I absolutely agree that we want the full support of all our local authorities, and our health boards, but I must put on record again that they have experienced very severe cuts under this Government. That is an issue, particularly when we are trying to develop new initiatives and make progress.
We know that the requirements of service life do not just affect personnel. They can also have an impact on families, including children. We do not always recognise just how difficult and stressful being the spouse or partner of a member of the armed forces can be, given the loneliness, the upheaval of moving house frequently and trying to get the children settled, and so on. I congratulate the women behind Forces Wives Challenge, whom I met yesterday and who are raising awareness of the problems. Early next year, some of them are going to Chile to climb the highest volcano in the world, Ojos del Salado. Just as important, however, is the fact that they are working with partners and wives across the country using challenges—in their words, “enabling ordinary women to do extraordinary things”—to bring women together, foster a sense of community, and help women to deal with issues such as loneliness.
One particular challenge arises when service families have to move, which can have a knock-on effect on schooling. I welcome the changes in the common transfer file—for instance, the inclusion of more contextual information. That should ultimately help children with the process of moving schools, but it is clear that some issues remain. In its comments on this year’s covenant report, the families federations identify a “distinct spike” in the number of school admissions issues raised with them over the past year, and say that recent surveys show that
“finding school places is a key source of anxiety for Service families.”
Some local authorities are clearly taking a proactive approach to dealing with the problem. For example, Rhondda Cynon Taf council employs a dedicated forces education officer, who is himself a former soldier and a serving reservist, to work closely with forces families and schools to ensure that the children of personnel are properly supported.
Of course, as the families federations themselves point out, schools continue to be challenged by funding constraints—despite the Chancellor’s promise of cash to cover “little extras”—but I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us what work his Department is doing now to ensure further improvements in time for next year’s report.
We know that the quality of housing for personnel and their families is a matter of real concern. Members will be familiar with the appalling service provided by the contractor CarillionAmey. Many of us have heard at first hand from personnel and families about unacceptable delays to repairs and the poor quality of maintenance. I myself have met representatives of Amey, which has taken over the contract following the collapse of Carillion earlier this year. They assured me—as, no doubt, they have assured the Minister—that they are working hard to improve the service because they recognise that things have simply not been working well enough, but the fact is that there is a very long way to go. The latest families continuous attitude survey found that barely a third of families are satisfied with the response to requests for maintenance and repair work.