The outsider may wonder why the issue of the vacation of married quarters by estranged Service wives should be a matter for public concern, but 1 submit that it is not only a matter of public concern but a matter of considerable scandal in the way that the system works and the injustice that is brought about.
Let me explain briefly how the system is worked under the Queen's Regulations of 1975, which apply specifically to the Army. If a Service man considers that he is estranged, he has a duty to report that fact to his commanding officer. He has to fill in a form declaring that he has changed his marital status and he can then move into barracks. The married quarter is supposed to be vacated and, if the wife remains, she is immediately classed as an illegal occupant and eviction proceedings are started—though the authorities may be kindly disposed and not set them in motion too quickly.
The whole situation, from the wife's point of view, can change in 24 hours. To add insult to injury, the wife is then supposed to be responsible for paying the rent, though in such cases it goes by a technical name and she has to pay, in effect, double the rent. That happens at a time when the wife may be in serious financial difficulties as a result of the estrangement, while the Service man who moves into barracks may, even though he must pay for that, be in a fairly cushy position.
This situation cannot be allowed to continue. I have had some heart-rending cases brought to my attention of women who have suffered terribly as a result of these procedures. The declaration of estrangement is made unilaterally and there have been cases in which the first notification that the wife had of something being seriously wrong was when she received a notice to quit—a severe shock.
There is, of course, the appalling problem of finding other accommodation. That is not easy, especially when there are children. As one woman in this plight told me "You suffer the double shock of losing both your husband and your home."
Anyone who has to deal with those trying to find accommodation will know what a problem it is. Local authorities for the most part, however sympathetic they may be, usually have enough problems of their own without the addition of estranged Service wives who may have no connection with the area in which they happen to be living in married quarters.
Possibly the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act will be of some assistance to them, but then they have to be truly without homes, and it is an intimidating experience for anyone to be served with a summons. Indeed, one wife wrote to me that it came as a terrible shock to her to receive a summons. The husband had walked out on her, but she was the one who had to face the music, so to speak.
What can be done about this problem? First, I suggest that for a period of time—say, six months at least—the wife should be given the undoubted right to remain in the married quarter, or possibly, if more convenient to her, in some other married quarter. Secondly, she should not be required to pay the double rent, which is a kind of damages for trespass, as I understand the regulations. I believe also that the husband should remain responsible for paying the rent during that period of grace. This would at least give a chance either for reconciliation or, if that proved impossible, for her to make other arrangements for herself and any children. As it is, the system almost seems fiendishly devised to help break up a marriage, because it is so very easy for the Service man to make his declaration and to depart into barracks. Far more effort should be made on this side of the question.
I hope also that the Minister will declare tonight that he is willing to accept the justice of the case and, I hope, will make some specific recommendations as to what might be done to ease the position. I am not certain how the problem extends to the other Services because my main inquiries and the main information I have received affect the Army. I should be interested to know from the hon. Gentleman whether all three Services are affected equally and whether he can speak on behalf of the other Services in his reply.
I have been appalled by the hardships that have been brought to my notice as a result of the system and, of course, as a result sometimes of a husband's behaviour. Perhaps one or two examples will illustrate the point. One case affected a wife who was out in Germany in married quarters. She came home in good faith to look after a sick relative—a parent, I think it was. While she was away, the husband took the opportunity of saying that she had deserted him, which was quite untrue, moving out of his married quarters and going into barracks, and putting all the family possessions into store. The wife found that it was very difficult to get them out of store; she could not get back into her old home and she had to pay well over £100 if she wanted the possessions moved back. That is an intolerable position for any woman to be placed in.
I know of another case, much nearer my own constituency, where the lady concerned got into such a state of panic—she was pregnant and had a small child also—that she made a suicide attempt. Her husband bullied her over the whole situation and because she had no settled place where she could go the whole position seemed to get blacker and blacker from her point of view.
Those are just a few of the cases that I have had brought to my notice. I am sure that there are many more.
I should like to make clear that I am not suggesting for one moment that the Service should have a permanent responsibility for housing estranged families. Clearly, that would not be possible. But it is intolerable that they should be immediately placed at risk in this way, within 24 hours.
I earnestly ask the Minister to give tonight an assurance that will bring some ray of hope to the women who are in such an appalling predicament.
I know that the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth Drake (Miss Fookes) has been concerned with this very difficult question for some time. I am pleased that she has raised it in this debate because I think that it provides an example of how the Armed Forces try with the utmost flexibility to cater for the individual's circumstances within the overall requirements of the forces.
The hon. Lady wrote in August to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the problems facing the estranged wives of Service men. My letter in reply provided some of the background to the question she has raised today, so I shall of necessity repeat some of the points again, although perhaps in greater detail. However, I am sure that the House would wish to have the full details of what is usually a very delicate and difficult situation for all concerned.
To set the question of estranged wives in context, I should first explain in general terms the reasons behind the provision of married quarters for Service men and their families. Responsibility for housing is, in the first instance, essentially a matter for the individual Service family, as it would be in civil life. However, obviously, the special conditions and demands of a Service career often pose considerable difficulties. A Service career may involve frequent postings, every two or three years, both within this country and overseas. Service bases are often situated in more remote parts of the country where there is a lack of available private or local authority housing. Nevertheless, a Service man has to be housed near his place of work to meet the requirements of the Service, which often involve long and irregular hours and the need to be readily available on standby.
Our aim is to avoid, as far as possible, separating husbands from their wives and families, while meeting the requirements of the Armed Services themselves. Consequently, the Ministry of Defence provides married quarters so that Service men can still set up a family home and to reduce the effects of the turbulence which a Service career often entails.
For the purposes of allowances and entitlements, Service personnel are placed in one of five different marital categories. The first two carry the entitlement to a married quarter where one is available. Broadly speaking, these two categories comprise married Service men who would normally live with their wives and families, and, secondly, Service men, or women, who are widowed, divorced or separated and who have care and control of their children and normally live with them. These categories also carry entitlements to a range of other benefits, such as separation allowance and boarding school allowance.
Technically, married quarters are not tenanted but are occupied under the terms of a licence signed by the Service man. The Service licence requires, among other things, that a Service man should occupy the quarters himself with his wife and, where appropriate, children. It makes it quite clear that on posting or the termination otherwise of his eligibility he is required to vacate the quarter to allow other eligible Service men to benefit.
It is in this broader context that the question of estrangement needs to be seen. From what I have said earlier the House will appreciate that a change in a Service man's marital circumstances will obviously affect the range of allowances and entitlements that have previously been made available to him. Service authorities need to know at the outset if the marriage has broken down. If the Service husband no longer wishes, for whatever reason, to continue to live with his wife, he is under a duty to report the matter to his commanding officer.
The hon. Member has indicated that she feels that it is far too easy for a Service man to announce unilaterally that he is estranged from his wife, and I can understand her concern. However, relations between husband and wife are a private matter for the couple concerned. I believe that it would be wrong for the Services to intrude in this delicate area to decide themselves whether estrangement has taken place. I do not think that in most cases a Service man would choose to inform his commanding officer of the breakdown of his marriage lightly or without good reason. As I explained in my letter to the hon. Member, I believe that we must rely on the individual Service man to act in good faith.
I do not, however, wish to give the impression that the Services are impersonal and unconcerned with the Service man's domestic problems. Far from it. Very often the Service authorities will have already become aware of marital difficulties and various forms of welfare assistance may have been offered to the couple. Even after the estrangement has been officially notified a wide variety of advice and assistance is available.
In the Army, for example, immediate help could come from padres, medical officers, unit families officers or WRAC army welfare assistants. Where counselling in greater depth is required, cases can be referred to SSAFA or local authority social workers and national marriage guidance counsellors. Comparable resources are, of course, provided in the other two Services. I think it would be wrong to go beyond this and insist on some form of compulsory marriage counselling. In the end the couple themselves must decide if and when an estrangement has taken place.
Once a Service man has formally declared his estrangement from his wife, his changed marital status means that he is no longer entitled to a married quarter and the range of married benefits unless he continues to have care and control of any children there may be. As I have explained, married quarters are provided to enable the Service man and his family to stay together while at the same time meeting the requirements of a Service career on the husband. When the Service man is no longer living with his wife, for whatever reason, I do not think that it is reasonable to expect the Ministry of Defence to take on the responsibility for housing estranged wives and families on a permanent basis. I am sure that the hon. Lady concedes that. I am sure that the House will agree that the only proper solution is for them to be found other accommodation. For its part, the Ministry of Defence seeks to make this as easy as possible, compatible with the need to establish its right to repossess their property.
Although each Service has its own detailed procedures, what happens in practice is broadly similar in all three. Once estrangement has been reported and the change in marital status officially declared, notice to vacate the quarter is served. Wives who remain in occupation of the quarter after this notice has expired are classed as irregular occupants. The period of notice is normally no more than 61 days, after which action may be taken, with the wife's knowledge, to obtain a court order for possession. This establishes MOD's right in law to reclaim the quarter and enables mesne profits to be charged for the period of irregular occupation.
Mesne profits are in the nature of damages which a person unlawfully in occupation of a property is liable to pay the person entitled to possession and are assessed on the basis of a market rent for a similar civilian property. It is not a doubling of the rent as the hon. Member suggested.
During this period the Service welfare authorities make every effort to help the wife in her search for alternative accommodation and, in particular, close contact is made with local housing authorities. The Ministry of Defence would not necesarily seek an order for possession immediately after the expiration of the notice. A period of grace is often allowed to enable the wife to find alternative accommodation.
If the wife is making genuine efforts to do so, no action may be taken for some months. On the other hand some local authorities may not consider rehousing the wife and family until an order for possession has been made. In such cases the order may be sought earlier to facilitate rehousing. Indeed, wives themselves often ask for this to be done.
I should add that an order for possession does not give authority for eviction. Unless the quarter is required for entitled personnel, who would otherwise be separated from their wives and families, the Ministry of Defence is most reluctant to proceed further and apply for a warrant for possession which gives the necessary legal authority for eviction, and in every case ministerial approval is required before any such application is made to the courts. As with an order for possession, however, some local authorities will not give the estranged wife priority for accommodation until a warrant for possession has been served. This in itself sometimes means that this further step is to the benefit of the estranged wife.
To give the House an indication of how reluctant the Ministry of Defence is to take proceedings against estranged wives in these circumstances, irregular occupancy by estranged wives often lasts for about 15 months and in some cases even longer.
I can bring to mind two cases in the Epping Forest area where estranged wives have been in possession for over two years. There is no way in which I shall allow an application for eviction to be made because of what I consider to be the completely un-Christian rules operated by that council in demanding a three-year residential qualification before it will give consideration to rehousing. There have been only three evictions in the past two years.
I think that all three Services handle these cases of estrangement with the utmost sympathy and consideration. We must rely on the individual Service man who is entitled to a married quarter and the associated range of allowances to act in good faith and formally to notify Service authorities when he becomes estranged from his wife. I appreciate that in some cases the request by a Service man to change his marital status may be precipitate, particularly where the couple are young and immature. However, considerable help is available to assist Service families with their marital problems and every effort is made to help the couple effect a reconciliation if they want this assistance in what is, after all, a private matter. Given the basis on which married quarters are provided, it is not reasonable to expect the Ministry of Defence to take on an indefinite commitment to house estranged wives and their families.
Apart from anything else, such irregular occupation of married quarters would deny them to other Service families and could cause further separation of husbands and wives in the Armed Forces. I believe that the existing arrangements for helping estranged wives to find alternative accommodation are fair to all concerned and, as I have told the House, the Ministry of Defence is most reluctant to take action to evict estranged wives. Where the married quarters are required by other Service men we must, however, in the last analysis, be able to get possession of them.
Finally, I draw the attention of the House to a 1974 report by Shelter which looked at the question of housing the Armed Forces in the context of its report on tied accommodation. Having reviewed what happens in cases of estrangement and noted the unwillingness of some local authorities to accept responsibility for housing estranged wives and families until there is at least a legal separation, or a
court order for possession has been obtained, Shelter concluded that:
that is with local authorities—
prolong the rationalisation of the housing situation for the family concerned but our evidence leads us to believe that the Services are particularly humane and supportive in such situations.
I hope that, having heard what I have said tonight, the hon. Lady will share this
view. The Services do all that they can to help everybody concerned in these unfortunate and difficult situations, consistent with their responsibilities to other Service men and their families.
I hope that I have said sufficient to reassure the hon. Lady.