Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)


11 JULY 2006

  Q80  Mr Jenkins: If I could ask one question that has been puzzling me for a while: how many either one or two star officers went to a state secondary school?

  Des Browne: Mr Jenkins, you will not be surprised to know that I asked this question myself.

  Q81  Mr Jenkins: Did you get an answer?

  Des Browne: I am not able to provide an answer because that statistical evidence is not collected, so the best you are going to get from anybody who tries to answer that would be, in my view, an unhelpful conglomeration of anecdotes. The statistics are not kept. Educational background is actually an irrelevance to the Armed Forces. What we are interested in in the context of selection and promotion is to take account of educational achievements and qualifications, not what school a person went to. That is entirely as it should be unless there is evidence to suggest that people are being disadvantaged because of their educational background, and I have to say that as I interact increasingly with the Armed Forces I do not myself see any sign of that. I understand that that is doing exactly what I am counselling people not to do, which is basing conclusions on snapshot experiences of anecdotes; but the fact of the matter is that that information is not kept. In relation to women, if I can just expand, I think there are—and I asked for this information which we do keep in order to inform the responses to this sort of question if it came up—trends in relation to the Armed Forces that are very encouraging. There are increasing percentages—they are starting off with small numbers—of women moving up the chain of command. And can I just say to Members of this Committee that I come from a background ministerially and politically where I will encourage and support this trend with every effort that I can because I think it is crucially important that "people opportunities" is not just a phrase but that it has a reality on the ground. In terms of promotion, in every walk of life the most important thing to ensure is that the pool from which people are chosen for promotion is expanded and is represented, not just of women, not just of people from different educational backgrounds but of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds as well, and we will do everything we can to build on the success that we have been achieving, I believe, in all of these areas. Then we have to ensure that the promotion process is genuinely objective and selects people by their ability from that pool, and that it is a genuine meritocracy and is not affected by extraneous factors. I would just say to you, Mr Jenkins—and I have not had the opportunity to satisfy myself of this—that to the extent in 10 weeks I can get a sense of this, and knowing what I do know about this area of public policy, I do not get any sense that there is a disadvantage to having had a particular educational background in the Armed Forces.

  Mr Jenkins: Secretary of State, it was only a short question and I always get worried when people give me very, very long answers to a short question. If you have difficulty I suggest that you carry out a random survey; just go round the CVs of the officers and pull out a random number—and it will give you them in confidence—and look at the individuals and see where they come from and their background. Are you keeping a policy of advancement, inclusion without knowing some facts from where you are starting? You just said to me that you do not know where the facts come from, it is too big a job to look at it, but someone should know where they come from to be able to prove and say, hand on heart, that they come from a wide range, that it is on ability and it is not on background.

  Q82  Chairman: Secretary of State, there is a suggestion for you.

  Des Browne: I will take that suggestion away and mull it over, and since I am offering to come back in the not too distant future I can be cross-examined or examined on how I responded to that suggestion then.

  Q83  Mr Jones: Secretary of State, I am quite disappointed with your answer because clearly you have been there for 10 weeks and it appears that you have gone native very quickly! The point is relevant because—and I am not suggesting this is the case—it could be suggested that an old boys' public schoolboys' network promotes to certain things and is holding women back. So I am surprised that you do not collect evidence of where people come from and I do not think that it is beyond the wit of the MoD to pull that information together. The other thing I would be interested to know—and I am disappointed with the Brigadier's answer about women—is what is actually being done to encourage women to break through that glass ceiling into two and three star? It is not just a matter about people's abilities, it is trying to engage and encourage those women who have ability to break through. If you look at any examples of how it has been done just go to an industry where there has been real and positive work being done to encourage women to get into senior management positions, and I do not think that the MoD is any different or the Armed Forces are any different from industry in that respect.

  Des Browne: I accept your challenge and I would be disappointed if the impression that I left with this Committee is that I had ditched all of the principles that I believe in in relation to equality in 10 weeks in the MoD, and I do not believe that I have for a minute. I think women and educational qualifications and where they are obtained are two separate issues.

  Q84  Mr Jones: I do not think they are.

  Des Browne: They are in my view separate issues, and I do not want anybody left with the impression that we do not collect the detailed information in relation to women—there is very good clear evidence why we should do that. The evidence suggests that women are progressing through the officer ranks in greater numbers than before and that there has been a notable increase in the proportion of women at officer rank below one star, and I will come back to that in a moment. A significant percentage of junior officers are female, 40% captains, for example, 18% of lieutenants and below, and for most senior officers the female representation, although relatively small, has increased significantly. The proportion of colonels and equivalent has doubled in the 15-year period from 1990 from 1.6% to 3.2% and for lieutenant colonels it has tripled from 1.4% to 4.1%. As the Brigadier explained, moving into the stage that you have, as a Committee, set as the glass ceiling is a combination of a number of factors, one of which is life of service, and given that women are only genuinely an integral part of the Armed Forces and separate from women services for a comparatively short period of time then that length of service has not been able to be acquired by women, and the test is—and this is the genuine test in my view—as to whether the pool from which those people will be drawn is genuinely representative of the women who are joining the forces in increasing numbers. If that is right and we are sustaining that progression then there is no reason for anybody at this point to believe that that will be stopped at any point. But it is my responsibility, as the Secretary of State, to ensure that the processes for selection work to make sure that that does not happen, and I will do that because that is part of the whole process of equality that brought me into politics in the first place. As far as educational qualifications and where they are obtained are concerned, it is entirely appropriate, in my view, that the Forces should be blind to where those qualifications are obtained. Mr Jenkins has suggested to me a piece of work which he says may reveal a degree of prejudice against people who have come from state schools. I do not believe from my observations that that exists.

  Q85  Mr Jones: We do not know.

  Des Browne: I will take away his suggestion and consider it and when I come back before the Committee the next time we can address that subject in some more detail.

  Q86  Mr Hamilton: I actually think it is correct to say that since the time the change of policy about women came about, it may be a bit early to say how that has come through the system. However, I find it difficult for you to make a judgment on educational ability or what school a person came from when you do not carry those facts with you. How can you make that judgment? Nobody can make that judgment unless they gather those facts together. I would not take it to the Armed Forces, I would take it to the Army specifically and look at the Army because I think that is where the problem lies. It may be a misconception but how do we know if we do not have the facts and figures?

  Des Browne: Neither of us knows.

  Q87  Mr Hamilton: That is the point.

  Des Browne: I qualified my answer in the way in which I did very carefully to let the Committee know where I thought the restrictions on it were. In the context of the exchanges we were having, Mr Jenkins has made a suggestion to me and I will take it away and consider it. I do not think I can say fairer than that.

  Chairman: May I recommend a policy of an A list, Secretary of State. I just throw that out. Mark Lancaster on overstretch.

  Q88  Mr Lancaster: Overstretch, or perhaps as the Secretary of State would prefer to call it, "stretch". Perhaps, Chairman, because of the very nature of the question I am about to ask, I know the Committee are aware, I ought to restate that I have an interest as a serving officer in the Territorial Army in the Royal Engineers as a bomb disposal officer, so a pinch trade. How have our harmony guidelines been breached with the latest appointments and which trades are probably most affected by it?

  Des Browne: Can I defer to the Brigadier to give that specific information?

  Brigadier Andrews: The harmony guidelines in general across the Armed Forces are still holding, but you are quite right to say they are breached in certain areas. There are certain specialisations where there are acute difficulties. In the Royal Navy, there are significant shortfalls amongst certain specialisations in the submarine service. In the Army, there are as you know shortfalls in the infantry and intelligence operators. In the Royal Air Force, weapons system operators, air crew, linguists and a number of ground trades are particular shortage areas.

  Q89  Mr Lancaster: How are we trying to address these shortages? Is there a direct connection between shortages in key trades and the mobilisation of reserve forces?

  Brigadier Andrews: There is a number of measures which we can do to reduce manning pressure; the pressure in these particular areas. Of course we can look at the requirement, we can review the establishment and the requirement on the ground to make sure that we are indeed employing the right number of people, and if there are too many of course that is a measure to reduce the pressure. We can look at rank-ranging posts, perhaps a post which was originally designated for a captain might be undertaken by a major or perhaps a lieutenant; we could put a rank-range there. You have quite rightly pointed out sometimes we can alleviate those pressures by mobilising reservists and in some areas we have used contractors but sometimes posts have to be gapped and that is a hard fact. In the longer term, we have looked at the notion of the financial retention incentive to keep people in the service, and of course corporately we look at the structure of the Armed Forces to ensure they are properly structured to undertake the sort of operations that they are undertaking now.

  Q90  Mr Lancaster: Let us be clear then. You are talking about a gapping post, and a gapping post as I understand it effectively means nobody is in it. So what sacrifices are you making to operational effectiveness if you are gapping posts, rank-ranging positions? Are you meeting the harmony guidelines? Which posts are currently gapped in Afghanistan or Iraq, ie have nobody in them?

  Brigadier Andrews: I cannot tell you precisely which posts—

  Q91  Mr Lancaster: Are there any?

  Brigadier Andrews: I would have to let you know that.

  Q92  Chairman: Would it be possible, Brigadier, for you to write to us with those details?

  Brigadier Andrews: Yes, it would, Sir, yes.[5]

  Des Browne: Subject to the support I have been receiving from the Brigadier in relation to the detail of this, I am not aware of any posts being gapped in either of these theatres.

  Q93  Mr Lancaster: Neither am I, but I am just asking.

  Des Browne: I do not think there are any, but I will confirm that.

  Q94  Chairman: It would be helpful to know.[6]

  Des Browne: I would not like to leave the Committee with the impression that there is a possibility. I do not think there is any possibility of there being gaps but I will just check and make absolutely certain, since the Brigadier does not have that specific information here. My overwhelming impression is that there are no gaps.

  Q95  Mr Lancaster: To be fair, I do not think there are but I am asking the question.

  Brigadier Andrews: Just to make myself clear as well, gapping posts in operational theatres would be exceptional. Gapping posts elsewhere is something that we do have to do from time to time.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. The final topic we would like to cover relates to personnel and to the Blake Review.

  Q96  Mr Havard: The first question I would like to ask you is the question of the Armed Forces complaints commissioner which has now been announced. We really would like to know whether or not you have any further details on what exactly the role of that person is going to be. There was a general statement about accepting complaints directly from servicemen or family members and so on, but we are a bit short on detail and we would like to know, given our previous reports, exactly what they are going to be doing, what powers they have and how they relate to the rest of the structure?

  Brigadier Andrews: As far as I know, those powers have not been drafted yet but, as you correctly say, that commissioner would be in a position to accept complaints and then of course to refer them to the Chain of Command for investigation. He would also have an important role in monitoring as an independent scrutineer the effectiveness and the fairness of that process.

  Q97  Mr Havard: Can I understand very clearly what you have just said? They have not been drafted yet? In our Duty of Care Report we made suggestions about the type of process we would like to see and we made particular allusion to the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland because we think this person should have quite extensive powers of investigation, calling evidence and all sorts of other things. We have had discussions on the Armed Forces Bill Committee and on the floor of the House about this, and we were told that this person of some sort of variety, not as we had described them but something slightly different, was going to come forward. Now you are telling me you have not even described what they are going to do.

  Brigadier Andrews: The Armed Forces Bill contains provisions, which I am afraid I cannot set out for you. The detailed way in which the Services complaints commissioner could work will be a matter for later. That is my understanding and perhaps I may confirm that to you?

  Des Browne: Can I say to the Committee that in the absence of being able to give the detail, dotting the I's and crossing the T's of this, the external reviewer will have wide powers in relation to complaints, bullying and harassment, as the Committee suggested and will be able to receive complaints directly from Service personnel or indeed made on their behalf by third parties, referring them then to the Chain of Command for action and to be notified of the outcome. To that extent, in relation to the component elements you have identified, Mr Harvard—

  Chairman: Kevan Jones served on the Bill.

  Q98  Mr Jones: I am quite disappointed with the Brigadier's answer and I suspect what is going on is that the military do not want this commissioner. In terms of the Bill, which is in the Lords stage now, I am surprised even at this late stage you cannot actually tell us what the commissioner is going to be. Is it, Secretary of State, that you are a new secretary of state, it is in your box now, there is a danger the military will actually kill this off by stealth? When are we going to have the detail? If we do not have the detail in the Lords and amendments are not put down, I have to say there will be a lot of disappointed people, not just the families who have been campaigning for this, but I have to say a lot of Members of Parliament, on the Labour side as well, will be very annoyed if this is watered-down or the thrust which I think is needed in terms of improving the independent oversight of the Armed Forces is not actually followed through.

  Des Browne: We have set ourselves the task of having a complaints system which is fair, transparent, effective and prompt. We have accepted there needs to be an external review element to that and I have set out to the Committee, in response to the concerns I understood the Committee had and in relation to its own recommendations, the elements which will be there. These issues will of course have to be subject to debate in the context of the Armed Forces Bill and people will have an opportunity to test them against the standards they have set. In my view, this independent element, this independent reviewer that we envisage, whose position in the complaints system will be reflected in the statute, will be able to achieve all of the ambitions Mr Havard has for him.

  Q99  Mr Havard: I hope so. Can I raise a particular question at the moment? Not in my constituency but in the next door constituency but nevertheless part of the local extended family, as it were, we have just seen a boy die in training, apparently through a process called "beasting" which is a debate which has been going on for years. We were told during our Duty of Care inquiries that in these sorts of processes for dealing with physical punishments during training there were rules and regulations and advice to PTIs in particular about how they must deploy physical training. I do not want to go into the details of the particular case but what it raises in my mind is the suspicion that in fact what we have not seen is what we were promised, which is processes of supervision being put in place to avoid these things, so that if someone has committed a misdemeanour or not, or is in need of some sort of remedial training, be it physical or otherwise, they are dealt with in a proper civilised fashion, so that we have people being trained not brutalised, which is essentially what we were concerned about in the past. I am very concerned that the promises which were made to us and the descriptions we have had previously about how this was going to be carried out are clearly not working. I would like to know in a general question of duty of care, how the supervision processes are running in order to carry out what were promises which were made to us during that Report?

  Des Browne: Can I deal with the general point and then on the specifics I will defer to the Brigadier, who may be in a position to give the detailed information. If he is not, then of course we will provide that detailed information. I do not think the Committee, the Chairman or the Committee, expect me to respond in the context of the specific case you referred to, Mr Havard.

5   Note: See Ev 22 Back

6   Note: See Ev 22 Back

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