New Clause 11 - Housing report

Armed Forces Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 31st March 2021.

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“(1) No later than 12 months following the day on which this Act is passed, and every 12 months thereafter, the Secretary of State must publish a report on what constitutes minimum standards for Armed Forces accommodation.

(2) The report should also include—

(a) number of service personnel currently living in accommodation considered to be below minimum standard, and

(b) the geographical spread of the accommodation deemed to be below minimum standard for Armed Forces accommodation.

(3) The first report published must include an analysis of establishing a housing charter, which would place a duty on the Ministry of Defence to produce a housing charter guaranteeing a common, minimum standard across all service accommodation.”—

This new clause will require the Government to report annually on the standard of service accommodation, including the number living in accommodation below minimum standard and its geographical spread, and produce a Service Housing Charter to set and enforce a common, minimum standard across all service accommodation.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:45 am, 31st March 2021

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This clause is designed to take long-overdue comprehensive action to tackle the low standard of accommodation that our service personnel face. It will require the Government to report annually on the standard of service accommodation, including the number below minimum standards and where they are located. It will also place a duty on Ministers to provide a service housing charter, which will set and enforce a common minimum standard across all service housing.

As I have said when speaking to previous amendments, as currently drafted the duty to have due regard does not apply to Government Departments. This means that service accommodation, which is the responsibility of the MOD, is not currently included in the Bill. This new clause seeks to change that, and to respond to the widespread concerns raised repeatedly by service charities, service personnel, the Select Committee on Defence and the National Audit Office.

According to the armed forces continuous attitude survey, 40% of tri-service personnel live in single living accommodation, and 31% live in service families accommodation. A third of both these groups are dissatisfied with the overall quality of their accommodation. Roughly half of both these groups are dissatisfied with the response to maintenance requests, and a further 45% of personnel are dissatisfied with the quality of that work. This has been reinforced by the recent NAO report on SLA, which detailed a £1.5 billion backlog of repairs and an appalling prevalence of issues with heating and hot water. Even the chief operating officer of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation has conceded that the current quality-grading system for single living accommodation is complex. Yet it finds that 36% of personnel live in grade 4 or below, which is the lowest of the categories, and there is no minimum standard. Problems with heating and hot water are widespread.

The Government have committed funds to the modernisation programme, which is welcome, but it will take significant time to come to fruition. In the meantime, it is essential that we have a transparent picture of standards for which Ministers and civil servants are accountable. When we look at service family accommodation, it is the fix-on-fail contracts that cause so much trouble. Although Ministers say that Amey is meeting its key performance indicators, I suggest that these need to be reviewed, as the reality for service families is very different.

Last week, I spoke to naval families living in SFA in Portsmouth. They described huge waits for maintenance appointments and botched jobs that exacerbate problems and leave homes in shameful states of repair. I understand that service family accommodation is subject to a decent homes standard, but this in itself should be reviewed and the Government should aspire to far better for our service personnel.

Although the provision of service accommodation is split, with some being provided directly by the MOD and the rest being outsourced, it does not prevent a clear minimum standard from being applied across the board. This is simply a question of creating the homes fit for heroes that our service personnel deserve, and it should be a top priority.

It also poses a fundamental risk to recruitment, retention and morale. The 2020 armed forces continuous attitude survey found that 29% of personnel say that accommodation actively increases their propensity to leave. The Committee was due to visit service housing as part of its consideration of the Bill, but the Secretary of State mysteriously vetoed it at the last minute. Perhaps he was embarrassed by the unacceptable standards that our service personnel too often endure.

I would like to ask the Minister some very specific questions, and I look forward to his answers today. How does he justify the omission of the MOD among those responsible for having due regard to the covenant? Does he acknowledge the need for greater transparency on the overall quality of service accommodation? Will he undertake a review of Amey’s KPIs, and how will the Government incentivise a move from fix-on-fail? Will he consider establishing a minimum standard across all service accommodation?

Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Labour, Gower

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South for so clearly setting out the arguments for this new clause. For years, service personnel have had to put up with accommodation that is not up to scratch, and this Bill would have been a perfect opportunity to make some real, positive changes to rectify that.

When we heard from David Brewer and Tim Redfern a couple of weeks ago they were very keen to promote their successes but, as we all know and as recent surveys have shown, nearly half of our service personnel remain dissatisfied with their living arrangements.

I am sure we have all heard from constituents about acceptable housing, so today I would like to hear from the Minister about how exactly he is going to improve conditions for those who serve and their families. The state of accommodation has a big impact on the retention of staff. When more than a quarter of personnel are saying that accommodation is one reason for leaving the services, we know something just is not right. The loss of experienced, trained service personnel is not cost-effective, nor does it contribute to the state of readiness of our armed forces. Clarity and transparency are vital to improving conditions for our tri-service personnel, and I will be supporting the introduction of new clause 11 as it would go some way towards improving the current situation.

Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South seeks to place an obligation on the Ministry of Defence to commission an annual report to evaluate what constitutes the minimum quality standards for service accommodation and how many service personnel reside in accommodation that does not meet those criteria.

Our armed forces personnel are the heart of everything we do. As a condition of service and in recognition of their inherently mobile lifestyle, frequently remote bases and terms of service, regular service personnel are provided with high-quality, subsidised accommodation. Defence already operates a quality standard for all service family accommodation properties and is in the process of developing accommodation standards for single living accommodation. The Department has made a commitment to service personnel and their families to provide decent living standards through the service family accommodation customer service charter. The charter formally commits the Department to improve the condition and standard of the service family accommodation estate, sustaining improved levels of maintenance and repair performance and enhancing the customer service delivery that they receive from Amey Defence Services.

Defence has invested £1.2 billion over the last decade on construction and upgrades of our single living accommodation, and we continue to invest in a range of new build and renovation projects. My Department currently plans to invest a further £1.5 billion in single living accommodation, new build and upgrade projects over the next 10 to 12 years. That is more money going into SLA. As part of the wider £200 million upgrade programme for service family accommodation and single living accommodation that was announced by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence in July 2020, an additional £78 million will be invested in single living accommodation and transit accommodation by 2022.

With regard to applying a minimum standard of accommodation, I am pleased to report that service family accommodation already adheres to the decent homes standard, as defined by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Currently, 96.9% of SFA properties meet or exceed the standard, with work ongoing to modernise internal features across the estate. The standard of available housing is monitored on a monthly basis, and housing that does not meet the decent homes standard is not allocated to service personnel. The decent homes standard is currently being reviewed by MHCLG, and I look forward to considering the findings of the review and the impact that has on defence.

Work is ongoing through the SLA expert group to define an agreed minimum standard for SLA premises across all services. This work will also be supported by the roll-out of the SLA management information system, which will enable an evidence-based approach to the application of future funding through the analysis and exploitation of veracious accommodation data. The system has proved to be both complex and multifaceted, but it is now on track to go live in September 2021.

We conduct the armed forces continuous attitude survey annually, and it allows service personnel the opportunity to provide feedback on all aspects of service life, including accommodation. The results of the survey are used to identify particular aspects of the service accommodation package that require improvement. The publication of the defence accommodation strategy by the end of 2021 will formalise the Department’s vision for our standards for such accommodation to meet the lived experience and expectations of our personnel now and in the future.

Given the scale of ongoing work to improve the standard of accommodation offered to service personnel, backed by significant investment in infrastructure and the existing procedures to monitor standards, it would be premature to require the Department to report on standards and produce a charter at this stage. The review of the decent homes standard is currently ongoing in MHCLG and is due to report in summer 2022. Following those assurances, I hope my hon. Friend will agree to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Defence)

This is perhaps the most fundamental standards issue. I posed a number of questions to the Minister, and it is regrettable that he has not answered those today. The Bill is a missed opportunity to tackle this issue, which the Government need to take further action on. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion, but we may return to it on Report.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.