Defence Reform Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:29 pm on 10th December 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Doocey Baroness Doocey Liberal Democrat 5:29 pm, 10th December 2013

My Lords, I will speak to Part 3 of the Bill to highlight concerns about forces welfare, and in particular the welfare of those serving in the Army Reserve. The Bill includes important provisions to protect the employment rights of reservists, which is clearly right. However, we must consider how we can improve reservists’ welfare in other ways. After all, the real task is to attract large numbers of new recruits if the targets for reservists are to be met. In doing so, we should learn lessons from important welfare issues affecting the whole service.

Housing is among the most important of those welfare issues, not only for personnel currently serving but for those leaving the service. The Army Families Federation reports that the poor standard of maintenance and repair is the biggest problem for Army families. Although the current standard of accommodation is undoubtedly the result of decades of underinvestment, the fact that it persists to such a degree is, I am told, largely due to the way that prime contractors are incentivised. Service families whom I have met describe the situation as woeful, and maintenance and repair problems are the subject of endless complaints.

Last year, the Defence Select Committee investigated accommodation provided by the MoD. It reported that less than 50% of the single living accommodation units in the UK are in the top two grades of quality, even though the target set by the MoD is 90%. Indeed, more than a third of this accommodation is in the bottom grade. I welcome the substantial investment in accommodation for service families in recent years, which has seen more than 90% of the homes for service families brought into the top two quality grades, but the same approach is needed for the rest of the accommodation estate.

Forces personnel also face issues trying to find a home when they leave the service. The homelessness charity Homeless Link conducts the annual Survey Of Needs and Provision, which shows that the problem of ex-forces personnel sleeping rough, in hostels or in supported accommodation, is widespread. It reports that half the day centres in England say that they work with ex-service personnel and that those personnel face a high risk of falling into patterns of rough sleeping. We must acknowledge our responsibilities to the welfare of service personnel—regulars and reservists.

The Bill before us tackles job security for our reserves, opens the door to longer periods of deployment and promises to improve the incentives and compensation arrangements for employers. These are very good steps forward. However, if we are to attract the broad range of skills and people to greatly expand our Reserve Forces, we must have an answer for them on welfare issues such as their healthcare, their mental state and their family-life balance. Ensuring decent accommodation which is properly and regularly maintained for our regular forces should be seen as part and parcel of this approach.