HC Deb 09 July 1996 vol 281 cc162-3
6. Mr. Bayley

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the sale of armed forces' married quarters. [34902]

Mr. Portillo

The Government are committed to providing decent quarters for service families and to maintaining military communities which provide service families with security and support. The sale will enable us to spend money on improving the condition of the houses and will progressively remove from us the burden of empty properties.

Mr. Bayley

Why does the Secretary of State think that the Royal British Legion does not know what it is talking about when it says that the Conservative party's proposal to sell off the homes of the families of members of the armed forces demonstrates ignorance of service people's real needs"?

Mr. Portillo

We obviously have a need to explain this policy carefully to all those who have an interest. Ministers will be meeting the Royal British Legion to make sure that it is explained. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the chiefs of staff, who are concerned with the needs of the armed forces today, are supportive of the policy, and publicly so. That is because they know that it is in the interests of service families, that there is no other way in which we could spend £100 million on improving the properties in which our service families live today and that the safeguards that have been put in place are rigorous.

Mr. Aitken

Does my right hon. Friend find it rather surprising that there should be so much ado about a scheme which will provide better married quarters for service personnel? Will he confirm that there is no other way in which £100 million could have been spent on upgrading the majority of service homes to grade 1 condition in five years? Does he accept that the cause of good accommodation for the services should be one that unites rather than divides the House of Commons?

Mr. Portillo

I agree with that. I know that, when my right hon. Friend held responsibility in the Ministry of Defence, he wrestled with this question and came to a conclusion similar to my own—that the sort of money needed to improve the quality of the housing could be released only by this method. I believe that it will enable the Ministry of Defence to take a much clearer view of the way in which the housing estate should be managed—that is to say, to make sure that we have the right sort of properties in the right place at the right time and that when we dispose of properties, which is something that we need to do, we pay more attention to preserving the integrity of military communities.

Dr. David Clark

Does the Secretary of State not realise how much anguish, concern and worry this ill-thought-out scheme has caused the families of our service men and women? Does he not yet appreciate how important it is for the peace of mind of men and women serving abroad that their families are safe and secure back here in Britain? Will he not, even at this eleventh hour, look at this scheme again, follow the suggestion of the Royal British Legion and announce a postponement of the scheme pending a full review?

Mr. Portillo

No, I do not think that that is a good idea. It is not an ill-thought-out scheme and has not been put together in a hurry; it is something about which the Government have been thinking for a matter of years. The proposals in their present form have been communicated to people since last November; there has been a lot of time for people to think about them. My Ministers and I have been rigorous in explaining the scheme's details. I regret that some people have been caused unnecessary anxieties and have been led to hold fears about the scheme that simply should not arise from it. While I entirely agree with the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that it is extremely important to allay the fears of families, particularly when the service person may be serving abroad, I ask the hon. Gentleman not to add to those concerns and anxieties unnecessarily.