Draft Housing Act 1996 (Additional Preference for Armed Forces) (England) Regulations 2012

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Albert Owen 

Bradley, Karen (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con) 

Bradshaw, Mr Ben (Exeter) (Lab) 

Carswell, Mr Douglas (Clacton) (Con) 

Cox, Mr Geoffrey (Torridge and West Devon) (Con) 

Dakin, Nic (Scunthorpe) (Lab) 

Dromey, Jack (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab) 

Farron, Tim (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD) 

Foster, Mr Don (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and L o cal Government)  

Fuller, Richard (Bedford) (Con) 

Gapes, Mike (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op) 

Love, Mr Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op) 

Menzies, Mark (Fylde) (Con) 

Metcalfe, Stephen (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) 

O'Donnell, Fiona (East Lothian) (Lab) 

Paisley, Ian (North Antrim) (DUP) 

Patel, Priti (Witham) (Con) 

Roy, Lindsay (Glenrothes) (Lab) 

Williamson, Gavin (South Staffordshire) (Con) 

Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Column number: 3 

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee 

Wednesday 21 November 2012  

[Albert Owen in the Chair] 

Draft Housing Act 1996 (Additional Preference for Armed Forces) (England) Regulations 2012

8.55 am 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Don Foster):  I beg to move, 

That the Committee has considered the draft Housing Act 1996 (Additional Preference for Armed Forces) (England) Regulations 2012. 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I shall start by explaining the intention behind the draft regulations, which have been extensively consulted on and were considered and approved under the affirmative procedure in the other place yesterday. The regulations, which were laid before the House on 18 October, will ensure that members of the regular and reserve armed forces, as well as bereaved spouses and partners of service personnel, are given appropriate priority for social housing if they need it when serving or after they have left the armed forces. If approved, the regulations will come into effect later this month. 

The regulations recognise the exceptional service that members of the armed forces have carried out for their country, and the overwhelming public support for our servicemen and women. The regulations make a small but significant change to rules governing how social housing is prioritised, which have remained largely the same since 2002. 

Let me explain the context. The Government are determined to help members of the armed forces and service leavers obtain the housing that they deserve. We have already put in place a package of measures to deliver on our commitment. Delivering on a pledge in the armed forces covenant, we have made sure that members of the armed forces have top priority for the Government’s Firstbuy scheme, which is helping families to get a foot on the housing ladder, as well as for all other Government-funded home ownership schemes. 

Firstbuy provides eligible first-time buyers with an equity loan of up to 20% of the price of a newly built property by a participating house builder. The equity loan, which is jointly funded by Government and the house builder, can help reduce the deposit required to just 5%. We have ensured that service leavers retain their priority for Firstbuy for up to a year after active service. If they die while in service, their priority can be transferred to their bereaved spouse or civil partner. So far, more than 143 armed forces families have been helped to buy a home through the Firstbuy scheme. 

There are other forms of help. More than 5,300 more service families have been approved for Government support to buy their own home, through shared ownership or the Ministry of Defence’s armed forces home ownership

Column number: 4 
scheme. In addition, we have set aside funding of £1.7 million for home adaptations for disabled service personnel, so that those who are injured on active duty can continue to live independently in their homes. Our ministerial working group on homelessness has ensured that preventing and tackling homelessness among veterans is one of its top priorities. 

We also gave a commitment in the armed forces covenant that service families who needed a social home would not be disadvantaged by their service requirements. We have already changed the law by regulation to ensure that, when local authorities set the rules on deciding who qualifies for social housing in their area, they cannot apply a local connection rule to disqualify service personnel. That is because we recognise that members of the armed forces who have to move from base to base may find it difficult to establish a local connection to any local authority area. Those regulations came into force in August. 

The regulations that we are debating add extra help. The law already ensures that people who have a clear need for social housing, for example because they are homeless or have medical or welfare issues, are given “reasonable preference” for social housing. The statutory reasonable preference categories make certain that, overall, priority for social housing is given to those who need it most and that local authorities take a consistent approach to housing need. Sadly, the high demand for social housing in many parts of the country means that even those who have reasonable preference may have to wait several months, if not years, before a home that meets their needs becomes available. 

The regulations will go further and require that when former and, in certain circumstances, serving members of the armed forces are identified as having a more urgent need for social housing, they are given additional preference—the highest priority. They will make a significant difference for service personnel and their families who are in urgent need of social housing. We have changed the system of monitoring social lettings to pick up whether a household member has served in the armed forces, so that we can assess the effect of the regulations. However, I want to make it clear that we are not changing fundamentally the way in which social housing is prioritised. 

For other people in urgent housing need, such as families living in seriously cramped conditions and people fleeing the fear of violence, local authorities will continue to have discretion to give them greater priority. However, they will not be required to do so. 

The Committee will wish to know that the regulations being considered today differ from our original intentions, as a result of our consultations. Earlier this year, we consulted on proposals to require local authorities to give additional preference to those who had formerly served in the regular armed forces, and who were identified as having a more urgent need of social housing. The consultation closed at the end of March. Most of those who responded supported the proposed regulations. However, the responses also drew attention to the housing needs of other members of the armed forces community, in particular injured serving personnel and bereaved service families. 

We therefore decided to extend the regulations to apply to serving members of the regular armed forces who are suffering from a serious injury, illness or disability

Column number: 5 
that is attributable to their service. They will also apply to bereaved spouses and civil partners of service personnel when they leave service family accommodation following the death of their service spouse or civil partner, as well as to serving and former members of the reserve forces who are suffering from serious illness, injury or disability as a result of their service. 

Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab):  The Minister will be aware that there is a higher instance of family break-up in the armed forces. Is he giving a direction in respect of housing priority that serving officers or personnel who have children they want to stay over will be given accommodation to house such requirements? 

Mr Foster:  I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. She will be well aware of the extensive welfare support that is now given by the Ministry of Defence and various agencies within it to service personnel and their families. The statutory instrument that we are discussing deals specifically with the top level of priority need for social housing, so while I accept that the issue that she raises is important, I consider that it is not directly relevant to the regulations. 

We believe that it is right to extend the additional priority to wounded servicemen and women, not just those who have left the armed forces, because they might need to move to specially adapted social housing before they complete their service. It is also right that we recognise the part that our reserve forces play in maintaining the security of our nation. Many reservists serve on the front line alongside our regular forces. The vast majority of reserve forces return safely to civilian life, but unfortunately a small minority suffer serious injuries on active service. When that is the case, they might find that their current accommodation is no longer suitable for their needs, that they can no longer afford it or that they have to move in order to access care or support. 

When members of the armed forces have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, we must ensure that we continue to support their bereaved spouse or partner when they are required to leave service families accommodation. A spouse or partner who has faithfully supported a member of our armed forces as they have moved around the world should not find that that enforced mobility counts against them in the allocation of social housing. 

The vast majority of servicemen and women make their own housing arrangements for when they return to civilian life. In many cases, they are able to buy or rent a home for their family long before their service comes to an end. Nevertheless, there will continue to be some who—for whatever reason—have no home to go to when they leave the forces. 

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op):  It may be commendable to have a theoretical priority or a theoretical preference, but does the Minister not accept that there are huge pressures in areas of the country like my borough of Redbridge and other parts of London and the south-east? There is not enough social housing and the number of newly built properties is being reduced, so is not the real solution to increase the stock of social housing to make it available to people in the armed forces and the rest of the community? 

Column number: 6 

Mr Foster:  I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Of course, he is absolutely right that we need to do all we can to increase the availability of social housing. That is what the Government are doing, with a commitment to provide in excess of 170,000 new affordable homes by 2015. I remind him, since he is clearly concerned about this issue, that under the previous Government there was a reduction of 421,000 in the number of social homes available. This Government are taking action to reverse that appalling situation. I absolutely accept, however, that he is right that we need to do more, and that is what this Government are doing. 

Those who, for whatever reason, have no home to go to when they leave the forces are often the most vulnerable. We all owe a huge debt to the brave men and women in the regular and reserve armed forces who lay their lives on the line for their country, and we owe a duty to those who have lost their loved ones serving on the front line. We must ensure that, when they have an urgent need for a roof over their heads, safe and affordable social housing is available for them. The regulations are intended to do just that, so I commend them to the Committee. 

9.8 am 

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab):  Labour supports without hesitation what is being proposed today—helping our armed forces into housing—particularly at a time of need. Our armed forces are second to none. I think everyone in the House has had members of the armed forces in their family. My father came from County Cork to join the British Army to fight against fascism during the second world war. I saw in my former being, when I was chairman of the defence unions in the Ministry of Defence, both public and private, and working with both the senior echelons of the armed forces and the squaddies, sailors and the air force personnel at the sharp end, just what a remarkable bunch they were. They deserve our full support without hesitation, because time and again, particularly in areas of conflict, we have seen their courage and professionalism evident in everything they do. 

We have a moral duty to support those who selflessly serve the nation, and it is therefore right that extra priority be given to the armed forces. What was interesting about the survey that the Government conducted, to which the Minister has referred, was seeing that following the guidance that we issued in 2009, many local authorities already do that—for example, Manchester. We agree with the Minister that all local authorities should do that in that future. 

It is all the more important that we act now both because many members of the armed forces and their families are going to struggle because of the state of the housing market, and because tragic circumstances often arise for members of the armed forces or their families, and particular care and attention needs to be paid to their needs. 

Fiona O'Donnell:  Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the issue is not just about housing supply? This is a difficult time for councils as they struggle to find alternative accommodation for people who can no longer afford to rent a home because the Government say that they are over-occupying. The housing stock is simply not there for them. 

Column number: 7 

Jack Dromey:  I will refer briefly to the issue of housing supply later. We need to act on two fronts. First, we need action on a major scale because we are facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation. Secondly, such is our commitment across the House to the armed forces that we cannot wait for a new generation of homes to be built, however crucial that is. In the here and now the armed forces deserve priority. That is what these proposals seek to address. 

If one looks at the evidence from the armed forces themselves, ones sees that housing remains one of the major issues that service families raise time and time again. For example, the Army Families Federation report of 2011 put housing at the top of their list of priorities for service personnel. It was not helpful that there was initially a cut of £141 million by the Government. We welcome the fact that £100 million was restored, but support for the armed forces was still reduced by £41 million. Action on that front, given what the armed forces and their families have said to us, must be regarded as a litmus test of the military covenant. 

We took welcome steps when we were in government, but further steps are now necessary. Between 2005 and 2010, £165 million was spent on housing upgrades and better homes in stronger communities for those who served the nation. We reversed decades of underinvestment by successive Governments in accommodation for the armed forces. In my former role as chairman of the Ministry of Defence joint industrial Whitley council, I travelled all over the country and saw that much of the defence estate was, to be frank, run down. It was sometimes shameful how poor the accommodation was. Therefore, the action we took was very welcome indeed. It delivered 38,000 new or improved single living bed spaces and upgraded 14,000 family homes. We also introduced grants of up to £30,000 for service personnel to adapt without their means-tested compensation being interfered with. 

Sadly, there has been evidence that too many members of the armed forces, for reasons that are often tragic and related to how they suffered serving the nation, end up homeless. We therefore took steps, which have been carried forward by this Government, and we welcome that. For example, a 25-unit facility, run by the English Churches Housing Group, was completed in Aldershot this year to support those who would otherwise have ended up homeless. 

We need action on two fronts. Of course, it is absolutely right that we address the biggest housing crisis in a generation. The startling statistics published today by the National Housing Federation show that in my own region house building is now half of what it should be and homelessness is up 21%. We have a mortgage market in which people cannot get mortgages, because the average home costs nine times the average wage. Private rents are soaring, and waiting lists have nearly doubled, rising by 98%. Urgent action is necessary to build more homes. 

Column number: 8 

Mr Foster:  Can the hon. Gentleman provide the Committee with the evidence for his statement that private rents are soaring? 

Jack Dromey:  Every reputable survey carried out thus far, including the LSL survey quoted on the Floor of the House by the Prime Minister and the previous Housing Minister, says that rents are rising inexorably. With respect to the Minister, I suggest that he should check on the facts coming forward from all surveys about rents. In inner-city areas such as in London and Birmingham, rents are certainly soaring, but the problem of inexorably rising rents is not peculiar to London or Birmingham. 

Of course action is necessary, but I stress again our strong view that our armed forces cannot wait for a new generation of homes to be built. Therefore, in the here and now, however difficult it is—it will sometimes be difficult, particularly in local authority areas where there is great stress on social housing stock—if we are proud of what we did in government, we are also proud to support what the current Government are now proposing. 

9.16 am 

Mr Foster:  I thank the hon. Gentleman for the unhesitating support that he has given the regulations. I happily place on record my congratulations to the previous Government for the work that they did in supporting the armed forces. I am delighted that it is a cross-party issue. I welcome a point that he made that I was remiss not to make. A number of local authorities are already using their discretion to give the highest priority to our armed forces personnel and their bereaved families in certain circumstances. They deserve our thanks for the work that they are doing. 

To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for East Lothian, notwithstanding the additional work that we need to do to make more social homes available—there is no disagreement across the House about the need to do so; we might disagree about how and we might banter arguments about who will do it better, but we all accept that we need to do it—it is vital that we recognise that there are a range of agencies doing sterling work in providing support for our armed forces’ housing needs and helping to prevent them from becoming homeless. They include the MOD’s joint service housing advice office, the officials working alongside the MOD in my Department, the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, the Veterans Welfare Service and the single persons accommodation centre for the ex-services, among others. They deserve our thanks for the work that they do. I am grateful to them. 

It is remarkable that there is now such unanimity not only within the House but across the country about the level of support that we should give to our armed forces and our gratitude for what they do on our behalf. I hope that the Committee will accept the regulations. 

Question put and agreed to.  

9.19 am 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 22nd November 2012