To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the quality and standard of housing for the families of members of the Armed Forces.
My Lords, the majority of service family accommodation is already of a very good standard. In the United Kingdom, some 96 per cent of homes—that is 46,000 out of 49,000 homes—are at the top two standards out of four standards for condition, with more due to be upgraded to the top standards in this financial year. The MoD continues to target funding on the most pressing accommodation issues.
My Lords, I understand what the Minister says, but does he not agree that to bring all housing for families of servicemen up to the right standard is going to take about 20 years and that this is not good enough when families will come back from Germany and when our troops in Afghanistan are entitled to believe that all their families are adequately housed?
My Lords, I do not agree with that. Under the previous Government’s programme, the target for 2020 was for all service families’ accommodation to be at standard 1 level. I think they were confident that they would hit that target. As the noble Lord knows, we have now had to put into the advance budget of the MoD a pause in major upgrades for three years from 2013, which may make the 2020 target hard to hit. Minor upgrades, however, will continue. The vast majority of service accommodation will continue to be of a very high level.
Will my noble friend tell us whether Wellington barracks, which I have visited twice in recent years, has now been brought up to scratch?
My Lords, I do not have that information. I promise to write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, is it not a great disappointment that over the past few years when extra funds were found for service family accommodation there now has to be a pause and that expectations which were raised are now going to be lowered? I accept that there is not the money for all the things that we would like to do, but when our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen are heavily committed, it is a great disappointment not to be able to refurbish their houses to the timescale previously promised. Would the Minister not agree?
My Lords, we are talking about around 1,000 houses. We very much hope that serious problems will not arise during this three-year pause. We are doing everything that we can to avoid that problem. As the noble Lord will know, one in eight service houses turns over every year, because there is a considerable churn in Army housing in particular. That requires a constant programme of minor refurbishment, which will of course continue.
During the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, I raised the dire state of forces housing. I suggested that we look to fill the gap by the greater use of housing associations in garrison towns. I did not really get an answer, but the Minister did at that time say that the upgrades since May 2010 of service housing personnel was 900 units. Can the Minister—bearing in mind his previous response about 2013—give a number of the houses that will be upgraded by the end of 2012?
My Lords, I understand that there will be another 500 to 800 houses to be upgraded next year. I add that not all service families are living in service family accommodation; part of the intention of the new employment model currently under negotiation is that fewer service families will have to move as regularly as before. More will therefore be able to invest in their own homes. I was, indeed, asking some of the doorkeepers about their service accommodation and service life, and I was interested to hear how many of them had loans through the services to buy their own houses.
My Lords, no sensible person would move into a house that they had not first looked at, yet for many service families the first time they see the accommodation that they have been allocated is the day they move in. Does the Minister agree that this is not the right way in which to treat our servicemen and their families? If he does, what are the Government doing about it?
My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, part of the problem has been the sheer number of moves that service families have been making, particularly in the Army. With the return of our forces from Germany and the changes in the forces structures that we are implementing, we hope that there will be less frequent and fewer rapid moves, which would enable service families to be consulted a good deal more widely.
Can the Minister tell us how many of the service family houses are fitted with carbon monoxide alarms, given the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, particularly in poorly maintained buildings? We know that some of these buildings are poorly maintained. If the family move in and put the heating straight on, that may be the night when they get carbon monoxide poisoning.
That is a very good question, and I will of course have to write to the noble Baroness about that. I do not have the accurate, detailed information.
My Lords, may I remark to my noble friend that my noble friend Lady Sharples asked a question about the Wellington barracks when we were in opposition? It has clearly therefore appeared on the screen of the Ministry of Defence. If the first Duke of Wellington was alive today, I shudder to think what he would have said if it had disappeared from the screen during his lifetime.
I shudder to think what service accommodation was like when the Duke of Wellington was a general.
My Lords, in furtherance of what the Minister said about people owning their own accommodation, it became very clear to us at the MoD that the benefits of people having their own homes were huge. Are the Government now ensuring that there are mechanisms in place to make it easier for our people to own their own homes if they need to, rather than investing in married quarters, which can be awfully expensive in comparison?
My Lords, I visited Sandhurst the other week, and noted that one of the first things that they had done there was to build houses for some of the staff, which they could buy. It is very much part of what is intended under the new employment model that this will make it easier for service staff to buy their own houses.