Society has changed and it’s no surprise that army families have too. So are MOD policies keeping pace with how we want to live and work today? Jill Misson reports…
In 2019 the MOD commissioned an independent review into the diverse needs of service families, which was welcomed by AFF. Chief Executive Collette Musgrave says: “We need to recognise that families may be unmarried, live unaccompanied or in their own home, may be a same-sex couple, dual-serving or single serving parents and therefore their needs and challenges may be different. It’s essential that decision makers ensure that current policies and procedures are fit for purpose and support the modern family.”
Some recommendations from the Living In Our Shoes report are now coming into force, and the MOD is also looking at eligibility and entitlement, the future of housing and service terms and conditions. However, Collette remains cautious: “Whilst we welcome the reviews, our concern is that there are a number of them happening at once, which could lead to conflicting decisions and priorities.”
While it’s good to see policy catching up with today’s society, it may still take a while for changes in attitude to bed in. One blended family with five children told us that they felt their two eldest from the spouse’s previous relationship weren’t recognised by the chain of command ‘even in an emergency situation’. “It all seems to depend on who is in charge at the time rather than a universal approach,” explains the spouse. “This was the main reason my husband transferred to a different regiment. He was told that his family was ‘a burden on his career’.”
The future of housing
In the Defence Accommodation Strategy, launched in October, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace states: “We are committed to ensuring that all our people have access to good quality accommodation, in line with modern living standards, and support that meets their varied needs, health and wellbeing.”
Accommodation entitlement in future will be based primarily on need, and not seniority of rank. Couples in established long-term relationships (LTRE) will have the same access to quarters in the UK as married couples or those in civil partnerships. LTRE entitlement won’t extend to overseas postings for the time being, so families will need to review their situation depending on where they’re going.
Head Personnel Policy, Brigadier Phil Bassingham-Searle, says: “We recognised that people want and need to have more choice over where, how and with whom they live and aim to support this. We should also recognise that the army’s role to protect the UK means we are different from society and as a result, there are going to be some constraints on where and how we live.”
Changes to come
Serving parents who are not the primary carers of their children can struggle to get support. One soldier contacted A&Y to express his frustration at having been placed on a long waiting list for surplus SFA. He wrote: “My child no longer lives with me so I’m pretty much a weekend dad now. I was told my only option was to use a welfare house or hotel, or to rent a civilian house which I can’t afford on my wage. Something needs to change for parents like me.”
This issue has been addressed under the Future Accommodation Model pilot, with parents whose children are resident with them for over 80 nights per calendar year entitled to accommodation support. Policy is still being developed, however AFF is hopeful that this important improvement will be included in the new accommodation policy and will provide updates as soon as information is available.
Another issue, particularly with blended families, is travel costs for visiting children, particularly if you’re based overseas. Katie Hillary (main photo) says: “We are in Cyprus and our three kids live with their mum in the UK. The problem is being able to afford the flights. When we are posted back to the UK we will be four or five hours drive away from them so we are worried about the cost of fuel.”
Katie McCaffrey lives in a quarter with her serving husband, their young twins and her teenage daughters from a previous relationship. She feels that more thought should go into postings for blended families: “Either my daughter doesn’t see her dad because they move us hundreds of miles away or they expect me to take a welfare move away from my husband with him staying in the block and our sons growing up without him around.”
Help on the job front
There has been a shift towards more spouses working to bring in a second income. Brig Phil says: “Initiatives such as Wraparound Childcare and Flexible Service are good examples of how Defence is adapting to reflect modern ways of living. On an individual basis, flexible working arrangements can be made to accommodate things like the school run.
“We are currently looking at childcare to understand what we might be able to do to improve beyond what is already provided, and we will continue to work closely with AFF to understand the concerns of families and gaps in provision.”
Dual-serving couples can now transfer leave between each other to reduce childcare frictions. There is more detail on the Discover My Benefits website about hybrid working, shared parental leave, extended paternity leave, compassionate leave and additional annual leave allowance.
Programme CASTLE was set up to modernise army career management structures. The team tells us: “We are currently in the process of developing new digital tools to make career management more efficient and put more information into the hands of your soldier. We are also designing it to help with communication between your soldier and their career manager, so that they can tell the army what really matters to them. Your soldier currently has access to the Career Management Portal on Defence Gateway where they can search for jobs by location.”
It can be hard to keep up when you are counting on your soldier to relay the messages. Collette adds: “Families find this really frustrating. They want to hear direct from decision makers about things that affect their lives. They also want information that is clear, understandable, and accessible to them, which is where AFF can help – we can translate and explain official information for families to understand.”
Brig Phil acknowledges the problem: “It is always possible to do better. Sometimes we are not able to communicate as clearly as we might wish. Whilst initiatives are being developed and have not yet been fully agreed, it’s not always possible to convey the detail of how they might affect families. We really appreciate what AFF does to communicate with families.”
AFF’s Your Army Life survey, which ran throughout November, asked how you feel about the support, services and allowances designed to reward the soldier for their service and compensate for the impact of army life on your family. Look out for the findings at aff.org.uk, coming soon.