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Service Accommodation

Volume 741: debated on Monday 20 November 2023

3. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of service accommodation for armed forces personnel. (900149)

Currently, 96.5% of the service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Government’s decent homes standard; only those properties should be allocated to service families. The Government continue to invest significant sums to improve the quality of UK service family accommodation. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation received an investment of £400 million over this financial year and the next as part of the defence Command Paper refresh, meaning that the forecast £380.2 million for this year is more than double last year’s investment in maintenance and improvements.

The Minister will be aware that this time last year, almost 5,000 homes of armed forces personnel were affected by black mould and damp, which obviously included many properties that had children in them. A year on, too many of our service personnel and their families still have this problem. No matter whether it is one house or 5,000 houses, can the Minister set out how he is going to tackle this problem quickly? Our armed forces personnel and their families deserve better than what they have been getting to date.

The hon. Gentleman asks an excellent question. We are aware that what happened last winter was not good enough. Too many homes were affected, particularly by damp and mould. That is why we have prioritised getting the investment in, and it has more than doubled in the current financial year. I am pleased to confirm to him that last week I set out our winter plan. It shows that 4,000 homes in the defence estate would benefit from significant work on damp and mould, which is about 60% of the total number that require that work.

A constituent of mine who lives in Clive barracks at Tern Hill in Shropshire has reported that he lives in rat-infested accommodation, sometimes with two to six soldiers living in the same room. As a result, shipping containers have been placed in the grounds—about 40 at the end of August—and kitted out like budget hotel accommodation for those soldiers to live in. Can the Minister provide any reassurance that these servicemen will be provided with somewhere appropriate to live in the near future?

I am obviously sorry to hear about that case. I would ask the hon. Member to write to me with the details, and I will look into it with the DIO. The key thing is that, wherever we are talking about—whichever specific barracks or base—if we are going to get on with the works, we need the money there, and we have got that. We have put in place the extra £400 million, and as I set out in the winter plan, thousands of forces personnel will now benefit from that work.

The DIO is not fit for purpose, and the Future Defence Infrastructure Services accommodation contract has been a disaster, including completely unacceptable delays in issuing and checking gas and electricity safety certificates. No private landlord would get away with this without being sued. The Secretary of State had a good run out at the Defence Committee last week, and said he was potentially looking at radical reforms in this area. Can I urge the Minister and his boss to do precisely that to honour our service personnel and their families in a way they are not being honoured at present?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. He knows that I share his passion for seeing genuine step change improvements in our accommodation. That is why we have announced the spending that we have. On the performance of the contractors, which the DIO ultimately oversees, one of the important aspects of the winter plan is a significant increase in staff manning the telephone service, so that we see better service to personnel. We expect the average waiting time for one of those calls to go from seven minutes to 29 seconds. It will be very important to service personnel that, when they make those calls, they get answered in good time.

The Minister may be aware that earlier this year one of the accommodation blocks in HMS Collingwood in my Gosport constituency was shut down all together because it just simply was not fit for human habitation. There are also some issues with the accommodation blocks in HMS Sultan. Could I invite the Minister to come to Gosport to have a look at some of the accommodation on offer for our service personnel? It is simply not good enough, and they deserve better.

There is a new Defence Secretary, but it is the same old story in service accommodation, with reports of broken boilers, black mould, leaky roofs and painfully long waits for repairs. Last Christmas, one service family told me that they went without a working boiler for three weeks and were forced to live in a hotel over Christmas and new year. Can the Minister assure me that no one who serves our country in uniform will go without heating, or be forced out of their home this winter because of the dire state of their military accommodation?

I am grateful to the hon. Member, and I repeat the point: we recognise that performance was not good enough last winter, which is why the Secretary of State made it an absolute priority to get the extra investment in. Having done that, I am pleased to say that the winter plan does include boiler and heating upgrades for about 1,500 homes.