Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from the Army Families Federation


  This survey was conducted between 6 and 14 March 2008 to establish to the current mood of families with regard to soldiers' decisions to stay in or leave the Army. During this period all AFF staff and volunteers in the UK, Germany, Cyprus and Northern Ireland asked families the questions below. The questions were also sent to members of AFF's Facebook group. A total of 468 responses were received. The results therefore provide a representative sample of the views of spouses, ie the married community. However, there is no representation from the significant unmarried section of the community (girlfriends and boyfriends), nor from parents, who would also have an influence over a soldier's career decisions.

1.   How long have you been an Army spouse?

  This question was asked to determine whether there was an association between the length of time someone had been married and their attitudes towards Army life. Responses ranged from 25 years through to one year, with an average of four years.

  Analysis of the relationship between number of years as an Army spouse and attitudes towards Army life (all respondents):
Years as Army Spouse BetterWorse As expected
1-531% 42%27%
6-1029% 35%35%
11-1533% 20% 47%
16-2539% 14%46%

  Length of marriage counts for how you feel—you don't necessarily get used to it.

  AFF believes that the higher rate of dissatisfaction within those spouses who have been married between one to 10 years is down to three main factors: the first is that those married for the shortest length of time have joined the Services when they are at an unprecedented level of operational commitments. Secondly, we believe that the higher rate reflects an alteration in the expectations of Army spouses and changes in Army culture. Spouses have come to expect more for themselves and their families, a career, a nice home, stability while changes in Army culture (PAYD, erosion of patch life, poor quality SFA) have compounded to increase dissatisfaction.

2.   Is Army life better or worse than you expected?

  Of all respondents 50% of spouses said that Army life was better than they expected; 37% said that it was worse, and the remainder said it was just as they expected.

  The 46 responses received via Facebook were analysed together and included in the statistics above. However, separate analysis shows that 15% said that Army life was better than expected, 50% said that it was worse, and 30% said that it was just as they expected.

  However, comments given indicate that attitudes change due to individual circumstances or the tempo of the Army's commitments:

    has got harder the older I get—I want to settle and put down roots;

    my outlook on army life has changed since I had the children—it's not family orientated;

    the army isn't how it used to be—there is a disagreement politically with how I feel about the current operations;

    it was better to start with, but when faced with a late posting and all the uncertainty that goes with moving to somewhere where there is no army housing and all the nonsense that brings with it, much worse also being posted to a TA unit where there is no support;

    I am fed up of having so little consideration for me and also for my husband who is continually worked to the point of exhaustion;

    I hate the fact that the Army is incapable of planning properly. They give you a date for them going off on exercise/tour but it is never kept to;

    One did say she thought it was worse to begin with but now she has been married for almost five years it is better as she is now aware of the help she can get

3.   Would you feel happier if your spouse chose to leave the Army?

  52% of spouses answered "no" to this question, and they commented that they were happy to support their soldier in his chosen career. They also stated that they valued the financial security offered by the Army, and some had left the Army and then signed back up. However, 46% said they would be happier if their spouse was not in the Army. The less satisfied respondents made comments such as:

    I would love my husband to leave if I was confident of his future job prospects;

    I don't want him to leave, but I'm not going to accompany him.

  Only 2% of respondents said they didn't mind either way.

  AFF believes that most Army spouses are independent and resourceful with a "can do" attitude. It is rare to meet a spouse who will freely admit to badgering their spouse to leave the Army.

4.   Which aspect of Army life would make you want your spouse to leave the Army?

  We asked respondents to indicate which of the following aspects would influence their decision. These categories were based on responses given in previous research (December 2007 to February 2008). However, respondents commented that increasing deployment frequency and length would be a deciding factor as well.
children's education26%
your education4%
your career/employment19%
your relationship with your spouse31%

  Comments pertinent to this question included:

    Bad housing may not be the one factor that drives us out of the Army—but good housing would go a long way to keeping us in.

    No aspect of army life would make me want him to leave the army. I have enjoyed my time as a wife and other than monetary problems have never had any concerns. Have always managed to get the school I want and even have a daughter at boarding school. We have now settled into our own house and are looking forward to the next chapter.

    I think the frequency and duration of tours puts undue pressure on relationships and family life.

  The highest scoring section included many spouses who commented that frequent and lengthy operational tours were having a detrimental affect on their relationship and this was the factor that would influence their decision to encourage their spouse to leave the Army.


  AFF believe that families often have a key role to play in the decision of a soldier (or officer) to remain in the service of the Army. It is unfortunate that this study could not include an audience of spouses whose service person had already left the Army. An area of particular interest to AFF is those partners of young soldiers whose reluctance to marry and "follow the drum" speeds the soldiers exit from the Army. This audience is unfortunately very difficult for us to monitor or survey and so we can only speculate on their effect.

  From our recent research and experience of operating within the service community for 25 years we would suggest that there is no one factor which causes a spouse to ask their partner to leave the Army. It will invariably be a combination of key factors that prompt the decision. Although many Army families cannot survive on a single wage and certainly are not in a position to become home owners on one, interestingly few cited money as a reason for leaving the Army in our research.

  It is our belief that without addressing a number of key welfare issues and by investing immediately and substantially in Defence Estates families will continue to be a major influence in a Service persons decision to leave the Army.


  As background information for the committee, attached is the evidence prepared for the AFPRB X factor study in 2007. All points remain valid and provide useful background as to the pressures experienced daily by Army families.

  This evidence will be organised in line with the report to the AFPRB for consideration of the X factor:—features of the job, impact of the job and social aspects of the job. This report will be based on judgement rather than any mechanistic formulae.[7] All evidence in this paper will be from the viewpoint of Army families as a whole rather than the serving family member.


  The greatest influence of a military career is the impact of the job on family life—separation and turbulence are both at higher levels now than in 2002 due to high operational tempo and reorganisation of the Army. Danger levels, media interest, and high rate of churn make being an Army family today more anxious and challenging than previously. Home ownership is inaccessible for the majority of Army families due to turbulence and its impact on feasible second incomes. Accommodation issues remain the area of greatest concern presented to the AFF over the last five years.

  The social aspects of the job have changed with the introduction of MoD change programmes and efficiency measures that have reduced the ability of the chain of command to influence and assist personnel effectively. The lack of a coherent body representing Army personnel is felt by all ranks.

1.   Features of the Job

  1.1  This is not an area that would normally be of concern in family life however opportunities and travel have been seen by some as an advantage of Army family life particularly postings overseas. One change in recent years is the change in travel of the general population. For example many civilians go to Cyprus for their holidays therefore Army families posted to Cyprus expect to be able to spend time as a family, to enjoy good accommodation as seen on holidays and that the cost of living will be low. The reality is that whilst family and friends are envious Army families cope with extended periods of separation[8] without the support of family and friends, their accommodation has been of a low standard, the cost of living has not been not been low and opportunities for employment as a spouse are very low and low paid.

  1.2  Job security is seen as a benefit from a family point of view.[9] However any decrease in the transferable skills or training for civilian employment are noticed by families and reduce choice—ie if a soldier is trained as a forklift driver he can choose to be a soldier, own his career choice with confidence. If his qualifications do not translate into a civilian context (infantryman) his concern will be after Service career.

  1.3  Workplace flexibility is an issue for partners and families with two careers. Increasingly this is two military careers[10] where childcare responsibilities and opportunities to live in the same area are both barriers to work life balance or feasibility.[11] At present many families find that one parent can continue a military career and the other has to resign.

  1.4  A feature of military life is the lack of separation between work life and home life, especially for those living in military accommodation. Service Families Accommodation is seen as a mixed blessing—being provided with a house as a young couple is attractive however the last two years have seen disturbing levels of failure within the housing delivery organisations.

  The quantity of available accommodation is reducing all the time as SFA are returned to Annington Homes, and demand increases through Units returning from Germany and families unable to afford to buy their own property. Increasingly families have to live spread out, not benefiting from Unit cohesion and meeting additional travel costs. There is frequently expressed concern that SFA charges will increase further.

2.   Impact of the job on family life

  2.1  The perceived and real threat of danger has increased for the total UK population since 7/7 but for the Army it is a reality within the family. Many have friends who have been wounded or killed, constant media coverage makes the dangers seem close and all families have or expect to experience their soldier to be deployed into a dangerous conflict zone. The coping mechanisms within families are all individual but there is not one family that does not feel concern or have greater awareness of danger levels due to media coverage of conflict zones than was the case in 2002. Service schools provide support for families but many Army sons and daughters go to schools where there is no understanding of the impact dangerous deployments have on family life. The unpopularity of the Iraq deployment is felt by children in schools where staff do not sympathise with the present UK involvement in the conflict.

  2.2  Hours of work and leave are unpredictable compared to many civilian roles and make employment difficult for spouses eg spouses try to work evening shifts or weekends so that the soldier can provide childcare. Unpredictable leave arrangements have a significant impact on family life—soldiers on duty at weekends cannot participate in family activities or socialising with non military friends. Leave is feast or famine—soldiers have no weekends, days off or holiday for months and then 30 day post operational tour leave which can be during the school term or when the non serving spouse cannot take holiday. The variable and unpredictable nature of military working hours increases the pressure on families. Holidays are difficult to plan in advance and cheap offers are either non-refundable or already sold out by the time holiday dates are confirmed.

  2.3  Separation due to operational military service is presently at a high level for all ranks. For single soldiers the concern is managing relationships during long absences, for families it is difficult to switch from being a family to being single, sometimes also as a single parent. Children have to adapt to changing family dynamics and understand, from an early age, complex emotions and responsibilities. The nature of present operational deployments means that the soldier who leaves home is not always the same soldier that returns, either due to injury or psychological impact of deployment.

  Relationships with the wider community for both soldiers and their families are strained by separation and deployment which differ to the working patterns of other members of UK society. The opportunity to become part of the local community is limited—as volunteers Service families are absent for 6 months in every 18 months.

  Management of family finances during operational deployments is proving difficult. Both partners spend exceptional sums—in theatre on "treats" due to being away and at home for respite—"a trip to the park to keep the kids happy". The Operational Welfare Package should meet the costs of family entertainment within the Unit but this has proved challenging for all units to access and does not help TA or individual augmentee families.

  Travel during separation is testing for the many Army families who do not drive or have access to a car yet live in remote barracks and "patches". Routine grocery shopping has to be at expensive and limited local stores and access to all other amenities (including medical and dental care) can be limited.

  Separation, as already mentioned, can limit spouse employment. If two parents work and have between them 30 working days holiday a year they can plan childcare during school holidays and breaks. Army spouses cannot rely on the second parent being available to help and are likely to be living away from extended family and friends who may assist in normal circumstances.

  2.4  Turbulence is still a feature of Army family life. It should not be seen as purely negative—families enjoy the opportunity to live in different locations. However, individuals have little choice, control or ownership of this turbulence and it impacts on all areas of family life, particularly for those who are married with children. The impact varies according the life stage of individuals.

  Up to 11% of civilians in the UK move house in a year but only 2% move outside their Local Authority area.[12] Up to 40% of Army families move every 12 months and many move from overseas or the devolved UK areas. This has a massive impact on expectations, social relationships and state provision. For example some areas provide high levels of support for children with additional needs (Cambridgeshire) whilst other authorities are reducing their provision (North Yorkshire) or IVF treatment where one Health Authority will provide two cycles of IVF (Shropshire) whilst others only provide one cycle (Wiltshire). Many families have to cope with this impact every two years.

  Each move involves the family rebuilding social and support networks. Although X factor and disturbance allowance are designed to meet the additional costs of mobility it is difficult for families not to bear additional costs, especially if moving long distances. No two houses are the same and each one has to be an individual home, providing personal identity in the middle of conformity. Expectation of "home" has changed with increased media coverage of home improvement. The danger is that families "wait to live" and do not become established in their new area.

  Spouse employment is particularly challenged by turbulence. Careers are almost impossible to develop since opportunities are difficult to match in new locations (whilst the serving soldier continues a career progression). Promotion opportunities within careers are limited if there is uncertainty about duration in one place and earning capacity is reduced with an impact on pension accrual, this reducing opportunities for home ownership. Spouse and family CVs are difficult to translate into the civilian sector. Overseas spouse employment is through the local garrison and pay scales are pegged to local salaries—generally lower than UK salaries. The latter bites hardest for professionals who then work alongside other professionals employed from the UK doing the same work at a higher salary.

  Spouse training is forfeit if a posting is received during a training course as there is no recompense for loss of fees or opportunity to remain until the end of a course unless it is close to a critical exam stage. Interests and hobbies cannot be maintained if the facilities do not exist in the new location. Over time all these factors batter confidence levels of spouses to apply for work or opportunities.

  Home ownership is the aspiration of the vast majority but turbulence, separation, low second income and lack of certainty about future mobility all make purchasing a house difficult to achieve, for many the main effort is to keep alive and afloat. One of the reasons families were turned down for Shared Equity Scheme home ownership was due to high debt levels. Some families suffer negative credit rating from high mobility and from living in MoD accommodation with a high number of previous occupants.

  NHS dentists remain difficult for families to find although research is being carried out this autumn to assess to continuing extent of the problem. Accessing doctors does not seem to be an issue but it is stressful for families to constantly have to start a new relationship with doctors.

  Army children expect to attend many different schools. At early stages this often means not fulfilling a curriculum ie repeating subjects (doing the Romans four times!), in non-military schools social groups take longer to adjust to entrants at odd times in the school year, confidence is undermined through different schools and approaches.

  UK state schools expect children to register 10 months before entry and attend trial days months before the start of the school year but this is generally before Army posting orders have been received. There has been an improvement as posting orders must now be accepted to register a child at a school although in reality it does not give enough information about the school catchment area where a family will live.

  Parents have a difficult choice whether to try and afford a house somewhere and provide stability for children's education, to continue high mobility as a family and apply for retention of SFA during critical periods (GCSE and A level) or send children to boarding school. The difficulty of this decision is agonising and difficult to quantify. With present high operational tempo families desperately want to live together when they can and this combined with high mobility makes boarding school the feasible option but the combination of boarding school fees and impact of mobility on spouse career make home ownership impossible. But now boarding school is becoming less feasible for those with a single military career as even with the substantial assistance from the MoD the cost of independent education is increasing faster than the continuity of education allowance.

3.   Social Aspects of the Job

  3.1  AFF questions whether the ethos of the Army community is changing. Army families have greater expectations from the Army than civilians do from their employers due to the nature of military service, especially an expeditionary Army with the high operational tempo. Army family life is a way of life, there is little space between work and home. In the past this closeness was offset by the influence of the local chain of command to deliver the best feasible solutions locally (eg housing allocation that matched family need). Also social activities encouraged unit harmony, so activities in barracks and messes encouraged the sense of unique community and commitment. This translated to Unit cohesion and identity to support separation and operations.

  The situation seems to be changing; Defence Estates is an Agency that relates less to the needs of military families and more to management margins, delivery processes and target delivery. The new allocations system is proving extremely challenging both for families and the chain of command. The change to PAYD means that messes are too expensive for social events and on occasion the food simply too disgusting to eat.

  First line support for Army families is the Unit Welfare Officer but due to high operational tempo many posts are gapped or post holders have many different "hats" as well as welfare eg Second in Command, Quartermaster, Careers Officer.

  This is combined with intense media coverage of the Army and present deployments. Much of the coverage is negative and questioning the purpose and veracity of the deployment. At such times a close, well informed and trusting community is essential. However the ability of the chain of command to influence and provide for this community is diminished by efficiency and change programmes.

  There is no hard data available on divorce rates and how they compare to civilians. Anecdotally the rate is presently high due to operational deployments. Unit Welfare Officers report spending a large proportion of their time on relationship issues, especially for young soldiers.

  Health and education have been discussed in "impact of the job" above. The availability of medical and dental care for serving personnel is an advantage. Families' difficulty accessing facilities and rights undermine confidence and sense of worth, especially when compared to that provided for those serving and the continuity civilians achieve.

  Recent successes regarding social aspects of the job have been attaining Key Worker status for housing in the south of England and a change in social housing legislation that permits military service to qualify families for `local connection'. Although neither of these will make a major difference to the problem associated with home ownership they are positive in terms of improving how the military is seen by local authorities and politicians as well as for personnel themselves.

  Regular Reservists called up for operational service leave behind families who may have no military experience or understanding. This situation is isolating and needs continuous monitoring to ensure any families are supported.


  There is little flexibility in the package of benefits for military personnel. All benefits are based on need for continuity of service rather than offered as benefits. Since the majority of personnel are young the package is geared at those who are fit, able and deployable. As above the personal support is popular where delivered by the chain of command but has diminishing influence.

  Support for families during operational deployments is variable. The primary concern is communication and whilst the additional 10 minutes telephone time per week in 2007 was welcome, 30 minutes per week is still significantly below the expectation of most people today, certainly in the civilian sector. This lack of telephone time impacts on the soldiers relationship with family and friends as well as an ability to fulfil any non-military obligations eg house purchase. Families become impotent to contact soldiers on operations, they have to wait to be contacted and spend hours worrying that precious calls will be missed.

  Short travel distance to work and subsidised travel costs are an advantage of military service although an increasing issue is where SFA allocation is away from barracks the family need two cars. Civilians who travel overseas on business can return home for weekends and at regular intervals whereas military personnel are expected to remain in one place for months (on deployment) or a year (on posting).


  Overall there is no doubt that military service has a major impact on family life for Army families. Not all of these are negative but there are significant changes since 2002 in the level of operational deployment for all ranks, the diminishing influence of the Army to support family life and the present high turbulence and associated costs.

18 March 2008

7   As set out in 2.3 of 2002 AFPRB report. Back

8   Units in Cyprus in 2006-07 had deployments in Falklands, Iraq and Lebanon. Back

9   King's College London The Army as a Greedy Institution 2005. Back

10   2007 MOD Partners survey. Back

11   Comment in CGS BT Spring 2007 report. Back

12   SP Pol figure in 2005. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 30 July 2008