proposal to fund £1bn through plans to “crack down on tax avoidance and evasion”. The Conservatives say the remaining £1.5bn would be paid for with money previously used for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) – a key part of the Levelling Up agenda that supports local charities and community groups.

The proposals also prompted criticism from unions, with both Unison and GMB labelling the move a distraction.

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “This is a desperate attempt to distract from the issues that matter to voters and suggests Rishi Sunak has completely lost the plot. It shows how quickly the government is prepared to abandon the communities it promised to ‘level up’.

“The cost of this hare-brained scheme would be better spent investing in youth services and on decent apprenticeships and training. Essential services need proper resourcing and enough decently paid staff to deliver for the public, not thousands of reluctant teen ‘volunteers’ who’d rather be anywhere else and would require supervision by an already overstretched workforce.”

Rachel Harrison, GMB national secretary, said: “This is a desperate gimmick from a Conservative Party that has a terrible track record on helping young people into work. They’ve failed to spend the apprentice levy and scrapped bursaries for training for vital jobs like nursing.

"Now the Tories want to impose unpaid labour on young workers to cover up their failure to secure our economy and national defence.”

Touring broadcast studios on Sunday, home secretary James Cleverly said the Tories would ensure the scheme “fits with different people’s attitudes and aspirations” after questions arose over whether teenagers would be punished for not taking part.

“There’s going to be no criminal sanction – there’s no-one going to jail over this,” he told Sky News’s Sunday Morning With Trevor Phillips programme. “This is about dealing with what we know to be the case, which is social fragmentation.

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“Too many young people live in a bubble within their own communities. They don’t mix with people of different religions, they don’t mix with different viewpoints.”

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross also defended the policy, explaining it was about “providing opportunities” for young people.

He said: "We know following the Covid pandemic that youngsters were one of the biggest cohort of people affected, so I welcome any opportunity to give young people the chance to get involved in the military service, the police or the NHS. But also there is a large opportunity to get involved in the volunteering sector, and loneliness is actually one of the things highlighted in the government’s proposals.

“Perhaps we could give opportunities for young people, but also help older people who are feeling lonely in Scotland”.

Mr Sunak claimed the plan would create “a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country”. He said: “This new, mandatory national service will provide life-changing opportunities for our young people, offering them the chance to learn real world skills, do new things and contribute to their community and our country.”



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