Select Committee on Defence Second Report



131. The Armed Forces' personnel policy, as defined in the Overarching Personnel Strategy, aims 'to provide an environment in which service men and women and their families will be willing to maintain their commitment'.[238] The demands which the Services make on families are clearly of a different nature from those made by civilian employers, and this is recognised in the AFOPS families' policy which sets out—

    ... to manage, with care, the dependent families of Service personnel and to take their needs into account in the formulation of Service personnel policy, so that they are not disadvantaged in comparison with their civilian counterparts and, subject to the operational requirements of each single Service, the demands on them are not unreasonable.[239]

Family welfare

132. One of the obvious differences for Service families compared with civilian families is the periods of time the service person spends away from home. We have commented above on the increased level of commitment and amount of time spent away from home which members of the Armed Forces now face and the retention issue that this presents. From the family's viewpoint, the benefits of Service life and the support they are offered must be sufficient to compensate for their parent or partner being away from home or there will inevitably be pressure on the service man or woman to leave the Services.

133. However, the problems confronting the three Services are not all the same. The Navy's families are generally static and settled—often in locations amongst civilian communities. This is balanced, however, by substantially higher levels of separation. A more informal, and civilian-modelled, approach to family welfare may well be appropriate for the Navy—it would be less so for the other two Services. On our visit to RAF Cranwell, we heard positive ideas about ameliorating some of the more negative effects of frequent postings—not least by officers in charger of those matters showing more readiness to listen to individuals' preferences, and the service as a whole recognising that compensatory postings should be subsequently provided for those who undertake undesirable postings. A desire for officers in charge of postings to have a longer-term responsibility for individuals was also expressed. Here again is an example of where the overarching approach to personnel strategy must be approached with due scepticism. 'Tolerable variation' should, in this area, be interpreted widely.

134. Although the solutions often need to be different, there are undoubtedly common problems. We took evidence from the associations representing families of personnel in all three Services. The Army Families Federation's view was that—

Airwaves, the association representing RAF families, welcomed the efforts the RAF is making 'to improve both its understanding of the needs of families and the methods by which it can communicate with them' but like the Army association, was concerned about the strains created for families by lack of support— is not that you do not expect your spouse to go away because you do, very often that is why they joined, but it is what happens to you when they are gone. The support is not always there or can be patchy, and it is not just affecting the families whose spouse has gone. Because there are fewer people there to do the jobs back on station, it affects everyone on the station, so everyone is over-stretched, everyone is subject to extra pressures ...[241]

According to the Association of Royal Navy and Royal Marine Families, many naval families feel 'undervalued and invisible' and that the effects of the heavier commitment of Navy personnel on families is not acknowledged or addressed. They warn that 'if the morale of the serving person and their family is further eroded then today's serving person will quickly seek alternative employment'.[242]

135. All three Services have welfare systems in place. The families' organisations told us that their members had mixed experiences of the level of assistance they provide. A continuing concern was the level of confidentiality. On the Army Welfare Service, the Chair of the AFF told us—

    Because they are all connected to the chain of command there is certainly a perception that any trouble that is taken to them is then transferred to the chain of command. There is still a very genuine and widespread fear that any welfare problems will affect the promotion of the husband's career. The military likes to think that has been resolved but I am afraid to say it has not ...[243]

The AFF accepted that welfare issues sometimes had implications for operational effectiveness and that there were valid reasons for the Army keeping welfare support within the chain of command.[244] However, the situation should be kept under review. The RAF's Welfare Service is run by SSAFA Forces Help and the Navy Personal and Family Service is a mixture of civilian professionals and military personnel. The families' organisations regarded the service provided as of variable quality.[245] However, there is also evidence from our discussions with individual servicemen and women that they had often found the interventions of these organisations very helpful.

136. One of the main disadvantages of being married to a member of the Services is the adverse effect it has on a spouse's career, and this is highlighted in the Continuous Attitude Surveys as an area of dissatisfaction. The families' organisations raise the additional problem of the inability of spouses to pursue training courses because of the likelihood of having to move before the course is completed. This is less of a problem for Navy spouses than for the other two services. Resources should be applied accordingly—another area requiring a liberal interpretation of the 'tolerable variation' allowed under AFOPS. One way of addressing the problem would be to give spouses access to education facilities on bases. Airwaves say that 'spouses are increasingly looking for some kind of personal development to balance what is often seen as the stagnation of their career'.[246] The Second Sea Lord said that he was looking specifically at the possibility of the Navy's 18 learning centres being made available to spouses.[247] Families have access to the Army's Learning Centres which opened on the bases at Tidworth, Aldershot, Chelsea and Wattisham in December. These provide online access to a wide range of learning opportunities, including the Open University and the University for Industry's Learn Direct system. The Army hope to extend this access to all personnel and their families within five years, using cyber cafes in community centres and HIVEs (Help Information Volunteer Exchange), as well as learning centres.[248] We recommend that the provision of 'cyber cafés' and distance learning centres for families in every significant Service community should be adopted as a definite target.

Service Families Accommodation (SFA)

137. The Armed Forces' Pay Review Body found in its review for 2000 that—

Poor standards apply both to accommodation provided for single Service personnel and to Service Families Accommodation (SFA), formerly known as 'Married Quarters'. Theses are administered separately and we have discussed Single Living Accommodation (SLA) above [paras ....]. The view of the Army Families Federation is that 'accommodation represents the biggest single impact on the quality of a soldier's domestic life' and the RAF association asserted that 'accommodation continues to be an area of huge discontent'.[250]

138. Service Families Accommodation has been the responsibility of the Defence Housing Executive since it was formed in 1995. It became an Agency of the MoD on 1 April 1999. The aim of the Executive is 'to provide a high quality and efficient housing service to entitled and eligible personnel, in accordance with strategic requirements and the Tri-Service Accommodation Regulations'. The DHE acknowledges that its function is a key element in delivering the Policy for People and the Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy (AFOPS), and that the provision of suitable living accommodation plays 'a key role in retaining and sustaining Service personnel and their families, so that operational commitments may be met without undue worry about how families are accommodated'.[251] A study undertaken in 1991 by the Army Personnel Research Establishment indicated that Army personnel were significantly less likely to take early severance if they stayed in service accommodation up to the age of 35 or so. We recommend that this study be re-run, and take in the RAF. The SFA is a much greater issue for Army and RAF families than for the Navy: about 67 per cent of Army families live in SFA whereas 80 per cent of naval families live in their own homes.[252]

139. The bulk of the married quarters estate in England and Wales was sold to a private company, Annington Homes,[253] in November 1996 for £1.662 billion. The Defence Committee in the last Parliament reported (unfavourably) on the proposals for the sale.[254] Homes retained for use by Service families are leased back to the MoD by Annington Homes. The allocation, maintenance and upgrading of the SFA remains the responsibility of the DHE. In March 2000, the total stock of SFA managed by the DHE was 61,500 properties, including about 9,000 homes, mainly in Scotland, which were not part of the sale. The Agency handles about 22,000 changes of occupancy a year.

140. One of the targets for the DHE is to upgrade properties to Grade 1 condition which includes such attributes as double-glazing, energy efficiency and modern kitchens and bathrooms. The initial target date for achieving upgrade of the estate was November 2003 with a budget of £470 million. This sum included £100 million which the MoD was permitted to retain from the proceeds of the sale to Annington Homes: the remainder went to the Treasury. The budget and the target for achieving the upgrade have proved unrealistic: at the beginning of 2000, a revised target date of 2005 was announced, with a budget of £582 million.[255] We welcome the increased funding, if not the delayed target dates. The MoD now tells us that total expenditure needed for the upgrade programme is estimated at £650 million with a target completion date of financial year 2005/06 and the DHE's own view is that the upgrade 'should be substantially completed by November 2005'.[256] By March 2000, £210 million had been spent on upgrading properties. The DHE Corporate Plan 2000 reports that the DHE had to 'take some financial cuts in-year' on the upgrade programme which led to delaying the start of some planned major upgrades. However upgrades on 2,393 properties were completed against a target of 1,766. The target number for upgraded properties in financial year 2000/01 is 1,600.[257] At present, 19 per cent of the housing stock is at Grade 1 level; 40 per cent is at Grade 2 level and requires 'only relatively minor work' to upgrade it to Grade 1. 39 per cent of the stock is at Grade 3 and efforts are being concentrated on upgrading these homes.[258]

141. The AFPRB Report for 2000 said that—

    We are dismayed that a promised and much needed major programme of improvement to family accommodation has been extended by two years ... we have been appalled by the standard of some of the accommodation we have seen.[259]

Accommodation, and the subsidised rents offered to Service personnel, arguably offer a much better 'bang per buck' ratio for the defence budget, in terms of retention, than some other forms of pay and allowance (and they attract no tax penalty). There may be a case for considering rebalancing the pay package for the two more mobile services by increasing the sums devoted to subsidising rents (possibly by borrowing from the so-called 'X factor', now standing at 13% across the three Services). This, combined with an improved standard of accommodation, could potentially have a powerful beneficial effect on retention. Here again, we detect an area where there is a possible case for more delegation of personnel policy to meet the specific needs of particular services, rather than more centralisation.

142. The families' organisations felt that, although the DHE was making progress in improving accommodation, because they were focusing on the worst first, a few people were benefiting a great deal but the effects were not yet sufficiently widespread for Service families in general to perceive real change.[260] Some of us were able to see examples of the best and the worst accommodation which the DHE can offer during our visit to Tidworth and Bulford Barracks. Houses in the lowest grade are gradually being demolished but some Service families are still expected to live in these dreadful conditions until better accommodation becomes available. The Minister for the Armed Forces acknowledges that 'some people are living in unacceptable conditions'.[261]

143. In complete contrast, we were very impressed by the DHE's newly built houses which we saw at Perham Down. They are more than equal to good privately-owned modern housing and have been designed with thought given to the special requirements of Service families, such as additional storage areas built in above garages. The Army Families Federation told us that 'the difference in morale for Army families when they are allocated upgraded quarters or a newly built house is astonishing'[262]

144. A high standard of accommodation should be available to all Service families who want it. Achieving the upgrade of the estate in a reasonable time span is essential. This is one area where more money would have immediate and beneficial effects for Service personnel and their families and , in consequence, massive potential benefits for the Services in terms of morale and retention. The Treasury took a huge amount of money from the sale of the married quarters estate in 1996— nearly £1.7 billion. It let the MoD keep only £100 million, a sum clearly inadequate for the promised upgrading of the married quarters. We recommend that more of the proceeds of the sale should go back to the Services in the form of an immediate, ring-fenced increase in the funds made available to the Defence Housing Executive specifically for the upgrade of Service Families Accommodation. At the same time, we recommend that the MoD tailor its policies on Service Family Accommodation to meet the specific needs of each Service.

Service Families Task Force

145. The Service Families Task Force was set up under the SDR with a remit 'to address the issues caused by the mobility of Service families that are outside the direct control of the MoD'.[263] We welcome the MoD's initiative in establishing the Families Task Force. The key areas where Service families encounter difficulties are health, education, and benefit payments. A spouse or child who has spent time on an NHS waiting list in their previous location finds themselves at the bottom of the new health authority's waiting list when they are posted to a new location. Service families also have difficulty in finding NHS dentists, who are in short supply nationally, and who may be unwilling to take on additional patients in areas where they do practise. Service children are disadvantaged when the family moves to a new area because obtaining a place at the most desirable schools is often dependent on meeting residential criteria and joining waiting lists well in advance. One officer told us that he had spent 18 months in advance of a posting liaising with schools and education authorities in an effort to secure a place for his child at their preferred school. Frequent moves can also create administrative difficulties in securing benefits to which Service families have the same entitlement as others, such as student loans, jobseekers' allowance and child benefit.

146. The Task Force is composed of: a ministerial group, chaired by the Minister for the Armed Forces and attended by ministers from other relevant government departments; the families forum, also chaired by MinAF and comprising the chairs of the three Service families organisations, DCDS (Personnel) and single Service representatives; and a working group which looks at issues directed to it by the ministerial group. The Task Force recognised the key difficulties facing Service families in identifying its initial priority areas:

    —   schools admission policy
    —   eligibility for student loans
    —   access to NHS dentists
    —   NHS waiting lists
    —   eligibility for Jobseekers' Allowance
    —   child-minding registration

The MoD reports that progress has been made in most of these areas, although NHS waiting lists in particular remain a problem.[264]

147. The Service family associations were less convinced. The Army Families' Federation's view is that—

    Where it is known, the Service Families Task Force is seen as a good and positive initiative and those who know of its successes applaud them—but it is not universally known.[265]

The Chair of the Federation believed that many of the easy issues had been quickly resolved because it was often a matter of bringing a problem to the attention of the relevant department (an example of this was student grants); the Task Force was now moving on to deal with more complex issues and there was a concern that the MoD might feel these had been resolved when they had not been.[266] For example, on schools admission policy, local authorities have been advised to be sensitive to the needs of Service children 'but this is not yet bringing large-scale resolution of the admissions problem'. Guidelines have been issued on schools admission policy but these have no 'teeth' and Service personnel are still finding it difficult to get their children into suitable schools when they are posted to a new area.[267] Airwaves (the RAF family association) commented that—

    The success of ... the SFTF will be judged by families not on the efforts made, but on the results ...

Considerable efforts have been made but to date the benefits experienced by families were 'minimal' in health and education.[268] We expect to see a more active engagement by the DfEE and the Department of Health in the issues affecting Service family welfare, and we recommend that our successor committee take evidence from Ministers in those Departments on their achievement of these goals.

148. Health care and education have the same priority for Service families as for the rest of the population. Service personnel have a right to expect the at least the same standard of health care provision for their families and of choice and quality of education for their children as all other citizens of the United Kingdom. If they feel that the fact that they are in the Armed Forces means that their families are getting poorer provision in these important areas they will question whether they should remain in the Services. We believe that the MoD have recognised this situation in setting up the Service Families Task Forces and we agree with SSAFA that the Task Force is important because it gives issues which affect Service families 'visibility at the top level'.[269] However, recognising that a problem exists is not the same as resolving it. There is no room for complacency and the MoD should not be content that discussing an issue at departmental level somehow instantly translates into solving it. Health and education rely on local implementation; benefits policy is carried through by agencies. More work needs to be done by the Task Force in ensuring that the valuable attention it is giving to factors affecting Service families' lives which lie within the remit of other government departments is being translated into practical and actual improvements. To be frank, the answers we received from the MoD on how successful they were in surmounting these problems were vague. We recommend the rapid development of key indicators of the quality of education and health provision for Service families, the rapid development of targets for improvement, and the public measurement of progress in reaching these. The government has been setting national standards for health and education for the population as a whole. These should represent a minimum for Service families.

149. While government policy has been substantially to increase health and education expenditure in the UK, the provision of such service to families accompanying Service personnel on overseas postings has had to be accommodated within a broadly static defence budget. Against a background of increased government spending on health, education, and social services in the UK, there is a risk that provision of such services to families in overseas garrisons, which fall on the defence budget, will be relatively disadvantaged. We recommend that the MoD at least match funding increases for such services, and seek commensurate Treasury uplift of the defence vote.

Unmarried partners

150. An issue which was highlighted to us on a number of occasions during our inquiry as being of considerable concern to Service personnel is that of couples who chose to live together without marrying. The Armed Forces do not recognise unmarried partners of Service personnel as being entitled to Service Families Accommodation. Problems also arise in relation to financial provision, particularly pensions and death benefits, and in the more general area of the support network which the Services offer to married partners and children.

151. This is not just a moral question; it is a real retention issue. It represents a divergence between the Services and wider society which it may no longer be possible to justify. It may deter young people from joining the Services; and perhaps more importantly, it may encourage someone to leave the Services if he or she finds a partner with whom they wish to live but for whom there is no recognition or provision from the Services. It has been estimated that 12% of service personnel now have long-term unmarried partners. The figure for the relevant age group in wider societies is estimated to be 19%. The Second Sea Lord told us—

The situation for Navy personnel is somewhat different from the other two Services. Naval service is unaccompanied. Families have much more stability and naval personnel have access to financial assistance (in the form of the Long Service Advance of Pay (LSAP) scheme, an interest-free loan in effect,) with buying their own homes at age 23, compared with age 35 in the Army and the RAF.[271] They are less dependent on the Services providing their family with accommodation, and living in an unmarried partnership might therefore be seen as presenting fewer practical problems.[272] The Chair of the Association for Royal Navy and Royal Marine Families was firmly of the view that unmarried partners should be recognised and that the Navy was willing to go down that road.[273] The Association states that—

    The reluctance to move on this issue is seen to be a huge negative on behalf of the Government and the Services in establishing itself and the Armed Forces in the 21st century and contemporary society.[274]

The Army and RAF family associations told us they are in the process of conducting surveys of their members' views about unmarried partners. They believed that any opposition to equal recognition would come only from a minority of married partners but that there were significant practical problems to overcome, and that the differences in Army and RAF lifestyle compared with the Navy were important here.[275]

152. Rules have recently been adjusted in the Metropolitan Police and the FCO on these matters. Both the Australian and Canadian Armed Forces recognise unmarried partnerships. The MoD accepts that —

    ... cohabiting unions are now relatively more frequent ... it is timely for MOD to consider its policy in the light of these social trends and the approaches of other employers at home and abroad.[276]

Some of the issues which need to be taken into account in coming to a view on unmarried partners are: need and fairness between unmarried and married personnel; criteria for defining a partnership; and financial implications. It is important that these issues are properly addressed. We have highlighted above the pressures on Service Family Accommodation and, as the Army Families' Federation pointed out, it would be invidious for young Service personnel to be offered family accommodation on the basis of a very short relationship, just because they want to move out of barracks.[277] There must be clear and consistent criteria in any system for recognising unmarried partners to which the Services may move. Before any change is made, the cost implications will have t be clearly evaluated—they are again likely to be much greater for the Army and Air Force than for the Navy. This is, nevertheless, an issue which will remain important to Service personnel; and adults in adult relationships must be treated with respect. Change in this area appears to be inevitable, sooner or later, indeed there have been recent press reports that this is the MoD's intention in the near future.[278] We expect a comprehensive statement of policy on unmarried partners in response to this Report and encourage our successor committee to give consideration to this important matter of principle at an early stage.

238  AFOPS, p 16 Back

239  AFOPS, p 53 Back

240  Q 531 Back

241  Q 531; Ev p 167, para 10 Back

242  Ev pp 165-166 Back

243  Q 492 Back

244  Q 500 Back

245  QQ 499-503 Back

246  Ev p 167, para 7 Back

247  Q 293 Back

248  Families Journal, AFF, Autumn 2000, p 4 Back

249  Ev p 234 Back

250  Ev pp 160, 167 Back

251  Defence Housing Executive Corporate Plan 2000, p I Back

252  QQ 321, 473 Back

253  Owned by Nomura, a Japanese company Back

254  Sixth Report, Session 1995-96, Future of the Married Quarters Estate, HC 424 Back

255  HC Deb, 17 January 2000, c284w Back

256  Ev p 47 para 31.1; DHE Corporate Plan 2000, p 12 Back

257  DHE Corporate Plan 2000, pp 1 and 22 Back

258  Ev p 47, para 31.1 Back

259  Armed Forces' Pay Review Body 2000, op cit, para 9 (of Summary and Recommendations) and para 123 Back

260  Q 524 Back

261  Q 741 Back

262  Ev p 181 Back

263  Ev p 47, para 33.1 Back

264  Ev p 48, para 33.3 and QQ 786-792; see also HC Deb, 2 November 2000, cc 871-2 Back

265  Ev p 162 Back

266  Q 519 Back

267  Q 520; Ev p 162 Back

268  Ev p 167, para 13; Q 522 Back

269  Q 557 Back

270  Q 147 Back

271  The current LSAP permits up to £8,500 to be borrowed, interest free, recoverable over a 10-year period at a rate of 10 per cent a year, starting two years after the initial advance. See Soldier magazine, January 2001 Back

272  QQ 504, 517 Back

273  Q 506 Back

274  Ev p 163 Back

275  QQ 511, 513-518 Back

276  Ev p 258 Back

277  Q 518 Back

278  See Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2001 Back

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