[Relevant documents: The Eighth Report of the Defence Committee Session 2016-17, SDSR 2015 and the Army, HC108; and the Government response, HC311, of Session 2017-19]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We have the best armed forces in the world. From their service in Afghanistan, and their support to the coalition to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria, to being at the forefront of the humanitarian response to hurricane Irma, their courage and professionalism are renowned the world over. We are investing some £18 billion a year in new ships, submarines, aircraft and armoured vehicles, but it is not enough just to modernise our armed forces with new equipment; we need to ensure that service within the armed forces reflects a modern lifestyle.
We know that one of the main reasons why people choose to leave the armed forces is the impact of service on their family life. At the moment, many regular personnel who are unable to meet their unlimited military commitments for periods of time have no other choice than to leave the service. They lose a good career; we lose their hard-won knowledge, skills and experience.
It is a fact that today people want greater choice over how they run their lives, and when and where they work. If we are to compete for, and retain, the best people, our armed forces need to respond with greater flexibility, making the lives of those who proudly serve our nation easier.
Total and unlimited choice is not, of course, possible in the disciplined environment of the armed forces, where the requirement to serve the needs of the country is paramount. So maintaining operational effectiveness is our absolute red line, but that does not mean that we should not offer our people more choice about how they live and work.
I could not agree more with what the Secretary of State has said so far about both the professionalism of our armed forces and the need for greater flexibility, but does he recognise that one of the reasons why many people have left, and one of the reasons why there has been such an impact on their family life, is the huge reduction in armed forces personnel numbers and the increasing expectation on those people, with all that is going on? That has been one of the causes of their having such poor family lives.
The armed forces continue to meet what are called the harmony guidelines and we have stabilised the size of the armed forces—the hon. Gentleman referred to reductions—but I also recognise that we are asking ever more of our armed forces each successive year, with the deployments in different parts of the world.
The 2015 strategic defence and security review committed us to an ambitious programme of modernisation of our personnel policies. There are already a range of initiatives in place to support flexible working. Subject to chain of command approval, service personnel have already been able to work compressed hours or vary their start and finish times. They can also take unpaid leave for up to three months and longer-term career breaks to help meet life’s commitments—for example, when a partner is posted overseas—and, in certain circumstances, they are even able to work from home.
We know that these existing initiatives are popular: in the six months to July 2017, 1,400 personnel had taken advantage of them. This Bill will take these initiatives a step further and provide more formal arrangements and certainty, including allowing personnel to work shorter hours.
The Secretary of State might come on to answer this question: I acknowledge that members of the armed forces can already apply for flexible working, as he has stated, including late starts and working from home, but it would be helpful to hear more about the gap the Secretary Of State sees being filled by the new forms of flexible working he is introducing.
The hon. Lady anticipates my speech, as I will be coming on to that. If I do not do so adequately, I am sure she will have the chance to intervene again.
More flexible working than we have at present would help alleviate some of the strain people face at critical times in their career, whether because of family responsibilities, caring needs, or a desire to pursue further educational opportunities. It will help us to recruit and retain more of the people we need, and make our services more representative of the society they serve.
In particular, 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. Two thirds of the applications approved in our ongoing flexible duties trial are from female service personnel. We are on track to meet our 2020 target, with the latest figure for all services at 11.4%, but I want to do better than that, and the Bill will help. We have opened up every single role in our armed forces to women so that talent, not gender, determines how far anyone can go. That means ensuring that they are able to stay to achieve their potential. At the core of the Bill is our wish to ensure that the armed forces are seen as modern and attractive employers, but that is getting harder to achieve against an increasingly competitive backdrop, with the competition for talent expected to increase in the years ahead.
I declare an interest as one of those Members on the armed forces parliamentary scheme; I am currently doing the RAF one. Through the scheme, I have had the chance to meet soldiers and RAF personnel, and I have heard lots of things. Two things have come up on recent visits. The first is a need to ensure that the accommodation is right. Much of the accommodation is not right for families. In particular, it does not suit people who come into the armed forces when they are single and subsequently get married. The second point relates to training. Some of the RAF personnel are saying that they are not getting the training they need to work on the new F-35s. Will the Secretary of State address those two points?
We are addressing the important issue of service families’ accommodation, with various new arrangements for ensuring that they have improved accommodation. We are also putting a number of RAF personnel through the F-35 training programme. We have more than 100 personnel in the United States training up and learning how to support and maintain the F-35s, of which we have purchased more than a dozen so far.
More flexible working will help the services to compete and to attract and retain a better mix of people and skills. That will not only enhance operational capability through improved retention but provide a more diverse workforce. I am absolutely clear that a diverse workforce, with more women and more people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, will be a more operationally effective workforce.
I entirely concur with what the Secretary of State is saying about the roles that women can play in our armed forces, about the importance of diversity and about what the Bill can do to provide opportunities for flexible working. Does he really think, however, that this is going to be the silver bullet to deal with the recruitment crisis that exists, particularly within the Army? Figures released by the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) this summer showed that we are under-recruited on every course. When we look at the line infantry, the Guards and the Paras, and when we look at Army Training Regiment Winchester and Army Training Regiment Pirbright, we see that they are significantly below the required recruitment levels and participation levels in those crucial training courses.
I have made it clear that the Army faces a recruitment challenge as the economy continues to grow. The Army is about 95% recruited and I am told that Sandhurst places are now filled for the coming courses, but we need to do more. We need to continue to ask ourselves why we are not attracting some of the people we want to attract.
Flexible working for the armed forces is principally about recruitment and better retention. I want to emphasise that this is not a method of saving money. So what does the Bill do? There are two main provisions. Clause 1 makes amendments to section 329 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which makes provision regarding terms and conditions of enlistment and service. Service personnel will be able to temporarily reduce the time they are required for duty—for example, by setting aside one or two days a week on which they will not work or be liable for work—or to restrict the amount of time that they spend separated from their normal place of work. The amendments extend the existing regulation-making powers in section 329 to allow the Defence Council to enable forms of part-time service and protection from being separated from a home base for prolonged periods for people serving in the regular armed forces. Clause 1 also enables regulations to be made about the circumstances in which these new arrangements can be varied, suspended or terminated.
I represent a constituency with a long and proud military tradition. I recently tabled a parliamentary question to ask for the number of people from my constituency who had recently been recruited to join the armed forces, but I was surprised to be told that that information was not held centrally. That seems absolutely extraordinary. It is important that our communities should be linked in to the armed forces and that we should know what sort of connections our constituencies have with them. Will the Secretary of State please look into this and check again whether that information is held centrally? If so, please could he let me know how many of my constituents want to join the armed forces?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but there is nothing sinister about this. Different regiments recruit in different ways, and my understanding is that the data are not collated on a constituency basis. However, I would be very happy to have another look at that.
I very much support this measure; it is absolutely right to compete for workers in the 21st century. However, terms in the guidance notes such as “back-filling” are troublesome. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that it is necessary to maintain whole-time equivalents in our armed forces rather than relying constantly on back-filling. My 35 years’ experience in the regulars and the reserves tells me that back-filling usually means colleagues filling in for others. Does he agree that that is guaranteed to demoralise people and cause the retention problems to which he has referred?
My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in these matters. I know that when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), winds up the debate, he will want to address that question about back-filling. This is not about making other members of a unit, a platoon or a section do more work to compensate. It is about arranging people’s time in a more satisfactory manner.
The Government acknowledged the strength of feeling in the other place about ensuring that the new regulations would be subject to the affirmative procedure, so my colleague, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, accepted Labour’s amendments to that effect. It is of course important that Parliament ensures appropriate scrutiny of the forthcoming regulations. In practice, the arrangements will be temporary, limited to defined periods, and always subject to service needs to maintain operational capability. I want to be absolutely clear that maintaining operational effectiveness is our absolute red line.
I hope to speak later in the debate. My husband served in the armed forces, and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would agree, given that the Government spend a lot of time looking at the hardware and infrastructure in the armed forces, that it is only right and proper that we also look at support for our armed forces personnel and their families. That is why this Bill is so important.
Yes, this proposal has the support not only of the service chiefs but crucially of the service family federations. They, too, see the advantage in it.
As I was saying, maintaining operational effectiveness is a red line. The Bill therefore also provides for the services to vary, suspend or terminate the new arrangements in circumstances to be prescribed in new regulations— for example, in the case of a national emergency or a severe shortage of specialist personnel. There will also be instances where flexible working arrangements are simply not practicable—for example, while serving at sea, serving in a high-readiness unit or serving in a unit that is on the brink of deployment. Let us therefore be clear that the Bill will not enable every service person to work flexibly. It will, however, create an obligation for the services to consider applications from personnel to serve under the new flexible working arrangements. It will also require the services to record the terms of an approved application so that there is clarity for both parties in the arrangements. Clause 2 of the Bill will make small consequential amendments to existing legislation to provide for regular personnel temporarily serving under flexible working agreements to continue to be automatically excused jury service.
The Bill was developed with the three services, and the proposals have the support of all the service chiefs. They have been designed—and will continue to be developed—by the services and for the services. And, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) has just said, we should not forget the bedrock of those who follow and support our armed forces—namely, their families. I am particularly pleased that the families’ federations have welcomed our plans to improve flexible working opportunities in the armed forces. I quote:
“Improving family stability amongst Service families is one of our focus areas and we look forward to the implementation of this initiative”.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
No, I am just concluding.
The Bill will not address all the challenges of recruiting and retaining personnel—it is not the silver bullet that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) thought it might be—but we believe that it will pave the way, in modernising the armed forces, to better reflecting today’s lifestyles and aspirations while ensuring that we retain a world-class fighting force. I commend the Bill to the House.
I echo the Secretary of State’s words about the outstanding professionalism of our armed forces and our huge indebtedness to them. I want to make it clear at the outset that Labour supports the Bill in principle. Our scrutiny and questions will be in the spirit of seeking clarification and improving it, rather than opposing it. Furthermore, given that the Bill was introduced in the other place, some of our initial concerns have already been debated and clarified to some degree, which will help to expedite its passage in this House.
I am grateful to my good friend Lord Touhig, who speaks for the Opposition on defence matters in the other place, for his excellent work on this Bill. I am particularly grateful to him for pressing an amendment, which I am glad that the Government have accepted, as the Secretary of State confirmed, to ensure that the finer detail that is introduced in subsequent regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure. In other words, we will get the opportunity to scrutinise any delegated legislation, which is an important safeguard because the devil is so often in the detail. Having set such a good example, I wonder whether the Secretary of State could prevail upon his colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union to accept amendments to provide the same sort of transparency on important matters such as workers’ rights and environmental protections in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
Returning to the Bill in hand, the title is somewhat confusing at first sight, because the term “flexible working” already has connotations, usually referring to a situation where contractual hours remain the same but there is the opportunity to vary starting and finishing times or to work from home. This Bill is not about the right to request that sort of flexible working. That opportunity already exists for the armed forces, as do maternity and paternity leave and the opportunity to request a period of unpaid leave to undertake study, for example. The purpose of this Bill is to allow members of our armed forces to request to work for a defined period in a part-time capacity with the necessary contractual changes that that would entail and/or to request limits to separated service—deployment—for defined periods. As I have said, we welcome this Bill, because we support effective ways of improving conditions for those who serve in our armed forces, and we also want to enable the forces to draw from the widest possible pool of talent when recruiting personnel to serve.
We all recognise that the complexities of modern life mean juggling work and home responsibilities, and childcare arrangements are often complex when both parents work full time. In such circumstances, it does not take much to upset that delicately balanced situation, and the emotional turmoil of learning that a child, partner or parent is seriously ill is compounded by practical difficulties, which might mean frequent medical appointments or a stronger parental presence in the home. Many of us have faced such situations. For me, it was when I was very young, before I started my first job, when I stayed at home to look after my father and teenage sisters and nurse my mother through her terminal illness. Family issues are all the more complex for service personnel, with the expectations of constant readiness and deployment, and it is understandable that personnel sometimes feel forced to give up the service they love for civilian jobs that offer greater flexibility. However, it makes no sense to lose someone simply because they need a more flexible working arrangement for a specified time after all the investment that has gone into their training. That is where this Bill comes in, offering the possibility of consideration for part-time hours or limits to separated service. We agree and understand that there must always be regard for operational capability when assessing requests for such working.
There is a recruitment and retention crisis in our armed forces. The reasons why personnel leave are many and complex, but the 2017 armed forces continuous attitude survey found that the impact on family and personal life remains the top reason for leaving. A third of personnel have said that an option to work part time would strengthen their intention to stay, and a similar proportion say that an option for reduced separated service, including operational deployment, would make them more likely to remain in the forces. If the options available through the Bill can help to retain some of those personnel, that would clearly be beneficial.
I understand that assurances were given in the other place that the fact that someone had availed themselves of the opportunity to work part time would not count against them for promotion, and that assessment of applicants would be made on the basis of their skills, experience and future potential, regardless of any period of part-time or geographically limited working. That is vital to ensure that our services do not miss out on excellent candidates simply because they have taken a period of part-time work and that personnel are not disadvantaged. It is also important because we may find that women in particular will avail themselves of this part-time option, and we want to see more women not only recruited into the services, but retained and reaching senior ranks. Treating with parity those who have opted to take a period of part-time working will need more than a policy about its not affecting promotion prospects; it will need a cultural shift.
I also understand that assurances were given in the other place that personnel availing themselves of the options in this Bill would not lose their service accommodation. Clearly, a period of family difficulty is not a time to have any additional worries about accommodation. I would be therefore be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), could provide additional assurances in both those areas when he gets to his feet at the end of today’s debate and explain how he proposes to engender the cultural shift that will be required.
Does my hon. Friend agree that many of the welcome initiatives in the Bill are being undercut by the increasingly strong movement of the armed forces to the M4 corridor and away from local communities? In my constituency, for example, the local Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers headquarters is being shifted from north Wales to Bristol. The armed forces are maintaining fewer and fewer connections with local communities.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. If we see the likes of REME in Wrexham and Prestatyn close, opportunities for the whole of north Wales will effectively be withdrawn. That will impact badly on recruitment to our reservist forces and lead to the loss of buy-in from those communities, both of which are serious issues that need addressing.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is far more important for families to have some sort of certitude about where they are going to be based for a protracted period of time? Moving around the country in the old way was hopeless in that respect and was one of the principal reasons why people decided to leave.
I think we are talking about two slightly different things. In the cases of Wrexham and Prestatyn, we are talking about particular reservist bases, and my worry is that if we do not draw reservists from across the country, we will miss out on talent. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the other issue.
If the beneficial impact of this Bill is to be fully felt, it is also vital that every effort is made to ensure that service personnel are made aware of the options it affords. We know that individuals are often reluctant to talk about difficult family circumstances for fear of that being seen as a sign of weakness, so it is vital that personnel know about the new options that the Bill introduces before they need to access them. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister outlined how service personnel will be made aware of the options open to them through the Bill.
A decision to take up the option of working on a part-time basis, with the consequent reduction in pay, is not something that anyone would undertake lightly, but it is a decision that may have to be taken at a time of particular stress or difficulty. The Ministry of Defence, as an employer, therefore has a duty of care to ensure that individuals are fully aware of the financial implications of any request and to point out to them that they may wish to take independent financial advice because, although everyone would want to calculate the immediate impact of going part time on their take-home pay, the effect on pensions is not so obvious. Even a limited period of lower contributions could have an effect later in life on what a person receives in every single year they draw their pension. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how the new framework established by the Bill will be made clear to personnel. What assurance can he give that the impact of any change in service arrangements will be highlighted appropriately?
Although we welcome the Bill, it is not a panacea for the very real challenges of recruitment and retention in our armed forces. Members on both sides of the House share my concern that numbers continue to fall in every single service. The trade-trained size of the Army is now well below the 82,000 target that the Conservative party promised to maintain in its manifesto, and intake rates are falling in each of the reserve forces, too. Indeed, a recent report by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), commissioned by the Government, found that recruitment to the armed forces is “running to stand still,” resulting in the “hollowing out” of the services.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Has she had a chance to look at the figures that the Minister for the Armed Forces released to me earlier this year? They show that at Catterick, for example, not a single common infantry course this year was filled. In one month, April, only 14 of 96 places were filled. The course was not filled in any month this year. Does my hon. Friend think the Government have a grip on the recruitment crisis they are facing?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I hope Ministers are listening to that major concern.
I thank the hon. Lady for kindly mentioning my report. One point it raises is that, although recruitment is definitely under pressure, there is quite an optimistic picture for the reserves, and the picture has been getting better, not worse.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but his report also mentions the concern, which Opposition Members share, about the MOD’s recruitment contract with Capita.
The Public Accounts Committee recommended back in 2014 that the MOD
“should ensure that it is able to hold Capita to account for its performance in delivering the Army recruitment contract”.
I would be grateful if the Minister set out how exactly Capita is being held to account for its persistent and inexcusable failure to meet the targets.
Earlier this month we read reports that said that the serving reservists who staff recruitment offices will be replaced by civilian staff from Capita, further weakening the link between those who serve in our forces and the recruitment process. It is clear that intake rates cannot be allowed to continue falling year on year, and I would be grateful if the Minister also set out what specific action he will take to address that.
One important way of beginning to deal with the crisis in recruitment and retention would be to lift the public sector pay cap and give our armed forces the pay award that they deserve. Our personnel serve with courage and distinction and, particularly at this time of year in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, we remember the sacrifices that they make on our behalf. Yet their pay was frozen for the first two years of the 2010 to 2015 Parliament, and it has risen by just 1% a year from 2013. When inflation is factored in, the starting salary of an Army private has been cut by more than £1,000 in real terms since 2010, yet accommodation costs have continued to rise and personnel and their families have lost out due to cuts in social security payments.
The Armed Forces Pay Review Body observed that the “perfect storm” has resulted in few personnel feeling that they get anything resembling a pay rise each year. Indeed, the latest armed forces continuous attitude survey found that satisfaction with basic rates of pay and pension benefits is at the lowest levelp ever recorded, with only a third of personnel satisfied with their basic pay.
If a business had huge shortages in certain skills because people with those skills were leaving for competitor organisations, would it not be incredible if that business was simultaneously spending huge amounts of money training new people to replace those who had left while, as part of its recruitment and retention strategy, keeping wages below inflation when all its competitors are increasing wages?
My hon. Friend, with his business experience, makes a valid point.
Of course, our armed forces do not have a trade union to lobby on their behalf, but I know from my conversations with personnel that there is considerable interest in the Government’s policy on pay. That is an area on which we want to work constructively with the Government, and I have already said that if they are prepared to amend the Bill to give a fair pay rise to our forces personnel, or even to allow the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to conduct an in-year review without the cap in place, the Government can certainly count on Labour support.
We welcome the Bill, which has support on both sides of the House. I look forward to working with Members to scrutinise and improve it appropriately.
Order. There is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
As the Front-Bench speeches have indicated, there is a high degree of cross-party consensus on this initiative. That consensus was also evident in the report of the outgoing Select Committee on Defence published in April 2017, “SDSR 2015 and the Army”. The report concluded:
“We support the Chief of the General Staff’s commitment to changing the culture of the Army through initiatives on employment, talent management and leadership. Successful implementation of these initiatives could provide a structure within which all soldiers can achieve their full potential. However, we recognise that this must not be to the detriment of the Army’s ability to undertake its core role of warfighting. We note the concerns expressed about cultural resistance within the Army to this agenda, particularly in respect of Flexible Engagement.”
In their reply, the Government referred to their
“programme to widen opportunities for all, thereby better reflecting the demands of a modern society. This programme includes promoting a culture of inclusivity in which every Service person is treated with respect and is able to access a range of employment opportunities, including flexible working.
The Flexible Engagement System continues to be considered to be a positive and appropriately contemporary employment system.”
In the opening speeches, we heard reference to a point made by the Chief of the General Staff, Nick Carter, back in February 2015:
“We have a career structure at the moment which is fundamentally a male career structure. It has a number of break points which sadly encourage women to leave rather than encouraging them to stay.”
Although one aspect of the Bill, to do with presentation, was controversial in the upper House—I will come to that in a few moments—it is notable that the people who were concerned about that presentational point are four- square behind the substantive principles of the Bill. For example, Lord Stirrup, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, stated in the debate on the Queen’s Speech:
“Too many talented people, especially women, are leaving early because the terms of their service are not flexible enough to accommodate their evolving personal circumstances and the associated pressures. We cannot afford such waste: it is expensive in terms of training replacements and it impacts on our operational capability.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 June 2017; Vol. 783, c. 91.]
When considering what my reaction should be to the central proposals in the Bill, I came up with the following five questions. First, will an arrangement be overridden in cases of emergency? The Government have been absolutely clear from the outset that it will be overridden. There is no question that people will not be available to serve in the armed forces in a national crisis, when required, no matter what arrangements they have entered into for flexible working.
The next question I ask is: will skills be diminished? It appears from the scheme’s structure that that is not a significant danger, because the idea of flexible working in this way will involve people doing so only for a finite period after full-time service and before further full-time service. So the range of skills ought not to be diminished, and I believe that that safeguard is sufficient.
Where I am a little more concerned and would welcome further contributions is on my third question: will bureaucratic logjams be caused by appeals? The Government have done well in their briefing material, and it may be that some of it was prepared in response to the advantage of having had this Bill considered in the upper House by senior former heads of the services and even former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. Government briefing material has been very full and they have set out a complex scheme of how appeals will work. I am still in need of reassurance that we will not become bogged down in bureaucratic trials and tribulations, possibly going all the way up to ombudsman level. That is one danger that needs further commentary.
My fourth question is: will this send a positive or a negative signal to—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am apologetic for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman. I was waiting for him to take a natural pause, but one did not appear. Am I right in saying that there is a convention in this House that speakers should remain in their place for two speeches before they leave? The Secretary of State has left only one speech after he has finished, and the Chair of the Defence Committee is speaking. Have you been notified of any reason why the Secretary of State has had to leave so soon, when many of us would have expected him to want to know what was being said?
The Secretary of State went at such speed that he did not even say goodnight or anything, so I am not sure why; he may well be coming back. He may have been taken short, given the speed he went at. It is convention that Members normally hear at least two speeches, and it is normal for Ministers to stay around to hear a bit more. Of course, when we have such a learned Member as the Chair of the Select Committee, we all wish to hear him. I had better bring him back on.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I must say in defence of the Defence Secretary that he spent no fewer than two hours and 25 minutes before our Committee last Wednesday afternoon, and I felt that was—
Order. That is no reason for him not to be here—let us put that on the record now.
But I did feel it was somewhat beyond the call of duty, and I believe that the whole Committee appreciated it.
My fourth question is: will this new system send a positive or a negative signal—first, to recruits and, secondly, to potential adversaries? That is where the controversy arose in the upper House, as grave concern was expressed about the Bill’s repeated use of the terminology of “part-time service”. To give a brief example of the dangers of the use of such terminology, I take a moment to refer to the lyrics of a “Glee Club” song composed by Liberal Democrat activists at their 2014 conference, sending up their party’s policy of sending nuclear submarines to sea either without warheads—we appear to be without Liberal Democrats, too—or only for part of the time. I will not sing it, the House will be glad to hear. [Hon. Members: “Do!”] It is done to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” and, talking of the boats, one of my favourite verses goes, “We can send them back to base if we’re really up the creek and request the war’s postponed until the middle of next week.” The chorus then is, “We believe in a part-time submarine, a part-time submarine, a part-time submarine,” and so on. Members can, thus, see the potential for the use of “part-time” in relation to armed forces to allow our adversaries and our critics in the media to suggest there is something less professional and less committed about the way in which we are conducting ourselves. Lord Craig of Radley, former Chief of the Air Staff, did suggest an alternative wording, which I hope might still be considered in Committee.
My final question is: will it be possible to apply to go on so-called part-time service just in time to avoid an operational deployment? The answer to the first question about emergency service clearly covers the issue whether someone about to be deployed to a war zone could use this scheme to get out of it—clearly, they could not—but I would like a little more clarification from Ministers on whether there is any risk that some people might see a less popular deployment looming up on the near horizon and decide that the time was appropriate to start thinking about applying not for so-called part-time service but for a change, a reduction or an alternative to full-deployment just at that point.
Subject to those caveats, I wish the Bill well. I look forward to hearing further elaboration on the points I have raised, perhaps in the closing speech from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who I believe will be summing up. I endorse the commendation of both Front Benchers for this measure.
I am pleased to be able to speak for the Scottish National party today on flexible working in the armed forces. I will start by declaring an interest: my husband is a retired Royal Navy officer with 17 years’ service. Many of the issues raised today affected our family. In his last year of service, my husband had only six days’ leave, and that included weekends. That sort of leave entitlement is clearly unsustainable, and many service personnel, particularly parents, eventually have to decide between career and family.
We in the SNP very much welcome the move towards flexible working for the armed forces. This is a real opportunity to modernise and reform the armed forces, particularly the work-life balance of the brave men and women who choose to serve. Any moves towards a more family-friendly environment have the potential to be transformational, so we enthusiastically support them. However, as has been said by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), with any legislation the devil is in the detail.
We broadly support the aims of clause 1(3)(a), but I am struggling to understand how it would work in reality. If, as it appears, it applies to non-frontline posts only and is not applicable to branches that are deploying on operations, I believe this is a missed opportunity. By applying a little creative thinking, we could find ways in which it could operate in these circumstances. For example, if a unit is sent to a conflict zone, a person could deploy for a proportion of a tour that corresponds with their agreed service. That raises other difficulties relating to gaps in the unit and possible unfamiliarity with the territory, but perhaps we could then consider people deploying on every second tour.
Although I accept that that would be alien to many who are currently serving and it will need an entirely new mindset, the continuous attitude survey shows that the impact of service on family and personal life remains the top reason for leaving. When we find ourselves in a situation where only 10% of personnel are women, clearly action must be taken. I am pleased that the flexible working trial in the Army has been well received, and the fact that two thirds of the applicants were female suggests this legislation is long overdue.
According to the explanatory notes, 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”.
That causes me some difficulty. I do not think anyone would have a problem with the suspension of the agreement during times of national emergency, but we know already that there are acute shortages in some key areas, such as the submarine service, where my husband served. Additional submarine pay and retention bonuses have not addressed this problem. Such a “manning crisis” could apply to the whole submarine service. If someone happens to serve in a branch that is struggling to recruit and retain, will part-time working not be applicable to them? If that is the case, although the Bill is well intentioned, it will not address any of the shortages and retention issues that many branches experience.
I wish to digress slightly for a minute. At the weekend, we heard the shocking news that nine submariners had tested positive for drugs. The Secretary of State was absolutely correct to take the swift action he did, but where does this leave the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrent? It is a pity the Secretary of State is no longer present, because I would like to know what guarantees he can give that, if a branch is already operationally stretched, the committed personnel will not suffer leave curtailment and non-flexible working as a result of shortages or because of the behaviour of others.
Concerns have already been expressed that flexible working should not become a way for the Ministry of Defence to save money on an already overstretched defence budget. Flexible working should never become a way for employers to reduce their employees’ hours against their will. Will the Minister assure us that no part-time contracts will be imposed on any service personnel? It is clear that those granted part-time contracts will have pay and pensions reduced to a pro-rata value. Will the Minister clarify that that will not result in service personnel losing other benefits, such as service accommodation?
The geographic restriction in clause l(3)(b) is a welcome step, but again I seek more detail on the specifics. Earl Howe stated that personnel will not be separated from their home base for more than 24 hours at a time any more than 35 times in a given year. Perhaps I am confused, but more than 24 hours could mean 25 hours or it could mean a fortnight. For the provision to have any real punch, there needs to be a maximum time limit. Will the Minister clarify how the Government came to the conclusion that 35 times a year would be the appropriate limit? Will there be a maximum time limit for these separations?
If the Bill is to be properly implemented and achieve the required outcomes, personnel need to be properly represented within the military and with defence policy decision makers. Putting an armed forces representative body on a statutory footing is the norm for many countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries. Interestingly, the armed forces in the Netherlands are represented by four trade unions. Service personnel there who are over 50 have to be encouraged to leave to make space for younger recruits. What a luxurious situation they have.
Recognised representation is a key way for the UK Government to better understand the needs and requirements of our armed forces and their families. If the Government are serious about improving the lives of our armed forces in every respect, from pay and conditions to the standard of housing, they should put the armed forces representative body on a statutory footing. I plan to raise that issue again in Committee. The measures in the Bill are a step in the right direction, but the UK Government could use this opportunity to do more for service personnel and their families.
The Bill is the result of successive reports and surveys carried out by the MOD. All have shown that there is a strong desire to change the working options of serving regulars. In the 2017 armed forces survey, 18% of the personnel who took part said they would take up the option of flexible working, with 36% suggesting they would consider it in future. As in the business world, it is important that we adjust our policies to recruit and retain the best people.
Last week, I met a constituent, Chief Petty Officer Donna Chapman, when she received an award for her achievement in leadership at the Fleet Air Arm awards. We spoke about her career serving in the armed forces, and through our conversation I began to understand the sacrifices she has made to serve our country, not least in leaving her young daughter in the care of her mother for seven months while she was deployed at sea. She told me that separation is part of the job but flexibility at other times is crucial to her wellbeing and that of her daughter.
Donna’s story of dedicated service is not unique in the military. Figures from this year’s MOD attitude survey show that just under two thirds of service personnel feel that family and personal life might influence their decision to leave. A third said that reduced separation would increase their intention to remain, and a similar number would be more likely to remain if they had the opportunity to work part time. The Bill will address those issues.
I found myself in a similar position when I spent eight years working in Madrid, travelling the world for work, with my husband doing exactly the same from a different base in a different country. It is tiring travelling the globe and spending extended periods away from one’s family. Distance and travel is not always the issue.
As we know, life is rarely a smooth ride and there is no way to predict what is thrown at us. I recently met staff from a local charity, the Sussex Snowdrop Trust, which cares for children with long-term, life-threatening illness. It made me think about what a serving mother or father is supposed to do when confronted with such a situation. They need to maintain their income and be at home to care for and support their family. They need flexibility.
For those people in the armed forces who handed in their notice, the most-cited reason was the impact of service on their family and personal life. The Bill will provide in-work flexibility to allow our servicemen and servicewomen to react to changes in their circumstances, or to adopt a change of pace, as is sometimes required. Importantly, it will mean that we do not lose our highly trained and skilled military workforce. Furthermore, we the people will be kept safe, because they can be pulled back into full-time service in a time of national emergency, when their expertise is most needed.
There is a clear case for such a change, as seen in the business world, with 24% of the UK labour market now working part time and 96% of all UK employers offering the option of flexible working. With unemployment at levels not seen since 1975, at just 4.3%, companies compete for talent globally and the military needs to adapt to attract the brightest and the best. Chief Petty Officer Donna Chapman highlighted that when she told me about a careers event held in Canary Wharf on HMS Iron Duke, which was attended by a group of 500 young girls who were eager to explore the career options open to them. When discussing a future in the air fleet, their biggest concerns were about work flexibility: they cited concerns about balancing such a career with starting a family. We know this is a likely cause of concern for women, especially as 42% of the 15.1 million working women in the UK are in part-time employment.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent contribution. There has been mention of the hope that the Bill will help to recruit and, crucially, retain women in our armed forces. The Government aim is for women to make up 15% of the armed forces by 2020. Does the hon. Lady agree that when statistics are produced, it should be made clear whether personnel are part time to ensure that the figures are not unintentionally inflated?
Yes, and I am sure that that will be the case.
We currently average just 10% women personnel across the three branches of our armed forces. Policy changes such as those we are discussing have already been implemented in countries such as New Zealand, Denmark and the Netherlands, with all citing increased retention and recruitment. Australia is currently implementing flexible working opportunities and has seen a steady rise in the engagement of women in the military from January 2016 to February 2017—an increase from 15.4% to 16.1% across the entire Australian defence force.
I recently spoke to Charlotte, a 25-year-old constituent, who has just completed her reserves training at Sandhurst for the Engineering Corps. This first-class Cambridge engineer, who is fully employed, was able to become a reserve as the role fitted in with her other work commitments. That model is used successfully by the reserves and should be offered in some form to the regulars. Allowing people to join the services on a part-time basis is likely to lead people with highly sought after skills—such as Charlotte—to becoming regulars in future, bringing their skills and experience from the private sector to tackle the challenges of the modern military. This same ethos of pulling in talent can be extended to other areas where we struggle to recruit enough specialists, such as in cyber-security.
Another avenue that this Bill will open up is allowing individuals to gain further skills outside the parameters of the forces. It is common practice across many industries to take time to do further study—I have chosen to do that several times over my career. This is widely encouraged in business as it benefits not only the individual but the employer, as newly learned skills diversify the talent pool and bring in new skills, fresh ideas and fresh thinking.
Potentially, this Bill is the start of a journey of modern working for the military. This is the 21st century and companies around the world are using technology to allow for greater employment flexibility. Such a move should not be restricted to the civilian population and could act as a catalyst for greater productivity and satisfaction in some areas of service. Work UK published a paper in January entitled, “Workspace revolution” based on information attained from more than 20,000 business leaders and owners. Its findings on flexible working sheds light on the business implications for the use of new technology. It is an important aspect that businesses consider when seeking to acquire top talent, as today’s workers are reporting that it is not just salary that makes a difference to their career choice. If we add to that the fact that research shows that improved concentration levels and productivity are benefits of flexible working, the business case is made.
As more workers wish to work flexibly, and with technology available to enable them to do so productively, it is hardly surprising to find that many businesses are marrying their need for greater agility with helping workers achieve greater personal happiness and work-life balance. That will become increasingly important as we extend our working lives into our late sixties and beyond.
This Bill is a fantastic opportunity for the armed forces to retain the highly skilled personnel who may otherwise leave; to recruit the best and brightest who may well not want a full-time enlisting into the regulars; to encourage others, especially women, to feel that it is a career path with flexibility built in to take account of their life plans; and to provide opportunities to increase the skills of serving personnel and diversify the regulars with more private sector staff.
In conclusion, this Bill goes some way towards creating a more modern and future-looking military force. I want the 890 regulars who live in my constituency to feel that they have flexibility and freedom in work—whether they are based in Thorney Island, or neighbouring Portsmouth or Aldershot. This legislation will address the military’s ability to recruit and retain the best of the best, which we all agree is vital to national security. The nature of the threat that we face from those who seek to do us harm is changing. Today, we live in a world in which technology, skills, talent and experience are just as important as the military equipment that our armed forces need. In a world in which we see state-sponsored cyber-warfare as a normal occurrence, it is even more important that we attract and retain the brightest and the best in our armed forces. The Bill helps Britain to achieve those outcomes as well as to maximise the employment opportunities available to women in our armed forces. I therefore look forward to supporting the Government to deliver this change.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). In the role that I am privileged to hold as chair of the all-party group on the armed forces covenant, I welcome the Bill’s key measures. However, as far as I am concerned, this is the just beginning of the process, not the end. There are four issues that we need to explore further, most of which have already been touched on by Members on both Front Benches. I am talking about recruitment, retention, family life and the development of female personnel.
A challenge lies ahead: we have a 5% deficit in our armed forces personnel and this Bill, while I welcome it wholeheartedly, will require us to appoint and recruit even more people to ensure that flexible working is more than just a phrase and that it is a reality. We will simply need to recruit more people to make this policy work, which, given where we are, will provide additional challenges.
On recruitment, a third of our armed forces cite flexible working as a reason why they will stay in the forces. Of great concern is the fact that, within the Royal Navy, 46% of service personnel cite the lack of flexible working as a reason why they would consider leaving. Those are not our figures, but their figures, which gives us cause for huge concern.
Then there is the issue of family life. None of us, especially those who serve in this House, operates without the support of others to enable us to do our job. That should be no less the case for those who are serving every day to keep us safe. We need to look not just at flexible working but at other issues, including the delivery of the covenant and making sure that it is tangible for our armed forces personnel. In the last Parliament, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who was then chair of the all-party group, introduced the Children of Armed Services Personnel (Schools Admission) Bill, which focused on how children could get school places when families were redeployed very quickly. It is issues such as that which cause retention problems and which are the bread and butter to our families and our service personnel. Unless we make some significant changes—and even some minor ones—to how the system operates, we will continue to lose our armed forces personnel.
We also have the unfortunate reality of the service family accommodation model. I am talking about the reality of trying to get accommodation to work for personnel and their families; of trying to ensure that they can get the right property in the right place at the right time and in the right school district; and of trying to ensure that properties have boilers that work, hot water and all those other things that people require. We would not put up with not having those things, so why should those people who are keeping us safe and their families do so? The reality is that the contract with CarillionAmey needs to be greatly improved, otherwise the actions that we are calling for today become irrelevant and we will continue to have a recruitment and retention challenge in our military.
On the point about CarillionAmey, does the hon. Lady agree that, when we speak to serving personnel, it becomes clear that they are not exactly enamoured of that company? The Ministry of Defence needs to compel its contractor materially to raise its game. If the contractor does not do so, it should lose the contract.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman. In fact, one thing that has proved to be both a huge honour and a heart-breaking experience is that, as chair of the all-party group, service personnel families contact me on a regular basis to detail their experiences. What goes on is simply not good enough. I have had representations from some of the service personnel charities, even as late as last week, and they are now worried about what happens next. Just as CarillionAmey seems to have woken up to the fact that it has some responsibilities, the charities are now concerned that, if things are put on a regional basis, we will have to start all over again explaining the needs and requirements of our personnel. Therefore, as bad as it is now, we are concerned about what happens next. We in this House have a responsibility to ensure that the MOD understands the concerns and the fact that it is simply not acceptable for a family to have to wait eight days for their boiler to be fixed.
The concerns that we are talking about relate not just to those experiences, but to how much people earn. Members will appreciate, from the trial of flexible working, that there were concerns about how tour bonuses were to be paid and how reduced hours would have a knock-on effect on salaries. These issues are compounded in the current climate by the mini defence review. It has been raised directly with me that serving personnel are concerned about losing their tour bonuses and what will happen to them next. Due to a lack of communication, they are being told by senior officers that they might lose some of their core terms and conditions. That would mean that flexible working will become just words and will not help to fix the problem.
Flexible working would be great if it resulted in more people choosing to stay in our armed forces, but what if it makes work more flexible only for those who are already in the armed forces? The impact could be even greater demands on those who are not on flexible working contracts. Does my hon. Friend share my concern?
I could not agree more. We need to be careful about how we roll out flexible working to ensure that the whole workforce is covered from day one in 2019. We now have about a year until that date in which to recruit in order to ensure that staff are not increasingly overstretched. It has to be a whole-force approach. As with any business that implements flexible working options, a full complement will be needed to deliver flexible working, otherwise it will not work.
I will briefly mention women in the armed forces. The number of women currently serving is a key issue; 10.2% of our armed forces are women, which is a significant development from the situation 20 years ago, but it is simply not good enough. I think that many colleagues on both sides of the House—especially after debates earlier today—would suggest that more women everywhere would be a very good thing. But the reality is that there will not be senior female personnel, such as a female Chief of the Defence Staff, until women have progressed through the ranks. To do that, we need to ensure that they and their families, whether serving or not, have support around them.
The fact that only three women are at two-star rank is simply not acceptable. We need to look at the additional support they need, which is why this has to be the beginning, not the end—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) is correcting me. There are, in fact, four women at two-star rank. The right hon. Gentleman will have to tell me who has been promoted; I celebrate and welcome all promotions. There are additional strains on family life for all women who serve, but there are also clear moments where career breaks are necessary. Women should not have to leave the forces to have a family or to look after ageing relatives.
At the heart of the Bill and at the heart of what my hon. Friend is saying is that the Government’s proposed legislative change will require a cultural change in the armed forces. Is that not what is needed for the very fine and good aspiration of this legislation to be delivered in practice?
We are talking about a cultural change and a legislative change, but it is also a financial change. In order to ensure that our armed forces can protect us when we need them to, we need to deliver for them and look after them. That is the least we owe them. To get past these challenges and deliver for our armed forces, this legislation must be the beginning of reviewing their terms and conditions, not the end.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill, but—there is always a but—we need to look at the armed forces’ overall broader package of terms and conditions, and at how much they earn. We need to look at the 1% pay cap because, as the shadow Secretary of State said, there is no trade union that can advocate for our armed forces. It is down us in this House to ensure that they are well paid, and it is down to us to fight their corner because no one else is going to do it for them. While our service personnel are protecting our national security at home and abroad, we must ensure that we are looking after them and their families.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth), who serves with me on the Select Committee on Defence. I thought she gave a rather good speech.
This is a brief but, nevertheless, important piece of legislation that has implications for recruitment and retention in Britain’s armed forces. Across this House, we all greatly value what our armed forces do for us. Therefore, I have to say that it is a shame that there is not one single Liberal Democrat Member present in the Chamber to talk about what our armed forces do for us. My contribution will focus on the recruitment challenges faced by our armed forces and how the Bill can help to address them, and I will make some observations on its potential for aiding retention.
Our armed forces are the best of British, but they are currently under pressure. As of May 2017, the total strength of the regular armed forces was 138,350—some 5% below their establishment strength—although shortages are far worse in specialised pinch-point trades. In the year to April 2017, 12,950 people joined the UK regular armed forces, but in the same period 14,970 left—more than 2,000 more. Partly as a result of these trends, I was commissioned by the Prime Minister last year to conduct a study into the state of recruiting into the British armed forces, both regular and reserve.
I submitted my report, entitled “Filling the Ranks”, to both Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence in July, and a copy of the report was subsequently published on my parliamentary website in September 2017. I would like to take this opportunity to place on record my thanks and appreciation for all their assistance in compiling the report to: Colonel Simon Goldstein, an Army reserve officer who acted as my staff officer on the report; my parliamentary assistant and researcher, Miss Sophie Bond-Jones; my personal assistant, Mrs Adele Jacquin; and, lastly, Wing Commander Paul Maguire, who acted as my liaison officer with the MOD. I made 20 recommendations and I am pleased to say that I have recently heard that the MOD has accepted all of them, for which I thank the Secretary of State.
As the report argues, a combination of lower than expected retention and failure to achieve recruiting targets means that the under-manning in the armed forces is worsening and has been for some time. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are now running at around 10% below their annual recruiting target, while the shortfall for the Army is more than 30%. This continuing process of hollowing out in the ranks costs the armed forces valuable experience and threatens to compound the problem by increasing the pressure on those personnel who remain. In order to address these problems, the MOD needs to increase its recruiting performance, particularly among black, Asian and minority ethnic personnel and female personnel. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State mention that in his speech.
The strategic defence review 2015 established the people programme to seek new ways of modernising the MOD employment offer to potential new recruits. I confess that I do have strong reservations about one element of the people programme—namely, the future accommodation model, which deals with the provision of service housing. Suffice to say, I humbly advise Ministers to think again carefully about proceeding with FAM, at least in its current form. However, one area I very much agree with is the future engagement strategy, which the Bill seeks to give effect to. By offering recruits the opportunity to vary their service over the lifetime of their career, especially if their family circumstances change, the FES offers a more welcoming prospect for people thinking of joining the armed forces.
The Bill should help to create a more fluid market for personnel seeking to transfer between regular and reserve service and vice versa. Regular personnel transferring to reserve service can often bring with them tremendous experience to help to bolster the strength of reserve units. Conversely, reserves transferring to the regulars often bring with them remarkable enthusiasm to make a meaningful contribution to their new units. For those reasons, the Bill will be an important addition and advantage for the MOD’s future recruitment efforts.
The Bill and the flexible engagement strategy could also assist the MOD and the armed forces in the increasingly challenging field of retention. Although more personnel continue to leave each year than to join, the recruiting organisations across all three services are increasingly running to standstill as they to try to fill the gaps in the ranks, as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out. The most serious problems remain in the Army, but this is also likely to prove an increasing challenge for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, as both their establishments are due to increase by several hundred over the next few years in order to accommodate new equipment such as the two new aircraft carriers and the new P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.
We know from the armed forces continuous attitude survey that pressure on family life is one of the chief reasons for personnel leaving the services. Other factors include the effect on spousal careers; to a certain extent, pay; and the quality, or otherwise, of service accommodation. However, the challenge of long hours and/or separation from families is a particular reason why service personnel—especially more experienced personnel—eventually decide to jack it in.
In that respect, the Bill can be of real assistance by allowing personnel to vary their commitment for a time to suit their family circumstances—perhaps following the birth of a child or to allow people to help provide care for an elderly relative. It should be particularly beneficial to female personnel who wish to take a temporary career break to raise young children.
My constituent Flight Lieutenant Ron Smyth, who was a veteran of the Battle of Britain, died last week at the age of 96. People like him ensured that we have the freedom that is so important to our society. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill is very important in recognising such sacrifices and encouraging more people to enter the armed forces?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that we should never take living in a free country for granted. That is why we need armed forces of the highest calibre, and I pay tribute to his late constituent. Anything that can improve the quality of our armed forces is to be welcomed, and as I shall argue, the Bill can help to do that.
Without moralising, let me say also that the Bill might, to some extent, help to address the unfortunately relatively high divorce rate among service personnel, although that could also be addressed by a massive increase in performance by the MOD housing and maintenance contractor CarillionAmey, to which reference has been made this evening. If I were to summarise its performance, I would say that I would not trust that company to organise a social function in a beer production facility.
From what I gathered as a Minister in the Department, the decision to stay or leave—to stick or twist, as someone once described it—is often taken in the round, based on a variety of factors. As an example, hon. Members should picture the scene around the kitchen table one evening, when the kids have been put to bed, and a female corporal and her husband are discussing whether she should leave the Army. The factors they take into account include the progress of her career and the likelihood of further promotion, the effect on her husband’s career, the implication for the schooling of their children, the ability to care for an elderly relative who is increasingly unwell and the fact that the family has not been able to take a holiday for the last three years because of the couple’s future work commitments, including the wife’s extended deployment overseas. They are, in short, a family under pressure. What the Bill does, on a practical level, is offer an extra option in that scenario to help relieve the pressure on the family. That could be both family and retention-friendly, and thus help to keep an experienced and expensively trained non-commissioned officer in the service of the Crown.
Our armed forces, to whom I willingly pay tribute this evening, face very real pressures in recruitment and retention. Both those important issues must be addressed if we are to prevent further hollowing out in the ranks, which, if left unchecked, will increasingly impact our operational capability. We can buy all the expensive kit in the world, but if we do not have the people to operate it, we are at a disadvantage.
The Bill and the flexible engagement strategy, which it enables, seek to help alleviate pressure in both those vital areas. The measures are designed by the services for the services. Over time, the Bill, by allowing flexible working, and by allowing commanders to take into account the personal pressures on their personnel, could make a real difference to recruitment and, particularly, to retention in our armed forces.
In summary, these measures help to mirror best practice in the public and private sectors and to create terms and conditions of service that are fit for the 21st century. On that basis, I am happy to offer my support for this important piece of positive legislation, and I wish it Godspeed.
It is a great pleasure, as always, to follow the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who spoke knowledgeably and pragmatically on the Bill. I share many of his views about not only the opportunities it presents but the many reasons why there should still be reservations about the recruitment and retention prospects of our armed forces. I am also glad my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) indicated that the Opposition will support the Bill on Second Reading, while outlining areas that are still a cause for concern.
It is fitting that we should be considering this incredibly important aspect of the development of modern working practices in the run-up to the Remembrance Day period, when we will all be in our constituencies reflecting on the contributions made to our armed forces in the recent and the more distant past. In my contribution, I would like to speak a little of the pride that I and the vast majority of my constituents feel for our armed forces and of what more we in this place could do to repay our debt of gratitude. I would also like to reflect more on the pressures affecting our serving personnel and their lives, which I have observed in the considerable number of exchanges I have had with serving personnel, both within and outside the excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme, which I have had the pleasure of enrolling in for the last two years. I would also like to outline what more the Government could do to ensure that firms that benefit from the skills of people in our armed forces contribute back. Finally, I would like to say more about the Government’s performance on recruitment to the armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli spoke about the importance of the public sector pay cap and the impact pay has on armed forces morale, and she was absolutely right to do so. There is no question but that most of the people who serve in our armed forces could earn more money elsewhere. We are not saying that they are merely in it for the money, but it is important that we send a real signal from this place that we value the role these people play. When we all speak so positively about them, it is not unreasonable that they should look at not just our words, but our actions, and when they see the public sector pay and the fact that their wages have risen by less than inflation on a like-for-like basis annually under this Government, that is important.
The Government have overseen a monumental reduction in armed forces personnel, as the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford just said. Let us be absolutely clear that that includes breaking the manifesto promise on which the vast majority of Conservative Members stood in 2015—not to allow the Army to fall below 82,000. However, simultaneously, there have been ever-greater expectations in terms of the role our armed forces will play.
Members on both sides of the House will go out on Remembrance Sunday, and we will lay our wreaths and wear our poppies with pride, but we also need to consider the impact that the choices we make in this place have on morale in the armed forces. I have referred to pay, and pensions have been mentioned, but other important considerations include the ability of members of the armed forces to enjoy a family life; the investment they see in equipment; the extent to which we do what we say we are going to do in terms of our commitment to them; the opportunities for them to progress their careers; and issues such as housing and schooling, which have been mentioned.
I would like to say how impressed I have been with all aspects of our armed forces personnel in the many exchanges that I have had with them. I spent time with those on board HMS Sutherland—a Type 23 frigate under a female captain—which I was able to witness on exercises in southern England last year. Also last year I saw personnel on HMS Dragon preparing for their FOST —flag officer sea training and I saw the naval training provided on HMS Collingwood. The Army’s 1st (UK) Division recently ran an open day to discuss their persistent engagement work, and many of us were able to watch the war-fighting 3rd (UK) Division performing urban warfare exercises recently. I saw the infantry training regime at Catterick where they are training up new recruits who were incredibly impressive in their commitment and maturity at a tender age very early in their Army careers. Like many other Members, I have taken tremendous pride in the meetings that I have had with local servicemen and women at a variety of important civic engagements that they have undertaken in Chesterfield. I am absolutely certain that the commitment and professionalism shown by our armed forces personnel remains of a very high standard, and Britain is right to have tremendous pride in all those who wear Her Majesty’s uniform.
As we head towards Remembrance Sunday I will give a brief plug for the ceremonies that will be taking place in my constituency, in Staveley on the Sunday morning and in Chesterfield on the Sunday afternoon, as well as the remembrance festival that we hold in Chesterfield for a packed house on the Thursday following Remembrance Sunday, at which all the old war favourites are sung along with a more solemn service. At such events we really get a strong sense of the pride that people across our communities have for the armed forces.
Many of the issues that face our armed forces are societal and issues of skills that would exist outside Government policy, but it is important that in many of the areas that Government are able to influence, they should take their share of responsibility for recruitment and retention. The armed forces are fishing in a very competitive pool when it comes to recruiting personnel. I sense that a great many more people now see their service life as a component of their career, rather than its mainstay. That is different from the past so any steps that can be taken to ensure that the armed forces are, as much as possible, a family-friendly employer where people can continue to develop their career, and are offered a variety of different ways of serving, are absolutely crucial.
Flexible working is not just an issue for women—it is also very much an issue for men. Many of the men I spoke to who are thinking of leaving the armed forces say that it is because of the pressures on their families. When we talk about flexible working, it is important that we do not see it as purely a female issue, about how we get more women into the armed forces. Important as that is, we must also keep men in the armed forces.
It is also important to consider the alternative opportunities for people if they choose to leave the armed forces. Particularly within the Navy, but in all areas of the armed forces, there are huge numbers of people in engineering posts who reach a certain level, then realise that there are many better-paid opportunities outside and that their career progression is stalling, and move on as a result. It is really important to make sure that we do all we can to continue to create new opportunities within all levels of the armed forces.
The Government’s commitment to the reserves is perfectly sensible. It needs to be born, not from a response to austerity as a reason to reduce the regulars, but from a recognition that it makes sense in its own right. It is incredibly important that we encourage all companies, but particularly those that are suppliers to the MOD, to do all they can to encourage their members of staff to join the reserves. They should not just encourage them to join, but they should value the work that their members of staff do in the armed forces and see it as a way for them to progress their careers rather than something that they merely tolerate. MOD suppliers, who recruit a huge number of people from the armed forces, need to recognise that there is a real benefit to them from allowing the armed forces to spend all the money training people up and for them to end up being, in effect, poached by the private sector, which is simultaneously making a lot of money. When recruiting someone from the armed forces there should be much greater recognition of it being a two-way street and of the fact that people have the opportunity, through the reserves, to go back and continue to serve.
This is a very welcome Bill, and I support it. It is not going to solve all the problems, but if the issues that have been raised are addressed, it can play an important part.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), who, as usual, spoke eloquently on a subject that is clearly very close to his heart.
I am very glad to be speaking on this Bill, because it is important to remember not just what goes into forming the armed forces but what exactly they are for and why flexibility matters. I intend to speak briefly, if I may, about a few of the operational commitments that we are currently engaged in. If we look at NATO’s work in Estonia, where a British battlegroup is currently in Tapa on the border with Russia, or the work we are doing in supporting the Ukrainian Government just a little further south, we can see that we are hiring not just soldiers but diplomats—people who can engage not just in a traditional battle of military might but a battle of ideas and messages. We are not merely taking young men and giving them a weapon—we are giving them ideas with which to combat the enemy.
That requires very special people. It requires people who can train themselves not only to a state of physical fitness so that they are able to carry the body armour, the Bergens, the weapons, or whatever it happens to be, but to a level of mental fitness such that even in exhausted situations after weeks of arduous training—or indeed, should the worst happen, operations—they are able to think hard and out-think the enemy. In areas like Ukraine, they can think through the complexities that are required when talking to a young man in a language that they do not speak and two weeks later have him ready for the frontline and Russian-backed militias.
We are asking an awful lot of these people not only in that respect, but in terms of endurance. With continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence, we are asking people to stay at sea in a state of preparedness for six months at a time, day in, day out, as we have done for the best part of 40 years. It is not just hard to be on operations—it is really hard to maintain a level of readiness when you think you probably will not need it, but you just might. That requires a level of command and discipline that is very difficult to imagine in other walks of life. Yet we expect it daily—in fact, we are expecting it right now—of the sailors who are at sea. We also expect it of the sailors who are conducting other operations in submarines, whether they are approaching enemy coasts or preparing our intelligence services to be informed of the next terrorist action—listening, perhaps, off the coast of a foreign shore.
Those may not sound like traditional military skills, because so many of us grew up with things like—I am going to date myself now—“The Guns of Navarone” and other such fabulous movies from the 1960s and ’70s—
Thank you. We are still going to watch “Star Wars” at some point.
We are looking to train people in skills that are very much of the 21st century. Indeed, we have seen those skills being put to use around the world when we look at places like Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the level of engagement that is required not only with foreign armies in places like the Sahel, where several European armies are working together in a multilingual, multinational brigade, but with local forces, some of whom, frankly, barely qualify for the term “militia”, let alone “army”.
As we ask those people to do such extraordinary things, we are also trying to prepare them for the threats of which we are increasingly becoming aware in the cyber- domain. Attacks in the cyber-domain are not limited to election time in the United States, nor to espionage against us in the UK or attacks on our NATO allies, as was the case in Estonia. They happen all the time and everywhere. The cost of cyber-attack has reduced to such an extent that a relatively well-resourced sub-Saharan state could fairly easily hire a Russian hacker to damage our soldiers and our infrastructure in a peacekeeping mission.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s guided tour of British military deployments. Does he agree that it is critical for us to ask what we, as a nation, want for our forces, what they are for and, crucially, what they are not for? We need to define our role in the world, stick to it and deliver on foreign policy.
My hon. and gallant Friend is, unsurprisingly, right. Having served around the world, he knows well that to command and to lead is to choose. As we set out what is global Britain, we must choose our priorities and make sure that our armed forces are fit to serve the needs of our country in the coming decades. It is absolutely essential to ensure that we have the right people—men and women, regular and reserve—to provide that service. I declare an interest: I am still a serving reservist. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. Flexibility is required to move from one form of employment to another, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) mentioned, and people who do so bring other skills with them. That will be essential to securing the skills that we need at the level of preparedness that we require. Let us be honest: that level of preparation cannot truly be maintained if we focus simply on ensuring that everybody can speak enough Arabic—or French, or German, or whatever language it happens to be—that should anything come up, we can go off to a country in which that language is spoken; or on ensuring that everybody has enough skills in cyber or humanitarian reconstruction. Those skills are very hard to maintain at readiness, because doing so is expensive. If we maintain them at a slightly lower level and call on reservists who have them, we will have a force that is not only up to date but—let us not forget why we are here—cost-effective for the people who have sent us here to judge how best to deploy this country’s resources.
I welcome the Bill very much, and I welcome the fact that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) is sitting on the ministerial Bench this evening. He knows more than anybody the role that the armed forces can play not only in humanitarian reconstruction, war and information operations but in a whole range of other tasks from diplomacy and education to reassurance and—perhaps the most important task that we ask our armed forces to carry out—deterring our enemies so that we can live in peace.
It seems almost cruel to inflict myself on the House following the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I divert briefly from the content of the Bill to say that if any Member has yet to read the recent interview that he gave, a copy of which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) is showing us just now, it is a must-read. He gave a thoughtful speech, as he always does, augmented by the support of his Conservative friends around him.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) I welcome the general principles of the Bill. It is about time that as an employer, the Ministry of Defence hauled itself into the 21st century. Like the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North, we believe that the Bill should represent the beginning, rather than the end, of the many reforms and changes that the Ministry of Defence needs to make to keep up with the pace of change. That is what society expects it to do, as an employer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West has done, I impress on the Minister—he has just shuffled off along the Bench, but I see that we have been joined by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—and, indeed, on all Ministers the need to look at examples of how such reforms have been made elsewhere, in places such as Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.
As several Members have mentioned, pay and conditions also need to be considered. In the Scottish National party’s manifesto for the election earlier this year, we committed to pushing for a representative body on a statutory footing for members of the armed forces. I see no reason why that cannot happen, and there seems to be some support across the House for the idea. I do not know whether the body should be something similar to the Police Federation or an actual trade union—if the Netherlands can manage four, surely we can manage at least one—but we should at least debate that.
On pay, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling outlined what we expect of members of our armed forces, and he put it better than I could ever hope to do. For goodness’ sake, let us pay them properly. Let us end the public sector pay cap—it is, in reality, a cut to their pay—for members of the armed forces and pay them properly. I am hopeful that the Government will introduce some plans on that in the upcoming Budget.
As has been mentioned, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West, we need to consider support for families. My hon. Friend knows well the challenges that many face with deployment and education, which she and other Members illustrated. Improving those things, as well as providing better support for veterans, all help to improve the reputation of the Ministry of Defence as an employer.
One hon. Member, the name of whose constituency has escaped me, mentioned that we would not trust some private housing contractors to run certain refreshment events in breweries. We would not want to house even a dangerous dog in some of the housing that we expect our armed forces personnel to live in. Although the Bill is concerned solely with flexible working, housing is an area that would merit more of the House’s attention.
I welcome some of the work that is being done not just by the Government, but by councils and devolved Governments across the United Kingdom. I am very pleased that in the Scottish Government, we have a Minister with responsibility for veterans’ affairs, Keith Brown. This is no criticism of previous Administrations, but that is something that came 10 years into the devolution settlement. It provided a real local focus in Scotland, delivering good and positive results in conjunction with the third sector, local authorities and other partner agencies. In reality, however, we need the Ministry of Defence to step up to the plate in supporting veterans.
Although we do not oppose the Bill—we welcome it and look forward to its progression through the House—we look forward to trying to make amendments in Committee. I echo the shadow Defence Secretary by saying that we will do so with an open mind, to try to make the Bill as good and robust as possible, not to be oppositionist. This sort of stuff is far too important. With that in mind, I hope that the Government will hear our suggestions with an open mind and an open heart, so that we can really get a Bill that is fit for purpose and fit for our fine armed forces.
I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald). At first glance, the Bill seems slightly paradoxical; we are debating flexibility in the context of Army discipline, which is traditionally extremely rigid. Judging by all the knowledge that has informed contributions in the Chamber this evening, I think that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members have an understanding of the nuance of our fine tradition of military discipline and operational effectiveness. This is not all about discipline, but about the light flexibility that has traditionally gone with it.
I will illustrate that point by quoting a very short piece of writing by a distinguished soldier who served in Aldershot. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that my constituency of Aldershot—as the home of the British Army, with some 10,000 servicemen and women and their families—has always been at the heart of our glorious military tradition. There is no better account of the soldier’s experience of Aldershot than this very fine book. It was actually written in the 1930s, but it was reflecting on the late Victorian age.
The book was referring to 1895, when a certain young cavalry officer found himself posted to Aldershot. In those days, young cavalry officers were regimented into their unit by being trained with the soldiers. In modern parlance, they were beasted, basically, with their troopers. It was a means both to improve their riding and to show the troopers that the officers were, to some degree, at their level. They were ridden round the riding school without a saddle and with their hands behind their back.
The book states:
“Many a time did I pick myself up shaken and sore from the riding-school tan”—
the sand in the riding school—
“while twenty recruits grinned furtively but delightedly to see their officer suffering the same misfortunes which it was their lot so frequently to undergo.”
That very elegantly captures the eternal truth that, in all the command relationships in the British Army, authority is not bestowed on officers, but earned by officers working with their men. At the heart of that is, of course, a certain sense of flexibility and a sense that commanders, at whatever unit level, will always look after the interests of those under their command.
I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee, and others will have recognised that the quote was written by Winston Churchill. It is from a very fine book, which I am sure most right hon. and hon. Members will have enjoyed, called “My Early Life”. It sees him go on from Aldershot to be posted first to Cuba and then to British India, and it is highly recommended as a read.
The quote illustrates the importance of flexibility in the broadest sense, and I also want to talk about the impact on families. I have talked about commanding officers and those who have the power to make judgments about the working routine of the soldiers under their command, but we must also recognise that the burden, especially of operational soldiering, has a huge impact on the lives of not only the soldiers but their families.
I am really encouraged by the provisions in the Bill to allow a greater degree of planned family time for soldiers. It is very important to be able to plan, especially for those coming back from operations. If they can sit down and plan with their spouse who will be doing the school run for the next year, it is amazing what a difference that can make to the viability of their relationship and to the ability of that person to continue to serve. To that extent, the provisions are what we call a force multiplier: they will make our soldiers—our men and women across all three services in the armed forces—more effective.
We should be very pleased about that because using and deploying our armed forces is no longer a luxury. We have to be prepared for very large-scale deployments of conventional forces in the future. If anyone thinks that that is not the case, they need to learn from history. Again, it is interesting to comment on another parallel with the late Victorian age.
Winston Churchill wrote that book in the 1930s, but it was reflecting back to the 1890s, when he and his fellow officers were absolutely certain that they would not deploy to mainland Europe. Because of the size of the Army, they were absolutely convinced that they would not go to Europe. He and his fellow officers drew the
“conclusion that the British Army would never again take part in a European conflict. How could we, when we only had about one army corps with one Cavalry Division”?
That was in 1895, and 20 years later that entire generation was of course swept up in the conflagration on the European continent. We must never fall into the trap of thinking that large-scale deployments on a conventional basis are not likely.
I thank my hon. Friend for the powerful and eloquent speech he is making, particularly from his own experience as a soldier in the British Army. Does he feel that the increased flexibility brought about by the Bill is one key step in maintaining the high levels of recruitment into our armed forces that I am sure Members on both sides of the House want to see?
Yes is the answer—absolutely. The Bill is about retention, recruitment and the attractiveness of the whole proposition. I am very encouraged—I shall mention this again in a minute—by the greater specialisation that we will have under Army 2020.
As I have said, we need to draw a parallel with the 1890s. Back then, officers regarded their force as very small by Victorian standards. We are in a similar situation in the sense that we have a very small conventional force, but we must not fall into the trap of thinking that we will not need to deploy it in the near future. If we unroll the map and do a world tour, we can see that the middle east is in flames, that there is a resurgent Russia probing NATO’s eastern flank and that there is a possible nuclear conflagration in North Korea—a whole range of very serious challenges.
Our response to those challenges will be twofold. We clearly have a hard-power response using equipment. We will have some very impressive new equipment and capabilities coming through over the next 10 years. We have the magnificent carrier strike force with carrier-enabled power projection, although that will not come on line until 2026. We have the magnificent F-35s, which are part of that force, and we have a new armoured vehicle for the Army, so there is an amazing range of new kit and equipment.
The other side of that hard power is having the people to go with it, and the human element represents a new form of soft power that will be all the more important. We have the specialised infantry battalions that will be part of the new strike brigades. I had the pleasure last week to meet the commanding officer of one of the new specialised infantry brigades, 4 Rifles, in Aldershot. This kind of specialist infantry battalion will require a greater degree of expertise, and the prospect of serving in one of them will be a very strong motivation for people to be not only retained but recruited in the first place.
For me, the measures in the Bill are not a luxury; they will be important in ensuring that we have a sufficient force. No one in the Chamber should be under any illusion that we will not need large-scale conventional deployments in the near future. For those to be successful, our people must be at the heart of this. That is the golden thread: the great genius of the British military is our people. It was true back in 1895, during the first and second world wars, in 1982 and throughout our deployments in Iraq and Helmand. I am very pleased that the Bill will help to maintain the critical relationship between the MOD and our commanders at every level and the people who serve under them.
It is a real privilege to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty). His constituency has a fine military tradition, and his speech was a very illuminating and interesting discussion of the Bill. I echo the sentiments expressed by Members on both sides of the House in welcoming the principles of the Bill. On reflection, I think that it is part of the longer-term trend we have seen in our armed forces in recent years.
I want to reflect on joining the Territorial Army at the age of 17 in 2006, the year in which the Royal Regiment of Scotland was formed. At the time, it was part of a very controversial exercise in the restructuring of the armed forces and the Army in particular. The change to the regimental system was met with much dismay among those who held true to the traditions of the regimental golden thread, as it was known. However, after a decade of experience of this new multi-battalion regimental system, it has broadly been seen as a successful development in the British Army’s history, primarily because it has offered increased career flexibility for those serving in the multi-battalion regiments. That move to a true one Army structure was excellent, and this feels like a continued evolution of that agenda.
The Bill could look at a more formalised structure between the regular and reserve components and how that might play out. My friends and colleagues in the Army reserves, for example, have transitioned between regular battalions and reserve battalions. While they have developed great experience—I include myself in that—in their attachments to regular battalions and serving alongside them in exercises around Europe, a stigma is still attached to reservists transitioning to more long-term service with regular battalions. For example, someone who is commissioned on a reserve commissioning course at Sandhurst cannot then take a command role in a regular battalion, as they are seen as not having had the necessary training to develop their competence. I would like to see that opportunity explored in more detail during the passage of the Bill. It is an excellent opportunity for greater synergy between our regular and reserve forces which we should examine.
One of the key developments in recent years in the multi-battalion structure for infantry regiments has been the end of the arms plot, which was one of the worst experiences for regular soldiers. The entire battalion would be uprooted, lock, stock and barrel, every couple of years and moved to a different part of the UK, to Germany or even to Hong Kong. Their family lives and the careers of their dependants were uprooted, and it was viewed as a pernicious aspect of serving in the armed forces. It is great that Labour brought in reforms to the Army’s structure that ended the arms plot and stabilised the location of Army battalions. The Bill is a further development in providing stability for families who rely on building a relationship with the local community without a unit, and that is welcome.
I would also like to see greater emphasis on the legal status of those pursuing civilian opportunities while still serving in a regular unit. I know from personal experience that many reservists experience regular discrimination when looking at civilian career opportunities. I remember when I was at university looking for a part-time job. I could tell that the interviewers were not interested as soon as I mentioned being a reservist, and I was not offered the job. It is important that we promote the skills and experience of service in the reserves and that we provide legal protected status for such service. That should feed into how the Bill treats regulars transitioning to some form of civilian employment as well as serving in a regular capacity.
I was heartened to hear that, in surveys, 32% of regular personnel consider that the change would be a positive development and encourage them to retain their career development in the armed forces. That is encouraging.
On the point about retention, as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have been very impressed by the dedication, skills and bravery of the armed forces, but there is no doubt that the pressures of balancing family life with a career in the forces are hard, particularly for those who move around frequently or do long tours of duty. In welcoming the Bill, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it will improve the retention of not only reservists but those in the Regular Army?
I am sympathetic to the sentiments that the hon. Lady has offered the House on that aspect of the Bill. In fact, this weekend a close friend celebrated an early Christmas with his infant daughter because he is about to deploy on active service in Afghanistan—an insight into the extraordinary depth of the commitment and sacrifice that members of our armed forces make. They are unlike any other public servants, and we should recognise that—as other hon. Members have said—when it comes to respecting the covenant, the pay cap and the remuneration of our armed forces. They serve without fear or favour 24 hours a day on exercise or operations overseas. Does the compensation they receive from such a severe dislocation from civilian interaction and family life really reflect the commitment they make? We should also consider that broader point.
What effect will the Bill have on progression in a career in the regular forces? Consideration for promotion in the reserves, for example, is largely predicated on how often someone can commit to attending career courses, weekend training events and annual camps. Given the demands of civilian career development, progression within reservist forces can be prejudiced. I wonder whether that subtle effect also has an impact in the Regular Army when people are considered for promotion—it might be a lowest common denominator effect when it comes to progression in the ranks.
I would like to address the cap badges issue and how this might play out in different branches of the service. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) made a critical point about the severe under-manning, especially in key pinch-point trades and services in the armed forces. Ironically, those are areas where we could leverage skills into the services from civilian life. It would be interesting to see more scrutiny of how the Bill could help to promote the adoption of flexible working in different branches of the Army. For example, the infantry or the cavalry have a very traditional, bottom-up career progression built on experience and the highly specialised nature of their roles, and there might be a better opportunity for the infusion of civilian talent, skills and experience in some of the more technical arms and services—for example, the intelligence corps, cyber and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers might benefit from greater cross-pollination between the private and defence sectors and the armed forces. That might be an interesting way to explore potential scenarios and the impact they might have on certain trades or cap badges.
When the Army structure was proposed back in 2006, with the end of single battalions and the move to multi-battalions, we also saw a reduction in the regular battalions of infantry from 40 to 33. That was an unfortunate exercise. Although we realised more capability from ending the arms plot and the transition in roles of each battalion, we lost a critical mass of capability in the Army as a whole. As for the reforms to the reservists, I remember vividly serving in the Territorials one year when we were told to stop training because the MOD had run out of money—an atrocious example that demonstrates the contempt that the reserves were held in for a long time. It is nice to see that that has now changed and the Army Reserve, as they are now known, are critical and integrated into the Army’s capability.
I would like to see greater opportunities explored, so that we do not just use the Bill as a cost-cutting exercise but as a way to enhance the capability of our armed forces, especially our Army, given that the staffing and manning levels have fallen below the target of 82,000 to 80,000. If the Bill can be a harbinger of a greater enhancement of the armed forces in the future by harnessing the potential of our people in both civilian and military life, to add to our military capability, it would be a welcome move forward for our armed forces. Many of our regulars experience pressure and stress when moving to civilian life, and perhaps the Bill could be used as an opportunity to help the transition of people leaving the armed forces to a civilian career opportunity, instead of the cliff edge of being thrown out or leaving the Army suddenly after 20 or more years of institutional service. I would welcome it if those aspects could be considered in more detail during the passage of the Bill, and I am happy to support its progression.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak this evening, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), who was able to draw on his experience of the reserves and that of people he served with.
I welcome the Bill. It is important that we do everything we can to support our armed forces personnel and ensure that we attract and retain talent—an issue I will discuss in more detail shortly.
I would like to start by echoing the Secretary of State’s opening remarks that we have the best armed forces in the world. I place on record my thanks to our brave servicemen and servicewomen for their courage and professionalism, for the fact that they put their lives on the line to defend and protect our country, and, as we have spoken about this evening, for often making compromises in their work-family balance. I also pay tribute to the two reservist units based in Cannock: the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers and the Royal Military Police.
Before I come on to talk about the Bill, I would like to touch on a local issue in relation to the armed forces. Staffordshire has a proud military history. We were home to the Staffordshire Regiment, better known as the Staffords. Although it was disbanded and merged with the Mercian Regiment, our regimental mascot, Watchman V, a Staffordshire bull terrier, is now the mascot for the Staffordshire Regimental Association and was last year’s winner of the public vote at the Westminster dog of the year show. On a more serious note, Watchman V—or should I say Sergeant Watchman V—and his handler Greg Hedges regularly attend regimental events, military parades and remembrance services.
I could not agree more with the hon. Lady about the wonder of Watchman V, having had the privilege of being with him at the launch of the Staffordshire poppy appeal last week in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). He does Staffordshire a true service and I am delighted the hon. Lady has mentioned him in the House.
I am grateful to one of my constituency near neighbours. I also see the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) in her place, whose dog is the new winner of the Westminster dog of the year. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) makes the important point that they are fantastic ambassadors for the Staffordshire Regimental Association, our military history and our armed forces.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to know that I will now address the Bill, which I welcome. I understand its purpose: we need to find more ways to provide flexible working arrangements. We need to ensure that our armed forces better reflect modern life, and we need to secure a better work-life balance for service personnel and their families. As many Members have said, this is about attracting new talent to the armed forces, including women, so we can reach the 15% target by 2020, but it is also about retaining talented servicemen and servicewomen. People are leaving the forces because of the impact on their family life. I have seen this first hand. Friends of mine have decided to leave the armed forces for family reasons: a better work-life balance and more stability in where they live. This is a massive gain for other public sector organisations and the private sector, but a huge loss to the armed forces. We are losing skills and expertise following significant investment in training throughout their career. I would like to touch on training a little more.
In the past couple of months, like many other hon. Members I have had the honour and privilege of taking part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I place on record my thanks to everyone involved, on a day-to-day basis, in setting up and organising the scheme. I also thank those who have hosted our visits so far. I am taking part in the Army scheme and have learnt so much in a very short space of time. It is on these visits that we have seen the importance of training in getting our servicemen and servicewomen up to speed and ensuring they have the necessary skills. The first half of the scheme between now and Christmas is focused on recruitment and training. I have visited the Army Aviation Centre in Middle Wallop, the Infantry Training Centre at Catterick—that has already been mentioned this evening—and the Land Component briefing day. Next week, a number of us will be visiting the British Army training unit out in Kenya.
We have learnt so much at each of those sessions by virtue of speaking to officers and soldiers, who have welcomed us and shared their experiences of serving. They have given us a real insight into life in the armed forces. What is evident is the investment in training. That is not surprising: we need to make sure that personnel are fully trained if they are to be deployed. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, we need to ensure that our servicemen and servicewomen have not only the right equipment but the right skills. Those skills need to be constantly updated.
That investment in training means that we have highly skilled and highly experienced personnel, so retention is critical. As I have said, one of the main reasons why we lose armed forces personnel is the impact on their family lives. That is why the measures in the Bill on flexible working are so important. It is equally important to continue to ensure operational capability and effectiveness in our armed forces. I recognise that the Bill contains measures to introduce flexible working, while at the same time maintaining the key principles of the armed forces, with a degree of temporary measures included.
Members have mentioned the extent of the consultation on flexible working. There have been the flexible duties trials, we have had surveys and we have had focus groups. Before I was elected to this place, I was a qualitative market researcher conducting focus groups. Thirty two groups across 16 locations is a very large-scale survey and it will help to ensure all views are incorporated into the Bill.
As I mentioned, a number of us will be visiting troops in Kenya and marking Remembrance Day with them, so I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those involved in services across Cannock—there will be plenty—all the very best for their services over Remembrance weekend. I would also like to thank all the volunteers from the British Legion, such as those from the Great Wyrley Bridge branch who I joined in Sainsbury’s in Cannock on Saturday. They work tirelessly this time of the year raising money for the poppy appeal.
To sum up, I welcome the Bill, which contains measures to create more flexibility and so help to attract and retain talent.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), who spoke passionately about the need to retain and recruit personnel to our armed forces.
This is a welcome Bill. I remember growing up in Plymouth as a young man. Back then, the armed forces were not always an open and welcoming place for many people in our community. The progress made over many years for the lesbian, gender, bisexual and transgender community, the BAME community and women is to be welcomed and supported. We have made an awful lot of progress in terms of both legislative equality and—perhaps more importantly—cultural change and how those laws are put into practice. I pay tribute to those in the armed forces who have sought to break down walls and challenge convention in order to welcome people from diverse backgrounds who wish to serve our country.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the steps forward that the armed forces have taken. Does he also welcome the news, which broke about three hours ago, that President Trump’s attempt to exclude transgender people from the military has been defeated by the courts?
We should send a clear message from this House that those from the LGBT community are welcome in the UK armed forces. That sends a strong signal to our allies and opponents about our clear vision for an armed forces that represents all parts of our community.
At the heart of the Bill, though, there is a need for greater recognition of the personnel crisis in the UK armed forces. It is right that we reflect the different reasons people join the armed forces and their different rationales for continuing to serve their country in the way we structure both the recruitment regulations and the terms and conditions. Hon. Members have spoken already about pay, but it is worth my looking again at that and at terms and conditions.
People do not join the armed forces for the pay, but it is definitely a contributing factor, especially at key life moments—for instance, when people are expanding their family, looking to invest in property or going on the housing ladder. Hon. Members on both sides of the House haven spoken about armed forces housing. In Plymouth, this remains a national scandal on which we need to do much more. CarillionAmey is not doing its job properly. It is important that the Government send a strong signal to CarillionAmey that the service it is offering is simply not good enough and that our armed forces families deserve the very best.
One of the keys to the personnel crisis are the pinch points, particularly in the Royal Navy, which is of great interest to the patch I serve, as I represent Devonport dockyard and naval base. I am talking about engineers and nuclear skills in particular. As we look to invest more in our armed forces and buy ever more expensive bits of kit, it is vital that we recruit and retain the talent to make sure that those bits of kit can be used in the way they are supposed to be used. I am concerned, however, about our continuing skills shortage in engineering grades.
It is important that we recognise our friends and NATO allies, especially those from America, who have transferred personnel to serve in our UK armed forces in engineering grades. In particular, I welcome the transferring of people from the US Coast Guard to serve in the Royal Navy. There remains much more to do, however, and I would welcome a greater effort from Ministers in terms of how we invest more in engineering. That is especially a concern in nuclear engineering skills, particularly as the new generation of nuclear new build power stations comes online and there is a temptation to poach people by offering them better pay, terms and conditions and lifestyle.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about skills, particularly in critical areas such as nuclear engineering. It is worth noting that generally during the build of a large complex programme, such as the Astute-class submarine, there are large-scale secondments of personnel from the Royal Navy, working alongside engineering staff with defence contractors such as Rolls-Royce or BAE Systems. Essentially, they are on a job-share initiative between the defence contractor and their normal service location. Might the Bill be an opportunity to formalise that arrangement, increase their compensation and build their industry experience as well as their service experience?
It is crucial in structuring the regulations and operations of armed forces that we recognise the interplay between civilian and military life. It is not simply a one-way street; there are stages in people’s careers when they might move between those two different lifestyles.
Flexible working can support the retention and recruitment of military personnel and also add two other important factors: the ability to return to our armed forces and then for their service to be recognised and properly supported. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken about the need to recruit people and to attract the best and brightest from a variety of backgrounds and to retain their service. There are an increasing number of examples, however, certainly in Plymouth and in the Royal Navy, of armed forces personnel who have left the service returning in a variety of different contracts in different roles. I hope that the Government will consider specifically what additional support will be needed by people whose previous backgrounds will have been very different, and what can be done to persuade more people to return to parts of the service where there is currently a shortage of skills, particularly engineering skills. I think that Members on both sides of the House agree on the importance of recognition in the armed forces, and there is certainly more to be done about veteran support.
Our armed forces do not operate in a bubble, and the rules and regulations governing recruitment, retention and flexibility should reflect the existence of a more competitive environment. The forces should attempt to be the best and brightest employers, offering both openness and quality, and they should be family-friendly. We should not give flexible working a new status if we are not yet sure about the possibility of stigmatisation. I hope that Ministers will have a think about the definitions that are being used, because it worries me that those who take up the option of flexible working as part of their contracts could be stigmatised by their colleagues, and that a stigma could also be attached to the cultural setting in which they found themselves. I know that that is not the intention behind the Bill, and I hope that Ministers, and others who scrutinise it, will give some thought not only to the definitions, but, more important, to how they can be translated into action to ensure that we can recruit, retain and return talent without that accompanying stigma.
Anyone who travels from Plymouth on Sundays will be familiar with the line-up of new recruits who arrive at the station on Sunday evenings to join HMS Raleigh. That is normally the moment when they have left their families, and they line up in their smartest suits awaiting their first proper day in the Royal Navy. I have spoken to many of those new recruits as they work out which station they should be going to and how they are to get there. I remember, on one occasion, helping a young man to tie his tie, because he was very nervous and wanted to make a good impression.
New recruits join the Royal Navy, and the armed forces in general, for a variety of reasons. Some want a better life than they have previously endured, some simply want to serve, and some want to follow family members or contribute to our country. There are many stories that they can tell about the hope and excitement that they feel. It is important for us, in this place, to create rules and regulations that do not discriminate against those who want to join the forces—regardless of their background, their sexuality or their gender—and to support them throughout the various moments in their lives, and those of their families, that they will experience during their service.
I should like to know how the Government will address personnel shortages, and how those life moments and the requirements of flexible working can be phased and dialled up and down so that we can bring back the talent that we need as and when it is required. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) said that flexible working might be a good way of ending the “cliff edge” that is sometimes encountered by people when they leave the services, but we should bear in mind that it could also enable us to bring people back into the armed forces at some future date.
This short Bill is a welcome example of the progress that our armed forces have been making for many years, and I think that it is a step forward, but I also think that a few elements could be tweaked to ensure that it is implemented in the best way possible. I hope that the Minister will think about how we can not only recruit and retain personnel, but return them to our armed forces.
This debate is very important for our armed forces, and I am pleased to follow some wonderful speeches, particularly those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who is no longer in his place, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I am also extremely proud because, since being elected to the House, one of my members of staff has trained to be a reservist; he has passed his exams—for want of a better phrase—and is now a full reservist. So I am doing my bit for the armed forces.
I am extremely pleased that the Government have introduced this Bill, which recognises the special sacrifice and commitment our armed forces make to our country. I am extremely privileged to represent the place where I was born, a constituency within the towns of Medway, where we have a long and rich history with our armed forces. We have had the Royal Marines; we have our naval dockyard, which is known for the building of the famous Victory; and in later years we have the nuclear submarines. There is also of course our beloved Royal Engineers, with the Royal School of Military Engineering at Brompton Barracks within my constituency. We also have a reserve unit. Although the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), is not in his place, I want to say that Conservative Members are extremely proud to have in him a Royal Engineers colonel.
Our armed forces have changed very much since I was a young girl growing up in the Medway towns. My great grandfather, who served in the Boer war, was stationed at Kitchener Barracks in Chatham, which is now closed and being developed into houses. When I left school, I remember saying to my parents that I wanted to join the Navy and my mum dutifully took me down to the recruitment office in Chatham. I realised that the Navy would not be the best place for me. My father said it was probably because I could not handle being shouted at—there we go.
At the time, women were not allowed to work on the submarines, be a boatswain or fly helicopters. How things have changed. So it is right that we recognise that our armed forces have changed and everyday life has changed, and it is right that the individuals who commit, and make the sacrifice to serve their country, are afforded some flexibility during their careers.
The Bill’s provisions represent a balance that affords the opportunity for serving personnel to apply for flexibility, whether it be after the birth of a child, a family bereavement, illness or just a change in life circumstances, while maintaining the principle that servicemen and women are always ready for duty.
Last year we celebrated the 300th anniversary of our “proud Sappers”, with over 200 years at Chatham, with Her Majesty the Queen visiting Chatham Brompton Barracks. Such is the history and the international regard in which our Engineers are held that we continue to attract the best men and women into our armed forces. Currently our Engineers are deployed on 18 operation across the world, and, notably, are currently involved in the Caribbean after the recent hurricane. All of our Engineers will have passed at some stage through the royal military school at Chatham.
Allowing these opportunities for flexible work in the future will help to continue to attract people to a career in the services, particularly women. Anything that promotes a job offering unique skills and experiences is worthwhile. It will help with recruitment as the armed forces will now be attractive to someone who might have dismissed such a career because of the time commitment.
Our Engineers in Chatham recently held a mock demolition of Rochester bridge with local people watching on—although, to the disappointment of local people, the Engineers did not actually blow the bridge up.
My hon. Friend started her speech with the important remark that one of her researchers is a reservist. I am very proud that my long-standing researcher, Mark Oates, is also training to be a reservist. These people will become increasingly important for our armed services. Does my hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to encourage private and public sector companies to do whatever they can to support Army reservists working for them, as Members of Parliament do?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need to do more to encourage organisations to support their workforces to volunteer as reservists. As a Member of Parliament, I am here in this House making decisions that have an impact on our military services, and it is therefore only right that I should afford the flexibility to someone working for me to follow something that they want to do.
The armed forces can do a great deal by engaging with our communities, and this can involve an important educational element. Following the exercise on the Rochester bridge, many people who lived in the Medway towns suddenly realised that we had a barracks in the constituency. It is massively important that that connection should continue. The deep relationship that our armed forces have with the places in the UK where they are based provides an opportunity for them to showcase how rewarding a career in the armed forces can be.
I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social work, which is currently conducting an inquiry into social work and female veterans. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), I have had the privilege of hearing about the challenges faced by some of our female veterans and the impact that regular service and being on operation has had on their health and their families. These amazingly strong women are a credit to our country and to my gender. They are supported by the veterans’ charity, Forward Assist, of which my hon. Friend is the patron. In short, we need to support our servicemen and women to keep them in their jobs, and we also need to make those jobs attractive.
A career in the armed forces can bring many challenges and difficulties, but it is still a good job and people are less likely to have problems working in that sector than in some other stressful careers. The threat is changing, and our military is changing. The British forces are regarded worldwide as being the best. I look forward to supporting the Bill, and I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Government on bringing it forward today.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, and to follow two Members who represent constituencies with so much naval history: the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst). Devonport and Chatham have played huge roles in our military history. Some Members will know that there is a little bit of naval history in my own family. My grandfather spent 25 years in the Royal Navy from 1937 to 1962, and my father spent 27 years in Devonport dockyard. He would tell people that he was a painter and when asked what kind of pictures he painted, he would say, “Well, if you would like your picture in submarine black, battleship grey, firebox red or warning sign yellow, I’m your man, but if you want it in anything else, you’d probably better speak to someone else.”
The Bill is particularly relevant today. When my grandfather was serving 60 years ago, there was a very traditional structure. He would be out on the fleet and my grandmother would be at home with the family, and they would be expected to follow the service wherever it took them. My father can remember living in Scotland before coming down to Plymouth and living in Devonport more permanently. At that time, people were in different places for long periods of time, and perhaps that generation accepted that, having seen the struggles of world war two. My grandfather saw some of the heaviest action, on the Malta convoy, and he saw further action latterly in the Pacific as Japan’s fight against the allies became even more desperate. He also experienced one of the frogman attacks in Alexandria in the late 1930s.
Wow! I was expecting a bit of a queue, but—let’s do ladies first, then we will do the gentlemen.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned his grandfather, and I do not want to pass up this opportunity to mention the fact that my grandfather served in the Arctic convoys during the second world war. I want to put Harry Monaghan on the record as well.
It is wonderful to hear that piece of family history. It is not always known that a large percentage of the tanks used in the counter-attack at Moscow in 1941 that finally drove the Germans back from threatening the Russian capital were supplied via the Arctic convoys. While Russia did get its industry going and almost achieved a miracle of production between 1941 and the ultimate victory in 1945, the convoys played a huge role in the crucial first months of the war and literally kept the Soviet Union in the fight, laying the ground for the defeat of national socialism in Europe.
As proof that great minds think alike, the fact that my hon. Friend referred to the second world war means that I cannot pass up the opportunity to point out that today is the 75th anniversary of the seizure of vital Enigma documents from the U-boat, U-559. Three young men swam over to that sinking U-boat and went on board in the dead of night. Two of them, Tony Fasson and Colin Grazier, went down with the sinking boat and were posthumously awarded the George Cross, and the third, a 16-year-old called Tommy Brown, who did not survive the war, was awarded the George Medal. By their sacrifice and bravery, thousands upon thousands of allied lives were saved.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reminder of the sacrifice that people made—breaking those codes made a huge difference in the battle of the Atlantic. It also brings us to a slightly sadder reminder, which perhaps partly relates to what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) alluded to, of a time when someone’s commitment to this country was not the only thing that we judged them by. Alan Turing also did so much to ensure that the Enigma code was broken and that German messages could be read, probably shortening the war by a year. If it did not shorten the war, it at least turned the war and allowed us to keep vital lifelines open.
I will take one more intervention and then press on, because I am conscious that other Members want to speak.
When talking about the breaking of the Enigma code, I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the Polish codebreakers who joined British codebreakers at Bletchley. They also made sacrifices to ensure our victory in the second world war.
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in that. Polish people also fought alongside British forces throughout the second world war after Poland was overrun in 1939. My hon. Friend mentioned his constituent who fought in the battle of Britain, in which the famous Polish squadrons showed such great bravery fighting for this country in the hope of keeping alive the flame of freedom for their own country. Sadly, it took well over 40 years for that flame to be reignited in Poland, but it was that sacrifice that ultimately made it possible for the country to be free again—although it did take until after the collapse of communism, which played such a role in the defeat of fascism.
The Bill is timely and reflects the changes in society since the times that we have just talked about. Those looking to serve our nation now will face a range of pressures, including the importance of their children’s schooling. Constantly moving from deployment to deployment might be fine for a single man or woman and maybe for a couple if the partner is in a job that can be flexible. However, if someone’s children are starting to come up to their GCSEs or A-levels, they will have that duty as well—no matter how committed they are.
The Bill is not about creating a part-time military. It is nonsense to say that someone will be going home if they are on operational service. This is about allowing the military to retain capability or to bring people with totally unique skills into the regular service. The military may be able to work with private sector companies at the cutting edge of sectors such as encryption, IT, technology or nuclear to allow the military to have that capability. Like our grandparents’ generation and those who are commemorated around the walls of the Chamber, those who sign up now would recognise the need to put the service first and to make themselves available full time at a time of national emergency. This is about people being one step up from a reservist and having a regular role, which builds on work that has been done on the full-time reserve, for example, where someone can be retained to do specific job. I have been on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and it has been interesting to meet some very experienced people—people with 20 or 25 years in the services—who are retained to do a specific job in order to keep their experience.
As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said, recruiters are sometimes almost hanging around the naval base gates waiting for people who are coming up to their release period. In the nuclear industry, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) said, we are about to see a new generation of nuclear reactors built, and people who have been trained in the Royal Navy will be incredibly recruitable. We need to give them an incentive that will allow them to have a family and a naval career, and the Bill gives them that incentive.
If I told my grandfather that, 60 years after he was in the Navy, I would be here talking about cyber, he would wonder what on earth I was doing talking about a sci-fi film. We need that ability. Synthetic training environments could create so many opportunities, particularly for keeping air crews current on particular airframes. There are real opportunities that would potentially allow someone to go part time in their military career while retaining the skills that could give them opportunities for the future, particularly as we look to the type of warfare we might see in the 21st century.
It is welcome that we are now being flexible and that we are judging people by their commitment. The President of the United States is attempting to ban skilled people who want to serve their country. A member of the US navy deployed with one of our ships could be removed if they are transgender, but if they served with the Royal Navy it would be no issue at all for them to do exactly the same job. Today’s court ruling is interesting, and I hope it will set the tone that people should be judged by their commitment and their skills for the job, not by any other factor. If we would accept people if the balloon went up in eastern Europe, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who is sitting next to me, why would we not accept them in peacetime, too? I cannot believe that the restriction would be maintained in wartime, so why on earth would it be maintained in peacetime?
It is right that there are some limits on the ability to request flexible working and that the operation of a unit, a ship or a combat-ready unit about to deploy is still the overriding consideration. Such requests can be dealt with by commanders in a sensible and meaningful way. That needs to be in the Bill, because if it were not, we would probably have to create some sort of caveat. It is clear from the start, but I hope a request would not be unreasonably refused, given that the whole point of the Bill is to keep people in service.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am short of time, so I will not take any further interventions.
It is right that there is still a caveat in the Bill, which can be explored further in Committee, assuming the Bill gets its Second Reading tonight. This has been an interesting debate, and it is probably the right time for the Bill, which reflects a changing society, changing patterns of work and changes in the way people have to balance their service and family commitments. The Bill moves away from the idea of a male serviceman going around the world with his family in tow and embraces the likely employment patterns of the future.
Hopefully we will see more committed people wishing to serve in our armed forces, which is the nub of the issue. Yes, flexible working is likely to be more attractive to women, but it will be attractive to many people who wish to serve—those who want to serve our country, who want to be part of one of the greatest armed forces on this planet and who want to give the sort of service that past generations gave in previous times of need for this country, but who have to balance that with their family.
More good women will come in the door because of the Bill. This is not just about being kind to people, being a nice employer or winning an award for being a flexible employer; it is fundamentally about making it possible for more talent to come into our armed forces and, crucially, to be retained in our armed forces. That is why this is the right Bill, and I hope the House will give it a Second Reading this evening.
I rise to support the Bill. Having recently served on the Finance Bill Committee, one realises that there is a beauty in brevity, and the two pages of this Bill are indeed beautiful. They are beautiful in what they seek to do, which goes to prove that a Bill does not have to be large in stature to be effective.
During my time in the reserve forces, I interacted with a number of friends and colleagues in the Regular Army and the regular services who dealt on an uncomfortably regular basis with members of their service going to them as their officer to say, “Boss, I am going to have to leave because my recent service has been very intense and if I want to keep my family together, I am going to have to enter ‘First UK Civ. Div.’”. In this place, we would call that civilian employment. I know that a number of my colleagues were hugely disappointed, but they understood that these soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel would have to put their family first, and they reluctantly let them go. That was the right thing for these people to do, but unfortunately it was a loss to the service.
It is worth remembering that the patterns of military service we are now used to were put in place at a time when a single employer for life was the norm in civilian employment, and the idea that the bloke would go off to earn all the money for the family and the wife would be happy to stay at home looking after the children was also the norm. The world of work in the civilian sphere has changed beyond recognition. It is now perfectly normal to have two working parents in a household. It is now perfectly normal for the woman in the household to have the more significant and high-earning job, and for the man in the household to be the one who bends their working life around the needs—[Interruption.] Of the wife, indeed. There are plenty of examples in the Chamber this evening of that happening, yet until this Bill is passed it will still be the norm in this area for the woman in a relationship to have to sacrifice her career for that of her husband. Surely in 2017 that should no longer necessarily be the case.
I was struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) that we have few women in very senior roles in the armed forces. That is a shame, and it weakens us at a point in time when we now recognise that the diversity of experience and knowledge is an important element in successful planning for not just operations, but the background work in which our armed forces take part. One Opposition Member made the point—I apologise for not recalling who it was—that it is not enough just to pass this Bill, important though it is; it is also important that we drive through a cultural change in the armed forces. The hon. and gallant Members who have served will know that there is an unwritten rhythm to the perfect military career. Someone becomes a platoon commander at a certain age and a company second-in-command at another, they go to staff college at this point and then become a brigade chief of staff, before going on to command a sub-unit and then hit other markers at other points. That is the route to high command in the armed forces. It is great for completely flexible men, but it is much harder to hit those career markers if you need to take time off to have children, and that massively disadvantages women.
Hopefully the Bill will become an Act, after which the acme of its success will be that if a man needs to take time off from that career rhythm to support his family—his children, an elderly relative or whoever it might be—he still feels that he has as much chance of getting to high command, should his talent lead him there, as a woman. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, there must be no stigma for either a man or a woman in taking advantage of flexible working.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cultural change we need to see is a senior officer being the first person to access flexible working? That would send the right message to the rest of the force about how the changes should be implemented and how we should operate.
That is not something I had thought of, but it is an important point. If not someone at a very senior rank—there might be the implication that they had already cashed in their chips so were fine—I would love it and it would be interesting to see one of the potential high fliers take up flexible working. Those Members who have been involved in one of the numerous all-party groups on the armed forces all have a little shopping list of the people who could be the service chiefs of the future. Were one of those marked people, the future high fliers, to say, “I’m going to take advantage of this and send a really powerful signal that it will not carry any stigma”, that would be important.
I hope that the Bill will drive a change in attitudes towards service leavers. While I was waiting to speak, I took part in an exchange on social media in which someone reminded me that traditionally the armed forces have not been very good at dealing with people on their way out. I have always been massively frustrated by that, because those people are the recruiters of the future. It is remarkable that someone who might have had decades of happy service, whether in dark blue, light blue or green, and who could have gone on to become a fantastic recruiter for their branch of the armed forces, could get messed about so comprehensively in their last few weeks and months of service that when they finally hit civvy street the only thing they have to say is what an awful experience they had. That seems a massive waste. Perhaps, through this model of flexibility of service, the armed forces will get better at dealing with people as they move from full-time service to part-time or flexible service, from part-time service to reserve service, and from reserve service to civilian life, in such a way that those people become and remain powerful recruiters for their branch of the armed forces.
The changes in the Bill will need careful management, but this agenda should not be avoided just because of that. We will need to make sure that flexible working is not used as a way to duck out of a particularly bad potential deployment—we all know that there are good and bad deployments. We must also make sure that the availability of flexible working is well communicated throughout people’s service life, so that they have thought about it before they need to do it, rather than just afterwards. I do not want to see anyone else sacrifice either their career because of their family or their family life because of their career. The Bill is a big step forward and I commend it to the House.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. Having heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about his grandfather’s naval experiences and from my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) about his Army background, I am going to bring a little Air Force balance to the debate. I have to take this opportunity to mention both my grandfather Albert Robert Newitt, who was known to everybody as Dennis, and my great-uncle Basil Newitt. They were the bomber brothers of my family and were, respectively, a Wellington navigator and a Lancaster bomb aimer.
Times have changed immeasurably since then. We are now in an age of high technology. Crucially, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree rightly mentioned, we are no longer talking about a job for life. People now know that they have choice in their employment experience, and they will take it. It is in that world that we compete today, and that the armed forces must also compete. The armed forces are not immune to those pressures of childcare and job flexibility. Although there is no doubt that a career in the armed forces is loved—those who serve today will no doubt confirm the camaraderie and excitement that they experience—unique pressures do exist. There is the fact that people are moved around without any say in their own living accommodation. That is very off-putting for some, particularly those who have families. That of course leads to a unique job retention crisis.
Suffice it to say that I support everything that this Bill is trying to do. I look forward to further discussions at a later stage.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for his contribution to this debate.
As Members on both sides of the Chamber will agree, those who serve, or who have served in the armed forces of our United Kingdom, some of whom now sit on the Benches in this House and who have made full contributions to this debate using their experience and knowledge, should be continually supported throughout their career. An individual who chooses to risk their life for their country will always have the backing and support of this Government.
The package of reforms in our armed forces people programme demonstrates our commitment to service personnel and this Bill ensures that, like those in other industries, they have greater flexibility around how they balance both work and life. Although discretionary flexibility in working has been in place since 2005, there is no ability for regulars to work part-time or have a guarantee that they will not be liable for extended overseas deployment. This Bill ensures that those practices will indeed be formalised. The arrangement works well in other countries. Although the UK leads the way in many areas, we must continually seek to learn from other countries that have successfully implemented policies that we too could benefit from adopting.
We must never forget that, like each one of us, armed forces personnel bear personal responsibilities—whether that be a family, elderly relatives or ill health in the family. As with other careers, we must ensure that we make a role in our armed forces as accessible as possible and open to the widest possible pool of talent.
I had the great pleasure of visiting RM Condor, in my constituency of Angus, and was struck by the high proportion of marines who came from hundreds of miles away to serve in Arbroath. It is right and proper that we in this House give those marines the flexibility they need to deal with the challenges in their home lives—often many miles away from their base.
As other Members have mentioned, further flexibility will encourage more recruits in their late 20s and early 30s and may well move us closer towards the model adopted in the Netherlands, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned. Obviously, I feel passionately that we need to encourage more females and seek to reach that target of 15% by 2020. No career should be skewed towards one gender, and it should not be easier for a male or a female to carry out any role.
One of the most important factors that will drive personnel to take advantage of the flexible working hours is supporting a family. A role in the armed forces and being a visible parent will no longer be mutually exclusive. Although the jobs market in the United Kingdom is increasingly competitive, careers in the public service must also adjust and modernise. As Members have suggested, there have been societal changes to which we must adapt, although operational capability must be at the forefront of the MOD’s decisions on any applications.
I cannot overestimate the positive outcomes of this Bill. It outlines this Government’s commitment towards modernising our working practices, making careers in the armed forces more accessible and workable in modern life, supporting diversity within the workforce, and alleviating strain and external pressures for personnel. Each and every one of these attributes will positively influence the working environment, morale and readiness of our armed forces.
We must never forget these service personnel, who sacrifice much more in their service than you and I, who deserve to be able to live a family life as far as possible just like you and I and to feel their selfless commitment is appreciated just as you and I would ask. That is exactly what the Bill achieves. I am delighted to welcome it for the benefit of the Royal Marines in my constituency of Angus, and for all those who so nobly serve in the armed forces across our United Kingdom.
This debate has been an interesting one with a considerable amount of consensus. It has clearly shown how much our armed forces are valued in this House.
We heard from a range of Members, not least the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who reminded us of concerns about retention and the need to avoid bureaucracy and entertained us with the lyrics of a Glee Club song, “Part-time Submarine”. However, I think that I share with other Members a slight disappointment that he did not actually sing the tune.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) mentioned his pride in our armed forces, his many exchanges with personnel including through the armed forces parliamentary scheme and his concerns about the impact of pay on morale. I think that we received an invitation to a service of private thanksgiving in Chesterfield on the Thursday after Remembrance Sunday.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) highlighted concerns about retention, the future accommodation model and particularly about CarillionAmey, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. She expressed concerns that only 10.2% of our armed forces are women. As she said, that simply is not good enough. I am sure that is a sentiment with which the whole House will agree.
The hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) said that we need a debate on pay and an end to the pay cap. The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) spoke about his study into recruitment and retention and his 20 recommendations. He also had concerns about the future accommodation model.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) spoke about his own experience of joining what was the Territorial Army, and highlighted the need for more formal structures between the reserves and the regulars. He also mentioned the concerns that many reservists face with employment and the need for protected status.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) talked about the progress that has been made in the armed forces, particularly for LGBT and BAME people and for women. He also mentioned the need to look at pay. He commented that it is vital to recruit and retain personnel to match the investment in the new platforms and equipment, and he said that the Government need to address the personnel shortage.
We heard from the hon. Members for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), for Torbay (Kevin Foster), for Witney (Robert Courts), for Braintree (James Cleverly) and for Angus (Kirstene Hair)—I hope I have not left anybody out—many of whom gave examples of interactions with armed forces personnel, sacrifices of family life and the impact on the work-life balance.
As hon. Members across the House are aware and as was highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), we are facing a crisis of recruitment and retention in our armed forces and something must be done to get to grips with it. The measures in the Bill are part of the new employment model programme that has been established to improve the offer for members of our armed forces and that is looking at four policy areas: pay and allowances; accommodation; training and education; and terms of service. I hope that the Minister will mention in his reply progress being made in other areas, particularly pay, as well as accommodation. Access to good-quality, affordable accommodation is an important part of the overall offer. The lack of detail surrounding the future accommodation model is concerning to many personnel, so I hope the Minister will update us on that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli said, we welcome the principle of flexible working in our armed forces. Anything that makes service life more compatible with personal and family life is a good thing, as in any profession. As has been highlighted during the debate, there are already ways in which members of the armed forces can work flexibly, including compressed hours, late starts or early finishes and working from home. It is the notion of part-time working that is the new element in the Bill, and we still need a number of questions answered about the details of the scheme and how its various aspects will work in practice.
Let me turn to some of the practicalities. Service personnel will have to apply to a competent service authority. Will this be someone who knows the personal circumstances of the individual service member, so that they can make a more nuanced assessment, or will it be somebody removed from them, and if so, will the applicant’s commanding officer make a recommendation alongside their application? Or will applications be anonymised, so that there can be no conscious or unconscious bias on the part of those making the decision?
Will there be clear limits on the number or percentage of those working part time that any specific regiment can have? If somebody applies after that limit has been met, will they automatically be rejected? What will the process be when it comes to the right of appeal? Will there be a timeframe? Will there be a body to deal with that specifically?
Several Members in the other place highlighted the term “part time” as potentially problematic, given that it could imply a service member’s commitment is only part time. Do the Government have any plans to re-examine that term? I am slightly concerned that the Government have not fully envisaged exactly how some of the elements will work, so I hope that the Minster will be able to clarify some of those concerns this evening.
With regard to the other aspect of the Bill—the limits to separated service for defined periods—this year’s tri-service family attitude survey, which was released just last week, revealed the lack of support spouses and families feel they receive on deployment. There have been decreases in satisfaction with the types of support before operational tours. There have also been decreases in satisfaction with support during and after deployments. One in three spouses did not know where to go for service-provided welfare support while their partner was deployed. More disappointingly, over half of service families do not feel valued by the services. We know how significant families are to the forces community, so it is important to ensure they know how valued they are, and I think that all of us in the House would like to express that today.
Alongside the option to limit deployment, will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to improve support and access to support for families while their service member is away on deployment? What are they doing to improve the relationship between families and the forces? I hope that we can iron out in Committee the details I have mentioned, and I look forward to working with the Minister during that process.
I will finish by saying, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli, that we are prepared to support the Bill, but if we are to do so, the Government must be prepared to amend it to give a fair pay rise to our forces personnel or to allow the pay review body to conduct an in-year review without the cap in place. For the Bill to improve recruitment and, crucially, retention, it needs to be supported by investment in our personnel, and I hope the Government will put their money where their mouth is and invest in our servicemen and women.
Despite the time constraints, we have had a welcome, constructive and largely agreeable Second Reading debate. I am grateful for the contributions from both sides of the House, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to some of the points made.
As the Secretary of State said in opening the debate, while we are investing in equipment—in new ships, submarines, aircraft and armoured vehicles—we must also continue to attract and retain the people not only to use that equipment but to learn the skills to leverage its capabilities fully, to ensure that, strategically and tactically, we can continue to meet our defence, security, humanitarian and diplomatic obligations.
Ultimately, this is about people; it is about those in uniform who defend these shores and our security interests abroad. It is about those in uniform whom we call on to respond to new threats and challenges, such as a resurgent Russia, or to provide humanitarian support in the Caribbean. It is those in uniform—their capabilities, their leadership, their courage and their commitment—who truly reflect our operational effectiveness. However, to attract the brightest and the best, we must recognise the modern context in which recruitment and retention take place.
Just as our equipment and tactics advance and modernise, so too must our offering in terms of what it entails to wear the uniform and serve in the Royal Navy, the Army or the Royal Air Force. As the Secretary of State stated, we are now committed to an ambitious programme to advance our personnel policies, and this Bill is an important step towards a more modern lifestyle for our armed forces.
Under our armed forces people programme, there are four key strands: first, our new joiners’ offer, developing a new employment offer that better meets the expectations of future recruits; secondly, our future accommodation model, advancing the housing options available both to single and to married personnel, including home ownership; thirdly, the enterprise approach, with a better harnessing of the transition between public and private sector, specifically for those with engineering and high-tech skills; and finally, offering greater flexible engagement through this Bill.
There is not enough time to do justice to all the contributions we have heard, but I join the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) in congratulating those who have spoken. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who supported the Bill in general, spoke about some of the challenges that our armed forces face to do with childcare, partner illness and so forth. I am pleased with the general tone that she adopted, which was reflected across the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee, almost broke into song; I think that the House is probably grateful that he did not. Other contributions from across the House highlighted the importance of supporting the people who make our armed forces work.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way because of the time, and I would like to make some further comments.
As has been said, this small but important Bill will help to modernise our armed forces, and it forms part of a package of measures to maintain the attraction of serving our country. Without exception, all Members, from the opening speech by the Secretary of State onwards, stressed the respect that our armed forces command both here in the UK and abroad.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am slightly bemused. Can you confirm whether we have until the moment of interruption for the Minister to continue his remarks?
That is not a point of order, but there are 33 minutes to go.
As I said, without exception, all Members from across the House came to support the people in our armed forces today.
For centuries and across continents, our armed forces have been respected—indeed, revered—for their grit, tenacity and courage. When we define who we are as a nation—our standards, our values, our tolerance, our interests and our aspirations—they are neatly interwoven with the reputation of our armed forces and the role that they play on the nation’s behalf.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way—I have made that clear.
The Secretary of State, as did others, spoke of our armed forces being the best in the world. The professionalism and capability of our personnel remains the exemplar on which other nations, both friend and foe, rate the professionalism of their armed forces.
In this place, we often refer to Britain’s global influence as the world’s leading soft power, with the ability to pursue a transparent agenda to help shape the world around us as a force for good through our influence, commitment, political values and foreign policies. That international respect works only if it is underlined by the recognition that it is backed by the hard power that can be called on to support, to lead, to stabilise, or, where necessary, to intervene. Who do we call on to step forward? It is those who are in uniform. This is not just about attracting the brightest and the best in an ever-competitive domestic environment; in a fast-changing and challenging world, it is about retaining the professionalism of our armed forces that helps us to continue to play a critical role as a force for good on the international stage. It is therefore right that we advance our offering to attract the brightest and the best. That is exactly what this Bill, sitting with the other measures that I have outlined, attempts to do.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill [Lords] (programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill [Lords]:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on 14 November.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on consideration and up to and including Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)
Question agreed to.