HC Deb 10 March 1959 vol 601 cc1133-43

Motion made and Question proposed. That a sum, not exceeding £53,680,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of stores, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March. 1960.

5.57 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

I want to ask three questions on this important Vote. The first concerns ammunition. We see in the Estimates that there is a substantial reductions in this respect of £3,659,000 under Subhead D. Can we know why there has been this big cut? We know that production of the .303 is being stopped, except for the Vickers gun, but we must have the .300 for the new F.N. rifle, and so we should like to know why the cut has been made.

On Subheads E and F, with particular reference to technical stores, it is extraordinary that here again the Vote is badly underspent. When we look at the other Service Estimates we find that on this subhead the Navy is always overspent. One would have thought that with the new technical advances we are making, and with our new Army which is just around the corner, on these subheads there might have been anticipation of a larger figure.

There is one other problem bothering us. Where is the provision under this Vote for guided missiles? I ask that question because the R.A.F. shows these under the ammunition subhead. So may we know where the Government show the provision for guided missiles in anticipation of the coming Estimates?

There is one other small point which arises on page 126 under Subhead A on clothing, where again there is a substantial reduction. I recognise that much of this is due to the running down of the Army, but may we have an assurance from the Minister about the new clothes our soldiers are to wear? We were given some assurances in his excellent winding-up speech on the Army Estimates last week, but we should like to know more about the raincoat which our soldiers are supposed to be getting. Also, if we can get some dates a discussion on this subhead will have been worthwhile.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. Mason

There is an item in Vote 7, under Subhead A, which puzzles me. It concerns clothing services, which cover fitting uniforms, the cleaning and repairing of clothing, including hospital clothing and the repair of boots. It then goes on to refer to hair-cutting of Gurkhas. How substantial is a Gurkha's haircut, and why is this item so specified in the Vote? I suppose that it may cause some consternation in the ranks of the British Army that we should have Gurkhas so specially itemised. How much does this item cost? Are we going in for Yul Brynners, Tony Curtis, or Edwardian hair styles? Can the Minister explain why it is that the shedding operation is placed under clothing services and why we give such special attention to a Gurkha's haircut?

6.1 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I want to refer to technical stores and ammunition, since the burden of the Secretary of State's speech when introducing the Estimates the other day was that a great deal of equipment was projected for the current year. However, the sums provided for ammunition have fallen by the substantial amount of £4 million. That is a welcome reduction, but one wonders whether it is due to the general use of standardised ammunition or to some other cause. If such great economies have been effected by standardisation, it is even more serious that the Government have taken so long to achieve it.

It is surprising to find that in technical stores it is intended to spend about £3 million less on signals and wireless equipment, a substantial reduction over the previous year. My impression was that a great deal of new signal equipment was to be issued in the current year, and it seems odd that there should be a substantial reduction in expenditure with an improvement in instruments to be used.

It may be that equipment has been hoarded over previous years and has been paid for on previous Votes, in which case the Army has been negligent in not putting that equipment into commission. If that is the case, we must have good reasons why that equipment has not been issued.

To a lesser extent, the same argument applies to mechanical transport and aircraft. There is a small increase in expenditure over last year, although we are told that practically the whole Army is to be equipped with new vehicles, Ferret cars and so on. The figures under the subheads do not tally with the Memorandum or the speech of the Secretary of State, who forecast a near revolution in the equipment and vehicles to be at the disposal of the Army in the financial year 1959–60.

Finally, I should like an explanation about appropriations-in-aid. We can look with some relief at the substantial sums shown as appropriations-in-aid, in that way reducing the net expenditure falling on the Treasury, but I wonder why such very large sums have been recovered by the sale of surplus stores.

For instance, receipts from the sale of surplus stores are estimated at £8,300,000 as against £13 million last year. One wonders what was the original cost of the stores now being sold. It is pleasant to see appropriations-in-aid offsetting expenditure, but we should know the original cost of the items of which the Army is now disposing. What machinery is there in the War Office to see that the ordering of stores and equipment bears some resemblance to what is needed?

Substantial sales are disclosed in the list of appropriations-in-aid, and I would appreciate some idea of whether those sums represent one-quarter, one-third, one-half, or whatever it is of the original cost to the War Office of the items in the first instance. The constant appearance of these sums is not a matter for congratulation, but a subject on which we are entitled to some explanation.

6.5 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

Like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), I too have been worried at the state of wireless equipment in the Army. I discussed this matter at some length during our debate last week. This is a subject which has been a matter of controversy for a long time. I believe that an improvement would be effected if responsibility for the development and procurement of Army wireless sets could be taken from the Ministry of Supply and handed to the War Office. During the debate on the Army Estimates, I asked the Under-Secretary whether any change in the procedure for development or procurement was contemplated. I wonder whether I shall have a reply now.

6.6 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

Will the hon. Gentleman be good enough to explain why all the Votes are presented in this form? If he looks at page 16, he will see that there is a note to Vote 1 to say that it includes the Supplementary Estimate, whereas in Vote 7 a comparison of the revised figures and the Supplementary Estimate makes nonsense of the actual figures. Several of my hon. Friends have said that the figures are quite different.

It is quite wrong that one Vote, particularly Vote 1, should be prepared in one way, taking into account the figures of revised estimates, while Vote 7 is prepared in another way It is especially unfortunate because it is on Vote 7 that the dirty work has been done during the last year. That is where the overall instructions of the Minister of Defence have been put into effect. The right hon. Gentleman has said that recruiting should be pushed forward and that there should be increased rates of pay but that the Departments must keep within their existing ceilings of expenditure. The result has been that the men have been obtained at the expense of equipment. That is a matter which requires explanation.

There is a saving on Vote 7 under almost every heading. A study of the figures will show that the comparison of 1958–59 and 1959–60 is "phoney". The figures for technical stores are down by £3,600,000. They should be not £21,323,000 but £17,650,000. The hon. Gentleman has already been asked for an explanation about ammunition. In that respect the criticism is even stronger, because the figure is not £13.341,000, but £6,700,000, a true underspending of £6½ million, almost 50 per cent.

Mr. H. Fraser

We must get this clear. At the moment we are discussing the Army Estimates for 1959–60. What the hon. Member says is important to certain arguments, but we are not discussing the Supplementary Estimate for 1958–59, which will be discussed separately after the other Votes have been discussed. That is the normal procedure which the hon. Member must bear in mind. We are now discussing Vote 7 of the Estimates for 1959–60.

Mr. Wigg

I am clearly aware that we are discussing Votes on the Estimates for 1959–60. Is the hon. Member aware that in Vote 1 the figures shown for 1958–59 have been altered to take into account Supplementary Estimates? I am not suggesting that this is a trick. At any rate, if it is it is a very silly one, because the footnote (a) says, "Including Supplementary Estimate". The Parliamentary Secretary and my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) have presumably fallen for this and have assumed that exactly the same procedure has been adopted in connection with Vote 7, and so my hon. Friend makes a legitimate comparison with the figure as it originally appeared.

Mr. Mellish

I am not quite so stupid as that. I intended to ask a number of questions on the Supplementary Estimates. I have some notes here to ask questions about the decreases shown in the previous year's Estimates, particularly on Vote 7, Subheads E and F. I was not going to ignore them, but I thought that I ought to wait until we reached Vote 7.

Mr. Wigg

I want to discuss the form in which the Vote is presented. I was saying that it is presented differently from the way in which Vote 1 is presented, and I want to know why. There must be some explanation. These are not mistakes. The Department must have some reason for revising Vote 1 and not Vote 7. The figure concerned represents 50 per cent. of the expenditure. We ought to know why there has been such an under-spending in 1958–59 before passing the 1959–60 figure.

Can it be that the speech of the Secretary of State for War is another piece of window dressing? It would help if we were to have a categorical assurance that the Estimates for 1959–60 will be spent, because if they are not the Government will not have begun to answer the arguments put by hon. Members on this side of the Committee that the Army is badly equipped. It is very easy to inflate the figures in the Estimates and then play the same trick next year as has been played this year, by underspending. Everybody claps, except the Army, who will have obsolescent equipment and nothing but promises of better things to come.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. H. Fraser

I will deal, first, with the complex point concerning the reconciliation of the Supplementary Estimates with the main Estimates. Vote 1 is a comparatively simple one, which is easily calculated, but Vote 7 is the most complicated of all the Army Votes, because it contains something called the prior year adjustment.

As the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) knows, the prior year adjustment is a form of accountancy which is accepted by Parliament and by the Public Accounts Committee. The prior year adjustment charges arise only in the last three or four months, and they arise because the Army has to have available sufficient funds to pay the Ministry of Supply and other providers of stores in the last three months of the financial year.

Guesses have to be made, especially about lines of production, and intelligent guesses are made by the War Office and the Ministry of Supply. There nearly always has to be an adjustment, and in this case it is about £5 million. It would be better to discuss this question of reconciliation, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), when we reach the Supplementary Estimates at the end of our discussion.

I would, therefore, prefer to turn to the various points raised on the 1959–60 Estimates. The question of clothing and allowances was raised by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and others. Raincoats are going into troop trials in April, and I hope that they will be able to go into full production and supplies to the troops begin next year.

The hon. Member also raised the question of ammunition. As he rightly pointed out, there is a considerable shortfall there. The hon. Member for Dudley knows that the real shortfall is more than the figure given in the Estimates, because of the various adjustments which have had to be made. The deliveries of ammunition for last year will work out at £6.89 million. The difference therefore, is between the £6.89 million delivered last year and the £9 million that we believe will actually be delivered this year. In real terms it is an increase. This shows the complications of the matter. What hon. Members should be interested in is the figure for the actual deliveries.

Mr. Mulley

The hon. Member ought to explain why he asks for £13 million and spends only half of it.

Mr. Fraser

There were three main reasons for the shortfall. First, last year was the year when we had a reorganisation of the ordnance factories of the Ministry of Supply. Secondly, there was the problem of designing certain types of new fuses and shells. We are now moving into an era when the lethality of ammunition must be constantly improved. Thirdly, we decided at this time last year that it would be proper for the inspectorate to spend more time on refurbishing and maintaining the already existing stocks of ammunition. These factors account for the considerable fall in the Estimate that we set out to achieve.

We believe that this year we will achieve the production of £9,682,000 estimated. I have been in touch with my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Supply. The problems of the ordnance factories have now been overcome and the period of consolidation is over. In addition, the problems related to the new fuses and other types of new equipment have been overcome and I very much hope that the figure of just over £9½ million will be a real one. Some of the ammunition that we are now producing is not only the best in Europe, but the best in the world.

Moving on to the question of mechanical transport and aircraft. I was asked where the cost of guided missiles falls. That comes under Technical Stores, under Subhead F. Hon. Members who follow these matters closely will see that we are spending considerably more than last year on vehicles, aircraft, and so forth.

Mr. Mellish

The hon. Gentleman's statement about technical stores is most unsatisfactory. If we are moving into a new era when we shall have an Army which is better equipped technically one would have thought that the tendency would be to overspend. How is it that we have underspent compared with the previous year?

Mr. Fraser

The underspending in previous years on technical stores which we are referring to now—I am sorry, I meant mechanical transport, under Subhead E. I apologise to the Committee for having confused the items under Subheads E and F.

There is underspending on technical stores which will mean, on a reconciliation of the two figures, an amount of nearly £3 million spent on wireless equipment. We have already discussed this to some extent in the previous debate. The situation is not satisfactory for the year, but the general situation over a period of years regarding the equipping of the Army with new radio sets is satisfactory. This is a programme which will cost about £20 million. Already, we are over the peak of the production of sets. One brigade group in Germany has got the sets and, I think I am right in saying, by this time next year six of the nine types of set necessary for the equipment of the whole of B.A.O.R. will be issued.

The shortfall arose, as I explained the other day, because, again, there was what might be called over-enthusiasm for certain types of sets and a breakdown in the supply of parts for those sets. If hon. Gentlemen reconcile the figures for the two Estimates, they will find that we shall be firmly spending about £4 million this year, which is about the same real sum as was spent last year. As I explained previously, this situation is improving fairly rapidly. Sets are being issued fairly quickly and by this time next year nearly all of the British Army in Germany will be equipped with these new types of sets.

I was asked about working out with the Ministry of Supply whether the present method of supply was the best. We are always keen on improving these matters and I am glad to say that even at this early stage of the year our firm orders on Vote 7 are 20 per cent. to 30 per cent. in excess of the figure for this time last year and that is a considerable improvement.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

The hon. Gentleman said the figure for guided missiles was included in Subhead F. Can he say what is the figure?

Mr. Fraser

No, I am sorry.

Mr. Fernyhough

Obviously, in submitting these Estimates the War Office has had to take into consideration the stores and equipment which it alreidy possesses. We have just signed an agreement with Colonel Nasser under which we have said "Goodbye" to a large amount of stores and equipment in Egypt. Can the Minister tell me how that will affect this Estimate? Does it mean that before the end of the year we shall be confronted with a Supplementary Estimate to provide ourselves with stores and equipment to replace that which we thought would be available to us in Egypt, and which, because of the agreement with Colonel Nasser, is no longer available?

Mr. Fraser

No, these stores were written off some time ago.

The hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) raised an interesting point about haircuts for Gurkhas. I will write to him about the details. If Gurkhas wish to have their haircuts paid for by the British Army, the War Office will be delighted to find the necessary money.

Mr. Mason

The hon. Gentleman will agree that he has not explained why this item should be mentioned under the paragraph in the Explanatory Notes relating to clothing services, and why, having been mentioned, there is no reference to how much is involved. Our lads, who are still suffering from the effect of "basin haircuts"—the usual Army haircuts—are not mentioned at all.

Mr. Mulley

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) has raised an important point regarding haircuts for Gurkhas and that it justifies further investigation. But I feel that the Under-Secretary should not be allowed to think that he can get away with the answer which he has given about ammunition. Last year, the Committee was asked to vote a sum of £13,300,000 and only half of that was spent. Before we approve this Vote we should like an assurance that the money which we are voting will be spent. It means that last year either the Ministry was asking for more money than was needed, and was proposing to waste several millions of pounds of public money, or else the Army was allowed to be under-equipped.

That there was not sufficient ammunition is a most serious accusation to make. But either more money was asked for than was needed—and an explanation should be given about that—or, in the event of hostilities, the troops would have been short of ammunition. In the eyes of an infantryman that is a cardinal sin. Men may be allowed to go without clothing or food, but to an infantryman a shortage of ammunition is a cardinal sin. We must have an explanation.

Mr. Fraser

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would have heard me explain what happened last year to cause this shortfall. It relates to new ammunition, new fuses and new types of tank ammunition. The breakdown was not in the old, standard ammunition, but in new ammunition which we are developing. Most of the problems relate to the Royal Ordnance Factories and are in connection with fuses and new antitank ammunition. These problems have been overcome and I can say with some certainty that when we state that we shall produce £9 million worth of ammunition, we shall do so this year, because the difficulties experienced last year have been overcome.

Mr. Mellish

What it amounts to is that the Minister of Supply should be present answering these questions and not the Under-Secretary. It is not a case of the War Office under-ordering, but what the War Office received from the Ministry of Supply, and we know that that can be a very inefficient Department.

Mr. Wigg

I do not wish to go into the question of the working of the Ministry of Supply. We shall be satisfied if the Under-Secretary will give an undertaking on behalf of his right hon. Friend that it is the firm intention of the War Office to spend all the money for which it is asking under this Vote; and that this year we shall not have the window dressing nonsense which finds expression in revised Supplementary Estimates.

May I ask that Supplementary Estimates, whether revised or actual, should be shown in the future? Is it possible to indicate that a Supplementary Estimate is included and would it be asking too much to ensure that in future all Votes will have a heading which indicates whether or not the Supplementary Estimate is included?

Mr. Fraser

So far as we can, we shall always see in the future that it is stated whether a Supplementary Estimate is included or not. Clearly, it should be put down as in Vote I, Supplementary Estimate, perhaps in larger type so that attention will be drawn to it. I do not know whether we can always guarantee to do it as in Vote I this year. I will, however, see that it is put more clearly next year to show whether there is any disparity in comparing like with like. There is no need to answer the first question put to me, because I and my right hon. Friends are determined to see that what we are asking to be spent shall be spent.

Mr. Fernyhough

If I may revert to the answer which the hon. Gentleman gave me, it is true that the stores to which I referred may be written off, but they were stores which were available to the British forces had they been necessary. They are no longer available. The War Office must have thought, when maintaining that base, that some day these supplies might be necessary, and to that extent this is a short fall. I wondered whether it would be necessary to make up for that shortfall, because of the agreement that we have signed with Colonel Nasser. before the year was out.

Mr. Fraser

No, it will not.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £53,680,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of stores, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1960.