Service Family Accommodation

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th March 2017.

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Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:00 am, 13th March 2017

What steps his Department is taking to improve standards in service family accommodation.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The provision of quality accommodation is at the heart of the armed forces covenant. Around 94% of UK service family accommodation is at decent homes standard or above. Only service family accommodation at those standards will be allocated to new occupants. Since April 2016, around 14,500 kitchens, bathrooms, roofs, doors and windows, and some 10,000 new boilers, have been installed.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I thank the Minister for that response, but the armed forces continuous attitude survey in 2016 showed a significant drop in satisfaction among those living in service family accommodation—there was a decrease of seven percentage points, to just 50%. Can he assure the House that a further drop in satisfaction will lead to urgent action by the Department?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I can, but equally I am confident that, after the Secretary of State’s intervention last year with CarillionAmey and the introduction of the get well plan, we have seen a significant improvement in satisfaction. That might not yet have filtered down into the survey, but recent stats show that the satisfaction rate on the service from CarillionAmey has risen from 40% to 61%. We take this matter very seriously, which is why I am keeping a close eye on it and am determined that the services standard should continue to improve.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Conservative, Canterbury

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress that has been made on the CarillionAmey contract. However, does he agree that continuing to have service family accommodation—the patch, as it is affectionately called—is critical in providing a supportive arrangement for families when their loved ones are away on operations or indeed extended exercises?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

What our families really want is choice and support, but I can say to my hon. Friend that only recently I visited Salisbury plain and saw in Tidworth, Larkhill and elsewhere some 1,000 brand new service family accommodation homes being built, so we take the matter very seriously. I am confident that SFA, as it is referred to, will continue to be provided, and some of those homes really are of an absolute first-rate standard. However, this is about trying to support the modern lifestyle of our service families and the way in which they work.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

A recent Army Families Federation survey on the future of military housing showed that if SFA were reduced in favour of a rental allowance, 30% of those surveyed would definitely leave the Army and a further 46% would consider leaving. What does the Minister think the Government’s future accommodation model will do for retention rates?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

As I say, it is all about choice. If the hon. Gentleman looks at that survey, he will see that the overwhelming number of young soldiers, sailors and airmen who are yet to be married support the model that we are proposing. We are yet to make any firm decisions. We have reduced the number of options to about seven, on which we are running a business case, but I will keep the House fully informed as we progress.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed

I welcome the Minister’s comments, but 40,000 members of the armed forces have still not been consulted on the future accommodation model. Among those who have, anxieties remain about whether SFA is still a real option for their families.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I refer back to my earlier comments. Only recently I visited Salisbury plain, where we are building 1,000 new SFA units of an excellent standard. SFA will remain an option, but it is clear that one size does not fit all and that, depending on where one is serving in the United Kingdom, various options will have to be available.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement)

Last November, the National Audit Office reported:

“Poor accommodation for service families is also affecting the morale as well as the recruitment and retention of service personnel.”

In other words, the situation is deplorable. My concern is that only lip service is paid to those real worries. Surely to goodness, warm words and tinkering are not enough. Real action is needed. Why will not the Minister acknowledge that and introduce real improvements quickly?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am really disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Only last year, some £64 million was invested in service family accommodation. Next year, we will invest some £80 million in service family accommodation. Perhaps, rather than sitting on the green Benches in the Chamber, he would like to take up my offer to come to see some of the new build we are providing for our families on Salisbury plain.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Then here it is—so come rather than sitting on the green Benches and constantly carping.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

When service personnel are on active service abroad, the last thing they need is problems with their domestic arrangements and accommodation at home, so will the Minister ensure that, when service personnel are on active deployment, the accommodation helpline works absolutely perfectly for their partners at home?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. The point at which spouses are overseas on deployment is absolutely the time when we must focus on offering support to their families. I will look very carefully at what he says.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

Does the Minister agree that quality accommodation is central to satisfaction and retention rates, and does he therefore also agree that, having invested a large amount in service accommodation at Dale barracks in Chester, it would be a false economy to now close those barracks?

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The driver, of course, for the better defence estate strategy is military capability, but it is important that we have good-quality accommodation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, units will be relocated in his part of the world, and we will look carefully at that.