Flexible forces

Don_Touhig4x3.jpgDon Touhig on reshaping the latest Armed Forces Bill to offer real working flexibility to our servicemen and women

One afternoon when I served as a Wales Office Minister officials told me that an RAF fighter aircraft had crashed into the sea off the Pembrokeshire coast. Costing millions of pounds, it had been lost – but happily a pilot in whom we had invested many millions more had been saved. A reminder that our most important investment is in people and not kit.

Britain spends millions of pounds every year in training and upskilling the men and women who join our armed forces. But the latest Armed Forces Continuous attitude survey reveals that 62% say the impact of service life on family and personal life is the main reason for leaving.

Imagine the raised expectations, therefore, when in SDSR 2015 (the most recent Strategic Defence and Security Review), the Government pledged to ensure that a career in our armed forces would be better balanced with family life: ‘We will make sure the changes necessary to enable our armed forces to work flexibly, reflecting modern life.’.

Today in the House of Lords, we have the Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill – legislation that is meant to deliver on that promise.

In my innocence when I read this in SDSR 2015 I envisaged a flexible working practice similar to the flexitime in much of the public and private sectors. But this Bill is far removed from that.

Flexitime working means that employers and employees have an arrangement to work in such a way as the full complement of hours are put in by the employee, but the hourly work pattern can be varied to suit the employees need.

The measure outlined in the Bill however, proposes no such similar arrangement because those granted flexible working will have their pay deducted and their pensions reduced. Indeed, in an accompanying document, the government explains how it would work: ‘… a service person who chooses to reduce their commitment from 100% to 60% of a full time equivalent would see a 40% reduction in salary’.

Adding: ‘A regular who dials down their commitment will see their pension pot for that period proportionally reduced’.

When I read this I wondered if the authors were living in the real world. How many servicemen and women who have endured a one percent pay rise for some years now could take a pay cut of 40% in order to gain some flexible working?

When my Labour frontbench colleague Denis Tunnicliffe and I started to look at the Bill, we were left with one key question. Is this a seemingly benign and modern approach to flexible working as promised in SDSR 2015? Or the thin end of the wedge and the first step toward zero hours contracts in our armed forces.

Is it all about saving money on an already overstretched defence budget—a budget on which there is agreement across the Lords should be increased?

On top of this, the main provisions of the Bill will be enacted through Statutory Instruments under the negative procedure rather than the affirmative – something that means we cannot pray against them.

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. Forcing servicemen and women to make a choice between taking time off to care for a sick partner, child or elderly parent and cutting their living standards. All parading under the guise of offering flexible working in a modern setting.

Theresa May has called for other parties to contribute not simply criticise. Yesterday our Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith responded positively to that offer. I intend to make a similar offer to the government to reshape this Bill into one that offers genuine flexibility without cutting the pay and pensions of our brave servicemen and women.

Lord Don Touhig is Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords

Published 11th July 2017

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