HC Deb 05 July 1967 vol 749 cc1731-56

Order for Second Reading read.

10.5 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. Maurice Foley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The purpose of the Bill is twofold and both parts are to remove anachronisms. Even the most lynx-eyed critic of the administration of the affairs of Greenwich Hospital will hardly complain about the first Clause which, in effect, removes the requirement that Greenwich Hospital should seek the approval of the Treasury on each instance when making certain investments of its capital.

Some years ago the Treasury, in line with modern practice, agreed the terms of reference for, and composition of, an Advisory Committee of experts in finance and property and, under its guidance, the Hospital's income and capital resources have improved. My predecessors in annual debates have paid tribute—as, indeed, I did last month—to the wisdom of the advice of these experts and their willingness to give it without fee.

The Comptroller and Auditor General noted on the Hospital's Accounts for the year 1962–63 that the Treasury had agreed, for a trial period, that its approval need not be sought for individual investment transactions and that, in so doing, the Treasury had had regard to the Department's intention to seek amendment of Section 40 of the 1865 Act at the next convenient opportunity. Thus, the first purpose of the Bill is to put, instead of the provisions of Section 40, a new provision; that the Treasury, for those investments, shall prescribe the source from which the Hospital and the Secretary of State shall take advice rather than giving the advice in each instance themselves.

The second purpose of the Bill is to remove what I consider to be another anachronism. This is the waste of Parliamentary time occasioned by the enactment in 1885 of a requirement to lay the Estimates for the current year before the House and obtain a Resolution on them. I do not believe that, in this day and age, the use of valuable Parliamentary time can be justified in this way. The position has changed vastly since 1885, when there was no Welfare State and when the Hospital provided the bulk of non-effective benefits for sailors and their dependants. Nowadays about £25 million a year is voted for these purposes, and while in 1885 a declaration in the Greenwich Hospital Estimates of the Admiralty's intentions gave the House an opportunity to consider the provision being made for those who had served the country, Greenwich Hospital nowadays performs a charitable function in supplementing the State provision from a total income of about £500,000 a year.

I can claim for Her Majesty's Government in 1967 that we are finding time to stop wasting time.

10.9 a.m.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Merton and Morden)

I welcome this modest Measure and assure the hon. Gentleman that we approve of its aims and shall give it our support.

The Under-Secretary described the Bill as having two purposes. The first enables the Greenwich Hospital authorities to invest money without seeking the approval of the Treasury for every transaction; and there cannot be any argument with that. There is no doubt that the Advisory Committee which assists the Hospital to invest its money does an extremely good job. I referred to this, and congratulated the Committee on its work—which it does freely and voluntarily for Greenwich Hospital—in the debate at the beginning of last month. Of course, what the hon. Gentleman proposes by the Bill in this respect only gives legal effect to what is happening now, and that is why one cannot but support it.

I also support the Bill's second intention. It is gratifying to find the Government taking the advice of the Opposition so quickly, for it was only in November of last year, in our annual debate on this subject, that I urged this course on the Under-Secretary. Obviously, I cannot take all the credit for this, because it has been in the mind of successive Governments of both parties for some time.

I do not quite know why we had the 1885 Act, but I believe that in the early 'eighties some mismanagement of the affairs of the Hospital required that Measure so that Parliament could keep a close eye on everything that was done. I do not believe that today, when the multiplicity of affairs that engage our attention is so great, there is the need, nor is it even desirable, to spend our time each year debating the Hospital's affairs.

I should like the hon. Gentleman to confirm that safeguards still remain, because it is important that Parliament should not give up what control it has without them. As he will still be required to place a copy of the Accounts of the Hospital in the Library I assume that, if there is any question, the Accounts can be examined by the Public Accounts Committee. I believe that the affairs of the Hospital are also his responsibility, and that of the Secretary of State for Defence, so I assume that we will still be able to put down Parliamentary questions on the conduct of the Hospital and of the school, and will also be able to discuss their affairs on the Adjournment if we shall feel it necessary.

It is important that we should still retain the right to question the hon. Gentleman in the exercise of his duties to the school, whose affairs take up most of the time in our annual debates. The Under-Secretary is Chairman of the Committee of Management, on which there ate always two hon. Members. They are, at present, the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson) and myself. I am not quite sure whether their presence is the result of a Statute. If it is, we can be certain that two hon. Members will always be on that Committee. If not, perhaps the hon. Gentleman can assure me that it is the Government's intention to continue this practice. The Members act as a form of watchdog, and if they believe that things are going wrong they can bring the matter to the attention of the House. I am sure that the Under-Secre tary's answers will be satisfactory. If so, we shall do nothing to impede the progress of the Bill.

10.13 a.m.

Commander Harry Pursey (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I am sorry to have to upset the mutual admiration society formed by the two Front Bench spokesmen over the attempted murder at the crossroads of the Greenwich Hospital and the Navy's orphanage Estimates, before the body is sewn up. The Under-Secretary of State said that the two Clauses of the Bill remove anachronisms. That is nonsense, as I shall show later. He also said, and in this he was supported by the hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Humphrey Atkins), that it is a waste of Parliamentary time to debate these Estimates annually. I will give some examples of the results of these debates on the Hospital's pensions and orphanage policy, which is the greatest charity scandal of the century.

At first sight, this Bill, presented on behalf of the Admiralty, appears to be a very tiny, weeny innocent Measure, but it will have serious consequences for the widows and orphans of the Royal Navy and Mercantile Marine because it completes the Admiralty's cloak of secrecy which has been thrown increasingly in the last two decades round our largest and oldest nautical charity and the Navy's orphanage. In future, the House is to be denied its centuries' old right and duty to discuss the annual Estimates of the Greenwich Hospital, with its £4 million capital and £½ million income, the malpractices in the awards of charity pensions to widows and orphans, and the failure to continue to provide free education and maintenance for the sons of poor naval and mercantile marine seamen, particularly orphans, as was the intention nearly three centuries ago.

An important point to make forthwith is that this decision is being made by a Labour Government, which should be on the side of widows and orphans, and largely because of the great Left-wing Socialist reformer, the hon. Member for Huddersfield. East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu). The hon. Gentleman sat for several years as a member of the Board of Governors of the orphanage. In the current Labour Government he has been, first, the Under-Secretary of State responsible for the Hospital and, secondly, Minister for Defence (Royal Navy). As such, he strongly resented any criticism, and became more pro-Admiralty than the admirals.

What is to be the future position of these annual Estimates? Are they to continue to be presented to the House, as are some other Estimates, without the Government providing time for the debate? Will the annual Accounts continue to be examined and reported on by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and dealt with by the Public Accounts Committee, as at present? Are new regulations for the orphanage still to be made by Orders in Council?

Or is an annual report to be presented in the same way as that of the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation? That report is made to Her Majesty the Queen under an Act of Parliament of 1903, and other Acts, and provides much more information than is given by the Greenwich Hospital Estimates and Accounts. The Corporation presents a report not only of the annual general meeting but of Committee meetings and the accounts of its school.

Greenwich Hospital, therefore, is not the only Forces charity which has to present its accounts to this House by Act of Parliament. Why should there not be a more detailed annual report by the Hospital, as there was earlier in this century? I gave notice to the Under-Secretary of State that I would ask these questions, so I hope that we shall have some constructive replies.

The idea that these Estimates should be dealt with, not by the full House but by a Committee—or not at all—has been put forward in recent years mainly by Tory Members but supported by recent successive Labour hon. Members serving on the Board of Governors, the present one being my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson).

What is the reason for the Bill? It cannot be shortage of Parliamentary time, because in recent years the debate has taken only a couple of hours. Last year the debate was on a Friday afternoon, and this year it was on a Monday morning. In some earlier years the Esti- mates have gone through "on the nod". The Admiralty's obvious purpose is completely to stifle all criticism of the award of these charity pensions, and particularly the serious changes in policy for the orphanage in what has become, as I have already said, the greatest charity scandal of the century. In fact, directly the Bill was available it was named "The Pursey Muzzlement Bill".

The cause of the recent criticisms of the orphanage can be put quite shortly. Here was a school, established in 1712, for the free education and maintenance of the sons of poor seamen, preferably orphans, and in the last two decades it has been turned into a fee-paying school for the sons of officers, at the expense of seamen's orphans, who are refused entry at a school especially established for them, and of seamen's widows who have to pay fees.

Probably the most important question today is why these Greenwich Hospital Estimates have been debated in the House for more than a century. It is not because of the 1885 Act mentioned in Clause 2, or even the 1865 Act mentioned in Clause 1. The reason goes back two centuries or more before those dates. I will take simply a few salient landmarks. The Royal Hospital at Greenwich, now the Royal Naval College, was a Royal Palace and founded as a hospital by the Charter of William and Mary in 1694, nearly three centuries ago, in the same way as Chelsea Hospital was founded for the Army and still continues as such.

The first three objects were the relief and support of disabled seamen, the sustenance of widows of seamen and the maintenance and education of the children of seamen happening to be slain or disabled. This obviously meant an orphanage and for this purpose the Royal Hospital School was established 18 years later, in 1712.

There are two main reasons, among other, why the affairs of the hospital and the orphanage have always been the responsibility of Parliament. At various times, Acts have been required for income for the hospital by deduction from the pay of seamen and other provisions and grants from the National Exchequer. The orphanage was regulated by Orders in Council which were laid before the House. In 1695, only a year after the Charter, in consequence of a speech from the King, the Registered Seamen's Act was passed, enacting that 6d. per month should be paid out of the wages of all mariners to the use of the Hospital. That is the reason why the Mercantile Marine is as entitled to all the benefits of Greenwich Hospital and the orphanage as the Royal Navy. This followed the practice of 1588, when a similar contribution was made to the Chatham Chest, later the Greenwich Chest, so that we are here dealing with a nautical charity with a record of nearly 400 years.

In 1714 there was a debate in the House on Greenwich Hospital and early in 1727 there were four debates, including the King's Speech, and debates on the Estimates and Accounts which, under the Bill, are to be abolished after 240 or more years.

To show how secrecy has developed in recent years, I will give illustrations from the regulations of the orphanage and details in the estimates. Even early in the last century, the regulations for the orphanage were published in the Navy List and also in Maxwell's privately printed for sale "The Naval and Military Almanack", yet those regulations are not published today. I have a Navy List for 1836 and the Almanack for 1841. The Navy List also published the Greenwich pensions, but even those are not published today.

The main points of the regulations for the orphanage from the first were concerned with the four classes of orphans to be considered first—those with fathers serving whose families were numerous and in need. A certificate was necessary in all cases, signed by the minister and churchwardens of the parish, stating that the boy is a proper Object for this Charity". These regulations have been completely brushed aside, because today the sons of officers are being entered instead of the sons of poor seamen, preferably orphans.

The Under-Secretary has referred to the Greenwich Hospital Act of 1865 and 1885. I will pass on to matters within my own personal knowledge. I was an orphan and educated at the school at Greenwich, now the National Maritime Museum, between 1903 and 1907. The affairs of Greenwich Hospital, both as regards the pensions and the orphanage, were then an open book. I have a copy of the 1909 "Memorandum on Greenwich Hospital" printed by the Stationery Office and presented to Parliament. This is a 34-page foolscap document which gives full details of estates, investments, capital and income and also of the pensions to officers and widows and education facilities for sons and daughters and, in particular, full details of the regulations of the Royal Hospital School. There is no current document like this Memorandum. Why not?

In 1933, the orphanage was transferred from Greenwich to the new school at Holbrook which, although it cost more than £1 million, has never been completed. Two hostels are still missing and instead of 1,000 boys being accommodated, as at Greenwich, the number is only 695, or only two-thirds of the number which should be there and for which the main buildings were built. This was an important period from the point of view of the House and these Estimates and Accounts which will no longer be subject to public debate.

In 1934 the Committee of Public Accounts passed some caustic remarks in paragraph 19 of its Report headed Expenditure on new school at Holbrook". It commented on the lavish scale of expenditure and the failure to provide accommodation for the full number of boys and said: The drain upon the resources of the Hospital is not without its effect upon public funds". The Committee stated: The Treasury should have been specifically informed … that, in addition to the capital cost of the School, heavy expenditure, amounting to over £23,000 per annum would be involved … and … the contribution to Age Pensions might have to be reduced". In 1935 the Committee of Public Accounts again dealt, in greater detail, with the excessive costs of the school which had exceeded the original amount by nearly £400,000, that is to say, £1,070,000 instead of £700,000, and yet two hostels were and still are missing. The Committee's Report said: Your Committee has come to the conclusion that the conception and carrying out of the plans for the new School were marked by insufficient regard for the effect on the accommodation provided, and on the financial resources of Greenwich Hospital and its other obligations. The Committee also made stringent criticisms of the Admiralty's failure to inform the Treasury of the effect on public funds as regards pensions.

The 1935 Estimates were debated on Friday 19th July of that year. Three hon. Members took part, from both sides of the House, including members of the Public Accounts Committee, and the Conservative Civil Lord of the Admiralty replied. Scathing criticisms were made of the excess expenditure on the new school and the effect on public funds. Yet this is the organisation which the Admiralty and the Under-Secretary of State today ask should have carte blanche to do as it wishes, without public check, with the charitable funds for pensions and the education of the sons of seamen. I shall not develop that point today, but I shall take another occasion when opportunity offers.

In 1944, the last year of the war, the late Sir Herbert Williams, then Conservative Member of Parliament for Croydon, South, and certain of his colleagues made a speciality of dealing with Prayers and similar documents, and they dealt with the Greenwich Hospital Estimates. That was the position in 1945, when I entered the House. I hope that I have established that there was nothing new in the Estimates being debated. In 1945, it was known that there was to be a debate, but it came on at one in the morning and was over in half an hour. I made my maiden speech in that debate, but it took only a few minutes, a mere two and a half columns in HANSARD. Perhaps I have since made up for that brevity.

What was the position at that time as regards the regulations for the school and the Estimates? The regulations for entry of orphans were still published, and the Estimates gave far more details than the current ones do. For example, the salaries of officers and masters were given, and there were even details regarding a gardener and a gardener's boy for the superintendent, later succeeded by the headmaster.

As a result of my speech, the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty, the late Mr. John Dugdale, decided to make changes in the board of governors of the orphanage. These changes included the appointment of two Members of Parliament, one from each side of the House. The first Labour Member was the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was succeeded by the two Members I have previously mentioned. The first Tory member was Sir John Maitland, who did not stand at the last election, and he was succeeded by the hon. Member for Merton and Morden, who is on the Front Bench opposite this morning.

The intention for the Members of Parliament was that they should hold a brief for the widows and orphans. I quote from the speech of the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty on 29th November, 1945: My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Hull (Commander Pursey) talked about the school being 'posh'. It is a very good expression. That is one of the troubles we have been faced with recently at the Admiralty. There has been a tendency, as there would be at any school, to step up the education to greater and greater heights, and the greater the heights the harder it is for boys who may not be quite so intelligent to get in. It is not every child of every seaman who reaches the highest level of intelligence. Many of them do, but not all. If one sets a very high level of entry, it may well be that some may be excluded. The Admiralty are now trying to see whether means can be found by which the school can be kept at a level at which all the sons of seamen who are qualified to go to it can in fact go. We do not want to see public funds originally set aside for the benefit of the sons of seamen being used to set up a `posh' secondary school to-which anyone can go. That would be a misuse of public funds. Therefore, we want to see that the standard is kept at such a level that it will both deal with the boys who are meant to be dealt with and will at the same time provide an adequate training for men who are going into the Royal Navy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th November, 1945: Vol. 416, c. 1724.] If I may say so, I could not have stated it better myself.

What the Financial Secretary and, presumably, the Admiralty then wished to avoid is exactly what has happened. I summarise it in this way. There has been a misuse of public funds. Hence, the reason for my criticisms and those of other hon. Members over the last 22 years. The appointment of the two Members of Parliament was one of the worst things that could have happened for this orphanage. As so often occurs —"Put the critics on the board, and that will muzzle them". The Members of Parliament, instead of being on the side of the widows and orphans, became more pro-Admiralty than the Admiralty and supported the "establishment".

Two disastrous decisions were made which have rightly caused critical discussion on the Estimates. In 1949, the Admiralty decided—one of the Members of Parliament was responsible for the idea—to enter commissioned officers' sons at the expense of ratings' sons, and since then over 500 ratings' sons and orphans who would otherwise have been entered have been denied admission to the orphanage.

In 1957, only 10 years ago, a second and more serious breach was made in the regulations. A decision was made, again with the support of the Members of Parliament, to charge fees because of the lavish expenditure on the orphanage, and this after free maintenance and education had been provided for over two centuries. The result can be briefly stated. Senior officers with £3,000 a year salary and with their fees reimbursed from the naval education fund pay nothing from their own pockets. A seaman's widow, on the other hand, with a bare £4 a week pension, has to go out to work and pay fees for her orphan son to be educated at the Navy's orphanage. The Under-Secretary of State cannot and does not attempt to deny this charge. [Interruption.] If he wishes to, I shall give way. Let us have no muttering under the breath. Let us put all our cards on the table. I am stating the facts. This is my argument against the veil of secrecy which is now being made more thick.

The Under-Secretary of State cannot and does not deny that charge. He argues that each widow's case is dealt with compassionately and there is no hardship. What utter rubbish. Obviously, it is a hardship for any seaman's widow to have to go out to work and employ another woman to look after her younger children in order to pay fees for her orphan son to be educated at the Navy's orphanage. No one will deny that argument or convince me that it is not 100 per cent. correct. In other words, the whole thing is a complete charitable racket.

These charitable scandals are legitimate cause for drastic criticism of the Estimates. It has been said that I make the same speech every year. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Is it not marvellous what support I get from the Front Bench at the wrong moment? But that is nonsense. So let us have no misunderstanding about it. Obviously, the speech has had to be based on the Estimates, the number of boys and their fathers, the number of orphans, the fees paid and so on. But I have contested the speeches of the Minister and the Front Bench Opposition speaker and developed different arguments from time to time. As long as the fact remains that a seaman's widow must go out to work to pay for the education of her son at this orphanage I shall go on repeating it at every opportunity, both in the House and outside.

There is no method of defeating this Bill, but it will be interesting to hear other speeches on it today. I shall not name individual Members, but I am surprised that certain other hon. Members, particularly Opposition hon. Members who have taken part in the debates on the Estimates over the years, are not present today to support me in my protest. I assure the Admiralty that it has made a false step, because instead of muzzling criticism the Bill will provoke it.

The Admiralty is the trustee of Greenwich Hospital, and will still be liable to answer Questions. I have not asked Questions on the subject for a year, but I shall start doing so again and so keep the pot of criticism boiling. The subject may well be considered suitable for an occasional Adjournment debate, as the hon. Member for Merton and Morden said. With ingenuity, a great deal can be said in 15 minutes. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] More support from the Front Bench at the wrong moment. But it is nice to know that at least my hon. Friends there are listening to what is going on. Whether they will take it in or it will make any impact on them remains to be seen, because I doubt whether a diamond drill would make any impact on them.

There will also be an opportunity for debate on the Navy Estimates. Hitherto, debate on the Greenwich Hospital Estimates would have been out of order, because there was a separate opportunity for debate. That will not now be so, and it will not require much ingenuity to be in order in discussing matters for which the Admiralty is responsible.

This is a sad day for the widows and orphans. It is sad that future debates on the Estimates on their behalf are to be denied to hon. Members. It is an even sadder day for me after 60 years' knowledge of the hospital and orphanage and the Estimates. It is especially sad that this foul blow has been struck by a Labour Government and that the names of four Labour Ministers who should have known better are on the Bill. Once again a charity for poor boys has been exploited for boys who are much better off. Nevertheless, I shall go on fighting this nautical charity scandal as long as I can on behalf of the seamen's widows and orphans, naval and mercantile marine, with no punches barred.

10.44 a.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacPherson (Stirling and Falkirk Burghs)

I sympathise with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey) in one respect. Although, as far as I know, few hon. Members who have heard his annual speeches on the subject sympathise very much with his argument, he has shown admirable persistence and continuing interest in the school. We must have some admiration for him for that. But his arguments are without foundation. I believe that it is impossible that a widow living on £4 a week pension is being charged fees. I do not imagine that there is a widow in the country who is living on £4 a week pension, let alone being charged fees.

My hon. and gallant Friend knows that in arguments of this sort the thing to do is not to put up a general case about widows living on £4 a week, but particular cases about Mrs. So-and-So who is in such and such circumstances, and see what is said about them. No charge of this sort concerning the school has ever been sustained in a particular case. All of us who are connected with the school would be thoroughly ashamed if it was.

The school's problems are considerable. It is not an average sort of school; it is not the sort of school that is set up by a local education authority and which roughly follows the same pattern as others. When my hon. and gallant Friend raises the question of charging fees at all, he raises a thorny and diffi- cult matter. He might well put up a general argument against charging fees in a school of this sort, rather than saying that fees are charged in cases where widows and other parents cannot pay them. This is a difficult problem, but in the matter of fee-paying we are in what might be called a mixed economy. Even a Labour Government does not condemn fee-paying everywhere. There may be arguments in favour of it here and there. In my recollection, my hon. and gallant Friend has not taken up this argument, but it is a question that affects the management of the school seriously and would repay a good deal of discussion.

I must apologise because I missed a little of my hon. and gallant Friend's speech. I had to reply to an urgent telephone message and therefore I am not sure what he said in the earlier part of his speech. When I returned, he seemed to be talking about the school buildings. If so, he was on to a striking subject. They were built in the 1930s and are thoroughly unsuitable today. They were built with no proper sense of proportion, financial or otherwise, and it is easy to condemn the buildings and physical apparatus of a school of this sort. But none of us here is responsible; it happened in a different generation. Many things happened in the 1930s that many of us would heartily disapprove of. If the school were built today I would hope that the buildings would follow a very different pattern. But this is not a practical and immediate question.

One thing said by my hon. and gallant Friend should be contested. He suggested that putting two hon. Members on the Committee of Management was putting critics on the Board to muzzle them. That is not so. The hon. Members on the Board are not necessarily essentially critics. They might or might not be very complacent about what goes on at the school; they might or might not be critically minded. Putting them on the Board will not muzzle them. They can still speak in the House as much as they want. The hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Humphrey Atkins) made the point that whenever it becomes necessary he or I can bring matters to the attention of the House. Any hon. Member can raise any question that seems worth raising on the Floor of the House. The critics are not being muzzled or anything like it.

After spending such a comparatively long time on my hon. and gallant Friend in a short debate, I should now say that I support the statement of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate. The Bill is desirable and necessary. The saving of Parliamentary time is not to be disregarded, but I do not think that any of us would regard this as a crucial argument. We do not want to save Parliamentary time on something which it is well worth debating. But we do not want to single out one school in the whole country and debate its affairs in the forum of Parliament. It is not good for the school. What we should debate are the public issues concerned with the policy of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, rather than the school.

If school issues arise, the last place that they should be discussed is in an open public forum. They should be discussed either in the Board of Management or among parents or staff. They should not be discussed in a place of this sort, when an annual debate serves no valuable purpose at all, to the school or nation. We are accustomed to discussing education and groups of schools. This is good, but to single out an individual school and discuss its affairs, even once, let alone annually in this forum is not commonsense.

It contributes to the continuance of the very idea which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East uses as the basis of his argument—that this is not a school but an institution. This is what the members of the Board and, I hope, hon. Members would feel is wrong. It was at one time an institution. It should now cease to be in any respect an institution and should become simply a school, doing the best that it can for the youngsters whom it is educating.

As usual, I am in disagreement with my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Bill will go through with no difficulty. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State upon bringing it in.

10.50 a.m.

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

The detailed interest in this subject of the hon. and gallant Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey) is well known, and he has shown it over a number of years. This should not blind us to the fact that three important principles are raised in this Bill. The first, in Clause 1, is the subject of Treasury control. I am delighted to see that Treasury control has been curtailed, but it has not been curtailed sufficiently. Those of us with experience of office know how niggling the Treasury can be about little matters and how sometimes its criticism seems to fall short when really large sums are involved.

I do not see why the Secretary of State for Defence cannot be trusted to get right advisers for the investment of these funds and for the purchase of land. If I were contemplating buying land or a farm, the last people from whom I should want private advice would be the Treasury. The farmers of the Treasury have absolutely no qualifications whatever for offering advice and I doubt very much whether they would even put me on to the right valuers.

There is too much of this "grand-mamma" stuff about the Treasury, and I am very sorry that the opportunity has not been taken to throw off the shackles of the Treasury a little more. The second point has to do with Parliamentary time. The Under-Secretary of State referred to this a good deal. It is true that we are short of Parliamentary time, and this is a fairly small matter to debate, even at the times when it arises.

At the same time the hon. Member had a good point when he said that this is one of the few occasions when we can talk about those who have served their country well in the Armed Forces. There has been a tendency to reduce the number of occasions on which hon. Members can raise matters of this kind. It is all very fine to say that we can raise anything we like on Adjournment debates, but very often that is not the best way of criticising the actions of the Executive.

We all know that often very little attention is paid to what is said in Adjournment debates. The third point deals with Parliamentary control of the Armed Services and the Executive. There are many of us who believe that the Executive is getting more and more powerful and that it is getting harder and harder for hon. Members on either side of the House to obtain explanations about the actions of the Executive.

It is a pity to continue this, and to relax this control further. I can remember, when I had the honour of serving at the Admiralty as a Minister, a party of German Members of Parliament having a long talk with me, and studying how it was that Parliamentary control over the Armed Forces was exercised so successfully, compared with overseas democracies. We have to think very carefully before relaxing that kind of control. There is a tendency for the present Government to downgrade the Services, to speak less of them in this House.

Mr. Foley


Mr. Digby

I am sure that the hon. Member is an excellent representative of the Navy; he is a very fine man. But he is only Under-Secretary of State and the Minister now responsible for one of the great Armed Services, the Navy, whereas the Army was represented by the Secretary of State and the Navy by the First Lord of the Admiralty. He had a very high precedence, particularly if he took along with him to a meeting one or two members of the Board.

We have to think twice about whittling away the occasions when we can discuss in this House the actions of the Executive over the Armed Services in particular, which are very big money spenders. I realise that this is a reasonable Bill, but we have to be careful about Parliamentary control, which is above all control of expenditure. We must watch the Executive, even when it is passing fairly innocuous Measures like this.

10.57 a.m.

Mr. William Hamling (Woolwich, West)

I apologise to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey), and to hon. Gentlemen opposite for not being in my place at the beginning of this debate.

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman would speak up, it would help the reporters.

Mr. Hamling

I normally speak rather too loudly. I do not wish to follow the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) in his excursions into the general questions of Treasury and Parliamentary control, beyond saying that I do not accept that this Government have downgraded the Services. As he knows, and he has been here longer than I, this process of amalgamating the Services, co-ordinating administration, has been going on for a very long time and I do not regard this Bill as an example of it.

I do agree with him in what he has said about the saving of Parliamentary time and the discussion, even for part of a day, of the administration of one school. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson) pointed out that this is a school and not an institution.

It seems a little unusual that out of all the boarding schools in the country to which the sons and daughters of men in the Services go, this school should be singled out for special attention. There is a school in my constituency with boarding facilities for the sons and daughters of serving men. Why should not that have a special occasion for debate? We may ask why this particular school is to be exempt from Treasury control. Every other school is subject not only to Treasury control but to control of all sorts of other institutions and local authorities. One cannot complain too much about that.

It is a pity that the "Pursey Benefit" has to go. It is rather like the passing of ancient institutions and ancient traditions and the destruction of old monuments that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East should be deprived in this way of this annual exercise into the Greenwich Hospital and Travers Foundation. It is a Parliamentary tradition which will be long remembered and which will be mourned today—although perhaps not mourned too much.

When I first saw the Bill I thought that the purpose was to silence my hon. and gallant Friend, until he himself admitted that he will take every opportunity in the debate annually of the Navy Estimates to do what he has been doing every year since Adam was a lad. I would, however, remind him that the Navy Estimates may go, too, and that we may be left not with the Navy Estimates but with the Service Estimates.

There is a very serious point in all these matters, and it is the fact that what was once a charity is now a school. As with so many other charitable institutions which began for one purpose, that purpose no longer exists. It may well be that the original purpose no longer meets the present situation, but a Labour Government ought very seriously to consider how long we can persist, in public education, in advocating one policy while in one particular part of it, notably this school, we are pursuing another policy. I refer to the payment of public fees in order to support and assist and—what is the word?—the word is "subsidise"; it is used on the other side of the House quite often. That is the word that I wanted. Public fees are being used to subsidise the education of people who are well able to pay for education.

It is rather strange that a Labour Government should be persisting in spending a lot of money in the payment of fees to a boarding school for middle-class people who send their children there. If we are to do it in respect of one school, why not in respect of all others? It calls into question very seriously the educational policy of the Government. I am surprised that we have no representative of the Department of Education and Science on the Front Bench to deal with this question, especially bearing in mind that we have been told time and time again that this is no longer an institution but a school.

Secondly, how far can we go on running a school like this with two types of student—with students from different social classes, and still with the orphan children there? It would be interesting to know exactly what is the proportion in the school of orphan children compared with 20 or 30 years ago and compared with the number of sons and daughters of more endowed families, materially and financially. I wonder whether at some stage in the operation there might not be a preference in favour of one against the other. I wonder whether we can get the mixing of social classes in the school which we might feel to be socially desirable but which might not be so easy to achieve. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—if he seeks permission to reply to the debate—can satisfy us that, in practice, this works well.

It is a very serious point when we have a charitable foundation founded for one purpose, and then circumstances change and there may well be a change in direction, and ultimately a situation in which the original purpose of the foundation is lost altogether and the charity is taken over by the Establishment for their own children and the type of children for whom the foundation was established are no longer to be found in that institution.

11.5 a.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I do not wish to detain the House for long but certain points must arise from a debate on the past and future of this foundation. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson) said that this is no longer an institution but a school. That may well be so, but we cannot talk about the school without considering its traditions and the way in which it had its origin.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey) gave us a history of the origin and organisation of the school and we are entitled to know certain facts and figures about the school. Its past must be of concern to all of us, remembering the debt we owe to members of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Marine, for whom the school was established. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) that the present Government have not denigrated the Armed Services. They have brought dignity into the lives of Servicemen, who have been treated more humanely than under any other Administration. For this we can justly take credit.

What are the percentages in the school of children of serving or ex-officers, of children of widows, of orphans, of children of ratings and non-commissioned ranks, and how many children in the school have serving other-rank fathers? Why has not more use been made of the school for children of widows and orphans from the Merchant Marine? The school is available for pupils whose parents were in the Merchant Marine, and althougth there is a splendid institution in my constituency which serves many such people on the East Coast— fishermen and sailors, for example—the Greenwich Hospital Foundation nevertheless existed to help the sons of those in the Merchant Marine. We are entitled to know what will happen to them, because, as my hon. Friends have said, there seems almost to be a take-over bid by the Establishment. That may not be the case, but the evidence and the debate have suggested it, and we should be given either a categorical denial or an explanation by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

This is an important debate. Anybody who knows my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East as well as I do will also know that, whether the Bill is passed—as I am sure it will be—or not, it certainly will not be a "Pursey Muzzlement Bill," because, unlike many hon. Members, he knows how to use the rules of the House to get his point of view across on as many occasions as he wishes. It is regrettable that some people should fail to appreciate not only the great interest but also the great concern of my hon. and gallant Friend in this school. He is a distinguished old boy of the school and reflects great credit upon it. Perhaps many other schools would be far better if their old boys paid as much attention and concern to the future of their schools, once they have left, as he has paid in this case.

11.10 a.m.

Mr. Foley

With the permission of the House, I speak again to reply to points which have been raised in this debate. The principal ones were covered in a debate less than a month ago. On the questions which seem to imply that the character of the school is being changed or that the change is being accelerated and there is a take-over bid by officers and wealthy people, I ask hon. Members to look at the statistics which I gave nearly a month ago showing who gets into the school and who does not.

Questions were asked by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey) about the Merchant Navy. The school is open to children of Merchant Navy personnel. Priority is given to orphans of Merchant Navy personnel and Royal Navy personnel. If there are hints that this is not so, the onus is on the person concerned to substantiate his allegations. This has been said time and again since 1945. I have taken the trouble to read the debates from then onwards.

My hon. and gallant Friend has participated in all those debates. I would not go so far as to say that he monopolised them, but there was a measure of consistency in all his speeches which I associate with the greatest inaccuracies. It is unhelpful to use language and nuances which can be seen as mischievous and selective quotations suggesting a gross misuse of funds and so on without a shred of evidence to substantiate them. He made selective use of quotations from the Estimates in 1935. We have had these debates since then and the Select Committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General reported in 1963. There was no suggestion or hint that there was anything wrong or any misuse of funds.

The first main purpose for producing these amendments is to regularise the existing situation. Everyone likes to have a dig at the Treasury. The hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) has done so and others have joned him. This is an occasion on which the Treasury has been sensible enough to realise that this advisory body could manage affairs better than the Treasury. The amendment is framed in such a way that while the Treasury will have the ultimate view if need be, we can get on with the day-to-day transactions which we have been doing highly successfully since 1962.

The second amendment is more fundamental. The 1885 Act included a reference to an annual Parliamentary debate. At that time most of the funds of the charitable foundation were going to the dependents of Servicemen in terms of welfare support. In moving the Second Reading, I suggested that in this day and age we have to look at things as they are. At the time of the 1885 Act there was no Welfare State. It was therefore important in reflecting concern for those who had served the country well that there should be this debate on the distribution of welfare funds. Today the situation is quite different.

Today £25 million is voted annually for the benefits for sailors and their dependents. Under the fund we are discussing part of the total income of £½ million a year is devoted to pensions. We are looking at this Act and the suggested amendments in relation to the realities of today, not those of 1885, nor of 1903 when my hon. and gallant Friend was at this school. It is interesting to look back and see that the cost per boy for food, clothing and education was £26 per annum. Today it is £464. There is a great difference. The school opened for 1,000 boys. At that time there was no question of having an expanding sixth form and taking boys up to 18 and 19. It is well to understand that provision for sleeping accommodation and so on for little boys is different from that required for older boys.

I should like to deal with the major comments made on the two Amendments. I refuse to take up the innuendos and nuances of my hon. and gallant Friend. On every conceivable occasion when the annual debate has taken place he has been invited by the Minister responsible to give facts and to substantiate his allegations. I said this less than a month ago and I am still waiting for a single fact or a single case to come from him. In the absence of facts, one is led to the conclusion, without questioning his sincerity, that he is obsessed with this matter. He has repeated the statement time and again and he believes it, but no one else in the House does and he cannot substantiate it.

Commander Pursey

That is a serious challenge which has been made over and over again, and it is absolute nonsense. Every one of the cases I have quoted in this House, including that of the widow who was getting only £4 a week, I have sent to the Minister at the time. Every time the reply has come back to me that the woman is earning a certain amount of money and, because of that, she is outside the limit for free education for her child. Let us nail that nonsense to the mast once and for all. There is no question of any obsession. All the facts and figures I have used have been given in answer to Parliamentary Questions provided by the Department. Every one of the cases I have quoted has been given with the names of the individuals concerned. Correspondence has come back and the Minister has refused to budge.

There was even the case of one woman with three young children. Obviously in debates we do not indicate the area concerned in such a case because of the Press, and certainly do not give the names of the individuals. Once and for all it should be realised that the argument that I am obsessed, that I have bees in my bonnet and never produce the facts, is absolute nonsense.

Mr. Foley

My hon. and gallant Friend may say that, but I repeat that in the debate on the Estimates last November the then Minister for the Royal Navy, who is now Minister of State, Board of Trade, said that he had written to my hon. and gallant Friend five times and had no reply in relation to these allegations. I have been occupying my present chair since early in January and I have not had a single letter from my hon. and gallant Friend, or from any hon. Member, raising questions of abuse in terms of entrance or funds relating to this charity.

A month ago, when my hon. and gallant Friend made the same speech as he has made today, I invited him to substantiate the charges but to this date I have had absolutely nothing from him. I am willing, as my predecessor was, to investigate any facts brought forward and to look at what might seem to be an abuse. So far—I can speak only for my term of office—I have had absolutely nothing. The House can draw its own conclusions from that.

A reference has been made to what this change will mean in terms of any further annual debate. The hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Humphrey Atkins) raised this question, as did some other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) wrote to me posing two questions in advance of those which he has raised today. It may be helpful to deal with this in as clear a way as possible to indicate to the House what we are relinquishing and what we are retaining. He referred to the possibilities of an annual report on the lines of the report submitted to Her Majesty the Queen by the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation. This has been asked for on a number of occasions. The parallel which has been instanced of the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation, when explored, is immediatley seen to be different.

As the House will know, by virtue of my office I am the Chairman of the Management Committee and any questions about the running of the school, or the administration of the pensions, can be addressed to me. The House will also be aware that there is a nominated Member from each of the two major parties in the House serving on the Management Committee. This situation is quite different from that of the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation.

From what I have said hon. Members will appreciate that there is no question of secrecy. So long as I retain my present position, I will continue to answer in the House any Questions about this subject. The major parties will continue to be represented on the Management Committee and to provide an independent means of interpreting the feelings of hon. Members to that committee and communicating with the House. The Accounts will be published by Statute and in addition I will make sure that the current estimates are put in the Library for the information of hon. Members. There is no question or hint of secrecy. Hon. Members can ask Questions at any stage, or visit the school, or initiate Adjournment debates and be fully satisfied if they have any anxieties or queries.

I was asked whether the Order in Council procedure would continue for alterations in the administration. I want to make it clear that nothing proposed in the Bill in any way alters the legal obligation of the Secretary of State to obtain the approval of Her Majesty in Council to regulations established from time to time under the Greenwich Hospital Act. There is no question of any behind-the-scenes operations to change the nature of the administration of the Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) asked about payments from public funds and about the education policy of the school. In a sense, it can be said that all the money of Greenwich Hospital is public money, but none of it is voted by us on the occasion of these annual estimates. In our Estimates and Accounts we show that we get a form of direct grant for the school, that is to say, £4 per head. This must be voted, along with all the other money for education, and it comes in the Education Estimates. In addition each year we receive about £4,000 out of the Consolidated Fund in lieu of the merchant seamen's sixpences. This has its origins in antiquity. These are sums voted by the House and are not on the estimates which we are now discussing. They provide further fields for exploration, for those who wish it, into the nature and functioning of Greenwich Hospital.

If my hon. Friend reads the debate of just over a month ago, he will see that the education policy of the school was then covered. He will be aware that the Management Committee includes a number of eminent educationists who devote a great deal of time to it. Clearly, if there are grounds for anxiety, he knows better than I do the remedies and the ways in which he can elicit information.

I think that I have answered all the questions and I hope that the House wilt now agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Harper.]

Committee Tomorrow.