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Service Family Accommodation

Volume 826: debated on Wednesday 21 December 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 20 December.

“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.”

My Lords, the Minister in the Commons said yesterday that the provision of safe, good-quality, well-maintained accommodation is an irreducible minimum when it comes to supporting our Armed Forces. So why is there a backlog of 3,100 outstanding complaints about service accommodation? This huge backlog includes complaints about recurring black mould, causing viral infections in children; crumbling roofs; burst pipes that are flooding homes; and broken boilers. Even when reports are made, there is no guarantee of repair, with two-hour waits on helplines. How has it got to this? When will the Armed Forces of our country, of whom we are rightly proud, get the accommodation that they deserve?

I echo the words of my honourable friend in the other place. Yesterday, he said—quite correctly—that

“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.”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/12/22; col. 143.]

As the noble Lord will be aware, there has been a chronicle of dissatisfaction with the way in which contractors have been discharging their duties. We are very disappointed by contractors’ poor performance.

I can assure the noble Lord that some important improvements have been made. Our rectification plan started back in mid-September. First, my honourable friend the DPV Minister and the Secretary of State have met the contractors Pinnacle, Vivo and Amey to discuss these problems and express our deep concern. I assure the Chamber that we are holding them in a vice-like grip; there are penalties in the contract. My senior MoD colleagues are also meeting contractors fortnightly at the executive level—that is, chief executive and above. Every day, people in the MoD are engaging with their counterparts in the contracting companies who are carrying out the improvements on the ground.

Improvements have been made steadily, and the systems have been improved. However, I agree entirely with the noble Lord that anything less than habitable accommodation kept in good order is not acceptable. The MoD is conscious of that and conscious of the debt we owe our Armed Forces personnel. We are doing everything in our power to improve the situation, and evidence of improvement is there.

My Lords, this issue is not new. Before the Minister took her place as the Minister of State for Defence, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, listened to my complaints about service accommodation so many times that he said he would meet me. In the end, he sent the then Minister, Tobias Ellwood, to meet me. At the time, I pointed out a Facebook page called “Victims of CarillionAmey”, which still exists. Carillion is no longer with us but the point was about the response on service accommodation to service personnel, particularly their spouses. Often, a wife at home is unable to work because she has to spend so much time waiting at home for maintenance people who do not come. The answers so far have been good, but can the Minister assure the House that there will be not just changes to the number of meetings but some proper key performance indicators that are to be met?

The noble Baroness’s entreaties of my predecessor and noble friend Earl Howe were to very good effect because it was part of a systematic approach to the MoD about quality of accommodation for our service personnel. I can reassure the noble Baroness by saying that Pinnacle has increased the number of call handlers from 14 to 56, VIVO has boosted the number of contractors by 27%, Amey has boosted the number of contractors by 60%, and 15,000 heaters have been bought and are being distributed.

I asked officials this morning that if I were in that accommodation with two vulnerable young children and the heating went off, what could I do and how quickly could I do it? I was reassured that there is now, through Pinnacle, a 24/7 365 helpdesk where calls are triaged so that the urgent ones are dealt with and get a response. The caller is given a reference and there is a response within 48 hours, although the majority of calls are being responded to quicker than that. As I said earlier, we are holding the contractors in a vice-like grip: we are holding their feet to the fire. What has happened has been profoundly unsatisfactory, and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her efforts in drawing attention to it.

Can my noble friend update the House on the status of the hundreds of former MoD homes at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, which have been empty for some considerable time? There was a proposal to use them to house Ukrainian women and their families, who would replace the men who had previously picked fruit and vegetables in a one-hour radius of that area. As my noble friend may be aware, there is a shortage of seasonal workers for this purpose. Defra had such a scheme in mind, but unfortunately it did not happen. What is the current status of the homes? Are they about to be refurbished and will they be sold, or might they be used for such a future scheme?

On the general question of availability of MoD accommodation, we are very careful about how we manage accommodation because we have ongoing obligations to rotating staff and we must ensure that we can accommodate them safely when that accommodation is required. I do not have information on the specific location to which my noble friend refers, but if she permits, I will inquire and write to her.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, referred to black mould. Since the coroner’s verdict on the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, there has been growing public awareness of and concern about that issue. I have visited family and single military accommodation where you could smell the mould; it clearly was there. Given the rising level of public concern and awareness, and of medical awareness, have the Government done anything to step up efforts to tackle black mould in service accommodation?

Let me reassure the noble Baroness. One of my questions to my officials earlier today was exactly the one I indicated to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith: what does somebody do who is affected by damp and mould in a property? The answer is that a dedicated damp and mould team has been set up by DIO, and it will be stood up during January 2023. A dedicated hotline is in place for damp and mould, and has been live since last April. It also works on a triaging approach, so that there is an opportunity to assess the situation. A report of mould leads to a professional survey report being commissioned and, if required, that is followed by an offer of alternative accommodation. We simply will not have people living in non-habitable premises.

I can share with the Chamber that Amey is piloting a video project to see whether this helps to improve the pace at which things are dealt with, and awareness of conditions within the property. Often, that helps to decide at the triaging stage how urgent the problem is. It is a pilot, and no doubt we will be reviewing it, but I assure the noble Baroness that we are cognisant of the threat of damp and mould, particularly in the light of the recent tragedy involving the little boy, and we are doing everything we can to mitigate the effect.

I thank the Minister for that very helpful answer. So far, the focus has been very much on the repairs required and the firms to do them, but there is a duty that the Government and the people of this country have under the Armed Forces covenant. Given that we are talking about people who live on site and who use the doctors’ services on site, have the Government any idea what percentage of families in military accommodation, and of children especially, have respiratory diseases? It is possible to anonymise this information, but it might help the Government to understand the scale of this problem in comparison with the average figures across the country.

The noble Baroness raises a very interesting point. I do not have specific information, but once again I shall undertake to inquire, and offer to write to her if I elicit a response.