The government was warned and criticised about the ‘unacceptable degradation’ of military accommodation, with cash cuts to accommodation said to be an ‘appalling indictment’.
Earlier this month, Defence Safety Authority (DSA) inspectors found that an ‘unacceptable degradation’ of barracks for soldiers had revealed fire safety concerns. Financial cuts had led to the issues, with DSA director general Lieutenant General Richard Felton ordering the inspection after fires at bases in Tidworth, Wiltshire and Lisburn, Northern Ireland, respectively in the Aliwal and Thiepval barracks.
The single living accommodation, used by unmarried soldiers, featured faulty equipment as well as ‘broken or unserviceable infrastructure’, alongside the fire safety issues. Though the review had not been released, the DSA’s annual report published last October revealed that 373 fires had been reported across armed forces owned buildings in 2017-18, and noted the ‘apparent disinvestment or lack of priority afforded to fire safety across our infrastructure’.
This was ‘being mirrored in the ambivalence of the very people it is there to protect’, with the chance of a fire resulting in ‘significant loss of life, loss of capability and damage’ to the MoD’s [Ministry of Defence’s] reputation set to ‘remain high’ unless ‘major weaknesses’ are addressed.
Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a former army officer and member of the Commons defence committee, noted: ‘Animals would not be housed in such dangerous conditions. It is disgraceful how ministers talk up our armed forces at every opportunity, and yet, away from the spotlight, ask our most loyal public servants to endure totally unacceptable and lethal living environments.’
In response, an MoD spokesman commented that the ministry was investing £4bn in modernising sites nationwide, and added: ‘All occupied buildings owned by the MoD meet national building and fire regulations and we regularly inspect our sites to ensure they meet safety standards. We are making improvements to fire safety across our sites, including bolstering our resources for fire assurance.’
After that, the MoD responded that it was ‘committed’ to fixing the ‘catalogue of failures’, and Forces.net has now reported on more warnings to the government that the fire safety failings are ‘a military Grenfell waiting to happen’, while the financial cuts to accommodation were an ‘appalling indictment’ of the MoD.
In the House of Lords, it was argued that the MoD has a responsibility to ensure barracks are safe for troops, with the government responding that the MoD had acted on recommendations in the DSA report, creating a committee to oversee improvements. Liberal Democrat peer Lord Lee of Trafford said that the findings were ‘an appalling indictment of the Ministry of Defence’s whole approach to fire safety and to the care of personnel in its charge’.
He added: ‘How does the Minister react to the news that some military personnel deliberately interfere with and disable fire safety systems for their benefit, and others apparently illegally cook meals on camping stoves in their living quarters to save cash? Do we not have a military Grenfell just waiting to happen?’
Former head of the Royal Navy Lord West of Spithead agreed it was ‘a damning indictment of the situation. There is no doubt that a lot of the single living accommodation onshore for the military is not really up to standard, and we have to put a major effort into this’. In turn, Liberal Democrat Lord Campbell of Pittenweem added that ‘we can be grateful that changes have been made, but how was it that the circumstances were allowed to arise in which the committee said there had been a lack of priority afforded to fire safety, major weaknesses and an unacceptable degradation of barracks?
‘We ask our young men and women to risk life and limb in action. Surely we can go out of our way to ensure that they are safe in their own barracks’. Finally, former chief of the defence staff Lord Houghton of Richmond highlighted an area of the DSA report that referred to troops being ‘disillusioned and fatigued’ by the ‘universally accepted situation that the infrastructure was under-repaired and under-resourced and there was a complete absence of suitably qualified personnel’.
He questioned Conservative Lady Goldie, representing the government, asking whether she agreed ‘that this another example of the Ministry of Defence attempting to bridge the gap between true capability and resources by the application of hope and risk’, to which she noted she did not agree. She said that the report had been ‘pivotal in ensuring and securing improvements to fire safety in MOD single living accommodation’.
In turn, she pointed out that in this financial year £4m was being spent on fire safety improvements in single living accommodation, while another £9m was ‘earmarked’ for refurbishment including safety upgrades.
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