Thursday, April 18, 2024
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Home truths for Shapps over Army housing blunder


THE wheels are falling off at the Ministry of Defence under the inspired leadership of Grant Shapps, the Army wives dealing the latest blow. Thanks to their protests, the plan to change the way Army accommodation is allocated has been shelved. The hapless Secretary of State should have thought twice before messing with them.

Neither Mr Shapps nor those who devised the cretinously stupid ‘Modern Accommodation Offer’ apparently had any idea what it’s like to be routinely transferred to different stations every couple of years, moving home each time and taking your uprooted family with you, possibly abroad and back. Nor apparently do they understand what an incredibly important perk of promotion a better, larger house is. Marrying into an Army lifestyle and bringing up a family in such an environment is a decision seldom ‘taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly’. Many talented soldiers leave the service before getting married and having children. 

Those who remain do so in the expectation that housing that they find acceptable will be provided as part of the deal. And yes, part of that is status-related. The armed forces are necessarily big on status and more senior officers get bigger houses. Some of that is location-related – officers have officers for neighbours, sergeants have sergeants and soldiers have soldiers. Why? So that everyone can get a break (one is a serviceman 24/7) and to avoid neighbourly family disputes becoming complicated by the chain of command. If you think that sounds like a vestigial bit of the class system, get over it. The squaddie does not want his officer living next door. There is an officer class and that is a necessary thing. Soldiers learn to obey orders that might get them killed. Officers give those orders.

Housing has been a highly nuanced perk for over a century. It is part of the pay deal and it more or less works. Quite why anyone, officer or civil servant, would want to upend it – or even tweak it – escapes me. It wasn’t broken: why open a nest of vipers? That, however, is what has been done. Even if the plan is cancelled, trust has been further undermined. Trust is a vital part of soldiering – ‘will you be covering me at risk to yourself?’ ‘will my spouse receive their pension?’ and the like are immeasurable questions that people consider when they join, while they serve and whether they choose to stay, or not. Being immeasurable, they won’t be in any bean-counter’s spreadsheet. That does not mean that they are not important.

The measured head of the Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, said the new plan ‘does present risk to the social fabric of the Army, and it diminishes the strength of the offer we provide to young officers, in particular. I and ECAB [Executive Committee of the Army Board] feel it is as vital to look after our leadership as our soldiers, but we are not being heard.’  Perhaps the General needs to shout it in Shapps’s ear? Or just demand his immediate replacement?

Needless to say the bearded MoD Permanent Secretary, David Williams (who I struggle to believe can be held in high regard by, or is able to empathise with, mainly fit and clean-shaven service personnel) is also culpable. He should never have mooted it, let alone agreed to it. 

Incompetence and insensitivity reign supreme. Had Shapps proved able to defend his department and bat successfully for the stronger armed forces we need he might be forgiven. But he hasn’t.  He has just failed in his prime task to secure increased funding at a time when threats are rising, as the true lack of capabilities of the armed forces has become as inescapably obvious to our allies as it no doubt has to Russia. A limited capability means little deterrence. Ask Zelensky.

The recruitment crisis won’t  be fixed by an appeal to the woke at the cost of attracting the white, heterosexual males who make up the majority of the country and the Army. Nor does his mixed messaging inspire trust. 

That none of the Generals has publicly declared that it is ridiculous to expect the armed forces to be a mirror reflection of society suggests that they too are subject to the tyranny of the woke. Where is their courage and sense? It is hardly difficult to list the reasons why service personnel need to be special, why physical fitness, strength, an acceptance of military discipline and preparedness to routinely expose themselves to mortal peril is paramount, or why although half the population is female, just 0.2 per cent of the infantry are female. That the female failure rate in basic infantry training is 40 per cent. Is this really a good use of taxpayers’ money? I asked the question in August 2016. The Generals didn’t agree. 

The awful truth is that Grant Shapps may not be the armed forces’ biggest problem.  He may just be the Minister the MoD and the Generals deserve. Service personnel deserve better and so do we taxpayers.  Shapps’s ineptitude spells disaster for the security of our country.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here.

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