During the Report Stage of the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill [Lords] earlier this evening, speaking to New Clause 1 I said:
Gerald Jones (Shadow Minister for Defence): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
New clause 1 would ensure that the armed forces personnel numbers and diversity statistics are as accurate as possible and that there can be proper scrutiny of the new flexible working measures. It would require that the personnel statistics and the diversity statistics include details of how many personnel work part time. It is vital that there is transparency about the personnel numbers so that there can be scrutiny, accountability and informed debate.
The recent change in how personnel statistics are reported —moving from monthly to quarterly publication—reduced the opportunities to scrutinise the figures. As I said in Committee, in their consultation on the change the Government made clear the purpose of reporting the figures. The consultation said:
“The main purpose of these statistics is to measure the performance of the MOD against government and Parliament targets, and also to inform general debate in government, Parliament and the wider public.”
Stephen Doughty (Labour and Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth): I wholeheartedly agree with the approach that my hon. Friend is setting out, and with the new clauses and amendments before the House. He will recall that I have been trying on a monthly basis to get from the Government many statistics on the crucial issue of recruitment, and they have shown some serious gaps in recruitment. Does he agree that it is crucial that we get the figures on part-time working because they are often used to inflate the overall size of a force, particularly the Army. When we hear about the crazy proposed cuts to the Army, we need to have the full facts in front of us.
Gerald Jones: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that it is essential to have transparency and clarity on the figures. If the Government do not give the full picture, they are not fully informing the public debate or allowing us to see a true picture of the Ministry of Defence’s performance. Indeed, they are potentially encouraging a debate based on inaccurate information.
The Government have been accused of trying to fiddle the numbers before. Later in my speech, I shall talk about the mystery that is the Government’s armed forces targets. New clause 1 is an opportunity for them to show that they are committed to transparency and clarity when it comes to the size of our armed forces and the ways in which personnel are serving. It would not be right to suggest that the Army, or any of the services, is at a greater strength than it actually is by failing to separate part-time from full-time personnel, so the personnel statistics must include specific details about the number of personnel who are working part time. I appreciate that the new flexible working practices in the Bill will require personnel to deploy on operations should the need arise, but the Government must admit that it may take time to recall personnel, so it will build a clearer picture of our capabilities if we know how many personnel are serving part time.
Let me turn to the biannual diversity statistics. The Government have been clear that one reason for the introduction of this Bill is to improve the number of women in our armed forces. On Second Reading, the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), said that
“we are committed to see women account for 15% of our new recruits by 2020, and evidence suggests that they see greater opportunities for flexible working in the services as particularly attractive.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2017; Vol. 630, c. 624.]
It is good that the Government are taking steps to get to grips with this because, unfortunately, at present, the situation leaves a lot to be desired.
The latest diversity statistics were not out when we last discussed the Bill, in Committee. Now that they are out, we can see that progress remains slow. In the latest statistics published at the end of November, female representation made up 10.3% of the regular forces, which represents an increase of just 0.1% in 12 months; and just 3.6% of officers ranking OF-6 to OF-9 are female.
It is disappointing that the Ministry of Defence is now without any female Ministers, especially in light of the fact that the Department has a very capable female Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), with a long-standing interest in defence issues whom the Prime Minister could easily have promoted during the recent reshuffle.
The picture is similarly disappointing for black, Asian and minority ethnic personnel, who now represent 7.5% of the regular forces.
Kevan Jones (Labour, North Durham): Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why the female intake is so important is that we have a pretty atrocious record of females getting to senior positions in all three services? If we are to change that, we need young women joining now.
Gerald Jones: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.
This highlights more than ever that active steps need to be taken if we are to reach the targets that are in place. The new advertising campaign for the Army is a good example of that. In spite of the negative reaction in some parts of the press, we welcome this new campaign and think that it is quite right that the Army does not limit its recruitment pool, but looks to get the best people from across society.
Toby Perkins (Labour, Chesterfield): On the subject of diversity, particularly the number of BAME and African personnel in the Army and the geographical spread among our armed forces, is he as surprised as I was that when I asked a written question about the geographical split in our armed forces—the number from each local authority area and from each constituency—the MOD was unable to provide an answer? Would it not be useful to have those statistics so that each Member of Parliament could take pride in the number of their constituents who were joining our armed forces?
Gerald Jones: My hon. Friend highlights my point that we do need absolute clarity and transparency in the figures, not only on diversity, but across the board.
As I have said, diversity is a strength; it minimises the risk of groupthink. As operations take place in varying locations, a diverse force offers different ways to connect with local populations. If the purpose of the Bill is, in part, to increase the number of female personnel in particular, including through greater retention, why do the Government not see the logic in including information about part-time working in the statistics to show how progress is being made in the numbers of female personnel?
I simply cannot see a good reason for the Government not to adopt new clause 1. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), told us in Committee:
“The number of applications…is likely to be low in the early stages, so collating and reporting information on a monthly or biannual basis on the number of regular personnel undertaking new forms of flexible working would not provide significant or beneficial data.”––[Official Report, Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Public Bill Committee, 14 November 2017; c. 27.]
How long does that remain the case? Is there a plan for the Government to bring in reporting when the number of personnel reaches a certain percentage of all personnel? If so, what would that figure be?
Moreover, even if the number of applications is low initially, if there is a data from the initial implementation of the scheme then we could look at trends over time. Of course, the monthly personnel statistics are now quarterly and the diversity statistics are published only once every six months. It does not seem too difficult an ask to include within these statistics the number of those who are serving under the flexible working scheme. Indeed, the Minister told us in Committee how important monitoring would be, saying that
“it will be crucial to ensure that all cases of flexible working are properly recorded and monitored to provide personnel and commanding officers with a record of all the discussions and agreements, so that they can understand the impact and success of the entire process.”––[Official Report, Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Public Bill Committee, 14 November 2017; c. 27.]
If there will be a clear record from the outset, why will this not be added to the statistics? It seems that there will be no undue work or additional cost placed on the Department as a result of the new clause. If the Government are confident that this will see a reduction in outflow and even a boost to recruitment, what good reason is there to not include this information?
I hope the Government will see that this new clause is about ensuring transparency and allowing scrutiny, and will accept it into the Bill.