[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Future Accommodation Model.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Walker. I hope that you and other Members had a good Easter recess and are looking forward to an exciting few weeks ahead.
I brought forward this debate because of widespread concern about the way in which the Government are progressing the future accommodation model, the consultation process and the impact that the FAM may have on recruitment and retention by our armed forces. The Ministry of Defence seems to lack a convincing case, other than simply wanting to get personnel out of service family accommodation and into either their own homes or the private rented sector. The worry is that that threatens the practical availability of affordable quality accommodation for service personnel. I hope that the Minister can reassure us about some of the concerns and perhaps give clearer answers about what the FAM will look like.
I thank hon. and hon. and gallant Members for attending today’s debate. I do not intend my opening remarks to be very lengthy, as other Members in the Chamber have much more experience of and knowledge about this issue than I do and I am looking forward to hearing from them. I thought that there might be one or two more Members here, actually, but today’s events have perhaps focused minds elsewhere. The House discussed this issue a few months ago in a half-hour Westminster Hall debate, and I hope that this longer debate gives Members a greater opportunity to express views and the Minister an opportunity to give us some assurances.
During the recent debate on the armed forces covenant, the Minister said that the future accommodation model
“is a complex model, and it is a controversial matter. Much of the problem is that we have not had the opportunity to communicate what the options will be in the future, and I am determined to address that.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2017; Vol. 620, c. 1291.]
I hope that this debate gives him the opportunity to do that in rather more detail than we have had so far.
The context of the debate is a long period of dissatisfaction with military housing and what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who I am pleased to see here today, described as a “crisis” in military housing. The Public Accounts Committee found that service families
“have been badly let down for many years and are not getting the accommodation service that they have a right to expect”
and added that the
“current model for providing accommodation for families is not flexible enough to meet the reasonable needs of service families in the 21st century.”
There is a clear need for change, and the Opposition understand that need. We welcome the principle of broadening choice for service personnel and families, but that must include an important role for service family accommodation. Military accommodation is not just about bricks and mortar; the support networks and communities in a patch are absolutely crucial, too.
The future accommodation model is the Government’s response to their commitment to make a new accommodation offer to service personnel. The Government committed in the 2015 strategic defence and security review to
“help more Service personnel live in private accommodation and meet their aspirations for home ownership.”
They say that the future accommodation model will be based on need, be more flexible and reflect modern demands, which will provide personnel with more choice about the type of accommodation they live in and its location, and help if they wish to buy their own property or rent privately. I hope that we will get some assurance from the Government today that the FAM can deliver those aspirations—we are not yet convinced about that—and, most importantly, that they are taking fully into account the views of service personnel and families. There is concern that the proposals that come forward may be rushed through without full understanding of the long-term repercussions in terms of cost and impact on retention.
I want to raise a concern about the potential increased use of the private rented sector. Many of us will know from our constituency casework—I certainly know from mine—that that sector causes the greatest problems in terms of affordability, quality and security of tenure. There is real worry about the suitability and affordability of the private rented sector in some of the areas in which it might be needed. Although we understand the need for change, change is sometimes difficult, and we are worried that the future accommodation model is causing significant concern for both personnel and the families federations. There is real concern that the consultation was not carried out satisfactorily—let me put it that way at this stage.
The Armed Forces Pay Review Body’s 46th report highlights the need to maintain a clear line of communication with forces families about the FAM. It states that service families federations
“said that honest and clear communication around the implementation of the People Programme strands, especially the Future Accommodation Model, will be essential as housing is seen as a key element of the overall military offer, particularly for the Army.”
Hon. Members will be aware that the Department conducted a survey on the future accommodation model. The sample size was 137,000 and there were 24,302 valid returns, which represents a response rate of just 18%. Of those respondents, 42% had not previously heard of the FAM and a further 19% had heard about it but did not know anything about it. The Government surely cannot claim that a one-off survey to which fewer than a fifth of eligible respondents replied wholly represents the views of the armed forces, and they should not base significant policy changes on it.
I have a few questions. Given that the response rate for the FAM survey was so low, would it not make sense to re-run the survey with more detailed options and try to raise awareness of the future accommodation model ahead of that survey? Can the Minister tell us whether there are plans to run another survey at a later date when there are more details about the model? What is he doing to ensure that he takes into account a more representative cross-section of views? If there is concern about the cost of another survey, could it be run as an additional part of the armed forces continuous attitude survey or the families continuous attitude survey, which both had higher response rates last year than the FAM survey?
The Department has said that the FAM is not a one-size-fits-all policy, but as it has been presented so far it treats the three services exactly the same. We know that when it comes to housing, what works for one service may not work for the others. There is a big difference, in particular, between the situation for members of the Navy and that for members of the Army and the Royal Air Force. Army personnel are less likely to own a home—28% are homeowners—than Royal Navy or Royal Marine personnel, of whom 42% are homeowners. Being an owner-occupier makes a lot more sense for Navy personnel, because their jobs are more geographically concentrated and because of the particular housing markets in the areas where they tend to serve. Does the Minister think that a review of accommodation might present an opportunity to allow the individual services greater autonomy to deliver the housing that works for their personnel? Can he tell us whether the Department will let the services make the case for what will work for them, not just apply the new model across the board?
There are real concerns about the consultation, but I am also keen to hear what the Department is doing to examine the potential impact of the options on both cost and retention. On cost, the MOD told the Armed Forces Pay Review Body that
“whilst maintaining the total subsidy that Service personnel receive, FAM would deliver around £500 million savings over ten years…this will be delivered primarily through reduced running costs, capital receipts and savings.”
I am interested to know how the Department got to that figure when so few details about how the FAM will work seem to have been finalised. The Department said that
“the Future Accommodation Model will not reduce the total pot of money currently used to subsidise housing”
“the rental allowance would be adjusted so that no one loses out if they are required to work in more expensive areas”.
If the total pot is not reduced, there will clearly have to be some redistribution of funding away from some types of accommodation and towards others, particularly if some options are considerably more popular than others. What analysis has the Department done of the likely take-up of different options?
Furthermore, if servicemen and women increasingly move into the private rented sector, there is a strong likelihood of costs going up for either the Department, service personnel or both. The private rented sector is getting more and more expensive, with Savills estimating that rents are set to rise by 19% by 2021. Would a rental allowance rise with rental inflation? Most military personnel spend about 10% of their monthly salary on accommodation compared with civilians, who spend 30% to 40%. Will families see their costs go up, or will the Department make up the shortfall? A significant feature of the future accommodation model is increasing home ownership among service personnel. Of the FAM’s potential options, “Owning away from work” and “Owning near work” both mention the Forces Help to Buy scheme. Will the Minister confirm that that scheme will be extended beyond 2018?
The Army Families Federation’s “Big Survey” 2016 found that, when asked what they like most about service family accommodation, 74% of Army families said that they like living close to other service families and being part of a community, and 66% said that they like having access to service community support facilities such as the Army welfare service and unit welfare staff. We know that living in military communities can be really important for military families, particularly when partners or parents are away.
Similarly, the Army Families Federation asked families about their experience of living off the patch in substitute service family accommodation, and
“many commented on the impact of not living in a military community, leaving them feeling isolated and unsecure, sometimes living in a civilian community that did not understand the issues and challenges of military life.”
My worry is that families would face a similar issue in the private rented sector. They would not have the support network that they have on the patch, and the potential impact of that on morale cannot be underestimated; Opposition Members would have real concerns about a move towards greater use of the private rented sector. Those families would also not have the security that comes with service family accommodation. With no guarantees of tenure, landlords can put a property on the market with no warning, and 86% of respondents to the Army Families Federation’s “Big Survey” raised that lack of guaranteed tenure as a negative aspect of renting privately.
Military families with disabled members would have to look for properties that were already adapted or which had landlords willing to make adaptations, whereas SFA properties can be more easily and quickly modified. Perhaps most importantly, given that the Government’s Housing and Planning Act 2016 does not set a standard that all rental properties are required to meet, what are the safeguards against military families ending up in substandard properties?
We know that affordable, accessible housing is a vital component of the offer made to military families. The Army Families Federation’s “Big Survey” 2016 found that, if service family accommodation was reduced in favour of a rental allowance, 30% of those surveyed would definitely leave the Army, and a further 46% would consider leaving. Both the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the Centre for Social Justice, in a report written by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier), acknowledge that the future accommodation model will necessarily reduce the level of benefits that military families receive now, and are concerned about the consequences for retention and recruitment. Any future accommodation model must balance not just costs but the need to ensure that personnel feel valued and continue to see the armed forces as an attractive career option.
I will try to finish, Mr Walker. I am concerned that the Government are attempting to rush through what could look like short-term savings without considering the longer-term repercussions on the families of service personnel or the future ability of our military to recruit and retain staff. I would like to see improved consultation with individual services on their accommodation needs, greater scrutiny on the costs of the roll-out of FAM and improved safeguards to ensure that no military families feel isolated or lose out financially as a result of these changes. I look forward to hearing from other hon. Members on this important issue.
May I say what an honour it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker? I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing the debate and on his thoughtful and interesting speech.
The House, and indeed the Minister, have heard me speak several times before on this subject, so I will be fairly brief. However, it is worth saying at the outset that we face some quite serious manning shortages in two of our three services. The Army is now 4.9% under strength on paper and, looking at the large rise in the number of people who are still serving but who have been medically downgraded over the past five years, the underlying trend is worse. The Air Force, on paper, actually has a slightly higher deficit than the Army, but the Navy has managed to stay within 2% or so of its target. Retention is a very big factor, but so are justice for, and the welfare of, our armed forces.
I have been a passionate believer in opportunities for home ownership for the armed forces for my whole political career. The only time I went to see Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister—which shows how old I am—specifically regarded a scheme for home ownership opportunities for members of the armed forces; I did ten-minute rule Bills and the rest of it. I will try to set out now why I think the vision for home ownership in the future accommodation model is not quite right. We are essentially talking about a move towards two models—not a complete move, but a move away from service family accommodation as the main model and towards a system of allowances and owner-occupation.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington has already mentioned some of the complexities involved. We are not proposing to do as the Australians do, which is a very expensive scheme whereby its Department of Defence takes on houses in a community and all of the legal risks; it does the tenancy, maintenance and all the rest of it, and people move in and out as if they were in service family accommodation. The proposal that has been put forward, as originally announced, would leave people in a position whereby, at most, the Ministry of Defence might find a property, but after that the tenant would be responsible for the tenure, the length of which might not correspond with the length of their tour. If it is a rolling tenure, they can be thrown out with two months’ notice, and if it is an annual tenure, they will clearly have problems with renewals because their postings will not always tidily fit the years.
Above all, on maintenance, whatever the issues now— I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for his progress in driving up the quality of what we are getting out of the maintenance contracts from CarillionAmey—the reality is that, with the private sector, people would be on their own. Like the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, I have had some very bad constituency cases. For soldiers on operations, such as airmen flying in Iraq, if their family’s boiler breaks down or roof leaks and the landlord does not want to know, they cannot go to their commanding officer because Defence would not have a say in it.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of morale when troops are away, not only on operations but also often on extended exercises abroad and so on. When we still had Howe Barracks in Canterbury, I remember canvassing there and meeting a little boy kicking a football with his friends. His father had just been shot the previous night by a sniper in Iraq. The fact that he was there with all his mates, whose fathers were all subject to the same risk, was an important part of the supportiveness that the military estates provide.
I am also puzzled—I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will say something about this—as to whether we really are serious about moving people out into the community. The places we seem to be moving out of, such as Canterbury, Ripon, Chester and Maidstone, have affordable accommodation in the community and good employment prospects for wives, but we are expanding places like Catterick, and keeping open places like Lossiemouth—for at least 15 years or so—where there is very little of either.
This knocks on to the armed forces covenant. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Minister has done on the covenant. One thing to come out of that is that we have persuaded councils to remove the local requirement in the case of service families for housing, so that if a serviceman or servicewoman is serving in an area and does not have a local connection beyond the fact that they have been posted there, they will still be eligible to get on the housing list when they come out. However, as we increasingly focus on super-garrisons, I cannot see how that can continue. Are we really going to say that the council in North Yorkshire, which covers Catterick, will have to take on soldiers from that very large—and further to be increased—base, and that that is suddenly a problem just for the ratepayers in that one small area?
I do not think that a move towards an allowance is a good idea. I do not have an ideological objection to having allowances for some fringe cases, so that we can manage the housing stock more efficiently, and some people would occasionally have to wait for a short time in a hiring on the way in. However, we have debated this before, and I cannot see how a needs-based allowance will deliver this for the officer corps.
We are critically short of young majors, and captains becoming young majors. They are roughly the same group as pilots coming up to the first breakpoint. These are the most expensive people in the armed forces in many cases and the people we most need to run the system. They are the people who, in many cases, have not yet started their family; they are perhaps married but do not have children yet. They will end up with a very small allowance, rather than good-quality married quarters that are compensation for the penalties of service life, including the lack of spousal employment in many cases.
As I said at the beginning, I am a passionate believer in home ownership. I certainly do not believe it is fair at the moment to have a situation where the Army, and to some extent the Air Force, are so gravely disadvantaged. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that promoting owner-occupation is not the solution for the Army and the Air Force. It means that if someone is posted in an area where there is no affordable local housing or housing on a scale where large numbers of people could buy it without driving the house prices up, they are then outside it.
If we start to reduce the subsidy for married quarters—as we increasingly did in the last review, when 81% of rents went up—but provide extra allowances for people who are owner-occupiers, the people in service life who suffer least from it are the very ones who will then get the most benefit out of it; one could mention a couple of examples. For example, if someone is living in RAF Waddington, which is one of a very small number of airbases on the edge of a big city—in that case, Lincoln—where there is plenty of spousal employment and plenty of affordable housing, they will be able to do very well out of it. If someone is living in Colchester, they will be able to do very well out of it; that is one of the few Army bases where that applies.
However, the people who are paying the extra rents and losing are those who are living in the Cattericks of the world or in Aldershot, where there is lots of housing but it is too expensive for them. It is the people living in remote places such as Lossiemouth or the instructors at RAF Valley and the infantry training school at Brecon. Those are crucial people who do not have affordable housing there, and who in many cases have very little opportunity for spousal employment. They cannot go down an owner-occupier route.
If we want to provide a fair route to getting a foot on the housing ladder, it must not be tied to owner-occupation. It has to be available for a mixture of different tenures, so that if someone happens to be living near a house and at one point in their career lives in it, they can let it the rest of the time. Unfortunately, if someone does that at present, they will be hit by the Chancellor’s new landlord tax when they let it.
I know that the Minister is starting to free it up a little, but the rules are still pretty dour at the moment. If someone has taken out a forces help to buy loan, they have to apply for permission to let the house to anybody. Looking at the small print, that is not a commercial risk I would want to take on. So yes to home ownership for getting a foot on the property ladder, but no to tying it to owner-occupation.
I want to reinforce what the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said and what my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan)—I am glad that she will be speaking shortly—has been saying for a very long time about the survey carried out on the future accommodation model. For my sins, I am a graduate mathematician, and I worked as a professional statistician. It cannot be said too often that a self-selected sample is not a sample. The problem is not that one fifth is not enough. It is easily big enough if it is a sample, but this is not a sample; it is a self-selected sample, which is very different. If only one fifth choose to fill in a survey, they are not representative. Any polling organisation —I know that one was involved in this survey—should advise that.
I have a print-out here of the first page of the survey website. After the note on privacy at the beginning, the very first words read:
“Service personnel are dissatisfied with the current accommodation system and it is becoming unaffordable, so the MOD is thinking about accommodation options for the future—the Future Accommodation Model.”
From the word go, the scene has been set to encourage people to support change. The current option is not actually given as an option anywhere. There may be more, but on flicking through quickly I found no less than 10 references to opportunity for home ownership. However, nobody says that the number of postings that are near affordable housing will be reduced; that is not mentioned. Nor does it tell people that there will be an extra tax if they buy a property and let it.
Group after group have hints that they will get extra allowances out of this. We are told that it will be extended to the unmarried. There is a very strong case for that, but will it include children from a previous relationship? It will become very expensive if it does. That is not made clear, but that is one group of people to whom it could apply. There is a hint that people might get more help with their mortgages. As we go through, it is suggested that more money may be available for area after area. It does not actually spell out that if the thing is to remain affordable, we will end up potentially with higher rents and other issues for those who are still in married quarters, unless money can be found elsewhere. There is just one comment at the very beginning about this being within a fixed budget. As we go on, we can see why more and more people thought this was nirvana coming.
I will end by saying that I have the highest respect and regard for my hon. and gallant Friend the Minister. We worked together, which I very much enjoyed. I know he is deeply committed to the armed forces. Indeed, he has served for nearly 30 years in what was the Territorial Army. I share his vision that we need to find routes to home ownership for people in all three services; there is a perfectly good one for the Navy at the moment. However, I urge him to think again about whether owner-occupation is the right way for the Army and Air Force and to ask himself whether moving towards a needs-based allowance and away, in many areas, from SFA will maintain a happy and effective Army and Air Force.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing this important debate.
Living arrangements are an eternal dilemma for those who choose to serve in our armed forces. On the MOD side, that has a huge impact on recruitment and retention of those who choose to serve. The very sacrifices of that service are underlined by the unique challenges to personal and family lives presented by frequent moves, long periods deployed away from home and rigid working hours. Ensuring that that sacrifice is met appropriately by the Government they serve is imperative.
The Scottish National party supports much of the future accommodation model in principle, but, a bit like in a Gordon Brown Budget of old, the devil is always in the detail; I am sorry, but an election has been called. The current Government also have an attachment to allowing the private sector to profit from tasks that are not naturally relevant to the free market. The point was well made by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier).
I hope that the MOD does its utmost to provide for armed forces personnel comfortable and appropriate accommodation that is flexible to their needs and those of their family. However, it is also incumbent on Members of this Parliament and of the next Parliament to provide the scrutiny and accountability that is applied to the delivery of this model to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and that sufficient investment is made in the estate as a whole. We welcome the provision for flexibility in the future accommodation model. I hope that the MOD prioritises working with personnel and their families, along with relevant experts in the field, to explore ways of increasing the effectiveness of its overall delivery.
As I said at the start, the unique pressures of military life mean that pastoral care and stable and fit-for-purpose accommodation are the foundations of strong morale among the men and women who serve in all three armed forces. An army may well march on its stomach, but it fights for something to come home to, and the Government must provide that.
Just as the armed forces have moved with the times in areas such as the role of women and minorities, so they must move away from the entirely rigid forms of accommodation that were previously the norm, not just to maximise their offer to serving personnel, but to fulfil their responsibilities as a decent employer. It is therefore welcome that the future accommodation model highlights the fact that
“the accommodation allowance of tomorrow will be provided based on…need, regardless of age, rank or relationship status”.
I hope that that is a sign that there is a move towards a more equitable system for all.
However, that is not to say that there have not been problems with the application of the model up to now. As MPs, we must shine a light on the worst practices in the delivery of accommodation across all three services. The Public Accounts Committee found last June that CarillionAmey was
“badly letting down service families by providing them with poor accommodation”.
Some 5,000 complaints were made by service families in just two months of last year alone, according to The Guardian. As a member of the Select Committee on Defence, I have enjoyed visiting bases throughout the UK and Scotland, but this is one issue that continually comes up, with similar enough examples occurring to indicate a pattern across all the accommodation that has been provided. It might be easy to dismiss some complaints as inevitable, but we should take the warning from the Public Accounts Committee that
“frustration with the failure to undertake small-scale repairs may be driving some highly trained personnel to leave the military, wasting the investment made in them.”
Given the state of recruitment in some aspects of the military services, we cannot afford to ignore that situation. It is a catalogue of errors for which the ultimate sanction for CarillionAmey must apply. Hearing that the Minister is considering withdrawing the contract if the company does not continue the marginal improvements that it has made recently is welcome.
I am not sure whether service personnel and their families will have much good to say about CarillionAmey, but it is vital that the Government continue to move forward with a wide-ranging and worthwhile consultation of those who use the accommodation most. Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have a much more holistic approach to supporting personal and family choices in the military. I can only hope that this is an opportunity to move towards a similar system in the UK.
Ultimately, the armed forces must represent the society that they protect in all its diversity. There must be a solid and sustainable offer to people from all walks of life. That begins with a flexible approach to accommodation and the necessary investment committed in full. The Minister can be assured that those on the SNP Benches today and, we hope, in the next Parliament will continue to hold him to account on that point.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Members who have spoken. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for bringing the debate to the House. As colleagues know, this issue is very close to my heart. It has become, unwittingly, something of a passion for me, because military families have regarded me as the person to come to with their issues. It is lovely to hear filtering through to the national consciousness all the work that we did last year through the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office about the problem of accommodation that just is not good enough for those families’ needs.
Looking specifically at the future accommodation model, I come back to the question that I raised with my hon. Friend the Minister before Christmas: is the survey good enough to work up a policy from it? My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) made the point—we raised this issue at the time—that it was a leading survey. It was predicated on driving answers that could only say, “I like one of the four new options.” It did not offer those who are not yet married, those who are married and do not have children and those who are married with children and have served for 20 years plus, who have been through the gamut of the CarillionAmey experience—good and bad, as it often is—the opportunity to say, within the set of four options, “Actually, what we have now is the best option. Although the house is rubbish, the plumbing is rubbish and the windows don’t shut properly, it is still the best option.” That was not in the survey and therefore the Ministry lost the confidence of all the armed forces at that point.
Those who completed the survey did so with a heavy heart. They filled in that blank box, but the Minister has not released the information from that. I will continue to press the Department to release all those data. The excuse given is that that might identify people. Well, we have seen every Department ever remove, with a black pen, things that might identify people. Families who filled in that box would like to see the data published, so that they know that the Department has read and is taking seriously the endless comments—I have seen many of them, because people sent them to me—that said, “But we don’t like any of those four. We would like to stay in service family accommodation, however rubbish it is, on patch, in the community where it is provided.” I will therefore continue to press the Minister to think about how that information could be published in a way that does not put any individual at risk, and to question whether that survey, in its extremely biased and leading form, was a good enough basis on which to set policy.
There are certain key concerns that families continually raise with me. For instance, will the allowance be taxable? Perhaps it will not be initially, but does not the Treasury always end up finding its way around allowances? There is a real sense of anxiety about the lack of clarity. Will the allowance be adequate? As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said, the cost of housing changes dramatically depending on where people are posted. I understand that the Department is moving towards looking at FAM in two streams, in terms of both mobility and stability. I am very pleased if that is the case. I hope that the Minister can explain to us whether we are now looking at two different types of FAM package for those who have different needs. Those who are in the RAF and will always be based in one part of the country, where their families like to be, will have a different perspective on how this might work for them.
The deepest anxiety, which families raise continually, is: “If we are expected to rent a house or buy a house”—it will be probably be to rent a house—“what if we then move?” As so many Army wives in particular say to me, “Is it so wrong to want to actually live with my husband? Sorry, but am I supposed to be dumped somewhere in Birmingham while he goes off and does stuff? I want to live with my husband. My kids want to see their dad at the end of the day.”
This is particularly relevant to Army families. Unless those personnel are deployed abroad on long postings, they go off on exercise for a few days or a few weeks at a time. They are fundamentally living on patch and taking part in family life. The situation is not the same for the Royal Navy, whose personnel deploy for six to nine months at a time. There is a real concern, particularly among Army families, that it is not understood that this scheme will not support the family unit, but that is vital. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) said, family life is what keeps soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting abroad for their country. They do so knowing that their family is back here; there is a real purpose to their efforts on our behalf.
Another area of real concern that I would like to raise with the Minister is how the children will cope—or not cope. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury has already raised the question of nursery provision and of schooling. We battle on, and the Minister is very supportive in relation to individual cases in which children cannot find a school place when their parents are moved at short notice. That is difficult. Let us say that children are placed, for the purpose of stability, with their non-serving parent somewhere away from where the families are, in a non-military environment. We are seeing already too many cases in which the schools do not know how to support adequately those children whose parents are serving in the military. Quite a few, and I imagine there will be more, now have two serving parents. Those schools need resources, support and understanding.
In my constituency, in the village of Longhoughton, which is next door to RAF Boulmer, we have a primary school that is 80% military children. The headteacher is extraordinary in the way that she adapts the teaching to the children’s needs. She has a direct relationship with the commanding officer of RAF Boulmer so that she knows what is going on. Those children can be well supported, their education can be maintained and stability can be provided even though their parents are doing really difficult jobs. An awful lot of them are coming and going to the Falkland Islands, which is not round the corner—they are off on a long old journey. Teachers who are within the military framework and have lots of military children can provide the stability that those children really need, but if a single child is in a school nowhere near a military establishment we have real problems and see cases of the inability of school teachers to really understand how best to support such children. That is a key area.
Again, our boys and girls will serve our nation and protect us—they love their jobs, are extraordinary people and take incredible risks—but if they feel that their families are not being looked after while they are away serving, they will leave the service earlier than we would wish them to or need them to. We have also invested heavily in their training and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said, our numbers are still low. It leads to the question of retention risk and whether the Department has actually done the value-for-money assessment of whether this policy will have a serious impact on retention. All the evidence I see—anecdotal and in more detail from the survey results that have been published—indicates that this is just not robust enough.
We cannot afford the risk of greater loss from that cohort in the middle in particular. They may have filled in the survey and, at the moment, have no kids and quite like the idea of being able to buy their own home—it all sounds relatively rosy in the garden—but if in two or three years’ time they have children and suddenly find that it is really difficult and the framework the Department offers through FAM is not robust enough to support them, we will lose them and that investment. I really challenge the Minister to make sure that we have done the proper value-for-money analysis of whether this is the best way forward in terms of the housing investment we make for those families and future families, so that we do not get this wrong.
On the positive side, because I am hugely supportive of what the Minister does in a very difficult environment, we have seen a move forwards. I was at RAF Boulmer last week catching up with my local team. The move to put into the local rented market houses within service family accommodation that are not presently lived in by service families is interesting. It is starting to happen at RAF Boulmer—the Minister might want to come and talk to them—and is working well and gives flexibility.
The key is to remember that families move. Interestingly, at the moment Boulmer has quite a lot of single young men and two single young women—they are in the mess in the barracks—but if two or three of them were to move and two or three new families to arrive, family housing will suddenly be needed. That continuing fluidity will always be needed. The concern is that if we rent out too much service family accommodation, we will not have the fluidity that we need as individuals move around the country as they are posted. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind, although I support the idea that those houses should have someone in them. That is a good idea because, as all the work we have done with CarillionAmey and its efforts have shown, if a house is left empty, it deteriorates. We need to invest in them, either by putting people in them and making sure that the kitchen functions and the plumbing works, or by making sure that they are lived in and supported with a CarillionAmey contract, which works. It is getting better—I definitely have less casework than I used to have, so that is good news—but we need to continue to watch over that.
I will leave two questions for the Minister. The conversation suggests that three pilots for FAM will start next year. I think we would have greater confidence that the Department is listening and making progress if we were to know early on where those are likely to be—which military groups are likely to be asked to test this out—and how long those pilots are likely to run before anyone else is asked to move under this unknown and anxiety-causing part of the Ministry of Defence’s proposals.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on raising this issue. The fact that so much is happening elsewhere in the House explains why the numbers are small for this debate; none the less, the quality of the contributions has been exceptional and everyone has contributed thoughtfully. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. Every one of us respects the Minister because of the personal service he has done. We understand that, and he probably understands where we are all coming from as well. We look forward to his response, but we also encourage him—in a nice, gentle way—to move towards where we want to be and where he knows we want to be on this. That is the important thing. It is always good to have a Minister in place who understands the issues and can respond to them.
I represent Strangford, which has a very proud service history. Service in uniform is the norm for many in my constituency. I wholeheartedly support those who have served in the past and who are currently attempting to establish a veterans’ centre in Northern Ireland, although that is a topic for another day. The Minister will know about that issue because he had the occasion to meet some of those people a short time ago.
We all know the background to this debate. As hon. Members have indicated, armed forces personnel are entitled to service housing depending upon their circumstances. Some 40% of personnel live in single living accommodation and nearly a third live in service families accommodation. I am particularly taken by what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who preceded me in this debate, said about the demand for education. There is also the demand for health. When we look at accommodation, a lot of other things have to be bolted into that process. This is not just about accommodation and property; it is also about schools and health. All those things come together.
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to be in the armed forces parliamentary scheme—I did three years with it. That gives us a chance to go and see accommodation and meet the soldiers. When we met the soldiers we got what they really thought, then we met the officers and they perhaps gave a different opinion—somewhere in between was where the mix and the balance was. There was one thing that those soldiers told us over and over again wherever we were meeting them in their accommodation and on exercise. We always asked what the issues were. One of the major issues for those looking at the long term was pensions, but for those who were family-orientated it was accommodation. The issue of accommodation came up again and again, and I believe that indicates its importance to those people.
The Government committed to making new accommodation offers available during the 2015 strategic defence and security review to enable more service personnel to live in private accommodation and look to home ownership. I have a certain sympathy for those who want to gain the opportunity of home ownership and was not aware of the tax that could apply—the hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) referred to this—for those who buy accommodation and then rent it out. There is a tax on that, so perhaps the Minister will address that in his response. The future accommodation model has been touted as being based on need, being more flexible, reflecting modern demands and providing personnel with more choice over the type of accommodation they live in, the location and the help if they wish to buy their own property or rent privately.
I commend the Government, and the Minister and his Department in particular, for the Forces Help to Buy scheme. I believe it is a good scheme if done correctly. Many service personnel have chosen to pursue it, and they should have that opportunity. By the way, an issue that came up during my travels with the armed forces parliamentary scheme over the last three years was that of having somewhere to put down roots and the accommodation that personnel wanted. Again, I believe that the Government and the Minister’s Department have moved at least to address some of those issues. I have been made aware that some 9,000 personnel have already bought their own home via the Forces Help to Buy scheme—that is great news—but my concern is that that is nowhere near the number of people who wish to secure their accommodation in the places where they want and that more help is needed. I look to the Minister’s response for how we address those issues and the needs of service personnel. That is what our troops and their long-suffering families need, and that is what I am calling for.
In my three years in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, we visited many camps, mostly RAF, across the east coast of England, as well as in Catterick and Cyprus. The accommodation in some of those places was not up to standard, although the Ministry of Defence was taking steps to address it. It was not just about whether the kitchen worked but about leaking, draughty windows and other bread-and-butter issues that we deal with every day among our constituents. Those issues must be addressed.
When I read the Committee’s report, I was dismayed to see that accommodation remains the issue most reported by far to the families federations. I echo that opinion. The report asserts that the national housing prime contractor is still not delivering to the standard expected and should be held to account. CarillionAmey’s performance this year has been so inadequate that the Public Accounts Committee considered that families had been let down and were not getting the service that they had a right to expect. Despite some statistics showing recent improvement, the lived experience of too many service family accommodation occupants remains poor, causing stress and frustration. On top of that, it is difficult for families to live apart while service personnel are on duty in other parts of the world. Separation has an impact on families that can lead to other difficulties. The effect on children has been addressed, but there is also an impact on wives at home, and we must consider that forcefully.
If repair services are not at contracted levels, we must question whether the levels set by the MOD are good enough. Furthermore, although we agree with the broad principles and aims of the combined accommodation assessment system, the decision to implement charge increases for most occupants at a time of such poor performance on maintenance was inappropriate, and the roll-out of the CAAS in the UK was far from successful from many families’ perspective, due to poor communication and a complex appeal process.
I should declare an interest, in that I served in the armed forces for 14.5 years as a part-time soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Artillery. The bureaucracy in the Army and the services is mind-boggling at times; my goodness, the appeal process is complex. On poor communication, whenever the opportunity arises, we should ensure that we communicate with personnel and families on an accountable basis. It is totally unfair to charge for accommodation if it is not up to standard. I witnessed some of the accommodation issues that I have mentioned. I understand that there has been a direct commitment to address those issues, which is good news.
The report is a damning assessment. Clearly, urgent changes must be made for the sake of our armed forces families. I understand the need to reduce the estate. I remember the Palace barracks in Holywood, where some of the accommodation, over the years, could not be lived in, because it was not up to standard. That needs to be addressed. The Abercorn barracks in Ballykinler are a separate issue, on which the Minister knows my opinion. I believe that that accommodation should be retained by the estate. That is a different issue and not for this debate, but just to put it on record, the MOD should retain at least ownership of that accommodation. Should we have to resort to taking it over again, we can do so.
More can be done on accommodation. We have a duty of honour to provide a home life for those who serve us by giving up their home and risking their life. What has gone before is not acceptable. We must do better, and I remain to be convinced that this model is the way to go. I look to the Minister for assurance. We need more than a hint of help, to use the word used a short time ago; we need concrete proposals that bring change and look after our service personnel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for securing this important debate and putting accommodation for service personnel and their families under scrutiny once again. I feel that a certain announcement made this morning may overshadow what is happening here, but that should not diminish the importance of the message that we are sending out. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that despite the numbers in attendance at this debate, its quality shows how important the issue is to every single Member of this House, regardless of political party.
We as elected politicians have a responsibility—indeed, a duty—to do everything that we can to ensure that our service personnel and their families get the homes that they deserve. As the UK Government are preparing the accommodation model, it is only right that the accommodation should be seen to be comfortable and of an appropriate standard and that the model should be sufficiently flexible to meet our military personnel’s needs and those of their families.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington discussed the 2015 strategic defence and security review, and he was right to question the practicalities of supplying suitable and affordable housing in areas where it is needed. It is an issue that must be addressed. He also highlighted the failings of the future accommodation model survey and asked whether it could be carried out.
That has been a recurring theme throughout this debate. Several hon. Members have mentioned the future accommodation model survey. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who has been a great champion of our armed forces personnel, spoke out about the faults in the survey, describing it as biased and leading. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier), the experienced statistician among us—that was news to me, but it is always good to have expertise in the room—highlighted the serious problem that the survey was entirely self-selecting and so leading in its questions as to render it almost meaningless.
The hon. Gentleman also questioned the wisdom of moving personnel out of established military communities into areas where housing was not as suitable and perhaps not as affordable, and where job opportunities for spouses were not as plentiful. He has given us much to think about, and so has my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), who said that housing is an eternal dilemma for those serving in our armed forces. He was right to say that we in the Scottish National party support in principle much of the content and spirit of the future accommodation model. We will support the MOD in providing comfortable, appropriate accommodation for our armed forces personnel that is flexible enough to meet their needs and those of their families.
We welcome the announcement on the Government’s website that the new future accommodation model will be fairer than before,
“bringing more choice and helping more people get the housing they need, irrespective of age, rank or relationship status.”
Some might argue, with some justification, that it is remarkable that that was not already the case, but in the spirit of “better late than never”, we are pleased that it is happening now.
We welcome the acknowledgement that the current system simply does not work for many families. That recognition is extremely important. The Government must understand that that model’s level of understanding cannot apply if the new model is to succeed. The Government’s commitment to providing flexible accommodation through the new model is broadly welcome. If it can become a reality, it will undoubtedly lead to genuine improvements.
However, I say to the Minister that in order to do that, it is vital for the MOD to work directly with our service personnel and their families. It must also speak with experts in the field to ensure effective delivery. Every opportunity to consult and review must be taken, and the key to that must be engagement with the people at the sharp end: those for whose accommodation the model is being established. We welcome the proposal, as I have said, but we also want guarantees that the utmost scrutiny and accountability will be applied to the delivery of the model to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
All too often, the Government are behind the curve in planning, particularly now and particularly for issues that relate to our service personnel and their families. The needs of our service personnel and their families should be a key priority. Planning for achieving the right accommodation model must include military personnel and their families in a genuine and meaningful way. When the Government published the most recent SDSR in 2015, they committed to developing such a new model to
“help more Service personnel live in private accommodation and meet their aspirations for home ownership.”
As we have heard, the model aims to deliver, from 2018, an approach to accommodation that is more flexible and gives better value for money, both for service personnel and for the MOD.
It is right that the Government recognise that change is needed. In 2016, The Guardian reported:
“Almost 5,000 complaints were made by service families between March and May this year alone.”
Service families are already under pressure and already have to sacrifice an awful lot. They really should not have housing complaints added to the list of pressures that they suffer. It beggars belief that, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, service families have had to endure a housing repair provision that is so poor that the Public Accounts Committee has had to intervene to publicly criticise CarillionAmey for having
“failed to meet its key performance indicator of completing 95% of its tasks within the agreed response time.”
Indeed, with just one exception, it failed to meet that target every single month between December 2014 and January 2016. That is simply not good enough. Our service personnel and their families deserve much, much better. The Committee stated unequivocally that
“CarillionAmey are badly letting down service families by providing them with poor accommodation”.
As if the cost to the individual were not enough, let us consider the cost to the country as a whole. As the Committee has made clear,
“frustration with the failure to undertake small-scale repairs may be driving some highly trained personnel to leave the military, wasting the investment made in them”
by the country. Can we really afford to lose highly skilled, highly committed military personnel for what is essentially the want of a washer? The hon. Member for Canterbury made the same point when he spoke about retention of personnel.
Like many other hon. Members, I have many serving personnel in my constituency of Argyll and Bute. Their families make an enormously positive contribution to our local community, day in, day out, and they deserve better than what they are getting at the moment. Let us never forget the jobs that our service personnel do, which are highly skilled, highly stressful and potentially highly dangerous. Trying to maintain normal family life in such circumstances can be extremely difficult, because their families have to move around, they have rigid working hours and they may be away on long periods of service.
This debate is an opportunity to thank our service personnel and their families. It gives us a golden opportunity to do the right thing by them and provide them with a proper accommodation model. Doing so would provide the reassurance that the MOD is learning from the mistakes of the past and would send a very useful signal to other sections of the community from which we hope to recruit. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said, we ask so much of our armed forces personnel, so the least we can do is give them something worth while to return to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) for securing this debate, for making a very powerful case and for his questions to the Minister, which I hope will be answered today. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara).
I am sure we all agree across the Chamber that our armed forces need to evolve constantly to meet the security situation of the day, whether that is in their make-up, their equipment or their basing. Labour welcomes the chance to re-examine how we provide accommodation to our service personnel and consider how to make the offer as attractive as possible in order to keep encouraging our best and brightest into a career in the forces. It is vital that the wellbeing of our servicemen and women is a top priority in the changes made, but I am concerned that the future accommodation model focuses more on savings than on what is best for our personnel.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) raised concerns that mirror those of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) reminded us of the Public Accounts Committee’s findings on service family accommodation. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) asked whether the survey was good enough and stated her opinion that it was a very leading survey with limited choice—I shall refer to that point later. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted the importance of this issue to us all and related his experience with the armed forces parliamentary scheme and his involvement with serving personnel.
To put the debate in context, voluntary outflow rates for our armed forces are at an historically high level, particularly for jobs with transferable skills such as engineering. In the 12 months to 31 January 2017, more than 7,000 personnel left the armed forces earlier than planned through voluntary outflow. It appears that the overall offer of life in the armed forces is becoming less attractive: this is the sixth consecutive year of pay restraint, national insurance contributions are going up and rents are rising under the combined accommodation assessment system. It is therefore more important than ever that service personnel feel valued and that they should want to join the forces and stay in them. I will return to that point shortly.
One of the most significant changes made to service family accommodation was the selling off of married quarters to Annington Homes by the Major Government. I was not a Member of the House in 1996, but I am sure that those who were will remember the debate about the sale. Under the deal, the Department retained the freehold, but Annington Homes holds a 999-year lease, with the Department renting the properties back from Annington Homes on a 200-year under-lease. The deal was met with opposition from the Labour Benches; the then shadow Defence Secretary, the former Member for South Shields, said:
“The deal is breathtaking in its short-termism.”
He also said:
“The Government have never seriously attempted to deny the fact that the sale was not concerned with the long-term interests of our service men and women: the scheme was concocted solely to raise finances for the Treasury coffers”.—[Official Report, 16 July 1996; Vol. 281, c. 952-953.]
I understand that a rent review is due in 2021, 25 years after the initial sale, and every 15 years thereafter. As a consequence of that review, as is usually the case, the rent paid by the MOD is likely to increase.
I am concerned that if the future accommodation model is not done properly, we may see history repeating itself and the Government further tying the MOD’s hands. We are now hearing reports that because of poor management of the defence budget to the tune of £1 billion per year over the next decade, the Secretary of State is having to consider cuts to the Royal Marines. The Department has said that the future accommodation model will save it £500 million over 10 years, but we need to see more detail before we can take it at its word.
What we know about the future accommodation model so far is that the Government are fairly clear that they want to get personnel into the private rented sector, as well as promoting more home ownership, but are unclear on the detail of how to deliver that. The proposals laid out in the survey suggest that four potential options will be available to service personnel, loosely structured around the idea of stability or mobility. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington has already pointed out the need for transparency and much more consultation with service personnel; I completely agree, and I look forward to the Minister’s answers to my hon. Friend’s questions.
Our main concerns with the future accommodation model as proposed are the impact on service families and standards in the private rented sector, costs, and the knock-on effect on retention rates. In the future accommodation model survey, the most important factor in accommodation for service personnel was good quality: 97% ranked it as a top priority. All of us here are all too familiar with the question of standards in the private rented sector. While many landlords are good, there are also those who are not good, and we are concerned that there will be nothing to check standards, and that in some cases families may be forced to live in less than appealing conditions. There will not be the same access to maintenance and repairs that personnel have now, and while service family accommodation can be adapted for families with disabled members, in the private rented sector such families will have to find housing that has already been adapted or convince a landlord to adapt a house for them.
There is also the need for security of tenure in the private rented sector. Some 86% of respondents to the AFF survey stated that the lack of guarantee of tenure during a posting was either a negative or a very negative aspect to renting privately. I simply do not see how it can be workable to encourage families or individuals who need to be mobile to move into the private rented sector. In the event of a posting, the onus will be on personnel to find new rented accommodation. That may be in a place they have never been before, and there will likely be cost implications for ending tenancies early, which will have to be covered. The complications are seemingly endless.
As for cost, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington pointed out that there are no details when it comes to costing, except for the saving of £500 million over 10 years that the Department told the Armed Forces Pay Review Body it expects FAM to deliver, primarily through reduced running costs, capital receipts and savings, while maintaining the total subsidy that service personnel receive. However, if nothing has been settled in terms of the model, how can the Department make such a projection? I would be extremely interested to hear from the Minster what type of model that figure was based on and how the Department came to it.
Finally, there is the risk that FAM poses to retention rates. As I have mentioned, voluntary outflow remains high and we need to continue to attract people into the armed forces. Subsidised housing is a significant part of the overall offer, particularly when we consider that housing is becoming less and less affordable across the UK. The AFF survey made it clear that if service family accommodation was reduced in favour of a rental allowance, 76% of those surveyed would either consider leaving or would definitely leave the forces. That should be of great concern to the Government. The combination of a number of factors has created “the perfect storm” for retention issues and if the Government do not get the accommodation model right, they risk exacerbating the situation to a point of serious concern.
In conclusion, we know that in the past the Conservatives have made some rash decisions when it comes to service accommodation and we are concerned that this could be yet another costly example of that, hitting both the public purse and retention rates. The primary focus for a new accommodation model should be a balance between what is good for the service personnel and what works within the Department’s budget. Service accommodation should not be the first thing that gets cut to try to balance the books. The Government need to show that they value personnel just as much as they value equipment, and show that that view is much more than just words and translates into policies that have the wellbeing of our servicemen and women at their heart. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and I hope that it will clarify some of the points that have been raised this afternoon about this very important issue.
I call the Minister. Minister, would you allow the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) two minutes at the end to wind up?
Mr Walker, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I sense will be the last time this Parliament, although we shall see.
I start, of course, by congratulating the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) on securing this debate, which provides us with another vital opportunity to discuss the future accommodation model. It is vital because the welfare of our service personnel is the basis on which we build a world-class armed forces, able and willing to take on the threats and challenges of these volatile times. Getting this matter right is absolutely in all our interests. Let us be honest—we have not always done that.
As I have said previously, nobody is under any illusions that successive Governments’ records on service family accommodation in recent years have been an unqualified success. Indeed, issues with CarillionAmey, which several hon. Members raised today, have been well-documented. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Sir Julian Brazier) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), and others, which show that there is at least an acknowledgement that we have made progress in recent months. There has definitely been an improvement, but I am not remotely complacent. Much more needs to be done and I reaffirm my previous statement that if CarillionAmey does not perform on its contract, it will be replaced.
Equally, a number of detailed questions were put to me today and I will do my best in the time I have available to answer many of them. As ever, with some of the more technical questions, I will endeavour to write to hon. Members in the shortened timeframe we now have before this Parliament dissolves; I am sure that my officials will work especially hard to try to get those answers for me as soon as they can.
However, I will start by gently making just one point. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington basically said that he felt this process was being rushed; I would argue that it is anything but. Absolutely no firm decisions have yet been made, and this debate is yet another valuable opportunity for colleagues from all parties to contribute to this process and influence it. We do not anticipate coming to any firm conclusions, or rather that the next Government will not come to any firm conclusions, until probably the end of the year, with a trial not starting until the end of 2018, and a move to a new model will probably not be completed for perhaps 10 or even 12 years. With respect, that is hardly a rush.
The focus of today’s debate is not the past but the future, and in particular our intent to ensure that, when it comes to service family accommodation, we move with the times in a way that is logical and beneficial for all. As our troops return from Germany and we look to rationalise our estate, there is an unprecedented opportunity for us to do just that, by taking the opportunity to modernise the way we provide housing for our people, making it fair, flexible, and affordable.
Our future accommodation model is the mechanism for achieving that goal. Its benefits are not well understood —I accept that—and there are many myths and misconceptions shrouding it. However, before I hopefully go on to debunk the most prominent of those, I should start by explaining why the FAM will be a vast improvement on what has gone before.
Equally, however, in response to the comments from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I must say that I believe that across the House there is a will to provide a workable, practical and sensible solution for our armed forces personnel. Indeed, this may well be one of the last points of unity that we find over the next seven weeks as we head towards the excitement of the general election in 51 days’ time. As I say, there is a will to try to get this matter right and although, judging by his comments, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury may feel that we are on different sides of this argument, I am not sure that we are. This is all about delivering choice rather than prescribing to our service personnel what they will take. Also, let us not forget that some 20% of our service personnel opt out of the system and get absolutely nothing, which cannot be right.
First, I want to see a system that will be fairer, reflecting the societal norms of the 21st century rather than those of some bygone era. Let me give just one example. Currently, a married senior officer will be assigned a four-bedroom home, even if he or she has no children or other dependents, and will usually pay just £350 to £450 a month for it. By contrast, an unmarried member of the junior ranks, with a partner of 10 years and two children, is entitled to nothing more than a single bedroom in a block. How can that be right? If that service person moves out into the private sector to live with their family, it could cost them well over £1,000 every month.
The absurdity of this state of affairs becomes all the more apparent when one reads the testaments of the men and women whom it affects, such as the Royal Navy sailor who wrote to tell me how he cannot live with his girlfriend, even though they have been in a relationship for several years and have children together, or the couple forced to live apart because they are not married, or the father forced to live as a visitor with his own family. We cannot turn a blind eye to these situations any more. So, under the new model, we are committed to ensuring that provision is based on need.
However, FAM will not only seek to redress inequity but to be far more flexible than the current model, and flexibility is the key. The current model is failing to keep pace with modern life. What our service personnel want today—indeed, what they need—is choice and stability. They want to be given the choice of how to live, where to live, and with whom they want to live, and to be near the schools of their choice, to own their home and to provide their partners with stability and employment opportunities. Currently, however, our personnel must like what is on offer or lump it and, if they choose to go it alone, we cut the purse strings and they get nothing—no assistance, financial or otherwise, from the Ministry of Defence. That does not make sense and it needs to change.
We have made a start, through our forces Help to Buy scheme, which has so far helped more than 10,000 service personnel, but we have to go further. Under the proposals being considered as part of the future accommodation model, service personnel will be better supported to make their own decisions, and will receive our support regardless of where they choose to live.
The final point in this section of my speech is that the future accommodation model will be affordable. The current offer is inefficient and increasingly unaffordable. At present, we spend more than £800 million a year on accommodation, and that is set to rise, but a fifth of the personnel do not benefit from it. FAM will make savings by reducing management overheads, reducing further spending and stamping out inefficiencies. Let me make it clear—in case hon. Members are in any doubt—that savings will not be made through reducing the effective subsidy that personnel receive. This is about doing away with inefficiencies, such as the 10,000 or so MOD properties that currently sit empty. How can it be right for the taxpayer that we have those properties, all of which take money to maintain and currently serve no purpose because they are empty? We now try to rent them out when we can, getting an income that is reinvested, but we must keep a number of them empty, and rightly so, to try to always have ready what we say a service family should live in.
The intent is clear: we want a model that is fair, flexible, affordable and fit for the 21st century. That is our steadfast intention, but exactly how we get there is still being carefully considered and debates like today’s are feeding positively into that. To give just one example, the point has been raised with me before that even though we are moving to a system based on need there should be certain appointments that absolutely maintain a property: a commanding officer probably should have a property that goes with the appointment because of the wider needs of his role. We are looking at the various options to ensure that that is possible but, as I have said, at this stage no final decisions have been made. Nothing is set in stone. Ideas and plans will continue to evolve as we assess policy options over the coming months. Towards the end of the year we should be able to give more certainty about what the future policy will look like, but it will be important to continue engaging with service families to get the detail right, and we will eventually test policy in the real world with several pilots towards the end of 2018. I cannot at this stage give the exact details of what shape those pilots will take, but hope to do so shortly.
Crucially, our people will remain at the core of the decision-making process. We are listening, and will continue to listen, to service personnel, their families, family federations and other organisations. For instance, since we last debated FAM in Westminster Hall in October 2016, the FAM survey results have been published, with more than 24,000 servicemen and women responding and giving us their views on the model, indicating their housing preferences and needs. Hon. Members made some criticism of the survey in their contributions, and I shall attempt to address that, but it is interesting that this did not include cases in which the survey produced information that supported their points. None the less, I agree that it was a self-selecting survey and will be subject to response bias, but that has been recognised in our use of the results, which we have combined with many different sources of evidence. It is, after all, only one source of evidence. We tried to find a balance between giving enough information to inform a response and not putting in so much that we made it too complex. Crucially, I can say, as a statistician, that because of the number of responses, the survey gives a 99% degree of confidence that broadly—[Interruption.] I can see that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury is itching to intervene. I have provoked him.
A sample of 24,000 would give an exceptionally high level of confidence but, as I stressed earlier, this is not a sample—it is a self-selected group. I am sorry, but the claim of 99% just does not stand up.
My hon. Friend has made that point twice and I take it firmly on board. I will respond only by saying that the survey is one of several sources of evidence we are using.
It is because of the views of service personnel and suggestions made in this Chamber last October that we have looked in more detail at how personnel should be supported in the private market, at how service families accommodation might be a bigger part of the future model and at how we assess the potential impact on retention and operational effectiveness—matters raised by several hon. Members. Later this year, we will visit garrisons, air stations and naval bases to talk to service personnel about the model, to ensure that they understand what it could mean for them, to inform them of the opportunities that lie ahead and to listen to their feedback.
Much remains fluid as we continue to seek the most expedient solution for all involved but, despite our best intentions, that fluidity has resulted in speculation, concerns and incorrect assumptions that must be quashed, and I turn briefly to those now. First, we are not getting rid of all service family accommodation and single living accommodation. That could not be further from the truth. Single living accommodation enables rapid mobility of personnel, offers good value for money and delivers a unique service not seen anywhere else on the private market, so we will be keeping it. Likewise, we recognise and value the additional support to service personnel that service family accommodation provides. Decisions on the quantity of retained service family accommodation will be based on the local private market, demand, value for money and operational needs. Those factors will be at the forefront of our minds during the decision-making process. I encourage all hon. Members to go and look at the nearly 1,000 homes we are building around the Larkhill area if they want to see for themselves our commitment to service family accommodation.
Secondly—I said this earlier, but it is a point worth repeating—the £400 million effective subsidy that service personnel as a whole receive will not be cut. Thirdly, just as we do now, the MOD will shield our people from variations in rent across the country. From north to south, be it in Catterick, Northolt, or Andover, service personnel will have access to subsidised accommodation, and will make the same contribution for the property regardless of the geographic location and of whether it is service family accommodation or a private rent. In practice, that means that a service person in Yorkshire will contribute the same as one in Wiltshire, with the difference being covered by their allowance. What is changing is that we will move to a model that, for the first time, provides support to service personnel both in and outside of the wire.
We have had a well-informed and useful debate. Whatever our opinions on the finer points at stake, we should not lose sight of the overriding fact that we all share the same fundamental desire to ensure that those who serve us are well provided for. I reassure hon. Members that their views, and those of their constituents, will continue to shape our plans. Working together, I have no doubt that we will engineer a future accommodation model that will provide our people with the greater choice and stability they expect, deserve and need; as I said earlier, something that it is in everyone’s interests to get right.
I thank the Minister for his comments and welcome the fact that he said that this is an ongoing debate and that he is prepared to listen to the concerns. This is an opportunity to influence. I urge him to reflect on the fact that the concerns have come from across the House. They are shared concerns, and I hope he will take that on board.
There are a number of questions that, understandably, have not been answered, and I look forward to receiving some written responses. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and for bringing their experience and knowledge to this important debate. As the Minister said, the debate will continue as we attempt, I hope with some consensus and collectively, to provide a solution that will work for our armed services personnel and of which we can all be proud, just as we are proud of their service to our country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Future Accommodation Model.