Just twenty-four hours after the nation commemorated all those who, in order to secure our freedom, died or were seriously wounded during two world wars comes yet more evidence of how the MOD treats those who give of their best to ensure that our freedom and that of our NATO allies is maintained. I cannot vouch for the absolute accuracy of the Guardian story today and which is headlined “Army families suing MOD for poor housing told to drop claims or have pay docked” but having over the past ten years seen so much inadequate and poorly maintained MOD ‘housing’ provided by the MOD for members of our Armed Forces and in the full knowledge of how the MOD works, I would be surprised if the story published by the Guardian fails to represent a significant amount of actual truth.
The Guardian article states that:
“Army families suing the Ministry of Defence over squalor of their living quarters are being issued with “bullying” ultimatums to drop the claims or face having their pay docked to cover the legal costs.
Documents obtained by the Guardian suggest the threat of further financial pain amid a deepening cost of living crisis is being exploited by government lawyers to keep compensation cases out of court.
Hundreds of military families are understood to be looking to legal redress at a time when the service family accommodation (SFA) system has been overwhelmed with complaints.
The MoD has not been turning up to defend legal claims already lodged, made on the grounds that the government has failed to provide safe and well-maintained homes.
Government lawyers have instead sent aggressive letters warning that unless the claims are discontinued that the MoD will seek full costs in the event of a subsequent judgment in their favour.
The strategy has even been deployed where the county court has given a “default” judgment in favour of the military family in cases where the MoD has failed to defend a claim.
In correspondence seen by this newspaper, a senior government lawyer wrote: “The purpose of this letter is to make an open offer to you that if you will agree to the order granting judgment in default being set aside and that you will discontinue the claim by a process of consent order (a copy of a draft of which is enclosed), the MoD will not seek its legal costs of this process.
“If, however, you do not agree to this by the end of Wednesday, 14 September 2022, we shall issue the application and seek the full legal costs of the MoD”.
In a letter to a second claimant, the same government lawyer, acting for the Treasury solicitor, wrote: “If you will not agree, and you will put us to the trouble and expense of a contested application, we shall seek the MoD’s legal costs (which, I have little doubt can be recovered by deduction from your pay). Please respond no later than 4pm on Monday, 3 October 2022.”
When approached, the lawyer behind the correspondence declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence said: “These cases relate to rented property outside the UK. We will not comment further on it due to ongoing legal proceedings.”
The revelations drew cross-party condemnation.
The shadow defence secretary, John Healey, said: “This is utterly unacceptable. Ministers must call off the MoD’s legal dogs and drop these threats to forces families.
“When service families have to resort to court to get basic repairs done, it confirms deep failings with service accommodation. Yet ministers have no proper plan to fix the problems.”
Mark Francois, a former Tory armed forces minister, said: “Ministers must clearly intervene urgently, to sort this dreadful mess out.”
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the Commons defence select committee, said: “All service personnel and their families deserve a proper standard of accommodation.
“When not on operations this is where those in uniform spend their time and it is where the family call home. Increasingly it is the constraints and pressures on family life that tip the balance in obliging serving personnel to exit the military.”
A whistle-blower said the MoD was seeking to “bully” service personnel but that a growing number of service personnel were preparing to take legal action in the face of a failure of the MoD to ensure their homes were of a decent standard.
According to documents obtained by the Guardian, one service family, following a successful claim at county court, secured a high court writ and sent bailiffs to the headquarters of the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation in Lichfield in Staffordshire.
A senior MoD official appealed to the bailiff to leave without taking away property in lieu of payment as it “could go all over the news”, according to a report of the incident on 4 October.
Alfie Usher, a former paratrooper who now runs the claims management company ‘Claims Bible’, said he had received 400 expressions of interest in the last fortnight from service personnel interested in making a case against the MoD, of which he expected 100 to meet a threshold for a claim.
He said: “They include cases of black mould and there are reports of asbestos. One guy who found asbestos in his kitchen, he was told just to avoid the area. Heating is a big one as well, especially with those who have kids.
“A claim is the only way: when it starts costing them money, the MoD will start listening. It is no win, no fee, and in the worst-case scenario when we make a claim the MoD will come round and fix it.”
The state of the homes rented out to armed forces personnel and their families has long been a cause of concern.
Under a 1996 deal brokered by the then defence secretary Michael Portillo, about 57,000 such properties were sold to Annington Homes for £1.66bn. The company is now owned by Terra Firma, the private equity giant founded by billionaire Guy Hands.
Under the deal, the government took out a 200-year lease on the homes in order to continue to provide accommodation to service personnel. The MoD retained responsibility for repairs and maintenance.
Without being able to capitalise on the increase in the value of the properties, the MoD has struggled to maintain the ageing housing stock.
Four years ago, the National Audit Office found that increases in housing prices meant the government was between £2.2bn and £4.2bn worse off than it would have been if it had retained the property portfolio.
In September, the MoD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation was forced to apologise about the “unacceptable” service provided by three outsourcing companies awarded £650m contracts to deal with complaints, home allocation and maintenance.”.
The Guardian story today, if true, speaks multitudes in regard of past, present and ongoing failures by the MOD to look after its people. Whilst the bullying element of the story is certainly new and completely unacceptable, the situation in regard of providing poor quality homes and facilities for military personnel stretched back many years.
Quite why, other than to secure immediate cash, the MOD was allowed to sell 57,000 of its properties to a private company only to lease them back for two hundred years whilst remaining responsible for maintenance and upkeep and when 26 years on many of these homes are empty with some falling into disrepair is best left for the former Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo who signed the deal to defend but what is certainly without doubt is that by retaining responsibility for maintenance this was yet another example of the MOD putting cash before the need to look after its people.
I venture to suggest that one would be hard pressed to find similarly bad examples of how any of our NATO allies treat their military personnel and families.
Even if the Guardian story only applies to a small minority we simply cannot go on treating members of our armed forces and their families in such an appalling manner.
This past week has seen the current Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace and the Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Tony Radakin hold talks with the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt during which they will have emphasised that you cannot have economic stability without security.
Everyone knows and I hope understands the difficulties that we are under as the nation struggles in the wake of Brexit and the vast amounts of money spent by the Government on, or dependent on your point of view, wasted on fighting Covid, but the one overriding certainty is that defending the nation against rising levels of threat and which should always be the first duty of government should, in these more uncertain and difficult times, be of paramount importance.
Looking after personnel and their families and accepting that they deserve to be treated equally and on the basis of merit should not even be a point that requires discussion. Sadly, the MOD and successive governments have failed our military personnel and sad to say that some in the higher echelons of the military do it very willingly and appear unashamed in so doing.
All those engaged professional in attempting to ensure that Britain can defend itself against potential aggressors and play its part within NATO defending the rights and freedoms of all our allies need to realise that you cannot properly defend a nation if the morale of your own military personnel is low because, in the situation covered above, we find another alarming example of how the MOD persists in a policy of bullying and treating them not only with disrespect but also with contempt.
CHW (London – 14th November 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785