HC Deb 16 May 1994 vol 243 cc649-56

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

10.3 pm

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

How contemptible and disgraceful it is of the Government to have so dishonoured those service men and women who lost their lives in two world wars in defence of our freedom by denying the Commonwealth War Graves Commission the money it needs to maintain memorial cemeteries and records, records which enable people to trace the resting place of service men and women whose memory they cherish. I know from so many people what comfort they have received from visiting the graves and memorials and finding them so carefully tended. The Government have not only dishonoured our dead; they are guilty of insulting the families, friends and those who served alongside them.

I am a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I have watched with dismay the disgraceful penny-pinching activities of the Government at first hand. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established by royal charter during the first world war to honour and remember those who gave their lives in defence of freedom. It includes representatives from Australia, Britain, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. It is funded by each of those countries by grant in aid in proportion to the number of their graves. The major contribution, of course—77.81 per cent.—comes from Britain. A cut in funding by Britain is automatically followed by a cut from the other countries.

The commission maintains war graves and memorials in 145 countries, with 23,097 cemeteries and burial places for the 1,694,947 service men and women who gave their lives in defence of our freedom in two world wars.

Before 1988, the grant in aid was made by Her Majesty's Treasury. In that year, responsibility was passed to the Ministry of Defence. At the time, because the commissioners were concerned that their budget might be subject to defence cuts, an assurance was given that it was a purely technical matter and that the British contribution would not be subject to arbitrary cuts. Sadly, those assurances have proved worthless.

In October, Moray Stewart, the second permanent under-secretary at the Ministry of Defence, wrote to the vice-chairman of the commission drawing attention to the enormous pressure that was bearing down on public expenditure generally and the Ministry of Defence in particular for next year. Those of us on the commission were shocked when he continued by informing us that he was sure that, in the circumstances, we would agree that it was simply not realistic to assume that the United Kingdom contribution to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission could be shielded entirely from that pressure.

After mentioning the so-called underspend, which I shall return to later, he added that he might well have to seek to limit the United Kingdom share of the commission's budget for next year to the order of £20 million. He understood that that would be some £1 million to £2 million below the level which the commission's staff were currently seeking. A reduction of that sort would be in line with that which was made last year.

At the finance committee meeting on 27 October, the MOD representative reported that the MOD was looking for a funding requirement of 10 per cent. less than what was requested by the commission. On 13 December, the dreaded Moray Stewart wrote to say that he had no alternative but to seek a reduction of £1.2 million for next year. When the commission met on 15 December, Moray Stewart reported that, although the commission had reduced its requirements by £650,000—he should have said £630,000—it was still necessary for him to seek further reductions. He suggested that the increase in the working balance could be deferred, there could be a further £100,000 cut in staff and further savings of about £500,000 made in other areas to be left to the discretion of the commission's staff.

The Secretary of State has been as harsh and unfeeling. On 21 February, he told Sir Joseph Gilbert that, compared to the cuts that everybody else was taking, the £700,000 proposed was very modest, and it was difficult to believe that it could not be absorbed. That, then, is the truth of the matter—a cut of £700,000 from the British Government. When the automatic change in contributions from the other Commonwealth countries is taken into account, the figure becomes £900,000—a cut of £900,000 over and above the reduction already made by the commission.

What a mean, shabby, vicious act on the part of the Secretary of State. We have a defence budget of about £23 billion, yet the Minister cannot find all the £20,738,675 —less than 0.1 per cent. of the total defence budget—that the commission has requested to care for the memory of those who died so that we might live. Those brave men and women gave their lives and would expect us to treat them with honour. What would they have thought if they had known that their sacrifice was to be repaid by that miserable, nasty, pernicious cut of £700,000 in the British grant in aid to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission?

What is the Secretary of State's tawdry defence? In a written reply to me on 3 May, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces stated:

The commission has confirmed that it has no plans to cut any projects or commitments as a result."—[Official Report, 3 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 475.] Additionally, the Secretary of State, during the debate on the Army on 4 May, and responding to fears expressed about the commission's cut in funding, stated that he had been given

a categorical assurance that there would be no effect whatever on the maintenance work or on the projects that the commission wishes to implement."—[Official Report, 4 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 787.] Let us put the record straight. The commission has been treated extremely shabbily by the Government. It has been felt by the commissioners—again, the Minister will know this—that the attitude of the Government has been, 'This is what you will get, and if you do not like it, tough.' The commission felt that it had little alternative but to accept the reduction in financial provision, but registered its strong disapproval of what had happened.

Although the commissioners accepted the level of funding allocated, they feared that the reduction exposed them to the possibility that, as the year progressed, some projects might be put at risk. They do not at this stage plan to make any specific cuts to their programme, but they have expressed grave concern about their ability to discharge their unchanging duties effectively if similar reductions are imposed in future.

The Minister must know that the vice-chairman of the commission put it very clearly to the Secretary of State that reductions on the scale proposed would put at serious risk the ability of the commission to perform its charter duties. Those cuts can threaten many matters, including staffing standards; irrigation programmes; provision of adequate depots; deferrals in structural maintenance—for example, the Menin gate ceiling needs repairing; horticultural supplies and equipment; and new and replacement vehicles.

I expect tonight that the Minister will merely regurgitate the bogus arguments produced by his so-called civil servant, Moray Stewart, some of which have been included in an amendment tabled by a group of compliant Tory Members of Parliament to my early-day motion 1152.

In defence of the indefensible, the Government and their lapdogs say that contributions to the budget have increased by 50 per cent. in cash terms over the past five years. Given the sacrifice of those service men and women, if those contributions had been in real terms, they would not have been out of place. Remember, they gave their lives. But the truth ig that the budget has not been increased in real terms by 50 per cent., and the Minister knows that very well.

If the Minister has allowed Moray Stewart to write it into his speech, he should take his pencil and cross it out now. That would be the honest thing to do, because a fall in the value of sterling added approximately 20 per cent. to costs in this period and the increase in inflation—32.3 per cent. in Britain alone—has accounted for the rest. The civil servants know that, and it may even be understood by Ministers, but they still try to throw a smokescreen over the truth. Perhaps at last they are becoming ashamed of what they have done.

Another red herring that is bound to be dragged out is that a substantial surplus of £1,700,000 was carried forward from the previous year and that, because of that, no hardship will be incurred. That has been answered by the commission over and over again. When will Ministers understand that, as 65 per cent. of all transactions are incurred outside the UK in foreign currency, the commission has to be prepared to cope with fluctuations in exchange rates, wage rates and health and safety requirements?

As the commission operates in 145 countries, many factors outside its control can affect its planned programme. Therefore, it is essential that the commission retains the provision whereby it is allowed to carry forward funds and projects from one year to another. Of the £1.7 million, £1.1 million was identified before the budget was presented in December. Therefore, that sum was already taken into account in the funding sought from the member Governments for 1994-95, and their requirement was reduced by that amount. After the budget was agreed in December, a further £600,000 was identified, but £500,000 of that was committed to work which was being carried forward from 1993–94 into 1994–95.

The Minister is prepared to resort to any dodge, any manipulation of figures, to try to cover up what the Government have done. For example, when the Minister replied to my written question on 3 May he added the recoverable VAT figure to the grant-in-aid figure even though it had already been taken into account in the request for funding, as had also the amount of money available for carry forward.

The Government can juggle the figures as much as they like, but people will still recognise them for what they are —Ministers caught in a shameful act who will do anything, whether honourable or not, to escape from justified blame. Let them make no mistake about this: people outside the House firmly believe that what the Government are doing is dishonourable.

The people of this country know that they owe those who died a tremendous debt, and the last thing that they can stomach is the penny-pinching attitude of the Ministry of Defence towards the memorials and cemeteries cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They and I want to see the Secretary of State for Defence showing some courage and admitting that he has acted badly.

On D-day, he—unlike most of us—will have the power to do something tangible to honour those who sacrificed their lives for us. He should use that power to undo the great harm that he has done. The Secretary of State should agree immediately, as part of the D-day commemoration, to restore the £700,000 withheld from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and allow us all to escape from the shame that he has brought on our country.

10.18 pm
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

It is conventional to congratulate an hon. Member on securing an Adjournment debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) for her remarkable persistence in pursuing the subject—and so she should. As she mentioned, she is a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The hon. Lady has raised a range of parliamentary questions in recent days, and she referred to some of them this evening; she has also tabled the early-day motion that she mentioned and secured this debate.

One reason why I find the hon. Lady's persistence so remarkable is that, as a commissioner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, she should be well placed to answer many of her own questions. Perhaps she should not have taken this opportunity to try to exploit a situation. Frankly, I think that she went way over the top in her language and accusations. I regret that, especially from the hon. Lady.

I am, however, grateful for this opportunity to set the record straight on the British Government's funding contribution to the commission in the current financial year. I hope that anybody taking sound bites of this debate will not do so without taking the balancing truth. Of course we respect the sacrifice of those who died for us. Of course we respect the misery of those who loved and lost them.

I will begin with a little history of the commission. In 1917, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission—then known as the Imperial War Graves Commission—was established by royal charter. It marks and maintains the graves of members of the armed forces of the Commonwealth who died as a result of action in the two world wars, maintains memorials to all those whose graves are unknown, and keeps records and registers.

This very House played a vital part in the establishment of the principles for which the commission is renowned —that the dead be individually commemorated by name, either on the headstone on the grave or by an inscription on a memorial; that headstones and memorials be permanent; that headstones be uniform; and that there should be no differences on account of rank, race or creed.

A great and moving debate on those principles took place in 1920. Burdett-Coutts, then Member of Parliament for Westminster, argued for them with—Gallery correspondents noted—a rare passion. He described how, after the Passchendaele offensive, an officer had shown the commission's proposals to those in his unit. The officer recalled that the uniformity of design was what appealed most strongly to all. That the fellowship of the war should be perpetuated in death … was the unanimous and emphatic desire of everyone, officer and man. Coutts painted two scenes: On the one hand, a cemetery, we will say, of 50 graves with half-a-dozen of these special monuments standing up conspicuous among the rest … On the other hand, there is the picture that portrays all alike—great and lowly, peer and peasant, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, raised to one supreme level in death by common sacrifice for a common cause. I cannot doubt which of those two pictures you will choose. Not all agreed. Some advocated that those who had the means'should be able to repatriate the remains of their kin or erect memorials and headstones of their own choosing to them in situ. It was, fittingly, Winston Churchill who closed the debate, with a ringing appeal for the principles of the commission's work.

Those principles won the day and have given us the commission's characteristic cemeteries of lawn and trees, with rows of headstones in narrow, planted borders. It is hardly surprising that the subject of the commemoration of our dead of two world wars remains charged with emotion. Let me say at this stage, for the avoidance of any doubt —even that which may be occasionally maliciously engendered—that for more than 70 years and another world war on, the British Government remain as committed as ever to funding the magnificent work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which now extends to graves and memorials in 145 countries, covering well over 1.5 million individual commemorations.

I turn now to the funding arrangements for the commission, which is, after all, the principal reason for the debate. Funding is, in the main, provided by member nations—Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa—in addition to the United Kingdom. It is based on the respective number of war dead, so the United Kingdom pays almost 80 per cent. of those national contributions. I believe that that arrangement is totally fair and has stood well the test of time. I can confirm—again, for the avoidance of any doubt—that the British Government have no wish to change the formula.

The United Kingdom's contribution is made in the form of a grant in aid which, since 1988, has been funded from the defence budget. Previously, the grant was made directly from the Treasury. Over the past five years, to the end of the financial year 1993–94, the commission's total budget, and therefore the United Kingdom's percentage contribution to that budget, has—as the hon. Lady said —increased in cash terms by 50 per cent., from £20 million to £30 million.

I stress the words "in cash terms", as the hon. Lady did. She, however, then tried to confuse the issue by using the phrase "real terms". I do not say "real terms"; I suggest that there is no prima facie case of persistent and chronic underfunding, even if we take foreign exchange rates or inflation into account.

The Ministry of Defence is, of course, accountable to Parliament for the determination and payment of the grant in aid, for the conditions attaching to that aid, for maintaining the commission's observance of those conditions and for the steps taken to satisfy itself that the commission's system of financial management and control is sufficient to safeguard public funds. In that connection, it may be appropriate to mention—I know that the hon. Lady has done so elsewhere—the review of the commission conducted by the MOD's management services organisation—its team of internal consultants—in 1993.

The terms of reference for the review were drawn up in consultation with the commission. The review is a regular affair undertaken about once every five years, and is fully provided for in the financial memorandum agreed between the Department and the commission which governs the payment of the grant in aid. The review team interviewed staff from the commission and spoke to commissioners, including those from contributing nations or their representatives. The team discussed its findings, as they emerged, with representatives of the nations, whom they found very supportive.

Not surprisingly, the team's report concluded that the operational aspects of the commission's work were extremely well run. Cemeteries are maintained efficiently and effectively, and efficiencies have been achieved through improved technology and working practices. In dealing with the commission's head office, however, the report drew attention to—among other matters—the scope for greater use of office technology, more efficient working practices, less hierarchical staffing procedures and a financial programming system that would be more responsive to the requirements of the commission. The recommendations concerning financial planning drew on the best of current management thinking, and, I am sure, could not be considered unreasonable or radical.

The commissioners themselves have a duty to be satisfied that the commission's management systems and administration are efficient and robust enough to ensure that the funds provided by member Governments are used to good effect. The review was certainly acknowledged by most commissioners—especially those from contributing member Governments—to have been very useful in providing the necessary reassurance that the commission's operational activities are carried out in a way that gives value for money.

The hon. Lady's main concern was the commission's funding in the current financial year. The financial memorandum agreed between the commission and the MOD states that each year the commission will provide draft estimates for the forthcoming year, in sufficient detail to ensure that the commission is managing its resources efficiently, effectively and economically.

In considering grant in aid for 1994–95, the MOD had to take into account—among other things—the record of the commission's administration in the spending of funds that had been allocated to it year on year. It also had to examine the grant in aid arrangements, and ensure that they allowed for funds not spent in one year to be carried forward to the next. In recent years, there has been a tendency for the surplus carried forward at the end of each year to be larger than that predicted at an earlier point in the year, when the following year's contribution must be finalised. Of course that must be taken into account. Let me give an example: when the budget for 1994–95 was first considered, a surplus carry forward of some £900,000 at the end of 1993–94 was predicted; that has since almost doubled.

In saying that, I make no criticism of the commission's staff. These are, by their very nature, difficult matters to judge and to estimate, but my Department, in allocating funds, must take account of consistent patterns and trends of this kind to ensure the most cost-effective use of its resources.

I can certainly understand the comfort that a substantial cushion of funding, carried forward from one year to another, gives the commission's staff in managing its programme of work. It is quite another matter, however, to justify such a cushion in terms of fair and equitable public expenditure.

I have tried to explain this in detail to set out the proper context for the figures that appear in the defence supply estimates showing a reduction in the UK's contribution to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from £21.4 million in 1993–94 to £20.5 million in 1994–95.

It is easy to exploit that reduction, and the hon. Lady has tried her hardest to do so tonight, but these matters were discussed between Ministry of Defence officials and the staff of the commission from last October onwards. Again, some detail may suffice to refute an allegation that there has been a lack of consultation or that Ministry officials have acted in an arbitrary fashion.

An informal meeting was held between commission and Ministry of Defence officials last October, which was followed by the meeting of the commission's finance committee, on which representatives of all contributing nations sit, at the end of that month. That was followed in turn by a commission meeting in December, which discussed funding for 1994–95. Between those meetings, there was a certain amount of correspondence, which set out the Ministry's views in full and could hardly be construed as acting in a stealthy or pre-emptive manner.

The main meeting on which I wish to dwell, however, is one that the vice-chairman of the commission, Sir Joseph Gilbert, and others sought with the Secretary of State earlier this year. At that meeting, my right hon. and learned Friend examined in the greatest detail the effect that any reduced funding would have on the work and standards of the commission, taking into account the surplus being brought forward. He made it clear that it would be quite unacceptable to him personally if damage were done to the splendid work of the commission by his Department's funding proposals. He was assured that the commission did not plan to cut projects or reduce commitments. For the future, my right hon. and learned Friend made it perfectly clear that he would not accept any reductions that would damage the commission's work.

It was those assurances to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred in his powerful intervention in the Army debate on 4 May—an intervention which, had the hon. Lady been present to hear it, would have been judged to be as genuine as it was intended to be. The hon. Lady might then have concluded that this debate was unnecessary.

I understand that, at the March meeting of the commission, the hon. Member asked about the effects of the funding level for 1994–95 and was told that no cuts in the programme were planned, which she accepted. The hon. Lady was not only at that meeting but was provided with a detailed record of the meeting between Sir Joseph Gilbert and the Secretary of State in February. I wonder what her motives are in persisting with these arguments.

In conclusion, and in the hope that this time the hon. Members who signed the hon. Lady's early-day motion will listen, hear and understand, I state categorically that the Government will continue to honour fully their obligation to fund the splendid work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining the war graves and memorials of the British and other Commonwealth dead of two world wars to the very high standard that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.