HC Deb 16 February 1970 vol 796 cc169-80

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

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)

I welcome the opportunity to raise on the Motion for the Adjournment tonight the subject of the blasting of Beaucette Quarry by the Army. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army is here to assist the House in this matter.

Beaucette Quarry is in Guernsey. Men of the Royal Engineers blasted rocks there to facilitate the construction of a yachting marina for a private enterprise company, Vale Investments Ltd. Work costing at least £32,910 has been done for the company, of which the taxpayers have recovered only £3,300. There is a strong presumption, which I hope my hon. Friend will be able to rebut, that the Army has been used as cheap—indeed, free—labour by a private enterprise company to construct a haven for rich men's yachts.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West) rose——

Mr. Roebuck

I cannot give way.

Mr. Cooke rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member does not give way, he does not give way.

Mr. Roebuck

Two principal——

Mr. Cooke rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) must contain himself.

Mr. Roebuck

Two principal matters arise out of this operation on which I seek further assurance. First, was this appropriate work for the Army? Secondly, was it carried out efficiently.

Was this appropriate work for the Army? The House will recall that in 1968 the Ministry of Defence published a pamphlet for the guidance of civil authorities and organisations called "Military Aid to the Civil Community." This drew attention to the large number of ways in which the Services could help the civil community other than those given in the case of emergencies such as floods, the sinking of the "Torrey Canyon ", when oil threatened to spoil the coast, and the high winds that destroyed homes in Glasgow.

In the foreword to that pamphlet, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said: …there are many areas where the training requirements and skills of a military unit can be harnessed to do a particular task which the community as a whole would like undertaken. I am sure that there will be many such instances where the Services, by co-operation with civil organisations, will be able to help not only the local community, but also the country as a whole. That foreword is dated December, 1968. It is true that the arrangements for the blasting of Beaucette Quarry were made before it was written, but this need not affect our consideration of the matter, because on page 1 the pamphlet says: The aim of this publication is not to change the administrative arrangements which have worked very well in the past, but to draw together in one pamphlet all the various aspects of service assistance to the community to show what the Services may be able to do, and to indicate how aid can be sought. It is clear, therefore that the principles laid down in the pamphlet are of long standing and must have been applicable when the Ministry of Defence agreed to undertake this task. The pamphlet refers to the help the services are qualified to give to the civil authorities, the point undoubtedly being that as the civil community maintains the Services by taxation it is entitled to receive every possible return in addition to the paramount one of protection from enemies of the realm.

A significant point here is that the people of Guernsey do not contribute a brass farthing to the upkeep of the Services, although many of them are very rich. Indeed, Guernsey is not part of the United Kingdom; it is a Crown dependency which has a special relationship with the United Kingdom because of its proximity and the antiquity of its connection with the Crown. Many of its people are extremely rich, and it is my contention that any work there by agencies sustained by the United Kingdom taxpayer—save possibly acts of mercy carried out at times of emergency —should be paid for in full.

The people of Guernsey are taxed at only 4s. in the £, cigarettes cost 2s. 2d. for 20, whisky is 32s. 6d. a bottle and premium petrol 3s. 4d. a gallon. I can see no reason why my constituents are required to dip into their pockets to assist the civil population of Guernsey.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Mine, too.

Mr. Roebuck

I am obliged to my hon. Friend.

If that point is acceptable to the House as being a fair one, then my next is overwhelming, because the work under discussion was not even done for a civil authority, but for a private enterprise company. This work, even if it had been undertaken in the United Kingdom, would appear to conflict with paragraph 6c of the pamphlet, which says, in part: Work will, save in exceptional circumstances, be undertaken only for public authorities or for organisations which are non-profit-making.… I invite my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to dilate upon what the Ministry conceives to be exceptional circumstances in this case. It has been maintained in correspondence that the sort of training that resulted from the blasting of this quarry could not be obtained elsewhere. Why not? Is it my hon. Friend's contention that there is nowhere in the United Kingdom, or the Commonwealth, or the under-developed world, where training of equal value could not be obtained which would have produced greater social value than the blasting of these rocks to provide a playground for rich men? I also invite my hon. Friend to tell the House how this project came to be put to the Ministry of Defence. Who came to the Department with the proposal? Who encouraged it within the Department?

I now turn to the question whether the work was carried out efficiently. There can be little doubt that it was not. The Ministry of Defence's estimate for the work, excluding pay and allowances, was £2,300, but the actual cost, excluding pay and allowances, was £5,910—an astonishingly high under-estimate.

How did this come about? I sought an answer from my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration, and he told me in a letter dated 10th November last: The miscalculation arose from a number of factors. Rock drilling posed larger prob- lems than had been foreseen. Tidal interference with the work was greater than expected, and the weather played an unwelcome part when a gale swept some 600 tons of excavated rock back into the workings in August 1968. All of these factors led to delay which, in turn, proved costly. Although projects such as this one are difficult to assess beforehand there is no doubt that the original estimate should have been much nearer the mark. Instructions in these matters have, therefore, been tightened to guard against a recurrence. Perhaps this is a case of the military maxim Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted having been overlooked in the Department. Can my hon. Friend give a more detailed explanation of the colossal underestimate? Can he also say in what way the instructions have been tightened?

I now turn to the question of the financial arrangements. The Department has maintained that this private enterprise company was not asked to pay the £27,000 in pay and allowances of the officers and men employed on this task of making Beaucette Quarry a haven for rich men's yachts because it was worthwhile training. I have already asked my hon. Friend to show why such training could not be obtained elsewhere. Even if he can, is that any reason for these rich yachtsmen to have free the services of highly-trained Royal Engineers? I think not.

The Ministry pamplet to which I referred is specific on this point. It says, in paragraph 6c, on page 4: Servicemen must not be used as a form of cheap labour… Can there be any doubt that, so far as Vale Investments Limited is concerned, the company received, at no cost at all, the services of craftsmen who would be very expensive indeed on the open market?

As I say, the pay and allowances of the officers and men was £27,000. But is this the full total of the expenses involved? What about their accommodation, transportation and use of equipment? Can my hon. Friend put a figure on those items? Can he also say how many officers and men were employed on the project, and for what period?

I turn back to the under-estimate of cost, other than pay and allowances accommodation and transport, and the use of equipment. The estimate was for £2,300 and the final cost was £5,910. The House will recall that on 28th November last I asked my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration on what date he began discussions with the company about a settlement. He replied: The discussions began on 31st January, 1969. We expect them to conclude within the next few weeks".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November, 1969; Vol. 792, c. 159.] I pressed the matter in a further Question on 19th December last, when my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for Administration said, in part: I will write to the hon. Member when the matter has been settled".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th December, 1969; Vol. 793, c. 431.] Then there was silence, until notice of this Adjournment debate appeared on the Order Paper.

My hon. Friend the Minister then wrote to me, on 12th February, saying: As you know, the final costs were assessed at £5.910. The company's contractual obligation has been accepted at about £2,300. In subsequent discussions we have been offered an additional £1,000. We have decided to accept this offer and settle for payment of £3,300. The letter continued: In one sense we shall be £2,610 out of pocket on this project and, as I indicated in my letter to you of 10th November, 1969, we have learnt a lesson in this respect. In another sense, the Royal Engineers have gained valuable experience and the community at large has benefited. There are some points in that letter which require clarification. The first is why did it take a year to reach a settlement? This seems a very long time. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Minister speaks of a "contractual obligation". Was there, in fact, a contract as distinct from an agreement? If so, who was the offeror and who the offeree? How has it been found possible to modify the terms of the contract?

Thirdly, how has the "community at large" benefited? For example, have the taxpayers of my constituency of Harrow, East benefited? It would appear to me, subject to what my hon. Friend says in reply, that the only people who really benefited are those persons associated with Vale Investments Limited. They have benefited to the tune of at least £30,000 at the expense of the taxpayers of the United Kingdom. I ask my hon. Friend to tell the House what the taxpayers have got out of this operation.

Several Hon. Members rose——

10.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Ivor Richard)

I regret having to interrupt at this stage, because I know that some other hon. Members would like to speak in this short debate. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) has made a number of strong points and since I have only about 15 minutes in which to reply I trust that hon. Members will forgive me if I rise immediately to answer the debate.

I suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East posed two questions in relation to this whole work. The first, a proper one for the House to consider, is whether it was appropriate work for the Army to carry out; and there are a number of subsidiary questions arising from that. The second is whether or not it was carried out efficiently, and it might assist the House if I sketched in some of the background to this project.

The first point I wish to impress on my hon. Friend is that the work that was undertaken at Beaucette Quarry stemmed from the arrangement, to which my hon. Friend referred briefly, whereby units of the Royal Engineers may do work for the civil community, provided—and I stress the word "provided"—that it offers sufficiently valuable training and provided, also, that it does not offend trade unions or employers associations by appearing to displace civil firms. Costs must be recovered, but they may be related, as they almost invariably are, to the training value of the work.

Early in 1968 plans were laid for Royal Engineers from the Third Division to carry out a period of training in Jersey and Guernsey working on a variety of tasks to benefit the local community. It is important for the hon. Gentleman to notice, when casting some of the strictures he did cast, that the tasks that were carried out by the Royal Engineers in the Channel Islands in 1968 were not confined to this particular task at Beaucette Quarry, although it is true to say that all but one of them were sponsored by local authorities and that the only one not so sponsored was that at Beaucette Quarry, which was sponsored by a commercial firm, Vale Investments Limited.

It is, perhaps, important, too, that we should have some idea of what the work entailed. This firm offered the Royal Engineers the task of blasting a channel to connect the disused quarry to the sea. Subsequently, after the connection had been made, the rock had been blasted and the channel thereby created, it is perfectly true that Vale Investments Limited converted what used to be a quarry into a yacht marina, and that this was supposed to happen towards the end of 1968.

What my hon. Friend did not pay sufficient regard to is the fact that the project which was offered to the Royal Engineers in this work at Beaucette Quarry offered first-class training in quarry and rock blasting. In addition, I am told that the rock to be blasted was hard granite and that, therefore, the work itself was considered to be unique. I use the word "unique" quite deliberately. When the offer was made, it was considered to present a unique opportunity for engineers to engage in this form of task.

The offer in this instance followed the normal form in this type of project; namely, the Royal Engineers and the Army do not go round looking for work to do on behalf of the civil community. A project may or may not be put up by a local authority or, as in this case, by a private company or a private individual. It is then for the Army to consider whether that work falls within the normal rules which are applied when considering aid to the civil community.

In this case, because of the nature of the work that was proposed and of the unique quality of the training it appeared to offer, it was an opportunity which, I say quite frankly, the Royal Engineers were anxious to have. It was a project which we regarded—and, I think, rightly —as one which was highly desirable from the point of view of training.

The next stage was that a reconnaissance was carried out. It is true, as my hon. Friend says, that the initial estimate of the cost of these works was for a sum of £725 plus the cost of explosives. That estimate was for the employment of one officer and nine men to work for three weeks. Ministry of Defence approval for the work was given on 18th June, 1968. Vale Investments Limited accepted the Ministry's estimate, which was £725 plus the cost of explosives provided that the necessary certificates from local trade unions and employers were forthcoming, and also provided that Vale Investments took out an insurance policy to support the required indemnity. This the firm did, the certificates were forthcoming from the trade unions and the employers, and work started at the beginning of July.

Once the work had started, it soon became apparent that the original estimate was extremely optimistic, and that the work would take far longer than had been allowed for. The reasons are, to say the least of it, varied, and because of their technical nature perhaps I can summarise them by saying that the nature of the work which had to be undertaken —namely, the blasting of a channel to connect the quarry with the open sea—could be done, it was originally thought, in a comparatively cheap and easy manner by boring holes through the rock from the top. It was thought that this would loosen the rock, and that the weight of water on both sides, plus the tides, would be sufficient to open the channel. In fact, this did not happen. The work took a great deal longer and was more expensive than had been expected.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

So the Royal Engineers learned something.

Mr. Richard

We learned a great deal not only about carrying out this type of work, but about the procedure under which the work should perhaps be undertaken and the contractual arrangements which should be entered into.

By the beginning of October, 1968, it was obvious that the state of the tides would hinder the progress of the work during the winter, and the decision to withdraw the unit was taken on 8th October, when the work had not been completed. When the unit withdrew, no firm undertaking was given that it would return, but Vale Investments was advised that it was its intention to accept the task if possible. A full reconnaissance was carried out in November, 1968, to assess the situation and plan for completion of the task.

About 80 per cent, of the rock was removed in Phase I, and the Royal Engineers advised that the rest could be cleared by a team of two officers and 60 other ranks working from 17th February to 6th June. This estimate allowed for the fact that work on most of the task would be possible for only short periods each tide. Costing on an extra cost basis the whole of the work, the total was £5,910, which was £3,610 more than the sum originally envisaged.

That is the background to the affair, and perhaps I could now deal with the specific points raised. First, should the work have been carried out by the Ministry of Defence for a private contractor? I have in front of me the Defence Council instructions governing the rules under which military aid to the civil community in the United Kingdom should be undertaken. That aid may be briefly divided into three categories. Category A is assistance in emergencies. My hon. Friend quoted the "Torrey Canyon" disaster as an example. Aberfan and the South-East floods are other examples. It would cover assistance during any other major emergency in which such assistance became necessary.

Category B, in which this work falls, covers assistance of a routine, non-emergency nature. I suppose that an example that the House might have in mind is the bridge built in Caernarvon for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, and there is also the more recent one, the construction of a bridge at King's Lynn, where some road works were being carried out. What the rules say——

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Was the explanation why this work was taken on given to the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend by letter before this debate?

Mr. Richard

Some of it was, but I do not think all of it was. In any event, I do not think it is any bad thing that the matter should be aired, for this is the right forum for it. Indeed, I am not ungrateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter.

Rule 21 says: Civilian requests for Category B assistance must meet the following general conditions: (a) The task must be of social value to the community and, normally, be undertaken for a public authority". I stress "must be of social value to the community". In this case the Government thought it was of great social value to Guernsey although it was being carried out for a private company. I also stress "normally"—not exclusively—"be undertaken for a public authority".

The rule goes on somewhat delicately to say: It must not lead to any undesirable publicity, dispute, or criticism. I am not sure that we have complied with that part of the rule.

The second half of the rule says: The task must constitute good military training, the equivalent of which is not readily available within the same cost from Service resources. The third part of the rule says: (c) The task must not conflict with nor limit in any way the commanding officer's first duty of keeping his unit in a state of readiness for war … (d) Before the task is accepted, the civilian authority must certify in writing that it has obtained the agreement of trade unions, employer's associations and other organisations affected. In this case, it was felt that the nature of the work which was to be undertaken provided such valuable training that it was justifiable to undertake it, perhaps outside the normal rules as to undertaking it only for public authorities, and to do it for a private company. I would not say that this was normal, but it is at least acceptable in situations where the training value of the work to be undertaken is exceptionally high. In this case it was.

Secondly, my hon. Friend asked how it came about that the estimate was £725. It must be accepted that that was an under-estimate. I have already said so. It was an under-estimate based, perhaps, on undue optimism on the part of the officer who did the reconnaissance, and—I say this frankly; although this is reprehensible, it is not, perhaps, as culpable as other matters that are aired in the House—I suppose that some explanation of the way in which the estimate came to be put forward by the Ministry of Defence was that the officer concerned who saw the work and carried out the reconnaissance regarded this opportunity to do the work as of such good value for the Royal Engineers that he wanted the work for his unit: he thought it worth doing and he thought its training value rendered it worth while. In fact, the work took much longer than was expected.

My hon. Friend asks what has happened as a result of this case. I can reassure him on a few major points about the procedure. The first is that responsibility for contractual arrangements in matters of this sort no longer rests with the unit. It rests with the command headquarters. This is a far greater check than existed hitherto. Secondly, instructions have been issued that the assessment of costs must be made with the greatest possible accuracy in future. Thirdly, further tightening up measures are in hand. They are designed, for example, to ensure that appropriate technical reconnaissances are carried out by properly qualified officers and that confirmation is received that the necessary equipment is available before any contract is signed in future.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked whether there was a contract. There was, in the opinion of those advising the Ministry, a contract contained in two letters passing between the Army and the firm—one in which the Army said that on the basis of its preliminary reconnaissance it was prepared to carry out the work for £725 plus the cost of the explosives, and, secondly, one in answer to that from the firm accepting it.

My hon. Friend then asked why it has taken so long to get payment. Negotiations for payment started in February, 1969. At that time the work was in abeyance. As my hon. Friend will realise, we withdrew in October, 1968, and came back in again in the spring of 1969 to complete the work. Negotiations took place between the firm and the Ministry. The firm advanced the view in correspondence—it is not for me to say whether morally it should have taken this view—that what it had got was a valid, binding contract between itself and the Ministry; in those circumstances it said that its maximum liability was £2,300. We recovered from the firm £3,300. The reason we did that was that one of the firm's directors paid £1,000 to the Ministry by way of an ex gratia payment out of his own pocket.

My hon. Friend concluded by asking how the community has benefited. How have the taxpayers of Harrow, East, of Brixton or, for that matter, of Barons Court, benefited as a result of this incident? I think that they benefited in three ways. First, I think that as a result the Royal Engineers are rather better at blasting than they were before. My hon. Friend should not underestimate the strength of that argument. It is a difficult technical field in which the work was carried out, and to be offered this type of training in this way in this part of the United Kingdom is desirable. Secondly, I think that we have benefited because this whole incident showed up gaps in the procedural and contractual arrangements under which aid to the civil community projects were undertaken. Thirdly, I think that we may perhaps be said to have benefited because of my hon. Friend's raising of the matter in the House this evening. I hope, by the answer I have given him, that we may perhaps be said to have laid one ghost which I know my hon. Friend has been pursuing for some time.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

The Channel Islanders, who are not represented in this House, have been completely vindicated by what the Minister has said. Obviously the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) was right to raise the matter. I am very glad —and I am sure that I speak for the vast proportion of hon. Members—that the Minister has been able in this short debate to prove that what took place was a valuable piece of training, and that there is nothing wrong in private enterprise sometimes being involved in something to the community's good. I am grateful to the Minister for what he said.

I am sure that the motives of the hon. Member for Harrow, East in raising the matter in the House were nothing but good. If there was any confusion, I am sure that it is now all settled. As for the rich man's playground, I gather that this is sometimes enjoyed by the most humble people, who like to get out of the United Kingdom and away from some of the rigours——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.