With your permission, Mr. Speaker, before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who was killed in southern Afghanistan yesterday. His tragic death reminds us of the debt of gratitude that we owe those who have lost their lives in the service of our country and those still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On 28 December, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announced that we are taking action, as part of the Housing and Regeneration Bill laid before the House, to ensure that service personnel are treated fairly when applying to councils for social housing or homelessness assistance. We are amending the law so that service personnel will acquire a connection with the area in which they are stationed or living, which will put them on an equal footing with their civilian counterparts.
I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. To take him a little further in the debate about council housing, we know that, if action is taken early, we can reduce the numbers leaving our services and becoming homeless in our areas. Are discussions taking place between local authorities and the armed forces to ensure that those brave people obtain houses?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Bases and the armed forces have regular discussions with a range of people about housing, including not only local authorities, but charities. The resettlement package that we have put together is quite extensive in terms of providing housing advice, too. The latest figures from the research that has been undertaken show that around 6 or 7 per cent. of the homeless are ex-forces. We have a number of partnerships, working with people to provide accommodation for former service personnel who have become homeless. Last year I visited the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation in East Acton, which has an excellent scheme. Project Compass in London is another fantastic charity providing hope and support, particularly for ex-service personnel, not just on housing but on education and work.
Does the Minister agree that that point is important, and that a particularly heavy burden falls on those towns that have substantial service garrisons within them? Service personnel leaving the armed forces while living in those garrison towns will naturally look first to that town, rather than to their local authority of origin. Will he also look at the burden on the local authority of origin, which is particularly important when armed services personnel happen to leave prematurely and unexpectedly?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course there is a lot of pressure on local housing in garrison towns. Our joint service housing advice office is important for service personnel. As I mentioned earlier, the resettlement package that we have put together includes housing advice. Working with local authorities is an important part of that. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board next time I discuss the issue with officials.
Why cannot there be a national scheme that recognises that every local authority has national obligations? Why cannot every local authority be required to top-slice, in order to put a small percentage of voids at the disposal of ex-service personnel, which would maximise the choice to retiring service personnel and be fair to all local authorities rather than to some? Surely that is the answer. Why is it beyond the wit of men and women to organise such a scheme?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that has perplexed many of us: why do local authorities not give priority to ex-service personnel? Many local authorities in fact do so, and they should be praised. We have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and the Department for Communities and Local Government about such issues, and we will continue to do so. As I said in my opening answer, I am pleased by the announcement about the local connection, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will take such matters up.
Is the Minister aware that of the 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in the borough of Rushmoor, which includes the garrison town of Aldershot, some 600 are service personnel and that an increasing number of those are non-UK citizens who have enlisted in the Army? What action is being taken to warn overseas recruits, particularly those who serve for a short period of time, that there is a severe housing shortage in the United Kingdom?
If I may crave your indulgence as the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, Mr. Speaker, I should also like to seize this opportunity to pay tribute to the Army and to Rushmoor council for last week being selected by the British Olympic Association as the pre-Olympics training base for Britain’s athletes. This may be the most depressing day of the year for the Government, but there is great rejoicing in Aldershot.
I add my congratulations to Aldershot on its being chosen. I am sure that it will help to add to our medal total in the Olympic games. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point on housing. I accept that we need to do all that we can to assist with housing and advice, but if we look back to the time when his party was in government, we will remember the amount of house building that took place and the amount of cuts that it made in social housing. This Government have plans to increase the amount of housing provided in this country.