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Raf Leuchars (Married Quarters)

Volume 932: debated on Thursday 26 May 1977

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Snape.]

1.0 a.m.

I make no apology for raising a personal problem at this hour of the morning. It concerns an airman, now Corporal, Middleton, who is currently serving with the RAF in Leuchars in Fife, having served in the RAF for more than 12 years.

The story is, briefly, that about 12 months ago Corporal Middleton was moved from Driffield in Yorkshire to Leuchars. He was then a junior technician. When he reached Leuchars he was informed that the next allocation of married quarters was a flat in the new town of Glenrothes, which is in my constituency. In Glenrothes the RAF has the use of 90 flats, let to it by the development corporation. The flats are subject to the various local byelaws, one of which forbids the keeping of pet dogs in the flats.

That in itself hit the Middletons hard. They had had a dog for five years. The children and the whole family loved it. It was clear that if they took the flat they would have to get rid of the dog. It might seem to many people to be a trivial matter, but it was very important to this family. Eventually, after a great deal of heart-searching, they reluctantly accepted the flat although it meant the destruction of the dog.

In addition, I am told by the mother—and this is confirmed by the father—that the children were subjected to all kinds of cruel treatment in and out of school, which greatly disturbed the parents and the children. Mrs. Middleton asserted to me that the elder daughter had to have help from a child guidance psychiatrist as a result of that treatment, and the psychiatrist apparently strongly advised the parents to move away from the flat and the district.

Mr. Middleton thereupon applied for a quarter in the camp at Leuchars. The application was supported by a letter from the child guidance psychiatrist. The airman alleges that because of the strength of his case he was told that the application would be passed immediately to the wing commander. I do not know the precise delay in reaching that stage, but there was certainly some delay before it reached that high authority.

The cumulative sheer frustration and worry had resulted in Mrs. Middleton walking out on her husband, although I am glad to say that the last time I was there she was back with him. In her absence—again, I am speaking only on the information that was given to me—a welfare officer from the Leuchars base had called at the flat and agreed with the husband that—I quote direct from a letter from the couple:
"the district was disgusting and no parent should be expected to bring up children there."
I accordingly wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister about the case on 5th April. His reply, dated 4th May, was in typical, cold, unemotional Civil Service jargon and was signed by him as a fait accompli.

He said:
"the occupants of the Glenrothes flats suffer the inconvenience and frustration commonly associated with all blocks of flats."
The letter continued:
"There are no plans to discontinue the use of the Glenrothes flats which, after all, enable the airmen to be united with their families."
To show some streak of humanity the RAF was prepared
"to provide some measure of compensation."
It seems that after an airman has lived in one of the flats for 18 months he may move to another married quarter as long as he expects to serve for at least another six months at the base at Leuchars. The message seemed to be "Be of good cheer; you have only six months to go and then you will be moved." It was then stated:
"it will be possible for the children to acquire another pet."
My secretary, who is a forthright and perceptive character, read the reply. She drafted the further note to the Minister, dated 11th May. On the top of it she typed in red:
"I thought I would send him a mild rocket as it was obvious the Department just took bits out of the files."
That was an apt comment on the terms of the letter of 4th May. That is why I decided to pursue the matter in this form.

I can anticipate the Minister's reply. I suppose that it will be a repeat of the gist of the original letter. No doubt he will say that married quarters are in short supply and that all applicants must take their turn in a queue. I suppose he will say that there is no reason for giving Corporal Middleton, as he now is, preferential treatment because he has brought his Member of Parliament into the case. No doubt he will say that others, too, are suffering the same inconvenience and frustration as the Middletons and that they have not bothered to take up their case with their MP. I understand the force of those arguments, but I do not accept them.

I shall ask the Minister some questions and I hope that he will answer them now, or at least write in reply. They are not complicated or catch questions. I am genuinely seeking information so that these men might be treated more humanely than Corporal Middleton.

First, what care is taken by the RAF to ensure that as far as possible the flats are not allocated to families with young children? Secondly, even if they are families with children, are they regularly visited by welfare officers to ascertain what problems, if any, are being faced by the wives and children? Thirdly, what liaison machinery exists, formal or informal, between the RAF and the development corporation to ensure that if there are problems they are dealt with sympathetically and expeditiously?

I have visited the family on two occasions recently and I have found them to be extremely intelligent and sensible people. I am satisfied that they have a case deserving far more sympathy and attention than it seems to have had hitherto.

I cast no aspersions on the Glenrothes Development Corporation as the housing authority when I say that, like other housing authorities, its experiment in the building of multi-storey flats has scarcely been a glittering success story. But, as RAF personnel in this instance appear to be the chief sufferers, I hope that the Minister will give me an assurance that, in the long term, if not in the short, steps will be taken to get them out of these flats altogether. The experience of living in them for any length of time is bound to affect the happiness of the occupants and, before long, the quality of the airmen's work.

I found this case quite distressing in its way. It is not one of the most horrible of stories that come to my attention as a Member of Parliament, but it is extremely unhappy. I hope that it will be happier very soon.

I do not believe that the treatment that the Middletons think they have experienced—I believe that they have some justification for feeling that they have been unfairly treated—is a very good advertisement for recruitment to the Service. I hope that my hon. Friend will give me a more sympathetic reply than was contained in the letter of 4th May—at least according to the interpretation put upon it by my secretary.

1.12 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force
(Mr. James Wellbeloved)

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), is right; I shall have to repeat some of the comments that I have already put in the letter to which he referred, because the House is entitled to have the full account put on its own record.

I should like to deal with some of the general aspects of our policy on married accomodation and how it is applied at RAF Leuchars as well as with the specific complaints raised by my hon. Friend. I do so because I think that the Service makes a very sincere attempt to be helpful to Service families and recognises the importance of a stable and happy family life in the efficiency of the Service man. But we cannot please everyone all the time. Not only are our resources limited; it needs to be recognised that much also lies outside anyone's control in personal relationships.

RAF Leuchars is a large operational unit and married accommodation is located in four areas; in houses and bungalows on the unit itself, at Anstruther and at Cupar and at a group of 90 flats, to which my hon. Friend referred, which have been leased by the RAF from the Glenrothes Development Corporation.

All this public married accommodation forms a single pool of accommodation which is allocated on a well established points scheme which takes many factors into account. It follows, therefore that someone who has perhaps undertaken an unaccompanied tour overseas and who has a large family may acquire enough points to be placed ahead of a Service man who has been on the waiting list for a longer period. To protect a man from being continually displaced on the waiting list a number of places at the top of the list—usually one for every 20 quarters—are frozen, and once a man has reached one of those placings his position is secure. There is no deviation from this system, and married accomodation is allocated in strict order of availability according to when the applicant reaches the top of the waiting list.

Corporal Middleton was posted to RAF Leuchars at his own request from RAF Leconfield, where he had a married quarter at nearby Driffield, under a scheme which enables an airman to complete his last tour of duty before discharge in an area of his choice wherever possible. I think that it, in itself, is an illustration of the way in which the Royal Air Force tries to accommodate the wishes of airmen as far as humanly possible. At the time his name came to the top of the list for quarters at RAF Leuchars the only available accommodation was at Glenrothes and one of the flats was therefore offered to him.

Unfortunately, the Glenrothes Development Corporation had been troubled by uncontrolled dogs and, in an effort to reduce the nuisance, the director of housing introduced legislation on 4th March 1976 which required all tenants to make immediate alternative arrangements for their pets. We were able to obtain special dispensation for airmen who moved into flats before 15th March, but the ban applied to all Service families who moved in after that date. Corporal Middleton, therefore, had a difficult decision to make. There was no prospect of a house or bungalow becoming available at Leuchars, Anstruther or Cupar, his family could not remain indefinitely at his previous unit and acceptance of the flat at Glenrothes meant making alternative arrangements for his pet.

I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my concern about pets in flats and about the unreasonable restrictions imposed by some local authorities. I have made representations to my local authority to exercise a sensible and humane policy of allowing animals to continue to live in flats in which they have lived before the change in rules. My hon. Friend will note that that was done by the development corporation in respect of the aminals that were already with the families on the estate. Corporal Middleton fell outside that arrangement, as he went in after the regulations came into operation. In the event, he decided to part with his dog.

The Glenrothes married accommodation is not entirely popular with Service men. The occupants, many of them with young children suffer from the inconvenience and frustration common to many flat dwellers. But the flats are of a similar size to the two-, three- and four bed-roomed bungalows and houses at the other three sites at RAF Leuchars. They were constructed 10 years ago and they complied with the relevant byelaws.

Many hon. Members will know of the difficulties with which families living in groups of flats have to contend. The Glenrothes site is no exception. There is no way in which these difficulties can be overcome either by my Department or by the Glenrothes Development Corporation. Earlier this month representatives of the RAF, the Property Services Agency and the development corporation carried out a special inspection of the site. There is a lack of playing area for children. The areas for clothes-drying are inadequate and the communal rubbish disposal system is not always used as it should be. In conjunction with the local authorities we are seeing what can be done about this.

There are also problems of anti-social behaviour. Some of those are matters for the police and some can only be solved by those living in the area. There are limits to what the RAF authorities can do, even when service families are involved.

Corporal Middleton's family—and particularly his nine-year-old daughter—found it difficult to settle down in their new environment and the airman asked for an immediate transfer to the Leuchars site. He claimed that his daughter had been bullied at school.

We have made inquiries and we have not been able to find any clear evidence that this happened. No other Service families have complained about bullying. Therefore, it would not be fair to give people preferential treatment on such grounds, however much one may sympathise with family problems of this kind.

Because the accommodation in flats at Glenrothes was unpopular in comparison with the other married quarters, a scheme was devised last year which gives airmen the opportunity to move to other quarters after they have lived at Glenrothes for 18 months. The move could be to the station of Leuchars or, if any airmen expressed a preference for accommodation at the other sites, the requests would be favourably considered.

Since many of the Service men at Glenrothes are in similar circumstances to the Middletons, I cannot give preferential treatment to my hon. Friend's constituent. He referred to the frustration and delay that caused Mrs. Middleton to leave her husband. But Mrs. Middleton said in a letter to my hon. Friend, which he passed on to me, that she had left her husband and he had to take time off work to look after the children. She said that she was sure that they would be moved into a flat if they tried that. I do not think that her moving out was a result of frustration and delay; it appeared to be a deliberate decision to leave her husband and children in the hope that that would bring about a change.

The situation is difficult, and we appreciate the problems of these families. Many of the other Service men on this site have an opportunity of availing themselves of the special arrangements after 18 months' residence. It is surprising that only two of the 36 eligible airmen have elected to move. The reason for this, I believe, is that they have settled in, their children are quite happy at the schools, and they do not want two moves in the period of their business there.

I am sorry that I must disappoint my hon. Friend, but to take special action would be quite unfair to all the other airmen in those flats, who are settling in and responding to the difficulties that face all flat dwellers and overcoming them, enjoying life and continuing to be good and solid members of the local community. After a few more months, if my hon. Friend's constituent makes an application for a move to one of the sites under the scheme in operation, it will be looked at speedily and favourably in accordance with the scheme. I hope that that will enable Corporal Middleton to complete his RAF service in an environment that he finds congenial.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend has raised this matter tonight as an assiduous and very good local Member of Parliament. This is the sort of thing that we are elected to Parliament to do. But Ministers also have responsibilities, and part of those responsibilities is to ensure that the operation of rules and regulations is fairly applied, and that they are not breached by one family on very slim grounds in situations such as this. Therefore, I regret that I am unable to concede any special treatment for Corporal Middleton or his family.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past One o'clock.