HC Deb 28 February 1966 vol 725 cc1055-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitch.]

11.24 p.m.

Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)

I count myself fortunate that I have the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. It concerns a number of officers and other ranks of the Services who were seconded orginally to the West Indian Federation and were subsequently transferred by a further secondment to the Trinidad forces, the Federation having come to an end.

The terms of the secondment were set out in a document of considerable length, which I do not propose to read, dated 26th January, 1961, and I have been able to trace the loss that has occurred to these officers and men from that document which, so far as I know, has only been amended by one letter, to which I think I ought to refer. It was in the form of what is called a saving-gram, something of which I had not heard before.

It was dated 1st August, 1962, and was from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the officers administering the Government of Jamaica and Trinidad. It is necessary that I should refer to Jamaica, because other officers and other ranks of the Services were seconded to Jamaica and it is on a comparison of these two sets of secondments that the loss that has been sustained in Trinidad can be clearly seen.

The saving-gram read as follows: I have been asked by the War Office to seek your agreement to an immediate review of the rates of West Indies allowance for military personnel seconded to your forces with a view to according retrospective increases effective from 1st January, 1961."— that is, 18 months before— The West Indies allowance related to British Army local overseas allowance which it replaces. The local overseas allowance was increased in July, 1961, with retrospective effect from 1st February, 1960. The West Indies allowance was not reviewed at the time and remains at the same level as was in issue before the review of the local overseas allowance. In equity, this allowance should have been reviewed at the same time as the local overseas allowance review and it should have kept in step with it. I should be grateful if you would agree with the review suggested by the War Office, as the individuals concerned must by now be experiencing some hardship due to increases in the cost of living. That was, in truth, the position.

I come now to the next step in the story and I am taking for the purpose of ease an officer who occupied the rank of major, who compares absolutely accurately both in seniority and in conditions for allowances with one who occupied the same rank in Jamaica. The seconded personnel in Jamaica were dealt with in accordance with the saving-gram to which I have referred.

The difference between those two officers, both of the same rank and the same seniority, is most striking. Particularly striking is the fact that the West Indies allowance in the case of the major in Jamaica is £840 per annum when in Trinidad it was £680. I do not propose to go into detail about the other allowances, except to say that the total allowances per annum for the major in Jamaica were £1,414 as against the Trinidad figure of £1,080. If, as I hope, my mathematics are not wrong, that is a difference of £334 per annum. The officer concerned was in Trinidad under the arrangements made from 4th August, 1962, until May, 1964, a period of 21 months. On the full allowance, that would be £334 for the 12 months and £243 for the nine months, a total of £577. That is the claim on the allowances.

I shall come in a minute or two to deal with the difficulty experienced over a period of nearly two years to get anyone to move in the matter, but I should first complete the story. I have pointed out that, before May, 1962, there was a period during which there ought to have been the allowance paid by the West Indian Federation Regiment. Fortunately, the commanding officer of that regiment, when he came back to England, did a little bit of sleuthing, as a result of which he found that there was a surplus in the Federal West Indian assets.

At about this time, on 25th May, I took the matter up with the Ministry of Defence. An ex gratia payment of £46 9s. 8d. was then made which had absolutely nothing to do with the absence of the proper allowances in Trinidad. It was most unfortunate that it should have been treated as an ex gratia payment in respect of the period from 1st January to May, 1962, but, at any rate, it has been credited to the time when the officer was with the Federal forces and not with Trinidad.

The matter does not stop there. When the officers and other ranks calculated in detail what their Income Tax would be, they found that their P.A.Y.E. liability was increased by £75. Then, before they could leave Trinidad, they were informed that they had to accept a further levy of £115 by the Trinidad Government for extra Income Tax over and above the amount it had been agreed that they should pay. There are 22 officers and men affected in this way.

I think that I ought to go quickly through the correspondence. I took the matter up as long ago as May of last year, and I received a letter on 28th July saying that all the claims submitted to the War Office by this particular officer were inadmissible; and a point was made about a vehicle tax involving a question of £11. At the end of that letter, there was the statement about the ex gratia payment of £46 during the period of West Indian Federation service.

The next letter after 28th July was on 17th August, stating that the question was being pursued as a matter of urgency. The next letter was on 3rd December, and said: I am sorry that we have been unable to give you some further information. Then came a letter stating that it was hoped that something would be done before Christmas. A letter on 2nd February said: We cannot give you any definite news. A letter on 15th February said: The question of claims for a higher rate of income tax paid in Trinidad is still under consideration. I will write to you again when I have further information. On 22nd February I received a most extraordinary letter from the Ministry of Defence: You will be pleased to know that it has now been agreed that nearly all the 18 Income Tax claims will be substantially met, at least six of them in full, including the major to whom I had referred.

The officer I have in mind brought his motor car into Trinidad, and because he sold it and did not re-export it he was not permitted to claim import duty allowances to reimburse him. But the agreement says nothing about re-export or anything of that sort. Ie merely says that everything will be taxed that is brought into Trinidad with the exception of horses and vehicles belonging to officers. The words are: All goods brought into the island are subject to import duties except that in the Second Schedule of the Customs Law, 1939, the following may be imported free of duty—horses and motor vehicles of serving officers of Her Majesty's Forces. There is no justification at all for saying that because he did not re-export the car he is not entitled to the allowances.

There is a very unsatisfactory aspect to this. I have always taken the view that the Services, particularly the Army should underwrite the loss that serving personnel on secondment suffer through the fault of those to whom they are seconded. But all I have found—and I have found it on one or two occasions—is that there has been completely unnecessary delay. In this case, I regret to say that one sergeant who was owed a considerable sum was killed in Aden, so that he cannot recover the money to which he would otherwise have been entitled. The Services ought to be looked after properly, and there ought not to be any delay. Where personnel are not looked after and there is delay, and a man does not get redress before he is killed in action, one feels that the Service is being badly treated.

It is now more than two years since the losses occurred, and there has been pressure on the Ministry nearly all the time. I hope that tonight we shall have from the Under-Secretary of State a promise to pay.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

I want to say a few words in support of what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington) has said about the problem. It is a case of very shabby treatment to a number of Service personnel, and it affects one of my constituents. I have had similar experience to that of my hon. Friend.

I took up the matter on 23rd June, 1964, with the then Under-Secretary of State on the question of both pay and taxation. On 5th August, 1964, I received a letter stating that pay would be dealt with on an ex gratia basis and later that year information was given as to the amount. On the tax question, letters were sent on 20th August, 31st October and then on 16th December, 1964. The then Under-Secretary of State stated that he was still holding inquiries.

The remarkable fact is that just over nine months later, I received a letter stating: I am writing further to my letter of 16th December… as if that letter had been written only a couple of weeks beforehand. This latest letter said that inquiries were still being held. That was on 24th September, 1965. It was followed by another letter from the then Under-Secretary on 18th December,

1965, and then by another letter from the present Under-Secretary of State on 15th February.

I do not criticise the present Under-Secretary of State as far as this is concerned because he has only recently taken up his office and I must confess that since he did so we have obtained quicker action. In his letter of 15th February, he stated that inquiries were still being made. This afternoon I had delivered to me, in an envelope marked "immediate," a letter stating that my constituent is to receive an ex gratia payment described as being virtually the full amount of his claim. The payment, in fact, is more than £50 less than the amount.

In today's letter there is the remarkable statement: In July last year, we heard that the Trinidad Government had decided that the income tax claims were inadmissible. We then had to consider whether payments which were rightly the responsibility of the Trinidad Government could fairly be accepted as a charge against the British taxpayer. So the Government have hesitated for seven months to take a decision on the matter, although it knew all the facts last July.

Indeed, presumably they had not reached a decision until recently because, on 15th February, and also in December, they wrote saying that inquiries were still being made. But they failed to inform me that the Trinidad Government had made their decision and that Her Majesty's Government had decided to make an ex gratia payment. It took them seven months, once they knew the facts, to decide on ex gratia payments.

The life of officers and men seconded to certain parts of the Commonwealth is not usually an easy one or a pleasant one and for those who are seconded and who serve well to be treated in this way and to suffer these delays is a disgraceful form of treatment. I hope that it will not occur again.

11.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington) has been pursuing the question of compensation for officers and men seconded to the Trinidad Defence Force since May last year. He has tonight raised a number of points, as has the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) who, as he says, has been making representations since June, 1964. For the record, and to put the matter into perspective, I would give the facts, but since I have only 10 minutes in which to reply I shall have to cut down the amount of information that I thought I should give.

The facts, briefly, are that eight officers and 14 soldiers of the British Army were seconded to the Trinidad Defence Force formed in mid-1962. Before that, some had been seconded to the West India Regiment and others went direct from the British Army. The new terms of service for secondment to the West India Regiment, introduced in January, 1961, included a special West Indies allowance to cover the high cost of living in the area, and three features of these are of relevance.

First, motor vehicles were allowed to be imported duty free. Secondly, Income come Tax on pay and allowances was at the local rates. Thirdly, travel allowances and refunds of travel expenses were based on rules applicable to overseas civilian officers of the Federation Government. When the Federation broke up, and the Trinidad Defence Force was formed, it was agreed with the Trinidad Government that the terms of service would be no less favourable than those that had been received from the Federation. But those seconded were told that their employment would be under the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, that their emoluments would be paid from the funds of that Government, and that their appointments would be subject to local regulations.

In May, 1963, some of those who had come from the West India Regiment and were now serving with the Trinidad Defence Force complained about their allowances and tax. The complaints were mainly in respect of the West Indies allowance, vehicles tax, payment for expenses incurred in travel between their homes and duty stations, and Income Tax charges. I will deal with these in that order.

The West Indies allowance was designed to replace the local overseas allowance, overseas family allowance and cost-of-living allowance payable to British Army officers and men posted overseas in the normal way. It was agreed that it would be reviewed periodically. Caribbean local overseas allowance—one of the main elements in the West Indies allowance—had been increased in July, 1961, to meet rises in the local cost of living in Jamaica, and this was backdated to 1st February, 1960.

This increase was not, however, reflected in the West Indies allowance and negotiations were accordingly opened with the Federation with a view to the new rates being admissible from 1st January, 1961, the date from which the new terms of service were operative. Unfortunately, these negotiations had not been completed by the time the Federation of the West Indies came to an end on 31st May, 1962.

Sir E. Errington

1st May.

Mr. Rees

The date which I have is 1st June, 1962, as being the date on which the Government of Trinidad and Tobago first assumed responsibility for their own affairs and they would not accept responsibility for backdating the increase to 1st January, 1961. Since there was no local Government in a position to grant the increase from that date, Her Majesty's Government accepted responsibility for the period 1st January, 1961, to 1st June, 1962, and ex gratia payments were made to the officers and men concerned. As a result, these officers and soldiers received sums ranging from £6 to £132. In this way, the first and perhaps most important cause of complaint was put right.

I now come to the three claims which were submitted by the officers and men concerned. The first of these is the vehicle tax. As I have already said, seconded personnel were allowed under their terms of service to import a motor car into Trinidad duty free. What was not realised, however, was that a high tax is imposed on all vehicles on first registration in Trinidad. This tax varies in amount and works out at about 16 per cent. of the assessed value. If a vehicle is exported from Trinidad, the tax may be refunded, but the owner is then faced with the cost of shipping it. I understand that nearly all the officers and soldiers concerned decided to sell their cars before leaving Trinidad and put forward claims for compensation ranging from £25 to £109.

The second claim concerns the expenses incurred by officers and men using their own motor cars to travel between their own homes and their duty stations. British Army personnel are, of course, normally entitled to public transport between their residence and place of duty, or, alternatively, an allowance to cover their expenses. This provision was not included in the West India Regiment terms of service as quarters in Jamaica were within either the camp area or a very short distance from it. In Trinidad, the quarters were some 17 miles away from the place of duty, involving personnel in at least one return journey of 34 miles each working day.

The third claim was in respect of Income Tax. The terms of service of seconded personnel indicated that Income Tax would be levied at West Indies rates, but, in fact, Trinidad rates were levied. Initially, the two rates of tax were broadly the same. However, from 1st January, 1963, the Trinidad rates were increased sharply, with the result that seconded personnel were faced with additional tax payments ranging from £5 to £145. These three claims were put to the Trinidad Government who considered them at length, but felt unable to accept them and finally rejected them in the summer of 1965.

I must say something about secondment terms. Seconded officers and men are on a special footing. Although they do not, of course, cease to belong to the British Army, they are during the period of their secondment the financial responsibility of the Government in whose country they are serving. They undertake these duties as volunteers and they accept the conditions of service which are offered to them. The financial terms take account of any inconvenience and perhaps interruption of their normal military careers.

If, having accepted the terms, they find that they are not working out as well as they had expected, any claims that they may put forward are rightly addressed to the Government concerned. Even if such claims are rejected, it does not by any means follow that the British taxpayer must automatically step in to meet them. On the other hand, we thought it reasonable to see that seconded officers and men are protected from hardship at least to the extent that they are left no worse off than they would have been under the kind of arrangements that we ourselves would have applied in similar circumstances.

Sir E. Errington

Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to discuss some of these in detail with me?

Mr. Rees

I certainly would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman.

The House will appreciate that before a decision is made to meet from the British Exchequer claims made against another Government, all the facts must be most carefully weighed and each individual case must be justified in full. Such cases can never be disposed of overnight. Briefly, the claims in respect of vehicle tax were given sympathetic consideration, but since there is no entitlement to exemption from this kind of tax in the United Kingdom Service man's normal expectation, it has been decided that no ex-gratia payment can be allowed in respect of these claims.

With regard to the other two claims—travelling expenses and Income Tax—I am glad to be able to report a happier outcome. On the first, it has been possible to apply the test of how these officers and men would have fared if they had been travelling between home and place of duty under British Army rules. All the claims under this heading, ranging from £4 to £25, pass this test, and arrangements are being made to make ex-gratia payments to the full extent of the claims.

The Income Tax claims have proved to be rather complex. It has been necessary to examine each claim in detail to compare the net emoluments actually received with the net emoluments that might have been allowed by Her Majesty's Government in similar circumstances. A detailed scrutiny of the claims under this heading, taking into account rank, service, marital status, all pay and allowances due, and so on, shows that many of them can be met substantially, if not in full, and ex-gratia payments are being arranged accordingly.

I accept that it has taken a long time for these claims to be cleared up. There were three main reasons for this. Briefly, the first was that the claims involved more than one Government. It was last July—that is, July, 1965—that the Trinidad Government finally decided that the Income Tax and travelling claims were inadmissible. Secondly, there are no set rules for claims of this kind. Each case has to be considered on merit, bearing in mind the principle—and I emphasize this—that we are not prepared to underwrite secondment terms regardless of their content. Thirdly—and this explains the delay of the last few months, which I accept there has been—the staffs dealing with the matter were preoccupied with the recent pay review.

The hon. Gentleman expressed the hope that other seconded personnel might not be faced with similar problems. Since 1963 a new form of secondment called "loan service" has been formulated to meet the needs of emergent countries. Under these arrangements the cost is shared between the Government concerned and Her Majesty's Government, who, therefore, have a direct responsibility. Under the new formulation the circumstances related tonight are unlikely to be repeated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.