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Baroness Park of Monmouth moved Amendment No. 196:


Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause--

("PART A1
The Married Quarters Estate
Disposal of the Married Quarters Estate

.--(1) The Secretary of State shall not give effect to his proposals announced on 28th November 1995 to dispose of the Married Quarters Estate save in accordance with this section.
(2) Before disposing 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 (1) 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 "disposal" means sale, lease, mortgage, charge or any other disposition.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 196, I shall speak also to Clauses 212 and 213. I am pleased to find myself here since I was assured by the press this morning that I had withdrawn my amendment and that nothing would happen.

The Government propose to sell the entire married quarters estate in England and Wales--around 60,000 houses and flats--on 800 sites to a private international developer, initially on a 25-year lease-back basis. The MoD will pay an aggregate market-based rent, reviewed every five years, or a guaranteed payment--whichever is the higher--but will manage and maintain the properties through the new Defence Housing Executive. The sites include the regimental patches which are a vital part of the support system for service families. I shall leave it to other noble Lords to discuss the financial and legal provisions. I shall identify the features of the scheme which have caused deep anxiety and threaten the already fragile stability of service morale.

One is the site exchange scheme under which the developer has the option to exchange units or sites occupied by MoD families for "comparable substitute accommodation". An arbitrator, not the MoD, will

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decide whether that meets certain criteria and is "comparable". Another feature is the requirement for the MoD to release a number of occupied properties annually--probably 600 to 700--over 25 years. That adds up to roughly 17,500 houses. A third is the right of the developer, after 25 years, to vacant possession or redevelopment, not necessarily providing a comparable alternative, and to dispose of sites or parts of sites. The only way the MoD can resist this repossession is to use, on grounds of operational necessity, a ministerial certificate whose legal status on judicial review must be very doubtful. Finally, the families fear that as rents rise the MoD will be moved to relinquish the most expensive sites under the site exchange option.

The project has been presented as an excellent piece of privatisation which will save the taxpayer money by disposing of empty houses and benefit service families because it will make possible long overdue repairs to a disgracefully run-down military estate and better management. The Secretary of State, when he wrote to the families, said what a good deal it was and that his key priority was the interest and well-being of service families.

I have nothing against privatisation, but the Government have, not for the first time, utterly failed to take account of something which cannot be bought and can all too easily be lost: the confidence of men in their leaders. The services feel punch drunk; they have taken so many cuts and been asked to do the impossible so often; this is the last straw. The families feel threatened and anxious wives make anxious husbands, who will probably leave the services when recruitment is at rock bottom and retention a serious problem.

Why do noble Lords think that we have brought this amendment to the House? It is because within the services there has been no two-way consultation of the kind that was used for the Bett Report or indeed for the homosexuality issue: there has only been one-way traffic. They have been told what will happen and their legitimate concerns, expressed over many months and their irrational anxieties alike have not been addressed. The fact that the new proposal has coincided, though in no way connected, with the decision of the Armed Forces Pay Review Board to increase rents by 10 per cent. to 25 per cent. has not helped.

The families fear, with some reason, that the developer will be able to pick off regimental patches or parts of them. Privatising service homes is not like privatising British Gas nor is an army quarter like a house with a mortgage. Service people have only a licence to occupy a quarter. They have no security of tenure. Some wives may move 39 times during their husband's career--think of the effect of that on the children. But at least so far they knew that the environment would be safe, stable and familiar and their men, many of whom may not have been home three Christmases running thanks to several tours in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, knew it, too. When two Welsh fusiliers were taken hostage in Bosnia some years' ago, the press rushed to see the young wives, demanding to know what counselling they and their children were

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receiving. They were told proudly that the regiment and the regimental wives did that. They knew the score. That is what the regimental patch is.

Those who live there now feel threatened and that is a serious failure of communication and man-management. Organisations like the Federation of Army Wives and the British Legion have tried to secure two-way consultation and have got nowhere and the anxieties have grown. We believe that there would be very great benefits--if the scheme is indeed so much in the interests of the forces--if a proper consultation exercise took place. It would not only be good PR--a very scarce commodity these days--but also it would be proof that we have not actually forgotten how to listen.

We have been told that the great prize to be won for the services in return for putting the security of future generations at the mercy of an international developer is the £100 million which the Treasury is prepared to release over five years and ring-fence for use to improve property. (The MoD is already spending £40 million annually on upgrading, anyway). How much of that £100 million, one wonders, will be used to improve houses to be handed over to the developer. Is £100 million a prize out of the £1.5 billion at least which the Treasury is expecting from the sale?

Widespread loss of morale and widespread anxiety, which because of the strong tradition of silence and loyalty can find a voice only through this House and the other place, are a high price to pay for a paltry £100 million. I have to add that, as other noble Lords will show, the deal is a wonderful one for the developer but full of pitfalls and black holes for the country, both in the short and the long term.

Perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Minister, incidentally--and I gave him warning of this question--to tell the House what connection, if any, a Mr. David Hart has with the project? Is he a consultant? What is his status in this matter? My concern is that this project appears to be driven far more by the philosophy of the market than by any concern for, or understanding of, service needs.

Many noble Lords will feel that the Chiefs of Staff themselves have now endorsed this project publicly and therefore that should be the end of the matter, and that to continue to press the matter is possibly arrogant and certainly unnecessary. I suspect that the Chiefs of Staff, for reasons of pragmatism as well as loyalty, have no alternative. A threat to £1.5 billion that the Treasury is counting on could only result in the MoD having to find that money in some other vital area.

But we are not asking for the scheme to be given up. Once it has been sold properly to the forces and once Parliament has had the opportunity, for the first time, to debate it in the light of that consultation and to test the safeguards, there is no reason why a good scheme should not go forward in October with due modification. The Secretary of State stated in the preliminary bids documents that he may, at his discretion, amend the timetable, alter the basis of the transaction or decide not to proceed with it at any time.

We are asking for delay to allow full debate in Parliament on the basis of consultation and a decision by affirmative resolution. I have never approached any

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issue in this House as a gender issue, but I feel considerable anger, shared by other noble Lords with service contacts, over the determined efforts being made to suppress adverse comment even within the services. Wives cannot speak (I am not here referring to the official bodies) without risking harm to their husbands' careers or, at the least, acquiring a reputation as a troublemaker. The RAF News has apparently been forbidden to publish critical letters about the scheme. It seems that service wives have duties but no rights. We expect their votes as citizens, but we give them no voice on an issue so closely affecting their lives. In a free country that is disgraceful when the issue concerns neither security nor operational duties.

This project is a national decision with potentially far-reaching consequences, capable of a serious adverse impact on the morale and effectiveness of our fighting services. It deserves to be fully tested by due parliamentary process. Perhaps some indication of its importance is the fact that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who speaks after me and who should have been at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the British Legion, has come here expressly to support this amendment. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Bramall: My Lords, I would be the very last person to want to obstruct any administrative arrangements which were truly in the interests of the Armed Forces. I appreciate that by their insistent and somewhat unusual revelation that the Chiefs of Staff have accepted this comprehensive sale and, even more unusually, their approval of a Chiefs of Staff press conference on it, Ministers are claiming that these measures are exactly that. Indeed, I accept that the very real anxieties felt by families may be largely the result of a failure of communication and of consultation, which has been minimal, and that clearly this has to be put right.

But there are a couple of other points that I must raise. First, no one, by any stretch of imagination, can claim that this sale was devised with service families uppermost in mind. It was to be introduced primarily to satisfy the Treasury's urgent demand, for whatever reason, for £1.5 billion or £1.6 billion. It was from that starting point that Ministers have been pressed, by the Chiefs of Staff and others, to conjure up certain safeguards designed to see that service families will not be too disadvantaged and may even, with some initial improvements in standards, seem to benefit.

In the short term I recognise that the policy may well be successful, particularly if the chain of command keeps a weather eye open to see that families are not exploited, although what the developers will say about apparent further restraints being imposed on them and how much it will encourage them to manipulate the estates at a later stage remains to be seen. It is about the longer term and the possibility of service families being squeezed into inferior and less appropriate accommodation through a combination of inevitably rising rents and the right of developers to offer alternative accommodation while developing selected estates for their own advantage that those closest to the problem still need to be reassured.

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I ask noble Lords to remember that these anxieties, some of them very strongly held, come on top of so much continuous upheaval over the last five to six years which has brought the Armed Forces, although well equipped, to a state of acute undermanning--a fate, I notice, that is not shared by the Conservative Benches today--and overstretched. There is a general feeling of alarm and uncertainty in many military communities. Indeed, there is a feeling among some families that they are being almost disenfranchised, husbands having been told, in no uncertain terms, that not only they but their families must do what they are told, lump it and stop bellyaching.

I know that it is Whitehall practice to consider major departmental assets as belonging to the Treasury, or the nation. But £100 million over five years, about which so much play is being made as an indication of Treasury generosity, seems to me a measly rebate from the potential proceeds of this particular piece of asset stripping. Quite apart from the fact that if this amount was so badly needed to maintain the estate it should have been provided before--during this Government's lengthy responsibility for such conditions--much of it will be spent on bringing up to the developers satisfaction even those quarters which are surplus.

Set against the £40 million or so spent yearly by the Defence Housing Executive, only recently established and praised to the skies in the last White Paper for excellent administration, the £100 million does not constitute such a very big deal. And, of course, the money could easily have been provided by the executive selling off those quarters which truly are not needed. If a much larger rebate could have been negotiated by the Ministry of Defence with the Treasury, that really would have been a great boon to the hard pressed Armed Forces and indirectly to their families. It seems a good thing occasionally to remind the Treasury that it cannot always ride rough-shod over everyone.

I am as concerned as anyone to see that surplus quarters are not left empty. I believe that the arrangements merit some continuing reflection and especially consultation, with particular emphasis--if morale is not to be affected--on the longer term when decent quarters may still be needed in specific areas and, who knows, perhaps in larger quantities than they are now. For that reason I am in full sympathy with the amendment of the noble Baroness which I know, and as every noble Lord in your Lordships' House must know, is put forward only with the most honourable and public spirited motives in mind.


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