Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Another year, another Armed Forces Covenant report is published.
Underway since 2012, this annual ritual indicates whether the nation has fulfilled its side of the bargain with serving personnel, as well as the wider Forces’ community of families and veterans.
In exchange for their service to the country, the country supports them. It’s not enough to cheer on Our Boys (and Our Girls): we need to ensure that they and their dependents are well looked after and that they suffer no disadvantage as they do their duty.
The Covenant commitment states that Service personnel deserve our respect, support and fair treatment. It adds: “Families also play a vital role in supporting the operational effectiveness of our Armed Forces.” Consequently, matters such as the provision of schooling for Service children are assessed in the yearly report.
This year, Britain’s Armed Forces have been on the civilian radar to a degree not seen since the ending of Operation Herrick in Afghanistan during the Cameron-led Coalition. The war in Ukraine has sharpened interest in Britain’s defence, while the late Queen’s funeral was a display of magnificent military can-do for an awestruck global audience.
On Monday, Rishi Sunak thanked the 6,000 British Forces’ personnel who will be on duty around the world this Christmas, serving on 33 military operations in 23 countries. They include the 1,000 who are taking part in Operation Cabrit, the deployment to Estonia, where British troops are leading a multi-national battlegroup as part of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence.
The end of 2022 is also marked by Forces’ personnel having to act as weapons-trained temps. About 1,200 have been on standby to cover for ambulance and Border Force staff who have threatened to strike.
In an interview last weekend, the Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, warned: “We are not spare capacity. We’re busy and we’re doing lots of things on behalf of the nation. We’ve got to focus on our primary role.”
In the CDS’s annual lecture to the Royal United Services Institute last week, the Chief declared “Ukraine’s fight is our fight.” He predicted that Chinese military forces could eventually encroach on the Atlantic and stated that “four separate geo-political crises are unfolding in parallel.”
Also unfolding, in parallel with the CDS’s overview of British strategy and defence capability, is the latest crisis in the long-running saga of poor-quality Forces’ accommodation.
Last week, serving personnel broke ranks and vented on social media, particularly about Service Families Accommodation (SFA). The complaints were legion: frost on the inside of an ill child’s bedroom windows, smoke alarms malfunctioning and going off for 12 hours, burst pipes, leaks, mould, broken boilers…
In March, the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) awarded a seven-year, £144 million contract to Pinnacle Group, which included arranging the maintenance of 49,000 Forces’ homes. In addition to other MoD contracts, Amey and Vivo were awarded maintenance and building contracts worth £650million in June 2021.
Pinnacle’s declaration that it was “Putting Families First” would surely have been welcomed by members of the Army Families Federation. In January, it hosted an event with the DIO’s Head of Accommodation.
The summary of 70 questions included “… Are we still to expect outdated broken kitchen and bathrooms, dirty past their life carpets, leaking garages and sheds, heating systems with no thermostat etc etc?” (Q.64) and “Why do Amey (& subcontractors) & DIO treat Forces occupants with contempt and disrespect?” (Q.40). Cited among scores of examples of shoddy standards was 11 visits to fix a faulty boiler.
In September, the DIO’s new Head of Accommodation wrote to families to apologise “for the unacceptable level of service you have received under the new accommodation contracts and for the disruption and inconvenience these failures have caused you.”
Last year, Single Living Accommodation was the subject of a scathing report by the National Audit Office. SLA, usually inside military bases, is home to some 80,000 Service personnel, half of the Forces’ strength.
The NAO reported that 36 per cent live in poor-quality accommodation, graded 4 or below. A maintenance backlog of £1.5 billion was recorded. The MoD was criticised for “not having a clear picture of the number and condition of its SLA.”
Symbolic of the muddle over Forces’ housing is the sale and leaseback of what was the Married Quarters Estate in 1996. The £1.7 billion deal with Annington Property Ltd, now backed by private equity firm Terra Firma, was described as “disastrous” for taxpayers by the Public Accounts Committee. Today, Annington has portfolio of 40,000 properties and an asset value of £8.5billion.
Has MoD contract negotiation improved in the past 25 years? Or does it reward and reinforce failure?
The original Military Covenant was conjured up in Army doctrine in the mid 1990s. The concept was first deployed a decade later to persuade the Government to get soldiers a better deal during conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While military sacrifice was apparent as flag-draped coffins were driven through Wootton Bassett, the nation’s support for soldiers’ welfare was not. Housing standards were often dire: a Sun report was headlined “From Helmand to Hell Hole.”
Today’s social media gives the issue of sub-standard housing immediacy. Last weekend, Ben Wallace immediately demanded answers.
Fewer than half of those taking part this year’s survey of Armed Forces personnel were satisfied with the standards of Forces’ accommodation. One quarter stated that housing provision would be a reason to leave the Forces: this should however be set against the 59 per cent who cited “the impact of Service life on family/personal life”.
The annual Covenant Report highlights that £179 million has been invested in family housing. It reflects an MoD on the defensive, rather than attacking and solving problems.
Every Chief of the Defence Staff pays tribute to his best weapon, his Forces’ personnel. While personnel are prepared to give up Christmas, will they, for example, accept their families back home are freezing because of a broken boiler?
The best present we can give our Forces is to honour the Covenant and ensure that in the context of their housing, personnel and their families are given respect, support, and fair treatment.