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Defence Secretary Criticised For Stopping Army Personnel Giving Evidence On Poor Housing

Defence secretary Grant Shapps (Alamy)

3 min read

A Conservative MP has criticised Defence Secretary Grant Shapps for preventing army personnel from giving evidence in Parliament about living in poor quality accommodation.

The defence sub-committee in July 2023 launched an inquiry into Service Accomodation, and will probe the Ministry of Defence (MoD) into finding out its plans to improve and modernise single living spaces and service family accommodation. Dozens of British troops are living in mouldy rooms, without central heating and no hot water, according to a BBC investigation.

All contact between members of the armed forces and MPs must be signed off by Government 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 has previously claimed that any unauthorised disclosure could cause "damage" to the department and harm trust between the armed forces, Government and civil service. 

Robert Courts, MP for Witney and chair of the Defence sub-committee, confirmed on Friday that Shapps had decided not to allow serving personnel to contribute to the investigation.

Courts told PoliticsHome he felt the decision was “fundamentally wrong”, and claimed his department has misunderstood the purpose of “what the select committee does”.

“The standard rule is that members of the Armed Forces don't talk to politicians, they go into the chain of command,” he said.

“The difference here is that you need to hear from them, because you’re talking about their day-to-day lived experience," he added.

“This is a massive problem, it means you're not going to be hearing, in the depth and the detail that you would like, from the people who actually experienced this accommodation.

“It's wrong, because what it's going to do is to make the job of parliamentary scrutiny harder.”

The MoD found the level of satisfaction for standard family accommodation fell from 52 per cent in 2022 to 46 per cent this year. Meanwhile the quality of maintenance repair work to properties dropped from 37 per cent in 2015 to 19 per cent this year.

Courts said the decision to block service personnel from speaking to the select committee will not prevent MPs from hearing from representative bodies, who will pass the information from serving members anonymously. 

“It’s not going to stop us doing it. We're going to do it anyway. We've heard from the Families Federation, representative bodies, we'll hear from others," he added.

“If they haven't been given permission to talk to a select committee, then if they do it anyway, but they do it anonymously, then that will go into our work. We can't publish it, but it will still go in to informing our work."

A major problem, Courts claimed, was the ability for the armed forces to retain exisiting staff. The level of personnel in the UK armed forces dropped by 3.3 per cent from 2021 to 2023. A separate MoD report found the proportion of army personnel who plan to leave the services has risen to 24 per cent.

Courts told PoliticsHome he believed it was essential for the government to address issues of retention as well as recruitment in the armed forces. 

“People tend to think about how to get new people into the armed forces. The far bigger issue is how you stop with leaving, because they are incredibly expensive to train," he explained. 

“If you are in the armed forces, and you are very highly trained, you can get paid more in 'Civvy Street', and your family accommodation is better," he added, referring to the colloquial term given to work outside the armed forces. 

"If you get a problem with mould, or your heating, then you just call some civilian sector. You're losing the people, we need to defend our country." 

He added that army personnel are not expected to be "pampered" but do expect a "decent standard" of living. 

The MoD has been contacted for a response. 

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