Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
Family breakdown is one of the five pathways that lead to poverty and which the Centre for Social Justice has focused on for a number of years. This is particularly the case for the most vulnerable on society. Whilst we have carried out a huge amount of work into this subject there is one group which one doesn’t normally associate with the term vulnerable but which I believe has become so.
When it comes to our responsibilities in this area, the spotlight is hardly ever focussed on military families, notwithstanding the fact that they face unique challenges due to the nature of life within the armed forces: constant moving, inflexible work regimes, and the repercussions of mental illness on the whole family.
We ask the military to put their lives on the line in our defence and, as we have seen, the stresses and strains they undergo can put their families under enormous pressure too. That is all the more reason to ensure that everything beyond the theatre of war is done to allow them to maintain balance, despite such military pressures. These factors are why the Centre for Social Justice will shortly be publishing a paper by Julian Brazier MP and Professor John Louth on the issue of family homes for the military.
Annual surveys show the top five factors cited as the reason for leaving the military have barely changed in five years: morale of both individuals and the service are a factor, a spouse’s job, and opportunities outside the armed forces. But every single year the most cited reason has been ‘the impact of service life on family and personal life’. Not only has it repeatedly topped the table but it is also increasing – from 55 per cent in 2012 to 61 per cent in 2016.
High among the concerns which underpin this figure are problems with family accommodation. Indeed, a recent report from the National Audit Office highlighted accommodation in particular as an area where defence is critically at risk.
‘There is a significant risk that the poor condition of the estate will affect the Department’s ability to provide the defence capability needed,’ it states. ‘Poor accommodation for service families is affecting the morale and the recruitment and retention of service personnel.’
The document goes on to identify two substantial holes in MoD funding. One is a large shortfall in repairs and lifecycle funding on MoD properties. The other arises from the likely increase in rents.
The National Audit Office concluded: ‘The Department has started to improve its management of the defence estate, however the strategy and current funding levels only allow for a partial reversal of the decline in the condition of the estate. The Department has not yet set out how it will fully address the significant challenges it faces sustaining the whole of the estate and resultant risks to military capability.’
The MoD is more than aware of the problem it faces and is taking steps to address it.
Against a difficult backdrop, it has conducted a major survey of service families, testing a housing policy for all three services, called the Future Accommodation Model (FAM). This contains a range of options, seeking to move some people out of service accommodation, towards home ownership or private sector rental with an allowance, where conditions allow.
Instead of being guaranteed homes at each location, at rents whose subsidised level recognises the drawbacks of service life, service personnel would be increasingly expected to settle their families where practical.
There are concerns that the FAM model will not do enough to tackle some of the central issues that military families face and in some respects will worsen the position and may not be applicable across very different services.
In the coming weeks the Centre for Social Justice will publish a review of the situation, where the current and proposed models fall down and where there are opportunities to improve the outlook for the families of our armed forces personnel.
I hope and believe this will be an opportunity for the Government to build on the good work it has already done to improve the lives of military personnel, veterans, and their families.
The benefits of having a secure, stable and loving family are significant for any individual. But for military personnel, who come under numerous pressures throughout their careers, it is crucial. A secure home is an important part of that and we owe it to our armed forces to ensure that they have it.