Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from the RAF Families Federation

  1.  The RAF Families Federation, operating under The Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA), has been invited to contribute both written and oral evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) Inquiry into Recruitment & Retention in the Armed Forces. We are grateful for the opportunity to inform this Inquiry and we are hopeful that the views of RAF families will influence to some degree the HCDC's report on these important issues. We have all heard the American maxim "Recruit the Man (or woman!), Retain the Family" and we believe that one of the strongest "pull factors" encouraging Service personnel to consider leaving the RAF is the impact of the military life-style on family life. It is therefore all the more important that families' views form part of the evidence being considered by the HCDC and we are pleased to see the 3 Family Federations actively engaged in this work.

  2.  There is no doubt that military families today are facing significant challenges and that expectations are high in terms of the support they believe the uniformed and family members of the Service deserve. An increased operational tempo and a massive shift from the old "Cold War" scenario to the more recent "expeditionary" air force sees thousands of personnel deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other trouble spots around the world. Families are experiencing frequent and prolonged absences of loved ones, and Out of Area deployments are no longer the exception but more the rule. Whilst welcoming improvements in some allowances and the painfully slow progress in improving accommodation standards, many families believe that the military are under-valued and that the disadvantages of the military life-style outweigh the advantages that perhaps attracted them to join in the first place.

  3.  This report focuses on retention as we believe that this is the area of the Inquiry to which our evidence is most relevant. However, we do believe that many of the factors highlighted by families have a negative read-across to recruitment since public awareness of many of these issues undoubtedly has a negative impact on their perception of life in the Armed Forces. Every bad news story about Service accommodation, inadequate support to casualties, alleged bullying at training camps, etc, whether based on fact or not, adds to a perception of a military life-style that is unattractive in comparison to careers available in civilian life.

  4.  As the RAF has only recently re-established a Families Federation (we launched in November 2007), our mechanisms for gathering evidence from families are as yet relatively immature in comparison to our sister Services' Families Federations. However, we have conducted a number of liaison visits to RAF units and our Issues database is evolving every day, with more and more RAF personnel and their families bringing issues to our attention, many of which have a direct read-across to retention. Moreover, the Federation team itself has over 60 years experience of serving in the RAF, either in uniform or as a partner of a Serviceperson, hence our appreciation of many of the issues being reported to us is based on personal experience.

  5.  To inform this inquiry, I have reviewed earlier work completed last year for the Armed Forces Pay Review Body review of the X-factor, since many of the messages emerging from RAF families for that review have a resonance with this current inquiry. Annex A details the key issues that RAF families believe impact adversely on family life, broken down into the key X-factor areas ("Features of the Job"; "Impact of the Job" and "Social Aspects of the Job"). Ministers will be aware that the AFPRB included this evidence in their deliberations and that, as a result of this and other evidence, a 1% increase in X-factor was included in the last Pay award. I have now updated this evidence to reflect the evidence emerging from unit liaison visits and our Issues database in the hope it will give the HCDC an insight into the issues impacting on RAF families today.

  6.  I have also included (at Annex B) a simple narrative report detailing the top family-related issues that we believe are having a negative impact on retention. These issues are drawn from our (admittedly relatively immature) database and from discussions we have had with family members, both serving and non-serving, during the seven unit liaison visits undertaken during the last three months.

  7.  Finally, the HCDC will wish to note that the RAF Families Federation launched a simple survey of family members during the period 1-21 March 2008 to inform the work being undertaken for the Service Personnel Command Paper, a study being chaired by Min AF. Several of the questions posed in our survey covered retention. Unfortunately, the analysis of this work will not be complete for the HCDC deadline for written evidence but, once this work is complete, we will send a copy to the Committee for consideration as you deem appropriate.

Annex A

Aspect of RAF Career/Lifestyle Comments
Features of the Job
Adventure and TravelClosure of units overseas has limited opportunity for travel. Many feel that access to Adventurous Training is limited and that increased gapping and the increased operational tempo has made it even more difficult to secure time off for such training. Closure of UK units has also reduced the opportunity to live in different parts of the UK, reducing the sense of adventure that prevailed when there were many more bases upon which to serve.
Job SatisfactionMany commented on the additional stress caused by increased workloads—covering for those Out of Area and also for the gapping caused by the draw-down of the RAF. This impacts on job satisfaction to a great degree as people feel overworked and undervalued. Some commented on the frequency of guard duty which is still required on some units, despite the arrival of MPGS staffs.
Job SecurityImpacted adversely by recent redundancy rounds—people are far less certain they will enjoy a full career. Reduction in uniformed numbers is reducing opportunities for promotion, which is linked to further service and job security. Job security for partners trying to pursue separate careers is non-existent.
Promotion & Early ResponsibilityMost feel that promotion is far harder to obtain and that levels of responsibility have been eroded, particularly at the junior non-commissioned level. Evidence of many turning to internal commissioning route in order to secure greater responsibility and promotion as they feel stuck in the lower levels of non-commissioned service, with some trades experiencing very poor promotion flows.
Degree of Autonomy/Management Control Workplace Flexibility Most report a poor level of autonomy, albeit it gets better when on operations where there are fewer staff and individuals feel a greater sense of control. Returning to the UK home base can then be very frustrating as they revert to lower levels of responsibility. Flexible working practices is not part of the RAF ethos despite promises to the contrary for "family-friendly" employment policies. Too much depends on the personality and management style of the boss.
TrainingMany report that it is becoming far more difficult to get released from primary duties to undertake professional and/or personal development training. Resettlement training can also be difficult to achieve if your last tour of duty is on a busy front-line unit where absence for key resettlement courses can impact on the operational effectiveness of the squadron. Family members can find it difficult to pursue training courses and higher education as postings disrupt the study period and access to colleges.
Impact of the Job
DangerSince the X-factor was last increased, the level of danger and risk being faced by RAF personnel has gone up significantly, with casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan a regular feature of the daily news. The impact of combat stress has not been properly evaluated and families fear that repeated exposure to dangerous operational activity is having a negative impact on the mental and physical health of the uniformed members of the family, with knock-on effects on the rest of the family. Personnel return from current operations reporting regular attacks by mortar and small-arms fire, plus incidences of suicide bombers within their vicinity. This is not something RAF personnel (other than perhaps the Regiment) were accustomed to experiencing before the Service moved towards "expeditionary" ops in the global war on terrorism.
Hours of WorkMost families report that their uniformed partners are working longer hours than they used to, carrying extra duties to cover for those on OOA or taking on more secondary duties as the number of uniformed personnel available to undertake them has fallen. This can impact adversely on provision of child care if the other partner also has a job.
LeaveMany report that, whilst they do manage to get most of their leave entitlements, it is often not at their preferred time of year due to operational commitments. Several report short-notice cancellation of family holidays. Where partners are also working, co-ordinating leave plans is very difficult, especially if children's school holidays are also a factor. Many feel they cannot plan ahead for those "once-in-a-lifetime" holidays for fear of seeing their plans unravel closer to the time.
Separation from Home and FamilyThis is a major concern of RAF families and they feel that separation is increasing, with more frequent turn-arounds between operational tours and some trades routinely breeching the "harmony guidelines". Some pointed out that separation from the uniformed partner is exacerbated when you are also separated from family and friends because you have opted to "follow the flag" and live away from your family home. Those left behind feel forced to adopt single-parent coping strategies to compensate for the missing partner, whilst often trying to maintain their own job/career.
TurbulenceAlthough some would expect turbulence to reduce as we move to larger bases and withdraw from most overseas bases, most families feel that turbulence is still a major negative factor. The need to move the family at frequent intervals impacts on so many family areas—housing, education, healthcare, partner's careers, special needs, etc. The majority of respondents felt that they required more stability as a family. The impact of turbulence on a partner's career aspirations is significant, even with those professions traditionally considered easily "transferable" (teaching and nursing). Most partners cannot pursue a sustained career path of their own and this impacts on earning capacity and ability to afford housing, private education, private healthcare, etc—options that could make the Service families' lives easier, if they were affordable. The lack of stability also means the partner can rarely build up his/her own pension entitlements. Many respondents highlighted the impact of postings on their ability to enter the housing market, something many aspire to, particularly in light of rising FQ rents.
Social Aspects of the Job
Divorce and FamilyAlthough comparative divorce/separation rates are not available, many RAF families share a perception that the level of relationship breakdown is higher than in the civilian world. They believe that it is often too easy for couples to marry, perhaps to gain that first home and access to an allowances package that continues to benefit the married over the single. It is then relatively easy for the uniformed member to move out—he/she can simply return to the Mess or Barrack block, leaving the rest of the family to be eventually evicted from quarters. Reasons for the breakdown range from too much separation, posting to the wrong part of the country, impact on partner's career aspirations or any number of relationship issues that seem to be exacerbated when the uniformed member is away from home too much.
Health and EducationRAF Families are still crying out for access to the RAF facilities they used to enjoy. Many families are commuting hundreds of miles back to old locations to maintain continuity of dental care. Whilst access to NHS doctors is not so acute, families still believe that partners and children of the uniformed member should be treated by the same doctor and not in isolation. As far as education is concerned, many families report difficulties in accessing their preferred school on relocation and many have to go through the stress of the appeals process. Whilst the CEAS provides excellent support, many feel they should not have to go through this process. Several commented that the increasing cost of Boarding School is not reflected in the Continuity of Education allowances. Further requests for the postings of those with school-aged children to be timed for the main school holiday to minimise disruption.
Stress at WorkMany report that their partners are very stressed at work because they are either deploying frequently to areas of known danger and risk, or they are covering the duties of those who have deployed.
Support to Personnel and FamiliesMost RAF families feel that the level of support available to them has declined over recent years. The introduction of JPA has removed many clerks from the front-line, who could help them understand rules and regulations pertaining to RAF service. The demise of the RAF Families Officer left many in FQs feeling they had no one to turn to and the withdrawal of the DE housing staffs merely added to that perception (The RAF's introduction of Service Community Support Officers is seen as a welcome reversal of this trend but their effectiveness and impact has yet to be measured). Many feel that the RAF personnel staffs are simply too busy to provide adequate support and the lack of access to RAF doctors and dentists leaves families feeling isolated. Lack of affordable childcare on base was also cited as an area that the RAF should do more to counter, particularly when both parents are serving. Many respondents felt that they had not had any information about "family friendly" policies and doubted they existed.
Travel to WorkMany report that it is now costing them a considerable amount of money and/or time for the uniformed member to get to work—many are being housed in quarters miles away from their work base and for some, the allowances available do not cover the costs involved. There is limited recognition that the need to have a second car is often predicated on where the RAF can provide housing—partners also need to be able to travel to and from work or to local facilities. Service-provided buses to and from FQ sites are often extremely inflexible and do not meet the needs of many who may be required to work early or late, or do shifts.
Quotes from Family membersRAF life has "a profound affect on family life—we have all moved repeatedly with each of my husband's postings" "For his career I have sacrificed mine" "Leave has been refused at short notice recently". "We make fewer decisions together which strains the relationship". "Causes anxiety in the children". "Often I feel in the dark or left alone to cope". "Service life is not family friendly". "I feel families are an inconvenience to the Services". "I will be pressuring my husband to leave the Service before our eldest reaches High School age". "Marriage should be a partnership but a Service spouse is treated like an extra child". "Spouses with children liken their lives to those of single parents, taking on full responsibilities of life and parenting". "Men are missing out on their children's milestones". "Due to high operational commitments and under manning, morale is low and the workload and pressures on individuals is increasing". "The pros for working in the RAF are diminishing". "Behavioural problems amongst children can be extremely exhausting for the single parent who is left to cope". "Partner's careers are often put on hold or compromised". "Spouses' expectations are considerably higher than the support now available".

Annex B

Family-Related IssueComment
HousingHousing features as the main issue on the new RAF FF database.
The main complaints centre on the allocations policy and entitlement to SFA (based on rank, size of family, Special Needs requirements, etc). These issues seem to cross the rank structure and special needs provision is clearly a growing area of concern.
We have also seen recent evidence arising from non-entitled partners who are not permitted to co-habit with long-term partners, many with children from the relationship, due to the lack of a formal marriage certificate. This lack of recognition causes resentment and is cited as a reason for some to consider leaving the RAF. We are aware that work is in hand in the Centre to address this but it has been on the policy desks for at least 10 years, with no promise of delivery in the near future due to the cost implications of extending entitlements to partners.
Other housing issues relate to the performance of the Housing Information Centres, the delivery of response and pre-planned maintenance, and the overall lack of investment in the estate leaving a backlog of repairs and upgrades required to bring accommodation up to a standard the families believe is appropriate.
Many families aspire to own their own properties and welcome initiatives such as the Key Worker Living Scheme that enables military personnel to apply for shared equity and similar initiatives. However, the constant mobility of RAF life, coupled with the lack of control over future family location, makes entry into the housing market a particular challenge and a high-risk endeavour for many.
EducationThe key issue here is mobility and the need to move children to different schools if the family is to stay together or to opt for boarding school to guarantee continuity of education.
Access to first choice primary and secondary schools across the UK is becoming a very emotive subject, with many families having to appeal against decisions by local authorities, adding to the stress of moving home. Often, the short-notice of an assignment, or the late notification of an address can make the application process even more challenging and whilst recent enhancements in policy have allowed unit addresses to be used for school registration purposes, if the accommodation is in a different catchment area to the base, this does not make the application any easier.
Access to special educational needs provision is also complicated by the mobility factor, with some families reporting long delays in securing the same provision at a new location. Whilst statements of special need are supposed to be transferable, this is not always the case in practice, meaning that children have to be re-assessed by the new school, creating delays in their educational support.
Although we do not have hard statistical data to back this up, we are led to believe by many families that the cost of boarding school has increased significantly over recent years and that the Continuity of Education Allowance (Board) has failed to keep pace with this, meaning that families are now required to pay a larger proportion of private education costs.
HealthWhilst this is an "old chestnut" as far as the MOD is concerned, it would be remiss of us if we did not include the continuing angst caused by the lack of access to NHS dentists. Families are either waiting for protracted periods to gain access to dental cover, are travelling back to previous locations to secure continued access, or are simply not registering either themselves or their children for routine dental care. Whilst we acknowledge that this is a national problem that is being addressed by a national strategy, the problem continues to be exacerbated by the mobility of Service families, who frequently re-locate every 18 months to three years, sometimes at short notice and to locations not of their choice.
Access to GP care for families seems to cause fewer problems and some lucky families are cared for by RAF doctors on training units, where junior doctors use the family population as a resource to extend their learning and experience. There is still concern that family care is split between different doctors, with the Serviceperson covered by the RAF and the partner and children required to register in the local NHS clinic.
Access to specialist medical treatment can also cause difficulties for RAF families required to move frequently around the country. The "post code lottery" that appears to determine whether specialist treatment is delivered, and if so, at what cost, can create real difficulties for families, with some opting to serve unaccompanied in order to allow a partner or child to continue to receive specialist medical care. Whilst the RAF is sympathetic to requests from serving personnel to delay or cancel a posting that would have a negative impact on medical care, the Service need must come first and this can force families to make very difficult choices.
FinancialAlthough we have limited evidence in our database regarding financial issues, we are aware that the continuing increase in accommodation charges is considered a negative factor by many families who perceive that the quality of accommodation, lack of choice and limits on self-help to improve the quality of the family home, does not justify the higher rents.
We have received some comments that the pay and allowances for RAF personnel deployed to operational theatres are still insufficient to recompense for the increased risk and danger now being faced in many Out of Area locations. However, we do not sense that financial issues are a strongly negative retention factor, except where the cost of house purchase is concerned, covered earlier under housing.
Operational Tempo/SeparationOne of the key concerns arising from RAF families is the increased operational tempo, with some specialisations facing repeated breaches of the "harmony guidelines". Whilst many serving personnel relish the opportunity to serve on operational deployments, and volunteer to put their training into practice, the impact on family life cannot be under-estimated. The constant fear that the next media report will be about your loved one being killed or wounded is a stress most of us cannot imagine and the impact on children is an area that has yet to be fully evaluated. We have received reports of families finding the disruption of the partner's return extremely difficult to cope with, for all parties, and the difficulties caused when he/she then deploys again having a major impact on children's behaviour. The difficulties experienced during the absence of a serving partner are often exacerbated by the distance between the family and their other relatives, since many Service families continue to "follow the flag" and will serve miles from their home base and the support that can offer.
Clearly, many families cope extremely well with the regular deployments and might argue their relationships are all the stronger for the enforced separation. Our evidence, however, tends to highlight the negative aspects of separation and its impact on a family's willingness to continue to support the Serviceman or woman throughout repeated deployments.
We have received evidence of some families slipping through the "welfare net" and of partners not receiving the level of support that is available to them during the deployment of the Serviceman or woman. These individuals report an extreme sense of isolation and many are unsure who to turn to for help, particularly the younger wives and partners who may lack experience of the RAF welfare support structures.
We have also received comment from some parents of serving personnel who feel that they are not kept well-informed when their loved ones are deployed and that their concerns do not appear to merit much support from the Service welfare agencies. Contact with parents very much depends on the Service person nominating them as individuals to be kept informed via the Point of Contact system that operates within the RAF; often this covers only the spouse/partner and parents can feel isolated, relying on the media to keep them informed of events impacting on their son/daughter.
Service Terms & Conditions of Service (T&COS) Although our evidence is patchy, there is certainly an emerging theme that the differences in entitlements between the three Services, exacerbated in a joint arena, can cause feelings of resentment amongst the cadre with the less favourable T&COS. Relocation leave has been cited as one example—the Army having a greater entitlement than the RAF.
We have also received negative comments regarding the inability of those who wish to stay in the Service beyond the Normal Retirement Date (NRD) of 55 being forced to leave at a time when there is so much attention being paid to retention. Similar comments come from those unable to extend beyond an engagement through "continuance" or "assimilation" (both terms referring to Service-led requirements for limited numbers to serve beyond the normal exit point). Whilst the Federation recognises that strategic manpower planning is a complex science, there is a view amongst family members that the RAF is losing experienced staff when it could perhaps retain their services for longer to cover current and forecast gapping or increases in established tasking.
We have received comments from some families that longer tours, particularly for officers, who tend to move every 18 months to two years, would be a welcome step towards mitigating many of the problems experienced by mobile military families. We are aware that proposals for more regional postings are being considered to improve family stability; we would support this development, subject to the Service recognising the needs of those who do not achieve an area of choice—there will always be some who need to serve in locations not of their choosing to meet the Service requirement.

13 March 2008

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