My Lords, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity again to be speaking to a Bill for the Armed Forces. The welfare of our service personnel is one of the most important responsibilities of government and one that we take very seriously. The Government are determined to meet their obligations to our brave service men and women and their families. Part of this commitment is ensuring that their service meets the needs of modern life and helps to secure a better work/life balance.
It is evident that there now exists, in society, a desire and need for greater choice in how individuals run their lives, and this, of course, extends to the Armed Forces. Of course, total and unlimited choice is not possible in the disciplined environment of the Armed Forces where the requirement to serve the needs of the country is paramount, but there are ways in which our traditionally inflexible approach to working can be improved. The Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill is our response to this. It is not the panacea for the challenges we face in the recruitment and retention of our people, but it is a step in the right direction to offer our people more control over how they serve.
We know that one of the top reasons why people choose to leave the Armed Forces is the impact of their service on family life. Regular personnel who are unable to meet their unlimited military commitments for periods of time sometimes have no other choice than to leave the services. They lose a well-earned career; we lose their hard-won knowledge, skills and experience. Self-evidently, this is detrimental to maintaining operational capability and to the cost of defence, so why would we not make the lives of those who proudly serve our nation easier?
The Bill will help to ease their lives. It offers our people a solution when they are faced with complexity in their personal life. Flexible working will alleviate some of the strain at critical times and help the services retain more of the people they need to keep, such as women who are considering starting a family or men and women with caring responsibilities. Importantly, the services believe that flexible working opportunities will help them to compete with modern organisations and attract the best people to join our Armed Forces. To continue to deliver crucial operational capability, the Armed Forces must be seen as a modern and attractive employer if they are to recruit the quality and quantity of people they need from across the breadth of the UK society that they serve. This is getting harder to do against an increasingly competitive backdrop, with the competition for talent expected to increase in the years ahead. In short, flexible working opportunities will enhance the delivery of operational capability through improved retention, a more diverse workforce and a broader spectrum of commitment levels when and where we need them.
So what does this small Bill do? There are two main provisions. The first clause amends Section 329 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which makes provision regarding terms and conditions of enlistment and service. The amendment extends the existing regulation-making power to enable enhanced flexible working opportunities, within which regular service personnel would be able to apply to work part-time and/or to restrict their geographic employment by limiting the time they are separated from their permanent place of residence or home base. In practice, these new options will be temporary, limited to defined periods and subject to service needs to maintain operational capability. That last point is crucial. Although we recognise that modernisation for the Armed Forces is essential, maintaining operational effectiveness is our absolute red line. The Bill therefore also provides for the services to vary, suspend or terminate the arrangements in circumstances to be prescribed in new regulations. Of course there will be instances where flexible working arrangements are simply not practicable, for example while serving at sea or in a high readiness unit. The Bill will not therefore enable every service person to work flexibly, but it will create an obligation for the services to consider and decide on applications from personnel to serve under the new flexible working arrangements. It will also create the requirement for the services to record the terms of an approved application, such that there is clarity for both parties in the arrangements.
Clause 2 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 provisions in the Bill are based firmly on evidence. Since 2015, some elements of the services have been conducting a flexible duties trial. The ongoing trial is proving the need for both a reduced liability to deploy and less than full-time working. The majority of participants describe the trial as a positive experience, particularly for those with children, and the Army reported a noticeable correlation between flexible working, improved relationships and team morale. Here I must make clear that the services are greatly involved in the development of flexible working. These proposals, which have the support of the service chiefs, have been designed, and continue to be developed, by the services for the services. We should not forget the bedrock of those who follow and support our Armed Forces: their families. I am pleased to tell the House that the Families Federations have said they welcome the MoD’s plans to improve flexible working opportunities in the Armed Forces:
“The drive for a better work/life balance amongst Service families is one of our focus areas and we eagerly await the further development of this initiative”.
The Bill would allow service personnel to provide their service in a more flexible way to better suit their lifestyles. 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 where they will not work or be liable for work—or to restrict the amount of time they spend separated from their normal place of work.
For the avoidance of any doubt, the case for flexible working for the Armed Forces is principally about recruitment and retention. It is not—I say this particularly to the Benches opposite—a money-saving exercise. As I have made clear, it is a novel way to support the Armed Forces in the changing demands of modern life. Our aim is to help service families attain a better work/life balance. Flexible working would provide breathing space for other responsibilities. In particular, we believe the Bill would improve the lived experience of female personnel and help the Armed Forces work towards their 15% recruitment target for women by 2020.
On the back of these measures for regulars, we hope in time to build further opportunities for members of the reserves to expand their experience, which will move us closer to a whole-force approach. I hope your Lordships will appreciate that, although this is a small Bill, it will have far-reaching consequences in helping to modernise our great and illustrious Armed Forces. I look forward to an interesting debate this afternoon and to the detailed scrutiny we shall give the Bill later in Committee. I commend the Bill to the House, and beg to move.
My Lords, this is, as the Minister says, a small Bill, but one that has the potential to make far-reaching improvements to the quality of life of our service men and women while also having consequences for the operational capability of our Armed Forces. On the face of it, it appears to be modern, innovative and in line with employment practices seen in much of business and industry today. It follows the commitment in SDSR 2015:
“We will ensure that a career in the Armed Forces can be balanced better with family life”.
One has only to read the 2017 Armed Forces continuous attitudes survey, which lists the top five reasons why service personnel leave, to find that number one is the impact of service life on family and personal life. Some 62% of those surveyed listed this as the main reason, although I would add that 43% also blamed poor service morale.
At this stage, the jury is out as to whether the Bill is likely to change those statistics at all. In SDSR 2015, the Government said:
“We will make the changes necessary to enable our Armed Forces to work flexibly, reflecting the realities of modern life”.
The question that the Bill must answer is simple: will it do that? I, for one, have serious doubts and concerns that it will not.
In my innocence, when I read SDSR 2015, I envisaged flexible working practices similar to the flexible working that we see in much of the public and private sector, but the Bill is far removed from that. Flexitime working means that employers and employees have an arrangement to work in such a way that the full complement of hours is put in by the employee, but the hourly work pattern can be varied to suit the employee’s needs. This measure proposes no such arrangement, because those granted flexible working will have pay deductions and their pensions reduced. Indeed, the example given on pages 4 and 5 of the paper headed “Policy and Scope” states that,
“a Service person who chose to reduce their commitment from 100% to 60% of a full-time equivalent would see a 40% reduction in their salary … A regular who dials down”— that is a lovely term—
“their commitment will see their pension pot for that period proportionally reduced”.
When I read that, I wondered if we are all in the same world—the real world. How many service men and women, who have endured 1% pay rises for some years, could take a pay cut of 40% to gain some flexible working?
We were told in yesterday’s very helpful briefing—I thank the noble Earl, as usual, for arranging these excellent briefings—that the Ministry of Defence did not expect a great many personnel to take up this new flexible working offer. In those circumstances, small wonder. What assessment has been made of the number expected to take up the offer? Can he give us figures for each year, say, for the coming five years? How much does the Ministry of Defence expect to save on its budget in that period? We were told yesterday that savings can be reinvested, so I assume some work has been done to estimate how much will be saved. Focus group surveys gauging reaction to the plan have been carried out, and another one was launched only yesterday, I believe. Will they be published before Committee?
In truth, I am left asking whether this is the seemingly benign and modern approach to flexible working as promised in SDSR 2015, or the thin end of the wedge and the first step towards zero-hours contracts for our Armed Forces. Is it all about saving money on an already overstretched defence budget? There is agreement across this House that more needs to be spent.
The policy and scope document confirms what most noble Lords know: personnel unable to meet unlimited military commitments for periods of time leave the services. The loss of their knowledge, skills and experience impacts on operational capability and increases defence costs. Has this been measured? How many skilled personnel left the services, say, last year? Further, what skills have we lost and what was the financial impact of losing them on the defence budget?
The same document tells us that the new policy will build on existing flexible working opportunities within the services and gives examples of late starts, early finishes, compressed hours and working from home. Can the Minister tell us more about this existing flexibility? How many personnel have availed themselves of it? Has it saved money or cost more?
In fairness, the Government deserve our support in saying that they want the services to be more representative of the people. How will that be achieved? We know there is a target to improve gender balance, but what about increasing ethnic mix and encouraging LGBT recruits? Another objective we would support is attracting and retaining people with skills that the forces may lack. Can the Minister say in which skills areas we are short of personnel at present?
We were told that future flexible working opportunities derive from the flexible engagement system project, which is part of the Armed Forces people’s programme. In Answer to a Written Question I submitted in February, the Minister said that the Government were committed to developing a new Armed Forces offer, adding:
“It will better reflect the realities of modern life and the UK’s current financial position”.
Can the Minister tell us something about this project and if it has contributed to the thinking behind the Bill?
Can the Minister also comment on the fact then when the MoD advertised for a head of the Armed Forces people’s programme, one key responsibility was,
“leading on resource planning, using innovative thinking to support project teams to deliver over £l billion of savings”.
I am sure that I am not alone in hoping this is not all about the Government cutting defence spending. I feel sure the noble Earl will want to reassure us on that again when he winds up.
Clause 1 amends Section 329 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 to enable flexible working and limited geographic employment for limited defined periods. Can the Minister explain what “limited geographic employment” means and what is meant by “limited defined periods”? Will this put a maximum limit on the number of days, weeks or months in any given period that flexible working will be allowed? The clause covers the regulations that will be needed.
Paragraph 5 of the policy and scope paper refers to the,
“existing Defence Council regulations … for terms and conditions of enlistment and service for persons enlisting, or those who have enlisted”,
“The regulations do not provide a comprehensive list of all the terms and conditions of service. Rather, they provide, for example, for the types of engagement a Regular may be enlisted to serve on, the duration of those engagement types, the ability to extend them”.
As the regulations do not provide a comprehensive list of terms and conditions, can the noble Earl assure the House that this ambiguity does not mean that the Bill will give the Ministry of Defence the power to extend the flexible time of a service man or woman against their will, or even impose flexible working when people are unwilling to take part? Can he categorically state that this flexible working will not be used to cut spending?
Paragraph 6 of the paper tells us that applications for flexible working will be considered by a “competent service authority”. Is that the headquarters level approvals board, mentioned in paragraph 7? Can he say more about the composition of this authority? Similarly, an appeal against a refusal will be considered by a “higher authority”. Is that the Defence Council? There is much more that we will want to explore in Committee.
There is one final point which I ask the Minister to comment on, or at least reflect on by Committee stage: refusal of an application. Paragraph 7(f) of the document states:
“An application is likely to be refused if personnel are at a high state of readiness to deploy to an operational theatre, or if the loss of their capability cannot be absorbed at unit level such as when serving on a ship, or in a high readiness role”.
That is perfectly reasonable and understandable, but how will the scheme affect forward planning, in particular, planning for a deployment at short notice? Service chiefs may consider that they need a particular combination of forces for an operation, only to discover because of flexible working that this is not immediately available. Again, yesterday we were told this measure would not interfere with operational continuity. I think the Minister has his work cut out on this matter, and I am sure that I am not alone in needing to be reassured and convinced.
Finally, the Bill will depend almost entirely on the use of regulations to achieve its objective. The Government propose that the SIs needed will be under the negative procedure. We are opposed to this and will seek to persuade the House in favour of the affirmative procedure.
The SDSR 2015 offered the prospect that this policy would be universally welcomed and supported. Instead, we have a measure that, while seemingly offering flexibility, will in effect penalise our Armed Forces by cutting pay and pensions, forcing service men and women to choose between taking time off to care for a sick wife, child or elderly parent, or cutting their living standards—and all this parading under the guise of offering flexible working in a modern setting.
The Prime Minister today called for other parties to contribute, not simply to criticise. Yesterday, in the other place, Labour’s shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffith, responded positively, offering to work with the Government on improving Armed Forces’ pay. I, too, respond positively and tell the Minister that we on this side will work with him, other parties in this House and, most especially, noble and gallant Lords on the Cross Benches, many of whom have first-hand experience of the services. We will work with them all to reshape this Bill into one that offers genuine flexibility without cutting the pay and pensions of brave service men and women.
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the aims of the Bill before us today. There is no doubt that there is a desire from servicemen and women for measures to be taken to enable them to balance the demands of serving our country with the realities of family life. As I mentioned in my response to the gracious Speech, the results of the regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey were published a couple of months ago, painting a picture of low morale, both personal and in serving units, citing the impact on family and personal life as one of the key reasons for leaving the service. I commend the attempt in this very short Bill to provide an opportunity for flexible working for members of the Armed Forces. We hope that it will go some way to improving the circumstances of some individuals, encouraging them to remain in the Armed Forces and encouraging others to join in the first place. In particular, we hope that it will help in maintaining, and possibly even increasing, the number of women.
My speech will not be long. I have a few reflections, followed by quite a few questions, but I am happy for the Minister to write and place a letter in the Library, if that suits his convenience.
The flexible offer can show itself in either reducing the number of hours worked per week or in restricting a service to a particular geography. That could be to assist with caring responsibilities or to allow for ease of access for work to home; it could also be to enable professional development in part-time higher education opportunities. It is at the discretion of the commanding officer and chain of command. However, myriad other measures can be taken to enable members of the Armed Forces to be able to work in a more flexible manner. Could flexible working include working from home? I know of instances where this could happen, and indeed does already. These days, with mobile phones and laptops, what is to prevent this happening if the CO is content? Perhaps primary legislation would be required to apply this further. It may simply be that a change in culture, and some investment in technology, is needed to make such changes.
How will the Bill be rolled out across the Armed Forces, and how will members be aware of these opportunities? I believe that it needs to be dealt with carefully and sensitively, if it is not to have unintended consequences. What work has been done thus far to reduce unintended consequences? How do the Government estimate that they will ensure that no burden is placed on full-time serving personnel backfilling, and that operational capabilities are not affected, whether this be by excess or deficit in a unit? There is a 5.1% personnel deficit, with some units up to one-third under strength. It will need to be ensured that there is enough slack within units to allow this flexibility. Commanding officers might think twice. Can the Minister give some clarity to the specific meaning of the expression “manning crises”, which have the ability to terminate those flexible working arrangements? And what might be considered reasonable notice?
What work has been done to predict uptake in the three services and to ascertain the potential impact on the viability of an operating unit? How many would be anticipated each year? Is there a limit? Likewise, I am sure that the House would be interested to understand what the predicted financial impact would be. I note that issues such as pension and leave are accounted for in the Bill, but how is seniority affected? Clause 1(3) calls for the right conferred in the Bill to be,
“varied, suspended or terminated in prescribed circumstances”.
I can understand why that might be so, but where will the meaning of “prescribed” be found? Who will be the arbiter of the interpretation, and is there a right of appeal? How will these new provisions be advertised? Will one be able to join the service and opt straightaway for flexible working?
Finally, a concern has been raised with me of disquiet among full-time regular members of the services who might become disgruntled. Care will need to be taken that any loss of capacity is filled in order to remain effective and ready for action. As I said, we know that personnel numbers are below the target, so some clarity here would be welcome.
The Bill’s introduction is timely, but we should not forget that there is much to be done in this area that requires no legislation at all, just a will to make it happen. In Committee, I look forward to examining areas for development and improvement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for yesterday’s very helpful briefing session on the Bill and for the background material that has been made available. This has all helped to work out what this short Bill is all about and what it is not about. It is clear that the underlying purpose is to improve operational capability through the retention in service of some personnel, whose personal circumstances would otherwise have led them to retire from the Armed Forces prematurely. It is presumably with this overall aim in mind that we are led to understand that the service chiefs support the Bill.
However, I believe that the flexible working provisions which the Bill would enable must be used sparingly, and be seen to be the exception and not the rule. There are dangers to unit cohesion—and therefore to morale and overall effectiveness—if the attitude develops that individuals can pick and choose what they will, or will not, do in terms of participating in exercises, deployments and operations. So there is a balance to be struck between increased flexibility and overall capability.
It is also my understanding that this flexibility will create something of a two-way street, with regulars opting for a period of reserve service, and reservists opting for a period of regular or full-time service. On the face of things, this would seem eminently sensible but I believe there is a potential danger here. In the case of the Army, the largest employer of service manpower, it can be said that the closer integration of the 80,000 regular soldiers with the 30,000 trained reservists produces an Army of 110,000. If we add to that some 30,000 regular reservists with a call-up liability then the Army is apparently some 140,000 strong. With the current disinclination to commit large numbers of boots on the ground—and no current operational imperative to do so—the case can quickly be made that an Army of 140,000 is simply too large and too expensive. The most expensive element of this large Army is the regular component and, in a period of continuing pressure on the defence budget, programmers could well be considering options to reduce the size of this. However, this move towards greater flexibility and the blurring of the distinction between regular, reserve and regular reserve service must be treated very carefully, because the core of the operational capability of the Army is its full-time regular component. At fewer than 80,000 that regular component is already too small, and any attempt to further reduce that number, supposedly mitigated by more flexible use of the reserve or regular reserve, is nothing short of a dangerous illusion.
Given that this Bill is about maximising the operational capability of our service personnel, there is one more matter that I feel bound to put before your Lordships, and I have already indicated to the Minister that I would do so. This relates to service personnel suffering from mental illness, and I stress that this point relates to serving personnel, not veterans. Serving soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines suffering from mental illness are under the care of the Defence Medical Services and, more specifically, the department of community mental health. A hundred years ago, we did not understand mental health—they called it shell shock—but today we understand anxiety, depression and PTSD and encourage people to come forward for treatment. However, when one of those serving individuals experiences a severe mental health event out of hours—potentially, a suicide event—the advice is to contact the local medical centre, if there is one, go to the local NHS A&E department, or otherwise ring the Combat Stress helpline. I am not alone in believing that this is completely unacceptable. The department of community mental health should be able to provide a 24/7 service to its patients. It is often at night and at weekends that people are at their most vulnerable.
I have raised this issue before and I am told that to provide this service would require the employment of some 40 additional mental health-trained staff, and that this would cost about £2million per annum. I am also told that in 2016, fewer than 50 serving personnel needed out-of-hours help. Fewer than 50 probably means 45, so I ask the question: is £2million really too much to help 45 serving Armed Forces personnel at a moment of crisis in their lives? In 1917, they shot soldiers who ran away with shell shock. In 2017, there are still too many cases of soldiers with PTSD who kill themselves. I do not believe that £2 million is too much for the Ministry of Defence to spend to discharge its duty of care to its serving personnel with mental health illness, let alone meeting its responsibilities under the Armed Forces covenant. Some of those serving personnel have asked the question: if the MoD can spend £6 billion on two aircraft carriers, surely there is £2 million that can be spent on us?
I apologise if I have digressed away from the Bill, but if its purpose is to maximise operational capability through more flexible arrangements for certain individuals, let us not forget other individuals whose circumstances need a more flexible approach, and that flexibility does not include ringing up a charity’s helpline.
My Lords, I have very few military credentials I can burnish, in contrast to many noble Lords making valuable contributions today. However, I want to add my voice to those welcoming this Bill because, as a former leader of a local authority, I am utterly convinced that we need to do more to support families under pressure. This is a good way to describe military families, most of whom cope extremely well with the challenges they face, not least because of the supportive culture in which they are often immersed—often, but not always—on a military base.
The Armed Forces covenant and other measures, including the flexible working trials instigated under the new employment model that this legislation builds on, are all evidence that this Government do not want to take that supportive culture for granted. On the contrary, they want to strengthen it by modernising working practices so that they bear more resemblance to the terms and conditions available to many in the civilian population. The majority of service personnel will rejoin that civilian population, and we want to do all we can to ensure that family relationships are not undermined by the pressures of military life to the extent that they are unable to make a good transition once the forces’ support structure is no longer in place.
One big pressure on these personal relationships arises from the fact that families and the military would both be described by academics as “greedy institutions”: that is, groups which seek undivided loyalty and encourage weak or no ties with other people or organisations. Currently, many of the demands placed on forces personnel are not negotiable or optional. This can severely tax families who feel that they always come second, and serving personnel who constantly experience role strain: being a good soldier may seem incompatible with being a good husband and father now that societal norms have shifted so much that being a good provider is no longer enough. The introduction of flexible working should make important inroads into the prevailing sense that families, by default, must play second fiddle.
However, these new working patterns will not in themselves be enough to address the high relationship breakdown rates in the military, just as the right to request flexible working introduced in April 2002 in the general population has not made a significant dent in our internationally high divorce and separation rates. Neither has parenting quality vastly improved. Family support has to go beyond welcome efforts to help parents to balance work and family lives and offer them help when relationships are under strain or in real difficulties.
Statistics indicate that divorce rates, especially for those under 30, are much higher in the military in comparison with the general population, not least because marriage rates are also much higher. Moreover, when families falter while still in service, the worry and distraction can have a knock-on effect on a fighting force’s operational strength. When spousal relationships fail, this drastically undermines the support available to military personnel on the home front.
Other service-related pressures include those arising from deployment and combat. Deployment in itself need not necessarily have a long-term negative impact on relationships, but longer deployments and deployment extensions can play a part in poor mental health in the spouse left behind. Also, if there were pre-existing relationship difficulties, this makes it more likely that deployment will be linked to lower satisfaction or other problems. Finally, where deployment and combat are associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, these secondary factors seem to be what is driving poor marital satisfaction.
Surely deployment and combat are integral to military service. Perhaps more interesting and relevant to today’s debate is the finding that if the belief is held by serving personnel and spouses that the military is not supportive enough, this itself is a risk factor for breakdown. So too is perceived lack of support from spouses.
Yet many people come into the services, especially the Army, with a history of childhood family relationship adversity. They may not have had good relationships modelled by their parents, so it is perhaps not surprising that they will struggle to be the supportive wife, husband, partner—or parent—they long to be. Many of those left behind at base will need to learn how to provide meaningful support for their deployed partners and how to help their children become resilient and flourish.
Some relationship and parenting help already happens informally within the military community, and money from the Armed Forces covenant LIBOR fund has enabled Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and Marines charities to team up with Relate. Serving personnel have seven free counselling sessions, whether face to face, by telephone, on webchat or through webcam, so that those deployed overseas do not miss out. Professor Jan Walker, who carried out research with British forces posted overseas in Germany, emphasises the very important role that webchat can play, given that many personnel do not want their commanding officer to know that there are problems. She also highlighted that spouses and partners back home during long deployments could benefit greatly from support—someone to talk to about their relationship who has had good training—even if the relationship is not in difficulty. In the forces culture, the wider societal view that family problems are a sign of weakness is, if anything, amplified, so confidentiality is essential but not always available in the goldfish bowl of life on a base.
This arrangement with Relate can be only temporary, which is why I ask for the Bill to be expanded a little to include a statutory offer of family support, with help for a couple as well as for parenting relationships. Organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, as well as my noble friend Lord Farmer, have long argued for family hubs where someone will have answers for parents with children of all ages who are struggling.
Making effective and early family support statutorily available for this important group of families would establish a bridgehead of support that we can build on in the mainstream population. When the Government commissioned the consultancy giant PWC to draw up plans for multiplying the provision of parenting support to meet the perceived high national level of need, PWC advised that the only way significantly to build capacity was by drawing on employers. Does the Minister agree that the MoD has a unique opportunity to set an example in this area that other employers can follow?
My Lords, I welcome the Bill. I do not bring a great deal of experience of the military to the debate but I bring a degree of experience in negotiating. In my former life as a general secretary of the Civil Service trade union, I negotiated on part-time and flexible working. I was seen as quite progressive in the 1970s when I pressed for a move from full-time employment in the public services towards more flexible arrangements. The employer was opposed to it; the Inland Revenue, now HMRC, where I worked, opposed it in the first instance; and, within my union, the hard left—I would not associate Don, my noble friend Lord Touhig, with this—similarly opposed the change from having people on a full-time to having them on a part-time basis. They felt perhaps that they would not quite be able to control them in the way that they had previously. So I was in the middle of the debate, but I believed that it was the right way forward as we started to see more of a welcome feminisation of public service.
Without any doubt, once we had reached an agreement, the employers changed their mind and started to welcome part-time working because, after they had put it into practice, they saw clearly that it was of great assistance to them in recruitment and retention. Without doubt, if we had not had part-time working in the Civil Service and many other parts of public service during the 1980s, employers would not have been able to maintain the complement required to keep the public service working. So it was most certainly a move in the right direction.
Today, I support what is being proposed for the Armed Forces in a number of areas and for very obvious reasons: they have to move at a different pace and sometimes in a marginally different direction from the rest of the working community. Underlying that, when we have to recruit and retain, we have to be cognisant of what is happening elsewhere and endeavour to match it where possible—or at least to amend arrangements to fit the circumstances in which the forces find themselves. Knowing who the Minister is, I am reasonably confident that he will ensure that we have a set of terms that are applicable to the forces and that fundamentally meet the requirements and move towards more flexibility and more part-time working, and I will give him full support on that.
Of course, there are problems. Based on experience, I share the view that there will be resentment among full-timers when they see people moving to part-time working. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, made the point that that must be taken into account and handled very carefully to make sure that such resentments are avoided as far as possible. However, it is a flexible working world and arrangements have to apply in every area within our domain of employment. Therefore, they have to apply, appropriately adjusted, within the Armed Forces, and I hope that this change will move forward quickly.
Picking up on the endeavours of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, to extend this afternoon’s debate a little beyond the terms of the remit, I shall take the liberty—I have given the Minister notice of this—of seeing whether he is prepared to be flexible in his approach to the Bill.
Tomorrow I have the pleasure of moving a Private Member’s Bill on the misuse of honours. This was first promoted 12 months ago by Gareth Johnson in the House of Commons, where it was given a close examination by a Select Committee and the Defence Committee. They came back with a very strong recommendation that the change introduced by my Government in 2006, before which the wearing of medals for the intent of deceit was a criminal offence, needs to be readjusted to bring us back into line with the practice in other countries, where, if people do that, they are liable to criminal sanctions. I will be moving a private Member’s Bill to that effect, very similar to that of Gareth Johnson, who has given his agreement.
The Bill was substantially filleted in Committee in the Commons and reduced in size to a fairly small focus. But, happily, it was given the support of the Government—they were prepared to find time for it. Unfortunately, a number of MPs talked it out, regrettably on the Tory side. But it is a very worthy Bill that should come here. It did not make it, so tomorrow I will present it to this House. It seems highly unlikely that we will find time for the Bill to be taken in the Lords—I was 53 out of 64 in the ballot, so there is not much chance. However, knowing how open-minded and flexible the Minister is, and how anxious he is to try to meet the needs of those who have been in the Armed Forces and who have been honoured for their valour and courageous past, I hope he will be prepared to look at it.
I come to this subject primarily on the basis of my close association with the family of Peter Fontaine. He served in the Royal Signals for seven years, where he was picked up very quickly, commissioned and became a captain. He was out in the Far East, and was awarded the Burma Star in Lord Slim’s “Forgotten Army”. He was a great man who, having served in World War II, came back and made a career as an actor. He lived until he was 95 and continued to be alert and interested in making a contribution to society. As recently as 2015, he walked and participated in the VJ Day celebrations. He died in 2016.
To our regret, a man posing as a wing commander—he wore the wings and seven medals as if he had been in Afghanistan and many other places—inveigled himself into the family and became their close and intimate friend. When Peter died, this man ended up carrying the coffin. It subsequently emerged that he was a total imposter. The nearest he had been to the Armed Forces was doing some work with Air Cadets—and yet in this country he is permitted to deceive and hurt people in this way. For a widow who had supported her husband for so many years to discover that this had happened, it was absolutely devastating. It is totally wrong that that is permitted to happen in this country in a way that it cannot elsewhere. It could not happen in this country until 2006, and that must change, with a marginal extension of the Bill—either the Minister could move an amendment or I would be happy to. I am sure that the House would fully support such a change, which should not cause too much trouble for the Government.
I have done much business in the past with the noble Earl. He has often wanted to meet me as best he could but has been inhibited by factors such as European Union regulations. In this instance there will be no inhibitions whatever because the Government have said previously that they would find time for this to be accommodated. So I hope that, now that it has been left with him, he can persuade his colleagues this time around that the Government will take the time to add this to the Bill. I hope that he is willing to consider that.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl the Minister for giving us a comprehensive briefing yesterday. However, as we are going to hear from the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig of Radley and Lord Stirrup, who know their former services better than I, I will focus my comments on the Army perspective, and I hope to be brief.
I am very uncomfortable about this Bill. On the one hand, as we have heard, it is proposing to introduce a form of flexibility which is modern, is in keeping with more enlightened businesses and institutions and will be welcomed by those who can take advantage of it. It has the potential to keep within the service high-quality people who need a break or geographical restrictions to their deployment for the very human reasons, which we have already heard about, that family life often throws at us. It is only natural that folk should seek stability in their lives when they have young families or if they have seen a great deal of separation from their wives and partners. It gives them a chance to recharge their batteries, which can be good for them and for the Army.
On the other hand, as is becoming clear, the devil is going to be in the detail of the regulations drawn up to operate the system. There are many unanswered questions to be resolved. Part of the contract between the individual and the Army is that he or she must be prepared to deploy to some far-flung place at a moment’s notice, for it is always the unexpected that we must deal with. He or she must be physically fit, mentally prepared and properly trained for the particular type of operation that they are going to take part in. They have to fight along the roughest edges of humanity. Being half ready, half trained and undermanned will not do. Reshuffling unit strengths at the last minute damages cohesion, and is unsafe and unfair to our soldiers.
At the end of the last century, the Army used to have what was called a manning margin. This allowed individuals to go away on long-term educational courses and be replaced in the unit so that it would not be under strength. As efficiency savings have bitten over the years, that manning margin has dwindled to nothing. Units are therefore routinely under strength because people are away taking various courses. If the units now lose a percentage of that strength through the introduction of this Bill, as well as a further 4% reduction as of May this year in strength, which is the undermanning of the Army as a whole, we are beginning to talk about serious undermanning, with all the consequences that that means for preparedness and levels of training.
So the questions are mounting in my mind. Will there be a cap on the percentage of strength that may take advantage of this new proposal? Do we have any idea of the impact that geographical restrictions will have on unit cohesion and deployability? We have heard that the pay arrangements will mean a pro rata reduction against full-time pay. What will prevent the individual taking up other employment while away from his unit, and is that viewed as acceptable? Will it become a soft landing into other employment? Is this just another means, although the noble Earl declares that it is not, of reducing manpower costs, because it is buried in the wider new joiner effort which claims to have to reduce the sums spent on manpower so that we can be sustainable into the future?
Who is going to recommend an individual to the approving or denying authority? I assume that it will be the commanding officer of the individual, but instinctively he is going to want to keep his unit as well manned as possible. Will those who are covering for the absence become disaffected and choose to go? Notwithstanding an appeals process, are we opening a door to legal claims for discrimination from those who are told that they cannot have a break or that they must deploy outside their geographical area more than a certain number of times?
In recent operations, we have seen severe pinch points in the manning of certain specialist roles, such as petroleum operators and human intelligence resources. Will those roles be exempt? It seems to me that role dependency should be a critical element of the proposals. If so, are we going to include it? To lighten things, it is not just the front line we are talking about. I was talking to the director of the Corps of Army Music last week. He told me that if he loses his bass drummer his band is hors de concert. Folk in the Army are often tasked to do things they would prefer not to. Is it just possible that this new-found flexibility might be used to escape some unpalatable task?
I risk being accused of failing to enthusiastically espouse a modern practice that is shown to work well in other professions. My defence is that the Army is not like other professions. It is about people having to put their lives on the line in the most extraordinary circumstances. It is the Government’s responsibility that they are as best equipped, well trained and well manned as possible, and psychologically prepared for the horror of death on the battlefield. Initiatives such as this have often had unintended consequences, and I fear this may be one, particularly if we do not have an assurance that it has been analysed from every possible angle.
I understand the Australian and New Zealand armies have embarked on this policy but that it has not been long for either of them. Even so, I was told anecdotally last week that those of our own officers working with the Australian army see that it is already beginning to lose its operational credibility. If this is so, would it not be sensible for us to have more time to examine the Australian experience? It would be a crying shame if we were to find our Army losing its world-class operational credibility and its self-esteem because we had failed to carry out a sufficiently rigorous analysis of the likely impact of this Bill. We owe our men and women better than that.
My Lords, I too am most grateful to the noble Earl for the helpful briefing yesterday and for his introduction to this Bill. As treasurer of the All-Party Group for Children and a trustee of a mental health charity for adolescents, I welcome very warmly the Bill’s intention to strengthen service families.
The noble Earl referred to the general principle of a work/life balance. I visited the German Reichstag with a party of parliamentarians this year. We know how productive the German nation is, yet what was most striking to me was that a Berliner I spoke to pointed out that if one works beyond six o’clock in the evening in Germany one’s colleagues will say, “Well, you are not being very efficient, are you?” All shops in Germany are shut on Sundays. Indeed, businesses are not permitted to email office workers after working hours. In that example, it seems that by allowing people to have a good work/life balance they can be more productive and more effective. I hope we can keep that in mind more generally in the debate about productivity in this country.
What I say now is highly tentative. I note my deep inexperience of the armed services, so I pay great attention to the concerns of my noble and gallant friends and those of other noble Lords. I will certainly look to the Minister for every assurance on the important concerns they have raised on these matters. However, because of my interests I will say a few tentative words about the possible advantages of what is being offered. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, said most of what I would have liked to have said about families. Perhaps the Minister could say something in his response about parental leave: how does that apply to members of the armed services? Perhaps he might like to write to me on that point.
One issue that stood out for me in preparing for this debate was ex-servicemen experiencing mental health issues in their 40s and 50s. The noble Baroness talked about allowing relationships within families to be strengthened and allowing service personnel to spend more time with their families at times of family crisis. I can see how that might strengthen the family so that, later on, it is still intact. It might prevent more servicemen in their 40s and 50s encountering mental health difficulties. Another bonus of what the Government propose is that it might be possible to improve the transition from life in the armed services to civilian life. It might allow one to continue working in the armed services but to spend a day, and then two days, in civilian employment during the last year or so of service. That might help ease the transition. The Minister made an eloquent case for the advantages, but I listened with great attention to what my noble friends and noble and gallant friends have said and look to the Minister for careful responses to those concerns.
I was grateful to the Minister for indicating that he is taking on board concerns from the Royal British Legion about ex-spouses of service personnel. Ex-spouses are not given the same rights as spouses in terms of housing access. It is important that they should have such access. I am glad that the Minister is considering that. Perhaps he could confirm that this matter has been raised with him and that he is giving it attention. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, there is little not to like about this Bill. It extends to regular armed service men and women some of the rights which others in the services and in other walks of life currently enjoy.
It is not detailed and it is not prescriptive. It enables the Armed Forces to extend flexibility to their workforce as they see fit and in ways which they believe will work for them. I listened carefully to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, but control of who can and cannot be allowed flexibility remains firmly with the management of the forces. This workforce has hitherto been bound to working practices which are arguably no longer always needed in the modern world of warfare and peacekeeping in which we find ourselves.
I know that some noble Lords have a feeling of disquiet about the Bill. There is a sense that to be a committed member of the Armed Forces, to be prepared to put one’s life at risk for one’s country, to achieve the camaraderie and togetherness that are needed where one puts one’s trust and one’s life in the hands of others, nothing other than 100% full-time commitment will do. Personally, I think that this approach denigrates those who make the Armed Forces or any other walk of life their life’s work. It suggests that you cannot be 100% committed and have a full family life, too; that you cannot be 100% committed and be sensitive to other things going on in your life and the lives of those around you. This approach has taken its toll on the home life of our Armed Forces personnel. Why should anyone be forced to choose between one’s family and one’s career? It has taken a toll on their families. I understand that operational necessities may mean that one’s spouse, daddy or mummy may be stationed in inaccessible places for months on end.
We should not forget that one’s comrades can be one’s family too, but the main reason for this enabling legislation is, in my view, because of the toll that it is taking on the Armed Forces themselves, in the form of stress, which leads to poor decision-making and performance, and in the form of torn loyalties. Many people expect far more from relationships than they did 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Many fathers want to play a much larger part in their children’s lives; many mothers want to continue their careers after having a child, to use the skills for which they were trained; and the forces really need their skills. They need rounded individuals capable of making good decisions. They need diversity in their workforce, because lack of diversity leads to poor decision-making, and poor decision-making leads to loss of effectiveness and ultimately to loss of lives.
Our previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, understood this well. He set the Armed Forces the target that 15% of new recruits should be female by 2020 and they are making progress towards this target. However, the percentage of women in the Armed Forces is currently only 10.2%, so there is a way to go, and however well they do on recruitment, improvement will be limited if women keep disappearing just at the time when their skills and abilities are at their peak and they are needed most. So this enabling legislation is very welcome, but it will take more than legislation and subsequent changes in the rules regarding flexible working to have the desired effect: it will take a culture change, a change away from the attitudes I described at the beginning of my remarks, a kind of “TSB bank” change—a change that likes to say yes.
As the nature of warfare and the threats we face change, the variety of skills and abilities we need will change. Women will have these abilities, often just as suitably for the job as men will. The greater diversity of talent will give us greater ability to meet these threats and these opportunities. Like the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, I would like to know what plans exist to recruit more BAME, LGBT+ and disabled people.
I wish the Bill well, but even more, I wish the modernisers in the Armed Forces well in their quest to transform our armed services into a diverse and effective fighting—and caring—force, a force equipped with all the human resources it needs to respond to all the diverse challenges that it faces in keeping us safe, and keeping vulnerable, threatened peoples safe, in the changing and challenging world in which we find ourselves today.
My Lords, this is, indeed, a very short Bill and its purpose seems sound. It is, as the noble Earl has explained, expected to help make service in the Armed Forces more attractive to the younger generation and is seen as an aid to recruiting and retention. It has the backing of the senior leadership in the services. In principle, I support the idea of introducing some specific, limited opportunities for individual service personnel to take a break for personal reasons from their 24/7 commitment. However, it will be important not to sacrifice operational effectiveness. Any application of the scheme must seek to strike a balance between operational demands and the reasonable interests of individuals. Ultimately, the former must be the principal consideration.
With such a short piece of primary legislation, the detail of what is intended must be covered by secondary legislation, by DCIs and/or by Queen’s Regulations. It would be helpful to have available, in Committee and at later stages, draft examples of the SIs and DCIs that will support the Bill’s application. I hope that the Minister will arrange that.
The phrase “flexible working” is clear in the Bill’s title but does not appear anywhere in the text. Instead, “part-time service” and “part-time basis” appear in Clause 1. A more general interpretation of “part-time” refers to so many hours in a day, days in a week or even possibly weeks in a month, but less frequently, if at all, to six months or a year or more away from work. Is it intended that the absences to be allowed are day breaks—possibly half-day breaks, for example—with all breaks of whatever length being measured in comparatively short time periods and never as a sabbatical?
The policy statement refers at paragraph 9 to,
“specified periods of time when they are simply not required for duty (and cannot be lawfully”—
I emphasise “lawfully”—“ordered to attend)”. It says elsewhere that a commanding officer is able to terminate an arrangement. Is there not some inconsistency there? “Part-time” also does not seem to cover the limited geographic employment mentioned in the Minister’s letter of
Is there is a connotation to “part-time” that I am missing? I would prefer to stick with “flexible”, or “flexibly” where appropriate. This would allow for further variations of flex-working if ever required. Alternatively, could these absences be better described as “unpaid leave”? Leave is a well understood service arrangement, whereas part-time working can, albeit mistakenly, imply that the individual’s commitment to their service is just that: part-time. That is altogether different from a 24/7 commitment and might all too easily be misconstrued in a headline describing this Bill, were it to pass, as suggesting that the modern Armed Forces are now part-timers. Would it not be better to avoid any use of the words “part-time” and “part-timers”?
Maybe unpaid leave or short career breaks are already allowed by Queen’s Regulations. If so, this heavyweight but skeletal primary legislation would be unnecessary to cover these alternative career management arrangements. If the breaks were to be grouped as unpaid rather than part-time leave, some of the potentially adverse criticisms could be avoided without any recourse to primary legislation to deal with one specific type of flexible working. If the Minister will nevertheless hold to “part-time”, then there should be a definition of it in Section 374 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which is entitled “Definitions applying for purposes of whole Act”.
Clause 1(3) inserts the words “A right conferred”, referring to new paragraphs (ha) to (j) of Section 329(2) of the Armed Forces Act 2006. I feel that “right” is a bit strong. Bearing in mind that such so-termed rights may be varied, suspended or terminated by a commanding officer, they are not inalienable. Might it not read better instead as “a term of service conferred on a person”, or alternatively as “a type of service conferred on a person”?
The secondary legislation policy statement sent by the Minister mentions at paragraph 3,
“improving opportunities for Reserves to commit more to make more effective use of all their knowledge, skills and experience”,
but the Bill is about Regular Forces and the reserves do not even get a mention in it. Perhaps the Minister can deal with this in his winding up.
I turn to other points to be dealt with by secondary legislation and instructions. How far will an individual who has taken his or her leave of absence remain subject to Armed Forces law? Are they deemed to be transferring to the reserves pro tem or do they remain regulars? Presumably pay, allowances and pension entitlements will all have to be recalculated. Will service medical and/or dental support be available? It is envisaged, is it not, that individuals will be covered if they are injured while away and will be entitled to the full equivalent compensation as if they were on full-time service? Will continuous occupation of service accommodation be allowed? Paragraph 20 of the Explanatory Notes refers to protecting,
“regulars from being separated from their permanent place of residence for prolonged periods”.
How is a “permanent place of residence” to be defined? To give confidence in approving the Bill, which lacks all such detail, it would be helpful in Committee to have draft examples of the intended further legislation, Defence Council Instructions and/or Queen’s Regulations.
Finally—I say this just to avoid any misunderstandings —the Bill, as I read it, is solely about the entitlement of a Regular Forces individual to apply for and make use of flexible working. It cannot be treated as a sort of Trojan horse that would allow the MoD or a senior budget holder to transfer a number of individuals, or even a unit, on to it as a savings measure to reduce the pressure on the defence budget at a particular moment; or even to defer or delay an individual’s return to full-time service as an economy measure—I stress that I do not read this into the Bill. The initiative about starting and ending this break rests with the individual, not their service. Is that correct? For the avoidance of doubt when it comes to subordinate legislation, an assurance now that the Bill is not a potential Trojan horse would be most welcome.
My Lords, I declare that I have no interests to declare because my commission was retired last Friday. Ill-informed public perception might be that my noble friend the Minister, if I do not toe his line, could have me called up and sent to South Georgia to be a lookout. Of course, we know perfectly well that he can do no such thing.
I am confident that my noble friend cannot do any such thing. I am also reasonably confident that he would not do so.
I strongly support the Bill for the reasons so expertly laid out by my noble friend the Minister. When my noble friend is on the Government Front Bench, he can make the Bill look like the best thing since sliced bread. But of course when he is on the Opposition Front Bench, he can make the Bill look like it is full of holes. But this is a good Bill.
Some have argued that the Government would not do this if there was plenty of resource for the MoD. That may be true but there is nothing wrong with giving the system a good wire-brushing. Even if we did have plenty of money for defence, I believe that we should still be doing this. My noble friend the Minister was at pains to make it clear that this was not a cost-saving measure. I accept that claim but I have to tell the House that it will save money because if we avoid someone prematurely retiring from the services, we will not need to train a replacement and training people is extremely expensive.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and others referred to the loss of income for service personnel on a reduced commitment. He is right that their income will be reduced, but this could be offset by significantly improved circumstances for the spouse. Perhaps the new arrangements would facilitate the spouse securing a much more advantageous employment position, perhaps just by being able to give a commitment that the family will not need to move to another location.
How will it work? I am in a position to suggest to the House how these arrangements might work, and in a way that my noble friend the Minister is not really able to. The first point is that these new arrangements will not really be applicable to junior service people in their first few years of service. We need to remember that in the Army we have large numbers of soldiers who serve only three, four, five or six years, and this system is really not for them. In the Army, junior NCOs cannot continue to serve past a certain age if they do not get promoted to sergeant. It is called the manning control point. The reason is that we cannot afford to have 45 year-old lance corporals in an infantry unit. However, suppose an RAF flight sergeant, a highly trained technician, realised that a reduced commitment would enable him to continue to serve in circumstances where he would otherwise have to retire prematurely. He, or she, would apply through his unit. However, most importantly, I expect that the decision about whether to grant the application would be made by the RAF personnel centre, not at unit level. The decision would take account of the overall needs of the service, and other services will obviously have similar arrangements.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker of Aldringham, asked about how unit cohesion would be maintained. In my opinion, it is very unlikely that flexible working would be granted to a solider serving on regimental duty in a unit, for precisely the reasons the noble and gallant Lord outlined. However, I very much doubt that the Minister will back me up on this point because he will want to maintain maximum flexibility. That is the reality: you cannot be part-time at regimental duty.
What gets me excited is Ministers claiming that combat effectiveness will not be reduced by having women serve as combat infantrymen in the Army. It is simply ridiculous. I will need to have a friendly chat with the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, about the physical requirements of military service. Even more ludicrous is female Royal Marine commandos. I have never in my entire life been fit and strong enough to be commando trained, and despite this, until I turned 45, there were very few women who were as strong as me. I cannot understand how you are going to have female Royal Marine commandos without reducing combat effectiveness.
Going back to the decision made by the service personnel branch regarding whether to grant flexible employment conditions, the most important consideration will be whether there are sufficient deployable personnel available in the relevant career employment group or equivalent. There will be input from the unit, but the decision will be made by career managers at the centre.
I touched on the issue of high-volume junior ranks, but numerous staff and training appointments are not deployable. They are eminently suitable for part-time working arrangements. We must not forget that one of the flexibilities is a geographical restriction, so perhaps an officer could be posted to be commandant of a training camp. All he needs is an agreement that he will not be posted somewhere else, and he could continue to serve. Why should we lose really experienced officers just because of their family and personal circumstances?
I give my full support to the Bill, but despite that we will need to look at it very carefully indeed, as we look at every Bill in Committee and at later stages.
My Lords, I too welcome the intention behind this Bill. As the noble Earl the Minister has explained, the Armed Forces are currently losing talented and experienced personnel who might be retained if they were able to secure some temporary flexibility in their conditions of employment. This is perhaps particularly, although not exclusively, true for female personnel. Although such flexibility might not by itself lead to a dramatic growth in the overall numbers of women in the military, it might allow the services to retain more of those who are highly capable, who could then go on to increase the percentage of females in the most senior ranks. This would be very welcome.
However, while supporting the bill in principle, like other noble Lords and noble and gallant Lords, I am concerned that the proposed changes should not detract from the UK’s overall military capability and effectiveness. We must remember the purpose of employing people within the military: it is not to produce goods or services for consumers on an everyday basis, but to deliver targeted military effect when and where the Government require it. The day-to-day outputs of military formations are very often in preparation for their real purpose, not an end in themselves.
I also wonder about the title of the Bill. In response to one of the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, do we not already have a degree of flexible working in the military—people producing a full output but with varying start and finish times, and even through working from home? Is this Bill not rather about flexible terms of employment? That would certainly make the variations in rates of pay and so on more easily understood by a wider audience.
However, although I have stressed the crucial need to maintain military capability and military effectiveness, this does not in my view mean that the nature of military life and its processes should not change. The Armed Forces that I left some six or seven years past looked and felt in many ways very different from the organisation that I joined half a century ago. Yet I defy anyone to say that its 21st century personnel, in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, have not displayed at least the same level of professionalism, commitment and courage as their distinguished predecessors.
Accepted norms change over time, and no military can allow itself to become too far removed from the society that it serves and from which it springs. Yet militaries are, and have to be, different. These two axioms lead to the requirement for a difficult balancing act, setting individual needs and aspirations on the one hand against operational demands and duties on the other. The question we must address in considering the Bill is whether that balance has been appropriately struck—and the answer is that we do not know.
The Bill is simply enabling legislation. It sets out the desired ends, but says virtually nothing about the ways and means. These will be the subject of secondary legislation and military regulations, but it is they that will enable us to reach an informed judgment about the balance to which I have referred. Without knowledge of the detail, the Bill falls into the, “Trust me, I’m a doctor” category. Let me give some examples of the issues that need to be addressed.
What percentage of people will be allowed to move on to flexible terms of employment? In the very helpful briefing arranged by the noble Earl the Minister, we were told that the services expect the take-up to be small—perhaps 0.5% to 1% of the force—based upon experience elsewhere. But no other military has operated such a system fully, and certainly not long enough to judge how take-up might change as people become accustomed to the idea. The figure of 1% seems small given the very large proportion of people who cite the strict current conditions of service as the principal reason for their leaving the military.
It is true that a reduction in salary is likely to act as a deterrent to many, but that still leaves us uncertain of the final take-up. It is therefore important that the Armed Forces conduct an analysis to determine what part of their establishment—how many and where—could be subject to flexible terms without undermining operational capability. This would at least establish a clear limit beyond which we should not go. Can the noble Earl the Minister tell the House whether such work has been undertaken, and if so what are the results?
We also need to consider the broad conditions that should govern the application for a move to flexible terms of employment. I understand that the current intention is not to require people to specify the reasons behind any application, since it might involve personal issues that they would rather remain private—I understand that.
On the other hand, if the availability of such opportunities is limited—owing to operational pressures, for example—how are the services to judge between competing demands? How are those involved in the appeal process to judge the merits of a case if they do not know all the relevant details? Ought we not at least to be specifying the reasons that would be considered a valid basis for applying for a period of flexibility, or perhaps setting out the motivations that would not form such a basis?
Flexibility is very much to be welcomed, but it often leads to increased complexity. If a particular job is currently being done for five, or perhaps more, days a week, what happens if the incumbent is suddenly working for only three days out of every seven? I assume that there will still be work that needs doing, else one must conclude that the organisation was overmanned in the first place. How is this burden to be met? Perhaps in some cases it can be addressed through the increased use of reservists, but probably not in all. What other measures will be required to deal with the challenge?
Whatever mechanisms and procedures are put in place, they will surely lead to increased pressures on the personnel management staffs. A great number of posts within the military simply could not be occupied on a part-time basis: crews of Royal Navy warships, the personnel of combat units in the Army and the members of front-line squadrons in the Royal Air Force, to name just three instances. That means that, in many cases, someone moving to flexible terms of employment will need to be posted elsewhere—perhaps to a job with a current incumbent who has been in post for only a short time and who will have to be moved on. All this will require careful handling.
I understand that the services are currently examining the implications for their personnel management processes and organisations, but as yet have reached no definite conclusions. I should be grateful if the noble Earl the Minister could keep the House informed once they do. There may be consequences for staff numbers and there will undoubtedly be issues for the joint personnel administration system.
In passing, I question one of the assertions that has been made regarding the financial consequences of the proposed arrangements. It has been said that any savings resulting from the reduced pay bill when personnel move to part-time arrangements would accrue to the budget of the appropriate service, which could then use it to pay for backfilling arrangements or on some other expenditure of its choice. This seems to me to be wishful thinking. The more likely outcome, particularly given the pressures on the defence budget, is that the central staffs will reduce the service’s overall budget allocation by a commensurate amount. It is true that if they did not act in such a fashion, an opportunity cost would fall somewhere—the central staffs, after all, do not get to keep any of the money. But I would discourage the idea that the Bill will somehow automatically lead to increased financial flexibility for the individual services.
Other noble and noble and gallant Lords have raised further important issues, and I could add to them. I will not at this point, but instead reiterate what is perhaps the central theme in this debate. For us to judge the appropriateness of the Bill’s proposals, we need to know much more than we do presently. The devil is in the detail, and in this case the Prince of Hades is hiding in undecided, and certainly unseen, secondary legislation and regulation. We therefore need to see and discuss this detail before reaching a firm conclusion on the Bill. I accept that a list of detailed technical amendments to existing regulations will not serve this purpose, but some explanation of and debate about how the new system would work in practice is in my view necessary before the Bill should be allowed to pass on from your Lordships’ House.
I have asked many questions and sounded several notes of caution. I have done so not because I resist the legislation but because I want us all to be able to give it our enthusiastic backing. As I said, I support the Bill in principle. I hope that the noble Earl the Minister will be able to come back with proposals for further consultation that will allow me to do so in practice.
My Lords, thank you for allowing me to join in the debate at this time; I realise that I have only four minutes. I asked the noble Earl yesterday why we are having a Bill at all. I understand that there was a time when it was considered unnecessary. As several noble Lords said, if, in effect, the Bill had just been to give help to women joining the armed services, nobody would have been at all surprised, and it would have made a great deal of sense.
We want still to be considered the finest fighting force in the world. In this country, total public support for the armed services covenant is hugely important—and the X factor. They are special. Why? Because the armed services are totally different from any other organisation in this country. The people who join have a special ethos. In this day and age, we increasingly have to look at how we are regarded in other parts of the world. Russia, China or any of the other major countries have a highly trained, professional, full-time military, and that is what we are up against.
The term, “part-time”, has been commented on by many noble and gallant Lords. It is interesting that they are concerned about how the armed services will be considered in years to come. Regardless of Brexit, our friends in Europe—I use the word “friends”—are without doubt very interested that we should continue to be by far the most powerful hard power. Eastern European countries would unquestionably like that. The feeling is exactly the same in Washington. One of our problems in years to come is that gradually and publicly, somehow or other, the background of the armed services will be considered to have changed.
People keep using the term “being modernised”. In a large number of major companies, including my own in the past, huge numbers of colleagues serve abroad. They are away for weeks at a time, on ships, or whatever. I question the idea that their home life is being interfered with, but it is very important that we have the finest professional armed services in the world. That is what young people want to be part of.
I cannot resist the chance of saying that one of our problems is that we do not have enough money. The armed services are being continually hollowed out. There is plenty of evidence of that. We are told that a number of our best people are leaving the armed services. I would like some detail on exactly the sort of people who are leaving and why. I am not saying that I disagree or do not trust that it is happening, but I want to know who is moving, and into which areas. I have contacts with quite a number of such people and it seems to be lack of morale in the longer term. We need more money, and to pay highly skilled people to do the job.
My final point is that we cannot compare this with the reserves. There are certain elements of the reserves which are tremendous because they have specialised skills, but the idea of saying one can slip into one or the other is not on. If we are to retain the ethos and the standing of our armed services in the world, we have to think so carefully about what we are doing. We may live to regret it for a long time.
My Lords, like most noble and noble and gallant Lords who have spoken this afternoon, I welcome the Bill, but with a degree of caution. I have a few more questions to add to the myriad that the Minister already faces. I, and the Liberal Democrat Benches as a whole, are less sceptical about the proposals than the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, but we have some concerns, and we might even agree with him on at least one point.
The Bill is intended to assist with recruitment and retention, and may help in particular with the recruitment and retention of women. As several noble and gallant Lords have pointed out, the devil is in the detail—or, at least, the devil would be in the detail if we could find any detail. At the moment, we are still waiting. The issues in the Bill are potentially profound. They may be extremely beneficial to those people who are able to use flexible working, but they raise concerns for all the services, and for those members of the Armed Forces who are not making use of flexible working. That is something that I want to come back to with regard to the impact on morale of those still doing their normal hours. Will they face further constraints and difficulties?
We have a set of issues about morale, particularly those raised by the regular Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey results from 2017. While family life and work/life balance may be important, other factors are also important—most notably, accommodation. As several other noble Lords have sought the indulgence of the House to raise other issues, such as mental health, families and counselling services, I crave the House’s indulgence for a moment to ask the Minister what work the Government are doing to deal with one of the biggest issues that affects service families—the nature of accommodation and, in particular, the maintenance of service accommodation. There are still regular complaints and a very serious sense that the CarillionAmey does not deliver. One issue is that its contract is not sufficiently well specified. But if you have cold water instead of hot water or a cooker that does not function, there are real questions about how quickly it will respond. What scope is there through this Bill—although it will probably not be through this Bill—or through the course of this Parliament to look at ways in which to enhance service accommodation? That is one issue that affects family life in the services and, by extension therefore, morale, and potential questions of retention.
Accommodation is one issue, but pensions is another and pay is another. There is a range of issues that need to be dealt with. This Bill deals with a very small aspect of morale—the issue of flexible working. One question that I would like the Minister to address, which has come up and on which, although I hate to suggest it, there is a degree of confusion on some Benches, is about the elision there seems to be between part-time and flexible working. My understanding is that those two things are distinct and that flexible working would not necessarily entail a reduction in pay. Part-time work would, as it would in any walk of life, but engaging in a degree of flexible working, which could entail home working or flexible hours, would not in and of itself necessarily entail a pay cut. If the Minister could clarify that, it might be helpful to the progress of the Bill.
There are clearly questions of recruitment and retention. These proposals—assuming that the detail is appropriate—may assist with retention. Serving men and women may at the margins think that the ability to undertake flexible hours or to take leave to deal with caring responsibilities would help them to make the decision to remain rather than leave the services. That clearly could be beneficial to the individuals and the services, as well as to the UK as a whole, if we are not losing skilled people.
My noble friend Lady Jolly raised the question of information. How do serving men and women find out about this? The Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey suggests that only about one-quarter of servicemen and women actually think that leading officers give them adequate information. That has been one of the problems with the new employment model: there is a feeling among service men and women that they do not necessarily understand the detail. What is going to be different about this flexible working Bill? How are service men and women going to find out about the provisions? Are they going to have some general information? How far are we going to get into the details with them of whether there is going to be a cap on the number of service men and women who will be allowed flexible working at any one time?
The positive side is retention of people who may be looking for flexible working, but what about full-time regulars who may have to take on an additional burden if some of their colleagues are no longer available for deployment outside a particular geographical area or for a certain amount of time? That could give opportunities for reservists to be called up, as the Minister suggested, but it also raises questions about people who are still doing full-time work. I have had feedback which suggests that full-timers may then feel under additional pressure. If that is the case, what impact will it have on their retention rates? Have the Government undertaken any work into the impact on retention for full-timers?
I will look next at recruitment. Some work done by PricewaterhouseCoopers on public opinion suggests that there are very high levels of trust in the Armed Forces, right across the spectrum, but younger people are slightly less prone to trust them. About 80% of respondents thought that the Armed Forces are important for jobs, skills and training. Once again, as with trust in the Armed Forces, fewer young people are aware of the skills and training available. What are the Government doing to make recruitment more attractive; to enable young people—particularly young women—to understand the potential opportunities? I will correct something that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, touched on. He seemed to imply that my noble friend Lady Burt had suggested that we could let in women or other people who did not meet the appropriate physical standards. What my noble friend actually said was that, as the nature of warfare changes, so the variety of skills and talent may change. For example, for cyberwarfare you do not need the physical attributes of a Royal Marine. There may be people from all sorts of backgrounds who would never have dreamed of joining the Armed Forces. They are not necessarily opposed to the Armed Forces or disagree with them—they are not pacifists—but they would never want to do some of the physical things. They are so computer savvy that they would be brilliant recruits, but they are not about to go along to the local recruitment office. What are the Government doing about a wider approach to recruitment?
Many questions have already been raised and I do not want to reiterate them. We clearly need to think about manning levels generally and ensuring that flexible working does not damage operational capabilities. I assume that Her Majesty’s Government have looked into this and believe that the proposals being put forward will not create any problems for operational capabilities. The Minister certainly suggested that they are evidence-based, yet they have raised several concerns. Can the Minister reassure the House that they are not aimed at cost saving; that manning and deployment proposals have been thought through; and that the high-level support for flexible working will be there through the ranks? Like the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, the Liberal Democrat Benches would like to see regulations subject to affirmative rather than negative procedures. It is important that this House and the other place can actually see what is being proposed. We would also like to know how the military regulations are promulgated and scrutinised, as was touched on earlier.
In conclusion, these Benches give the proposals a cautious welcome. My noble friend Lady Burt said, in effect: “What’s not to like”. There is very little in here to disagree with, but we clearly need to be very careful to ensure that the proposals are fit for purpose. We therefore look forward to the clarifications that the Minister will give this evening. We look forward even more to elaboration in Committee on the many questions that have come up this evening.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for introducing the Bill and for the briefing he provided. He has always been careful to provide very thorough briefings. However, the constant theme that has arisen during this debate is the lack of detail. Many concerns have been raised as a result of the great trouble that we have envisaging how the measure will work in practice and be compatible with military requirements.
It is a pleasure to wind up this debate. Although it does not have the longest of speaking lists, it was a matter of “feel the quality, not the width”. It was good that noble and gallant Lords spoke in a way that brought us up short. We so often have conversations about the military as though we are talking about industrial production and it is just another profession. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, hit the point when he said that this is about targeted military action. The noble Lord, Lord Sterling, talked about having the finest force in the world. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the military is about having personnel who are able to kill people, and who are willing to risk their own lives doing so. Other than a very small part of the police force, no other sections of our community are employed to do this; it is a very special way of working.
There were one or two outlying speeches, but curiously enough they came back to this special point. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, talked about mental health and its problems. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, talked about family support. I think this comes back to the fact that when you put people in these difficult environments, which we believe is essential to our nationhood, for want of a better term, you have to peculiarly and specially support them. So I look forward to possible amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, and, indeed, from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, if he ventures some—because we should treat these people whom we are asking to do special tasks in a special way.
Talking about individual speeches, I am afraid that I must dissociate myself and these Benches from the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, which apparently suggested that women should be excluded from various tasks. I trust the military—
I thank the noble Earl for that intervention. I will go on. Where it is reasonably practical, I do not believe that it is appropriate to exclude women on the basis that they are female. I believe that it is entirely appropriate for the military to set standards of physical performance required for a task. I entirely accept that will mean that in some areas the probability of women achieving those standards may be quite low, but the test should be: are they capable and is this reasonably practical? In that sense, I dissociate myself from the noble Earl’s remarks.
But underlying all this, we support the principle behind the Bill, as I think does everybody. The Armed Forces have distinct, often highly demanding, working conditions. However, the distinct nature of life in the forces does not mean that we should not offer our loyal service men and women opportunities to work flexibly when circumstances allow. The world is changing about us and our institutions must change. My noble friend Lord Brooke described how reluctant organisations had subsequently found flexible working to be of value to them and their employees, and how problems could be overcome. Nevertheless, while accepting the general principle, we have reservations.
We have concerns that this shift may present a slippery slope that eventually coerces or even forces service personnel to reduce their hours to save the MoD money. I have total faith that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, would not do this, but I do not have total faith that subsequent generations would not do it. In my career I have employed large volumes of labour to do jobs where the demand changed. Frequently, I would have given my right arm to have flexibility—to have that labour solely when I needed it and not to have to employ it when I did not. Flexibility is a way of saving money. Indeed, a number of noble Lords mentioned that—including the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, himself said that while this is not a money-saving issue, it will save money in recruitment and retention. But the fact that it is there and the continuous pressures on budgets will mean that people will be tempted—and it will not be straightforward; it will be pressures at various unit levels—to coerce and to use these devices to save money.
We on these Benches worry that junior personnel, who have already been subject to pay caps, may lose out if the introduction of flexible working is used to justify a decrease in the X-factor payment. Most of all, however, we worry about the lack of detail in the Government’s proposals. Once again, I thank the Minister and his officials for the documents that they have provided so far. However, given that this commitment originates from the Government’s 2015 strategic defence and security review, it is disappointing that your Lordships’ House has not been presented with either a more substantial Bill or indicative regulations. The department’s policy statement mentions that these proposals were drawn up following “consultation with service personnel”. Again, we have not seen the detail. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to a trial. Where was the trial, what sort of units were involved, and what was the impact on those units?
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, said, over and over again, that we need to see the detail. The Minister should know that there is one thing your Lordships’ House does well, and that is detail. We need that in the Bill. I therefore hope that the Government will be more generous in providing information before Committee. Colleagues have asked legitimate questions during today’s debate, and I hope that they will receive detailed answers, either in the Minister’s remarks or by letter.
While the scope of the Bill is narrow, this debate has given us an opportunity to consider some related issues. In their 2010 SDSR, the Government committed to cutting 25,000 civilian jobs in the MoD by 2015. Unfortunately for the former Defence Secretary and current Chancellor, a miscalculation necessitated a further reduction of 3,000 civilian roles in order to come in on budget. Previous Governments of both parties have pursued a thoroughly sensible programme of getting the military out of uniform where they were effectively doing civilian jobs. It was a splendid programme that meant that you did not have people in uniform doing certain jobs, particularly in the increasingly complex areas of procurement, programming and all the various support roles the modern military needs. Instead they went into civilian jobs, where they could have a lifestyle like civilians, with the same flexibilities, and in general they cost less. There was almost a philosophy building up that people in the military—people in uniform—were the ones who did the real, active military stuff. They were deployed overseas at notice, fought in the front line and manned combat platforms. I wish that that had gone on, because if it had, we would have a clearer distinction to talk about now.
Combined with the lowest-ever recorded levels of satisfaction with the basic rate of pay and pension benefits, it is little surprise that some see their future outside the Armed Forces. I hope that this is one of the areas being looked at as part of the wider Armed Forces People Programme, because the introduction of flexible working can be only part of the answer to the ongoing retention problem.
We all know that service personnel form close bonds with their units. These bonds see our service men and women go to great lengths for each other, working not only for Queen and country but for each other. This includes, at times, laying down their life to save that of a comrade. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said that these arrangements must be used sparingly; the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, said that there would possibly be unintended consequences; and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, was uncomfortable about how these geographic arrangements would work. We hope that all these issues can be overcome but, before we pass this legislation, we need to know just how it will apply.
This may not be a reason to oppose these measures but can the Minister confirm whether any thought has been given to the possible impact of some personnel in the same fighting unit having significantly different working patterns from those of their comrades? Can he say a few words about what steps, if any, would be taken by commanding officers to mitigate any issues that arose? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, talked about these matters and was worried about the concept of part-time working. He felt that the words themselves were somehow incompatible with commitment.
Can the Minister also commit to providing more information about the specific criteria against which applications will be judged and about how each of the forces will go about the constant task of assessing the compatibility of flexible working with their operational needs?
In conclusion, Labour supports any attempt to strengthen the rights of working people, whether in civilian life or in the Armed Forces. It is vital to ensure that the Armed Forces can recruit and retain the best talent. Providing flexible working opportunities has a potentially important part to play, but it is certainly not the only answer.
In the spirit of cross-party co-operation, referred to by my noble friend earlier, we very much look forward to working with the Minister and his team to improve this Bill and to improve the lives of our hard-working service men and women. However, we will need much more detail to understand exactly how the legislation will work.
My Lords, as always, and as the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, rightly said, we have had a good debate, and I thank noble Lords for their insightful contributions. I was very grateful for the supportive comments of many speakers regarding the Bill’s purport.
I will try my best to respond to as many as possible of the questions and points that have been raised but I hope that noble Lords will bear with me if I do not manage to address each and every one today. I will of course write to any noble Lord where I have something to add.
I begin with the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Touhig. I was disappointed by his sceptical reaction to the Bill. In fact, uncharacteristically, his remarks came over as sceptical bordering on the cynical. I just ask him to give some credit to the services. I believe that we need to support them, in the first instance, for having identified a gap in the current offer to the Armed Forces and, secondly, for coming up with proposals to address that gap in a way that reflects best employment practice in industry and commerce.
Indeed, I stress one key point to the noble Lord and to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker. The new flexible working options have the full backing of the three services. They have been consulted and engaged throughout the design process, and they will continue to be involved as we implement the changes. As I said earlier, the chiefs of the services support these proposals, and they have regularly provided direction and guidance during their development. That development work continues, which is why I do not currently have all the answers requested by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup.
As I said, we have consulted the services throughout this project and their advice has helped to shape the design of the new flexible working arrangements. We recently engaged with the three services’ families federations, which have collectively said that they welcome the MoD’s plans. We continue to engage with a range of key stakeholders, and that process will intensify as we continue to develop and finesse our policies in the lead-up to the introduction of the new arrangements in April 2019.
Let me deal with another misconception. There is no question of the services or the MoD imposing flexible working on anybody. Flexible working will only happen following an application by an individual. Far from imposing on regular personnel, these changes provide further protections to personnel in enabling them to achieve a better work/life balance to suit their circumstances.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, suggested that this could all be a plot to reduce the pay bill and/or deprive people of pay. No it is not. The new arrangements have been designed with cost neutrality in mind. As I have stressed before, this change is predominantly about giving service personnel more choice over the way they serve. It will help the Armed Forces to retain our current personnel and to attract and retain future joiners. I thought that the question posed by my noble friend Lord Attlee was very apt: why should we lose personnel because of their family set-up? The answer is, we should not, and I hope the Bill will help us to address this.
Of course, those wishing to vary their commitment will see a commensurate variation in their reward. That variation will be fair and reasonable, both to those who work flexibly and to those who do not. Pay will be calculated on a proportional basis. Further work is under way to determine the precise impact on pensions and the full range of allowances, against the principle that the outcome will be fair and proportionate. We already offer the ability to undertake flexible start and cease-work times for no loss of pay. However, the Bill is designed to offer the ability to work less than others. Therefore, it is right and fair to others to reduce pay proportionately.
As I have just said, flexible working should be seen as filling a gap in the flexible working arrangements already available in the Armed Forces. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was right to point out that flexible working is something of an umbrella term in this context. A number of formal flexible working arrangements, such as variable start and cease-work times, have been available for some years subject to local chain of command approval, but these invariably involve doing the same amount of work over a different working pattern, rather than a formal agreement to work less for less pay. We recently introduced a number of progressive flexible working changes, including new leave options and improvements for those taking career breaks, but these flexibilities are limited in their applicability and do not go far enough. As a snapshot, some 2,000 applications were approved across the services in the last six months, covering the various arrangements currently available.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked whether the Bill could enable other types of flexible working, such as working from home. I have largely dealt with that and, as she will appreciate, that is not necessary because we already offer opportunities to work from home, as I know she is aware of from her own experience.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked some detailed questions, including on entitlement to service accommodation. I reassure him that entitlement to service-provided accommodation is a key element of the conditions of service that support the mobility of personnel, and that entitlement will not change as a result of flexible working because it will not change personnel mobility.
The noble and gallant Lord also asked what this will mean for reserves. Reserves are already able to serve in a range of different commitments, so legislative change is not required for them. Under Future Reserves 2020 we have expanded reserves’ terms and conditions of service to meet developing service needs, and there will be no change in entitlement to medical and dental services. Regulars will remain subject to service law at all times, even when they are working part-time. As the noble and gallant Lord knows, the duty to serve and obey, enforced through disciplinary action, is central to the functioning of the Armed Forces. It will remain essential for commanders to be able to issue lawful commands to personnel undertaking part-time or geographically restricted service. Those commands must be followed. However, it will clearly not be lawful for a commander to order a regular to attend for duty on one of their agreed days off or to serve outwith the prescribed maximum number of days of separation.
Keeping part-time regulars subject to service law at all times has the added advantage of absolute clarity for all. There will be no difficult questions for personnel or commanders to consider about whether someone is or is not subject to service law on a given day. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked me a number of other questions and I hope that he will allow me to write to him on those.
However, what I can and should say to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, with great respect to him, is that this is not about flexible terms of employment. Regulars are not employed, so the legislation refers to terms and conditions of service. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, asked about levels of uptake. The answer is that we expect a small but significant number to take up the new arrangements. We will manage expectations and explain that applications will be approved only where the MoD can accommodate the arrangements without unacceptably affecting operational capability. We expect that the majority of service personnel will remain on full-time commitment arrangements. So in answer to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, there will not be a specific cap on numbers, but the services will have full control over the number of people they can allow to work flexibly and will have the controls to vary this over time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and others asked about implementation. We plan to allow the first applications from 2019, as I mentioned earlier, and we anticipate that applications and the services’ ability to accept them will grow slowly. This will take careful management and a change of culture in some areas. Implementation will include a communication campaign, along with training and guidance for commanding officers and potential applicants alike.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, asked about the decision-making process. Commanding officers will not make the final decision on applications to work flexibly. They will be considered by an approvals authority within each service at headquarters level, which will be informed by advice from the chain of command, manpower planners, career managers and other relevant parties. The process is still being finalised, but our aim is for an agile system that will be able to administer applications efficiently.
As regards the applications that are considered, of course some will be refused, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, rightly anticipated. A new flexible working application is more likely to be refused if personnel are in a role that is delivering a critical output or is highly deployable, such as on a ship or in a high-readiness unit, or have already been warned to be ready to deploy to an operational theatre. An appeals process will be put in place to reconsider applications that have been rejected. Each service will have its own separate appeals review body, which will include career managers and other subject matter experts. Personnel will retain their right to enter a service complaint if their appeal is unsuccessful, which will have the oversight of the independent Service Complaints Ombudsman.
Let me stress again that maintaining operational capability will be at the forefront of any decision on allowing a serviceperson to temporarily reduce their commitment. We will also retain the ability to recall personnel to their full commitments in cases of national crisis. We judge that in time this will enhance our national defence as it takes effect and we experience the benefits of improved retention, a more diverse workforce, and the ability to deploy a broader spectrum of our people, both regular and reserve, when and where we need them through the flexibility which this initiative will bring.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked whether personnel will be able to join the services and take flexible working straightaway. My noble friend Lord Attlee was quite right on that point. We envisage that personnel will be expected to complete both their initial and trade training along with a period thereafter to settle in and consolidate their training before flexible working is considered.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, asked about the legal risks of refusing applications. Decisions on applications will be subject to a robust process, taken at a senior level on advice, and, as I said, with an appeal available. A disappointed applicant will have avenues available to them to seek a remedy. Those appeals or complaints will be considered carefully, with oversight as necessary from the independent Service Complaints Ombudsman. As a result, we would not anticipate a rise in discrimination claims in this context.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, raised an interesting point about workloads, wondering, if I can put words into her mouth, whether these arrangements will mean there will be more work for those who do not avail themselves of flexible working. We will manage the levels of flexible working permitted and therefore will be able to ensure that the right levels are maintained to deliver defence outputs. It is envisaged that capacity surrendered to flexible working arrangements will either be within reducible capacity or otherwise be sourced through other means, such as employment of reserves. Like other organisations with part-time workers, the organisation will change over time to better accommodate flexible working.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, asked what skills have been lost so far. I simply say that all personnel who depart take hard-won skills and experience with them, as he will know. Saving any of those skills will clearly help. While figures on the number of skilled service leavers are not held centrally, the Ministry of Defence is absolutely committed to ensuring that our personnel who leave the Armed Forces make a successful transition to civilian life.
The noble Lord also indicated that he would propose that new Defence Council regulations should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. The changes will be made by amending existing Defence Council regulations, which are subject to the negative procedure. The matters to be set out in new regulations will be procedural—the right to apply, the right to appeal and so on. The negative procedure is appropriate in this context.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked what the prescribed circumstances would be to vary or terminate the new arrangements. These will be set out clearly in new Defence Council regulations, scrutinised as necessary by Parliament. The new arrangements will be terminated only when absolutely necessary—for example, as I indicated, in a national emergency or when there is a major manning crisis.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, suggested that we should prohibit those availing themselves of flexible employment from undertaking secondary employment. I simply say to him that this Bill is not about enabling secondary employment. Regulations already exist with stringent controls over the types and forms of employment that may be accepted, but only with authority. As in all cases, service duty takes precedence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, asked whether flexible working would affect someone’s chance of promotion. Many factors affect promotion, as she is aware, but a period of flexible working will not of itself impact on promotion. In designing the new arrangements we have agreed a number of principles with underpinning activities aimed at ensuring that very thing. These include that we would wish to avoid intentional or unintentional career penalties for those who undertake flexible service. We will create the opportunity for individuals to maintain or regain career momentum. We will seek to maximise accessibility of transfer between the regulars and reserves in both directions by minimising negative career impact. When one thinks about it, a decision on promotion is very largely forward-looking, rather than looking back. It is very substantially about the person’s potential.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, asked whether personnel would be able to dodge deployments. In the right circumstances some will be able to avoid being deployed, but a request on those lines will be approved only where the service can continue to deliver its operational capability. It will be refused where that cannot be achieved. Protection from deployments for a limited period where possible will retain some of our skilled personnel.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked how personnel would find out about flexible working. We have a communications plan in force already to build on the reality of the flexible duties trial, but I shall be able to give her further particulars of that in due course.
My noble friend Lord Sterling raised the important issue of service ethos and was worried that our proposals might damage it. I hope that, as the Bill proceeds, I can convince him that that will not be so. In fact, we expect that the arrangements will enhance ethos over time by helping us to retain and recruit the best people for defence. The evidence that we have gathered from published research literature, consultation with our people, surveys and an ongoing trial tells us clearly that personnel have reported consistently that the impact of service life on family and personal life is the most important factor that might influence them to leave. The three most frequently cited benefits of flexible working are that it helps employees to reduce the stress and pressure they feel under, it enables better work/life balance and it encourages people to stay with their current employer.
I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Eaton for her contribution about family stability and support. I will write to her about the points that she raised. I should be glad if she could provide evidence of the gaps that she feels exist and that are not currently provided for by other statutory bodies in family support, so that I can understand what type of additional support she feels is needed by service families. We need to understand whether families want that additional support, because finding a balance between paternalism and an intrusive approach against making that support readily available is clearly very important.
I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, who argued for better mental health service availability for serving personnel. I will gladly follow up the points that he raised after this debate. I also listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, regarding his Private Member’s Bill on the abuse of military honours. The Government were well disposed in principle towards the Bill introduced in the previous Parliament; I should be happy to talk to him about the introduction of a similar Bill in your Lordships’ House and the scope for giving it appropriate debating time, which of course is a matter for the usual channels. We explored whether it might have been possible to amend this Bill in the sense that he has suggested, but the advice that I had was that it was not within the scope of the Bill’s Title. As I have said, I would be glad to talk further to the noble Lord.
Where the Minister responds in writing to Members, I would be grateful if he could copy it electronically to all of us who have taken part in the debate.
I should be glad to do so.
I am conscious that in the time available I have not responded to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on his concerns about families, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on BAME recruitment and other matters, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on families’ accommodation. I will do so, however, in writing.
I hope that, despite the reservations that have been voiced, this Bill will receive a fair wind from your Lordships. Our Committee proceedings will doubtless enable us to explore a number of areas of detail about which, quite understandably, noble Lords have raised questions. Until then, however, I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.