As ever the pace of life in the Army world is relentless, with much of it related to changes which are making things harder for us all and it is taking all AFF’s ‘positivity’ to look for silver linings. No sooner have we started to comprehend the full scale of the cuts to defence that we are faced with the start of the cuts across the rest of Government. Against our pay freeze, inflation at 5% and the rising cost of utilities, fuels in particular, balancing the books of the family budget is almost impossible. Households are under a level of financial pressure not seen for over a generation and the threat of redundancy looms large across whole of the Army. Getting away from the pounds, shillings and pence, and despite the recent demise of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban appear as keen to continue their terrorist campaign and Col Gaddafi obstinately refuses to budge. Although soldiers are yet to become involved, the UN is calling for a cease fire and any stalemate that needs policing will require boots on the ground – who is betting against at least some of them being British?
Appearing on the horizon is the spectre of the Olympics next year; press reports state that the MOD is helping with the planning of security, and the potential that soldiers will be called to help must be considered. Security is obviously essential for the games to take place; it would be disappointing, but perhaps inevitable, that soldiers may be required to be on duty rather than enjoying the events themselves, spending valuable time with families who see little of them during the always hectic working schedules.
How many are available for duty by next summer remains to be seen as the redundancy programme will be in full flow by then. There is still much nervousness, mainly because we are still in the very early days and it is difficult to judge how the process will be handled. If there are more applicants than vacancies, families might be happy because the likelihood of compulsory redundancies will surely be less; however one should then look beyond the numbers and find out why so many are apparently desperate to leave and gamble on a difficult job market. It isn’t because of the money on offer – it is significantly less than the last package – and the Army will need to reinvest properly in those that have chosen to stay.
If there are less volunteers than required then an alternative plot emerges. The spectre of soldiers who have served, selflessly, for over 10 years, through high intensity conflicts and long periods of separation, being sacked and sent out into a society with little or no understanding of their experience and talents, and only a fraction of a bankers bonus to help them rebuild their lives.
It is clearly more difficult than being made redundant by a civilian firm, because as unpleasant as that must be, there is not the need to find housing, schooling and all the difficulties of moving into civi street entail. Are they going to be properly looked after, a large number of ex-servicemen 'flooding' the market? Can councils cope with housing and schooling demands? Even before the point of release, are the Army's Career Transition Workshops capable of managing this obvious peak? Despite promises of a full service being offered to all leavers, can education centres receiving no extra resources, match this exponential increase in demand? If not the Army will rightly face accusations of abandoning yesterday’s heroes to an unforgiving economic climate, and simply hoping they get through. Not all of them will.
On a positive note, the Prime Minister’s decision to halt the progression of the Armed Forces Bill and release the Military Covenant is very welcomed but despite being a lengthy document it is unclear as to whether this will provide tangible commitments. It will be needed by those leaving the service in the coming months but a degree of caution must still remain. Enshrinement in law is clearly important progress, but ministers must understand that the covenant is a living document, able too react to the circumstances that the military and society face at any particular time. Families need the protection offered by society understanding the forces community and the challenges it faces, and as the nature of those challenges evolves as they so surely will, so the Covenant should evolve as well. My fear is the Government will place the Covenant on the statue books, move on to new business thinking ‘job done’.
The evolution of forces life has already been outlined, with the announcement of the study into the New Employment Model. Rest assured AFF will work hard on your behalf to understand and be included in any decision making process. The findings will affect all soldiers, married and single alike, as well as their extended families and whilst we acknowledge that the current model is probably in need of a review, we will remind those commissioning the report that it should be about choices and flexibility, not cost saving and reductions. Accompanied service remains the bedrock of Army family life; we will lobby tirelessly to ensure that this is understood by the study and that they remember operational effectiveness has a moral component. In times of continuing change the old adage that you recruit a soldier but retain a family is never more true.