Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Reporting of Armed Forces personnel serving part-time
“(1) The Secretary of State must include the number of personnel who are serving part-time in the UK armed forces quarterly service personnel statistics.
(2) The Secretary of State must include the number of personnel who are serving part-time in the UK armed forces biannual diversity statistics.”—(Gerald Jones.)
This new clause would require the number of UK armed forces service personnel working part-time to be reported regularly, and to be included in the UK armed forces biannual diversity statistics.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Review of level and impact of part-time and geographically restricted working in the armed forces—
“(1) Within twelve months of section 1 of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must commission a review of the impact of measures contained in that section.
(2) The review must consider—
(a) the number of requests for part-time or geographically restricted working which have been granted,
(b) the number of requests for part-time or geographically restricted working which have not been granted, and
(c) the effect of the measures contained within this Act on armed forces recruitment.
(3) The Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament the report of the review under this section within three months of its completion.”
This new clause would require a review covering the number of requests for part-time or geographically restricted working that have been accepted and declined and the impact of the Act on armed forces recruitment.
Amendment 1, in clause 3, page 2, line 21, at end insert—
“(3A) Prior to making any regulations under subsection (3), the Secretary of State shall commission an independent evaluation into the impact of part-time and geographically restricted working on recruitment to the armed forces and shall lay the report of the evaluation before each House of Parliament.”
This amendment would require an evaluation of the impact part-time and geographically restricted working has on recruitment to the armed forces.
New clause 1 would ensure that the armed forces personnel numbers and diversity statistics are as accurate as possible and that there can be proper scrutiny of the new flexible working measures. It would require that the personnel statistics and the diversity statistics include details of how many personnel work part time. It is vital that there is transparency about the personnel numbers, so that there can be scrutiny, accountability and informed debate.
The recent change in how personnel statistics are reported —moving from monthly to quarterly publication—reduced the opportunities to scrutinise the figures. As I said in Committee, in their consultation on the change the Government made clear the purpose of reporting the figures. The consultation said:
“The main purpose of these statistics is to measure the performance of the MOD against government and Parliament targets, and also to inform general debate in government, Parliament and the wider public.”
I wholeheartedly agree with the approach that my hon. Friend is setting out, and with the new clauses and amendments before the House. He will recall that I have been trying on a monthly basis to get from the Government many statistics on the crucial issue of recruitment, and they have shown some serious gaps in recruitment. Does he agree that it is crucial that we get the figures on part-time working because they are often used to inflate the overall size of a force, particularly the Army. When we hear about the crazy proposed cuts to the Army, we need to have the full facts in front of us.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that it is essential to have transparency and clarity on the figures. If the Government do not give the full picture, they are not fully informing the public debate or allowing us to see a true picture of the Ministry of Defence’s performance. Indeed, they are potentially encouraging a debate based on inaccurate information.
The Government have been accused of trying to fiddle the numbers before. Later in my speech, I shall talk about the mystery that is the Government’s armed forces targets. New clause 1 is an opportunity for them to show that they are committed to transparency and clarity when it comes to the size of our armed forces and the ways in which personnel are serving. It would not be right to suggest that the Army, or any of the services, is at a greater strength than it actually is by failing to separate part-time from full-time personnel, so the personnel statistics must include specific details about the number of personnel who are working part time. I appreciate that the new flexible working practices in the Bill will require personnel to deploy on operations should the need arise, but the Government must admit that it may take time to recall personnel, so it will build a clearer picture of our capabilities if we know how many personnel are serving part time.
Let me turn to the biannual diversity statistics. The Government have been clear that one reason for the introduction of this Bill is to improve the number of women in our armed forces. On Second Reading, the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), said that
“we are committed to see women account for 15% of our new recruits by 2020, and evidence suggests that they see greater opportunities for flexible working in the services as particularly attractive.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2017; Vol. 630, c. 624.]
It is good that the Government are taking steps to get to grips with this because, unfortunately, at present, the situation leaves a lot to be desired.
The latest diversity statistics were not out when we last discussed the Bill, in Committee. Now that they are out, we can see that progress remains slow. In the latest statistics published at the end of November, female representation made up 10.3% of the regular forces, which represents an increase of just 0.1% in 12 months; and just 3.6% of officers ranking OF-6 to OF-9 are female.
It is disappointing that the Ministry of Defence is now without any female Ministers, especially in the light of the fact that the Department has a very capable female Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), with a long-standing interest in defence issues whom the Prime Minister could easily have promoted during the recent reshuffle.
The picture is similarly disappointing for black, Asian and minority ethnic personnel, who now represent 7.5% of the regular forces.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why the female intake is so important is that we have a pretty atrocious record of females getting to senior positions in all three services? If we are to change that, we need young women joining now.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.
This highlights more than ever that active steps need to be taken if we are to reach the targets that are in place. The new advertising campaign for the Army is a good example of that. In spite of the negative reaction in some parts of the press, we welcome this new campaign and think that it is quite right that the Army does not limit its recruitment pool, but looks to get the best people from across society.
On the subject of diversity, particularly the number of BAME and African personnel in the Army and the geographical spread among our armed forces, is he as surprised as I was that when I asked a written question about the geographical split in our armed forces—the number from each local authority area and from each constituency—the MOD was unable to provide an answer? Would it not be useful to have those statistics so that each Member of Parliament could take pride in the number of their constituents who were joining our armed forces?
My hon. Friend highlights my point that we do need absolute clarity and transparency in the figures, not only on diversity, but across the board.
As I have said, diversity is a strength; it minimises the risk of groupthink. As operations take place in varying locations, a diverse force offers different ways to connect with local populations. If the purpose of the Bill is, in part, to increase the number of female personnel in particular, including through greater retention, why do the Government not see the logic in including information about part-time working in the statistics to show how progress is being made in the numbers of female personnel?
I simply cannot see a good reason for the Government not to adopt new clause 1. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), told us in Committee:
“The number of applications…is likely to be low in the early stages, so collating and reporting information on a monthly or biannual basis on the number of regular personnel undertaking new forms of flexible working would not provide significant or beneficial data.”––[Official Report, Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Public Bill Committee, 14 November 2017; c. 27.]
How long does that remain the case? Is there a plan for the Government to bring in reporting when the number of personnel reaches a certain percentage of all personnel? If so, what would that figure be?
Moreover, even if the number of applications is low initially, if there is a data from the initial implementation of the scheme then we could look at trends over time. Of course, the monthly personnel statistics are now quarterly and the diversity statistics are published only once every six months. It does not seem too difficult an ask to include within these statistics the number of those who are serving under the flexible working scheme. Indeed, the Minister told us in Committee how important monitoring would be, saying that
“it will be crucial to ensure that all cases of flexible working are properly recorded and monitored to provide personnel and commanding officers with a record of all the discussions and agreements, so that they can understand the impact and success of the entire process.”––[Official Report, Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Public Bill Committee, 14 November 2017; c. 27.]
If there will be a clear record from the outset, why will this not be added to the statistics? It seems that there will be no undue work or additional cost placed on the Department as a result of the new clause. If the Government are confident that this will see a reduction in outflow and even a boost to recruitment, what good reason is there to not include this information?
I hope the Government will see that this new clause is about ensuring transparency and allowing scrutiny and will accept it into the Bill.
The Scottish National party welcomes the measures in the Bill that aim to address some of the issues around recruitment and retention of personnel. However, we are concerned that they do not go far enough to tackle the crisis. Unless some evaluation of these measures is carried out, we run the risk of this simply becoming a paper exercise.
The most recent figures show that there was a net outflow of 2,740 personnel from the UK regular forces in the 12 months to the end of September 2017. The MOD said that this difference has increased compared with the 12 months to the end of September 2016, when there was a net outflow of 1,930. According to the 2017 armed forces continuous attitude survey, 35% are dissatisfied with service life in general, and the impact of service on family and personal life remains the top reason for leaving.
There are a number of operational pinch points, which are areas of expertise
“where the shortfall in trained strength…is such that it has a measurable, detrimental impact on current, planned or contingent operations”.
Data on operational pinch points are published in the MOD’s annual report and accounts. The latest report shows that the total number of pinch points, as at April 2017, is 30. Broken down by service, there are four pinch points in the Army, relating to logistical roles; 15 pinch points in the Navy, in engineering and specialist warfare; and 11 pinch points in the RAF, in engineering and intelligence roles, with emerging shortfalls in aircrew.
New clause 2, which is in my name, would ensure that a review is carried out allowing Parliament to monitor and evaluate whether the provisions in the Bill are having a positive impact on recruitment and retention. It would allow Parliament to hold the Government to account, and to monitor whether the measures are addressing the underlying crisis in recruitment and retention.
According to the explanatory notes to the Bill, clause 1(4) will give a commanding officer
“the ability…to vary, suspend or terminate the arrangement in prescribed circumstances, for example: national emergency or some form of manning crisis”.
I do not believe that anyone has a problem with the suspension of the agreement during times of national emergency—we discussed this point on Second Reading and in Committee—but we know that there are long-standing shortages in key areas and that the operational pinch points are increasing. We are concerned that a large number of service personnel will not benefit from the provisions in the Bill. The SNP amendment would allow Parliament to keep a close eye on the uptake of flexible working in the armed forces.
We welcome measures that could have a positive impact on recruitment of women, but it is clear that the Government need to do more to meet their 2020 target. The 2015 strategic defence and security review stated that by 2020 at least 15% of the intake into the UK regular forces would be female. In the 12 months to 31 March 2017, only 9.4% of the total intake was female. With women making up just 10.2% of the armed forces, more effort needs to be put into attracting female applicants. What impact does the Minister think the measures in the Bill will have on recruitment of women to the armed forces? What more do the Government intend to do to meet their target for 2020, because on current statistics we are a long way off?
As I said, the SNP welcomes the measures in this Bill, but we believe that this was the opportunity to do far more for service personnel and their families. Although the Bill aims to tackle some of the issues around dissatisfaction, unless personnel are properly represented among defence policy decision makers, it runs the risk of being a paper exercise. I do not think that any of us in this place want that to be the outcome. Having an armed forces representative body on a statutory footing is the norm in many countries. Recognised representation is a key way that the UK Government could better understand the needs and requirements of our armed forces and their families. If the UK Government are serious about improving the lives of our armed forces, they should look at putting an armed forces representative body on a statutory footing.
May I say how wonderful it is to see you back in your place, Mr Deputy Speaker?
I speak in support of the new clause and the wider provisions in the Bill. We have spoken before in this House about the challenges that we as a country face, and how vital it is that our armed forces have the capabilities that they need to tackle the threats that we are confronted with. Much of that discussion has understandably centred on funding, equipment, and having the right number of platforms. However, it really does not matter how many platforms we have and what their capabilities are if we do not have the skilled service personnel trained and retained in enough numbers to staff them.
We currently face a personnel deficit of 5%, with no fewer than 38 operational pinch points across the three services. Clearly, therefore, recruitment and retention is a real problem, and it is beginning to undermine our ability to deploy. While there are multiple issues that we need to address in this area, we know that flexible working offers the chance to begin to rectify the problem. As I have mentioned previously in this House, 46% of service personnel within the Royal Navy cite the lack of flexible working as a reason why they would consider leaving the military. Conversely, a third of all our armed forces cite flexible working as a reason why they would stay. So there is a very real and genuine demand in our military for provisions of the sort that this Bill brings forward.
However, for flexible working to succeed, it is vital that recruitment numbers increase, so that flexible working is a real option afforded to all service personnel. After all, introducing more flexible working at a time of static recruitment would risk exacerbating the problems we face, as we lack the numbers to fill the gaps, and people will not be able to take the options available. It will be important to monitor how many service personnel are working part-time, to identify and fill potential gaps in capacity, and to assess the effectiveness of this Bill’s aims. That is why I welcome my Front Benchers’ new clause requiring this information to be included in the armed forces biannual diversity statistics.
While a lack of flexible working is often cited as an obstacle to recruitment and retention, it is by no means the only one. There are challenges to be addressed in all four areas being looked at in the new employment model—pay and allowances, accommodation, terms of service, and training and education. In the case of accommodation, the recent collapse of Carillion—as everyone in this House knows, a major partner in the delivery of appalling service accommodation—means that these conversations are now even more urgent, and reassurance is a necessity.
On the matter of pay and conditions, little will change until we know what the pay review body is going to recommend this year to move us away from the appalling 1% pay cap. We also need certainty about the other terms and conditions offered to our personnel. Future pay rises cannot be funded by cutting tour bonuses or other allowances.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, I am profoundly aware of the debt we owe to the men and women of our armed forces. Their commitment to our country is unwavering every day. Our commitment to them, to their families and to their welfare should be unwavering, too. I fear that the message the Government are sending on this front remains mixed. Nevertheless, I welcome the Bill as an attempt to tackle some of the problems we face and a good start on the work of improving recruitment and retention in our armed forces.
May I say at the outset that I fully support the thrust of the Bill? It is before us for the very best of reasons, which I think is recognised in all parts of the House.
I would like, in my brief contribution, to comment on the two new clauses. I am attracted very much by the idea of a breakdown of the stats by either local authority or constituency areas. That would be extremely useful to all of us as Members of Parliament and would mean we know where we have a shortfall that we ought to be tackling. That is very attractive.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) is correct that it is a changing scene. This is only the start of a story, and we need to evaluate where we have got to. That is a wise suggestion.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth)—this sounds a bit like a summing-up speech, which it is not supposed to—displays, as ever, a deep knowledge of the subject, which is to be recognised.
I am sorry to do this again, but I should have reminded the House that my daughter is a serving officer with the armed forces. [Hon. Members Hear, hear!] You are very good to me.
As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West said, it is a moving situation. Mention has been made of accommodation and what the fall of Carillion means for that. We have work to do on the accommodation front. It is a gripe and a source of unhappiness among our armed forces personnel. I merely put down a marker at this stage that there is unfinished business there, but the Bill is worthy, and I applaud the Government for bringing it forward.
I support new clause 1, which would allow us to examine how those delivering the recruitment contract will adapt their working practices to promote the new working practices and take advantage of the new recruitment opportunities they present.
It is very important that we hold to account those who are recruiting on behalf of the MOD. There has been significant criticism of the role they have played and their performance so far. There have been a number of amendments to the way they have done that in recent months, which I hope brings about the intended improvements. It would be worth while to examine the way they are delivering on that contract. The intentions behind the Bill are entirely positive and should be supported, as I am glad they are by those on the Labour Front Bench.
I would like to expand on the point that I raised in my intervention about my disappointment and my urging of the Minister to examine how successful we are in recruiting on a geographical basis. Members right across the House take tremendous pride in not only our armed forces generally but their local regiments and the contribution that people in their constituencies make to the armed forces. When I am on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I am struck by how Members in Northern Ireland want to meet up with the Irish regiments. It is similar for Members in Scotland and for people like me; I have wanted to meet up with those in the Sherwood Foresters—or the Mercian Regiment, as it is now—to recognise the local contact that we have with the armed forces.
It is great to see you back, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the hon. Gentleman —my friend—for his speech. The worry for me is that the more we try to recruit locally, the more we realise we have made a mistake in not actually keeping local regiments local. For example, my hon. Friend—in inverted commas—mentioned the Sherwood Foresters, who are now part of the Mercians, which covers a big area. People I know would much prefer regiments to be much more local, and local normally means good recruiting.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I am too much of a traditionalist to call him an hon. Friend in this place, but he knows I call him a friend elsewhere. I agree entirely with what he says about the importance of locality. We could have a wider debate about whether the Sherwood Foresters should have been put into the Mercian Regiment. When I was on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, we talked about our local regiments, and it became clear that the Mercian Regiment is considered to be the local regiment for people over an incredibly diverse geographical split.
All the more reason, therefore, where information about the original home address of all the new recruits clearly exists, for that information to be made available. That would enable MPs to be part of the programme of trying to drive recruitment and to take pride in the level of recruitment in their area. Just imagine, if we had three MPs all within a few recruits of each other as we approached the end of the year, how much we could be driving such a programme. It would be a real force for good.
If geographical challenges were thrown up in relation to communities—religious or race communities—or areas where the Navy or the Air Force particularly recruit, and the figures were available to all of us, it would put positive pressure on the Government to take action on such things. We talk about diversity, and it seems to me that this is one of the ways in which we could drive it. To sum up, I would be very interested if the Minister would consider the idea of making the information that currently exists publicly available.
As I said in Committee, I broadly welcome the proposals. At the top of the armed forces and obviously at ministerial level, there is a recognition that society is changing and that if we are not only to attract people to the armed forces but to retain them, we need flexibility in the way in which they are employed.
The new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) is very clear, and I cannot understand what the objection to it could be. We need to ensure that one of the main aims of flexible working is to attract more women into our armed forces, but without being able to monitor that through the Department producing reports, I am not sure how we can gauge whether it is a success. The Minister may say that we could rely on tabling parliamentary questions, but I have to say that the quality of the answers from the Department recently has not been great, and it takes two or three attempts to elicit any answers. I do not see anything wrong with how the new clause is structured. It is a matter of making sure that we monitor what is going on.
The same applies to the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). The other side of this issue is about knowing why part-time or flexible working is refused. In other workplaces, people refused this type of thing have a course of redress. It is important to be able not only to see whether flexible working proposals are being used, but the reasons why they are not being implemented, which could lead to a lot of dissatisfaction. It will be important to have some oversight to ensure that we know if, for example, people leave because at a certain level in the Army or other armed service they decide that they do not like it.
On the broader issue of armed forces recruitment, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) raised some interesting points. We are failing on recruitment, and the MOD is now reverting to the usual answer, which is to say, “The reason why we are not attracting people is the economic upturn and we are in a very competitive environment.” That is an old chestnut, and I think I even used it on some occasions when I was a Minister. I am sorry, but that is not the reason. The fundamental issue is that the privatisation model used for recruitment has failed and, as was mentioned earlier, it has also broken the link to local areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) raised the important point that flexible working is part of a bigger package, which is not only about career opportunities for individuals, but about accommodation. In Committee and when we debated the Bill previously, the Minister talked about the future accommodation model. I must say that he is going to have to get on with it, because anyone who reads today’s National Audit Office report on Annington Homes will find that it does not make for very pretty reading. This was one of the worst decisions ever taken by—I have to say—a Conservative Government in 1996, and the legacy it leaves for not just this Government but future Governments is quite frightening.
Ministers think that the future accommodation model is the way out, and I hope it is, but it will have to be done creatively. To look at one statistic alone in the report, if the discount the MOD currently gets is reduced from 58% to 38% when it comes up for renegotiation in 2021, that will cost the MOD and the taxpayer an additional £84 million from a budget that is already very restricted. There will have to be some very creative thinking about how to extract the Government from that contract, but it should not be done at the expense of servicemen and women who rely on accommodation as part of their package. As I said in Committee and the last time we discussed this in the House, I am not opposed to a new accommodation model, but there are two issues: one is that it will take time to introduce; and the other is that it will cost money.
I do not know whether the issue of accommodation will be a priority in the current MOD review, but I ask Ministers to consider it an important part. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North rightly said, we concentrate a lot on equipment and it is quite right that we should have the equipment that people need. However, we can have all the equipment in the world, but if we do not have skilled, highly trained personnel behind the equipment—if we do not retain people and keep them, and more importantly their families, happy—we are not going to be successful.
To finish, I would urge that personnel are seen as an important integral part of our defence effort, and nothing should detract from that. The Government have created their own mess with the budget for it. I wish them and the Defence Secretary well in trying to sort this out and in pleading for more money from the Treasury. The current Chancellor was the Defence Secretary when some of these decisions—chickens that are now coming home to roost—were taken. At the end of the day, these are the people we rely on to keep us safe, and the men and women of our armed forces and their families are the ones we should always bear in mind.
It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber for the Report stage of the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill and to see again right hon. and hon. Friends and colleagues who have been on this journey from the very beginning. I have listened carefully to those speaking in support of new clauses 1 and 2 and amendment 1, which I will come on to specifically in a moment. Lots of views have been put forward that are technically beyond the scope of a Report stage, but that does not prevent hon. Members from raising such points, which are all valid. It reflects the House’s commitment to understanding and indeed scrutinising defence matters as a whole, as well as matters being considered on Report.
There has been much talk about recruitment on a geographical basis and understanding the numbers. I am pleased to be joined on the Front Bench by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is responsible for this issue and is looking at it very carefully indeed. I say this as a former infanteer. The history of our armed forces—indeed, the Army—across Britain varies depending on whether the unit in question is a corps, a service, or indeed an infantry regiment. There are some huge and wonderful geographical connections, including with my own regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, going back to the Rifles and the Ox and Bucks regiment and so forth. Then there is the RAF and the Royal Navy, which recruit nationally.
We will listen carefully to what people say. There is an interest in understanding what goes on in each constituency. I very much hope that hon. Members will take advantage of the forthcoming Armed Forces Day to make sure that their constituency and local authority can promote and recognise what our armed forces do in this country.
Much was also said about the membership of the Front-Bench team. The Minister for the Armed Forces asked how many Ministers there had been from Labour, going back over its entire history, in Defence and indeed how many there had been in No.10. We can both play that game, but we are all here for the right reasons.
Pay was also mentioned, as it is regularly on these occasions. We have made it clear that the 1% pay freeze has been lifted by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It is up to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to do its due diligence and to make its recommendations, which will be coming our way shortly.
On targets for women and ethnic minorities, we absolutely need to work on this, and that is partly why we have an armed forces people programme to recognise exactly the challenge we face. We want to achieve the percentage changes we are aiming for, which is why these changes are being introduced. I hope the House would agree that one of our success stories across the armed forces is recruitment and retention and the work done by our cadets, of which there are now 126,000 across the country. That number is growing, and it is growing in key areas. These are people who have already bought into and understand what the armed forces ethos is all about. Whether they go on to become reservists or regular members of the armed forces, they buy into the importance of supporting those in uniform, which is very important indeed.
I apologise that I was not here at the crack of the Minister’s speech. As he and other hon. Members will know, the cadet force plays a significant cross-community role in Northern Ireland, in both the nationalist and the Unionist communities, and the force has grown. I am proud to be the spokesperson for the cadet forces in Northern Ireland in this House, and I would reiterate what he has said. What happens in Northern Ireland helps us to move forward as a country.
My hon. Friend, if I may call him that, makes an important point. I had the opportunity to visit Belfast recently for Remembrance Day, which was very moving indeed, and I know that the Minister for the Armed Forces is to visit Belfast shortly.
Let me turn to the group of new clauses and amendments we are debating. I welcome the opportunity to speak again about whether there is benefit to imposing a statutory requirement to evaluate and report on the impact of the new flexible options on the armed forces. The size and strength of our armed forces is of course important. It has been a recurring theme in recent debates, most recently in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on securing that important debate, and I pay tribute to all who contributed. The Minister for the Armed Forces said in that debate that we must do everything we can to persuade our young people that the armed forces remain a great place to work.
Recruitment remains a challenge for the armed forces, as has been reiterated today. We face strong competition from other employers. We acknowledge that, but we also acknowledge that we can do more to encourage our people to stay, so that we do not lose their valuable skills and experience. That is why we are responding with a range of short and long-term initiatives to ensure that the offer of a career in the armed forces remains competitive. This Bill will help by enabling us to make the changes necessary to enable our armed forces to work flexibly, reflecting the realities of modern life.
The amendments and new clauses in this group revisit the theme of placing various obligations on the Ministry of Defence to publish reports on the effects of flexible working measures on the armed forces. These measures involve a major change of approach to the terms under which some of our brave armed forces serve this country and are an important part of how we modernise our armed forces. The changes are as important as some of the other modernising steps taken in recent years, such as our change in policy on homosexuality, introduced in 2000, and our decision in 2016 to allow women to serve in close combat roles. The measures we are considering are another positive step in the right direction and are aimed at making serving in the armed forces a more attractive proposition, both for those who already serve and those considering serving.
What we propose in this Bill lies at the heart of our armed forces covenant. For that reason, Earl Howe committed during the Bill’s passage through the other place to report on the impact of the new measures in future armed forces covenant annual reports. I commend this to hon. Members as an appropriate place for reporting on the impact of the new measures. Indeed, the latest report, published in late December 2017, trailed the introduction of the measures in this Bill. In debates and in the information we have published, we have been clear that the introduction of these measures is not a silver bullet that will instantly resolve the recruitment and retention challenge that we face—and that the hon. Gentleman who is about to intervene has raised.
The publication of that information is obviously a welcome step. The Minister says that the report will talk about progress, but will it produce the statistics or, more importantly, the numbers declined and the reasons for that, as would be required under new clause 2? If the good intentions behind this Bill are not followed through, we could have people declined flexible working, which could lead to more disenchantment rather than success.
If I may, I will come to how we recognise and acknowledge the impact of the Bill, which I think will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.
We believe that these measures, along with a range of others that the Department is introducing, will impact on recruitment and retention, not immediately but in the longer term. We should also be clear that we are competing with other, wider societal factors that are affecting our ability to recruit and retain, such as record youth employment and a smaller number of 16 to 24-year-olds entering the workforce over the next few years. This is an ongoing journey of change, which will be undertaken at a steady rather than a high-speed pace, against a background of continuing societal change. However, we fully recognise the importance of maintaining effective metrics following the introduction of these measures, to enable us to judge how well they are working and whether we need to make other changes.
The Minister is rightly dwelling on how these measures could help with recruitment in other areas, but this is also about looking at capabilities, particularly in cyber. The Bill provides a different opportunity for people to serve and bring skills into the armed forces that we may need in the new online space.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will perhaps touch on in more detail on Third Reading, when we come to it. It is important to recognise that the conduct of wars is changing. The type of people we need to recruit is also changing, and he gives an excellent example of the need for us to improve our cyber-capability. A great example of that is not necessarily to train in-house, but to recognise that there are high-end skills in the civilian sector that we can introduce through greater use of reservists.
Let me ask a clear question: what is the resistance to producing these statistics? The Minister talks about a matrix, whatever that means in civil service-speak, but this is a pretty straightforward question.
It is a straightforward question, and I did tell the hon. Gentleman that I would get to it shortly. I then gave way to another Member and he asked me the same question again. If I can make a little progress, before he asks me a third time, I am sure we will get to where we want to be.
We absolutely recognise the importance of keeping the effect of these changes under continuous review, in terms of the benefits to our personnel and the impact on recruitment, retention and diversity. I remind hon. Members that the overall number of personnel taking up the new opportunities will initially be small and that flexible working is but one of several initiatives aimed at improving recruitment and retention in the longer term. It would therefore be extremely difficult to isolate the impact on recruitment and retention that is due solely to the Bill. Introducing a system of measurement would be difficult and would delay what we are trying to achieve.
That is complete and utter nonsense. I accept that the numbers might be smaller as the system gets going, but surely there must be a way of logging this. I do not know why the Ministry is so opposed to producing these statistics. Clearly, in the early days, it could say that the system was bedding in. The Minister is going to get freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions about this, so he might as well produce the information.
I fear that unless I say something to win the hon. Gentleman over, we might go around this merry-go-round many times. I will certainly look at this, but in Australia and other countries that have successfully gone down this road, the initial take-up has been so small that introducing a measurement system would delay the initiative’s introduction, and the numbers will be so small that it would be difficult to determine whether the effect is the result of the initiative or others that are being introduced. To discourage him from intervening again in two minutes, let me say that I will be more than happy to look at this and discuss it with him in the future.
The Ministry of Defence meets its obligations under the public sector equality duty to provide information on the workforce in relation to the protected characteristics identified by the Equality Act 2010, through the disclosure of information relating to the gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion and age of personnel. Our new UK armed forces quarterly service personnel statistics will, like the monthly publications they replace, provide detailed information and analysis on the number of service personnel by strength, intake and outflow, and detail is provided for both the full-time armed forces and the reserves. The number of people who take up the new arrangements will be significant to us, because obviously they are the people we want to retain, but it will be modest at first— somewhere between 0.5% and 1% of the armed forces. We therefore judge that collating and reporting information on a cohort of such a size would not provide significant or beneficial data, particularly in the early stages.
Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes again, let me say that as the system grows and develops, I will certainly consider whether introducing such a thing would be worthwhile.
The principal long-term aim of the Bill is that we attract, recruit and retain people from a more diverse cross-section of society with the knowledge, skills and experience that we need to deliver operational capability. Let me be clear that we will not see results overnight. We are proposing good, positive steps in the right direction, but this is one of several proactive initiatives that we are introducing as part of an ongoing journey of change. We need to modernise our armed forces if we are to attract and retain the right mix of people and skills, which is why we are introducing these measures alongside others, collectively managed under the armed forces people programme. That programme includes the future accommodation model, which has been touched on, and the enterprise approach.
The MOD has been transparent about the challenging recruitment and retention climate in which we are operating. British society is changing and, if we are to compete in the jobs market, so must defence. Shortages in our traditional recruiting grounds and record youth employment mean that we must modernise and make our offer more attractive to those who are already serving and those we want to recruit. These measures will benefit a small but significant cohort, such as women and men starting a family, those with caring commitments and those who wish to undertake long-term studies. We have a good body of evidence on the demand for such ways of working that has been derived from external reports, internal surveys and focus groups. Our ongoing flexible duties trial shows that providing our people with modern choices will help us to retain highly skilled personnel who might otherwise leave.
I should reassure hon. Members that intake and strength by rank, trade and specialisation are regularly monitored and managed at service level and centrally by the MOD. Commissioning an external body to evaluate the early impact of the flexible working measures would serve only to delay their introduction in 2019.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Chamber.
I remember the Minister bringing the Second Reading debate to a conclusion 40 minutes early. I just want to touch on what he said about looking at evidence. The 2015 peer review body highlighted in its evidence that people sometimes join the forces to get skills before moving on to better-paid jobs elsewhere. One of the ways around that would be to give them a decent pay rise. Will he commit to that?
If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the start of the debate, he would have heard me say that a pay rise is being considered by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. The 1% pay freeze has been lifted, which is good news, and we look forward to the recommendations that will be made in March.
The MOD already gathers evidence on the impact that new forms of flexible working will have on our people. We think that that will provide more value than any evaluation from an independent contractor. We do not need to introduce more evaluation, further levels of statistics or additional reporting. It remains our view that imposing new statutory obligations would be unnecessarily costly, delay the introduction of the new measures and benefits for our people, and add little value to what we are trying to achieve. As I have said, we recognise the importance of keeping the effects of these changes under continuous review, in terms of the benefits to personnel and the impact on recruitment and retention.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman for a fourth time.
If after one year the Minister gets a parliamentary question or an FOI request on this, how will he respond?
If the hon. Gentleman asks the parliamentary question or makes the FOI request, I will respond.
I said earlier that the introduction of the new flexible working opportunities falls firmly within the scope of the armed forces covenant, which I think the whole House can be proud of. I assure the House that we will monitor the introduction of the new measures during the first year of implementation from 2019, and report on the impact in future armed forces covenant reports. Given the reassurances that I have offered, I hope that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) will withdraw new clause 1.
I thank the Minister for his response. We tabled the new clause largely for probing reasons. If he will not accept it, I hope that he will reflect on our debate and that the Government will publish the information available. I do not think that arguments about cost and delay stand up when the evidence is already there and no additional work would be required. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.
As the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said, we have the best armed forces in the world, as I believe is illustrated by their standards, commitment, training and actions. We need only look at what they have achieved in defeating Daesh in Syria and Iraq, at the training they are providing with troop-contributing nations in Somalia and at the humanitarian support they provided in the Caribbean last summer. They help to define our international reputation and how we are seen across the world. That crucial hard power sits behind the soft power that we utilise so well, so we equip our armed forces well and train them well, but their professionalism comes from our ability to recruit and retain the best.
The work of our armed forces in defending our shores and interests, and in working with our allies, is all the more important to provide capable, visible and enduring hard power, given the more dangerous chapter that the world is experiencing, as is illustrated by various threats to the international rules-based order that we helped to create after the second world war. As I said on Report, the conduct of war has changed as technology and tactics have advanced. We ask different things of our armed forces—our soldiers, sailors and air personnel—than we did even just a decade ago.
The Bill completes its passage through Parliament much as it started its journey last year. That is testimony to the wide support given to the new flexible working arrangements here and the other place, where the Government agreed that any regulations made under the new provisions that the Bill will insert into the Armed Forces Act 2006 will be subject to the affirmative procedure. It shows, too, the willingness to ensure that we all do what is right for our armed forces.
I am very grateful for the positive engagement and support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. I thank the Public Bill Committee for its excellent work in thoroughly examining the Bill and how it will support our armed forces. I also thank its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), for keeping all members of the Committee in good order.
I particularly thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for his involvement in Committee and his careful probing of the Bill. Of course, I thank the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has a long history of involvement—as well as interventions—for his positive contributions at the Bill’s various stages. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for her interest in and concern about the Bill.
We all recognise the challenges that we face in recruiting and retaining our people. The Bill is a small but important step towards improving opportunities for our armed forces. I make it clear, as I said on Report, that it will not lead to sweeping changes, but it is the right thing to do. It will help to modernise our approach and make us more competitive in the jobs market. We believe that the Bill will help in the long term, and improve recruitment and retention.
While the new measures will be made available to all regular service personnel, we believe that they will be particularly attractive to women and those with caring responsibilities. We hope that the Bill will make a difference by providing our people with an alternative to having to choose to leave the service that they love. It will make a difference to our success in helping to keep the skills, knowledge and experience that we need in defence.
We have made it clear throughout the Bill’s passage that operational capability is our red line and that this is not about creating a part-time armed forces or, indeed, saving money. The vast majority of our people will remain in full-time regular service. The Bill has the support of the service chiefs and, more importantly, of the services and the families federations. We are immensely proud of the achievements of our armed forces. They work hard for us and we owe them and their families a great deal. This flexible working Bill will provide our servicemen and women with an opportunity for some respite from their full-time commitment when they need it most. The Bill is for them.
I will end on a personal note by saying what impact I think the Bill will have on our armed forces. In the history of our armed forces, seismic moments have changed things for good or bad, and for ill or positive. They have changed the conduct of war. Going back to Agincourt, for example, the introduction of the longbow changed how war moved forward, as did the introduction of the tank at the battle of Cambrai. The introduction of the first aircraft carrier—HMS Hermes—in 1919 was another critical moment for our armed forces. However, with less fanfare, I believe that this Bill, which I hope will gain Royal Assent, will make its mark by changing the way in which our armed forces are perceived and our ability to retain important people in them. It sits next to two other major changes—they will not be as big as those procurement changes that I mentioned—with the opening up of all roles to women in our armed forces and the change on rules regarding homosexuality.
In closing, I thank General Richard Nugee, the Chief of Defence People, and his team for their work on putting the concept forward and seeing it all the way through to the end stages. I also thank the Minister for the Armed Forces, who, in the role that I have today, pioneered this approach. It has been a real honour to take the Bill from Second Reading through to today, and I hope that it will have the House’s support.
I pay tribute to the unstinting work of our armed forces. The Opposition will support the Bill on Third Reading this evening because we want to see greater flexibility for our armed forces personnel to serve in ways that are compatible with the demands of modern family life. We also want to attract the widest possible pool of people to the excellent careers that the forces offer, including those who may require flexible working conditions to serve.
I thank my noble Friend Lord Touhig for his work on the Bill in the other place, including the important amendment that he secured to ensure that the Bill’s finer details that are introduced through regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure, as the Minister confirmed, meaning that both Houses will have to vote on them. That will give further opportunity to explore and address some issues that we have raised today.
As I have said, we welcome the Bill and hope that its provisions will make a meaningful difference to personnel who may need temporary periods of flexible or part-time working and/or limits on separated service. The reality is that any of us could find ourselves requiring this kind of flexibility in our work, particularly as the complexities of modern life mean juggling work and home responsibilities, and when often both parents work full time and a complex set of arrangements is in place for childcare and the care of elderly relatives.
Family arrangements can be all the more complex for members of the services, with the expectations of constant readiness and deployment. In these circumstances, it is understandable that some service personnel may look for greater flexibility by moving into civilian sectors. However, it makes no sense to lose highly skilled and dedicated service members simply because they need a more flexible working arrangement for a specified period of time. That is where the Bill comes in. If the flexibility encourages more potential recruits to consider a career in the forces, that is a very good thing, because the services will benefit from being able to draw from the brightest and the best, from all backgrounds and communities.
Of course, the Bill is not a silver bullet to address the real crisis in recruitment and retention that is facing our armed forces. Every one of the services is running below the stated targets and numbers are down year on year. I know that the Minister shares my concern about this state of affairs. There is a strong feeling across the House that personnel numbers cannot be allowed to slide still further. Perhaps the Minister will explain whether the Government are still committed to an Army of 82,000. If so, how does he propose to achieve that, when the latest statistics show yet another fall in the trade trained strength of the Army, with just 77,444 personnel serving?
It has become increasingly clear that the Government’s decision to outsource recruitment services to Capita lies at the heart of this issue, as the company has delivered neither value for money to the taxpayer, nor an increase in personnel numbers. In fact, the Army’s recruiting partnership project with Capita has completely failed to deliver the savings that were promised. Capita is already charging the public purse £54 million more than anticipated at this stage. In all, the Government have spent more than £1 billion of taxpayers’ money on recruitment in the past five years, yet personnel numbers in all three services have fallen dramatically in that time.
Many of us have heard worrying accounts of recruits being unable to sign up because of failures in IT programmes. In that context, it is not at all clear what possible benefit the contract with Capita is providing. It is time for Ministers to seriously consider whether the contract could be delivered more effectively back in-house by experienced officers as opposed to civilian staff, who no doubt do their best, but are being hamstrung by Capita.
As well as addressing problems with recruitment, we must consider the difficulties with retaining personnel across all three services. It is deeply worrying that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body has found an
“over-riding sense of uncertainty and an increasing”—
perception among the forces—
“that the offer will only get worse”.
The Minister mentioned the lifting of the pay cap, but we know that there are delays and considerable uncertainty about what it will actually mean. Satisfaction with basic rates of pay and pension benefits are at their lowest levels ever recorded—barely one third of service personnel are satisfied with their basic pay—and after seven years of below-inflation pay rises, it is high time to take decisive action and give our personnel a meaningful pay rise.
We learned last week that the Government would be carrying out a fresh defence review due to report in the summer. This represents a unique opportunity to address some of the real challenges we face around personnel numbers. Despite widespread speculation about further cuts to our defence capabilities, including to the Royal Marines, I sincerely hope that the Government will take the opportunity afforded by the review to invest in our armed forces and ensure they have the resources they need. They will find considerable support on the Opposition Benches if they are successful in this endeavour. Returning to Third Reading, however, I reiterate our support for the Bill.
I rise briefly to support the Bill and to congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on its successful passage, which I hope the House will support in a few minutes’ time.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, this is a modest Bill, but sometimes the smaller steps are the most important. Like him, I too believe that in time the Bill—soon an Act, I hope—will be seen to have had quite radical consequences. Of course, as he said, it is part of a series of wider reforms, but it is an important part. Seven years ago, only 8% of our serving personnel were women, for example. That is not right for our country, but it also was not right for our armed forces, which were missing out on all the talent and expertise that might otherwise have been available to them. That is why we set a new target of 15% female participation among each new intake by 2020, and we are now, I understand, well on the way to meeting that target. The Bill will help. It will show anybody—male or female—considering a career in the armed forces that they are now modern employers able to recognise people’s changing expectations over the lifetime of their careers. It will enable employees, for the first time, to apply to work for the days and hours that suit them best.
I make three final comments on the Bill. First, we will have to do more to attract women leavers back into the armed forces. We will have to find ways of working harder at not missing out on the experience they had and which they might have had to give up, perhaps to start a family or move elsewhere with their spouse. I believe—my right hon. Friend might want to respond to this—that we will have to look at how women coming back into the armed forces can quickly recover the rank and entitlements they would otherwise have achieved.
It was remiss of me not to acknowledge the work of the former Secretary of State in this area and in pioneering the Bill. He has long been passionate about this subject, as is reflected in his speech today. Does he agree that the line pursued during his time of allowing those who leave the armed forces well to rejoin well after perhaps a spell in civilian life is worth pursuing?
It is definitely worth pursuing, but we need then to focus particularly on women who have left the armed forces and look at further ways of encouraging them to rejoin at a later stage of their lives or careers.
Secondly, women and recruits from the black and ethnic minorities still need more role models: it is not just about seeing other women or other members of the black and Asian communities alongside them; it is about seeing more senior officers who have built successful careers who they can look up to. We need to see more women and ethnic minority candidates reaching three-star and—one day, I hope, in the fullness of time—even four-star rank. If we are to attract more people from outside to areas where we are short, we have to show them that they can not only have worthwhile careers but get to the very top.
Finally, of course, that applies to the Government themselves, as was pointed out a little earlier, I think. I, too, regret that after the recent reshuffle—I will not comment on how successful or not that reshuffle was—there is now no female Defence Minister. As the matter has been raised, the House might wish to know that when the Prime Minister formed her first Administration, back in June 2016, and was moving my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), I made it very clear that we needed at least one woman Minister on the team, and I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) was appointed a Defence Minister. I congratulate her, of course, on her promotion to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but that does leave a gap, and it is a mistake—if I may put it as boldly as that to the Treasury Bench—to have five Defence Ministers and for them all to be male. If we are to get more women and—in the fullness of time—more people from the ethnic minorities to join up, we have to show that this kind of change is embedded from the top.
That said, I support the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friends on getting it through.
I thank the Minister for his work on the Bill around which there has been much consensus across the House, and I pay tribute to those involved in drawing it up.
I am disappointed that the Minister has not committed to publishing the statistics called for in the amendment and new clauses tabled by the Opposition and the SNP. No doubt, however, we will return to this issue, through parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and so on, to ensure we are properly capturing the picture. I understand what he says about the small uptake initially, but we need to know that there is a small uptake initially and that it is increasing, and without the statistics, that is not possible.
The SNP has some concerns about the housing that armed forces personnel and their families are expected to live in. I repeat some of the comments about pay. It is imperative that we get the pay correct for members of the armed forces if we are to recruit and retain the best. I have raised leave entitlement several times. It is not enough that it can be carried forward and carried forward; safeguards must be in place to make sure that people can take their leave when they need to. There must also be safeguards in place for families to make sure they are supported when spouses are deployed and when they are on base and that the education of their children is considered when they join up.
The SNP will continue to call on the Government to set up an armed forces representative body. It was in our manifesto, and we will continue to raise this issue. The Police Federation is able to liaise with the Government. The armed forces and armed forces personnel do not have similar abilities. It would give a voice to those affected by the issues raised today—issues that affect retention and recruitment, not simply flexible working. I call on the Minister to look seriously at the issue of a representative body, but I thank him once again for his work on the Bill.
I call Kirstene Hair.
Did you call me, Madam Deputy Speaker?
For the sake of clarity, I will say it more loudly: Miss Kirstene Hair.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank all Members who have already contributed to this important debate.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have armed forces personnel stationed in our constituencies will know of the tremendous effort, both physical and emotional, that those men and women put into their work every day, and will also know of the impact that the Bill will have on people who, whether in times of conflict or in peacetime, are determined to provide us with the greatest protection possible.
In my constituency, the distinguished servicemen of RM Condor are a constant reminder to residents that they can rest safe in the knowledge that world-class professionals are nearby. Although most of those who serve in 45 Commando come from hundreds of miles away, the Royal Marines are rooted in the community. Locals are incredibly proud of the base, which is, quite simply, an integral part of the fabric of Angus.
Given the sacrifices that armed forces personnel are prepared to make, not only in risking their own safety but during the difficult extended periods away from their friends and families, it is morally right for us to do everything in our power to help them in their chosen career. I am therefore delighted that the Bill has received support from Members on both sides of the House. As has been said before, it is a Bill for families. Long periods previously separated parents from children and partners from each other, and personnel were unable to be with ill relatives. That need not continue, because the Bill offers balance.
The changes will benefit those who currently serve, and will also support recruitment in the future. Like other Members, I am particularly hopeful that more female personnel will be attracted to such roles—or, perhaps, attracted back to them, if they have previously left. We have said that we want to recruit the best, but that means that we must offer the best, and the working practices proposed in the Bill are more in line with structures that are commonplace throughout the private and civilian public sector in the United Kingdom.
The Bill is a small but significant step. It deals with an issue that has been much considered and debated, with the needs of our troops measured against the necessity of maintaining our country’s security and national defence at all times. Much has been said in the other place about the term “part-time”, which has been granted a note of derision and scorn that it does not deserve. The Bill relates to hours of work, distance from families and the question whether increased flexibility will help soldiers and their loved ones to lead better, more balanced lives. Its benefits are part of the commitment that the Government have made to transforming the armed forces into the modern, diverse and more effective organisation to which the Secretary of State again outlined his commitment in the House last week: a military in which personal circumstance or background is not important—unlike commitment to professionalism, skill, and making the people of the United Kingdom so incredibly proud and undoubtedly safe.
I welcome the Bill. I was trying to work out how many armed forces Bills I had dealt with over the past 16 years, either as a Minister or as a Back Bencher. [Interruption.] As the Minister says, I am a veteran.
This, I think, is one of the simplest Bills I have encountered, but, as the Minister has said, it is important. It is intended to ensure that working practices in our armed forces are modern, but also attractive to those who are thinking of joining. The Minister may think me pedantic in wanting to know how its implementation will be monitored. However, I think we need to ensure not only that the armed forces are offered these opportunities, but that the information is cascaded down the chain of command, so that people are aware that they can ask for flexible working arrangements, and those who are in a position to make the decisions recognise that they can use them.
Training will be needed, and, in some cases, attitudes must change. I have no problem with the senior levels of the armed forces, who have, I think, bought into this, but the Bill must have an effect in practice, throughout the chain of command. That is why I think it important for us to monitor the number of people who take up these opportunities, and also when and why they are refused. Is there a good reason for that? I know that civil servants have convinced the Minister that such monitoring would be an onerous task, but I do not accept that for one minute. As the system beds in, the information will obviously need to be produced internally in the Department, for monitoring purposes, and I find it difficult to understand why it cannot subsequently be published. I think that in future, as a result of freedom of information requests or parliamentary questions, the Minister, or his successor, will have to publish it anyway. I also think that it would be positive to project the fact that the forces are introducing flexible working by giving examples.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. This is the first of five interventions that I intend to make.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point about the need to trickle information down to commander level to ensure that people are aware of the opportunities. That will be incentivised and supported by local commanders, but there will be a higher approvals authority. It is all based on operational capability, which we must not lose sight of. I hope that that clarifies the way in which the system will work.
I accept that. I do not question for one minute what the armed forces will do in trying to ensure that the information is instilled in the chain of command, but this is a new way of working for them. I am not criticising them, because it is inevitable that when such a change is introduced in any company or other organisation, some people will not get it, and some will positively resist it. Some people will see it as a radical change. I think we should ensure that those who ask for flexible working are given good reasons why, in some cases, it cannot be implemented. I accept that there will be operational reasons.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we are considering introducing a new element of flexibility into service in the armed forces, we should look again at the maximum enlistment time? Although the military have moved towards extending the retirement age in view of our ageing population, perhaps it is time to revisit that as well. People who are well into their 60s, and even 70s, are quite capable of doing some of the modern jobs in the armed forces, which would not have been the case 20 or 30 years ago.
I think it is a fact of life that the pool of 18-year-olds is becoming smaller. I hope the right hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) should be brought out of retirement; I do not know whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing for the armed forces, but it would certainly be interesting for them. However, he has raised an interesting point. When I was a Defence Minister, people who could have made a further contribution were leaving the forces in their early to mid-50s, for reasons connected with, for instance, pensions. Given that that pool of 18-year-olds is getting smaller, we should also revisit the idea of recruitment from Commonwealth countries, which has been successful in the past. It has made a tremendous contribution to our nation’s defence over the last few years.
My hon. Friend has referred to serving personnel of a slightly more mature aspect. Might not the most effective way to ensure that flexible working proceeds as the Bill proposes be to ensure that at least one one-star officer takes the opportunity to sign up for it?
That is an interesting concept, which returns me to an important point made by the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon). We need new role models, and not just in the context of flexible working. We need, for instance, to see a senior general who is a woman. We can do all the talking we like about trying to encourage women to join the armed forces and take an active part in advancing their careers, but unless there is a career path that will help them to progress, many will assume that that will never be achievable. We need only look at our US counterparts and others, where female officers have attained the highest rank. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth): why can these provisions not be open to senior managers and others in the military and other armed forces? That would send a positive message that it is important.
I welcome the Bill, but disagree with the Minister in that I do not think it is a silver bullet, because people join our armed forces and are retained for reasons not only to do with work-life balance, but because of pay and other things such as career breaks, which other armed forces in the world offer, enabling people to leave the armed forces and then come back. That does two things: it gives the expertise that those individuals have learned in the armed forces to business, charity and other sectors, and brings a wealth of knowledge back into the armed forces, which is needed. Career breaks are not unusual in the United States and other countries. This Bill is a start in terms of flexible working, but I hope that that will develop through career breaks and other initiatives.
Some countries make far better use of reservists for that same reason. They bring their armed forces skills into civilian life and vice versa. Some countries’ armed forces have huge numbers of reservists making up their ranks, as opposed to UK armed forces which have only a very small number.
The hon. Lady makes a good point; reservists do add something, but I am talking about regular members of the armed forces being able to leave for a certain period of time on the understanding that they will come back. In the United States, many on senior military courses leave to do doctorates or work in business and do other things and then come back into the armed forces, and doing that is not seen as a black mark against their career; on the contrary, it is seen as enhancing both the armed forces and those individuals’ careers.
This Bill is a start, therefore, and I assure the Minister I will be scrutinising how it works in practice and the uptake of its provisions. I also join him in thanking the Clerks and everyone involved in the Bill on making sure it has gone through both Houses with a degree of consensus from all sides and with additions to the offer that we can now give to people who want to join our armed forces.
I call the hon. and gallant Bob Stewart.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful for colleagues’ full support for my re-joining the armed forces; the uniform would probably be a bit bigger, but I remind Members that Blücher was much older than I am when he effectively won the battle of Waterloo by turning up and helping Wellington. [Interruption.] Late? He was just in time—which was the system used for equipping the Army about 20 years ago.
I will make three quick points. First, I support the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), who made the very good point that flexible working works best when units are fully recruited. If they are not fully recruited, the numbers available to carry out the jobs are much lower and consequently the units will be less efficient. So there is a direct link between recruiting and flexible working.
My second point is a damascene conversion. I was always until recently against women serving in close combat roles. I had to be convinced, but society has changed, which was crucial to that change in me, and perhaps my full support for it has come from within my own family. My wretched but beautiful daughter has said she will only join the armed forces if she can serve in a combat role. I applaud her for that and right at this moment she is on selection.
My third point is something on which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) and I fully agree: the move to return recruiting to regimental unit level. Commanding officers—as I was once, when Blücher was a lad—have always had, and should always have, a responsibility for recruiting their units. This has diminished recently. I understand that the MOD intends to bring back regimental recruiting teams; some have never gone because they have always been on-strength. The other form of good recruiting practice is keeping the Army in public eye-type arrangements, where they march through the county. That is a good way to demonstrate our armed forces’ presence.
I summarise by saying that this is a jolly good Bill and I fully support it.
It is a pleasure to speak on Third Reading. I am slightly concerned that there will be a diminution now in the regularity of what seems to be our weekly defence meetings, as this was the only Defence Bill in the Government’s Queen’s Speech for this two-year Parliament. However, it has been a good Bill and I thank the Minister for his kind words about my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and the way she has engaged with it on behalf of the SNP. He and the House know of her long association with the armed forces, of which she is rightly proud, and she better informs all of us whenever she takes part in these debates.
I wish to pick up on what the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), said about the fact that there is now no woman in the ministerial team. There are no women serving as heads of the armed forces of course, and there is unlikely to be one any time soon. Only three of the 12 senior managers who make up the senior civil servants at the MOD are women. I think I am right in saying that that makes the MOD the only all-male-run Department in terms of ministerial faces. I invite the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks or one of his esteemed colleagues to intervene on me to save a recommendation, which I fear might have the opposite effect, that I made last time for the promotion of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan). I fear my recommending her promotion is perhaps the kiss of death, so I invite the right hon. Gentleman or someone else on the Conservative Benches to redeem that recommendation, if not now, certainly behind the scenes.
I feel as though I am repeating myself—forgive me for this—but I want to pick up on some of the things the Government have not brought forward. If they do bring them forward, however, they will find 35 Members of the SNP willing to support them. One of those things is an end to the Capita contract, as mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State. It is a rip-off and it is farcical. We largely agree across the House that it is farcical and it needs to come to an end. It does a disservice to those who serve in uniform.
I mentioned the issue of housing to the Minister at the recent Defence Question Time. The housing is in a dreadful condition. Carillion receives 1,500 calls a day in complaints from people living in the CarillionAmey estate up and down the country. We can read all about that. It goes beyond broken lightbulbs. We are talking about boilers remaining broken down for weeks on end and people moving into accommodation whose kitchens have no units or cookers. They deserve so much better. Frankly, some of the standards would not pass the social housing standards of the 1970s and 1980s. If the Government were minded to resolve that issue, they would have the support of 35 SNP Members of Parliament, of many on their own Back Benches and of many, if not all, on the Labour Benches.
My last point relates to pay. I accept that there is an independent pay review body and that the 1% cap has been lifted. That is to be welcomed. However, the review body only makes recommendations to the Government and the Government can of course go much further. I understand that they could go further right now and that they do not need to wait any longer.
It is regrettable that members of the armed forces and other public sector workers across the board have had a real-terms pay cut because of the freeze and because of inflation. It would show a bit of goodwill to give those people a decent pay rise. If the Government were minded to do that, they would have our support.
There are a lot of good things in the Bill, but one of the tests to determine whether the Government value the public services and the armed forces will be whether they award them a decent pay rise. Obviously that has to be negotiated. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a recommendation from the pay review body is simply for a minimum and that the Government could go a lot further.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. We have previously had a debate on pay. I accept that it is not the dominant issue for members of the armed forces, but we would be kidding ourselves on if we did not accept that it was a major factor in recruitment and retention, as the pay review body’s own evidence suggests.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is regrettable that the Scottish Government increased the income tax for servicemen and women?
I am amazed that it took the hon. Lady so long to make that point. As she knows, because she attends these debates—sometimes—the changes in taxation have actually brought in a tax cut for the vast majority of serving personnel in Scotland, including some in her own constituency. They are among the lowest-paid members not only of the armed forces but of the public sector across the UK. By contrast, the pay freeze for someone on, say, £21,000 represents a cut of £400. I am willing to engage in a debate on pay, and I am happy to defend my Government’s record, but would she accept that it is time for the pay cut imposed by her Government to go? Nothing?
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot really ask questions across the Floor of the House if the hon. Lady is sitting there being quiet and well-behaved.
I think there was some looking at the feet there, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I take your point.
It has been mentioned that members of the armed forces do not have a body like the Police Federation to advocate on their behalf, so it falls to Members of this House to do so. Some Members of the party of government —albeit a minority—seem unwilling to take on Ministers about this, although I commend Conservative Members who are not backward in coming forward in that regard. We do our armed forces a disservice if we do not do that. So let us be radical and follow the good practice that we see elsewhere. Let us give them a body on a statutory footing to make sure that they are represented around the table.
I could not resist intervening on the hon. Gentleman. To suggest that Ministers are not making the case, along with Back Benchers on both sides, for funding for the armed forces in the defence budget is to misunderstand and indeed to be asleep in the debate that has been taking place over the past couple of months. He is also completely ignoring the banding and the progressive pay scales that are in place. It is absolutely right to have a debate about pay, but he must recognise that the banding does not mean that there is a pay freeze. He is missing out a chunk of understanding about armed forces pay.
I almost do not know where to begin with that. As I have mentioned, there was a debate in this House specifically on armed forces pay, and I am well aware of the banding that is in place, but the Minister has the power to offer a pay rise. He does not need to wait for a recommendation or to take the recommendation from the pay review body. It is after all only a recommendation. I know that he fights his hardest for cash for his Department and for the armed forces—I read about it in The Times newspaper on a daily basis—but let us be honest: the defence review has been kicked into the later part of the year, the Government have apparently removed its fiscally neutral element, and from what I can see, three of the four announcements made by the Secretary of State on Thursday are going to amount to more cuts in capability elsewhere. I do not doubt that he and other Ministers do their best to take on what the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) described as
“the pinstripe warriors at the Treasury”.—[Official Report, 24 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 128WH.]
However, it is about time that we started to see some of the fruits of their labours and of those who sit behind them on the Back Benches.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates. I commend the Minister and his Department for their hard work and for the support that they have managed to gain on both sides of the Chamber for the Bill, which represents a step forward for our armed forces personnel. Service in uniform in my constituency is normal and recruitment levels are high. These debates resonate closely with the people back home. Recruitment is also at an all-time high for the part-time services, and it is good news to be able to report that in the Chamber tonight. Government policy is obviously going in the right direction, not only in my constituency but across the whole of Northern Ireland.
I welcome the Bill as an appropriate set of measures that will better reflect the needs of 21st century service personnel and their families than the arrangements that we have previously had. However, I would like to highlight an anomaly about the appeals process. I am not sure whether the Minister will be able to respond to this point tonight, but, if not, I would be happy to hear from him at a later date. There does not seem to be anything about it in the Bill. It is not an earth-shattering matter, but it has been brought to my attention by soldiers who have asked me to raise it here.
The system outlined in the Bill will involve going through the ombudsman if a service person wishes to appeal. However, it has long been a securely held view that the ombudsman experience is not a good one, and that it probably involves too lengthy a process for the sort of events for which this measure is designed. I know that the Minister is keenly interested in introducing a measure that will help soldiers, and if we can introduce one that will improve the appeals process, we should do that. There are families who need help and resolution, and the ombudsman appeals can often run for months, if not years. The management of that caseload represents a considerable burden.
The present process does not seem to have been terribly successful in bringing about resolution in a timely manner, and it is my opinion and that of others outside the House that the opportunity presented by the Bill to change the system has not been fully utilised. I look to the Minister for a response when he is able to give me one, if he does not mind, and I respectfully ask that the matter be given further consideration. Would it not be more appropriate and in keeping with the spirit of the Bill, which seeks to empower the service to be a better employer, to refer appeals to the immediate chain of command? I personally would like to see that happen and I believe that many others would as well. It would be much more in keeping with how almost all other personnel issues are managed.
The Minister referred to the excellent work of the cadet forces across the whole United Kingdom. I commend the Government for the way in which we are building up the cadet forces not only on the mainland but back home in Northern Ireland. When both communities there see the cadet forces as an option for younger people, it enables us to achieve cross-community involvement and integration in a way that is also helping us to move forward politically, now and further down the line. I commend the Minister for his commitment to extra reserve forces in Northern Ireland and to the capital build, which will enable us to grow. The Minister has given us that commitment. The confidence and supply agreement we have in partnership with the Government has sought to achieve that as well. We look forward to it being delivered.
I also welcome the commitment to the recruitment of and elevation in the ranks for women and those from black and minority ethnic groups. On a recent visit to Shrivenham and in other visits, it was clear from our discussions that there is a strategy in place and that the Minister and the Department have committed to making these changes, which are starting to work, with recruitment figures already starting to rise. We obviously recognise that there are other things that must be done, so it is good to have this continued recruitment strategy.
I gently ask the Minister to consider the ombudsman issue and the appeals process because that could lead to a smoother operation for our armed forces, and the Bill is designed for that. I commend the Minister, the members of the Public Bill Committee, the Hansard staff and all the Committee staff who do such hard work behind the scenes to make these things happen.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.
Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
That the Order of 23 October 2017 (Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:
1. Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
3. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(Jesse Norman.)