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Service Accommodation

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023

[Dame Angela Eagle in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the adequacy of service accommodation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela, not least because that means that I will not have at least one razor-sharp intervention where I would be blushing as I try to react in this, my maiden Westminster Hall debate. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to be here and that both the Minister and the shadow Minister are in their places. I reassure everyone that I do not intend to speak at great length because I am aware that colleagues also wish to contribute. I want to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to speak on the issue of how service accommodation affects their constituents at the moment.

I begin by putting on record my heartfelt thanks to everyone who serves in our armed forces. They work tirelessly to keep our nation safe. I pay tribute to them and their families for the selfless sacrifice that they make on our behalf every day. With friends and families who serve and have served, I know all too well the pride that they take in the opportunity to serve our country and the seriousness with which they take their duties.

I am incredibly grateful to the many people in the services and their family members who have taken the time over the past few weeks and months to speak to me about forces accommodation, and to those who have taken the time to fill out the questionnaire prepared by the House before this debate. I know that this is not always an issue that feels particularly comfortable or easy to speak up on, and that it is not always felt to be the done thing. But it is so important that everyone in this place understands the issues that people in service accommodation face so that those can adequately be tackled. I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to assist in preparing for today’s debate.

I am incredibly proud to stand here representing Mid Bedfordshire, which is home to not one but two forces bases, at Chicksands and Henlow. A great pleasure of my role has been getting out and about to speak to members of the armed forces community across Mid Bedfordshire—to their families, their friends and even existing servicemen. Regardless of whom I speak to, one thing is clear: the resolute pride they all feel in the opportunity to serve and their absolute commitment to doing their utmost to keep us all safe at home and abroad.

I think colleagues will share my sentiment that anyone who makes the decision to put on a uniform and step forward to serve should expect to live in dignity in decent housing, where they and their family can feel truly at home. For the families of loved ones living with our servicemen and women, moving into service accommodation is not simply a case of stepping into a new building. It often means upping sticks, moving to a completely unfamiliar place, sending children to new schools and getting their whole family used to a completely new environment. For service personnel, it can be so much more. Service duty can mean months spent away from home, family and friends, in tough and arduous settings that can test the physical and mental endurance of even the most resolute members of our services. After going through all that, the least we should be able to say to them and their families is that the state of their accommodation should not be a mental endurance test for them. Sadly, that is not currently the case for all of them.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech in his first, and hopefully not his last, Westminster Hall debate. Over the last couple of years, I have been fortunate enough to go to many different bases across the country to speak to servicemen and women. The overall concern that every single one has is the accommodation. I have seen some of that at first hand, and issues include mould and cracks in the walls. Why does he think that that main part of service life has been treated so poorly for so long?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for his work over many years to highlight this issue, and to speak to our servicemen to properly understand the challenges that they face in their accommodation. To me, it is clearly unacceptable to allow the situation to continue. We can all have an argument today about where we think the root cause of this issue lies. There is a fair amount of accountability to be had, but this has dragged over the last decade. I hope no one on either side of the House will feel that we can allow the situation to continue any longer. I look forward to discussing what we can all do in this House to ensure that it does not.

Few will forget the challenges we saw last winter. Service accommodation hit crisis point. Images flooded social media of decrepit flats, mould, flooding and people with water dripping through their ceiling in the midst of a freezing winter. Repairs had stagnated, and our armed forces personnel had been forced to take to social media to share their experiences, because they had lost faith that any other means of getting through was having an impact. Sadly, the few channels available to them were simply not working. They were not able to report with confidence that an issue would be tackled, or, once reported, followed up on with the desired urgency. Many had to wait hours on end on the Pinnacle helpline, if they got through at all, to be able to raise an issue. Even then, they could not have confidence that it would be managed with the urgency required.

It was good for all of us across the House to hear an acknowledgement from the Government that standards have fallen below what should be expected for our brave service personnel and their families, and a commitment from the then Defence Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). He said that it was “unconscionable” that people were moving into properties with mould, and that going forward, there would be a

“clear assurance from DIO that that will not happen again.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2022; Vol. 725, c. 145.]

Sadly, however, from speaking to servicemen and women in my constituency and across the country, we know that, year on year, the problems have remained: broken boilers, water pouring into homes, mould and an endless wait for basic repairs.

Having listened to my hon. Friend on the doorsteps in Mid Bedfordshire, I acknowledge that he is standing up for the issues that were raised now he is in this place. Does he agree that the litany of repairs and problems with housing have had a significant detrimental impact on service personnel’s morale? I am talking about not only those who have to live in that accommodation, but those serving elsewhere whose families remain in houses that are just not fit to live in.

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly powerful point. I know that she has been resolute in standing up not just for our service personnel, but for veterans in her previous job on the shadow Front Bench, and that she will continue to advocate for them passionately in her new roles. It is so important that we take this issue seriously. From speaking to servicemen and women and hearing from them through the survey that was carried out, it is so clear that allowing the issue to persist has a detrimental impact on their morale, their retention, and their sense of worth and value—something that should never be called into question for those who are putting themselves on the line on our behalf.

It is shameful that we have got to this point. Many will have seen the quotes from the survey that was carried out before today’s debate, and they should chill all of us. One mother reporting issues in her home told a story about her two-year-old daughter, who had

“been suffering from repeated chest infections and coughs”.

They had been getting worse month after month, exacerbated by the persistent, untreated mould in their home. Another person reported that the mould had affected their children’s health to the point where one of them had to be hospitalised with breathing difficulties. Those situations should shame us all. Living with a loved one in active service is tough enough. Our service families should not have the added anxiety of having to worry about the health impact that their home could be having on them and their loved ones.

Another key issue raised throughout the survey and throughout my conversations has been the impact of inadequate accommodation on morale, as my hon. Friend pointed out. It has driven personnel to despair and, in some cases, out of the service they had loved to serve. Stephen, who has served for 20 years in the armed forces, reported in the survey a “consistent” and constant

“erosion in the standard of family service accommodation”

over recent years.

I thank my hon. Friend for kindly giving way a second time. The stats speak for themselves. Roughly one in three of our armed forces personnel are living in the poorest rated military accommodation, with a staggering 1,378 living in rental accommodation so poor that they do not have to pay any rent. That is a damning indictment of what is happening for, as my hon. Friend described it, our brave soldiers doing the right thing for our country. Does he not agree that we have been speaking about this for far too long, and that we need to change and address it now?

I know my hon. Friend has been campaigning passionately on that issue, and I wholeheartedly agree. I will touch on the damning statistics shortly. The brutal sadness is that in my Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the figures are even worse. It is clearly time for words to come to an end and for action to follow. I hope that, in response to my questions at the end of my speech, the Minister will clarify when action will be forthcoming.

Stephen and his family have been pushed to the limit and they want to know why they are being penalised. Service personnel are expected to live and nurture their families in substandard accommodation, and to continue serving at a time when they do not feel that they are being valued. Accommodation should be a safe haven for service personnel and their families to rest, recuperate and recharge, but as Stephen and many others have reported, that is simply not the reality at the moment.

I wish to share one further heartbreaking story from a serving soldier who contacted my office. He asked to remain anonymous. On one occasion while staying in single living accommodation, he had to put up with no running water for a number of weeks. Throughout that period, he and his regiment were expected to maintain a level of hygiene as part of the exercises, but that was impossible without running water. Ultimately, they had no choice but to fork out for bottled water out of their own pockets and to heat it up to bathe. We are surely better than that indignity.

The soldier told my office of the broken nights he spent in a sleeping bag due to a broken boiler in the accommodation and a lack of heating in the bedrooms. I am sad to say that he spoke about the persistent experience of human faeces rising up time and again in an officer’s sink. I am sure we would all agree that this is a disgrace. It is time that we collectively renew our efforts to stamp out these problems once and for all.

Sadly, as those anecdotes have illuminated, and as colleagues’ testimony has shown, the issue is widespread. Across the country, more than 25,000 personnel—one in three—are living in grade 4 single living accommodation. Shockingly, the Government’s data shows that in my Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the number rises to 64% across the whole county—about double the national average. That cannot be good enough and it should bring shame on all of us. It certainly brings shame on me, as an MP entrusted to represent those servicemen and women, that too many of them—nearly two thirds—are currently residing in the worst-graded accommodation. We cannot allow that to continue. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined his plans to address it and set out how many service personnel in Bedfordshire he expects to remain in grade 4 accommodation by the end of next year.

Further analysis published last week found that mouldy military homes have increased by nearly 40%. After everything that happened last year, and the pledge to prepare for winter this year, the situation is sadly still getting worse. According to Ministry of Defence estimates, about 700 families promised mitigation work will not benefit from its completion until April 2024 at the earliest. That is far too long to wait, given the issues that we are talking about.

The standard of service accommodation has blatantly been neglected for too long, and it is sadly beginning to decline even further for some of the families I have been speaking to. Not enough has changed over the last 13 years. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us an update on the measures that he and his Department will take to ensure that contractors finally fulfil their duty to my families in Mid Bedfordshire. How many extra staff members have been recruited to ensure that emergency helplines are fully staffed this winter and to guarantee to all service personnel that there will be a response if they need one? How many fines have been handed out to contractors that have missed an emergency appointment to ensure that we are properly holding them to account? Will the Minister commit to ensuring that no serviceman or woman is forced out of their home over Christmas due to maintenance issues? How many service properties in Bedfordshire are still awaiting mitigation work for damp and mould this Christmas? Will the Minister give those families clarity about when the issue will be tackled?

It is paramount that those questions are answered. Colleagues from across the House will urge the Minister to act with the urgency that the situation requires. Those who step forward and serve deserve better. I know Members on both sides of the House would agree with that sentiment, but it is time for all of us, including the Minister, to commit to urgently finding a remedy to these problems.

I am proud that Labour has launched a campaign, “Homes Fit for Heroes”, to highlight some of the challenges and ensure that we remain absolutely, resolutely committed to addressing them if we are lucky enough to be in government. Labour will legislate to establish an armed forces commissioner who can act as a strong, independent voice for service personnel and their families and ensure that service accommodation finally feels like a priority for those who live in it. However, they should not have to wait for a change in Government to bring that about—that is why I am really happy to be having this debate.

I am glad that Members from across the House have joined us here to discuss this issue, which is really important to me, my constituents, my friends, my family and, most importantly, the brave men and women who serve this country. I look forward to discussing it more as the debate goes on.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) not only on his election, but on his first Westminster Hall debate. This is a really important topic and he has outlined the issues in an enormous amount of detail and very eloquently, and we are all grateful to him for that.

I have been campaigning on the issue of military accommodation since this time last year. North Shropshire is proud to be home to RAF Shawbury and the Clive barracks at Tern Hill. It came to light last year that there were two issues, which I will deal with in turn. The first is around the service maintenance contract—the way in which problems reported by families and individuals living in the accommodation are dealt with. The second is about the overall quality of the stock and how that can be addressed, because I think I am right in saying that we are struggling to maintain adequately a poor and deteriorating stock of housing.

I will start with the service maintenance contract. This time last year, it became evident that there was a huge problem with the recently renegotiated and reimplemented service maintenance contract. Initially, when a family had a problem with their accommodation, they contacted a single contractor—I think at the time that was Amey—which was responsible for handling that call and sending out a contractor to fix the problem, whether that was crows falling down the chimney, a broken boiler or whatever the problem might have been.

The renegotiated contract introduced two steps into that process. First, the service family contracted a company called Pinnacle, which then handed off that work to either Amey, in my area, or—I am afraid that, off the top of my head, I do not recall the other company that was involved in other parts of the country. Clearly, when data has to be handed off between two companies, it introduces a level of risk. Although there is no reason why that should not be done, it caused problems in that instance.

I thank the former Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who dealt with all our queries quickly and effectively. However, it was symptomatic of how badly the contract was operating that we had to hand off hundreds of pieces of casework directly to the Minister to get them resolved.

To give hon. Members some examples, we had families without hot water for weeks on end and broken pipes that were not dealt with. I mentioned crows falling down the chimney, because that was one of the instances that we dealt with, as well a number of cases of severe damp and mould and gas certificates not being completed on time. There are a number of issues around the maintenance of the housing.

We have not had a similar cold snap this year, so we have not had the same types of issues that we saw this time last year with frozen pipes, broken boilers and mould, but I am interested to hear from the Minister how the contract is performing and whether the remediation that we were promised over the summer has taken place. The compensation bill to the families involved was huge, and I wonder whether he can enlighten us on how much having an inefficient contract in place cost the taxpayer.

On top of the maintenance issues, there are all the empty properties around and about and the way in which they are not maintained once they are empty. As an add-on to the problem with the service contract, we had empty properties at Shawbury where the pipes froze, and there was a burst pipe. No one there reported that because no one was living there, and the person next door, who reported it, did not have the right authority to get a contractor out. There are issues with collapsed ceilings and a general worsening of the housing stock, which is already in short supply.

It is really important to think about service families, their peripatetic lives, and the fact that they may not have a community around them, unless they are living in a service family community. When housing stock falls into disrepair and their alternative is to rent in the private rented sector, not only might that be inconvenient due to the new accommodation’s distance from their location, but they will no longer be in that community of people who experience the same challenges in lifestyle. Service family accommodation is really important not just in terms of location and its convenience for the base, but for those families to be part of a community that understands what they go through daily.

Well before our time, in 1996, the Government sold military housing stock of 57,400 homes to Annington Homes. That contract did not cover maintenance, so the Government remain responsible for maintaining that housing. I believe that costs the taxpayer about £180 million a year in rent and £140 million a year in maintenance and upgrades. The National Audit Office has concluded that that deal was really poor value. We cannot revisit what happened in 1996, but I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what steps the Government are taking to improve that situation. We have read speculation in the press that they might be considering buying back some of those houses. Will he give us a general update on how that situation might be improved?

I also want to talk about maintenance issues—perhaps not the urgent ones that caused us so many difficulties this time last year, but the ongoing issues of damp, mould and generally poor-quality housing. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire gave some statistics showing how that has worsened over the course of the year. Earlier this year, the Government committed to deal with 60% of the properties that had damp and mould, but that begs the question: what about the other 40%? This is genuinely serious, because families are reporting health concerns as a result of living in mouldy properties. A constituent contacted me recently from Clive Barracks at Ternhill to say that their health has been worsening, but they do not seem to be able to meet the threshold to get what must be severe mould in their property dealt with. That is not acceptable.

We have talked a little bit about families, but obviously there are servicemen and women who go off on tours of duty and come back to service single accommodation. I raised a question about Ternhill at oral questions a couple of weeks ago. A constituent had reported rat-infested, crowded accommodation that was mouldy, as well as kit becoming mouldy and unfit for use, and the generally despicable situation there, which is being addressed by temporary accommodation pods popped into the car park. They are an improvement, and we should acknowledge that they are an attempt to resolve an urgent problem, but it is not okay for servicemen and women to be living in a temporary pod in a car park with no privacy, no rest and recuperation area, and just a bed and a bathroom. Will the Minister give us an update on that as well?

I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire. Servicemen and women make a huge sacrifice for us. They are prepared to put their lives on the line. They often have to move their families around to an extent that many people would not feel comfortable with. We have enormous respect for them, regardless of our background or political leaning. A warm and safe home to return to at the end of the day is the minimum that they should expect. It is not acceptable for us to stand here asking, “Well, can we fix the mould in the hundreds of affected properties?” We need a plan to resolve the issue not just of the maintenance contract but of the genuinely poor-quality stock that we expect people to live in. I will be grateful if the Minister updates us today on what that plan is and how quickly it will be executed.

It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) for setting the scene so very well in this, his first debate—the first of many, I am sure. And what a good choice for a first debate—well done. The fact that we are all here to contribute shows our concern for service personnel.

I am very pleased to see the Minister in his place. He has come straight from the main Chamber, as indeed have I and others. We look forward to a positive response. I also look forward to the contributions from the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan), and especially from the Labour party shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard).

I declare an interest as a former soldier, Dame Angela. I served in the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years in an anti-terrorist role—not that I ever had the chance to pull the trigger of the gun. Maybe that was a good thing, although I did think about a few people who would have been better put in jail. In the Territorial Army, I served with the Royal Artillery for 11 and a half years. That was before the east-west border came down, so it was a long time ago, but it has given me an interest in service matters, and particularly accommodation.

The issue is important not only to me, but to many of my constituents who currently face poor accommodation choices. Through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I had a chance to visit some of the accommodation overseas and on the mainland here in the UK. Cases brought to our attention clearly illustrated that while the accommodation in some cases was wonderful—marvellous—in others it was clearly not up to standard. That had an impact upon me. In 2016, the Public Accounts Committee said service families

“have been badly let down for many years”

and are not getting the accommodation service they

“have a right to expect”.

Why is that right to expect not being upheld? If they are being let down, they have a right to expect better. It is so important that we do all we can to ensure they are rewarded with good-quality accommodation.

The Governments of Wales and Scotland and the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for delivering certain aspects of the armed forces covenant in their areas. The Welsh and Scottish Governments contribute to the armed forces covenant annual reports, but Northern Ireland does not. There is a reason for that. It is fair comment to say that back home in Northern Ireland, veterans do not generally attract priority for housing. To be fair, it is a devolved matter, so it is not the Minister’s responsibility directly, but I will outline a case later that makes my frustration with our system back home clear.

In addition to this, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive operate the housing system purely on a points system, with criteria that housing applicants must meet to be considered for a particular property. I would love it if it were the same for us in Northern Ireland as it is here for those who leave the Army after years of service. I have a case of a gentleman—I shall mention him again shortly—who left the Army after 20 years of service and has not been able to secure accommodation, despite the best efforts of charities and elected representatives to achieve that. There are real issues for us back home to ensure things can be done better.

Single men with no dependants are less likely to be rehoused quickly, even though they may have lengthy service as a veteran, or indeed not as a veteran. I am currently dealing with the case of a constituent in his 40s who was discharged from the Army in July this year after 20 years of honourable service. He is widowed and has no children. My office, along with other organisations, has been assisting him to be rehomed in the local area, via the Housing Executive. All he requires is a one-bed property, but he has only 60 points. I am not sure if that resonates with people here in the mainland, but for someone to get a property—even a one-bed—they need twice that number of points. It could be months—possibly years—before he is rehoused.

While others are talking about the state of accommodation, I am talking about people actually getting accommodation and our frustration with a system that just does not seem to be working. My constituent is currently residing with a charity that I have spoken of many times in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber. Beyond the Battlefield is a wonderful charity which I have been involved with since its inception. With Government and charitable help, the charity has been able to open a centre in Portavogie, in my constituency of Strangford, where it has nine bedrooms to allocate. The charity is vastly oversubscribed and has applied for a central Government grant for an extension. The building has capacity for another nine bedrooms, which would be filled, such is the demand in Northern Ireland.

The charity goes the extra mile to support veterans who are simply discharged, with no thought given to how they will integrate into normal society. My and others’ frustration is that, when they leave, many are in a difficult position, whether because of trauma, post-traumatic stress, what they have seen when serving, or the life that they have led in the service of this country. Beyond the Battlefield helps to provide emergency accommodation, which is currently where my constituent is staying. Its volunteers provide instrumental support to veterans.

That is a classic example of how veterans in Northern Ireland are being let down in terms of their housing status: they have no other choice but to seek assistance from other organisations. On Remembrance Sunday, I saw a man, six foot, broad at the shoulders and tight at the hip; I knew just by looking that he was a soldier. He was doing his bit to remember all those friends and colleagues that he had lost over 20 years of service in Iraq, Afghanistan and some tours of duty in Northern Ireland. In my mind, the least we could do is support him, and many other like him, in his time of need, after decades of service to this nation.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I served, in my case as an infantry officer in the Territorial Army during the cold war. He knows that the House of Commons Defence Committee is in the middle of an inquiry into service accommodation. The Minister is to give evidence to us in the new year, and I will not pre-empt that, but I make one point: for over a year, a number of service families were living in quarters that did not have gas and/or electricity safety certificates. We put those people at risk. Does he agree that that is completely unacceptable?

Yes, and it is also disrespectful that there should be any safety issues. The Minister is listening, of course, and will undoubtedly take that on board. When someone serves their country in uniform, honourably and to the best of their ability, we have to look after them. That is what the hon. Gentleman is saying, that is what I think, and that is what we all think. Their service means something.

We can do much more collectively as a nation to support our ex-service personnel in terms of their housing. We cannot expect them to integrate back into society with no assistance, and the first part of that is ensuring that they have a safe and warm place to call home. That is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. It is estimated that 4% of the homeless population are ex-service personnel. I think we all have a heart for them. I am convinced that everybody here has a heart for them and believes we must do our best for them. We are asking for a 100% response. To give the House some idea of the numbers, in 2019, the ex-service personnel homeless population was some 12,000. Although in recent years the figures have, I believe, been decreasing, much work is still to be done.

The Minister always tries to respond positively, and I know that he will do so today; I ask him to engage with the devolved nations, particularly Northern Ireland. I have highlighted a discrepancy that greatly annoys me and other elected representatives. We have people from both sides of the divide who serve in uniform; whether they are from a nationalist or a Unionist community, when they are in uniform, they serve King and country. That illustrates very clearly where we are.

What other steps can be taken to tackle this problem nationwide? I ask for the Minister’s direct involvement in relation to Northern Ireland. I know that, as he said in the Chamber today, he was over in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on Armed Forces Day. I think that he has a heart for Northern Ireland. I ask him to let his heartstrings be tugged in relation to Northern Ireland and to ensure that we can participate—indeed, have the same system as service personnel have here for accommodation. Let us get it right for them.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern). He gave an excellent speech and asked some really good questions—some really inquiring, curious questions—of the Minister, and we look forward to hearing the answers.

I shall present two anecdotes and make one comment about some of the effects of what we have talked about today. One anecdote relates to a time during my service, and another relates to some correspondence that I have received much more recently. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire talked about the experiences of people who are serving in his constituency. I served at Army Training Regiment Bassingbourn in Hertfordshire, just over the county border from Bedfordshire, and I have very fond memories of the good-quality single living accommodation at ATR Bassingbourn.

Five or six years later, living with a family in service family accommodation, my experience again was a good one. On one occasion, we had water dripping through the ceiling of the family home; we rang up to try to get it solved and it was fixed within days. That was an excellent rapid turnaround time for the service family accommodation at Shrivenham when I was there in 2009.

In some ways, that made me slightly sceptical when I heard all of these stories about service family accommodation being in such a poor state, so I decided that I would have some conversations with people who are still serving to find out whether that was really the case. Somebody who I trust a great deal told me me that they had a baby last year, and they had no mould-free room in the house to put the baby in. We have to bear in mind when talking about armed forces personnel in service family accommodation that many are younger people, who are starting their family.

I was frustrated to learn over the summer that the Defence Committee’s Sub-Committee that is looking into service family accommodation will not be hearing evidence directly from service personnel. I do not know whether that has been put right since, but I read over the summer that the Defence Secretary was not permitting service personnel to give testimony directly to that Sub-Committee.

Perhaps I can assist the hon. Member. That was the position of the previous Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), but, in fairness to the new Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), he rescinded that instruction so that defence personnel were able to give evidence—certainly written evidence—directly to the Sub-Committee, without fear or favour for their career, as it were. It is analogous to what happened regarding the inquiry into bullying allegations from female personnel.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that clarification. As a member of the Defence Committee, he will be much closer to this matter than I am. What he says has not stopped us as constituency MPs from receiving correspondence on the subject. I received a letter in October from a regimental sergeant major—a warrant officer, first class, who has had a very long career in the armed forces. He is frankly at the end of their career—a top-of-the-tree, very senior soldier. He wrote on behalf of his son, who is serving and clearly did not feel able to write directly. The RSM writes:

“Briefly my son, who was on exercise in Germany at the time, had left his wife and two sons (aged 5 and 3 months at the time) at home presuming they would be safe. Unfortunately, one evening my daughter-in-law heard a noise from upstairs and went to investigate. Imagine her shock and horror to find an adult rat in the baby’s cot!”

There is a series of letters about what this former senior soldier regards as having developed over the past 15 or 20 years. He talks about the substantial subcontracting that goes on. While VIVO was perhaps initially responsible, it subcontracted to Pinnacle, and then when the rodent infestation was being dealt with, there was a further subcontracting to Vergo Pest Management. That pest management company sought to deal with the rats in that one house, but failed to notice that the entire street was infested. He says that Nos. 1, 4, 5, 6, 12, 14 and 15 were all suffering from rat infestations.

It is plain to me that some of the companies responsible for this issue these days have noticed that it is clearly something they are under the cosh for. Indeed, many of us will have had an email from a lobbyist from Amey earlier today to say that it

“recognised the challenges that families faced with their accommodation during the mobilisation period of the new contract”.

I resent the defensive language used by some of these companies. When it mentions the “mobilisation” of the new contract, it is hiding behind language that the armed forces tend to use, and it is obfuscation.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. A mobilisation period under a contract is typically six to nine months. To my knowledge, it has been 18 months since that contract was implemented. We should not still be experiencing problems with it. That is why it is so important that we get clarification on whether steps are being taken to improve performance under it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that excuses to do with a contract handover period are hard to bear in any case, but certainly when such a great length of time has elapsed.

To bring all that to a conclusion, we need to step back from the detail and ask what this means. The Army is being shrunk to just 73,000 regular soldiers. That is a substantial drop from 84,000 even a year ago, and certainly a large drop from 120,000 when I was serving. Partly, that is due to a failure to retain excellent people. Clearly, the armed forces continue to retain some truly excellent people, but some great people are being lost to the service because of experiences such as those I have described. In the armed forces continuous attitude survey this year, just 34% of service personnel said they felt valued. If we do not realise that service is not just about the service person, but the experience of their wider family, we will continue to have these sorts of problems.

It is a pleasure to speak on this important issue. I commend the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) for bringing forward this important debate. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), not least because he is an extraordinary advocate for the armed forces and all things defence; it also means that a Conservative MP has turned up to speak in the debate. It would have been better if a few more of them were here to challenge the Minister, perhaps more gently than we will. Here is a word for the Minister: proportion. He can look it up, and can then reflect on the comments he has made from a sedentary position.

I thank the hon. Member for his kind compliment, but I have to point out that I am one more Tory Back Bencher than we have SNP Back Benchers here.

The right hon. Gentleman may not have wanted to add grist to the Minister’s mill, and I do not want to use up all my time debating this, but as you know, Dame Angela, there are a mere 45 SNP MPs in Parliament, and I am here to speak on behalf of all of them. There are a great many more Conservative than SNP MPs in Parliament, so proportionately, I think you will find we are doing rather well, compared with the Conservatives. The right hon. Member might also like to know, since he has got right under my temper, that the Conservative Government, and successive Governments before them—

Very wise counsel, as ever.

Our military personnel have been forced to suffer plummeting living standards in the United Kingdom. If we are serious about creating resilient and robust armed forces, we must be serious about prioritising their basic needs, not least of which is accommodation. The SNP’s core policy is to establish an armed forces representative body. That would be a key step in ensuring that members in uniform could argue for increased adequacy of service accommodation without fear for their career prospects, and without needing to complain to their supervisors and officers, with the attendant concerns that that brings.

Hopefully I will make this point in a not very political way. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) mentioned the historical element to this issue. It did not start in 2010, when this Government came in, or in 1997, when the Labour Government came in. Rather, when it comes to service accommodation, we see a confluence of negative headwinds. Very poor-quality accommodation that was built down to a price has not been properly maintained over the last 50 years, and has had a succession of tenants in it; that is just the nature of it. That accommodation has not been properly maintained over the last 10 years, and it is getting worse and worse; some of it is probably approaching the end of its service life. I would be interested to know what the Minister has done to ensure strategic analysis of the entire stock, to see what should be renovated and what should be knocked down.

It is testament to the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme that everyone in this room has either served on that scheme, or in the armed forces. That will have given us first-hand, primary evidence of what many people have to endure. The hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) is no longer in his place, but I know that he has been on the scheme, and he raised these issues too. I have great confidence that the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford will get some very compelling evidence for the Defence Sub-Committee’s report. I am sure that the Minister will take time to reflect on that report in detail, and I look forward to seeing the evidence of that.

I am not in the habit of getting a response from Ministers in this place, but I politely request that the Minister advise us why the Government are so opposed to an armed forces representative body. It is not unusual. They have one in a great many other parts of the world, including the United States, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany and Norway. What is unusual about those NATO allies—we could rather ask: what is unusual about the United Kingdom?—that means that they can give their armed forces personnel an opportunity to discuss their terms and conditions, and their ambitions and hopes, with somebody who is not their senior officer, in a way that promotes honesty and hopefully progress? I think that we would both welcome those two drivers.

In summary, I look forward to the Minister perhaps responding to my one question, and I again reflect on how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire for securing this debate.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) for securing this debate, which is testament to what can happen when an MP who is elected by their constituents turns up to this place. They can raise issues that genuinely concern constituents. The figure that he cited—64% of service accommodation being of the lowest grade—is not just terrible; it is one of the worst in the entire UK. He is absolutely right to bring this matter to the House, and to ask the Minister what he will do about it.

It is important to recognise that poor-quality defence accommodation damages morale, recruitment and retention, and creates an atmosphere in which the families of those who serve fall out of love with military service. It undermines the moral contract between the nation and those who serve and their families. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way that he opened the debate, and for standing up for his constituents.

Our service personnel and their families deserve decent, safe, warm accommodation. That is key to the moral contract between our nation and those who serve in uniform. The armed forces covenant sets out that service accommodation should be of

“good quality, affordable and suitably located”,

but as we have heard today in a series of excellent contributions, the condition of service accommodation and housing is a straight-up scandal; the Conservatives are failing our forces and their families.

Broken boilers, leaky roofs, black mould, vermin and endless waits for basic repairs are all shockingly common. The examples given by the hon. Members for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), and for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), highlight that the issue is not isolated. It affects not some bases some of the time, but defence accommodation across our country. It damages the morale of those who serve, wherever they serve, if they are given accommodation for themselves and their families that is sub-par and below the standard that they should expect. The Minister and everyone in this debate knows that people have very different expections for their living conditions when they are deployed towards the frontline, and for where they and their family should live when at home. Things are not working at the moment.

To sum up the Government’s record, one in three personnel lives in the lowest grade single-living accommodation; complaints about damp and mould are up 40% this year; 800 families were without a valid gas safety certificate as of June; fewer than one in five personnel is satisfied with the repair work; there have been faulty heating complaints in the equivalent of half of service family properties since new maintenance contracts were awarded; and more than 1,300 personnel live in accommodation of such poor quality that the MOD does not even bother charging rent on it. Those conditions are not acceptable in civilian life, and they should not be acceptable for anyone who serves our country.

This debate becomes particularly important as temperatures drop and Christmas approaches. Last year, the Government sleepwalked into a winter crisis in service accommodation; even the Minister admitted that performance was not good enough. I am grateful for that honesty. We need that honesty about what can be achieved this winter as well.

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. Another posted on social media that he spent five days without heating, and had to wash his seven-month-old son with boiled kettle water. That is simply not acceptable for those who serve. Insultingly, military families were given as little as £1 in compensation for heating and hot water loss. Can the Minister assure me that this Christmas, no family will have to go without heating and hot water, or be forced out of their home because of maintenance issues? I asked the Minister that same question at Defence questions last month. He did not quite give me the reassurance that I was looking for, so I am giving him another opportunity to do so.

Also, how many service properties have experienced total loss of heating and water so far in December? How many of the 1,500 service homes promised boiler and heating upgrades in the Government’s winter planning statement have so far received that work? What other mitigations is the Minister putting in place? Damp and mould have been mentioned a number of times. Those issues affect housing across our country, but they do not have no solution. What is the Minister doing to tackle damp and mould, particularly in homes that are not covered by the work that he has so far announced? What happens to them? How long will they have to wait?

One service spouse wrote on social media recently that despite being six months pregnant and having a four-year-old child, she was still living in a mouldy home months after reporting it. That gets to the nub of the complaints raised by hon. Members. It is not that people who serve are not raising complaints; frequently, those complaints are not acted on, or if someone visits, it is so that they can tick a box on the response time, not so that they can complete the job and ensure that the complaint is dealt with properly.

After scrutiny from Labour, the Ministry of Defence admitted that about 700 forces families who were promised damp and mould mitigation will not benefit from the completed work until April 2024. Why is that taking so long? The MOD’s winter plan to help families through the coldest months will not even be fully delivered until the spring. That beggars belief. What is the Minister doing to speed that up?

People in my constituency live in Stonehouse barracks, the spiritual home of the Royal Marines. I have had to raise repeatedly the issue of their loss of hot water and lack of heating. The Government intended to close that base, but are now delaying its closure from 2027 until 2029. Everyone who serves there should be given reassurance that they will be able to access hot water and heating, especially in buildings that are hundreds of years old. When we talk about “homes fit for heroes”, we mean homes that people can genuinely rely on to be safe and secure.

The right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) raised the issue of gas safety certificates. We would rightly call for rogue landlords in the private sector to be prosecuted, and hauled over the coals. What happened to those people in charge of progress in getting gas safety certificates? Was any action taken against the contractors who clearly failed to do that, or was it just marked up as yet another problem in this area?

The hon. Member for North Shropshire, I think, mentioned empty properties. As a Plymouth MP, I have certainly been contacted about the large defence estate just over the boundary from my patch, in Plympton in south-west Devon, which has an enormous number of empty properties. There is real frustration about empty properties in the middle of a housing crisis. We all accept that the MOD must have a certain amount of properties to rotate, so that it can deploy people as and when required, but will the Minister set out how many empty properties the MOD has, and whether the figure is larger than normal? Locally, the number of empty properties seems larger than expected for the anticipated rotation, even in a military city such as Plymouth.

Poor-quality defence accommodation has a direct impact on morale, recruitment and retention. New MOD figures show that the number of troops in the armed forces has fallen to a record low, and satisfaction with service life has plummeted to the lowest level on record. Less than half of personnel are satisfied with their service accommodation, and fewer than one in five is satisfied with repair work. We will not be able to solve the problems of retention and recruitment without fixing defence housing. That is why Labour has said that when we are in government, we will deliver homes fit for heroes—by acting on the Kerslake review, an independent review of service accommodation; by getting tough on failing contractors; and by legislating to establish an armed forces commissioner, a strong independent voice for personnel with the power to investigate issues affecting them and their families. That should include defence housing.

As the son of a submariner, and as the representative of a military city, this is personal to me. When the Royal Marines are about to ship out on deployment, there is a surge of calls to my office from marines worried about whether the repairs that they have been chasing will be delivered before they deploy, and whether their families will be living in a dry, warm home while they are away. That should not happen in a country that values the armed forces as much as ours.

We need to rebuild our moral contract with those who serve. That is what my party has set out to do, and I believe fundamentally that that is what the Minister hopes he is delivering. I have to say, however, that the record discussed in this debate by Members from right across the House is not one of which the Government should be proud; indeed, they should apologise for it. In these more contested times, if we do not see action, how long will it be until we have a real crisis in retention and recruitment at a time when we need to deploy our military forces?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am shadowed by your twin and chaired by you: as a father of twins, it is a pleasure to experience.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) on securing his maiden Westminster Hall debate. I recently had an oral question from him about accommodation, so it is a credit to him that he is persisting, and that is true of other colleagues in the Chamber. He raised some very important points, primarily about the two bases in his constituency. On the overall point, which many colleagues made but he did in particular, I absolutely accept that this is a retention issue. Of course it is. It says a lot about the importance we place on the duty of our personnel to serve their country and our efforts to ensure that they have the best. I was quite open during oral questions, in referring to the winter plan, that we did not do well enough last winter. We have been determined to make up for that this year, and I will talk about the detail of that.

Make no mistake, the provision of high-quality subsidised accommodation for service personnel is a key priority for us. Horror stories such as we have heard, with rats, dry rot and so on, are disturbing. I reassure colleagues that, appalling though such instances are, they are unrepresentative of the experience of the vast majority of service people. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, for example, 96% of service family accommodation meets or exceeds Government decent home standards, which is almost identical to the national figure.

In the time available, I want to set out some of the key measures we have taken to rectify the situation to ensure that we improve our armed forces accommodation. I will start with single living accommodation. The Department provides a total of around 171,000 permanent, temporary and training bed spaces worldwide. As of 16 October, 92,000 service personnel were living in SLA. There have been longstanding concerns, rightly, among frontline commands that SLA is not up to scratch, which is why we are now implementing plans across the Navy, Army and Air Force to eliminate the worst accommodation. A Defence minimum standard has been established, which all SLA is expected to meet. As of 13 November, some 84% of rooms met the standard. That means that 13,347 did not, which falls well short of where we need to be. However, the intent is that, by April 2024, a further 30% of those will be upgraded. In the longer term, the Department will invest around £5.3 billion in SLA over the next 10 years to get homes up to standard. That will see us deliver approximately 40,000 new or refurbished bed spaces.[Official Report, 23 January 2024, Vol. 744, c. 4MC.]

As Minister for Defence Procurement, I am well aware that day-to-day maintenance issues are unavoidable. They are the cause of considerable correspondence that I receive from colleagues from all parties. So it has proved in the past year, with several thousand issues relating to heating and hot water being reported. Any reports of vermin in SLA or service family accommodation —which I will come on to shortly—should be made to the national service centre, which will arrange for appropriate action including pest control if required, although I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) about his experience with multiple contractors and so on.

Turning to SFA, the Government continue to invest significant sums to improve the quality of UK service family accommodation. Our Defence Infrastructure Organisation received an investment of £400 million over this financial year and the next as part of the defence Command Paper refresh. The £380.2 million forecast for this year is more than double last year’s investment in maintenance and improvements. As we have heard today, hon. Members are well aware of some of the issues, but it is investment that ultimately will lead to the change.

I want to set out some of the mitigations we have undertaken this year. We have established a dedicated hotline to address specific concerns with damp and mould, and we have improved the initial triage process to prioritise cases. That includes an onsite visit to apply initial treatment, to assess the need for follow-up and to decide whether a professional survey is required. We have also been working hard with our contractors to deliver around 4,000 standardised damp mitigation packages—I will come to the point about the remaining homes shortly—which include measures to increase insulation, replace guttering, upgrade extractor fans, replace radiators and reseal windows and doors. To date, more than 1,360 have been completed, and around 700 further packages are planned to be delivered early in the next financial year. The remaining homes with less severe instances of damp and mould are being dealt with through simple maintenance visits, so the vast majority of these tasks have already been completed.

Furthermore, our plan for this winter includes boiler and heating upgrades for about 1,500 homes. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, we are now entering wintertime, and I recognise colleagues’ concerns and how anxious they will be for reassurance that there will be no repeat of the slow response times during last year’s cold snap. The hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire rightly spoke about telephone waiting times. We cannot have people left hanging on the phone in freezing homes waiting to speak to an engineer. On that front, it is worth pointing out that Pinnacle’s national service centre continues to maintain a strong performance. The average speed to answer rates in November were, for the ninth consecutive month, well within the 120 second average. The hon. Gentleman asked how many extra call handlers Pinnacle has taken on. The answer is 65, which means that most calls are now answered within 29 seconds—a very significant improvement.

I have another very important point to make to the hon. Gentleman. Before I respond to some of the other contributions, I want to update him on the status of Chicksands military base in his constituency of Mid Bedfordshire. Like me, he will be aware that rumours have been flying around about its future. I can confirm that, from 2030 onwards, it will be disposed of, but that will happen only when everybody has been relocated as part of a significant commitment to defence intelligence. The schedule will be refined as construction gets under way, and we will keep him informed as it progresses. Of course, I will write to him with full details, because I know how important it is for him. That will enable him to engage with his constituents and the service personnel based there.

I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire will be grateful for the information about his local base. Is that a change just for that one base, or is it part of a wider changing of closure times that will affect other bases around the country and that the Minister may wish to update the House about?

I was referring specifically to the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire, and I will write to him with the full details, as I said.

I turn to other colleagues’ contributions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to a discrepancy. To be completely frank, I was not aware of that so I implore him to write to me with the full details. He illustrated how important this issue is in every part of the Union, so I pay tribute to him for his contribution—and he was not called last, which was a great benefit to today’s debate.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), who has raised this issue with me previously in oral questions and has been a doughty campaigner on it. I know she has had some significant issues in Clive, for example. On the current position, the figures on damp and mould represents 62% of the total outstanding that we believe need treatment, and 1,360 have been completed to date. She also spoke about the impact on health. I understand the importance of that, which is why we were so determined to get extra money in and why I announced the winter plan showing how damp and mould packages will be implemented for individual properties.

On the point about bases that is to be closed, Clive barracks is due to be closed in 2029. Is there is a risk that, because it has a finite lifespan, we are not putting in the investment we need and that we are accepting poor-quality accommodation for what is still a good number of years? What is the Minister’s plan to address that?

That is a fair question. I was talking about the minimum standards that we require, which apply to about 96% of our estate. To reassure the hon. Lady, they apply irrespective of whether the accommodation is not planned for disposal or otherwise.

The hon. Lady also asked about Annington. She will be aware that it has been subject to court action recently and therefore, although she made an excellent point, I am very restricted in what I can say publicly. Certainly, it is an issue to keep an eye on.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton for his service in the Adjutant General’s Corps. He made a very good point about contracts, which of course are important. We should be wary of assuming that another arrangement would be necessarily cheaper or more efficient, but there is no doubt that there were major issues in the initial transition. We have now seen an improvement on some key performance indicators, but where performance has fallen short, we have, where appropriate, withheld profit.

The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) spoke about engagement with armed forces personnel. All I can say is that as Minister for Defence Procurement, I am responsible for the estate, and when I have been out visiting the estate I generally find that there is a way of having regular engagement on the condition of accommodation. I saw that recently when I visited Odiham with my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena). That meant a great deal to the service personnel that we met, so regular engagement does happen in respect of accommodation.

I recognise the dynamic that the Minister is talking about, although not from a ministerial point of view. When we speak to service personnel, they are frank. What he is detailing is an informal, ad hoc discussion. What I was requesting was clarity on why the UK objects to having a formalised defence service recognition body.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman but I think that is an important way to conduct that. We should not get carried away with the idea of formalising all these things. Of course, we want to have a good relationship with our armed forces personnel. The key to that is ensuring they have good quality accommodation.

I will conclude by joining colleagues in saying, as we head towards Christmas, that it is absolutely right that our thoughts are with our armed forces, particularly those deployed overseas. As chair of the Defence Nuclear Board, I particularly remember those who serve to support our continuous at-sea deterrent in our submarines. It is fair to say that I was clear at oral questions and today that last winter we did not do well enough. Too many families waited too long for solutions to the problems they faced.

That is why we have got the extra money in place, which is a significant increase in funding of £400 million. In the winter plan, we show the impact that that will have. We have a plan, we are investing and we are fixing problems, though we know more needs to be done. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire on calling this important debate.

I want to start by thanking everyone who has taken the time to engage in this important debate. I know it matters, not just to our constituents but to so many of those serving and their families across the country. They will be touched by the consideration hon. Members have shown to their challenges, and the sense of urgency to address them that I hope we all feel in this House.

I would like to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for their interventions about the impact on morale, and the urgency to take clear action to address the issue. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) for her stories about the impact on her constituents, with the history of the maintenance and stock challenges that created some of the issues we are all having to wrestle with.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for talking about the impact in Northern Ireland, and the particular challenges people are facing in even getting access to crucial accommodation for themselves and their family. I would also like to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for highlighting the challenges, such as presenting the bare minimums, the safety certificates that every service family should have as an absolute necessity, to feel safe in their home.

I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), not just for his service but for eloquent interventions, talking through some of the challenges his constituents have faced and some of his own experiences of service, as a helpful contrast of what is possible when things are done right. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) for his clarifications, and the things to focus on, including the need to assess what part of the stock is maintainable and what might need a complete refresh, finally to give families of service force personnel the accommodation they deserve.

I would like to thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for taking the time to be here to highlight the breadth of the challenges that service personnel face in the quality of their accommodation, and the urgency to ensure we address the issues properly. He also reassured me by spelling out the serious action we will commit to take as a party in Government, to ensure these issues get the attention, bandwidth, focus and urgency that they deserve.

I am grateful to the Minister for being here, and I appreciate some of the assurances he has given, and his openness in accepting the challenges that need to be addressed. He mentioned that some of them are not representative of wider issues. I fear to say that in Bedfordshire, where 64% of single living accommodation is at that lowest possible grade, it may be more representative than his remarks suggested. In the constituency of the hon. Member for North Shropshire, 52% fall into that lowest grade. That may be a more representative issue that needs real urgency to address.

I am glad to hear extra recruits are lined up to help man the phones this winter. I hope the Minister and his Department are ensuring that service personnel are not left waiting when they report urgent issues. I hope he can commit with the urgency that all of us have shown today, to tackle the issue. It is clear the House speaks as one, in recognising that we need to do more to ensure that our service personnel are serving and living in accommodation that is truly fit for them and their work. I hope the Minister can give effect to that will, with the renewed urgency that we all hope to see for our constituents in the new year.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the adequacy of service accommodation.

Sitting suspended.