HC Deb 29 March 1985 vol 76 cc874-82

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

2.31 pm
Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

The proposed siting of the new defence school of music at Deal in Kent has aroused suspicion and criticism, primarily on the ground that it might involve financial jiggery-pokery. The basic principle underlying the Government's approach to public expenditure is the need to cut out waste and to get value for money. Nobody has been more ruthless in that course than Treasury Ministers, not least the Chief Secretary, the right hon. and learned member for Dover (Mr. Rees), who is also the Member for Deal.

I shall give my interpretation of the facts, and the Minister can correct me if I am wrong. In 1981, a study group was set up in the Ministry of Defence to cut out wasteful military spending. That was at the suggestion of a Mr. Clive Ponting, whose name has cropped up from time to time inside the House and elsewhere.

Ponting turned his eyes to the cost of military bands and their training facilities. He discovered three separate training schools. One was at Kneller Hall near Twickenham. I am glad that the hon. member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) is in the Chamber and I hope that he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was an Army site and was disadvantageous in some respects, not least because of the noise of aeroplanes at Heathrow.

A second site was at the RAF school at Uxbridge, which had a leaking roof; its music rooms were not even soundproofed. The third was at the Marine school at Deal in an almost derelict 19th-century barracks.

After examining the three schools, against violent opposition from all three services, Ponting recommended that the three schools were uneconomic and should be amalgamated. Long delays occurred because of the Falklands war and the 1983 election, but eventually the Ministry of Defence agreed to a single military music training school.

Just before the 1983 election, it was agreed in principle that the school should be situated in an empty barracks at Eastney outside Portsmouth. After the 1983 election, Ponting was asked to write another report on the choice of a site for the school. Three possible sites were listed—Kneller Hall, Eastney and Woolwich, where there were some vacant buildings.

At that point Ministers in the Department agreed that Deal was out of the question on the grounds that it had no married quarters and that they would have to be built, at great cost. That should have impressed Ministers, especially Treasury Ministers who are always looking for ways of cutting public expenditure.

In the event, Woolwich was found to be unsuitable for a variety of reasons. Kneller Hall was ruled out on the grounds that there was no room for extra buildings, and Ponting's report came down on the side of Eastney as the perfect solution. He produced figures to show that it would be £4.5 million cheaper than anywhere else. In addition, he showed that there would be a £2,000 a year saving on running costs compared with the existing system. Thus, Ponting's plan would save significant sums of taxpayers' money.

By now the Chief Secretary to the Treasury should have been jumping with joy at the prospect of saving so much public money. However, there were hurdles still to be jumped. The hon. Member for Twickenham—I have no complaint about the way in which he conducted himself —properly lobbied for the school to be at Kneller Hall, in his constituency. He saw Ministers, but he was a lightweight compared with the heavy batteries that were to pursue Ministers from elsewhere.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement finally approved the Ponting recommendation to site the school at Eastney and all that was needed apparently was the rubber stamp of the Secretary of State for Defence. But the trouble was only just beginning. The Secretary of State sat on the issue for some weeks and then, after the previous inquiries over about two years, decided that he would like to have a defence school of music situated north of Birmingham. I applaud that. There is a good case for having it north of Birmingham, possibly somewhere in the north-east or in Scotland. However, it would cost more to do that.

So Ponting went forth once more and found an empty barracks outside Edinburgh. At that critical point, Ponting was transferred to some other work and at about the same time the Chief Secretary to the Treasury exerted his considerable influence on the defence Ministers to get the new school sited—guess where?—in Deal.

In due course, the Ministry of Defence decided that Edinburgh would be too expensive and that Deal would cost £4 million more than the proposed site recommended by Ponting at Eastney; Eastney would actually show a £2 million profit because the other sites could be sold once that had been accepted.

Treasury Ministers should have been wildly excited by this prospect of making a profit out of the situation. But the Government, and particularly the Ministry of Defence, are nothing if not devious. It was now abundantly clear that the Secretary of State for Defence was being nobbled by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Despite all his previous advice and instructions about sites north of Birmingham, he decided to put the school in Deal.

The formal announcement was sneaked out in the defence White Paper. It was justified on the grounds of efficiency and securing value for money. It was sneaked out in July 1984, only a few days before the House went into recess, under the heading "Central Organisation for Defence". One particular sentence talked about integration, the co-location of catering training at Aldershot and the integration of language training at Beaconsfield. It stated that music training was to be concentrated at a single location. A period of consultation will now begin on plans to establish the new defence school of music at Deal. There was nothing else. No comparative costings were provided. There was a bald statement in one sentence. There was no opportunity for questions to be tabled before the summer recess and there was no possibility of a debate. No mention was made of why the search for a new site had not ended with the cheaper choice of Eastney, which would have saved £4 million. All the parliamentary questions tabled by the hon. Member for Twickenham and others were evaded, avoided or side-stepped, despite the repeated attempts to be supplied with costings.

According to the story that appeared in The Observer on 23 December 1984, at the invitation of the hon. Member for Twickenaham, the Comptroller and Auditor General began asking awkward questions. The Ministry of Defence began a frantic rewriting of the relevant papers. To put it bluntly, it engaged in a frantic cooking of the books or fiddling with the figures to prove that somehow Deal had become more economic than Eastney.

No mention was made of the fact that the cost of modernising the decaying Deal barracks and erecting other buildings would result in a net loss to the taxpayer of £2.5 million. The Observer claimed also that Sir Clive Whitmore, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, took the extraordinary step of asking for a power of directive from the Ministry of Defence, which would have enabled the senior civil servant in the Ministry to say, if he were questioned by the Public Accounts Committee, that the decision to locate the school at Deal was the Minister's choice against the advice of his senior civil servants. Treasury regulations of that kind, which are rarely invoked, enable accounting officers to distance themselves from ministerial decisions if such decisions involve payments which the accounting officer considers would infringe the requirements of propriety or regularity. The clear implication is that the Minister's own permanent secretary considers the Deal siting to be a misuse of public funds.

A report in The Guardian this month states that the Secretary of State for Defence has now ordered his officials to come up with new figures to justify siting the school in Deal and to avoid an embarrassing confrontation with Sir Clive Whitmore and the PAC. Certainly the Ministry of Defence is changing its tune. In July it said that, while other sites appeared cheaper, Deal was chosen for other than financial reasons". It is now reported as saying that it has made a "further investment appraisal" which reportedly shows the Deal site to be "slightly cheaper". However, it refuses to release its costings. It has consistently refused to give the figures on which its assessment is based.

I shall not go into the arguments of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who presented his lobby on the ground of unemployment. If that is the criterion, there is an outstanding case for placing the school at Bawtry near Doncaster, where unemployment rates are very much higher, both short term and long term, than at any of the other proposed sites.

The only consideration that has motivated the Secretary of State for Defence in siting the school at Deal is a rather squalid and indefensible one. The siting of the school in Deal would help the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in his fight to retain his parliamentary seat. The assertion is that the retention of that parliamentary seat for that Cabinet Minister is worth £4 million of taxpayers' money.

The Ministry of Defence has a shameful record of deception, secretiveness and irregularities over the past few years, which has been unmatched by any other Department in recent history. Let me go through the names of the civil servants who have revolted.

Sarah Tisdall was got rid of after leaking documents because she was affronted by the Secretary of State's manipulation of the arrival of cruise missiles. Clive Ponting leaked documents because of the Secretary of State's cover-up over the Belgrano. Cathy Massiter, the MI5 officer, resigned and disclosed that the Secretary of State had set up an inquiry into the activities of CND. Sir Clive Whitmore threatened to report the Secretary of State to the Public Accounts Committee for giving the band school to the constituency of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Finally, the Civil Service Commissioners threatened to resign over the Secretary of State's appointment of Mr. Peter Levene to the Procurement Executive at £95,000 a year.

I have given the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement notice of some questions and I hope that he will answer them. Why was the decision taken to site the school at Deal rather than Eastney, despite all the evidence against such a move? Why does the Minister still refuse to publish all the estimated costs of the establishment of the school at all the possible sites considered? Can he explain what were the other considerations that he mentioned in answer to a question from the hon. Member for Twickenham? Does the Minister deny that his Department was improperly lobbied by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury simply to further his own political interests, with no account being taken of the cost to the taxpayer?

How can the Minister reconcile his pledge in the July White Paper to get better value for money with his decision to site the school at Deal rather than at Eastney? Can he confirm that Sir Clive Whitmore asked to be dissociated from the decision made by the Secretary of State? Will the Minister release to the PAC all the figures that have so far been denied to the House? As a former member of the PAC, I know that, if the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee ask for those figures, the Ministry is bound to give them, unless it pleads grounds of security. I doubt whether figures concerning a school of music could be refused on security grounds.

This is rather a squalid affair. It is proper that it should be aired in the House, and I am sorry that this is not a longer debate.

2.48 pm
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

The Government are well aware of how hotly I have objected throughout to the proposal to remove in 1988 the Royal Military school of music from Kneller Hall in Twickenham and to set up a joint school at Deal or anywhere else.

I have raised the subject in an Adjournment debate, in the Army debate, by putting questions and in four meetings with various Ministers. I remain unconvinced that the proposal will save enough money to justify the upheaval.

If, as we are now told, Deal has become, after all, the cheapest site, I see no compelling reason why the Government should not publish the figures, and I hope that they will do so today or very soon.

2.50 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. John Lee)

I should like first of all, to congratulate the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) on having secured the opportunity to raise this subject today and for his courtesy in giving me an indication of some of the issues he would be raising.

Enormous interest is shown by hon. Members and the public in military bands and the contribution they make to the tone of any ceremonial occasion, whether a solemn affair or a celebration. I welcome this opportunity to pay my own tribute to the bands of the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force. They have a long tradition of musical excellence and a deservedly high international reputation.

The great affection which we all, both within the services and outside, have for our military bandsmen was most recently demonstrated after the tragic accident in Germany in which the lives of 19 RAF bandsmen were lost. I am very pleased to be able to tell the House that the Royal Air Force band in Germany will be back to full strength on 15 April and will resume its complete programme of engagements from 16 April. In the meantime, a special additional engagement took place earlier this month when the band combined with a band from the Royal Artillery to form part of the joint Army-RAF guard of honour for the President of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is a great tribute to the band that so many musicians throughout the service volunteered to take up the places left vacant by this terrible accident.

The effectiveness of our service men, whatever their trade, depends crucially on the training they receive. I believe that the training we provide in our military establishments is amongst the best in the world. We can be justifiably proud of our standards. The service schools of music are no exception. The Royal Marines school of music, Deal, the Royal Military school of music, Kneller Hall and the RAF school of music, Uxbridge, are internationally renowned for the excellence of their training. Our bandsman courses our among the most popular with foreign students.

But training is not exempt from the drive to improve efficiency. My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces has paid particular attention to training, to ensure that our operational requirements are being met in the most cost-effective way. Any resource savings that can be made in the support are enable us to devote more effort to our front-line capabilities.

Musician training is one of several areas which have been reviewed in recent years. Quite naturally, concern has been expressed, both in the House and elsewhere, that we should not allow standards to fall in order to save money. I can assure all those who entertain such doubts that one of the basic assumptions of our studies is that standards should be maintained and preferably enhanced.

I should like to concentrate now on our review of musician training. The study started in 1982 and was conducted in several stages. Having first established in general terms that the creation of a joint music school would have some advantages, we sought the assistance of a distinguished civilian musician to advise on the feasibility of integrating service music training. We were anxious to ensure that the very different types of music played by the services, with their emphasis on different instruments, could be maintained within a common training system. The consultant's advice was that this could be done and that a defence school of music would be of advantage to the services.

Encouraged by these findings, we pressed on with detailed planning. The scheme which emerged was a joint school in which most of the training would be integrated but which also provided single-service courses so that the unique requirements of each service could continue to be met. In that way, we could be confident that the distinctive ceremonial traditions of the individual services could be preserved.

Having taken a decision in principle to establish a defence school of music, we turned out attention to its location. Several sites were considered: Kneller Hall, Deal, Eastney, Woolwich, Redford infantry barracks, Redford cavalry barracks, Prince of Wales depot, Crickhowell, and RAF Bawtry. The RAF school of music, as a small lodger unit at RAF Uxbridge, was not suitable for expansion. Some of the others were quickly dismissed.

I should just like to mention the reasons why Kneller Hall was not considered further, since this has caused some public concern. I know this is of particular concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel). No one could have done more for the cause of Kneller Hall. He has lobbied Ministers hard and continuously and he raised the issue in an Adjournment debate in 1983 and again today. His constituents should be very appreciative of his efforts.

But Kneller Hall is too small to accommodate the defence school of music, and an extensive newbuild and major refurbishment would have been required. Even if planning permission had been granted, which we were advised was unlikely, the newbuild would have meant that 80 per cent. of the site would have been covered with buildings, thereby removing the sports facilities. In addition, there would have been difficulties in providing the married accommodation required.

We were left with three serious contenders: Deal, Eastney and Redford infantry barracks. A detailed study of these was set in hand.

Hon. Members will appreciate that these are never straightforward decisions. There are many factors to be taken into account, apart from the obvious question of costs. We considered, amongst other things, how many staff would have to be made redundant, the unemployment situation at each location, what revenue might be generated from the sale of surplus land, as well as how effectively and how soon any site could meet the requirements of the defence school of music. None of the sites offered the perfect solution; but, taking account of all the factors we had to consider, we decided on balance that Deal was the best choice.

There have been suggestions that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary, the Member for Dover (Mr. Rees), whose constituency includes Deal, has exerted improper influence over the decision stemming from his position as a member of the Cabinet. I very much resent the comments made about the integrity of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary and of my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

My right hon. and learned Friend approached us in early 1984, as a constituency Member, when he learnt that one of the consequences of our study might be to close the Royal Marines school of music at Deal. Speaking on behalf of his constituents, he emphasised the value he attached to a continuing defence presence in Deal and expressed the hope that we would find further use for the military establishment there. In much the same way, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham approached us on several occasions to argue the case for keeping open Kneller Hall. These and other representations were borne in mind when we made our final decision.

Though Redford is sited advantageously near Edinburgh—a musical centre of international renown—it would have taken the longest to establish the defence school of music there. Eastney could have been ready the earliest. On the other hand, Deal is the present home of the Royal Marines school of music and has had an extremely long association with the armed forces in general and the Royal Marines in particular, who are freemen of the borough. Housing the school there will keep redundancies to a minimum and, indeed, will bring extra jobs to an area which has the highest unemployment rate of the three options. We therefore announced in July 1984 that the defence school of music would be located at Deal.

I appreciate the disappointment that was felt by those who had hoped to have the defence school of music in their local area. I sympathise, in particular, with the music-lovers in the areas around Kneller Hall and Uxbridge who will lose the Army and RAF schools of music. However, we believe that it is in the long-term interests of the musical services and the military bands that their talents, expertise and experience should be pooled and shared to the advantage of all. We believe that the creation of a defence school of music will become an important landmark in their distinguished history.

I should like to say a word about costs, since it is this aspect of our work which has attracted most parliamentary and media attention, and indeed to which the hon. Member for Fife, Central referred in his speech.

First, there has been some speculation about the accounting officer's alleged disagreement with the choice of Deal. An accounting officer is entitled to draw attention to the implications for his own accountability to Parliament if decisions are taken by Ministers contrary to his advice on financial issues. In certain situations he can seek a ministerial instruction. In the case of the defence school of music it did appear at one stage that the choice of Deal was not supported by the assessment of relative costs and the position of the accounting officer therefore came into question. It was decided to undertake a fuller investment appraisal, the result of which did not support the view that the accounting officer's position was at risk.

Relative costs are necessarily a central consideration in any assessment of alternative options. These include capital and running costs and receipts for land disposals, and account is taken of their timing. In this case our assessment of costs showed that there was little to choose between the options finally considered. Costs should not therefore be regarded as a determining factor in the choice of Deal. There were, however, significant cost considerations involved in the decision to rationalise the schools of music in the first place.

The establishment of the defence school of music is expected to achieve savings of about £1 million a year in operating costs, although this figure must be treated with some caution until the final shape and size of the school is agreed. We will also make capital savings on planned works which will no longer be needed. For example, a £2 million modernisation programme at Kneller Hall will be cancelled, and we expect to earn revenue through the disposal of surplus assets. If no alternative defence use is found for Kneller Hall and Eastney, they will be passed to the Property Services Agency for disposal in the normal way. Indications are that proceeds from Eastney would be significantly greater than originally anticipated. I cannot, I regret, give the House the detailed figures we have used in arriving at our decision, since to do so would prejudice the competitive tendering for the building work to be carried out at Deal and also the sale of surplus land. But I can assure the House that we are determined to see this project secure economies for the defence budget, and I know that, with this in mind, my noble Friend is keeping a firm grip on the planning and implementation phase, to which we have now proceeded.

During the implementation phase of this exercise we are engaged in refining both the manpower numbers and the facilities required for a defence school of music. We shall also be considering what might be termed "optional extras." This work will inevitably have an effect on the costs, but it is far too early to say what it will be.

Since our decision was made last July we have set up an implementation group, comprising service musicians, manning staffs, quartering and financial experts and representatives of the Property Services Agency. They are tasked with planning the defence school of music in detail and with monitoring the project up to the stage when the school opens in about 1988. This is clearly an important phase in which all the fine detail will be worked out and construction actually begins. A number of new proposals are being considered which might modify the original plan. We have, for instance, to decide whether to provide additional facilities, such as an open-air bandstand, in the initial build or whether these would be better left until the school is open and operating.

We have made good progress towards the establishment of a defence school of music, but there is stil a long way to go. Anyone who has visited Deal recently will appreciate the work that has to be done. I am pleased that we shall be maintaining a military presence in Deal. Having housed, in the course of its long history, various army units, a naval hospital and, since 1861, the Royal Marines, it is particularly fitting that Deal should now be used as a joint service establishment.

I believe that this is an exciting project which will be of enormous benefit to the military bands of the future. I am confident that the defence school of music will come to rank among the most respected academies of music both in this country and overseas. I hope it will receive the support that it deserves from the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.