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Lord Dubs: The Minister has said no in as conciliatory manner as possible. I have listened to what he said. I shall reflect upon his words when I have had a chance to study them in Hansard to see whether the comfort he has attempted to bring by way of the Government's other measures to deal with the problems will help in the instances I have described. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Park of Monmouth moved Amendment No. 27OBA:

Before Clause 191, insert the following new clause--

Disposal of residential service property

(".--(1) The Secretary of State shall not dispose of any residential property held by him or on his behalf and occupied on 28th November 1995 by persons subject to the provisions of the services acts save in accordance with this section.
(2) Before making any proposal to dispose of any property to which subsection (1) applies the Secretary of State shall consult the occupants of the property to which the proposal relates.
(3) No proposal mentioned in subsection (2) shall have effect unless it is confirmed by order made by statutory instrument and subject to approval by resolution of both Houses of Parliament.
(4) Together with any order made under subsection (3) the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament a statement giving details of--
(a) the consultation under subsection (2); and
(b) the changes (if any) which, in the light of the consultation, the Secretary of State has made to his proposals.
(5) In this section--
(a) "the services acts" means the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955, and the Naval Discipline Act 1957; and
(b) "disposal" means sale, lease, mortgage, charge or any other disposition.").

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 276ZA, 276ZAA, 276ZAB and 276B. Those Members of the Committee who have spent many hours on the Housing Bill will, I hope, forgive me for introducing a new clause which addresses the issue of the Government's plans for the military estate defence housing portfolio.

Let me outline briefly the nature and the history of those plans. Before I do so I wish to say that I have discussed my approach to the clause fully with the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, who is co-sponsor of the clause. He is unfortunately unavoidably prevented from being here tonight, but he is fully in agreement with all I have to say. I should add that the clause is aimed at securing a review of the new proposals for the married quarters estate. It is not intended in any way to interfere with or obstruct existing arrangements under which discrete surplus housing is being sold off. If the wording of the clause inadvertently proves to have that effect, I would of course wish to modify it accordingly before Report.

The armed forces own a large number of houses or married quarters scattered over the country in estates or patches. Many of them, because of the rapid--too rapid--run-down in numbers arising from Options for

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Change and the Defence Costs Study, are now unoccupied. Those which are occupied are in many cases in disgracefully poor condition.

The Ministry of Defence rightly reviewed various ways of improving those houses. More money was needed. There was none. It considered a solution known as the targeted sale option; that is, the sale of empty properties no longer needed. I believe that 4,500 such quarters have already been sold. But in June l995 it decided that the sale of those properties, many in poor condition, would not solve its problem. It looked instead at a new market study produced by NatWest and decided to sell off the whole defence estate portfolio, excluding those quarters in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to one buyer.

The plan provided for a 25-year lease-back arrangement for those properties that the Ministry of Defence needs at present to retain, and also involved a steady release of those retained estates so that a certain percentage of them reverts to the buyer during the 25-year period for redevelopment.

The buyer has the right to move service families from estates which are, in the majority, empty to new equivalent accommodation. Comparable or equivalent accommodation is a subjective question. Although the leaflet issued about the sale says that the MoD will have "substantial control" over which properties it chooses to hold and which it gives up, who defines "substantial"? The legal document is complicated.

The Secretary of State announced those plans in the other place in November l995. He wrote on 28th November,

    "To occupiers of all MoD homes".
That letter went to those in England and Wales but not in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Cyprus and other service families at that time serving outside England and Wales but who would be equally affected in future. He told them that the sale would not change their entitlement to married quarters and would not change the MoD's responsibility for managing, maintaining and allocating quarters. That would continue through the Defence Housing Executive, and the sale would enable the MoD to invest in upgrading the housing stock where necessary.

He concluded by saying that he would not sell the married quarters unless he could do so on the right terms and that meant not just a good price but full protection for the interests of occupants. In short, he said, it would either be a good deal or no sale. His key priority would be the interests and well-being of service families. At the same time, the very brief leaflet to which I have referred was distributed on the issue.

That decision was apparently regarded as an internal housekeeping decision by the Secretary of State which had, of course, full Treasury support. It was promulgated internally. I have concerns which I know to be widely shared not only by the families whose future is in question but by the Defence Select Committee in the other place. First, there is the fact that such a decision, which will affect every single service family at a time when defence has suffered constant threats, constant change and constant cuts, based on very

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flawed arguments ever since Options for Change, and at a time when the services have been promised stability and no more changes, can be taken without any opportunity for Parliament to consider it. That is why it has been necessary to put forward the new clause.

The manner in which the decision has been put to the service families is calculated to create the greatest possible anxiety, uncertainty and fear for the future. At a time when recruitment is a serious problem and retention all important, it seems amazing that the concerns expressed by the Army Families Federation, the sister organisation representing the RAF, the British Legion and SSAFA have not been effectively addressed. Indeed, they have not been addressed at all. It is not enough simply to tell them that it will be all right on the day and that they should simply rely on the Secretary of State to do nothing which is not in their best interests. If there are real advantages for them in this radical proposal they have yet to be convinced. Anxious wives make anxious husbands. This is just the sort of threat to their already fragile security to make them decide to leave the services. Is that the Government's intention?

Perhaps I may cite some of the anxieties which service families, it seems to me, are fully justified in wishing to see addressed at once. Take entitlement, for instance. The terms of the agreement with the developer/purchaser allow the latter a site exchange option. Under this, if the purchaser wants to exchange a site currently occupied by a married quarters patch he must provide something which fulfils a number of criteria, including being suitable for a cohesive community such as a regimental patch would be. It must be comparable. But who will be the judge of that? The memorandum says that it will be an arbitrator, not the MoD. What becomes then of the service families living in the site which the developer wants and of the Secretary of State's assurance that the sale will have no impact on their rights or position as an occupant? In view of the possible profit in redevelopment, will not the landlord litigate before the arbitrator? The criteria are very broad and they must be open to many interpretations.

Still on the legal issues, the purchaser will after 25 years have the right, if it can establish that it has a genuine prospect of redeveloping an estate, to take that estate from the MoD and redevelop it. Who will decide that? The MoD is sufficiently aware of the dangers to have announced on 5th June to the Defence Select Committee that it would be creating a ministerial certificate which would allow the proper safeguards to be applied 25 years hence with a different Minister. What will be the legal status of that certificate on judicial review?

There are very many questions I could ask about the married quarters initiative but the hour is late. However, my chief concern is the disastrous effect on service morale which these and many other uncertainties and fears are having. There may be answers and I hope that there are, although I take leave to doubt whether that brand new agency, the Defence Housing Executive, and the MoD's lawyers can hope to negotiate on anything like equal terms with a large and rich international consortium. I cannot but remember too that the DHE will have been taught to think in terms of market forces rather than service morale as its first consideration.

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I need hardly add that one of the anxieties felt in the services and shared by the Defence Select Committee is the implications for security of selling the defence estate to an international consortium, whether it is Japanese, American, Dutch or whatever. I quote those nationalities from the press alone, of course.

The committee was told that they had demonstrated an understanding of MoD and service priorities and because of that had made it to the short list. Well, they would, wouldn't they? But does it make it right when the security of the country is involved? Service families are, and feel themselves to be, particularly vulnerable. As Gerry Adams says, the IRA has not gone away. But that will not be the first consideration of the developers of the site.

There will be those who will argue, as the MoD does, that this is a marvellous deal because it will enable service living conditions to be improved and poor quarters will be upgraded over several years with the £100 million which it will be allowed to retain for that purpose from the sale.

There will be those, like the authors of the Bett Report, who will regard the probable mix of service and non-service families as a happy integration into society. There will be those who argue that in any event more and more families will choose to buy their own houses.

But there is a very important and significant section of service families who value and need the regimental patch, especially young 17 or 18 year-old wives with small children whose husbands may have been in Bosnia or in Northern Ireland for two years running at Christmas. They are vulnerable and need the support of the regimental family and the safety of a service environment which excludes drugs and violence.

They have not yet been consulted. Their representatives have been told that they are not to worry their pretty little heads. Their legitimate anxieties have not been dealt with. The machinery for proper consultation purports to exist--the very new Defence Housing Executive. But it proves that that executive is there to consult on everything but this plan.

The Minister has met representatives of the Army Families Federation at intervals. Of course he has, and with his usual courtesy. The housing project team did a presentation covering the time-frame for the project. The Defence Housing Executive, which started functioning only on 1st April of this year, is, according to the leaflet, taking attitude surveys and setting up local consultation groups. It has also issued a newsletter and brokered a customer charter. But its activities concern only questions of management. It is on those issues that its consultations take place, and it evidently regards the proposal to sell the married quarters estate as outside its remit.

If the representatives of the families remain as anxious as they undoubtedly are, that suggests that they are experiencing the not unusual form of government consultation which consists of telling them what will happen and not listening to or responding to their concerns. What listening has been done has been in

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response to the Defence Select Committee, and that is very late. The ministerial certificate is one such response. That only proves my point that this was and is too important a national issue to be left to in-house decisions never discussed in Parliament.

But unless the MoD can really consult as opposed to simply saying, "This is what will happen. Don't worry. Father knows best", I assure the Minister, who I think will have had some indication of the anxieties felt when he answered my noble friend Lord Vivian in the House last week, that the feelings of doubt, turbulence, uncertainty and general vulnerability are real and dangerous. There will be no point in having nice, new, refurbished quarters, or at least not in terms of national defence, if the families have opted out of the services; and they will.

Therefore, I urge the Minister in the strongest terms to set in motion a real consultative exercise where answers to questions are given, and one which embraces all service families, and report the results back to both Houses to allow the Secretary of State, in the light of both the consultation and a general debate, to consider further effective measures designed to restore confidence and to respond to genuine concerns.

The Secretary of State said in his letter that he will not sell the married quarters unless he can do so on the right terms and,

    "that means not just a good price but full protection for the interests of the occupants".
I am aware, largely I submit through the failure of the MoD to listen earlier to legitimate concerns, that time is short because the decision on the bid needs, on the present timetable, to be made in the summer. But fortunately the preliminary information memorandum on the married quarters estate contains a wise provision. It says clearly that:

    "The Secretary of State may at his discretion amend the timetable, alter the basis of the transaction or decide not to proceed with it at any time".
I believe that we should not proceed with it, but I am asking him to amend the timetable to provide time for consultation and more thought and then to provide specific reassurance for the service families and the country, through a debate in Parliament, on the specific risks inherent in the proposals as they stand at present. It is the least we owe them.

I cannot stress too strongly that the Secretary of State has said in the clearest terms in the memorandum to would-be purchasers that the timetable may at his discretion be amended and the basis of the transaction altered at any time. There is still time and what he has offered is what we are asking for. But we wish Parliament to be part of the process on such a major national issue. I beg to move.

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