ARMED FORCES (FLEXIBLE WORKING) BILL – 30 October 2017
Dr Julian Lewis: 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 –
Toby Perkins: 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?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): 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.
Dr Lewis: 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 –
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That is no reason for him not to be here – let us put that on the record now.
Dr Lewis: 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 Tobias Ellwood), who I believe will be summing up. I endorse the commendation of both Front Benchers for this measure.