HC Deb 15 March 1956 vol 550 cc652-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £13,897,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of victualling and clothing for the Navy, including the cost of victualling establishments at home and abroad, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1957.

Mr. K. Robinson

There are only two points which I wish to raise on Vote 2, and the first concerns the new seaman's uniform about which the Parliamentary Secretary had something to say in introducing the Estimates. I should like to ask him whether we really are to have this new uniform at last. I understand that it has been under consideration for at least six years, and probably longer. From time to time there have been announcements in the Press, no doubt inspired by the Admiralty, about the new uniform always appearing as entirely fresh pieces of news.

Is this the final form of the uniform and, if so, when is it to be issued to the men? When are we to have a Navy arrayed in the zip-fronted jumper? I always understood in the time which I spent in the Navy, which is now getting to be several years ago, that there were certain great advantages in having the jumper in its traditional design One of the things we were told was that it was essential for the safety of seamen. I hope we can have an assurance that there will be no diminution in safety through the new form of dress. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will also tell us how the cost will compare with that of the old type uniform. If it is more expensive, and one would imagine that it would be, is it proposed accordingly to adjust the kit upkeep allowance for men dressed as seamen?

Under Subhead G, I notice that there is a very considerable reduction in the amounts provided for provisions and victualling allowances. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), I am always glad to see economies in the Service Departments, but not economies at the expense of the men's food. I hope that we shall have an explanation on how this saving of something like £2 million has been achieved.

There is one other small matter which I should like to raise under this Subhead —grog money. The rate of grog money, we are told, is at present fixed at 3d. a day or 21s. a quarter. When I was on the lower deck, the rate of grog money was also 3d. a day. I should have thought that the cost of grog had gone up very considerably since then. Is this not in fact an encouragement to the man to take his grog rather than his grog money, and is it not time that the current value of grog was more accurately reflected in the grog money that the man gets who does not draw his grog every day?

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

Under Vote 1 we have voted a generous increase in pay, and we are all very pleased that the Navy, in common with the other Services, has been put on a good basis, so that both officers and men will draw pay that is in every way comparable and in many ways better than in civilian life. That being so, it brings me to the question of officers and men serving on home establishments, because all those men are praotically living civilian lives although they are working at naval works. Having regard to the fact that they are working in comparable conditions to civilians, I ask myself whether it is right that they should get Duty-free cigarettes and Duty-free rum at these home establishments.

I am in agreement with the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) that we do not want to see any economies in food, but I think that no one in this House would object if there were economies in the matter of rum and cigarettes. I feel that here there is a considerable temptation in the face of young Service men particularly. Many of them are non-smokers and many are non-drinkers, but we know that cigarettes and the rum which they can get have a market value that is considerably above 3d. a day for rum or the value of the cigarettes. So there is a temptation to take the allowance whether they want it or not and sell it. In fact, I hear that in naval towns there is quite a black market in cigarettes in the public lavatories surrounding the docks. I am assured that there is a certain amount of black market in rum in private houses and perhaps public houses.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Who buys it?

Mr. K. Robinson

There is nothing new in that.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

There may be nothing new in that, but it may be done en a more extensive scale because, fortunately, we have in the Navy today a large number of young men who are non-smokers and possibly non-drinkers as well. I suggest to my hon. Friend that economies could be made by cutting out these duty-free items for men on home establishments. Not only should we make economies but we should be removing temptation from the men, and getting rid of what I think is a grievance among the civilian population that men working at almost similar jobs should get considerable "perks" to which civilians are not entitled.

Sir Jocelyn Lucas (Portsmouth, South)

I wish to raise the question of the supply of fruit, vegetables and fish to the Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth. Recently we have been discussing monopolies, and whilst one naturally favours N.A.A.F.I., other things being equal, since it contributes to Service amenities; yet I think that a little competition is still a very good thing. There is a Fleet Order on the subject which stressed this, and states that if there is an appreciable advantage, taking into consideration price, quality, variety, reliability and promptness of delivery, purchases from local traders should be resorted to. I have in my hand a list of prices of commodities such as fruit and vegetables and other things which have been bought from the N.A.A.F.I.

This Fleet Order stated that …purchases from local traders should be resorted to only when there is an appreciable advantage to the ship, e.g., after taking into account of price, quality, variety… and so on. That also applies to the naval barracks where last year, because of the excellence of the goods supplied by the local traders, their proportion actually went up to 50 per cent. of the only commodities which they are allowed to supply. I have here a comparison of some of the prices.

Last December, a new officer arrived at the barracks. I will not mention any names, and in any case I have not had an opportunity to investigate this matter. Indeed, I do not think that one could go to the barracks in order to investigate these things, and one would be very unpopular if one attempted to do so. But these are the actual sample prices on 19th January, 1956, the first price being the local private tender: imported Jonathan apples, fancy grade, 6d. a lb.; the N.A.A.F.I. price was 8d. English Jonathan apples, first grade, were 5d. a lb.; the N.A.A.F.I. had none. Canary tomatoes for cooking were 7½d. a 1b.; the N.A.A.F.I. price was 11d. Imported lettuce, large, were 5½d. per head; the N.A.A.F.I. price was 10d. South African plums were 1s. 2d.; the N.A.A.F.I. had no equivalent. Salad tomatoes were 10d. a lb.; the N.A.A.F.I. price was 1s. 1½d. Celery was 3½d. and 4d. a head; the N.A.A.F.I. price was 5d.

On one occasion samples were brought to the barracks by a trader, and this new officer refused even to look at them. I gather that since 1st January no private tender has been looked at at all. Because he had been doing so much trade with the barracks, a local fishmonger spent £1,000 on the installation of refrigerating plant in order to keep the food fresh over Sunday to deliver to the barracks on Monday. So far as he is concerned that money has gone down the drain.

I have a pile of complaints which I can pass on to the Minister, and I wish to quote from a letter from one trader, in which he says: I would add that during my thirty years of business experience during which period I have been in contact with all ranks of the Supply Branch in practically all the Navies of the world, it has never been my sad misfortune to be addressed in such a manner, and to be the recipient of these remarks…leaves me surprised and shocked. There is a great deal of feeling about this matter in Portsmouth, because the traders feel that there is a great prestige attached to supplying the Navy, and if they are no longer allowed to tender people may get wrong ideas quite apart from their loss of business. It is a very severe blow to them suddenly to be struck off like that.

8.45 p.m.

The saving upon those fresh articles, which the private traders are not now allowed to supply, was £1,900 last year. That was a quite useful economy. My main argument, however, is that some competition should be allowed. If a monopoly exists, people have to take what it gives them. The barracks evidently found that they were being served very much better by private traders than by N.A.A.F.I. in the matter of fresh fruit, fish and vegetables.

It is quite easy for N.A.A.F.I. to contribute towards Service amenities if it puts up its prices; any firm can do that if it has a monopoly. I am not denying the good work that it does, but we should keep it on its toes. I ask my hon. Friend to look at this matter, and see whether it is necessary for traders in Portsmouth who have supplied the Navy for so many years in competition with N.A.A.F.I. to be suddenly struck off the list. It seems to me to be extremely unfair, and quite contrary to the Fleet Order.

Miss Vickers

I want to draw attention to the Royal William Yard in Devonport. As its name suggests, this is a very old yard, and I gather that quite a lot of its equipment and crew are being sent inland, to a place called Wrangton. According to the Estimates, certain heating was to be installed in the existing building to make it more habitable to the people working there. Many of these men are ex-Navy personnel of considerable age, with physical disabilities, and the inconvenience from which they are suffering at present is most noticeable.

The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

I am loth to intervene in the hon. Lady's speech, but she is on the wrong Vote. The subject to which she is referring comes under Vote 8.

Commander Agnew (Worcestershire, South)

I have only one or two questions to put upon this Vote. I understand that, together with the coming into use of the new uniform, the seasonal change in the colour of the crown of the rating's cap will disappear. Broadly speaking, it used to be blue in winter and white in summer, and it will now be white all the year round. I do not think that any exception will be taken to that change by officers and ratings. When the time comes for them to wear them again in the summer, officers will no longer have cause to wonder where the white covers of their caps have disappeared to in the winter.

Is it contemplated that white caps only will continue to be used even in time of war? It is quite conceivable that upon certain types of operation the wearing of a white cap at night would invite unenviable attention from the enemy, and it would not be a practical form of headwear.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

Does not my hon. and gallant Friend agree that in the last war, during the black-out, the wearing of a white cap cover at night was almost a safeguard to life in certain traffic conditions?

Commander Agnew

I agree, but I did not experience those conditions.

While I was looking through the Votes in connection with the necessary arrangements to be made in respect of victualling yards abroad, it struck me that there was one item connected with salaries and wages of the police which has undergone a very marked increase this year as compared with the Estimates for the previous year.

They relate to overtime, which has shown very great increase from £700 to £5,500. It is possible that the wages and salaries of the police have been increased all round and that this has caused inflation of the figures, or there may be shortage of men on police duty at the victualling yards and in consequence they may have had to do overtime to keep the full roster of protection. I should be grateful for information on that point.

What is the present source of supply of the rum issued to the Royal Navy? It used to be very good dry rum from British Guiana, but I understand that almost all the vintage stocks were purloined by the Army in World War I and that the Admiralty has never quite caught up with the quality.

Mr. K. Robinson

Did the hon. and gallant Member experience the particularly nasty Australian rum that we had during the war?

Commander Agnew

I do not think I met it. It was only by connivance and a slight irregularity that I was able to get a quantity of rum, but never sufficiently frequently to become a connoisseur. Does the Admiralty still use British Guiana rum and keep it in store, maturing it in victualling yards for a reasonable number of years before issuing it to the Fleet?

Mr. R. Bell

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Commander Agnew) has referred to grog. I was interested in the comments he made about the vintage grog. I have heard that the Army nobbled the stock, but I have also heard it suggested that the Army laid it down as port. The trouble with the Navy was that, having got some fine dry rum it used to wet it and issue it to the men as grog.

I see a mention in this Vote that those who do not like grog can take rum money in lieu. I have always thought it was to some extent a hardship that that privilege was not extended to officers, who have always taken a certain part of their emoluments as duty-free tobacco and alcohol. We always thought during the war that the fact that the Navy received half of its remuneration in that rather intangible form had the most unfortunate effect upon the calculation of naval pay in relation to Army pay.

Whenever a discrepancy was pointed out, it was suggested that that was either because admirals received higher pensions than field marshals or because naval officers received duty-free tobacco and drink. During the six years that I served in the Royal Navy, as I did not smoke, I had to consume quite a ridiculous amount of gin in order to get my basic rate of pay. The result of such an intensive course as that has been to make me not only a non-smoker but a nondrinker. It has occurred to me that it might not be at all a bad idea if some of this advantage, at any rate in relation to tobacco, were quantified so that naval officers could receive a substantial part of the reward for the valuable services they render to Her Majesty in the form of currency rather than of benefits in kind.

I have always thought, though I do not wish to elaborate on it now, that the Navy did a little worse on its victualling than did the other Services. Again, it was always pointed out to us that we paid so much lower in mess subscription than did the Army or the Air Force that it was right that we should be less well paid, but I think it is true that the victualling of the Navy costs a good deal less than that of the other Services. If that is so, it would appear that naval officers are not only on the whole rather less well paid than are their counterparts in the other two Services but that the Navy does not feed them as well either.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

I have two points in mind about the grog issue. First, I should like to know to what extent the habit of taking payment in lieu of grog is increasing or decreasing. There was at one time a tendency, I understand, for the number of those draw-pay in lieu of grog to increase. Perhaps the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary can give some information on that matter.

Secondly, the payment made in lieu of taking the grog is still the same as it was years and years ago—3d. I should have thought that anyone not taking his grog today was entitled to rather more. I do not know how the Admiralty's finances are affected, but the exchange value of grog on board ship is certainly higher than 3d., whether measured in terms of service or of barter. The amount was 3d. when I was in the Service, which is a long time ago, and that was the figure a long time before that. If the Admiralty were to increase the amount to something respectable, it is possible that quite a number of other men would no longer draw their grog, but at present it is a good bargain and can sometimes work wonders. It is really time that the Admiralty examined this allowance.

Mr. Ward

The answer to the question about the seamen's new uniform is that, if there are no unforeseen production difficulties we should be able to start issuing it to the Fleet in about six months' time. It will cost about £28,000 a year more than does the existing uniform.

The hon. Member for St. Pancras North (Mr. K. Robinson) asked about the reduction in the amount of money provided for victualling. I can say that there is no decrease whatever in the standard of the food but there is, of course, a smaller number of men in the Navy, which accounts for the reduction in that figure.

Several hon. Members have talked about grog and grog money. I must confess that I used to like rum until about fifteen years ago, when I made the mistake of walking round a rum factory in Jamaica. The smell was so abominable that I have never been able to drink rum since. Nevertheless, I understand that it is very popular in the Navy. Supplies come, not from British Guiana or, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Commander Agnew) will be glad to hear, from Australia, but from Jamaica or Barbados.

9.0 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) asked about duty-free cigarettes and rum in shore establishments, and wondered why this privilege should continue in days when economy is so necessary. This is rather more than a custom; it has the strength of law, since it was legalised in the Customs and Excise Act, and it has been the tradition of the Navy for a great many years. There would, I think, be considerable discontent caused quite unnecessarily for the saving of very little money if this privilege was withdrawn.

I want to make it clear that it is a misconception—I am not saying that my hon. Friend is guilty of it; he knows too much about it—that sailors ashore are entitled to the same privileges as when afloat. This is not so. There are three categories of entitlement to the privileges, which vary, first, with the length of time a particular vessel is likely to spend at sea, and, secondly, with whether the sailor is in a ship at sea or temporarily in a shore establishment.

My hon. Friend expressed some anxiety about the possibility of a black market arising from this concession in shore establishments. I can assure him that we are constantly on the look out for that, and we should be more than grateful if he could produce any instance, into which we would look very carefully so that we could put a stop to it.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is there any check on whether a man is a non-smoker or a non-drinker when he applies for these concessions?

Mr. Ward

I understand that he has to register as a smoker before he is entitled to the concession, although I am not sure whether he registers as a drinker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Sir J. Lucas) spoke on the subject of private traders versus the N.A.A.F.I. That is an important point. There is no question in our instructions of rejecting tenders from private traders out of hand. On the contrary, our instructions to supply officers provide for the purchase of supplies from private traders, but they say that N.A.A.F.I. should be the main source of supply for such things as fish and fresh vegetables and that purchases from private traders should be made only when there is an appreciable advantage in respect of price, quality, variety or reliability.

I think my hon. Friend will agree that this is only fair to N.A.A.F.I. which, after all, has to operate a world-wide canteen service to meet the requirements of the Navy and often has to operate in places which would not be at all attractive to private traders. I therefore emphasise that any tenders front private traders would continue to be considered and would be accepted if they gave appreciable advantages to the purchaser.

My hon. Friend did mention one or two specific instances, particularly I think in regard to apples. I do not know, without looking at the matter very carefully, whether the private trader is always able to provide a better service in apples than N.A.A.F.I. I would say myself, however, that if, taken over quite a long period, it is found that there is very little advantage between the two, then N.A.A.F.I. ought to get the preference, although I dare say there would always be certain shorter periods when either one or the other might be able to provide a more attractive price. The principle, however, is quite clear—that all else being equal, and unless there is some considerable advantage to be gained from going to private traders, N.A.A.F.I. does have preference, for the reasons which I have stated.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South asked about white caps and whether they would be worn in war time. The answer is, yes, they will; they are the permanent uniform, or will be from 1st May, to be worn all the year round in all climates, both in peace and in war. As to the wages of the police, the reason why overtime has increased is because the new conditions of the Service for the police provide for a shorter working week, and therefore more overtime.

The only other outstanding point is once again a grog one, namely, about the cost of grog. I am informed that the cost of grog is actually half the amount of grog money available. In other words, grog money is 3d. per man and the cost of grog is lid 1½d. per day. I do not myself believe that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) is justified in saying that because, generally speaking, the cost of living has gone up in recent years the price of grog money should follow that upward trend. I think it is very reasonable indeed that a man should receive twice the value of the actual tot of rum, and I see no reason for altering that.

Mr. Willis

Could the hon. Gentleman say whether there is any increase in the number who take money in lieu?

Mr. Ward

I am afraid that I have no information on that, but my impression is that it has remained fairly constant in recent years.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £13,897,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of victualling and clothing for the Navy, including the cost of victualling establishments at home and abroad, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1957.