HC Deb 04 February 1992 vol 203 cc121-3
6. Mr. Bill Michie

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to consult local authorities on housing requirements for ex-service personnel.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

In consultation with the Department of the Environment and the Scottish Office, which are represented on MOD's housing task force, my Department has recently been in contact with all local authorities, seeking information on their arrangements for the provision of housing for ex-service personnel.

Mr. Michie

The Minister has said that his Department has contacted the local authorities, but when will the Government accept that the local authorities have the strategy and the enabling powers to make provision for housing, especially for the homeless and perhaps for some of the 40,000 personnel who will be leaving the armed forces in the near future? Why is the task force in consultation with the Housing Corporation but refusing to consult the local authorities which have that power? Is it not a fact that the Government still have such a bigoted bias against local authorities that they will even put at risk the future housing of our ex-service families?

Mr. Hamilton

Let me first put the hon. Gentleman right about the figure of 40,000—40,000 is the number that we have put on the reduction of personnel in the Army, but much of that reduction will be achieved by natural wastage. I remind the hon. Gentleman that about 30,000 people leave the armed forces every year anyway. We are expecting in excess of 10,000 redundancies, which will be spread over three years. We must put those numbers in perspective.

On the housing task force, we feel that the representatives of the Department of the Environment are well aware of the position of the local authorities in relation to housing. Their representations have been valuable. In addition, Lady Anson, the chairman of the Association of District Councils, has been in touch with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces.

Sir Giles Shaw

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his contact with the Housing Corporation must be the best way forward and can be usefully developed? Will he further accept that service men are looking for the opportunity to obtain a rung on the ownership ladder and that the Housing Corporation and its satellite housing associations can most assuredly provide that? Is my right hon. Friend confident that nationwide assistance will be available to enable those excellent people to be rehabilitated in our community?

Mr. Hamilton

Yes. We are in touch on that. The question arises whether some of our married quarters may be sold to housing associations who will give priority to service men. Many different options are being considered. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that we sent out a questionnaire to 5,293 people who volunteered for redundancy and 76 per cent. of them returned it. Of those people who had volunteered for redundancy, 49 per cent. already owned their own homes and another 34 per cent. intended to buy. Therefore, the majority of those who are to be made redundant will either have their own homes or will buy them shortly after.

Mr. Cartwright

When the Minister next talks to the local authorities about this issue, will he point out that many of them no longer give rehousing priority to ex-service personnel, but expect them to go through the normal homeless families procedures? Does he agree that that is a pretty poor way in which to treat people who have given their lives to the service of their country?

Mr. Hamilton

I absolutely accept everything that the hon. Gentleman says. One of our concerns is that our ex-service men should not be in temporary accommodation. That is why we are considering the use of our married quarters to ensure that that does not happen.

Sir Peter Emery

Will my right hon. Friend consider further the approach that I have made to the Secretary of State that vacant married quarters in civilian areas around army camps should be co-ordinated into my right hon. Friend's scheme? If they are to remain empty at any particular time short-held leases could be used so that the barracks could be used for local housing rather than stay vacant.

Mr. Hamilton

Yes, this has always been a problem, but it has become worse recently, I am afraid, because of the people who have been made redundant and who have come back from Germany. The stocks of empty houses may be larger at this time. I take that point and we are keeping in close contact with local authorities.

Mr. Boyes

Does the Minister accept that there is a real need and opportunity for bold and radical measures? Local housing authorities have been starved of cash for a number of years by the Government. However, local authorities and the Ministry of Defence have empty sub-standard housing on their books. Will the Minister release MOD votes to allow local authorities, in collaboration with the MOD, to bring empty housing owned by the local authorities and the MOD up to acceptable standards and then transfer it to local authority control for the express purpose of providing homes to ex-service personnel? Or will this Government's ideological opposition to council housing prevent them from doing that?

Mr. Hamilton

Most of what is being done by my Department—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading".] It is a blank piece of paper. Most of that work is carried out in conjunction with housing asociations and is financed by the Housing Corporation. On the whole, we would prefer to dispose of blocks of married quarters to housing associations rather than to local authorities. We do not exclude that possibility, but we find that when we talk to local authorities that they do not have the money to buy married quarters in the first place.