HC Deb 10 March 1959 vol 601 cc1144-51

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £5,840,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of miscellaneous effective services, including a grant in aid to the Council of Voluntary Welfare Work, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1960.

6.35 p.m.

Mr. Mellish

In connection with page 154 of this Vote—Payments in respect of the Suez Canal Base Contracts—my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) referred to the question of stores and said that as a result of the agreement with Colonel Nasser this country has lost about £100 million. We have just wiped that off. It is only part of the settlement on Suez. I would ask the Under-Secretary whether this £3,000 Estimate for 1959–60 is the last of it. Is there more to come, or is this going on continuously?

Vote 9, Subhead 0 (2) refers to "Regimental Allowances and Entertainment Expenses". When we look at the Explanatory Notes, we find that this particular cost also concerns cleaning equipment. This is a charge which is made for regimental allowances and entertainment expenses, and I should like to know whether the Under-Secretary can give an assurance that the vast bulk of this money will be for regimental allowances and not for entertainment and cleaning equipment. This all comes under this subhead and it might give him a chance to break it down and tell us more about it.

6.37 p.m.

Mr. Wigg

I want to raise two very serious and important matters. On the 14th September, 1857, Captain Robert Shebbeare won the Victoria Cross. This gallant officer volunteered for service in China and was engaged in the attack on Taku Forts. Unfortunately, he was stricken with illness and, after being embarked on the "Emu" for the United Kingdom, he died at sea off Shanghai on 16th September, 1860.

His Victoria Cross, one of the earliest of these medals to be awarded, was, needless to say, cherished by his family. To say that it was an heirloom is to put it mildly. This very gallant officer, who had given his life for his country, was awarded this medal but did not live to be honoured by having it presented to him by the Queen, and his descendants received it.

In 1949, this medal was loaned to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst Museum, together with the Mutiny medal. There it remained until the time approached for celebrating the 100th year of the award of this decoration. The family who loaned it—and I have seen a copy of a letter acknowledging the decoration—asked for it back, and it could not be found. Various excuses were offered. I corresponded with the Secretary of State and the family corre- sponded with the Commandant and were told that it was lost.

Nothing in the Army is lost. Anything that is lost has been won, or, to put it in barrack-room language, someone pinched it. That is what happened. I do not know who it was, but someone stole the medal. It was a scandalous state of affairs. I will not go into the question of the medal itself or what the Secretary of State for War should do. What I am concerned with is the maladministration of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The Commandant wrote to the family and said that is was last seen in 1952 or 1953.

There have been several commandants and a number of curators. In that establishment is gathered all that is best and greatest in the British Army. It is where officers are trained. Do they never have a take-over or any checking of equipment? When the present Commandant took over, did he not have a check to see what private and public stores he was taking over? This is no idle matter. It concerns a matter which is very dear to the Shebbeare family, but it would be just as important if it were the medal of the humblest of those who served in Her Majesty's Forces.

What matters here is that the former C.I.G.S., Field Marshal Templer, is devoting the rest of his life to establishing an Army museum. I wish him well. It is a great enterprise which may do a great deal to make the public realise what they have owed to the Army in the past. It is not the way to behave to borrow a medal of this kind, of great sentimental and intrinsic value, and then to say that it has been lost. What were the circumstances in which it was lost? No doubt a court of inquiry was held, the police were informed and inquiries made.

This is not the only thing that has been lost at Sandhurst. I have a newspaper cutting here, of which I unfortunately have not the date. It says: 'LOCK UP PISTOLS'—SANDHURST ORDER. All pistols, antique, to be locked away. That is the order for the day at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, after the latest 'arms' raid. A cleaner noticed that ten of the pistols, which date from the time of Waterloo, 144 years ago, had gone from the wall of Old College Ante Room. Last month 16 disappeared. Several hundred of them are on loan to the Academy from the Tower of London. I have another cutting here from the Evening News of 15th January, 1959. It says: Many of the 1,000 antique pistols on the walls of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst are to be taken down for storage and safe keeping following the theft of pistols worth over £300 in the past few months, said Colonel D. Taylor, Commanding Officer, today. I do not want to make heavy weather of this, but in view of what has happened—a considerable number of people now know what has happened at Sandhurst—would the Minister be good enough to give an assurance, not only to me but to the Committee, that there has been a most careful examination into the administration at Sandhurst, not only with a view to seeing, needless to say, that the thefts will stop, which goes without saying, but that the internal economy of Sandhurst is efficient and shall be so organised that whoever happens to be Commandant at a particular moment shall know for a certainty that the public stores he is supposed to be responsible for are actually there?

In my day, if an officer commanding an unarmed company of a Pioneer Corps had behaved in this way he would have been relieved of his command. I see the Minister of Defence on the Government Front Bench. I have no doubt that the officer responsible in this case will be promoted, because he is qualified to be one of the right hon. Gentleman's military advisers. This is one of the deplorable things that happen in the Armed Forces. We find them over and over again. When one gets at the heart of things one finds. not the glorious pictures painted by White Papers and Defence Estimates, but the grossest of maladministration. This seems to be a perfect example of it.

I turn to another matter. There is justice in the world, and it is only just that the Under-Secretary of State for War should be here to answer the questions I am now going to put before him. I remember that on the eve of the Suez operation he said, "Smash Nasser now". Some 700 of our fellow-countrymen have paid the price for that operation. They were gentlemen, many of them of high technical ability, who undertook to serve on a two-year contract in the Suez base. The base contained public stores which have been estimated at from £60 million to £100 million and were worth at any rate a very considerable sum.

These 700 men, having signed contracts for two years, began their service in the Suez base. If they had been cattle they could not have been treated with less concern by the crowd of criminals on the Government Front Bench who undertook the Suez operation—an operation unplanned, ill-prepared, inefficient and fore doomed to failure from the very word "go". The Government never even undertook the elementary precaution of caring tuppence what happened to the lives and well-being of those 700 men. So far as the Government were concerned those men could have been dropped into the Canal. Nobody in the Government worried about them.

I am told upon reliable information that these men on the spot had a pretty shrewd idea of what was cooking. They went to the consular authorities and, needless to say, they got no change. I can verify that, because shortly before the fun and games started out there I went to the British consul. The place was full of rumours, but I could get no information. Some of these 700 men got lorries and stocked them up with food. It would have been possible for them to escape. but they were loyal. They had signed contracts. They behaved in accordance with the finest traditions of our race, although not the finest traditions of the Tory Front Bench.

They stuck to their jobs and they were imprisoned by the Egyptians. They were spat at and they were kept short of food. They were lousy and unwashed. Finally they were released. We would think that the criminals who had put them in this position would at least have done something, if only out of their own pockets, to make up to those men for the indignities which they had suffered. Instead the Government appointed assessors to find out what they had lost. They offered them six months' salary on a take-or-leave-it basis.

Note a difference. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will remember this. The contracting firms who had gone into the Suez base were given six years' compensation. I think it was right that they should have it. Before they ever went to Suez they asked for a contract on a cost-plus basis for six years. That is what they got. The employees who had gone to prison on behalf of hon. and right hon. Gentleman on the Government benches got six months' compensation.

The crowning act of indignity—I believe hon. Members do not know this. and I could hardly believe it myself—was that these chaps had some of their bank balances sequestrated. The Government allowed them to have their bank balances made up, but on one condition. which was that the Income Tax they owed to the Egyptian authorities should be deducted from those balances. So we have the hon. Gentleman who said "Smash Nasser now" in his present job where he acts as a tax collector for Nasser. This is what happened, and this is what is called "A policy through strength".

These men have been treated scandalously, shockingly, inefficiently. Whenever again are we to civilianise bases overseas when this is how we treat men? They are burning with a deep sense of grievance. They left their motor cars behind. They were told by Brigadier Helmi of the Egyptian Army at El Gapp on 21st December, 1956, when they were going into Port Said, We are going to sell your motor cars and take your assets towards the cost of the damage which the British have done at Port Said." There was no justice in that. Government supporters, before they blow their brains out, should turn their pockets out and sell all they have and give to the poor of Port Said. The Egyptians took the motor cars and sold them at knock-put prices in Suez or in Port Said.

Where the cars had been held on hire-purchase terms the Government even deducted, on behalf of Egyptian garages, from the balances they gave these men the money which was outstanding on the hire-purchase agreements. Could indignity go further? That is one of the products of the policy through strength. We have Blue Streaks and V-bombers and nuclear bombs, but our fellow-citizens are treated as criminals, and the Government accept the fact without a bleat.

The facts are well known. I have written to the Foreign Secretary. I have written to the Secretary of State for War. He insists that there is a difference between the firm and the men. That is obviously Tory philosophy. There is a difference between the men who make the money and those who make it for them. I hope that hon. Members on this side will join with me in raising their voices in demanding justice for these men. They should have been treated in the same way as the firms. I wonder what the Daily Mail and Mr. Randolph Churchill and the Daily Express think about the idea that the British Government act as Nasser's tax collector.

I hope that even at this eleventh hour, on behalf of the Government—not for the honour of th Conservative Party, but for the honour of Britain—the Under-Secretary will agree to treat these men with generosity for the humiliating position in which they were put, not as a result of their own actions, but because of the criminal act of right hon. Members on the Front Bench opposite.

6.51 p.m.

Mr. H. Fraser

I will deal, first, with the question raised by the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) about regimental allowances and entertainment expenses. As the hon. Member will recall, it was part of the recommendation made by Sir James Grigg's Committee that commanding officers should have larger funds available to them. It is impossible, at this stage, without referring to individual units, to say how much of this money is to be spent on entertainment and how much on cleaning. I recall to the hon. Member, however, that we are this year introducing a webbing equipment which cannot be cleaned. I think that the common sense of commanding officers will see that a fair proportion of this money is spent on activities which are essential to the physical, moral and other wellbeing of the troops.

The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) raised three main points. The first was the question of Captain Shebbeare's lost V.C. I would very much like to talk to the hon. Member about this afterwards. I fully agree that it is a bad matter. It is certainly being investigated.

My right hon. Friend and myself are most concerned by the series of losses from Sandhurst. Full inquiry is being made. I can only assure the hon. Member that we are looking into this deeply to try to find out what is wrong and how these losses have arisen.

The third and last point raised by the hon. Member was the important one of the Suez Contractors Employees' Association. That, I think, was the origin of the hon. Member's information. While having sympathy with the case as expressed by the hon. Member, I must inform him that the facts as I have them are somewhat different concerning the number of years' compensation given to the firms and the compensations to the individual men. My information is that most of the men accepted the compensation terms offered to them and that those compensation terms were—

Mr. Wigg

Surely the hon. Gentleman is far too generous and decent to use that argument. These men had no alternative. They were told, "Either take this or you will get nothing." That is not acceptance.

Mr. Fraser

I will certainly look into the matter again, but some of my information is contrary to that of the hon. Member.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £5,840,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of miscellaneous effective services, including a grant in aid to the Council of Voluntary Welfare Work, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1960.