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The Armed Forces Covenant should be extended to protect the families of those serving

3 min read

As the Armed Forces have become smaller in recent decades, with fewer people in the UK having any direct experience of ‘Service life’, knowledge and understanding of the role that service families play in supporting operational effectiveness has receded.

While the recent stories about the poor condition of some parts of the Service Family Accommodation (SFA) estate have brought this into the public consciousness, housing is not the only challenge that families face.  As important as having a safe and comfortable home is – and it is essential for those serving personnel and their families who are living in Service accommodation – the needs of today’s Army families can be more complex, as they manage both long periods of separation and frequent, sometimes unpredictable moves around the UK and overseas.

The contribution of families to supporting the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces starts long before any pre-deployment training or the arrival of a Service person in theatre. Mobility is a constant throughout our time as Army families –  ensuring that soldiers have the skills, experience and training to be ready to deliver Defence outputs requires multiple postings, and attendance on many courses throughout their careers.  For the many Army families who choose to move as a ‘unit’ in support of developing this capability, this level of mobility can present challenges in day-to-day life.  

Most of the questions and requests for help that the Army Families Federation (AFF) deals with are as a result of this high level of mobility.  We see issues with the allocation of school places due to the local variations on how far in advance an Army family can apply before moving to the area. This is even more complex for those children with special educational needs who face delays in transferring their support to a new location. Evidence from families highlights difficulties accessing NHS medical and dental care, exacerbated when trying to transfer ongoing treatment.

It can be challenging to access financial products or benefits, especially if assigned overseas. Spouses and partners face challenges maintaining employment and developing a career - affecting their ability to build a pension and maintain financial stability, as well as impacting their wellbeing and identity.

Different cohorts of families  can face different pressures. Dual serving families experience complexity and difficulty in juggling family life with both partners’ serving commitments. Those who choose to live unaccompanied, with the serving partner weekly commuting, experience significant separation, which can affect family relationships. Non-UK personnel and their families are subject to the minimum income requirement, resulting in spouses and children being unable to immediately join their soldier in the UK, and some families facing several years before they can all be together. 

The needs of today’s Army family can be more complex, as they manage both long periods of separation and frequent, sometimes unpredictable moves around the UK and overseas

Families approach AFF for help in mitigating these impacts or to raise concerns about issues where there is a lack of sufficient support or understanding from service providers about their unique circumstances; or when there have been mitigation measures put in place for service personnel – often to support transition to civilian life – but the same support has not been extended to the families who have ‘served’ with them.

The Armed Forces Covenant attempts to redress disadvantage due to Service life, with the recent legislation on due regard by public bodies on health, housing and education welcome.  However, it does not currently extend to government departments and devolved administrations, and does not cover other policy areas that impact our families.  Doing so would be just as helpful to service personnel and their families as providing them with access to safe and comfortable homes.

Michelle Alston, Policy & Research Director at the Army Families Federation

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