HC Deb 05 April 1965 vol 710 cc2-6
1. Mr. Newens

asked the Secretary of State for Defence why blankets, footwear and engineers' tools, etc., advertised to be sold by auction at Command Ordnance Depot, Kinnegar, Holywood, County Down, were declared to be surplus stores; and whether existing contracts for the provision of similar blankets, footwear and engineers' tools have been cancelled, in view of the existence of the surplus of these articles.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. G. W. Reynolds)

The blankets and footwear were not serviceable. The engineers' tools and generators were not serviceable or were obsolete. Orders placed for similar items would not be affected by these disposals.

Mr. Newens

Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the present arrangements to make sure that defence stores which are sold as surplus are not disposed of at very considerable loss when they might be used more profitably in other Departments?

Mr. Reynolds

Arrangements exist for making sure that such surpluses are not required by other Departments before they are put up for public auction. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Secretary of State for Defence has recently reviewed the system of public auction and is satisfied with the precautions that we take.

Mr. Manuel

Would not my hon. Friend agree that there is ample evidence of vast sales of surplus requirements which had been grossly over-ordered in the higher ranks of the various Services? Should not my hon. Friend look into this to save money by avoiding such over-ordering?

Mr. Reynolds

My right hon. Friend would be only too pleased to look at particular instances, but I assure my hon. Friend that large quantities of material disposed of as surplus, as was the case recently, have been in stock since 1940 and are no longer suitable for modern requirements. If my hon. Friend has any particular cases in mind I should be only too pleased to look into them.

2. Mr. Newens

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will estimate the amount by which the cost of surplus stores exceeded the total sale price realised in their disposal in each of the last three years.

Mr. Reynolds

It is not possible to estimate the cost of the stores disposed of. In 1961–62 we realised about £19,082,000, in 1962–63 £16,251,000, and in 1963–64 £14,878,000.

Mr. Newens

Is not my hon. Friend deeply concerned that vast quantities of these stores which were sold off in this way need not have been ordered in the first place had various checks been made? Will he consider setting up an inquiry into the whole procedure since the arrangement made some years ago, as a result of the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), does not seem to have prevented a great deal of necessity for selling off surplus stores not to the greatest possible economic advantage of the country?

Mr. Reynolds

I cannot accept the general view expressed in my hon. Friend's Question. I can only repeat that my right hon. Friend will be only too pleased to look at any specific instance which my hon. Friend cares to draw to our attention.

Mr. Lipton

Has any civil servant or other person responsible for over-ordering in the last two years ever been even mildly reprimanded by the Minister concerned?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a question for the Minister arising from that Answer.

22. Mr. Dodds

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what orders have been placed or contemplated on behalf of the Armed Services for blankets, footwear, batteries, binoculars, watches, tents and fork-lift trucks, respectively, in view of the Service stocks disposed of at public auctions in February; and why these goods offered for sale were not suitable for use by the Service Departments.

Mr. Reynolds

These articles were disposed of because they were not serviceable or—as in the case of some of the batteries and of the tents—were obsolescent or surplus to foreseeable requirements. They were of no further use to the Services and could not have been set off against existing or future requirements. Orders placed or contemplated for similar items would not, therefore, be directly affected by their disposal.

Mr. Dodds

Is my hon. Friend aware that I am deeply concerned by the Answers I am getting to my Questions about the prices realised? I am not being told those prices. Is he further aware that I have gone through HANSARD over the years and find that I have always had the answers to similar Questions? Will he explain why the House of Commons cannot be given the selling prices when these are public auctions? The merchants get the answers at the auctions. Why cannot we get them? Why have the Government changed to a policy of hiding the facts on this?

Mr. Reynolds

I think that my hon. Friend is stretching it a little to say that he has always been given the prices. Certainly, some 10 years ago he was given some prices in relation to the disposal of boots, because the circumstances were then regarded as exceptional. We do not consider that exceptional circumstances exist in the present case. Merely to give the prices raised without any discussion of the condition in which the goods were sold might be misleading. As my hon. Friend is aware, if he wants information about particular goods and prices obtained, we are prepared to provide them for him as for any other hon. Member.

Mr. Soames

Does the Under-Secretary of State really ask his hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) to believe that to give the information he requires would be a hazard to national security?

Mr. Reynolds

My right hon. Friend is continuing the practice adopted by his predecessors in previous Administrations.

Mr. Paget

Why do we always have to continue the practice of the previous Administration? Will my hon. Friend tell us the difference in specifications for Army blankets, footwear, and binoculars respectively which make these stocks no longer serviceable?

Mr. Reynolds

The blankets were used and no longer serviceable. There is no question of their being new. The binoculars and other equipment mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) were no longer serviceable—they had been worn out or were not up to the present standards required for the Services. The boots were not up to modern Army standards.

As for continuing the practice of the last Government, we have looked at this case and are still of the view that such information about the condition of goods being sold would be completely misleading, although I accept that those present at the auction and who see the goods do know what is being paid.

Mr. Dodds

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

36. Mr. A. Royle

asked the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he will take to publish the results of his inquiry into undesirable activities at Government surplus sales; and whether he will make a statement.

The Deputy-Secretary of State for Defence and Minister of Defence for the Army (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

There has been no formally constituted inquiry but I have made a most thorough examination of the arrangements. In this connection I would refer to my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) on 12th March.

Mr. Royle

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Prime Minister announced that the Secretary of State for Defence was making an inquiry into the scandals exposed by the Daily Mail at these Government auctions which have been taking place during the past year? In view of the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for the Army refused to give the prices to his hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds), would the right hon. Gentleman look into this matter again? It appears to many of us that the Ministry of Defence has something to hide.

Mr. Mulley

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have nothing to hide. Obviously the danger of "ringers" occurs at all auction sales. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been very much concerned about this in other fields. But we take all the precautions we reasonably can. In fields where there is a restricted market very often we find it more appropriate to use tendering or private treaty arrangements. We are very concerned about the danger of "ringing", but the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to state all the steps that we take, because that would facilitate the practice which we both want to stop.