Protection of existing flexible working options

Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 14th November 2017.

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“(1) Nothing in this Act shall affect the ability of persons serving with a regular force to avail themselves of the flexible working options provided for in Chapter 1 of Joint Service Publication 750 (centrally determined terms of service).

(2) If the flexible working options in subsection (1) are withdrawn, the Secretary of State must make similar provision through regulations.

(3) Regulations under subsection (2) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”—

This new clause preserves current flexible working practices for the Armed Forces.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause relates to current flexible working practices in the armed forces. As the Minister knows, there are already ways for personnel to undertake flexible working. Although none of those options involves a reduction in overall hours, the former Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, pointed out on Second Reading that they are well subscribed:

“We know that these existing initiatives are popular: in the six months to July 2017, 1,400 personnel had taken advantage of them.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2017; Vol. 630, c. 624.]

The new clause would ensure that those popular options were retained and that the new options did not have unintended negative repercussions.

The three flexible working options available to service personnel, including home working, are outlined in Joint Service Publication 750. They involve an individual working the full number of hours associated with their role in a specific period, but having scope to vary their hours day to day. The guidance states that arrangements should be reviewed every 12 months, or earlier if circumstances change.

The current flexible working options are as follows. Variable start and finish times allow service personnel to start and finish their working day at different times from those considered the norm in their working environment, although the total number of hours worked will not be less than those considered normal for the role. That measure may cover part or the whole of an assignment.

Home working allows service personnel to carry out their work from home if that gives them greater flexibility in meeting their domestic needs and if the nature of the work allows it. Ad hoc home working is an informal agreement that gives personnel the opportunity to work at home occasionally to complete a particular task or project. Regular home working gives personnel a more regular home-working arrangement, so their working time is shared between home and the workplace. Compressed hours allows individuals to work the normal number of hours for their role over a shorter period to allow flexibility for travel or to meet other domestic demands during the week. For example, it allows an individual working away from home on a conventional Monday to Friday pattern to start late on a Monday, finish early on a Friday and work extended hours on the other days to facilitate travel.

The guidance cites

“a variety of personal responsibilities, such as for young children or for sick, disabled or elderly relatives” as possible reasons for wanting flexible working, but I am slightly confused about the role that the new flexible working practices will play. Of course, it would be much easier to establish that if we knew what they will look like, but the Bill is very light on detail. The guidance for the new practices states:

“Service personnel will be able to apply to take up the new flexible working opportunities at any point in their career once they have completed their basic and professional training, plus an additional period prescribed by their Service. Therefore, we expect that it will be around four years before a new entrant will normally be permitted to undertake part-time working”.

There seems to be a conflation of part-time working with flexible working. The guidance refers to “new flexible working opportunities”, but then refers to part-time working. Perhaps the current practices will remain with the addition of a part-time element. Will the Minister clarify whether there will actually be any changes to the current flexible working practices? If so, will the new practices supersede the current? Will personnel have the option to continue with their current situation? If not, will they be expected to move over to the new practices as soon as they are introduced or will there be a grace period to allow families to adapt? It may be that the current flexible working options fit very well with a person’s lifestyle, but a part-time option and the pay reduction that comes with it might not work as well.

If the Minister can reassure us about how the new practices fit in with the current ones, I will gladly withdraw the new clause, but I would like some clarity on those points.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful for this probing new clause, which allows me to explain how JSP 750—I have a copy here, should anybody wish to read that heavy-duty but important document—fits in with this flexible working Bill.

It is worth pausing to consider people’s perception of the armed forces. People see the armed forces as mainly the infantry, but certainly the action-orientated, frontline services. That is what they see on television, but it is the very top part. Any action that the infanteer takes is a response to a huge series of decisions taken by other people. We collect data in the armed forces and our other agencies. That data is turned into information, that information is turned into intelligence, that intelligence is turned into wisdom and that wisdom is turned into action. There are an awful lot of personnel doing an awful lot of work behind those we see—the overt picture of our armed forces.

The manner in which those personnel work varies. There are many situations—the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney went through some of them—such as variable start and finish times, compressed hours, home working, different forms of unpaid leave and career breaks. That is all covered in JSP 750, and it is very pertinent to providing flexibility prior to the Bill’s coming into force.

The new flexibilities that the Bill will introduce are part of a series of steps that we are undertaking to modernise the conditions of the service that we offer to those who serve. Those considering a career in the armed forces will not be affected at all by what exists already; nothing will be replaced in that sense. The long-term aim is to improve overall recruitment and retention in our armed forces.

We are seeking to reflect best practice in the development of our personnel policies. We are also ensuring that we continue to refine and develop policies that support our existing flexible working options to ensure that they are the best they can be. As with human resources policy in other organisations, the ability to manage and adjust our flexible working policy is essential to meet the emerging needs of our people in the services.

The current flexible working policies are published in Joint Services Publication 750—a document that I have here and that is openly available. I assure the Committee that we have no intention of withdrawing any existing opportunities for flexible working. I stress: there is no intention of withdrawing any existing opportunities. Some of those opportunities have been on offer to our people since 2005 and others have been developed to meet their need for a degree of flexibility in the modern world. To reduce the flexible working options would be a retrograde step—it would be moving backwards to do what the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney implied and limit them. I hope that, following the assurances that I have given, he will withdraw the motion.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:45 am, 14th November 2017

I thank the Minister for his commitment to the existing arrangements under Joint Services Publication 750 and for the clarity that no existing arrangements will be affected by the changes. Given that he has stressed that intention, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2