HC Deb 15 March 1956 vol 550 cc608-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £55,030,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of supplies, etc., which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1957.

Mr. Wigg

Great attention is paid to pay and accommodation of the Forces, but we do not often spend time on the question of rationing, which is an important subject. In February last it was brought to our notice that the Secretary of State for War was not as up to date on this subject as he might be, because an advertisement appeared in The Times asking for a nutrition adviser. It was clear from the terms of the advertisement that the Secretary of State was not aware that the authoritative body on this subject was the Nutrition Society. I hope, however, that as a result of the interchanges which took place on that and on a subsequent occasion, both he and his advisers at the War Office are now aware that there are competent people in the country who are carrying out research into balanced diet, and I hope that they are taking advantage of these researches.

I understand that considerable work has been done on emergency rations which troops might be called upon to use during operations. This policy was developed during the war, but since that time not a great deal had been done until a year or so ago. As a result of the work of the Under-Secretary of State himself, I understand there has been a great improvement in the quality and variety of the combat rations which troops could use when called upon to undertake operations in conditions in which supply is difficult. Obviously this is of the greatest importance, because in certain circumstances the success of operations might be in doubt if supplies of rations had not been carefully planned.

The Committee would be glad to learn from the hon. Gentleman of the developments which have taken place, because not only are these of value in the kind of operations which our troops are called upon to undertake at present—as for instance, in Malaya and Kenya, and perhaps even in Cyprus—but also if, unfortunately, larger operations ever developed they would have tremendous value.

I hope the Army is keeping in touch with the civil authorities to see that the Army Catering Corps is kept at the highest level. There was a time in the Army when it was thought that all the psychiatrists who had become a bit "touched" with their own psychiatry had gone into the Army Catering Corps. That view, when it becomes widespread, is not good for morale. It would be good for the Army, therefore, if we could hear from the hon. Gentleman that, now we are ten years away from the war, the Army Catering Corps is composed of cooks and not exclusively of unemployed psychiatrists.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Simmons

Certain hon. Gentlemen who have just left us, who were so concerned about economy, will no doubt have been pleased to see that food and ration allowances are down by £4,220,000 on this Estimate. We ought to have an explanation from the Under-Secretary of State in that respect. I agree with my hon. Friend that the arrangements for the feeding of the men in the Forces are just as important as pay. Of course in the old days, when people went into the Forces because of unemployment and poverty, that was not so important, because what they got in the Army was better than what they were able to get when they were standing on the street corner or in the dole queue.

I remember that in my old Army days there used to be a saying, "What is a fine sight?" The answer was, "Two hot dinners on one plate." That was a commentary on the kind of people who used to go into the Army in those days. Now, however, there is a higher standard of living in the country, and that must be maintained for the men in the Forces. Also it has to be proved to those entering the Forces that they will be given food comparable to what they could enjoy outside.

I notice under Subhead A that provision is also made for animal feeding stuffs, including forage for horses and mules and food for dogs. Could we know what proportion of the money provided goes to the horses, mules and dogs and what goes to the human animal? Again, I hope that there is no sinister significance about this line on page 121: Provision for the purchase of animals is made under Subhead D This comes under rations. I hope that we are not feeding our troops on horse flesh? Can we be told why that should be included at all? Then, under Subhead B, "Solid fuel, Electricity and Gas," there are these words in the last paragraph: In order to control the consumption of food in commands at home and abroad, a fuel target based … I thought a target was something that had to be achieved. Would not the words "fuel quota" be more explicit, or does Tory doctrinaire policy preclude us from having the word "quota" mentioned in these Estimates?

On the question of barrack services, do barrack damages come under that heading? Also, what are the maintenance costs of the old barracks compared with the new barracks which are being erected today? I should imagine that much of the £750,000 is spent on maintenance of buildings, many of which it might be better to destroy and to replace by something more modern and habitable.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

If my recollection serves me correctly, there are about 700 horses on the establishment and it is presumably in respect of those horses that some of this forage is required. By some wise administration on the part of the War Office, about 12 million horseshoe nails are available for these 700 horses. That seems to disclose some discrepancy about which the Under-Secretary might like to furnish some explanation. I understand that some of these 12 million nails are to be sold in the near future. It strikes me as odd that with the diminution of the horse population of the Army, there has grown up this vast accumulation of 12 million horseshoe nails.

Mr. F. Maclean

I will deal first with the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton). I am afraid that he is out of order, because horseshoe nails are not rations. [HON. MEMBERS: "Iron rations."] The same applies to the remarks about the maintenance of barracks and buildings made by the hon. Member for Brierley Hill (Mr. Simmons). That comes under Vote 8, and I should therefore be out of order to discuss it.

Mr. Simmons

It is mentioned in the last paragraph on page 123.

Mr. Maclean

That makes clear what things are involved and it has nothing to do with the maintenance of buildings. It has to do with barrack services. The hon. Member also asked what proportion of the Vote was spent on feeding animals. That is made clear on page 122. As the hon. and gallant Member for Brixton pointed out, we have only about 700 or 800 horses and mules and we are not really in danger of them eating us or the Army out of house and home.

The question why there has been a reduction in the Vote is simply answered by the reduction in the strength of the active Army and the Territorial Army. It is also accounted for by the reductions of certain civilian services in Germany and repayment services.

The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) raised the topic of the combat ration. He may remember that when he came to see me about a year ago he found my room at the War Office filled with existing 24-hour rations unpacked and scattered all over the place. We looked at the pack together and we came to the conclusion that it had several disadvantages. They were that it was too heavy for the purposes for which it is intended, as a 24-hour ration for use on operations, mainly the sort of operations when the soldier will have to carry his food on his back—and that it was too complicated and too elaborate. There were four different menus, including items such as eggs and bacon, liver and bacon, steak and kidney pudding and tinned ginger pudding.

It will be obvious to hon. Members that although that sort of ration is excellent if one is sitting still and has plenty of time to prepare and eat it, it is not ideally suited to combat conditions. The benefit of the extra variety is more than out-balanced by the need for the individual to carry extra weight. Speaking as an amateur, but as one who thinks a great deal about his food and who has also eaten a certain number of these rations when they were first started in the war, I would much sooner have something lighter and simpler, and I believe that most soldiers would feel the same way.

During the past year we have been aiming at producing that. Subject to the results of the troop trials which are to take place in the summer, we have succeeded quite well. We have had the advantage of the best professional and expert opinion in the matter and it has not been left to retired psychologists. We have had the advice of dietitians, or nutritians, or both—I can never member which it is; I know that the hon. Member for Dudley knows one of the most distinguished in the country, so that no doubt he finds it easier to remember the difference.

I have with me a 24-hour ration of the new type. We have done away with tins completely. The ration can be carried in its pack and weighs only 27 oz. as against 4 lb., which makes a big difference. It is well packed and consists of a lump of dehydrated meat, which can be eaten cooked or uncooked, an oatmeal block, some chocolate, some cheese, soup powder and powdered tea, sugar and milk. I have not tried it, although I intend to try it, and I am assured that it is capable of all sorts of permutations and combinations which make it palatable and sustaining.

Perhaps I can say a word about catering in the Army generally and about the general ration scale. We watch that very closely indeed. Most of the complaints that have been made about food and which have come to me have been found to be due to bad preparation and wastage of rations and not to the quality of the rations themselves. We have been, and still are, going into that carefully, and we have done everything we can to see that food is well cooked and that materials are well used and attractively presented. We are actively examining the possibility of a general improvement in ration scales.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £55,030,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of supplies, etc., which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1957.