Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)


2 MAY 2006

  Q240  Linda Gilroy: Would you therefore be able to provide the necessary funds for the Service to have its own independent website?

  Brigadier Brister: This is for CEAS?

  Q241 Linda Gilroy: Yes.

  Brigadier Brister: As you know, CEAS has a website at the moment which is hidden away deep in the bowels of other websites. At the moment we are working on CEAS's own website. I am hopeful that it will go live before the end of this month. We have been working on it for some considerable time and I very much hope—I cannot promise because you know the difficulties with websites—to have it go live before the end of this month.

  Q242  Linda Gilroy: I think one of the things that came out of the evidence was the lack of certainty in some quarters as to where to access that information. Is there a strategy including that to try to improve upon that? You have offered to send us various packs that are available, it would be quite useful for us to be able to see what is available in general. Perhaps you could let us have a comprehensive set of what is available.

  Brigadier Brister: Indeed.

  Mr Touhig: I think there is a whole range of things that we do provide for the MoD that the public are not conscious about. As an aside, the Veterans Agency does a fantastic job in terms of giving advice to veterans but if I walk down Blackwood High Street in my constituency no-one would have heard of the Veterans Agency. We are taking steps to raise the profile. I am very conscious that so many more people are now accessing information through websites that we do have to address this as an important arm in our communications strategy.

  Brigadier Brister: In terms of CEAS and the awareness of what it has to offer within the Services, certainly we are acutely conscious that there are still some people who are not aware of what is on offer and we will address that. Could I just go back to one question you posed before which we never quite answered. You made the point of hearing anecdotally that some Service families are reluctant to seek help. I am confident that reluctance does not include seeking help from CEAS. I am confident that people are very happy to seek help from CEAS. I think from the evidence in Colchester it came through quite strongly that parents were happy to seek assistance from CEAS and were pleased with the assistance that they got. Anecdotally people are suggesting that sometimes they are loath to seek advice from elsewhere but CEAS, I think you will find, is perceived throughout the Services as friendly forces.

  Q243  Linda Gilroy: If I can just make an observation and pass it back to you. While that may be comparatively true there is always an issue in Service families about putting difficult situations forward because people, perhaps with particular personalities and characters, do not want it to be seen that their family cannot manage. There is that sort of ethos there. While I hear what you say I hope it would not lead to too great a degree of, complacency is not the right word but—

  Mr Touhig: We do emphasise with Service personnel as far as career promotion decisions are concerned that any issues about problems of special needs is not taken into account at all. I have picked up some anecdotal comments that it is but that is the advice we are giving to our Service personnel.

  Brigadier Brister: The important thing about CEAS is that it is completely outside people's chain of command. It is not part of their daily life, it is right outside their chain of command. Of course we must not be complacent, I take that point.

  Mr Wadsworth: Sometimes we find overseas youngsters arrive who have not gone through the CEAS system but that is more often than not where there has been a very late marriage prior to the posting and, therefore, probably even the unit welfare officer is not aware of the special needs. It does not happen too often but it does happen occasionally. Earlier on there was a comment that there is a perception that Army families probably have a higher proportion of youngsters with special needs than the norm. I can understand where the anecdotes and supposition might come from, but if you look at my organisation we have got just short of 12,000 children and young people virtually all from a Service background. I know authorities have different approaches to statementing and I think in the UK the average statement is somewhere between 3% cent of the school population and 1%, depending on the authority, but as of whenever I left the office last, we had 74 statements, which I have just worked out is 0.7% which does not bear out the more severe end of the special needs.

  Q244  Mr Holloway: I want to back up what Mrs Gilroy said. Again, it is anecdotal but I was having tea with an Army family on Saturday afternoon who were echoing precisely the points that she has made.

  Brigadier Brister: In terms of coming forward?

  Q245  Mr Holloway: In terms of having an issue over the husband's status within the Army and the difficulty interacting with them because of that.

  Brigadier Brister: One of the telling points that was made in Colchester was one of the Service wives who when asked about the amount of assistance she had received said she felt she had not received as much as she would have liked but some moments before had been saying how much she had appreciated the help she had from CEAS. When questioned by the Chairman she said, "Oh, I don't count them as part of the Army". There is quite a danger here in terms of perception. Because CEAS is all civilians and do not behave in a military way, if you like, are a civilian organisation making it very clear they are there to help people, very often parents do not regard them as part of the Army but they are part of what the Services provide for Service families.

  Chairman: While the Forces and Services culture makes it difficult to complain I will confirm what you have said, that CEAS got a good write-up when we were in Colchester last week and I think you deserve credit for that. Can we now move on to turbulence in general and the effect of it on families.

  Q246  Mr Jones: Thank you, Chairman. The Army Families Federation told us that 40% of Army families were moved in one year and that compares with about 11% of the civil population. We also received concerns that the increase in tempo and demands on Armed Forces has led to more unaccompanied postings. Are you concerned in terms of the rise of unaccompanied postings and the implications in terms of operational effectiveness, ie not having your families with you?

  Brigadier Brister: You must understand that my area of responsibility is very much educational. Certainly the Army still encourages accompanied service but each individual family has to make choices based on their family circumstances. These are influenced by the pace of operations and by schooling. Schooling is a big influence. Ultimately, every Service family has to decide, unless they are very lucky in terms of stability, either that their child has a relatively disrupted education in terms of constantly moving, and the Services do what we can to help with that, or that the Service person will serve unaccompanied so the family can settle and send their children to local schools, or they will board their children. None of these three is a perfect solution but it is, though, a fact of our way of life. Many of us joined because we wanted the variety of moving but, of course, there is this disadvantage. There is no perfect solution, all that we can do is try to support Service families as much as we can with whichever choice they make.

  Q247  Mr Jones: Will the end of the arms plot help the situation?

  Brigadier Brister: The advent of super garrisons in due course should reduce the amount of turbulence but it will not end it.

  Mr Touhig: I think it is recognised that many Service families are content with this mobile lifestyle but we have to recognise that others are not even though they have joined a Service where mobility is key and important. I do not think there is evidence to suggest in the way Mr Jones has done that our commitments are having the kinds of impacts implied by his question, nevertheless if there is any suggestion of that we cannot be complacent about it and we have to judge that and how we respond to it in the interests of having to care for our people and their families in particular.

  Q248  Mr Jones: Has any information been collected in terms of whether it is a reason for people leaving the Armed Forces in terms of not being able to get that stability which certain families obviously seek?

  Mr Touhig: We have our Continuous Attitude Surveys, which I am sure you are aware of. I am not aware that has been a significant factor although we are looking at trying to get a Tri-Service survey which will make more sense in getting the information we need. This is constantly monitored because recruitment and retention is very important and if there are issues surrounding that then we have to know what those issues are in order to address them. I made the point that when I came into Parliament 11 years ago that every door I knocked on in my by-election was answered but in last year's General Election hardly any doors were answered because in my area we have full employment. The days when people joined the Forces because there was no other work have gone and we have to compete. The recruitment and retention is very important and if there are issues that impact upon that then we need to address them.

  Q249  Mr Holloway: Forgive me for being anecdotal but can you clarify this whole question of boarding schools and the allowances paid. Am I right in thinking that relative to the average cost of independent schools the allowance has effectively gone down over the last decade, for argument's sake? If that is the case, how helpful is that to retention and stability for families and children?

  Brigadier Brister: I cannot speak on whether in relative terms and how school fees have changed it is worth less than it was, I am afraid, I do not know. However, what I can tell you is it is still a relatively popular option, there are still a significant number of schools to which Service people choose to send their children where you can pay reasonable amounts in addition to your Continuity of Education Allowance. As you will know, you are required to pay a minimum of 10% but clearly in many instances you have to pay a lot more than 10% because if you choose to go to a school that costs more CEA—Continuity of Education Allowance—is a specific rate.

  Q250  Mr Holloway: That is my point. Has that specific rate gone down or stayed static to the extent that it makes that disparity greater than it was 10 or 15 years ago?

  Brigadier Brister: I do not know in terms of 10 or 15 years ago, I am afraid. It is about 70% of the average cost of a boarding school, but there are some schools where if you use your Continuity of Education Allowance and go to that school you can pay in the order of £1,800 a year out of your own pocket, £600 a term.

  Mr Touhig: We review this annually. It has got £130 million spent at the moment. We do look at the average cost of fees of boarding schools across the UK with more than 30 Service children taking 75% of the average. There is an annual review of this and we think that helps.

  Chairman: I think it would be best to come back to the issue of boarding schools because there are a number of different questions that we will need to cover in relation to it. Next we will move to questions in relation to deployments.

  Q251  Mr Lancaster: It is widely accepted that probably the most turbulent time for the family is when one or other of the partners are deployed on operational service. One of the key things we can do to try to minimise this turbulence for the family is to give facilities so that the families can keep in touch with the mobilised personnel. Could you start by saying what things are available to Servicemen and their families to keep in touch when they are on operational service?

  Mr Touhig: I am aware of the evidence you took from the youngsters particularly at Colchester where they suggested free email and broadband on the same time zone in the area where their parents had been deployed or were on training. I think that merits consideration. We do a great deal at the present time in order to facilitate communications. Obviously in difficult areas, say in the deployment in Afghanistan at the present time, that will take time to build up in terms of internet link and so on. We are conscious that this is an area where we have to give as much help and support as we can.

  Q252  Mr Lancaster: I accept that, but my question was what is available now, for example, in Afghanistan?

  Brigadier Brister: I think the point you are getting at is referring to the parents in Colchester who were having difficulty contacting largely fathers in Afghanistan. As I understand it, there is limited access at the moment. I would imagine as the operation becomes more mature then those who are deployed in Afghanistan will have greater access to email but at the moment, as became very clear, it is limited in Afghanistan.

  Q253  Mr Lancaster: Perhaps I can try and help you with this. Judging from my own experience, having been mobilised twice, certainly it does depend on how mature the operation is. When I was in Bosnia in a mature operation I found it quite easy to get access to email and, indeed, there were not queues for telephones. However, when I was in Kosovo at the start of the operation we used to have queues of probably three or four hours to get on a telephone for just 10 minutes to talk to our families. One of the results of that was that by the time you did get to the front of the queue you were not in the best frame of mind and for those 10 minutes per week—I am not sure if it is still 10 minutes, maybe it is longer—it was not a great conversation you were having with your family because you did not start that conversation in the best frame of mind. What I am trying to get at is at the moment, here today, are there problems and what are you doing to try to resolve those problems?

  Mr Touhig: We do have a welfare package which includes a communications element and this covers, as I am sure you know from your deployment, 20 minutes a week in terms of the telephone. We are seeking internet and email communications but you will appreciate in an early stage of an operation it will take time for these things to mature. Clearly from the evidence you have already taken this does cause concern to families when their loved ones are on deployment. We recognise it is an issue but it is something that has to mature and develop, it seems to me.

  Q254  Chairman: Minister, when you say it takes time to mature, the knowledge of the deployment to Afghanistan had been in place for a long time. Should not communication with the families of those deployed be one of the most urgent things that is set in place from the beginning of the deployment?

  Mr Touhig: I think it is a factor that we have to consider. From experience, and from Mr Lancaster's experience, it does not happen very rapidly sometimes. Clearly if there is an issue that families feel there is more we ought to be doing we will have to look at that. I believe the progressive build-up we naturally have at the present time is effective but I recognise it is not there from day one if you are on deployment.

  Q255  Mr Lancaster: Ms Cassidy, are you responsible for the terms of service of our soldiers in your role as secretary? What I am trying to get at here, and perhaps you are the right person to ask, I am not sure, and if you are not then tell me, is what level of service have we basically given to our soldiers who are on operational deployment? What do we say that they can have in terms of welfare to contact their families?

  Ms Cassidy: I am not really the right person, I am afraid. I am dealing more with civilians in general.

  Q256  Mr Lancaster: Or the other way round then.

  Ms Cassidy: I do not think I can answer that, I am afraid.

  Mr Touhig: As I have explained, the welfare package does have a communications element in it, which I am sure you are familiar with.

  Q257  Mr Holloway: Minister, I am aware from two weeks ago in Helmand Province of some of our troops using locally purchased Afghan mobile telephones to contact their families.

  Mr Touhig: Yes.

  Q258  Mr Holloway: I guess the package certainly is not there yet.

  Mr Touhig: As I say, these things do in truth take time to mature. I recognise that this is an important issue that affects morale, good wellbeing and reassurance to families at the same time. If there is more we can do then we should do, but at the moment my understanding is these mature over not a long period but they are not there immediately upon deployment and it takes a little time when we do deploy in a particular field for this to get up and running.

  Q259  Mr Holloway: When do you expect that we will have the same level of service in Afghanistan that we have in Iraq at the moment? The welfare package, for example?

  Mr Touhig: I could not answer that without having some reflection.

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