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House Purchase Schemes: Hm Forces

Volume 417: debated on Wednesday 25 February 1981

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My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider providing assisted house purchase schemes for members of Her Majesty's forces.

My Lords, the armed forces already have a few assisted house purchase schemes. As my predecessor explained in the defence debate on 3rd December, however, the need to keep defence expenditure within its cash limit has meant that proposed improvements to these schemes will not be introduced as quickly as we would have wished.

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that Answer, may I ask him to give high priority to an assurance that an improved assisted house purchase scheme will be brought in as soon as financially possible so that members of Her Majesty's forces may enjoy benefits similar to those of council house tenants?

To deal with the second point first, my Lords, it is not of course possible directly to compare civilian life with that of the armed forces, and in so far as part of the improvements we had intended to bring in involved the sale of surplus married quarters, that could clearly apply only to a certain amount of the property owned by the Services. To answer the first part of my noble friend's supplementary, about giving high priority, we certainly regarded it as a desirable scheme, but within the well-discussed necessity to keep the defence budget within limits we have had to postpone some of the non-essential aspects. The Armed Services Review Body takes account of all the differences between civilian life and army life in the reviews it makes in relation to pay, where our essential commitment stands.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the difficulties of implementing a scheme of this kind is the mobile nature of the Services—a man is here today and gone tomorrow?

That is true, my Lords, but part of the proposals had been to increase the advances which some of the Services already give on an interest-free basis for Servicemen to buy houses in the ordinary civilian market. But of course that requires extra public expenditure, quite unlike council house schemes where it is a question of the local councils gaining money.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that things are very unfair to the Services, remembering that a man may be in Plymouth today, have to sell his house in order to go to Arbroath, have to buy another house there and then, maybe two years later, be told he must move back to Plymouth? Will the Minister bear in mind the way in which Servicemen lose on transactions of that kind, remembering the financial commitments involved in the men trying to keep a home and a decent standard for their wives and families?

My Lords, I am not quite sure I follow the thinking of the noble Lord in that supplementary question but I will read carefully in the Official Report what he said and write to him. I would however take this opportunity to say that what we will do is to introduce a scheme, in so far as the sale of surplus married quarters is concerned, whereby we shall give first refusal of certain surplus married quarters to Service families at market value, so they will get the first choice of any property we have to sell.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many larger and medium-sized employers already go in for such schemes? Is there not some obligation on the Government to keep level with at least the main front rank of the best employers?

My Lords, I do not think it would be right by way of question and answer to go into the degree to which, and on what terms, commercial firms give advances. As I said, there are major differences between civilian life and the armed forces and we believe they are all taken into account in our reviews of Service conditions.

My Lords, further to the comment of my noble friend about the mobility of the forces, may I ask the noble Viscount to agree that it would be a good idea to advise members of the forces, especially those nearing retirement, at least to register themselves with their appropriate local authority—because they all have roots somewhere—as that may possibly assist them to get housed in due course?

I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion, my Lords. We are already in contact with other Government departments and every step is taken to ensure that Servicemen look ahead.

My Lords, would the Government consider letting available Service accommodation to ex-members of the forces immediately after they have terminated their term of service?

My Lords, in so far as there is surplus accommodation—and we are constantly reviewing that—our priority is to sell it but to give first priority to Service families.

My Lords, can my noble friend say how much money is involved in the assisted house purchase schemes?

My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Earl in regard to the existing schemes, and since the proposed schemes were never in fact authorised I do not have figures for them.

My Lords, will not the noble Viscount agree that one of the major problems is that when a man leaves the Services he does not know where he will be able to get a job; so where is he to buy a house?

My Lords, I do not think that I can add to the answers I have given. Differences are involved. So far as the employment market is concerned, certainly even in present conditions a number of Servicemen are very valuable to civilian life, in particular those who have a craft.