by Catherine Spencer, AFF Director Communications
The results of the AFF Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA) survey, designed to provide an alternative to the increasingly discredited DASA survey, are overwhelming. Given the deluge of comments AFF has received in recent weeks we were unsurprised by the results which show 92% of you would leave the Army if the allowance were to go altogether and 53% indicated they simply could not afford to pay additional contributions. Limiting the choice of schools was seen as overly simplistic, as the needs of one family are rarely the same as the needs of another, and limiting the age at which children can access CEA was felt to be too restrictive. Too much damage can be done in the early years when the foundations of an education are laid; by 11 children are already 6 years into a 12 - 14 year process; 40 – 50% complete. BFBS Forces News’s report indicated this is not a decision taken lightly by families. As well as providing the essential educational stability that our children need to give them a fair chance of succeeding in a very tough environment, the stability is also emotional. It is protection from the constant coming and going of the service family member and provides distance from the stress of deployment. When my husband’s Battalion were away, the school playground talked of little but the casualties as information arrived back from the front line.
There is increasing unease surrounding the speed of the CEA review. Our lobbying resulted in the promise that we will be consulted, but the aim still appears to be to report and implement changes within the next year, so that savings can start immediately (they are certain there are savings to be made). Any new version of CEA will need extensive testing to ensure that Forces children aren’t just guinea pigs to a scheme which ends up not delivering and costing as much as the original for an inferior product. A half-baked scheme will result in families leaving just as readily as the total removal of CEA.
Newspapers are starting to report that next financial year will be even more difficult than this. We were told that the SDSR (Strategic Defence and Security Review) process had drawn a line under the MoD’s financial problems and, although it was a very difficult pill to swallow, it had to be taken to get back on track. The MoD is now very quiet when asked about the next financial year; indeed it appears they have decided to delay any decisions, mainly because they are so unpalatable. To continually be asked to do more with less, or the same with less is simply not feasible. Trying to do less with less when you are fighting a war, which we are told is reaching a critical year, seems absurd, yet this is the situation our soldiers are facing. Someone needs to make a stand before it is too late, and the damage being done to the Army’s greatest asset, its people, becomes not only irreparable, but infectious. After all no-one in the Army has enjoyed the same period of prosperity and affluence that our civilian contemporaries became used to. The last ten years delivered a punishingly high tempo of operations which did not bring the same financial benefits as those enjoyed in Civi Street. Austerity is nothing new to Army families who are well used to the reality of no budget being available for anything from housing repairs to decent aircraft to get their soldier back on R&R.
Protecting the front line allowance, often quoted, is a contradiction. Morale on the frontline is absolutely affected by the home front situation; whilst operational allowances may remain strong the reduction in allowances, threat to CEA and danger of redundancy affects all those in the Army – including those on current deployment. As we face another year of fierce fighting, are we comfortable, we may have the very real situation where soldiers are volunteering for very dangerous operational tours because they need the money in an increasingly expensive world, with inflation at 4% and salaries frozen for potentially a third 3 year as well? Will they stay, or needing the money, jump out of the frying pan into the fire of private security firms paying big bucks?
If politicians decide we have done our bit as a force for good and the time is right for a period of stability and reorientation at home, then not many Army families will complain. Families are weary of the high tempo of operations with service personnel deploying all over the world, fighting wars to impose stability whilst helping to preserve Britain’s global status. If the Army remains at home once this current war is over, then we need to make sure the package for these ‘serving veterans’ reflects the sacrifices they and their families have made. And we need to make sure that the Army retains the people who deliver the capability to serve again when the time comes; one look at the uncertainty in the Middle East and North Africa suggests that will not be as far in the future as the financial masters might have wished. The worry has to be if the cuts continue as they appear set to do and, as our survey suggests, a large number of experienced soldiers vote with their feet when the economy picks up, those left will not be able to do what is required.