HC Deb 20 March 2000 vol 346 cc702-4
4. Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

What steps his Department is taking to improve access to schools for service families. [113691]

11. Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

What steps his Department is taking to improve access to schools for service families. [113698]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

The service families task force has achieved considerable success in improving access to schools for service families. There is reference to service children in the Department for Education and Employment's code of practice on school admissions. The Service Children's Education Agency is now a formal member of, or is in attendance at, 18 local education authority admission forums. Although some families are still experiencing problems, the code has generally improved access to education for service families.

Ms Coffey

As someone who was brought up in a service family and went to seven different primary and secondary schools, I welcome the Minister's reply, which I am sure will also be widely welcomed by thousands of service families who experience real difficulty in getting access to schools to enable their children to have a decent education. What evidence is there that the new guidance is having an impact?

Mr. Spellar

Discussions are under way with service families. In the Chester area, which is quite close to my hon. Friend's constituency and where the 1st Battalion of the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire is stationed, all the families have been able to put their children into their school of first choice. We recognise that there are still some difficulties, but progress is being made, and there is a willingness by admissions bodies across the country to understand the particular difficulties and necessities that arise because of the requirements of service life and service careers—which my hon. Friend will obviously understand, given her background.

Charlotte Atkins

I am pleased to hear that progress has been made on this long-standing problem, but does the Minister accept that, because of their mobile life styles, service families also experience difficulties in gaining access to national health service waiting lists and in finding NHS dentists? What progress is being made in that regard?

Mr. Spellar

The NHS has made provision for extra dental services in areas that we identified as having particular difficulties and containing a large number of service families. The same applies to access to doctors' waiting lists. Those improvements are being achieved by the service families task force, which I chair and whose members include Ministers from a number of other Departments. The task force has focused on difficulties arising specifically from the service life style, and on the responses that other Departments can often make quite easily and effectively.

We are also examining hospital waiting lists. Some people, especially those with less threatening but often very painful conditions, may be on waiting lists for longer than they and their families are in the relevant location. We are undertaking further work on the jobseeker's allowance, and we have had considerable success in regard to student loans. From September this year, students—even if they have been resident abroad with the armed forces—will have access to loans.

Ours is a considerable record of success. Not only are we proud of that record, but we believe that it has had a real effect on the conditions experienced by the service families who play such an important part in ensuring the effectiveness of our armed forces.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I welcome the progress made by the service families task force, which is clearly an improvement on that of recent years.

Does the Minister agree that when men and women leave the armed forces, it is important for them to have access to the services that they need, in the places where they need them? Will he discuss with housing authorities the possibility of those who have served their country being put at the top of housing lists when they return to the local authority areas from which they originally came?

Mr. Spellar

There is a considerable housing problem, not least because the last Administration encouraged the selling off of so many properties. A number of Army families, in particular, are experiencing difficulties; this applies less to Navy and Royal Air Force families. When we have dealt with the immediate issues, we shall need to explore those difficulties further.

Once some problems have been solved, others always arise. For instance, the mobile life style of many service personnel causes difficulties with access to credit. I have asked my officials to discuss that with credit organisations. After all, we are talking about people with regular incomes and assured careers. We want to ensure that they have proper access to credit, and we are making considerable progress in that regard.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Will the service families task force, whose establishment I welcome, undertake to audit the provision of facilities on bases throughout the United Kingdom? Is the Minister aware that the 1,400 service personnel based at Warminster have access to two playgroups, a creche, a mothers and toddlers group and a youth club, whereas the 7,698 service men at Catterick enjoy no such provision? Is it not time that our service men had equal provision, regardless of where they are based?

Mr. Spellar

This is almost a case of "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

If we had uniform provision, we would never make progress. Once we have made progress in some areas, we can see what works and then start to "level up". As I have said, we have made considerable progress, but we regard what we are doing as work in progress. We appreciate that there will be future needs, because of changing aspirations and changing life styles. For instance, far more service wives now work and have careers, and that creates problems for families because of the mobile life style. We are continuing to work on this. We do not think that we have solved all the problems; I merely say that we have made considerable progress.

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