Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)


20 MAY 2008

  Q400  Richard Younger-Ross: How far are you reviewing the allowances to see what allowances are necessary, because the report had a number of views from personnel about what they thought the allowances ought to come to? I will give you some examples—increasing net pay to those on operations, improving child care to help spouses deal with the effects of disruption, improving moving allowances.

  Vice Admiral Wilkinson: All these are covered annually in what used to be the Single Service Attitude Surveys and we are now awaiting the results of the first Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey.

  Q401  Richard Younger-Ross: So there is another study that will say everything is fine?

  Derek Twigg: It is not a case of "everything is fine". It has not been raised with us as being a major issue. It clearly is an issue for some people. In terms of knowing what you are entitled to, I think we have recognised that and we have demonstrated that we want to try and improve that recognition, but, as a number of Service people have said to me, they tend to be pretty good at finding out what allowances they should be entitled to. That is not being complacent because some people will have problems and that is why we recognise that and the ready-reckoner is one way of improving that.

  Q402  Mr Jones: Dr Alex Alexandrou, when he gave evidence to us, argued that the military personnel need a body to represent their views, and, as you know, I have a third attempt, I think it is, with my Ten-Minute Rule Bill and my amendment to the Armed Forces Bill calling for a federation. Increasingly you are getting a lot of organisations of former senior military personnel claiming to speak on behalf of the Armed Forces. Why is the MoD so against an Armed Forces federation?

  Derek Twigg: I will answer it first and I think it is worth your hearing from Admiral Wilkinson as a serving officer as well. First of all, we do not see the need for it. There are a number of reasons for that. We feel that in terms of the Chain of Command it is very important that issues are dealt with by that process, particularly around welfare issues. As for the changes in terms of redress, which you know yourself from the Armed Forces Bill and you probably know the detail even better than I do, the Service Complaints Commissioner has been put in place.

  Q403  Mr Jones: You were dragged screaming and kicking to introduce that. That was not easy.

  Derek Twigg: Whatever the perception was, and I accept collective responsibility—I was not around at that particular time but I did the last bit of the Bill—I thought there was a lot of support ministerially to do that. That is another area which would mitigate against doing what you are asking for. We have not seen any great groundswell of opinion from Armed Forces personnel that this is what they want. The current organisation has about 200 members. Unless I am mistaken, that has not increased significantly, but also I have to say that Service personnel write to me if they have issues, so they have access to ministers. I deal with correspondence with individuals on a range of issues that they may have concerns about. For those reasons I am not sure that I see the benefit over and above what that this would bring. I know you feel very strongly about but I do not know whether Admiral Wilkinson wants to add something to that.

  Vice Admiral Wilkinson: I agree that certainly representing the wellbeing and welfare of the people under your command is a vital function for the Chain of Command. I am also strongly of the opinion that there are a number of mechanisms and routes whereby people can make representations or state a complaint all the way up to the Defence Council if necessary.

  Q404  Mr Jones: Come on; there are very few who do that. We took evidence on the Armed Forces Bill. It is a handful, is it not, because they never get that far?

  Vice Admiral Wilkinson: We can give you the number, sir, I am sure, if you would like us to. Certainly in my own career I have complained at least three times officially. The lightning conductors are there, the individual briefing teams that the Services operate. The Armed Forces Pay Review Board takes a lot of information from Service men and women. There are the attitude surveys, the spouses' attitude surveys. As the Minister says, a lot of families and dependants write to him. People can join societies, trade organisations that represent their particular career interests. There is any number of outlets for them to discuss or raise issues of difficulty. I think we just have to be cognisant of whether this would strike at some of the areas of ethos that the Services have.

  Q405  Mr Jones: I know why the Chain of Command do not want it, but it was good enough, for example, for most of our major allies, including the United States which has a plethora of these organisations representing different branches of the Armed Forces and it works there. It does not affect the Chain of Command there or the ethos. Why are you so against it? You are going to have to give in eventually, I will tell you this. You have to recognise that society has changed. Unlike with the Service Complaints Commissioner which you were dragged screaming and kicking to approve eventually, I have to say you will eventually have to agree to this.

  Derek Twigg: I think the argument that somebody else does something does not necessarily mean that we have to do that. We have our way of doing things in this country and I believe the systems we have are robust. Recently the Australian Federation has disbanded or got in trouble; I am not quite sure which.

  Q406  Mr Jones: It has, yes.

  Derek Twigg: So I can only say to you that I talk, like you do, to probably thousands of Service personnel, and I get lots of correspondence and I cannot ever say I have seen a groundswell of opinion saying that it is absolutely essential to have this federation, and for the reasons I have given I really could not add any more to that.

  Mr Jones: We will wait and see.

  Q407  Chairman: Minister, you have seen the way that the Police Federation has grown up. I do not suppose you would say that that had damaged the police in any way, would you?

  Derek Twigg: It is not a case so much about whether it has damaged the police or been a bad thing. In terms of the Armed Forces, we have this tradition. In terms of the options for taking forward these issues and the special nature of the Armed Forces, I do not necessarily think because something is right for another organisation it is right for the Armed Forces.

  Q408  Mr Borrow: There is a danger when you are trying to gauge what the views of the people you employ are that you can look at the websites and you can get the odd letter and that gives you a certain picture. One of the advantages of some sort of representative body such as a federation is that there is a collective view arrived at by that body of what is wrong or right and some mechanism to put it right. The danger is quite often that you get one or two observations which are at the extreme end which do not necessarily reflect the generality of views and it is about how the MoD gets a view of what the generality of opinion is within the men and women that they employ and how that mechanism works. There is no formal structure to do that. It is just opinion surveys, etc. The thing that the Police Federation can do for the Police Service is say, "This is collectively what we think the police as a service need and these are the views", and they come to some collective views. There will be people at one extreme and the other outside that but there is at least something for the Police Service and the Home Office to discuss with and to form a view with. Within the MoD there is not that same structure.

  Derek Twigg: If you look at the range of things we do in terms of the Continuous Attitude Survey, that is often quoted against us because it often is the negatives that are picked out from it, so obviously that is perceived to be a pretty reflective view by a large number of people. That is one way. We as ministers meet literally thousands of Service personnel during our time in office, but the Chiefs do the same sorts of briefings and talk to Service personnel. There are, of course, many items of correspondence that I particularly receive because I deal with lots of these issues around personnel and discipline areas, whether it is from individual serving personnel or their wives or partners. It is on a regular basis. Without being arrogant about it in any way, in terms of whether we do not know what the general view is of our Service personnel, I think we would be missing something if that was the case given the range of opportunities we have to get views, as I say, and I have not seen a groundswell of opinion from serving personnel that they want this.

  Q409  Mr Jenkin: Are there any public expenditure implications to the possibility of an Armed Forces federation? Would it cost public money?

  Derek Twigg: The honest answer is that I do not know as we have not decided to have one.

  Q410  Mr Jenkin: May I just point out that the Chain of Command is already compromised by the Service Complaints Commissioner, and indeed by the courts which are interfering with the Chain of Command. I rather agree with the general sentiment in this Committee that it is an inevitability and it might be an advantage to have an Armed Forces federation speaking more confidentially and more closely to the Ministry of Defence than a variety of organisations that claim to represent the Armed Forces from outside the Armed Forces at the moment. I have not heard a killer punch against the idea.

  Derek Twigg: Obviously I have failed in my task then, Mr Jenkin. I can only repeat what I have said. I do think with the range of views and getting the opinions of our Service personnel it means there are lots of opportunities for ministers to do that down the line. There are the Continuous Attitude Surveys, the various surveys we do, the various forums that exist, etc, so I do not necessarily agree with that. On the other hand, I have not seen a really strong argument that outweighs that, to be quite frank. In terms of the Chain of Command, I do not accept that. We had a discussion about this on a statutory instrument last year with regard to the changes that are being proposed in terms of the Service Complaints Commissioner if he was there. I think the Service Complaints Commissioner is complementary. I think the processes are robust and people have the opportunity to take their complaints up the line.

  Q411  Chairman: I do not think you have been trying to punch this to death, Minister. I think you have been trying to smother it.

  Derek Twigg: It is not my intention.

  Vice Admiral Wilkinson: I hesitate to say it would be anything like a killer punch, but can I just point out the low level work of my own committee, the Services Personnel Board, that I chair and on which the three principal personnel officers, one from each of the Services, sit. I am left in no doubt as to the strength of feeling that they are representing on behalf of their own Service on a whole range of personnel issues. This work goes on largely unsung but I think it is yet another mechanism by which Service people are making their feelings known. I freely admit this is coming up through the Chain of Command but there is a strong vein through here that means that in the Ministry of Defence we are getting to hear what really does bother our people and that is why we then take action to make lives better for them.

  Q412  Mr Jones: SSAFA and the Families Federations told us that welfare support is based around the needs of the Command structure rather than the needs of an individual and the individual's family. They said it needs to be more cohesive, the welfare package, and I think the Ministry have already touched on some of the things you are trying to do. Would you agree with that and what could be done to improve that?

  Derek Twigg: Clearly the Command has an absolute duty to ensure that welfare support is provided for the Service personnel; it is important that the structure is in place, and if it has meant that it is too much around what they specifically want and not enough around what families want I am not sure I go along with that. I think SAFFA themselves have been very much involved in welfare. The Families Federations are very much involved in welfare, ranging from the padre to the HIVE information centre. There is a whole range of welfare support on bases and out in operations. As to whether that can be improved, I accept it probably can, and I think that is the point I made to you earlier on, that we recognise this. In fact, we are having another welfare conference in July to follow up from the previous welfare conference on what more improvements could be made. Yes, there clearly is room for more improvement but whether it is in some way stymied because it is based on the Command structure, I would not necessarily accept that.

  Q413  Mr Jenkin: Why is ethnic minority recruiting so important?

  Derek Twigg: It is very important that we have Armed Forces which reflect society as a whole. I think that is why we have put so much effort into it, to try and raise the number of ethnic minority recruits.

  Q414  Mr Jenkin: And you are missing out on a great deal of potential talent.

  Derek Twigg: We have a full range of talented people that we would like to see from communities recruited into the Armed Forces and ethnic minorities are clearly one of a number of people that we want to do that and see more people involved in the Armed Forces and recruited, and that is why we have put so much attention and effort and resource into it. Of course, we have seen that our ethnic minority recruits have done tremendous things in the Armed Forces and we hope to continue to improve the level of recruitment that we have. It is a very difficult task, as you know, from the information we have given you, but it is not through want of trying and that comes from ministers down to the Chain of Command and the Chiefs of Staff.

  Q415  Mr Jenkin: So what is the principal reason we keep missing our targets?

  Derek Twigg: That is a very difficult question to answer. There is not one reason. We engage at all levels, whether it is from the Chief of the Defence Staff or leaders of the Muslim community to our recruiting officers to the special community events to engage with specific parts of the ethnic minority community. I do not think we know the full reason why we cannot improve on that further.

  Q416  Mr Jenkin: Are they all realistic?

  Vice Admiral Wilkinson: They are aspirational. I fully support the Minister's view that we need to reflect the society we represent if we possibly can. We are carrying out a research project at the moment to try to understand better the reasons why people from the ethnic minorities do not wish to join the Services. We have made considerable ground over the last few years in understanding the importance of speaking to the gatekeepers within the communities, those individuals of standing, parents and in many cases grandparents, but there are huge difficulties sometimes in reaching particular areas of our society. The Chinese community in this country is well established and has been for a number of years but our attempts to recruit from that have been extremely difficult.

  Q417  Mr Jenkin: And the Hindu community, for example?

  Vice Admiral Wilkinson: Again, we are trying extremely hard, sir. It is not for want of trying that we have not achieved success thus far.

  Q418  Mr Jenkin: So are we ever going to meet these targets?

  Derek Twigg: I cannot guarantee that we will meet the targets but we want to and we are working very hard to do that and we believe we can, but a lot of work is needed. This is not going to be something in the short term. We have to build upon the work we have already done, and perhaps you will understand, as Admiral Wilkinson has said, in terms of the reasons why people do not want to join the Armed Forces. I do not think it is a case of never meeting the targets. It is about not giving up on that and I think it is right that we do not give up and it is right that we have a target that you may argue is an aspiration at the moment but is actually a target we think better reflects the ethnic minority community and how they should be represented in the Armed Forces.

  Q419  Mr Jenkin: And reflects the values that the Armed Forces are trying to present to the public.

  Derek Twigg: And the values we all know.

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