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Future Accommodation Model

Volume 634: debated on Monday 15 January 2018

The MOD is committed to giving personnel flexibility and choice in where, how and with whom they live. The future accommodation model programme is advancing a new way to offer choice to our armed forces, whether they wish to live on the garrison or rent or buy a house.

The families federations have made clear their concerns about the family accommodation model and a distinct lack of communication from the Department with forces families. When will this Government introduce some concrete proposals so that forces families have some clarity about their future?

I agree that it is very important that we work closely with the families federations to make sure that we look after their interests, and we have explained the proposals to them. I meet them regularly and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also met them recently to explain the roll-out of this pilot scheme, which will begin at the end of this year.

It has been suggested that this model has saved £500 million, but also that it will not reduce the total pot of money used to subsidise housing. Given that we are told that no decisions have been made, is it not true that this £500 million figure has just been plucked from the air and we do not actually know the financial implications of this?

Let us turn this around: this is not about saving money; it is about offering choice to those whom we want to keep in our armed forces. One of the reasons why individuals choose to leave is that there is no choice; they look over their shoulders and see people in civilian streets able to invest in a house, or to rent or to buy and so forth, and that is exactly what we want to offer those in the armed forces.

The Army Families Federation found that if service family accommodation was replaced with the rental model, only 22% of personnel surveyed would definitely remain in the Army. Does the Minister not agree that the future accommodation model risks having a devastating impact on already shaky retention rates?

I do not quite recognise those figures. We have worked with the families federations to establish exactly what the armed forces want, and they want choice, particularly the youngsters who come in. Some will want to continue living on the garrison, but others will want to get on the housing ladder, and we need to help them; that is what we need to do for our armed forces.

The most pressing worry of service personnel tonight in terms of the future of their accommodation will be that the parent company of the company that provides the maintenance of their quarters has just gone bust. Given the great importance of its service to service personnel, particularly in the middle of winter, may I press the Minister further and ask what plan B has the Defence Infrastructure Organisation come up with to make sure that maintenance will continue for service personnel throughout the winter?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise this important question. There will be questions about the future of Carillion, and I understand that a statement on the matter will follow Defence questions. From the Defence perspective, we should recognise that a plan B was inherent in all the contracts. These are joint ventures, and if one of the companies steps back, there is an obligation on the other company to move forward and fill the space. We have been working on this for some time, and we have been prepared for this moment.

I am fortunate enough to have visited several airbases recently as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and many airmen and women have expressed their concern about the significant differences in off-base accommodation across the country. How can we address this concern if there is no differential in pay in the future accommodation model?

First, I pay tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Looking round the Chamber, I hope that there is not a single person who has not either done the course or signed up for it, because it gives a fantastic and valuable insight into what our brave armed forces personnel are doing. In relation to the future accommodation model, it is important that people should not be disfranchised because of funding, and we need to ensure that, no matter where someone might rent, it will be about the same up and down the country. That will be the plan.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), to his place. In response to an earlier question on CarillionAmey, it was stated that military families should not see a difference in the service they receive. Is it not the case, however, that they should see a difference? The 1,500 calls per day that the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) mentioned earlier should tell us that something is deeply wrong with this private contract.

First, I extend my welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, the new procurement Minister. He is very welcome indeed. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s question, we need to understand what those calls are. If someone is phoning up to get a lightbulb replaced, does that mean that they are dissatisfied with the service, or do they simply need a new lightbulb? Let us be honest about what those calls actually are. A process also exists so that when someone is prevented from, say, getting a new lightbulb, they are compensated for the inconvenience caused.

Let us be serious here. We know that this is not about lightbulbs. It is about people’s hot water going off and their having to wait weeks to get it fixed. Is it any wonder that fewer than half our service families are happy with the current accommodation model? When does the Minister plan to get a grip of this and end the dreadful service that companies such as CarillionAmey are giving to military families?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; it should not be flippant about something that is so important. I should explain, however, that an awful lot of calls come through that relate to the everyday management of these locations. Yes, there are occasions when someone’s boiler has gone and we need to ensure that the individual family is compensated. Under a former Defence Secretary a couple of years ago, we called the company in to say that standards were slipping and needed to be improved. The satisfaction surveys that have come back since then show that there has been a dramatic increase, but yes, we still need to keep working at this.

We know that the Conservatives have a poor record when it comes to making decisions on armed forces housing. The 1996 sell-off is the prime example of that. The Ministry of Defence is planning to sell a number of sites as part of its changes to the defence estate, but it is unclear what will happen to the housing stock on those sites. Will the Minister tell us what plans are in place for that housing when the sites are sold?

Stepping back from Defence questions, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the need for more housing in this country. The Ministry of Defence owns 2% of UK land, and it is important that we do our job in freeing up land that we no longer need and that is surplus to requirements in order to make way for new housing. That is exactly what we are doing, and we have started off with an announcement on 91 sites.