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Chief Executive Ray Lock explores how we can support Commonwealth ex-Service personnel who are transitioning to civilian life.

For many years, the UK’s Armed Forces have recruited from countries now in the Commonwealth.  Mainly, such recruits have joined the British Army, and predominantly into the more junior ranks.  Last year, around 6000 of the Army’s total strength of 82,000 were listed as ‘Foreign and Commonwealth’.  A new report[1] funded by Forces in Mind Trust and carried out by Anglia Ruskin University, has revealed that when these Commonwealth soldiers transition into civilian life, the experience can be overwhelming – as one respondent said: “all aspects of life unravel”.

Of course, transition can be a challenge for anyone, regardless of birthplace or nationality, and whilst the vast majority of Service personnel do succeed in making a successful transition, the Commonwealth Service leaver faces extra obstacles, some of which could be overcome with just a few relatively inexpensive changes.

The biggest hurdle a Commonwealth soldier faces when wanting to settle in the UK, together with his or her family, is the cost of doing so.  A visa for a family of four is around £9000 and whilst occasionally the well-established military charities do assist, a better solution would be for the employer, namely the Ministry of Defence, to encourage – perhaps even impose – a salary sacrifice savings scheme that would ensure every Commonwealth soldier had access to the necessary funds.  Naturally many unaccompanied soldiers send most of their wages home, and some have no intention to remain in the UK after service.  But we should at least try.

Rules on Armed Forces immigration were revised in 2013, and a Service leaver wishing to settle in the UK with a spouse and one child must meet a minimum annual income threshold of £22,400.  Every additional child increases that threshold by £2400.  Unfortunately, a private soldier’s salary is typically only £22,255.  There is a mechanism for appealing to the Home Office, but it can be slow and uncertain.  The UK’s Armed Forces Covenant seeks to treat those who have served fairly, and to ensure that they suffer no disadvantage as a result of that service.  What the Covenant doesn’t try to do is to offer advantage, so we’re not asking for a separate immigration policy for Commonwealth settlers, although one wonders whether there might be a case under the families test.  Rather though we are asking the Home Office to recognize that having served the UK, Commonwealth settlers do deserve expeditious and sympathetic consideration of their cases.

Finally, there are already welfare officers at Army bases whose role includes, amongst many other things, supporting and advising resettling Commonwealth soldiers.  Keeping up with the plethora of issues faced by welfare officers isn’t easy, but as one remarked on this aspect: “I feel out of my depth”.  Indeed, the Army Families Federation doubled the number of dedicated support staff for Commonwealth families in 2013, and is about to increase it again.

The Confederation of Service Charities (Cobseo) operates a ‘cluster’ of members involved in supporting Foreign and Commonwealth members of the armed forces community, which is chaired by the Army Families Federation, and it was their concerns that drove this research project.

Better coordination in the third sector, which Cobseo encourages, better communication with Service leavers via existing MOD channels, and better training for established welfare officers – these are a long way from the usual bleat of ‘more funding’ and can arguably be delivered by just a bit of focus at a senior level.

The stream of Commonwealth soldiers entering the British Army might now be a trickle (200 per year is an apparent target), but they still represent an important capability.  Those who choose to settle in the country they have served, often with considerable distinction, deserve better treatment.

The mission of Forces in Mind Trust – www.fim-trust.org – is to enable ex-serving personnel and their families make a successful and sustained transition into civilian life, and the Trust has chosen to do this by generating evidence that will influence policy makers and service providers to support their mission.

Read the full report here [https://goo.gl/qPwzyt]

[1] Meeting the Needs of Commonwealth Personnel and Families: A Map of Service Provision.