My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Second Lieutenant Bracho-Cooke, who was killed in Iraq on Monday.
In each of the past two financial years, around £500 million has been spent on the maintenance and improvement of service accommodation. In the next decade, we plan to spend a total of more than £5 billion on the defence estate. Even so, we recognise that much still needs to be done to meet the needs of our service men and women and their families.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that helpful and fairly positive reply, albeit invoking some concern over what has happened hitherto. Does she agree that the root of the problem lay 10 years ago when the Ministry of Defence, under excessive Treasury pressure, forced through a daft plan to sell off and lease back a large part of the defence estate and hand over its upkeep to an impersonal and progressively underfunded agency, which, as a result, manifestly performed less effectively than the chain of command used to do? As this has not been corrected, can the Minister assure the House that when sufficient funds are produced to carry out the improvements and modernisations, which she has more or less promised as necessary, these will be ring-fenced? Otherwise, they will be vulnerable to the inevitable cash squeezes that invariably hit first the administrative tail, and the present lamentable and totally unacceptable state of affairs will merely linger on.
My Lords, I say to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that we are concerned. We ask a great deal of our service men and women. It is right that they should expect the very highest standard of accommodation when they come back from various theatres and, of course, while their families remain in that accommodation. We have spent and are spending more than £1.3 billion on modern, en-suite, single-bed spaces for our service personnel, which is just part of the £5 billion that we plan to spend on service accommodation in the next decade. The noble and gallant Lord talked about the sale to Annington Homes 10 years ago. He is right that that was, in effect, a privatisation measure. It meant that we were tied into a contract that perhaps if we had been in power we might not have made, but we are where we are. We must now make sure that we do our very best by our service personnel.
My Lords, from these Benches we, too, send our condolences to the family of the young officer who was killed. To avoid messages to call centres disappearing into a void, would it be possible for service families to have more direct access to the contractors responsible for correcting problems with their accommodation?
My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Lord is making. When the housing prime contract, to which I am sure he is referring, was set up last year, it had a very inauspicious start. I think that the helpdesk expected something in the order of 800 to 1,000 calls a day, but it got more than 2,500 and did not cope well, to put it mildly. However, firm action has been taken to improve the quality of the service and there is now considerable improvement in the present system. More than 9,000 calls are made to the helpdesk each week, of which 92 per cent are now answered within 30 seconds and 98 per cent are answered within two minutes.
My Lords, Members on these Benches join others in offering our condolences to the family of the second lieutenant so tragically killed on Monday.
The Minister has spoken of £5 billion to be spent over the next decade. That sounds like a lot of money, but many of our soldiers, sailors and airmen will have long since left the services in 10 years' time. How is this work to be accelerated in the light of the assurances given by the Prime Minister in his speech at Plymouth? Lastly, what proportion of substandard accommodation will be upgraded by that £5 billion?
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My Lords, at present 59 per cent of married quarters meet the highest of the four rates, which as the noble and gallant Lord knows represents a very exacting standard. We hope that the figure will go up to 64 per cent over the next three years, rising into the future.
My Lords, new build and upgrades of the order of 12,000 for service families and 20,000 for single living accommodation spaces are continually monitored. However, I will get the details for the noble Lord and let him know.