Tue, Aug 28, 2007 - Page 6 News List

UK security service investigates drop in female applicants

TROOP SHORTAGE A newspaper reported that the army was also having difficulties, including a 25 percent shortage of bomb disposal experts

AFP AND THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

MI5 is investigating why there has been a sharp fall in the number of women who want to join Britain's security and counter-intelligence agency. Only a third of applicants responding to MI5's latest recruitment drive are women, compared to half in past years. The agency is trying in particular to attract women and people from ethnic minorities.

The number of women in MI5 has already dropped to 44 percent of the total staff, down from more than half in the 1990s. Two of its last four heads have been women -- Dame Stella Rimington in the 1990s and Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller who retired in April.

Some officials blame the failure to attract more women into MI5 on the violent and macho image created by television programs. The impression given that MI5 officers go around with guns and fast cars was described by one insider as "just nonsense."

Officials paint a quite different picture of MI5 as a public service with good social security benefits, notably for women. Women who have been in MI5 for at least a year are entitled to six months maternity leave on full pay. As well as a further six months -- half on statutory maternity pay, half on additional unpaid maternity leave -- women in MI5 can have another year on unpaid special leave, making two years in total. Fathers get two weeks paternity leave on full pay.

MI5 is continuing to increase in size. The workforce of 3,150 is due to rise to 3,500 next year.

Meanwhile, the British armed forces are also suffering from widespread shortages, this time of specialist staff, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported yesterday.

Citing figures that it had seen, the Telegraph said that more than a third of Army medical posts were vacant, while there was an 85 percent shortfall in Navy Harrier pilot instructors, amid British involvement in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When contacted, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said he could not immediately comment on the figures cited by the newspaper, but said: "The MoD is taking action on recruitment and retention challenges, however there is no question of British forces deploying on military operations without the right support."

"We recruited 97 percent of the recruiting target last year and the latest Army figures show a 25 percent increase in enlistments into the infantry. Challenges remain in other areas, but action is being taken to address this," he said.

The spokesman said that steps that had been taken included a ?2,320 (US$4,700) operational bonus.

According to the Telegraph, there was a 25 percent shortage of bomb disposal experts and a 40 percent shortfall of Merlin helicopter crew.

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