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Service Family Accommodation

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022

Urgent Question: To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the maintenance and repair of service family accommodation.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his urgent question.

The provision of safe, good quality and well-maintained accommodation is an irreducible minimum when it comes to supporting our armed forces. It is essential to operational output, recruitment, retention, and morale, which is why providing such accommodation is a core priority of the Ministry of Defence.

More than 96% of the MOD service family accommodation of 46,000 properties meets or exceeds the Government’s Decent Homes Standard. Only those properties that meet this standard are allocated to service families. However, it is unacceptable that some of our personnel and their families are not receiving the level of accommodation services—in the form of maintenance standards—from our suppliers that they deserve and, in particular, are suffering from a lack of heating and hot water. I have spoken to a number of our personnel, from a range of ranks and circumstances, and I share their indignation. It is not acceptable.

MOD contractors are under a legal, but also a moral, duty to resolve heating and hot water problems. What are those duties? Emergency calls should be responded to, and the issue made safe within two hours. An emergency is an incident that threatens imminent risk of injury to persons, or that presents a high risk of extensive damage to property or the environment. Urgent calls should be responded to as soon as possible and within 48 hours. Those are the terms of the contract that were agreed, but our suppliers in too many cases are failing to meet those requirements. We expect and demand that our suppliers do better, and we will do everything we legally and properly can to force them to do so. Let me be clear: no home should be left without heating or hot water for more than 24 hours. Should it not be possible to resolve the issue quickly, alternative forms of heating and sources of hot water, or alternative accommodation, must be provided.

Rectification plans were triggered by the Ministry of Defence earlier this year following concerns about contractor performance. Since then, access to temporary heaters for families without heating has been improved. A total of 1,500 additional heaters have been purchased, and they are being dispersed at various locations based on several factors, including where there is a high density of homes.

Secondly, there is an increased use of temporary accommodation to support families with vulnerable people, or where some form of heating cannot be restored in a reasonable time. Thirdly, more staff are being recruited by Pinnacle, VIVO and Amey and, following a call to the National Service Centre about a heating or hot water issue, families will be contacted by a qualified engineer to support the diagnosis of faults, enable remote fixes if possible, and arrange an appointment if a remote fix cannot be achieved. All families will also be provided with temporary heaters, or offered alternative accommodation, should a fix not be possible.

Fourthly, I can confirm that compensation will be paid to families to cover any increased energy costs caused by the use of temporary heaters. VIVO, Amey and Pinnacle are, I know, in no doubt about Ministers’ profound dissatisfaction at their performance. I have met them already and I am meeting them again later today. This is not any old contract. This is a contract to support the accommodation of British service personnel and their families—the people who answer the call of the nation to step up and defend us when required. These contractors must improve. They will improve, or they will face the consequences.

I thank the Minister for his response. There will be complete agreement, I am sure, on the importance of looking out for those amazing men and women who serve in our armed forces and, critically, their families as well. The Minister will be well aware—he alluded to this in his statement—of the volume of concerns about the state of service family accommodation and single living accommodation. It is particularly concerning given the recent freezing weather and proximity to Christmas, but it is also at a time when our armed forces continue to be busy, not least, potentially, with commitments to Military Aid to the Civil Authorities.

Some shocking recent accommodation cases include: recurring black mould causing viral infections in children; crumbling roofs leaving houses exposed to the elements; burst pipes flooding homes; and broken boilers in sub-zero temperatures. What is worse is that, currently, there is no reasonable way to report and resolve those problems, as there are waits of two hours on Pinnacle’s helpline, if callers can get through at all. Even when a report is lodged, there is no guarantee that a repair will happen urgently.

Such are the concerns that have been expressed about the inaction of various contractors, there is evidence of soldiers signing out sleeping bags. No single contractor is responsible for repairs and maintenance, meaning that there is no central responsibility. However, there is central accountability, and, ultimately, that lies with the MOD.

Those who step forward to serve deserve and expect better. I look to the Minister to act urgently, by which I mean today, to move heaven and earth to ensure that measures are being taken to alleviate this problem. Can I ask him to provide an update on whether the Secretary of State’s meetings with the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, Amey, Pinnacle and VIVO have taken place? If not, why not? Can he outline a plan for MOD intervention to ensure that the backlog of repairs is dealt with as a priority? Can he say more on how the Department will support service personnel and their families affected by these issues over the Christmas holidays?

The current standards of service accommodation are just not good enough. We are a very long way away from homes fit for heroes. The Government must do better.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks, many of which I completely agree with. He asks whether we will act today. I can say that the Secretary of State has met the DIO, Pinnacle, Amey and VIVO and that some of these issues were becoming apparent quite some time ago. In fact, a rectification plan was imposed in the middle of September. There were 480 or so elements of that plan, of which 200 have been complied with. That does not mean that the situation has been sorted—far from it—because when the cold snap came, we saw that it revealed more difficulties.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the backlog. I can say that the backlog of complaints peaked at a stunning 4,200 or so. That has come down to around 3,100, but I completely accept that that is far too many.

The real issue, it seems to me, is there must be prevention in the first place. In other words, the quality of accommodation must be good enough at the point that service personnel go into the properties in the first place. There are some indications of improvement in that regard. First, in addition to the standard £176 million for accommodation, the MOD has allocated £350 million over and above that annual sum to get on top of the maintenance issues. In July of this year, when 1,276 service personnel went into properties, 4% turned out on the day to have non-habitable failures; by December that figure had gone down to 0.6%. This is about ensuring that the properties are fit for purpose at the outset.

On the issue of mould, which the hon. Gentleman is right to raise, it is unconscionable to think that people should be moving into properties with any mould, and I am pleased to have had a clear assurance from DIO that that will not happen again. Now, if there is a report of mould, a fully qualified inspector should come in to do a proper report and alternative accommodation should be provided, if appropriate. I will end where he did: these are people who come to serve our country, and the least we can do is ensure that they have proper accommodation. I will do everything in my power to ensure that we honour that requirement.

I welcome the Minister’s tone in wanting to grip this issue. I put in an urgent question for this yesterday, as Mr Speaker knows, and I am really pleased it is being discussed today. It is shocking state of affairs. We talk about having the most professional armed forces in the world, we give them excellent equipment and we train them well, but accommodation has constantly played second fiddle—

Order. I think it is rather naughty of you to say that. The fact is that if I were to see everybody who put in for urgent questions, I would spend all day doing that. Accept that you have the urgent question; we do not need to go over what you did or did not do, because you put in a lot of urgent questions and you get a lot.

I am grateful for that clarification, Mr Speaker; it was not in any way a complaint, but a confirmation. I am delighted that we are able to address this matter today. As I was saying, we have the most professional armed forces in the world, but I am afraid that accommodation plays second fiddle to the equipment and the training that we provide them. I ask the Minister what is going to happen in the integrated review, which is due for an update shortly. Will it identify funding to be put in place to make sure we can improve the accommodation? This problem did not happen in the last few days. Reports of heating and boilers not working, let alone the mould that he speaks about, need to be addressed, or the soldiers, sailors and air personnel will vote with their feet and depart the already overstretched armed forces.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is an issue about ensuring retention in the armed forces. He asks about money going in: one positive thing, as I indicated, is the £350 million going in over two years, over and above the budget. However, I do not want to let the contractors off the hook. He is right that there is a backlog of work that needs to take place, and I have talked about the £350 million for that, but one of the most shocking things about this to me, as a new Minister coming in, is that it appears to have come as a surprise to Pinnacle, Amey and VIVO that their IT systems were not properly married up. Service personnel would pick up the phone to report a complaint to Pinnacle, but by the time it got VIVO or Amey, it was not necessarily the right contractor who turned up. That is an IT failure. They are grown-ups entering into a contract—caveat emptor and all that—and they should have known what the situation was and have made arrangements accordingly. As I said before, this is not any old contract. It is a contract to provide accommodation. People need to be sure of their ground before they take on one of these deals, and clearly they were not.

Broken boilers, water pouring into homes, mould, vermin and painful waits for basic repairs—all while Ministers cancel troops’ Christmas leave. Our forces deserve so much better. It is a national scandal that the Government are leaving service personnel, their families and their children without heating and water during the coldest winter for more than a decade. Can the Minister say exactly how many forces homes are currently without heating or hot water, and what he is going to do about it? Can he guarantee here and now that no one in uniform or their family will be without heating or hot water this winter?

Although shocking, these reports are unfortunately not surprising. There are deep-seated problems with the Government’s handling of Defence housing, going back years. One third of our armed forces personnel are dissatisfied with the overall standard of their family accommodation and almost one in three service family homes are awaiting repair. Between June and October this year, more than 5,000 maintenance appointments were missed. Is the Minister confident that his contractors are meeting their mandated key performance indicators? It certainly does not look as though they are. The MOD paid £144 million to contractors to supposedly maintain service family accommodation this year. Is he satisfied that that represents value for taxpayers’ money?

These reports of dodgy accommodation not only are a breach of the contract the nation makes with those who serve, but pose a risk to recruitment and retention. More than one quarter of armed forces personnel said that poor accommodation increases their intention to leave the services. Decent accommodation is a fundamental part of our moral obligation to those who serve and their families. This Government are failing our armed forces when it comes to service accommodation and we need to see better from Ministers. In setting out what he has done, will the Minister now apologise to forces and their families, many of whom will be spending yet another Christmas in shoddy military accommodation?

The hon. Gentleman asks, quite fairly, whether I think that the contractors are meeting their requirements. We are absolutely clear that they are not meeting their requirements. Indeed, that is why a rectification plan was imposed as long ago as September; it was clear that there were some fundamental issues going wrong. I have spoken about the IT issues, but also, candidly, there were not enough people in the call centre. I think Pinnacle had 14 people, although that has now been increased to 60.

I get that there has been some snow and ice, but not biblical levels of snow and ice; these are things the contractors should have accounted for and prepared for. The hon. Gentleman asks whether the contract is value for money, and no, at the moment I do not think it is. If the contractors performed, it would be a perfectly sensible contract, but I reiterate: over and above the annual amount, we must ensure there is the £350 million of support to get ahead of this problem, so that we can have a well-maintained service family accommodation estate that does not run into problems in the first place. I am pleased to note that there is £76 million targeted towards improving thermal efficiency—to you and me, Mr Speaker, that means boilers, insulation and so on—which again will resolve some of these issues.

There are lessons to be learned, candidly, and I am clear about that. One thing that must be investigated is how this contract was entered into. Was it the case that some people were—how can I put it?—a little economical with the actualité when indicating what they could provide by way of support and IT? What did they say and when? We need—[Interruption.] Of course we should also look at the due diligence; that is a fair point as well.

The hon. Gentleman made a political point at the beginning, and I hope he will forgive me for saying this: it is true that a lot is being asked of our troops at Christmas, including to fill in for jobs that others are not doing. I urge him to join the Government in saying that those going on strike should call those strikes off so that our troops can get the Christmas they deserve.

In February 2020, I co-authored a report called “Stick or Twist?” for the Prime Minister, copied to the Defence Secretary, after a year-long study into why armed forces personnel leave. Poor standards of accommodation was one of the major factors why they decide to stop serving the Crown. In that report, we pleaded with Ministers not to go ahead with the Future Defence Infrastructure Services contract, but to look at better alternatives, such as a bespoke forces housing association instead. Nevertheless, they ploughed on. FDIS will never work. It is structurally dysfunctional. I say to the MOD: “Please, on behalf of service personnel and their families, rip off the plaster, admit you were wrong, create a workstream on accommodation as part of the integrated review, and do something better that actually works.”

As my right hon. Friend indicates, he has been assiduous in raising the issue of service family accommodation, and I commend him for doing so. There will have to be a long, hard look at FDIS, and I suspect—in fact, I know—that the MOD will look carefully at the points he made in his “Stick or Twist?” report. We will have to see what the lessons are from entering into contracts such as this, and it may be that he is absolutely right.

Once again, we are debating with a Minister forced to atone for the appalling housing conditions inflicted upon our armed forces. This is, of course, a decades-long problem, which the MOD continues to show no strategy to resolve. Pinnacle was recently, in March, awarded a £144 million contract to manage these homes. This money has barely scratched the surface. It has been reported that families are still being issued with sleeping bags and are sleeping in their coats in mould-ridden houses, and some go weeks without heating. Some houses are so badly insulated that families cannot afford to turn the heating on. How can the Minister defend that enduring shame?

Senior officers and junior ranks alike are frustrated by an unresponsive private sector facilities management contractor. That is further compounded by the now demonstrably failing Defence Infrastructure Organisation. Is that failure in political leadership caused by a lack of funding, the DIO’s incompetence, a failure of the contractors, or all three? Can the Minister say specifically that he has full confidence in the executive officer team of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation?

On the plan, as I have been at pains to underscore, the MOD is specifically putting money into that area over and above the normal maintenance contract. That is absolutely critical. It is what the hon. Gentleman would do in his own house if he wanted to get on top on maintenance issues: if he were able to, he would invest in it to ensure that things do not go wrong in future. That is precisely what the MOD is doing by way of a plan. To put that into context, £350 million is around double what is paid annually to keep on top of the problem, so there is a plan.

On funding, lest we forget, in the spending review of 2020, a full £24 billion was released by the then Chancellor and now Prime Minister to show that this Government will always get behind funding our armed forces and ensuring that they have the resources they need to be lethal, agile, expeditionary and so on.

On confidence, at the moment, frankly we do not have confidence in Pinnacle, VIVO and Amey. I am very disappointed by the performance that has been discharged so far. The hon. Gentleman asks about DIO. I do not think I am betraying any confidence in saying that some exacting questions need to be asked about precisely how this contract was entered into. Those questions have started to be asked, and I can assure him that they will go in the direction of the evidence—I make that clear. I want to get to the bottom of who knew what and when, and how this was allowed to happen.

In my hon. and learned Friend the Minister’s welcome and forthright response to this urgent question, he said that consequences would follow if satisfaction was not forthcoming. Can he explain to the House what those consequences might be, and what options the Government have to discontinue the contract and, if necessary, find alternative and better providers of service accommodation?

In the first instance, there are clauses in the contract that allow for the MOD to recoup—or, indeed, to refuse to pay out—certain sums that would otherwise accrue under the contract. In fact, from 23 January, we will be in a position to do that. We could not do it for the first six months because there is a contractual bedding-in process, but that point has now been passed, so there is, potentially, a financial remedy. As with any contract, however, if the breach has become so severe as to become a fundamental breach, other remedies may follow. My right hon. Friend will understand precisely what I mean by that. If he will forgive me, I will not go down the road of spelling out what all those remedies might be, but I can say that all options are being considered in the normal way, as he would expect.

HMS Raleigh; the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines, Lympstone; HMS Sultan; HMS Collingwood; RAF Cranwell; RAF Halton; Catterick garrison; RAF Cosford and Stonehouse barracks are just nine armed forces sites that have contacted me about problems with hot water and heating. Many of those sites deal with initial basic training. What message does it send to young people and potential recruits if we cannot provide the basics of heating and hot water?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: that is not good enough. When we get into the details on the specific numbers of properties that have been left without heating and hot water, if there is the thinnest of silver linings, it is that the majority—indeed, the large majority—have experienced that for less than 24 hours. In other words, the overwhelming majority are fixed during that period. But it should not happen at all. It is a fact of life that sometimes boilers break, and we accept that. It is no doubt the case that elsewhere—in civvy street, so to speak—some suppliers are having difficulties fixing them within a reasonable period because demand has spiked. But the central is point is that there was a contract, which had specific requirements, and grown-up, experienced contractors entered into it knowing fine well whether they had the resources to meet them. They should have taken account of the fact that, just perhaps, it might get a bit snowy in winter. It seems that that did not happen. That is why we are particularly indignant and frustrated about it, and we will take every proper and legal step to hold them to account.

Like many on both sides of this Chamber, I have had the privilege of spending time with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, where we meet service personnel and, on many occasions, their families. I am always interested to hear about families’ experience and the expectation of being the partner of one of our service personnel. For retention and for so many other reasons, it is absolutely crucial that we sort this out. I know that the Minister knows that, so how long will he give Pinnacle to pull its socks up or make significant change?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She has experienced, through her own mailbag, the impact on the families of service personnel. I have experienced that myself in Cheltenham. The answer is that we are absolutely clear that that needs to improve. She asks about timelines. From 23 January, if things have not improved, potential financial consequences can follow. Act 1, scene 1 is for Pinnacle to make progress now. I am talking about right now—indeed, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) was talking about today. I am receiving daily dashboards about what the situation is and what proportion has been left without heating for more than 24 hours and so on, and I have made it clear that I want to see improvements every single day.

When service personnel in service families accommodation are away, their spouse has to take charge of property maintenance. I recall my wife spending hours on the phone to the then contractor, Modern Housing Solutions, waiting in the queue on the phone in the hope that, eventually, the circuitous jingle would come to an end and she would be met with a human voice. Last year, 16,250 armed forces personnel left the armed forces—the largest number since 2016. What account did the Government take of retention of service personnel when they awarded the contract to Pinnacle Group in April?

Issues of recruitment and retention are, of course, broad-based and multifactorial. All sorts of issues go into determining levels of recruitment and retention, but the hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. I would hope and expect that, at the time of entering into the contract, it was made crystal clear that Pinnacle had to deliver on it, because otherwise the implications for service families—not just the individual serviceman or woman, but their families—would be deeply profound. It has not measured up to that, and I think we need to establish in very short order what it said, when it said it and whether it was being entirely up front about what it could deliver.

The Public Accounts Committee has issued two reports on this—one in 2016 and one in 2021—and there is also, of course, the excellent report by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), which highlighted the same issues. Yet another contract was let earlier this year with the same problems. There is a rottenness at the core of the MOD’s ability to contract to deliver on this service, and worryingly, it also delivers on major warships, armoured vehicles and so on. What is the Minister going to do to make sure that there is a real difference? Financial penalties do not deliver better heating systems. Will he undertake a root-and-branch review of how the Ministry of Defence contracts for these services, and will he listen to some of the recommendations made in recent reports?

There are two issues here. First, there is the issue of the overall quality of the stock. I have spoken about the fact that that does need to improve. In fact, the £350 million to which I referred is principally directed at the 20% of accommodation that requires the most support. As I have indicated, 96% of all service family accommodation meets the decent homes standard, but we need to make sure that that £350 million goes where it is needed and has the maximum impact.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asks a fair question about ensuring that these contracts are properly entered into in the first place, and it is one that I am keen to get to the bottom of. DIO needs to ensure that it does everything possible to do its due diligence on contracts and make sure that, ultimately, we all end up with something that will deliver. That is absolutely what I am focused on.

Halifax is home to many armed forces families and has a long association with the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in particular, but service families have made more than 9,000 complaints about the state of their service accommodation since the start of last year, largely relating to maintenance concerns. The Minister has been candid about the failings he has found, so what are the consequences for those contractors where he finds such failure in meeting those service standards?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the situation in her constituency. Built within the contract is an understanding that should contractors fail to meet what is known as ALP—acceptable levels of performance —consequences can follow. Under normal English law, if there is a repudiatory breach, that can lead to consequences in the normal way, but built within the contract is also potentially a financial penalty. Respectfully, I disagree with those who say that cannot be significant; it can be extremely significant and damaging for the company. As I said before, this is not any old contract; this is a contract to provide accommodation for some of the best people in our country who answer the call. The contractors should have done better; they will do better, or they will face the consequences.

I thank the Minister for his strong response to the question. Understandably, many families are deeply concerned by the lack of action to tackle black mould in these homes and the serious effect it could have on their children’s health. What assurances can the Minister offer military families with children that they will not have to live in these dangerous conditions?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The position is that if mould is found in a property before a service family is due to enter it, they will not or should not enter it. One of the things that, as I indicated, I am moderately encouraged by is that whereas in July, for the more than 1,000 families due to enter, some 4% of properties were discovered to have a non-habitable failure—which could be mould—by the time we got to the early part of December, that had gone down to 0.6%. That is the first thing: if mould is found, service families should not enter. If mould is found when they are already there, there is now a dedicated helpline they can call, which should lead to a surveyor coming to conduct a survey. If the work can be done, great. If not, and they need to move into alternative accommodation, that will be provided.

After the death of Awaab Ishak, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said that it should never have happened and that it was a basic responsibility of the local authority or housing association to make sure that people are living in decent homes. There have been thousands of complaints since 2021 over problems of mould and leaking ceilings in the homes of service personnel. The Minister is a decent man, but we are hearing a lot of excuses about contractors today. Should the Secretary of State for Defence not accept the same basic responsibility that the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) seeks to impose on local authorities and housing associations?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more needs to be done in respect of mould. One encouraging thing is that there is now a dedicated hotline for people to report it, which did not exist before. They are reporting not just into an empty room, but to people who will ensure that a professional survey and remedial action are undertaken. He makes a wider point about more general responsibility. I am pleased to say that DIO has set up an improvement team of 30 people—made up of operations specialists, IT specialists and more—to ensure that the MOD will do everything it can to ensure that Amey, VIVO and Pinnacle have nowhere to hide by blaming other people. Ultimately, we will have the inquest in due course, but right now we need to ensure that these problems are being solved, and we will do everything in our power to solve them and to support people.

This is an extremely important issue, and I place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this urgent question. I was lucky enough last year to complete the Royal Air Force segment of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I visited several bases in the UK and abroad and saw the standard of accommodation that some service families have to live in, and it is simply not acceptable. I take this opportunity to thank Wing Commander Smith for facilitating that. Will the Minister give the House a precise figure for service family properties that have cases of mould and damp?

I will write to the hon. Gentleman with a precise number, but the central point is this: any member of the armed forces, be they in the RAF—I am delighted he went on the armed forces parliamentary scheme—the Navy or the Army, should, if they discover mould in their service family accommodation, call the national hotline, and that should trigger the remedial action that I have indicated, with a surveyor going in. If the issue cannot be sorted within a reasonable period of time, they should then be re-accommodated. He raises a fundamental point. We ask an awful lot of our armed services personnel, particularly over Christmas, for the reasons we discussed earlier. This issue has to be sorted out, whether it is mould or anything else. We are absolutely determined, every single day, to do everything we can to fix it.

I thank the Minister for his firm and helpful response to the urgent question. I have an Army base just a couple of miles from my constituency, and I believe it can be of use to help people, whether that is temporary accommodation or a complete refit for affordable housing. To see these sites lying vacant seems so wrong when there is so much need. Will the Minister outline what discussions have taken place referencing accommodation in Northern Ireland so that vacant properties are not left to fall into even deeper disrepair?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. It is not just Northern Ireland; other people have got in touch to say, “There seems to be this vacant accommodation.” There is a lot of movement around the country, as he will appreciate, and the MOD needs to keep significant headroom in available accommodation. The central point is that that should not be a mechanism by which properties can fall into disrepair. He makes precisely that point, and that is why the £350 million over and above the annual maintenance cost is so important. If that can be, as I am assured it will be, directed at that 20% of accommodation in the greatest need, that will ensure that when that accommodation is required, it will be fit for purpose for service personnel, who deserve high standards.