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Armed Forces: Remuneration, Housing and Family Support

Volume 832: debated on Monday 18 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of reductions in Ministry of Defence day-to-day spending on remuneration, housing and family support for members of the armed forces.

My Lords, we do not accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question. Defence offers substantial support to our Armed Forces, which includes freezes to daily food charges, free wraparound childcare, an effective pay rise of between 9.7% for the most junior ranks and 5.8% for officers of one-star rank, and a doubling of investment into UK service family accommodation since the middle of the last decade.

That Answer illustrates the lack of understanding about the brave people who defend us. However, to get back to my question, the March Spring Budget confirmed that day-to-day spending in defence is set to decline by £2.1 billion. That is over 6% in real terms between 2021-22 and 2024-25, which means £2 billion less for forces’ pay, recruitment and training, despite the growing security threats. Do the Government not believe that this imbalance will have serious consequences, as revealed by the 2023 attitude survey, or are they happy to ignore them?

It depends upon which glass we look through; clearly, the noble Lord is looking through a rather half-empty glass, and the facts rather refute his gloomy assessment. In fact, the recent pay award was the biggest percentage uplift in 20 years for service personnel, and this year’s pay award goes way beyond that level—rightly recognising the vital contribution to which the noble Lord refers. As he will be aware, spend for the MoD is likely to be above £50 billion this year, and it is interesting just to look at the detail of where that money is going. It includes significant improvements to accommodation and, as I have already described, to the conditions that surround our service personnel. Interestingly, there is anecdotal evidence from across the department that the 2023 pay award has been well received by service personnel.

My Lords, there is undoubtedly substandard accommodation within the MoD but, for balance, there is also fantastic new accommodation. I encourage any Member of this House to go to visit the new service family accommodation at Larkhill and Ludgershall, which has been built recently, to see just that. The challenge seems to be that we spend two-thirds of our budget on one-third of our infrastructure. The answer to that was published in the Government’s A Better Defence Estate strategy about six years ago, where the intent was to sell off excess estate and use the capital receipts from that selling off of the estate to invest in our defence infrastructure. It is a grand idea, but it seems to be going a bit slowly. Can my noble friend perhaps encourage the department to get on with it?

Yes, I can confirm to my noble friend that that initiative is under way. I do not have specific information about the extent to which sales have taken place, but I undertake to get that and I shall write to him. We are working on updating our accommodation offer to deliver the commitments made in the defence accommodation strategy. The Minister for Defence People and Veterans will be making a further announcement with more detail about the new accommodation offer later this month.

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on the progress with unpicking the disastrous Annington Homes agreement, following the High Court decision in favour of the MoD earlier this year? Does not this sorry saga, in which billions have been lost to defence, illustrate the importance of taking a long-term view of value for money rather than responding to management whims of the moment and engaging in value destruction in response to short-term budgetary pressures?

The noble and gallant Lord might be surprised to find that I am largely in agreement with his opinion. This is a long-standing arrangement; as he will be aware, it became the subject of judicial proceedings. We have been able to make progress, and I think the department has learned a great deal from that adventure, if you like. The noble and gallant Lord is quite correct that we can do better, and we are now on a much more sustainable footing.

My Lords, the Minister has made some positive comments about accommodation, yet in the continuous attitude survey of 2023, just 19% of respondents were satisfied with the timeliness or the quality of the repairs of service accommodation. Are His Majesty’s Government satisfied with that result, and what are they doing to improve things?

I would just say to the noble Baroness that 97% of MoD service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Government’s decent homes standard, and only these properties should be allocated to service families. On the continuous attitude survey, the department is focused on addressing the root causes of dissatisfaction with the maintenance of service family accommodation. That began before the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey questionnaire was distributed to personnel. By the time the results were published on 1 June this year, performance had improved.

My Lords, there is a little difference sometimes between a glass half full and burying one’s head in the sand, and there is no doubt at all that there are real problems with personnel. I was down at Raleigh recently, and there was the smallest number I have seen on parade entering the Navy for many years. There are problems across all three services. People are marching with their feet. Does the Minister agree that there are real problems with manning levels and holding on to people? We have to do something to ensure we get this right or, in the Navy’s case, we will not be able to man ships, and, in the Army’s case, it will not even be able to meet the lower level expected in future.

I would say to the noble Lord that the recent pay award has been very positively received, but that is not the sole reason why people go into the Armed Forces. I agree with him that there are recruitment challenges—I do not deny that; we are in a very competitive world—but I can say that all three single services are currently embarked on new and, I think, very vibrant recruiting exercises, which we hope will bear fruit. But the other criteria to which I referred—how we provide careers, how we provide childcare support and how we try to improve accommodation and support personnel—are all part of the overall package.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, when we are looking at supporting the terms and conditions of our armed services, we must not forget those services that support them? I am thinking in particular of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, which provides world-class maritime support to our Royal Navy. Since 2009, its terms and conditions and settlement have been lower than those of any other member of the Armed Forces or comparable emergency service, such as the fire service, the ambulance service and the police. I do not really understand why that is the case. Will the Minister undertake to look into it?

Yes. I agree with my noble friend that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is an important component of our support. I do not have any details on her specific request, but I will certainly investigate and undertake to write to her.

My Lords, I am proud to say that my father served in the Navy for 37 years. Although remuneration is an important part of the job offer, what other elements does my noble friend the Minister believe influence the attractiveness of a role in the modern-day Armed Forces?

As a number of your Lordships have indicated, it is important to make clear how we value what we ask our Armed Forces personnel to do across the piece, whether it is pay, accommodation, conditions or tackling some of the challenging maintenance issues that have arisen. We are doing our level best to make sure that there is improvement; there is now clear evidence of that improvement.

I say to my noble friend that I think one of the most exciting things to happen recently has been the Haythornthwaite review, which is an innovatory, robust piece of work that defence is already working on, particularly to introduce flexibility—the zig-zag careers. That may sound like jargon, but it means that we give people in the Armed Forces the option to change paths and move direction: we give them the chance to switch between regular and reserve and we give our Civil Service the chance to switch between the service and industry. That is responding to the modern world in which we live; we are trying to make sure that we are sympathetic to the circumstances that confront each of our Armed Forces families.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister’s responses to a pretty specific Question about spending. I notice that at no time have I heard any figures in her responses, which is what you would expect to hear in answer to questions about spending. I repeat: my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe asked her about day-to-day spending on remuneration, housing and family support for members of the Armed Forces. Can she tell us in simple terms—I have an open mind and will listen to her answer—precisely what those figures were a couple of years ago, say, and what they are today?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. Let us take the example of service families’ accommodation and look at that investment. Some £337 million was invested there in the financial years 2020-21 and 2021-22 combined, with a further £163 million in the financial year 2022-23. The forecast for 2023-24 is £312 million following the recently published defence Command Paper refresh—which I am sure the noble Lord is an authority on—which announced an additional £400 million of funding over two years; £220 million of that has been received for this financial year. I hope that that gives a flavour of where some of the spend is going.