HC Deb 05 August 1975 vol 897 cc462-72

2.33 a.m.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)

It is a pleasure to address you at 2.30 in the morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I begin by saying that this problem is one which deeply concerns my constituency.

Each year, as has been explained in Government pamphlets, about 40,000 men leave the Services, and about one-third are married. In my experience and from what I have read from Government sources, it is clear that many older Service men are not able to buy houses through normal commercial mortgages at the end of their service. On the whole Service careers are shorter than others, and usually it is not feasible for a man to consider buying a house at the normal time, in the early part of his life, and, when he seeks to buy a house, very often that is the moment when his family responsibilities are at their greatest. In other words, his career in the Services ends very often when his family responsibilities are at their most weighty, and at that time it is not possible for him to find a normal mortgage arrangement that he can afford.

In this debate, I am not proposing that Service men be advantaged. I am proposing that ex-Service men be not disadvantaged in regard to the other method of acquiring a house at the end of a Service career, which is through a local authority list. I have made this point before and I am sure that it will be no surprise to the Minister, but I do not seem to be getting anywhere. That is why I have had a standing request for this debate.

A large proportion of those seeking help in my surgeries come into this category. Many are desperate. Perhaps it is partly their own fault and they should have given more thought to the matter when they entered the Service, but it is sad to see men with 20 years' service worried because they have nowhere to go. Sometimes a trace of bitterness creeps into their minds. Some of them are senior officers. I visited two bases in my constituency recently to prepare for this debate. One senior officer, whose name I cannot give obviously, said that they sometimes felt that they were treated like a bunch of gypsies.

There are 4,000 men on the two bases in my constituency, which with families means that 10,000 people are involved. My local authorities, both before and after regionalisation, have genuinely tried to do their best to meet the problem. I have not noticed that regionalisation has increased the problem, although I have heard of a bad case from a neighbouring constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) has told me tonight of a Service man with 20 years behind him whose name had been accepted for the area of Dyce. He has been told that since regionalisation his name will not be on the list. That shows that it is not universally true that matters did not worsen after regionalisation.

My problem is highlighted by the fact that Morayshire and Nairnshire are beautiful places where any sensible person would want to settle down. But this creates an added problem. As it was put to me by senior officers, this is not unusual, because flying bases are located where the weather is good and the area attractive.

So it is understandable that men who have been on the move for years and who have lost their roots will take one look at my beautiful constituency and say "This is the place for us. We and our children have made friends and this is where we should like to establish our roots." These circumstances are not unique to my constituency, but apply to others with bases.

I have carefully read Government Circular 54/75 and a parliamentary answer on 21st May said that new guidelines were to be produced in the next month. But there is no circular for Scotland. I suspect that that is because of regionalisation, but perhaps the Minister can say whether there will be a Scottish circular and whether the answer means that the existing one will be replaced by something a little stronger. Something stronger is needed. The circular is pleasant and sympathetic but, as the officers have said to me, they have had buckets of sympathy and what they would like now are buckets of action.

My proposal is simple. I am dealing now with ex-Service men but I hope to deal with problems during service as well. I suggest that on entering the Service, if married, or on marrying after entering the Service, a member of the forces should be able to put his name on the housing list of his choice—and one only. Each of us has a place and he should be entitled to his place.

Some might put their names down for Glasgow and others for London—although the latter choice would be inconceivable to me. If we had this system, the burden would be spread around the country a bit more. There will always be a bulge in those areas where Service men habitually end their careers, but it would be spread if my suggestion were adopted.

A man from Leicester should have the right to go on the Leicester housing list and not be disadvantaged by not having the points for residence. If he gets to the top of a list before he leaves the Services, there is no problem. He can stay at or near the top until his career is over. I am suggesting equal treatment with ordinary citizens. Service men fail on most lists through no fault of their own. Members of the forces should not be disadvantaged in this way.

Very good arrangements are made for special categories of Service men. They are grateful for what is done on behalf of men who are invalided out, and I have no criticism here. I am asking for an improvement in the general situation. I have put forward this idea before and had a sympathetic response from both sides of the House. It is nice to see nodding heads instead of the usual opposite reaction.

The Department of the Environment circular says: The Ministry of Defence in their resettlement advice encourages men to move away from the garrison areas and stress that it is wise to move away from any area where local authority housing is short. I believe that Service men should also have the right to put their names on local lists and qualify according to local rules. Nairn requires a minimum of 12 years' service and the application must be lodged three years before a man leaves the Services. Moray is not so strict.

It has been suggested to me that the SSHA might be able to help these men, but unless they were key workers, they would be in such a low category that that would not help. The glossy recruitment literature for the Services makes little or no reference to the problems men will face at the end of their service. The Air Force "glossies" give no warning of the predicament in which men will find themselves. These "glossies" are very attractive, but they should be more realistic.

There are 33 RAF families on the waiting list at Nairn. In Moray there is quite a generous attitude, but the authorities may have to cope with 20 per cent. of the waiting list comprising of ex-Service families. This is how serious the problem has become in my constituency. It creates a degree of animosity among local people who have always been there and who sometimes feel a bit disadvantaged. The Morayshire authority assures me that there is no question of advantage or disadvantage; it has a fair system.

During service another problem arises. Is a man to try to buy a house of his own choice? If so, what does he do with it? If he rents it, he often finds that it is not a secure tenancy. Some senior officers have squatters in the houses that they had bought in England. That has put them off the idea of trying to be prudent and buy in advance. They are realistic. There will not be much purchasing in advance.

That is the problem in Lossiemouth at the moment. There are 162 on the waiting list, and at Kinloss there are 62 families, all separated. I do not need to tell hon. Members of the pressures on separated families. Visits by Service men are very difficult and time consuming. The real difficulty is the time factor, because by the time a man gets to his home, his leave is almost up. A spouse's warrant would be a much better idea and would solve the problem in many cases. In my area the bases are considering the possibility of charter flights. It is clear that a warrant is often of not much use to a Service man because he cannot get home in time.

Farmers in rural areas even now do not appreciate that hiring is a very attractive proposal, because their tenancies will not become secure. Provided they are willing to enter into an initial six-months' agreement they can get the tenant out on six months' notice, with the bills paid. That is not unimportant. I have tried to disseminate this information in my constituency, and it has had a dramatic effect already, as senior officers have said. They are willing to inform the NFU, and I wonder whether the Minister could send a circular round to farming journals, explaining that hirings can be attractive to farmers. Circulars could also be available at post offices and marts, directed to farmers with empty cottages, persuading them to enter into hirings. There need not be any separated families in my constituency, and I am sure that the situation there applies to many other constituencies.

No measure has been made of home-lessness among ex-Service men. During service many have to wait for homes. They are warned about this in the "glossies", but I suggest that the present situation, which causes much worry and distress to the people thus disadvantaged, should be reconsidered. I urge the Minister to ensure that more action is taken to induce local authorities to act.

2.48 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Frank Judd)

Housing is one of the basic human needs, and I should like to assure the House and, in particular, the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing), who has given us this opportunity to debate the matter tonight, that we in the Ministry of Defence take very seriously indeed our own responsibilities for the housing of those in or about to leave the Services. Although much of the ground goes deeper and further than a half-hour debate can reveal, the hon. Lady has highlighted some of the more important issues, and I hope I can do justice to her main points in my reply.

On the question of assisted warrants for travel for families as distinct from Service men, I shall look into the question and write to the hon. Lady.

I was, incidentally, pleased to hear that it proved possible for the right hon. Lady to visit the two RAF bases in her constituency—RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth—over the weekend to see for herself and talk about the housing situation there.

There are, of course, two sides to the coin; housing for those serving in the forces is four-squarely a matter for the Ministry of Defence, whereas when it comes to those about to return to civilian life the matter is by definition primarily a civil—that is, Department of the Environment—one, although clearly the Ministry of Defence has certain responsibilities and interests, too.

Perhaps I could deal first with a few points about housing for the serving man.

Just like any authority administering housing we greatly dislike a situation in which in some areas there are surpluses of married quarters while in others there are shortages. We are always striving to remedy this. As far as shortages are concerned, we are pressing on with our building programme and, for example, as the hon. Lady will be aware, new Service homes are either planned or are under construction in her own constituency.

I am naturally interested in any suggestions which may have the effect of assisting with Service housing and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing my attention to the possibility that there may be vacant accommodation that local farmers may be willing to let to the Services as hirings, if they can be assured of the Government's position as a tenant of not seeking the protection of the law where a landlord wishes to terminate a tenancy under the terms of the agreement. My Department will certainly look into this suggestion, in conjunction with the Property Services Agency, to see whether there might be scope here to increase the opportunities for obtaining Service hirings.

Where, conversely, we have more homes available than are needed for present Service requirements, we are always ready to look into the possibility of letting them temporarily, for example to local authorities. Unfortunately, there are obvious difficulties. Local authorities are generally reluctant to guarantee that houses will be returned, at short notice, to meet a Service requirement. However, we were able to help in the case of 122 Army quarters at Fort George in Scotland which have been made available for use by workers engaged in North Sea oil platform construction work.

The hon. Lady has asked about the advice which the Services give on housing matters to those thinking of joining the forces. An individual's eligibility for Service quarters depends, of course, on a large number of different factors, for example, marital circumstances, length of service and so on, and it would not be possible at the recruiting stage to give a simple statement covering every situation. However, potential recruits are told that they will, in certain circumstances, be eligible for Service quarters but that the availability of these varies from place to place. Information on housing on discharge is part of the resettlement service and is more appropriately given when an individual is nearing the end of his service and knows more clearly the nature and place of his future civilian employment.

The hon. Lady has expressed considerable interest recently about council housing for ex-Service men and she repeated it tonight. I, too, am deeply concerned that some Service men encounter difficulty, because of residential and other qualifications imposed by some local authorities, in obtaining council housing on leaving the forces. Local authorities are, of course, largely autonomous in their housing allocation policies. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is considering the issue of a circular similar to the one which has recently been sent to local authorities in England and Wales and I hope that there will be a positive response by local authorities throughout the country.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the main features of the new circular are as follows. First, local authorities should not enforce residential qualifications in the case of Service men. Secondly, a Service man should be permitted to go on to a housing list well in advance of the date of his discharge and to postpone taking up the offer of a house until his release from the Services. Thirdly, local authorities should treat irregular occupants as being, in effect, homeless and accept a notice to quit Service married quarters as the equivalent of a warrant for possession.

I appreciate that the hon. Lady does not feel that the circulars are adequate and that legislation is needed to ensure fair treatment for Service men in the allocation of council housing. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will take note of what she says. The hon. Lady has, however, put forward her own solution. She has suggested that every member of the Services on entry or on marriage should be entitled to put his name on the local authority list of his choice. The idea behind this would be to spread the burden of ex-Service men requiring council housing more evenly around the country instead of overloading those local authorities that have bases within their areas. I have a great deal of sympathy with this approach. It seems to me that as defence is a national responsibility, the housing problems which face those leaving the forces should also be seen as a matter to be solved on a national basis.

Local authorities everywhere should accept their share of the responsibility for rehousing the men and women who have provided our national defence system. It is nothing short of disgraceful that this should be left disproportionately to certain local authorities in the vicinity of particular bases, or that ex-Service men should be compelled to settle in those areas because accommodation is available nowhere else.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

Is it not absurd that some local authorities insist on the Ministry of Defence obtaining court notices to quit married quarters before they will even consider the occupants for rehousing?

Mr. Judd

As I have tried to make plain, we hope that local authorities will accept that when the Services call upon irregular occupants to leave, this will be accepted by local authorities as the time at which to act and that they will not wait upon a court notice.

As the hon. Lady recognised, the effect of the proposal she makes would be that a large proportion of Service personnel would reach the top of housing lists in advance—in many cases, many years in advance—of their date of discharge, and she has proposed, therefore, that the names of these men and women should be kept at the top of the list until they return to civilian life. That is, of course, principally a matter for the Department of the Environment, but there are one or two points I should like to make. While I do not wish to appear negative towards the hon. Lady's helpful suggestions, I can see a number of difficulties in what she proposes.

Many Service men might in the early years of their service put their names on the housing lists of their native authorities but most Service men are not in a position to know where they will resettle on return to civilian life until the later years of their service when they know where their future employment is located. Finding a job must clearly be the Service man's first priority in the resettlement process, and I would not wish to see him discouraged from looking for employment outside a narrow radius.

Moreover, by the time of leaving the forces, many Service men might either have bought or be about to buy houses of their own and would not, consequently, wish to be considered for local authority accommodation. Waiting lists would thus tend to become blocked with the names of Service men requiring houses either elsewhere or not at all. For these reasons, and because they allocate council housing on the basis of need alone, we might expect local authorities to be less than enthusiastic about the idea.

However, I strongly sympathise with the hon. Lady's point about the need to relieve "garrison towns" of the pressure of ex-Service men seeking council housing. We try to keep in touch with the local authorities concerned about any particular difficulties which arise in their areas. I have held meetings with some of them myself. I can also assure the House that our resettlement advice literature warns those leaving the forces of the difficulties that might be encountered, and encourages them to settle elsewhere, if this is possible.

The three Services operate a scheme for assisted house purchase under which Service men of all ranks may, in their last two years of service, receive an advance of pay to assist with the cost of buying a house. In the last financial year, about 600 officers and Service men took advantage of this scheme, which has recently been improved. A new assisted house purchase scheme has also been introduced this year which is designed specifically to help the older retiring man in the 50-plus age bracket.

I can assure the House that we are never complacent about these issues. We are always glad to be subjected to constructive criticism and informed analysis. In the Ministry of Defence we are constantly monitoring the housing situation for Service men and looking for ways in which improvements might be made or problems overcome. We shall continue to look critically at what the Ministry could or should be doing, and we shall maintain the close liaison which already exists with the others concerned, such as the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Office and local authorities, to see that the resources of knowledge and effort can be pooled and brought to bear in assisting us to tackle our task in the best possible way.

I know that the House will genuinely appreciate the concern of the hon. Lady in this matter, and I assure her that we shall certainly look very carefully at the points she has made tonight as on previous occasions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock a.m.