Army&You gave you the chance to submit your questions for our exclusive interview with Maj Gen Rob Nitsch, Director of Army Personnel, who has overall responsibility for the wellbeing of soldiers and their families. We were overwhelmed by your response and some clear themes emerged – a big thank you to all of you who took part. Here’s what he had to say…
Families have raised concerns over lack of flexibility for their soldier to support family life. What is the Army doing about it?
The Army values family life and we recognise that a supportive family is a significant influence on how service in the Army is perceived. The nature of military service means that it is not always possible to prioritise family requirements above those of the Army, although we always seek to do so in extremis, for example bringing personnel home as quickly as possible from operations if a close relative is very ill.
But when the needs of the Service are not so paramount, I would hope that we are being flexible, for example enabling parents to drop children at school where it is practical.
My personal experience is that these small accommodations are more than repaid by those in receipt of them. I would strongly encourage personnel to explore the possibilities with their chain of command as needed.
From a policy perspective, there are two initiatives that will help flexibility; Flexible Working, which is being trialled now, and the Flexible Engagement System, which we hope to introduce in 2019. This will change current employment arrangements so that regular personnel will be able to lower their commitment and reserve personnel can increase theirs should they wish to.
One of the main barriers to spousal employment is childcare. Does the Army recognise this and what measures is it putting in place to offer support?
As a parent myself, I absolutely recognise that access to childcare is highly significant, both for those spouses wishing to work and also more widely. There are places where childcare provision is on-site, but I recognise that this tends to be the exception not the rule and that in other places, including overseas, access to childcare is a challenge. In recognition of the importance of the issue, we have made it a target area this year. Whilst it would be unrealistic to promise immediate progress, I hope that our efforts will lead to sustained progress over time. We will involve AFF in our work.
Many families have told us that they feel worse off because of all the changes in the last few years. Are you concerned that if families’ accommodation is no longer part of the package under the Future Accommodation Model (FAM), the ‘offer’ may diminish further?
We absolutely get the impact of the ‘offer’ on morale, retention, recruitment and a general sense of fairness. From the very top down, the Army is committed to seeking appropriate pay, allowances and conditions of service. But, I recognise that elements of the offer have been difficult to sustain at previous levels. In part this has been the result of tighter economic circumstances, but it is also important that we adapt and modernise the offer over time if it is to remain relevant and reflect changes in wider society.
Whilst aspects of the offer are undeniably less generous than they were, there have been some improvements such as overseas school children visits.
Recent work has also confirmed that aspects of the offer continue to compare favourably with civilian comparators, for example incremental pay.
At times, the detail of the offer is not well understood, so we have circulated the analysis through the chain of command and encouraged wider discussion of it. On FAM specifically, and as someone who has lived in quarters nearly all my career, I understand many families’ preference for Service accommodation. But similarly, the current SFA arrangements do not meet the needs of everyone. There is a risk that FAM could further diminish the offer but this is something that the Army is working on with the MOD. FAM is still in the design phase and presently there are a range of proposals being considered.
We will be looking to ensure that FAM does not degrade operational effectiveness or lead to greater dissatisfaction and intend that FAM should improve retention through offering more choice to personnel.
Families questioned how the current rental market can support an influx of Army families in terms of availability, cost and suitability. What are your areas of consideration?
As part of the FAM initiative, there has been detailed analysis of the rental market, including availability, cost and the impact of more Service families into local markets. We will scrutinise this analysis and intend to ensure that it’s a fair and reasonable assessment of the situation.
From the Army’s perspective, we are pressing to ensure that all options are considered as part of FAM, including the retention of SFA. The options recognise that the local rental market will not support the Service community in some locations and that, should we choose to use the rental market, we must protect personnel from local variations in rental costs.
One of the most common issues around FAM is the potential change from a rank-based to needs-based policy. How will you ensure you retain your soldiers under this proposal?
Whilst we await the detail of FAM, it is difficult to ascertain the impact of any changes. But taking up the point on retention, the Army is very focused on how length of service is recognised in the whole Armed Forces People Programme, of which FAM is a part. We would like people to serve for longer and we understand that the offer can be very influential in this decision.
There is a general concern that in the future, families could be spread over a wider geographical area. How is the Army going to ensure that families have a welfare team to support them when they need it?
The welfare support the Army provides is a critical enabler and it is something that we work hard at doing well – I certainly appreciate the work of all those who are employed in this area and recognise that it can be hugely difficult work at times. There are no plans to reduce the number of personnel working in the welfare area under FAM.
Depending on the model that emerges, we understand that we will need to revisit our welfare practices and provision to ensure that they are fit for purpose. We will consult with AFF and other stakeholders to ensure that we get any changes right.