James Cleverly supports the Bill which will help retain highly trained and valued personnel in the armed forces who, at the moment, are often forced to make a choice between their career and their family.
James Cleverly (Braintree) (Con)
I rise to support the Bill. Having recently served on the Finance Bill Committee, one realises that there is a beauty in brevity, and the two pages of this Bill are indeed beautiful. They are beautiful in what they seek to do, which goes to prove that a Bill does not have to be large in stature to be effective.
During my time in the reserve forces, I interacted with a number of friends and colleagues in the Regular Army and the regular services who dealt on an uncomfortably regular basis with members of their service going to them as their officer to say, “Boss, I am going to have to leave because my recent service has been very intense and if I want to keep my family together, I am going to have to enter ‘First UK Civ. Div.’”. In this place, we would call that civilian employment. I know that a number of my colleagues were hugely disappointed, but they understood that these soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel would have to put their family first, and they reluctantly let them go. That was the right thing for these people to do, but unfortunately it was a loss to the service.
It is worth remembering that the patterns of military service we are now used to were put in place at a time when a single employer for life was the norm in civilian employment, and the idea that the bloke would go off to earn all the money for the family and the wife would be happy to stay at home looking after the children was also the norm. The world of work in the civilian sphere has changed beyond recognition. It is now perfectly normal to have two working parents in a household. It is now perfectly normal for the woman in the household to have the more significant and high-earning job, and for the man in the household to be the one who bends their working life around the needs—[Interruption.] Of the wife, indeed. There are plenty of examples in the Chamber this evening of that happening, yet until this Bill is passed it will still be the norm in this area for the woman in a relationship to have to sacrifice her career for that of her husband. Surely in 2017 that should no longer necessarily be the case.
I was struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) that we have few women in very senior roles in the armed forces. That is a shame, and it weakens us at a point in time when we now recognise that the diversity of experience and knowledge is an important element in successful planning for not just operations, but the background work in which our armed forces take part. One Opposition Member made the point—I apologise for not recalling who it was—that it is not enough just to pass this Bill, important though it is; it is also important that we drive through a cultural change in the armed forces. The hon. and gallant Members who have served will know that there is an unwritten rhythm to the perfect military career. Someone becomes a platoon commander at a certain age and a company second-in-command at another, they go to staff college at this point and then become a brigade chief of staff, before going on to command a sub-unit and then hit other markers at other points. That is the route to high command in the armed forces. It is great for completely flexible men, but it is much harder to hit those career markers if you need to take time off to have children, and that massively disadvantages women.
Hopefully the Bill will become an Act, after which the acme of its success will be that if a man needs to take time off from that career rhythm to support his family—his children, an elderly relative or whoever it might be—he still feels that he has as much chance of getting to high command, should his talent lead him there, as a woman. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, there must be no stigma for either a man or a woman in taking advantage of flexible working.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cultural change we need to see is a senior officer being the first person to access flexible working? That would send the right message to the rest of the force about how the changes should be implemented and how we should operate.
That is not something I had thought of, but it is an important point. If not someone at a very senior rank—there might be the implication that they had already cashed in their chips so were fine—I would love it and it would be interesting to see one of the potential high fliers take up flexible working. Those Members who have been involved in one of the numerous all-party groups on the armed forces all have a little shopping list of the people who could be the service chiefs of the future. Were one of those marked people, the future high fliers, to say, “I’m going to take advantage of this and send a really powerful signal that it will not carry any stigma”, that would be important.
I hope that the Bill will drive a change in attitudes towards service leavers. While I was waiting to speak, I took part in an exchange on social media in which someone reminded me that traditionally the armed forces have not been very good at dealing with people on their way out. I have always been massively frustrated by that, because those people are the recruiters of the future. It is remarkable that someone who might have had decades of happy service, whether in dark blue, light blue or green, and who could have gone on to become a fantastic recruiter for their branch of the armed forces, could get messed about so comprehensively in their last few weeks and months of service that when they finally hit civvy street the only thing they have to say is what an awful experience they had. That seems a massive waste. Perhaps, through this model of flexibility of service, the armed forces will get better at dealing with people as they move from full-time service to part-time or flexible service, from part-time service to reserve service, and from reserve service to civilian life, in such a way that those people become and remain powerful recruiters for their branch of the armed forces.
The changes in the Bill will need careful management, but this agenda should not be avoided just because of that. We will need to make sure that flexible working is not used as a way to duck out of a particularly bad potential deployment—we all know that there are good and bad deployments. We must also make sure that the availability of flexible working is well communicated throughout people’s service life, so that they have thought about it before they need to do it, rather than just afterwards. I do not want to see anyone else sacrifice either their career because of their family or their family life because of their career. The Bill is a big step forward and I commend it to the House.