I regularly speak with the Minister for Housing and Local Government and raise such issues as are necessary. My hon. Friend will be aware of the consultation recently undertaken by the Housing Minister on what more can be done, and particularly on statutory guidance on giving precedence in social housing lists to service personnel with local connections when they leave the services.
The Minister will be aware of the recent changes to the housing allowance, which mean that those aged between 25 and 35 will have to share. Exemptions have been announced for those living in homeless hostels and for certain offenders. Will the Government consider also exempting servicemen returning from active duty, particularly those who may be at risk of redundancy?
My hon. Friend will know that Lancashire county council’s Councillor France has expressed his concern, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for also doing so. We obviously always keep an eye on the matter, but the changes to the shared accommodation rate were discussed between Ministry of Defence officials and Department for Communities and Local Government officials prior to the announcement in June 2010. We will take a look at how we can best serve our personnel, but those who are exempted are those who are considered to be in difficult circumstances, such as people leaving prison. I do not think our personnel leaving the armed forces should be equated with, for instance, those leaving prison.
The Minister also has responsibility for forces accommodation. The Government recently announced that they would be giving an extra £100 billion, but they forgot to inform the public that they were taking away £141 million. Armed forces accommodation is the largest single issue raised in complaints to the authorities. What will the Minister do to address the sorry state of some of our armed forces accommodation?
First, I should say that we announced £100 million extra, not £100 billion, for accommodation?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but there has been no hiding the fact that we have had a three-year pause in the amount that we have put into forces accommodation. He will know why—we inherited the most ghastly financial situation. I have talked the matter through with the families federations, and they understand that times are very hard. If he does not understand that, he should read the newspapers.
May I remind the Minister of the armed forces covenant in respect of housing? In his discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government has he been advised of when the mandatory guidance will be issued to councils on that matter? Will there be more money in significant areas of garrison towns?
We are discussing the matter. I am not sure that mandatory guidance will be given, but there will be guidance on giving preference to those leaving the armed forces. We are very concerned about the matter, and we are continuing to uprate kitchens, bathrooms and so on with the money that we are spending. I know that the hon. Gentleman is as well aware as I am of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves.
I want to raise an issue about housing on which I am sure there will be all-party consensus. Recent research by Lord Ashcroft showed that a third of junior ranks in the Army and more than a quarter of those from the armed forces who have applied have been refused a mortgage, loan or credit card in the past five years. Although individual circumstances can always lead to a refusal, that number is far too high. Will the Minister agree to cross-party talks, involving service charities and the military, on how to deal with this and other issues of discrimination raised in the report?
Of course, I am very happy to indulge in cross-party talks on such matters. I talk to service charities the whole time about them. For instance, the right hon. Gentleman talks about mortgages being refused, but that is one thing that we have put right. Although I am not blaming the previous Government in particular, it is a fact that British Forces Post Office addresses were not accepted by mortgage companies. We have now said that they are to be accepted—[Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) saying from a sedentary position that that is not true, but that was what I was told by all the service charities and servicemen to whom I spoke.
For the purpose of this question, I shall set aside the partisanship and ask the Minister about the issue again. When one in five members of our forces is shouted at in the street and almost as many are refused service in a pub, hotel or elsewhere, we must all go further. There are sensible examples of legal protections for other specific groups that go much further than the military covenant to protect against discrimination, harassment or abuse. In the light of the research, in the build-up to Armed Forces day and as part of these indulged in—or indulgent—all-party talks, will the Minister consider new legal protections for those who keep our country safe?
I hear your strictures, Mr Speaker. I am not sure whether new laws are required. What is required is a greater respect for our armed forces and the truth is that most people in this country view our armed forces with great pride, which the four out of five people who are not subject to any form of abuse will recognise. Now, I notice people wearing uniform in the streets much more often, for instance. Once upon a time, that was actively discouraged because one did get abuse, typically from long-haired left-wing students, but that was just when I was young.
On the question of social housing, a problem that has come up in my constituency is what happens when someone who has been in the armed forces returns to an area from which they have been away. They want social housing, but the local council has a regulation that people cannot get such housing unless they have been there in the past year. Is that something we can put right?
It is, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government is talking about. When someone has been away for 10 years —perhaps they have been abroad, serving in Germany with the Army—they should have the opportunity to register for a house and to get precedence in the area where they lived for all their life before joining the armed forces to serve their country.
Birmingham city council was probably the first specifically to ring-fence new social housing provisions for ex-members of the armed forces. Is the Minister aware of any other councils in the west midlands following suit, as, although what Birmingham does is magnificent, it is not sufficient?
Here I call on the help of my civil servants, because I am not aware of any other councils in the west midlands following suit. I applaud Birmingham city council—under, I think, Conservative administration —for putting this to one side—[Interruption.] Then under Conservative administration. I applaud the council and, as the hon. Lady will know, we are encouraging the community covenants that lead to such activities.