My Lords, we recognise the importance of continuing to provide accommodation for our service personnel and their families, and anticipate no fundamental change to that principle. Accommodation provision is currently being examined in the future accommodation project as part of work on the new employment model. It is too early at this stage to speculate as to what changes are likely to be forthcoming, as all proposals are still in development and will not be reported upon until late autumn this year.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. As he will remember, during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill I drew attention to the poor state of accommodation of Armed Forces personnel. Does my noble friend agree that subsidised housing is, as has been quoted, a "staunch pillar" of the military covenant? Will he explain to your Lordships' House how forcing married soldiers living in Army accommodation out of their homes is consistent with the military covenant? Will he confirm reports that the new employment model will cut housing entitlement to eight or 10 years' service? Finally, does he agree that within the employment model that he describes, under which soldiers will be able to buy their own homes, it should be a choice not a requirement?
My Lords, the provision of accommodation near the duty station continues to be seen as an important enabler of operational effectiveness, and there are no plans to remove entitlement to it based on a defined point in a service person's career. As my noble friend said, accommodation is a fundamental part of the Armed Forces covenant, and noble Lords will recall several valuable improvements made to the covenant during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill through your Lordships' House last autumn. It is much improved as a result.
My Lords, will the Minister give whatever assurance he can, further to what he has already said, particularly bearing in mind that the Army's policy is one of encouraging accompanied service, that nothing that is being planned or considered will make it more difficult or more expensive for a service man or woman to live with his or her family at or near their duty station?
My Lords, I absolutely agree with the sentiment behind the noble Lord's question that we owe our service personnel a great deal. As I have already stated, the forces accommodation project is under way. All options are being considered, and it is too early to pre-empt the outcome of that project. We will develop a future employment model that is affordable and balances the aspirations of service personnel with the demands that service life makes of them.
My Lords, I am delighted to hear that all options are being considered by my Government. Will my noble friend consider making available a house purchase deposit loan scheme to members of the Armed Forces? All of us in the House will realise that mortgage lenders require very high deposits these days.
My Lords, my noble friend will, I suspect, know that the MoD continues to support the Armed Forces home ownership scheme pilot. We also encourage service personnel to explore the three main products available from the Government to help to purchase a property: FirstBuy, New Build HomeBuy and HomeBuy Direct. Service personnel now have the highest priority for access to FirstBuy schemes. Additionally, we are working with mortgage lenders and their professional bodies to develop guidance for their dealings with members of the Armed Forces, while assisting personnel to enter into the UK housing market by offering a long service advance of pay to those eligible.
In the light of the Minister's response, will he therefore confirm that it is the Government's view that reducing the numbers entitled to Armed Forces housing accommodation would be acting outside the spirit and intention of the military covenant, which is there to help to ensure that Armed Forces personnel are not disadvantaged as a result of the unique nature and demands of military service?
My Lords, the covenant has been referred to several times during this small debate. Accommodation is a fundamental part of that covenant, which not only addresses service accommodation but is about doing our best to help those who are leaving the services to find suitable housing. That is why housing is specified in the Armed Forces Act 2011 as one of the issues that must always be covered by the Secretary of State's annual reports on the covenant.
My Lords, will my noble friend say what proportion of current service quarters have been judged recently to be substandard, and what progress has been made in bringing them up to date?
My Lords, perhaps I may put it the other way around. The proportion of service family accommodation at grade 1 or grade 2 condition is 96 per cent, which is moving in the right direction. It is not entirely satisfactory but it is progress.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the ways of resolving this difficult problem would be to ring-fence within the MoD the budget for accommodation? The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has asked for that for many years, because whenever there are cutbacks it is the accommodation budget that gets attacked and reduced first. The accommodation that we ask some of our service personnel, both single and families, to have as their homes is a disgrace.