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Housing (Service Personnel)

Volume 455: debated on Monday 22 January 2007

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of housing for service personnel and their families. (116789)

Before I reply, I am sure that the whole House will join me in extending sincere condolences to the family and friends of the soldier killed in Basra, Iraq, yesterday.

Much has been invested in both single-living and family accommodation for service personnel, but much still needs to be done to ensure that all our accommodation is of a standard fit for the 21st century. Despite a legacy of long-term under-investment—much of the housing stock dates from the 1950s and 1960s—59 per cent. of service family accommodation in the UK is of the highest standard for condition. We have spent, or are planning to spend, over £1.3 billion on modern en-suite single bed spaces for our service personnel. That is just part of the £5 billion that we plan to spend on service accommodation in the next decade. We ask our troops to do a lot for us, and it is only right that we look after both them and their families at home.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to the soldier killed in Iraq yesterday, and I pay tribute to all members of the Royal Greenjackets battle group, as I served with that regiment many years ago.

The Government promised to bring all grade 3 and 4 accommodation up to grade 1 by 2012. When he had ministerial responsibility for such matters, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) said that he intended to accelerate the process. In light of the fact that there are serious problems with recruitment and particularly retention—poor accommodation is stated to be a prime reason for that—does the Minister not agree that it is vital that we complete that upgrading much more quickly?

I agree that it is vital that we do all that we can to bring service accommodation up to standard as quickly as possible, which is why I said that we plan to spend £5 billion over the next 10 years. We spent £700 million last year, and we have upgraded 1,705 service families houses, thus exceeding our target of 600. In the current financial year, we plan to upgrade 1,200 houses. I agree that we have to do more, and that some accommodation is not up to the standard that our service personnel expect and that we should provide, but we have made it clear that we will put in extra resources to ensure that we bring that accommodation up to standard.

Is the Minister aware that I represent a number of young servicemen and women who have put their lives at risk in war zones, only to return exhausted to low-grade substandard accommodation? That has been condemned as damaging to morale by the Chief of the General Staff, Richard Dannatt, the Adjutant General, Sir Freddie Viggers, and the General Officer Commanding in Iraq, General Richard Shirreff. The Minister appears to be complacent, so whom should the public trust—those generals, who know a great deal about the military and about morale, or Ministers?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should go back in history to see what happened when his party was in government. The Government and I accept that some accommodation is clearly not up to standard and is not good enough for our service personnel, but that is the result of decades of under-investment. As I told the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), we are committed to spending a significant amount to upgrade and improve accommodation. At RAF Marham, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), the vast majority of the 661 units of service families’ accommodation are of the highest standard for condition. There are not any properties at standard 4 condition, and only three at standard 3. In addition, under phase 1 of Project SLAM—single living accommodation modernisation—126 new single living accommodation units have been delivered at RAF Marham.

How much of the £1.6 billion received by the previous Government from the sale of married quarters to Annington Homes was reinvested to improve accommodation for our servicemen and women?

That is an interesting point because, even after 18 years in government, the Opposition did not bring all accommodation up to the standard that our service people expect. As I said, we accept that we have to do more, so I hope that the Opposition accept that they did not do enough either. I understand that £100 million of the £1.6 billion was allocated for housing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposed investment in a tri-service military academy in RAF St. Athan in my constituency marks a welcome step change in the provision of excellent accommodation for young servicemen and women?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He did a tremendous amount of hard work lobbying for the St. Athan site, and he is right that, as well as improving specialist training by providing a centre of excellence for our service people, it will lead to a significant improvement in housing.

Does the Minister agree that there should be an investigation into the privatisation under the previous Government that resulted in Annington Homes buying thousands of Army family houses, including homes in my constituency? If the money from the asset-stripping that Annington Homes undertook in my constituency were invested in family housing, every single married quarters in Colchester would be brought up to the decent homes standard.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration at the deal with Annington Homes, but there is nothing that the Government can do about that now as it was signed and delivered under the previous Administration. It was clearly not part of a strategy to improve and continue to improve all service accommodation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, significant investment is being made in living accommodation at the barracks in Colchester, and I was pleased to visit there recently to see the excellent accommodation being provided.

No doubt my hon. Friend would agree that we need homes fit for heroes, because they are who we see coming back to the United Kingdom from Afghanistan and Iraq, but have we not got to get smarter? As most of the recruitment takes place in the north, surely we should be building new accommodation and new camps where major recruitment takes place. We should also make it possible for families to buy property, through cheaper mortgages and incentives for deposits, rather than relying on the Army.

If I may take the latter comment first, my hon. Friend makes an important point. We are looking at what more we can do to encourage and support service families and personnel who wish to acquire equity in or own their property. There are schemes for that, but we recognise that more needs to be done. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are looking into the matter. I understand his point about the north and the south. We are considering the possibility of super-garrisons in future. I can make no promises about where they might be, but I can give him an assurance that we will continue to invest significantly in improving service accommodation for our families and service people.

Over the next decade the Department will spend about £25,000 per soldier on refurbishing living quarters, but more than £75,000 per civil servant on the Department’s Whitehall refit. In the course of that refit, it will purchase Herman Miller Aeron luxury chairs at £1,000 each, and over £3 million will be spent on 3,000 European oak doors, with hand-crafted finish. Is such disparity and dysfunctional extravagance justified?

The hon. Gentleman should get his facts right. I am surprised at him, as he is usually better than that. We are planning to spend £5 billion over the next 10 years, and £700 million was spent last year. The properties are refurbished to a very high standard. If he wishes to see the improvements that have been made to the single living accommodation, he is welcome to visit some of it. I accept again that we still need to do more and that some of the accommodation is just not good enough for our service people, but the Government are committed to continuing to invest heavily in improving that accommodation.

I welcome the commitments that my hon. Friend has made today on accommodation, but there is a related issue which concerns service personnel who leave the Army and are sometimes left homeless. What discussions is he having with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make sure that on discharge, none of our service personnel is left homeless?

It is interesting that my right hon. Friend makes that point. There is considerable support for personnel leaving the services, through the Veterans Agency and welfare and regimental associations, but he identifies an issue on which more could be done to improve the chances and support for our service personnel to get social housing and council accommodation when they leave. To be truthful, the provision is patchy. I have begun to look into it to see how we can improve it. Hon. Members could also help by asking questions of their local authorities about what they are doing to prioritise service personnel.

I am sure the Minister would accept that Members in all parts of the House believe that service accommodation, both family and single, for soldiers, sailors and airmen needs to be improved. When I participated in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I visited a number of barracks, not least in Catterick. Will the Minister accept that I found the single soldier accommodation to be grotesquely inadequate? Will he give me an assurance that emphasis will be placed on the urgency of improving the accommodation, which is so important not only for morale, but to reward those who put their lives on the line?

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. When I took on my present post a few months ago, my first visit to a barracks was to Catterick. I asked to see the worst accommodation, and also what was being done to improve the single living accommodation. I agree that some of the accommodation at Catterick, as in other parts of the country, is not good enough for our service people and needs to be improved. But I also saw significant investment at Catterick to provide new single living accommodation. Having spoken to the soldiers there and seen it for myself, it is clear to me that significant improvements have been made but that more still needs to be done.

One of my final actions before leaving the Ministry of Defence was selling the defence married quarters estate to Annington Homes. Since the money came in shortly after the Labour Government came to power, why did they not spend more of it on refurbishing homes?

The right hon. Gentleman knows from the operation of budgets and the Treasury how that money was committed. Let me be clear: we are considering what is happening now and what we can spend to improve the accommodation further. When the estate to which the right hon. Gentleman refers was sold, it did not leave a significant amount of money to invest in housing—£100 million was allocated to that. I ask again why, after 18 years, the Conservative Government could not solve all the accommodation problems.

Conservative Members would like to convey our condolences to the family of the soldier who was killed yesterday in Basra.

The Under-Secretary admitted that almost half the single living accommodation is of the worst standard. In a recent speech, the Prime Minister spoke of renewing the covenant between the armed forces and the Government. He said that that would mean

“increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces”.

What impact will that pledge make on the quality of accommodation for our armed forces?

I have just explained that we intend to spend £5 billion in the next 10 years and that we spent £700 million last year. We are continuing to invest in both family and single living accommodation. The Ministry of Defence is committed to investing more in accommodation for our service personnel.