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My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Farmer for enabling this debate on the report, A Manifesto to Strengthen Families. I fully endorse the proposals in it and have been pleased to add my name to its list of supporters.
Military families live in every community in the UK. Many in the naval service choose to settle in one place so that their children’s education is stable and their spouse can have a career. The compromise they make is that the serving person has to travel, becoming a “weekender”, leaving the spouse to be a lone parent for much of the time. Others choose to follow the flag. This means relocating every few years, lots of school moves and a recurring search for suitable employment possibilities for the spouse.
Research from King’s College suggests that 13 months separation within a three-year period is likely to damage a romantic relationship. The Armed Forces families regularly deploy for much longer periods. Family hubs, as suggested in the manifesto, would offer real support to Armed Forces families who have chosen to settle in the community rather than live close to a base. Accessible parenting support that recognises the particular challenges of service families would be especially welcome, as the deploying or weekending parent can struggle to maintain an effective parenting relationship.
The increasingly dispersed nature of Armed Forces families and the advent of the new accommodation model means that more and more families will become embedded in the community rather than following the flag, which brings a new set of challenges for the families. The characteristics of Armed Forces family life mean that, where it exists, families are potentially more vulnerable to domestic violence. In the case of mobility, there is increased social isolation from family and support networks, which can make it more difficult for victims to access support. It is believed that separation brings about dynamics in a relationship that can increase the likelihood of domestic abuse. Relationship support that teaches what a healthy relationship looks like and the skills and behaviours needed to maintain it would be enormously beneficial as a preventative measure.
The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, is not able to speak in this debate but he mentioned to me that his wife worked for years as a Relate counsellor in British Forces Germany and campaigned hard—ultimately without success—for free counselling for those in need in the Army. Despite the Lobor millions used to support the Relate initiative, lack of money was the real determinant. I ask the Minister whether the issue of family support could become routinely raised in the Armed Forces covenant report to Parliament.