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Defence Secretary Agrees To Let Serving Personnel Give Evidence On Poor Housing

(Alamy)

4 min read

The Conservative chair of the defence sub-committee has welcomed Defence Secretary Grant Shapps’s decision to allow serving personnel to give evidence about living in poor quality accommodation.

Earlier this year the committee launched an inquiry into Service Accomodation after a BBC investigation found that British troops were placed in homes with mouldy rooms without hot water or central heating. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has apologised for the “unacceptable” conditions military families have lived in.

Contact between the armed forces and ministers in order to give evidence to the committee had previously not been granted by ministers. Under existing legislation, the Government has drawn no distinction between speaking to parliamentarians and the public about defence matters, which also must be authorised in advance by ministers. The MoD argued that any unauthorised disclosure could cause "damage" to the department and harm trust between the armed forces, Government and civil service. 

But following pressure from the committee the government will now allow serving personnel to provide written evidence on their experience of living in poor quality accommodation. Robert Courts, chair of the committee and Conservative MP for Witney, told PoliticsHome the Government’s verdict marked a “massively important moment” for his inquiry into scrutinising the problems with poor living accommodation. He said it allowed men and women in the armed forces to voice their opinions freely about their lived experience in poor quality accommodation without “fear of being criticised or without worry for their career”.

“Without them, all you're hearing is the word from the system. And yes, you're hearing from the Families Federation, from the representative bodies, but it hasn’t got the same edge,” he said.

“What I wanted to do is to give them the chance to say in their own words, without fear of being criticised or without worry for their career, to be able to say openly, these are the problems we are having.

“My primary purpose isn't about creating savings. My primary purpose is making sure we provide the men and women with the proper standard of care that they rightly expect so that they've got the accommodation their families want to see.” 

The defence sub-committee's investigation into Service Accommodation, launched in July 2023, aimed to find how to enhance service family accommodation and living spaces. 

Courts told ministers he was “very unhappy” with the original decision to prohibit serving personnel from contributing to the investigation.

He claimed it was more difficult to scrutinise policy if the defence sub-committee could not hear how recipients were affected by a particular policy.

Courts told PoliticsHome the Government’s revised position on evidence could be “transformative” to the inquiry if “everyone takes advantage of it”.

“You’ve got the ability to talk directly to Parliament. To the people who aim to be Parliament’s defence experts, whose job is to scrutinise the Ministry of Defence and to tell them exactly how it is. What your lived experiences, what you'd like changed, how things could improve," he said. 

“So, if they do that, it has potential to be utterly transformative, with all sorts of people from all of the armed services getting involved in helping us shape the future.”

Courts also felt improving accommodation for people in the armed forces could help the Government retain staff in the military, which has been an ongoing problem.

Government figures suggest the strength of the UK Forces fell by 4.1 per cent from July 2022 to July 2023. Another report found the number of people willing to leave the British army had risen by 24 per cent. 

“One of the big things we always talk about is recruitment and retention," Courts said. 

“And when housing is one of the biggest issues, factors that are stopping people joining, or making them leave these highly trained, massively talented, hugely valuable individuals, we've really got to look at what's going on there and make sure we get it right."

He added that there has to be a greater acceptance across Government that more money will have to be spent on defence, but said that he did not want to put an “arbitrary figure” on defence spending. 

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The Defence Secretary has confirmed that fixing military accommodation is a personal priority.  

“Service Personnel and their families should not have to put up with sub-standard accommodation and they will be able to share their personal experiences with the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.

“We are also investing an additional £400 million over the next two years to improve military housing so that Service Families have the standard of accommodation they rightly deserve.”

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