Regular forces: part-time service and geographic restrictions

Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 14th November 2017.

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Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:25 am, 14th November 2017

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 18, at end insert—

“(3B) The proportion of regular forces serving on a part-time basis in any single regiment may not exceed 15% of the total regular forces serving in that regiment.”

This amendment limits the proportion of part-time regular forces to no more than 15% of any regiment.

This is a probing amendment that seeks clarification from the Minister on how the Bill will work in practice, and specifically whether there will be any kind of cap or upper limit on the number of personnel on part-time working. The amendment refers to no more than 15% of any single regiment serving on a part-time basis, which is simply a way to establish whether the Government have any plans to place a limit on personnel who work part time, and at what level a cap would be placed.

There are significant problems with recruitment and retention in our armed forces, which is one reason for the Bill. As of September 2017, the regular armed forces were at a 5.3% deficit against the liability—an increase in the deficit from 4.1% under the liability in September last year. Furthermore, the outflow of regulars continues to outpace intake. Voluntary outflow is the main source of outflow, so most personnel who are leaving are doing so before the end of their agreed engagement or commission period.

The pay review body highlighted in its most recent report that issues with recruitment and retention have been acknowledged by the Department:

“In evidence MOD stated that there were recruitment and retention challenges across all Services for certain groups in the engineering and aviation cadres. It stated that recruitment of Regulars had continued to be challenging throughout 2015-16”.

Our armed forces are not in a situation where they can feasibly allow a significant number of personnel to work part time.

The Government’s fact sheet for the Bill says:

“We anticipate from the existing evidence that there will be a very small initial take up of the new flexible working arrangements, no more than 1% when they are implemented in April 2019. We anticipate that this will increase slowly as cultural change is fully embedded over the next 10-15 years.”

However, there is no indication of what the Government expect that figure to grow to and whether there will be any limitations on numbers.

The amendment highlights the fact that problems are more likely to emerge if a much greater proportion of those in specific roles want to work part time, particularly if they are in operational pinch points. OPPs are branch specialisations, sub-specialisations or areas of expertise where the shortfall in trained strength is such that it has a measurable detrimental impact on current, planned or contingent operations. As of April this year, there were 15 OPPs in the naval service. The key pinch points relate to engineering roles, plus some specialist roles such as warfare specialists. The Army has four OPPs, the key ones being logistics roles, and the RAF has 11 OPPs, where the key pinch points are in engineering and intelligence roles, as well as shortfalls in the aircrew branch. The Bill’s administration fact sheet says:

“The Approval Authority will take into account the chain of command’s recommendation, overall manning levels of the Service and the individual’s trade, and any specific skills held by the Service person.”

Presumably that means those from OPPs are automatically ruled out.

While I am not expecting the Government to accept the amendment, I hope that the Minister will answer some questions that were not addressed on Second Reading. Will there be clear limits on the number or percentage of those working part time in any specific regiment? How would that look in the RAF and the Navy? Would the percentages be universal or different for each service? If somebody applies for part-time working after that limit has been met, will they automatically be rejected? Will personnel from OPPs not be given the option to apply for part-time working, or will they be allowed to apply but, because of their trade, have no chance of being accepted?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I want to expand on some of those issues.

As my hon. Friend said, this is a probing amendment, but it goes to the heart of the entire Bill and how it will be implemented in practice. Will the 15% limit operate in the same way across the three services, and how will it work within each individual service? Let us take trades, for example. We all know that fast jet pilots are quite a small pool of individuals. If someone from that pool wanted to work part time, that would obviously have an adverse effect on the capability of that frontline unit. Likewise, if 15% of a ship’s crew suddenly decided to apply for part-time working, on what basis would a decision be arrived at in terms of operational effectiveness? As my hon. Friend said, there are certain niches or pinch points within the Army, with trades that are in scarce supply because of recruitment problems. What limit would be put on the number of those individuals who could apply for part-time working?

I would like to get an understanding from the Minister of how this proposal will work across the various ranks. There is a big difference, for example, between a private and a general applying for part-time working. We can envisage a situation where a senior officer in all three services wanted to go part time. One aim that General Carter has put forward for the legislation is to encourage opportunities for more family-friendly working practices, and obviously there is the aim of encouraging women not only to join the armed forces, but to advance up the career path. I would therefore like to know from the Minister what the rules are. Will there be uniform rules across the ranks for how individuals, and what percentage of individuals, would be covered?

Having read the Bill, I am not sure whether this issue is covered. Clearly, the ultimate decision is about the operational effectiveness of our armed forces. We could not have a situation in which, even if there was a 15% upper limit, we took out an entire capability that was needed by our armed forces.

I would be interested to know, through the probing amendment tabled by my hon. Friend, what the appeals mechanism is. One issue in the armed forces is women not advancing up the pay spine or rankings because of breaks in service and other situations, so what would be the appeal mechanism? If someone felt that they were being unfairly denied part-time working, what would be the process? If it relates to a female member of the armed forces, is that not opening us up, potentially, to a claim of discrimination against that individual if she feels that that is the reason why she has been denied part-time working?

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

First, it is a pleasure to be here. I am very grateful that the Bill has reached Committee and, from looking around the room, it is clear that there are many committed right hon. and hon. Members who want the best for our armed forces. I am pleased that the Bill has reached this stage and that we can scrutinise what I hope will be an important stepping-stone in our support for our armed services.

In the wider debate on the clause, I will expand on the virtues and benefits of the Bill, but specifically on the amendment, questions were raised about recruitment and retention. We concede that this is a difficult climate in which to recruit and retain personnel. That is why we have put forward the armed forces people programme, of which there are four distinct parts. This Bill on the flexible working programme, which we are debating here today, forms one part of that. We need to advance, to modernise. We need to reflect society and ensure that we can recruit from that gene pool—the voluntary force out there—and make the armed forces attractive in a modern-day context. That means providing an element of flexibility in the work that we expect them to do.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body was touched on. We will probably look at this matter in further detail under a later amendment. Now, I will simply say that the freeze—the pay cap—has been removed. Absolutely, there may be a requirement for an increase in salaries for specific trades where there is a shortfall, and we need to attract people and fill posts. That is beyond the scope of the Bill and this debate, but it sits in the wider context of ensuring that we are doing our best to attract and retain people for the most professional armed forces in the world.

I was asked whether this provision applies across the three services. It does. However, the word “regiment” would not necessarily apply in all contexts of the armed forces. It is important to remember the requirement in respect of operational capability. The example was given of an individual seeking to apply for flexible working while on board a ship. The hon. Member for North Durham will be aware that they will be attached to a posting for a period—possibly nine months—and they will make an application for the future. They would hope, perhaps, to be able to remain in a geographic location or to have the freedom to work part-time or reduced hours once they got off the ship. Ultimately, operational capability is of first and foremost importance, and it must not be affected at all by any aspect of the Bill.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Minister is right that a person on a ship would be applying for the future, but what would be the decision-making process when putting together a crew for a ship? What percentage of the crew would be allowed to work part time?

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

When we look at countries that already have this process, figures like 15% simply are not applicable. Australia has, I believe, up to 1% or 2% of its personnel interested in pursuing this. Ultimately, it is about the operational capability of any ship and the force on board. Any commander or authority has the ability to deny any individual application because of that. Should an individual still feel that they require this kind of working because of their personal circumstances, there will be an appeals process. We will come on to that under a later amendment.

We have the mechanisms in place to recall service personnel. I want to make that clear. Even if permission was given for an individual not to be on a particular ship, they could be recalled because of operational capability if the situation demanded it. That is the agreement under which this entire offering is being made.

These measures have been designed by the services for the services. This is the Army, Air Force and Navy looking at their own protocols and personnel situations, and seeing how they can manage situations like the one on the ship that was described by the hon. Member for North Durham. It makes sense, therefore, to leave many of the judgments on the details to the services themselves. They own the responsibility to deliver operational duty and capability in order to recruit and fulfil their tasks.

In our view, the arbitrary limit of 15% in the amendment was put forward with good intentions, but would inevitably prove unhelpful. I am pleased that it was clear from what the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney said that it is a probing amendment. We must allow the services to retain the flexibility and agility to manage their manpower as they see fit.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Minister says that this proposal comes from the services. How far down the chain of command is there buy-in on this? If anyone in the Navy is asked about their next posting, they will always say, “Put the two at the top that you don’t want and you’ll get the one that you want third.” Will there be a cultural shift so that this is not just something that is recognised by the senior heads in the Ministry of Defence, but something that has buy-in from the people actually making the decisions about where people go?

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

As I say, this has been designed by the armed forces themselves. A series of surveys has been put forward. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the opening speech given by the then Secretary of State on Second Reading, which made clear the length and depth to which the Ministry of Defence has gone to ensure that there is buy-in and approval not just among service personnel, but from their families and partners who are directly affected by this. There is absolute support for this and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree, particularly with his experience, that it would not be wise to go ahead with it if the chiefs did not agree, if the commanders did not agree and if the armed forces personnel themselves were not calling for it.

Looking at the surveys, one reason why individuals make the tough decision to sign off and leave the armed forces is the stress and strain that it places on their families. That is why we have said, “Let’s adapt, let’s reflect on what society is doing and on what happens in civilian areas.” That is why I believe that it makes sense to persevere with this idea. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it has support across the board.

As I suggested, we envisage a modest take-up of between 0.5% and 1% of all service personnel. The take-up rate is highly unlikely to exceed 15%, but of course it would be wrong to place a cap or arbitrary limit on it. Following the assurances that I have provided, I hope that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:45 am, 14th November 2017

I concur with the Minister about the unity across the House in wanting the best for our armed forces. As I said at the start, this is a probing amendment to seek further clarification. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham has indicated what clarification is required on how the proposal will work across the ranks and on the appeals mechanism.

Although I accept what the Minister said about the services having flexibility, there needs to be some idea of what the limit will be in the future. Hopefully the Minister will consider that. For the arrangement to work effectively, there needs to be further clarity. I ask the Minister to look at that again, but I do beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I beg to move amendment 5, in clause 1, page 1, line 18, at end insert—

“(3AA) The Secretary of State must prepare and publish an annual report on any use of the power to vary, suspend or terminate set out in subsection (3A) and must lay a copy of the Report before Parliament.”

An amendment to require the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on instances where the right to work part-time or in a geographically restricted area has been varied, suspended or terminated.

I rise to speak to amendments 4 and 5—

Order. Amendment 4 has not been selected. It is not on the selection list, so just speak to amendment 5.

When we come to the clause stand part debate, you can be more wide-ranging in your comments, Ms Monaghan, but please just stick to amendment 5 for now.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I would like to raise similar concerns to those raised already, but probably coming from a different position. We have already heard that there are issues around large numbers of personnel and the requirement to maintain operational capability. I would certainly echo those concerns, but if the Bill is to deal with retention of the talent that we cannot afford to lose, and identify how best to make the armed forces modern and fit for purpose, we need to consider how it will be implemented.

There are some worrying phrases in the Bill, such as the “prescribed circumstances” in which flexible working can be suspended. We have already talked about the suspension of flexible working during a national emergency; nobody has a problem with that, but the form of manning crisis and its management, and the ability of the service to refuse applications broadly on the grounds of defence need are more problematic.

We have already heard about areas in which there are key shortages—engineering and particular parts of the RAF, and I will add the submarine service to that. There are people in those services who are currently unable to take the annual leave to which they are entitled. Those same people will not be able to access flexible working, and the result will be the same—members of the armed forces will leave before they are due to do so and the problem with retention will continue. To maintain operational capability, members of particular sections will not be able take up flexible working or get leave because of things that are absolutely out of their control, such as shortages and budget cuts. We need some clarity on how that is rolled out.

Getting the Secretary of State to report to Parliament is quite important. People need to know the situations in which applications have been refused and the number of people who have taken the option up. The Minister mentioned his view that a very small percentage will take it up. We need to be told regularly exactly what the uptake is and across which services, and why applications have been refused—was it because of a particular short-term issue or longer term, endemic problems? Having the Secretary of State report to Parliament regularly would allow some clarity and allow us to monitor who is able to access flexible working and who is not.

Amendment 4 is a probing amendment, but I reserve the right to return to it at a later stage.

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

I admire the way in which the hon. Lady finessed amendment 4, which disappeared, into amendment 5 with the dexterity that we all require in such situations.

I am grateful for the general support for the armed forces. It is important to understand the context. Is this about budget cuts? That is a knee-jerk reaction—a question that I also posed, when I was in opposition, whenever any decision came up. Is the Bill a consequence of that? I can say to the Committee that it is not; it is absolutely nothing to do with financing whatsoever. It is purely to do with recruitment and retention, and the hon. Lady cited examples of that.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I am not suggesting that the Bill is a way to deal with budget cuts. I am suggesting that budget cuts to particular areas may make people working in those areas less able to access the flexible working provisions because they are stretched to their limit.

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

I am grateful for that clarification. The hon. Lady talked about what she called the endemic problems we are having. I was very frank, honest and transparent and said, yes, as the Secretary of State and the Armed Forces Minister recognise, we need to do our best to recruit and retain. We can only do that if we adapt, and that is one of the reasons for the Bill.

The hon. Lady gave an excellent example of those who are under pressure because of their expertise—there are not enough experts in a particular field, which places extra pressure on those who are there. We need to make sure that we recruit more experts in a particular field—engineers, for example—so that we limit the pressures on any individual to constantly be at work, which we do not want.

The new arrangements will be available to all regular service personnel and are aimed at improving recruitment and retention, in not just the short but the long term. Our aim is to approve as many applications as we can, but we also recognise that there will be some that we will not be able to approve. There will be requests made to work part time to which we will have to say no—for example, because somebody is serving at the moment in a high-readiness unit. We have to manage the expectations about the arrangements and we have to provide commanding officers with the information to help them to determine, with their people, whether the arrangements are right for them, or whether less formal flexible working arrangements, which are already available, might suit them better.

Careful consideration will be given to applications when they are made, and because of that we do not anticipate that there will be a need to vary, suspend or terminate any arrangements. However, the ability to do that is necessary to maintain our ability to recall if operational capability demands. It also provides our people with some flexibility should their own needs change.

When it comes to the numbers, as I mentioned, we do not expect take-up of more than about 1%. On that basis, in our view, collating or reporting the information for the size of the cohort will not provide significant or beneficial data. Our internal systems are likely to capture that information anyway as a matter of course and be reported to Parliament in the normal way. That will provide management information from which the services can assess how effectively the new arrangements are working and make any appropriate adjustments.

This is a new concept; of course we need to understand and manage it, see how it works in practice and adapt accordingly. It therefore seems disproportionate to require the services to spend time and resources compiling the management information proposed in the amendment into a form robust enough for publication when we expect the numbers affected by the powers to be small. I hope that I have provided clarification and assurances, and that the hon. Lady will agree to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

I still have some questions. There is a difficulty: if we cannot look at the entire picture and see the particular areas of service that cannot access the arrangements, we are missing a trick. Undoubtedly, if people are operationally stretched and unable to access them, there will be more retention issues. However, for the moment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2