HL Deb 04 May 1989 vol 507 cc261-4

3.20 p.m.

Lord Bramall asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of their current difficulty in retaining men in the armed forces, they intend to reinforce their record as employers by introducing a house purchase scheme.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we welcome the fact that servicemen, like other members of the community, aspire to own their own homes. We have taken a number of measures to help them to combine home ownership with the special demands of service life. We are examining a number of other ideas, including the possibility of setting up a scheme to help servicemen save towards the purchase of a house.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply which I might describe as being of some help on the peripheral areas of the problem. Does the Minister agree that domestic and family problems relating to difficulties with housing continue to be one of the greatest incentives to leaving the services early? Does the Minister not agree that at a time of acute manning difficulties what is really required is a much more comprehensive scheme which will allow the soldier to save for his retirement home in a tax-effective manner without being forced to buy a home prematurely and at a time when he is being encouraged to live in government accommodation, often abroad? At present at the end of his service he has nothing to show.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I do not believe that the noble and gallant Lord is right in suggesting that this matter is a key element in the retention affairs of the British Army or the other armed forces. While no doubt it is one of the considerations that soldiers and others take into account, it is certainly not the only one. We recognise that there is scope for improvement in the arrangements presently in place and that is why we are considering what can be done.

Lord Alport

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in the garrison at Colchester certain of the married quarters have been made available for occupation by civilian families under the auspices of the local corporation? If there are surplus married quarters available, could not those quarters be made available for sale to servicemen at reduced prices to encourage them and to give them a chance to start on the home-owning ladder?

Lord Trefgarne

Yes, my Lords, I can reassure my noble friend on that. Surplus married quarters are always offered at a discount to the armed forces before they are placed on the general market.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, which of the services is most acutely affected by this problem of retaining skilled personnel, which is a very acute problem in my view? Are the Government taking fully into account the attitudes of wives when they grapple with this problem?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, in answer to the second of my noble friend's supplementary questions, yes, we always take into account the views of the whole family unit. Those views are often coincident with the views of the husband. As to the retention of skilled personnel, the problem of retaining highly skilled people is not confined to the armed forces. It is a problem which is manifest right across the British economy, within British industry and other organisations as well as the army

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Lord said that housing and house ownership was not a key element. Is he aware that some of us disagree with him? He must be aware that in the next few years, when there will be enormous competition for young people, the question of house purchase and future housing will concern officers and men and their wives very much indeed and may well become a key element.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am trying to deal with the present situation. Of course I do not deny that the demographic trough, as it is called, will become more pronounced in the future and the armed forces will have to compete as vigorously as ever to attract their share of competent young people. The provision of appropriate housing will represent one of the elements that we shall have to consider. But I remind the noble Lord that we have a considerable estate of married quarters which are already available to serving personnel, whether they be officers, non-commissioned ranks or others, and those are very much an attraction to many young people.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the failure to retain trained personnel is costly and the failure to recruit enough personnel is a serious disability to our defence effort? In view of the urgency of this matter, will he not only give serious consideration to the points made by the noble and gallant Lord, but equally bear in mind that other matters of pay prospects and conditions of service have to be considered if we are to meet the shortage of young people which will shortly arise and which will mean a worse position in respect of recruitment?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. It will be necessary to ensure that the whole range of conditions of service available in the armed forces, not just the housing provisions, remain as attractive as we can make them if we are to continue to ensure that we recruit our share of the young people whom we shall need.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the problem of recruitment and retention of servicemen is of tremendous importance and of great interest to Parliament? I ask again, why is there no reference to this problem in this year's Defence White Paper? Is he aware that year by year this White Paper is becoming less and less valuable for informing Parliament and more and more of a public relations document?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, as far as I can ascertain, the noble Lord's view is unique to himself. The White Paper that we published at the beginning of this week has been widely welcomed by a wide spectrum of political opinion. I am sorry that that does not include the noble Lord. In fact at present the strength of the armed forces is close to the planned strength. Out of a total number of personnel of some 320,000, taking all the services together, overall we are less than 6,000 short, which is a tiny percentage.

Viscount Ridley

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the scheme suggested by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, would be extremely cost-effective and will he examine it yet faster than he has so far?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we are doing our best to bring this matter to a speedy conclusion. It is in our interests as well as those of our servicemen to ensure that we do that. I assure my noble friend that there will be no unnecessary delay.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, if the Government intend to put into operation a scheme to enable people in the armed forces to save towards the purchase of a house when they leave the armed forces, will they make sure that the factor in house price rises is taken into account? Otherwise the savings may be completely swallowed up in inflation by the time they are ready to leave the service and may well be worthless.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. That is an important consideration, but adds to the complexity of any scheme we have to devise. That is why it is perhaps taking a little longer than some people would wish. I refer again to the scheme we have now for disposing of surplus married quarters to suitably qualified personnel. They are sold at a substantial discount—normally 30 per cent.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, does the Minister think that it is time for another general increase in the pay of the armed forces? I remember when I joined in 1914 at a shilling a day, and as a company sergeant major only earned five shillings a day.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am happy to reassure the noble Lord that the pay is now rather more than five shillings a day.

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