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Lord Clifford of Chudleigh: I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing the clause and wholeheartedly support what she said. Members of the Armed Forces live in odd, varied accommodation during their service career: underwater in a submarine for three months; alone in a cockpit, thousands of feet up in the sky or scraping the earth's surface, cramped and breathing oxygen; or, as I know from first-hand
But wait, my Lords: Prime Minister's Question Time, an Early Day Motion in the other place, all concerned with flogging our secure homes. So the married armed service personnel will not have the traditional landlord--Her Majesty's Government. No, the married quarters will be sold, the asset value changed--it will probably rise--and another landlord will purchase that vital asset of family security that ensures the spirit and cohesion of our Armed Forces.
Like all Ministers and Secretaries of State, the Minister of Defence is the Chancellor's poodle. For £1.5 billion he is prepared to disrupt the family atmosphere of the regiment, the naval base and the Royal Air Force base. It is recognised that there are 5,000 vacant married quarters, but rather than throw them on to the open market, why not allow the recently established Defence Housing Executive to conduct the sale and use the money to refurbish and repair the remaining existing married quarters? That is the one sure way of keeping our servicemen in the Armed Forces at this time when recruitment is low.
All Members of the Committee know that our Armed Forces are recognised for their high standard and versatility. In the past our Armed Forces gave us the freedom to have our own homes. Without the security of one landlord, the servicemen will look after themselves, buy their own house, probably find another job, if there is one available. It will undermine the confidence of "the patch", the ship, the pilots. If they do not find a job, they will then draw unemployment benefit and, much to the discomfort of the Government, increase the unemployment figures. The Chancellor ought to know that money can be burnt. Peace cannot and must not. Do not privatise the peacekeepers.
Lord Swinfen: Before supporting the amendment, I declare an interest. Two of my daughters are married to serving officers; and one is a serving officer herself. They are entitled, therefore, to service accommodation.
I understand that the proposal is to sell the service quarters on a 25 year lease-back. If an individual were going to buy a 25-year lease in a single dwelling, he would have considerable difficulty in raising funds from a building society. The building society would want at least a 60-year lease, preferably one for 99 years, or one for over 100 years. Therefore, there must be something in it for the purchaser in order to make him pay a price that the Treasury considers suitable--something approaching the figure on which a prudent building society would lend; in other words, something that would make the value the same as the length of lease.
Using my surveyor's hat, I assume that there must be very considerable redevelopment potential in the service quarters. The financier who funds the purchaser will not want to wait 25 years before seeing some return on his capital, and will put pressure on the purchaser to undertake some redevelopment as soon as possible, breaking up the married patches, cherry picking and
What will happen at the end of the 25 year lease? The services will not necessarily have any right to continue. Will the Treasury find the funds to build those quarters all over again? It has got rid of them once. It might have to buy them again. Is this really a good financial move? It is better to maintain property than to have to replace it.
I suspect that the proposal has been thought up by the Treasury. I believe that there was a report in the papers about a year ago that the Treasury might have to move out of its building into another because it had been so unwise in the management of its building that it would cost too much to bring it up to standard. I wonder whether the Treasury has its thinking right on the service quarters.
What will be the position when our bases overseas run down, as will happen from time to time? We may open up others depending on the state of the world. But with the peace dividend about which everyone is talking at present it is more likely that our bases will be run down. We will bring our troops home, together with their families. In most cases the families are overseas with the troops at present and will need housing in this country. Do we want to be in the same position as the old Soviet Union which could not take its troops back from Germany because there was nowhere for them to live? That is the situation we appear to be heading towards.
The fighting unit, whether a regiment, battalion or a ship, needs to have its people readily accessible. The married quarters patch is useful because in an emergency someone can go round and get the men into operation with their unit. At the same time, when the men are overseas in a difficult and dangerous situation, the married patch is where the families are, giving each other mutual support in times of danger, considerable uncertainty, and probably unhappiness, not really knowing what is going on. I strongly support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth. I hope that the Government pay attention to it. Even if they do not like this particular amendment, I hope they will do what my noble friend requests.
Baroness Strange: Briefly, I support my noble friend Lady Park. I wish to make two points. Disposing of assets which one believes at the time to be surplus to requirement has very often been proved to be a false economy. My aunts always kept everything: short string, long string and a box of string too short to be of further use. The box of string too short to be of further use has proved very good for my grandchildren to make tails for shell mice with. Even fortune-tellers do not always get the future right; nor do governments.
My second point is that our servicemen and women are generally acknowledged, and certainly always in this Chamber, to be the best in the world. The cuts initiated by Options for Change, and increased since, have made for a feeling of instability. If families feel that they may
Lord Williams of Elvel: It will come as no surprise to the Committee that, with one qualification that I shall express, I support the amendment. The qualification is very simple. The Committee will notice that my name is not down to this amendment, for the simple reason that I should like the Government to scrub the whole scheme. I do not want them to become involved in any detailed negotiation of this sort. I should like them to abandon the whole exercise. So we start from that position.
After Options for Change, Front Line First and all the other changes that have taken place, I cannot think of anything more destructive of morale in the Armed Forces than suddenly to announce that married quarters for service personnel are to be sold off to the highest bidder. It is the most extraordinary operation that the Government are now embarked upon.
I am told that the price will be £1.5 billion or thereabouts. That is an interesting figure. I have no doubt that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be very glad to receive £1.5 billion if he could receive it without any destruction of morale in our Armed Forces. I was told by the noble Earl at Question Time the other day that international capital will be involved--because £1.5 billion is a big sum; the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans will be involved, or whoever it is. I am also told that there are amendments to the previous fiasco of trying to sell off bits and pieces of the MoD married quarters estate, which cost the taxpayer something in the order of £5 million to wind up some curious company that had been set up and did not work. Matters had rumbled on, there was some curious arrangement and it all seemed to run into the ground, at some cost. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who is on the Front Bench, responded to questions in his position as Minister at the time.
The noble Earl will have noticed, as the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, pointed out, that certain events have occurred in another place. Indeed there has been some publicity in the newspapers about this matter. I hope very much that the noble Earl will have taken on board what the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said. I hope that he will respond to the noble Baroness's amendment in a positive spirit, not echoing the words of the Prime Minister at Question Time today, saying, "Fine", but saying, "No, we shall concede that this is not the right thing to do and not the right way to go forward. It would be destructive of morale in our Armed Forces and we believe now that the time has come to go back on certain ideas that certain consultants in the Ministry of Defence seemed to have suggested which have been adopted by the Ministry of Defence. We shall junk that and attend to what has been expressed in the Committee in this
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