HC Deb 10 March 1959 vol 601 cc1127-33

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £43,540,000, 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, 1960.

5.39 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

I wish to raise only one small point, but it seems that, with every Vote we take, somebody says something about procedure. In view of the fact that I got into trouble earlier, may I say that I am not responsible for what happened yesteryear on procedure in this House, and the way we did it then, nor am I responsible, nor am I ever likely to be, for any investigation which may be made later. What I am concerned about today is that I am very well aware that some of my colleagues are very anxious to talk about the Navy and the Royal Air Force. The matter is as simple as that. I am wondering what sort of arrangements we can arrive at so as to accommodate everybody in this difficult position of having to discuss all this amount of money and all these Votes.

On Vote 6, I should like to know why there is a difference of £2 million in expenditure on solid fuel. Is it possible that we over-estimated last year? Was it just a wild guess then? Subhead A shows that the Army expects a reduction of £31 million in the cost of food. I notice from the Royal Air Force Estimates that, although the numbers are going down, that Service has decided to make hardly any cut at all in expenditure on food. Certainly, it is not anything like as drastic a cut as apparently is taking place in the Army's expenditure. In view of this enormous cut, I should like to have some information about the standards of food in the Army.

Under Subhead Z there appears what seems to us a rather mean item in the Estimates. It relates to the receipts from the sale of food and animal feedingstuff, on which there is to be a saving. We understand that one of the reasons for this is that the discount on food purchases from N.A.A.F.I. will be acquired by the Treasury and will not go to the Soldiers' Amenities Fund. I am advised that this is a procedure which the Army has been compelled to adopt as a result of a recommendation by the Select Committee on Public Accounts.

I am not, therefore, putting the meanness down to the Army, but this appears to be a very petty practice. When I was in the Army, the Soldiers' Amenities Fund was made up of this discount from N.A.A.F.I. I should like to have an assurance that, in spite of this imposed meanness, that fund will not be affected.

5.42 p.m.

Mr. H. Fraser

On the question of welfare, and the N.A.A.F.I. rebate, the Public Accounts Committee found that the Royal Air Force was doing something similar to what is now proposed. The Committee thought that the practice in the Army was also unsuitable and we have been asked to come into line with the Royal Air Force. The N.A.A.F.I. rebate, therefore, is absorbed back into Army funds on the ground that this is the correct procedure, but it makes no difference at all to the troops.

Precisely the same funds are available now as were available when they came from the N.A.A.F.I. discount. Under Vote 9, for example, contributions towards Service entertainments, the general welfare fund, expenditure on libraries and on additional equipment for athletics are increased. As a result of this stroke of genius on the part of the P.A.C., everything is made infinitely more complicated and the troops have the impression that they are being defrauded of their N.A.A.F.I. rebate whereas, in fact, the sums available are exactly the same.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) also raised the question of the decrease in expenditure on rations. This decrease is largely due to the fall in numbers in the Army. As he will remember, the whole of the ration issue was revised in 1957. I speak from memory but there are home-scale rations, foreignscale rations, a scale for recruits doing heavy training, and a special scale for the operational soldier. The lowest ration is 3,400 calories in this country. This is bumped up for recruits doing tough training in the first few weeks, and the average rate abroad is about 3,500 calories. We are doing a certain amount of reorganisation of supplies in Malta on an all-Services basis, and in the next few years we hope to have an all-Services scale of rationing which will have many advantages, especially on the supply side.

The reason for the decreased expenditure on solid fuel is, to some extent, the decreased cost of the fuel in Germany, on account of a reduced first delivery or freight change. There has been a decrease in the prices of some of the solid fuels in the United Kingdom and there has been a reduction in the cost of electricity and gas. There has also been a decrease in consumption of solid fuel which I cannot attribute to any special cause except, perhaps, to the fact that we have had unseasonably warm weather at certain tines of the year.

5.44 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

The Army's record in using the services of nutrition experts has not been very good. Two or three years ago the Army "dropped a clanger" by publishing an advertisement which caused the Service to be the laughing-stock of the academic world. I should like to know whether there has been an improvement in this respect. The Army has an advisory service which enables it to call in nutrition experts. What has happened to the experiments which were being made to produce rations, over and above emergency rations, which would enable men cut off from their supply depots to keep going for a long time?

I remember seeing a demonstration of a food pack in a room occupied by the Minister's predecessor. It seemed to me stodgy stuff. I took the opportunity of consulting Professor Yudkin, who occupies the Chair of Nutrition at London University. He was caustic in his comments about Army rations. We have now the opportunity of hearing from the Minister what is happening.

It is not good enough to dole out stacks of temporarily satisfying food. It needs to be related not only to the men's needs, but to operational requirements as well because of its effect upon weight. If the Minister is considering policy on the transport of troops by air this question of the weight of food carried is not unimportant. There is an operational need, a health need, and the need to get working not the best brains of the R.A.S.C. or the R.A.M.C., whom I do not wholly trust, but those readily available in universities where first-class work is being done on nutrition.

5.49 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

This is the first time that I have sought to address the Committee on the Army and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me. Though perhaps it is as unexpected as anything might be, the first item under Vote 6, Subhead E, is not very far removed from the salt water which, on various accounts, generally seems to surround me. There is a Royal Army Service Corps fleet whose activities I have observed for many years. I see that it continues to flourish, although I notice that a number of its vessels are now for disposal.

Nevertheless, I cannot help feeling, as I have felt all along, that the very existence of this fleet is an incongruity. What makes me the more alarmed this year is to observe that the Vote is no less than £88,000 up on last year, when I should have thought that the functions of this fleet would be found to disappear almost spontaneously with the cessation of the existence of coastal batteries and forts in outlying spots which might need special attention by small craft.

We have seen this often enough around the Isle of Wight. Now we can see quite clearly that target-towing is no longer required as batteries no longer exist. The forts are silent and are even offered for disposal. What, then, is the reason for the existence of this expensive fleet? I see that the explanatory sentence opposite states that the vessels are used for purposes for which commercial vessels are not suitable. That may be so. But I have seen them carrying out a parallel service to, with almost exactly the same speed as, the Ryde ferry steamers. The gentlemen taking passage have no doubt been coming on the same train to Ryde and are doubtless going on the same train to London, but for some reason or other they prefer the much less comfortable form of transport to an existing service.

Let us recognise, in this Committee, that the existence of the fleet is incongrous and that its services should be disposed of, because there is, anyway, in existence an item in one of the other Services, on a different Estimate, called the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. That organisation performs almost identical services for the Navy, namely, the fetching and carrying. Surely such parts of the R.A.S.C.'s function as the transport of goods over long distances and deeper sea, are more suitable for the larger vessels of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

The point I wish to put to my hon. Friend is that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and indeed the small fleet of assorted vessels owned by the Royal Air Force, together with the R.A.S.C. Fleet, could at this stage be fused, as they must overlap each other enormously. We should have a Royal Services Auxiliary, if necessary, and then three civilian admirals might give place to one.

In my constituency, there has been a great deal of criticism of the very fact that the boats are built and refitted in various yards under a totally different system and a different inspectorate. Indeed, there may be similar launches built for the Navy and the Army alongside each other in the same slipways, and yet different inspectorates from different parts of the country have to come there to carry out identical inspections.

This is a corner of the Army's empire which has been overlooked. Much more careful scrutiny by this House is needed and this fleet's existence should be justified.

5.53 p.m.

Mr. H. Fraser

In reply to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), we are looking constantly at the question of consulting experts. I do not know whether the services of Professor Yudkin have been used, but the services of other great dieticians have been used and I am sure that the point raised by the hon. Gentleman is kept under review.

Turning to the almost piratical attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. R. Bennett) to corner what few ships the Army has afloat, the main argument against his contention is that the Fleet Auxiliary is frequently manned by civilians, whereas in this case quite a large number of the small craft of the R.A.S.C. are landing craft, tank.

They are, therefore, operational, and must be manned by full-time soldiers. This point is being discussed, but so far there is a strong case for keeping things as they are, unless other circumstances arise in the inquiry which cause us to change our minds.

My hon. Friend also asked about expenditure. The small increase in expenditure is due to operational requirements.

Dr. Bennett

Is it not a fact that the Navy, also, has been in the habit of operating landing craft tanks? Is it not doing so now?

Mr. Fraser

The Navy personally, but not the Fleet Auxiliary.

Mr. Wigg

The Minister arouses my fears. He says that the Army is consulting dieticians. That is not the issue. The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstood my point. Dieticians are in hospitals and are concerned with formulating on paper the appropriate diets for patients. This is a question of fundamental research by nutrition experts. As far as I know, the only university in the country which has a chair is London University, Queen Elizabeth College.

I mentioned Professor Yudkin because he had served in the Army and had made his services available. There are also biochemists, and the like, who are expert and I will not be fobbed off with the yarn that the Army is consulting dieticians. This is what they did before. This is what they advertised for. They do not understand what is involved. This is a problem which might be of vital importance for the efficiency of our troops. It might also involve a saving of money and give the troops a much more satisfactory diet. The Army should drop its out-of-date habits of using tin openers and tins which have been bought not on the research of experts, but on the whims and fancies of the R.A.S.C.

Question put and agreed to

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £43,540,000, 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, 1960.