HC Deb 26 October 2000 vol 355 cc487-94

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

7 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise a subject that is of great interest to my constituents and those of many other hon. Members. I know that it is of interest to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who will make a brief intervention at the conclusion of my remarks, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I pay tribute to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the men and women who work for it, including those who are employed as gardeners, especially the British gardeners. Those who visit the CWGC's many cemeteries all over the world are always struck by the fact that they are beautifully kept. I imagine that, over the years, many relatives of those who lie there have drawn comfort from that.

Many people who visit the cemeteries come into contact with the British gardeners. I have had that experience because in the summer of 1999, my family and I visited cemeteries around Vimy ridge and looked for the graves of two family members who were lost during the great war. We met and were helped by one of the commission's British gardeners. I can say from first-hand experience how helpful they are to visitors to the cemeteries.

British gardeners overseas play an important role in the upkeep of the cemeteries and the arrangements for them. I do not decry in any way the local gardeners who are employed by the commission. I pay tribute to their work and dedication. However, I believe that it is important to keep up the British connection, not least because the British gardeners are often responsible for the training and supervision of the local gardeners. The British gardeners have generally been trained in this country and they are therefore steeped in the high standards of British gardening. The existing arrangements work well.

Against that background, I want to speak about the changes in the allowance payments for the 70 or so British gardeners that the commission employs. The remuneration that they receive is fairly complicated and has to be viewed as a package. The changes that the commission has proposed are not to the gardeners' basic salary but to their overseas allowance, which is a substantial part of their income.

The Minister may be able to confirm that the majority of British gardeners will experience a reduction in their incomes as a result of the changes. Those suffering a reduction in incomes will include all the British gardeners who work in northern Europe. For some, the reduction will amount to as much as £7,500 a year, phased in by reductions of £1,500 a year. The commission admits that, last year, British gardeners earned between £19,000 and £29,000 in total through their basic pay and allowance. It is therefore clear that many gardeners face a substantial reduction in their income. They pay tax, or the equivalent of tax, on the basic pay component of their package.

In addition to the remuneration that I described, the gardeners receive an accommodation allowance of £6,000 a year. That reflects the fact that they can be—and often are—required by the commission to move anywhere in the world. They also receive a boarding school allowance, of which few take advantage.

There has been some comment about remuneration. In view of the job that those involved do, this is not inordinate and I think they are worth every penny of it. That is my view; I suspect that it may be the view of many others. The key point is that the gardeners are facing a substantial reduction in their incomes. This amounts to a disturbance to the arrangements of care of the CWGC cemeteries. A Transport and General Workers Union survey suggested that 10 per cent. of the staff in question are already considering leaving the employment of the CWGC. I recently met Peter Magee, the head gardener at CWGC cemeteries around Hanover. He told me that since the proposals were announced by the commission, many staff had left.

Against that background, I welcome the setting up of an independent inquiry under Baroness Dean to look into the issues. I appreciate that these issues concern the CWGC. I appreciate the relationship between that body and the MOD and the fact that the Secretary of State is the chairman of the CWGC.

I wish to refer one or two matters to the Minister. Will he do all he can to ensure that the inquiry takes place before Remembrance Sunday? I hope that this is dealt with urgently, for obvious reasons. Is he in a position to put a figure on the savings that will be made by the commission as a result of the proposals? Above all else, will he give an assurance that he shares my concern about retaining the connection between the cemeteries and this country through the maintenance of the existing level of UK gardeners looking after the cemeteries? The British connection is very important and we should keep up the number of British gardeners looking after those cemeteries.

There is a great deal of public interest in this issue. I give credit to The Mirror for its extensive and excellent coverage of the issue. In my view, the existing arrangements have worked well. The cemeteries are beautifully kept and a fitting memorial to the brave men who lie in them. The cemeteries mean a great deal to many people in this country; they should matter to us all. I hope that all of those who come to decide about the future of the gardeners will remember that.

7.7 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

With the agreement of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and my hon. Friend the Minister—it was agreed that I could try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I want to buttress the points made so effectively by the hon. Gentleman who initiated the debate, for which we should all be grateful.

At the invitation of my trade union, the TGWU, I went—at my own expense, incidentally—to Albert and Ypres in the summer to meet the trade union representatives, shop stewards and gardeners who are members of the TGWU and the civil service unions. The numbers of British expatriate staff have been eroded by a number of economic pressures. I wanted to share with them my fairly well-known interest in the Ypres salient and the first world war.

I was deeply concerned at the danger that if the reductions in the allowances are allowed to go ahead, it will accelerate the erosion or haemorrhaging of these expatriate staff who, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere indicated, do more than gardening. They provide the essential Britishness of those wonderful cemeteries.

That has to be borne in mind by the chairman of the CWGC, and by the commission itself. It is essential that the allowance is maintained. The quality of the commitment given by the French, Belgian and German staff is second to none, but the British staff are able to communicate the standards that are expected and train the staff. I have to say that they are on relatively low pay. They are not seeking more. That which they have, they wish to hold. That is what each and every one of us in this place does. Members of the Government who were trade union officials know that that is a legitimate basic tenet.

We have stumbled into this situation with some carelessness. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure us that Baroness Dean will complete her inquiry with the utmost expedition and that in the meantime there will be no movement on revising the terms and conditions of the staff. I hope that Baroness Dean will be able to take into account various factors, including the fact that spouses invariably have very low earning capacity, as they often have no command of the local language, and the fact that, although the children can go to school in the United Kingdom, that cannot be taken up by people on moderate or low pay, because of the on-costs.

My hon. Friend may say that the newspapers have exaggerated or misunderstood. With respect, the matter came to a head in the summer and assurances could and should have been given then. The Dean inquiry should not have been set up so late. This debate should not have been necessary.

We are looking with enthusiasm for my hon. Friend to redress the situation. The problem underscores the need for a veterans Minister, who could deal with many issues, such as Japanese prisoner-of-war camp survivors and Gulf war syndrome. We have seen for the best part of today that my hon. Friend has other things on his plate. I hope that he will deal with this matter and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will reflect on the Royal British Legion's request to have a dedicated veterans Minister. That would help us to avoid such misunderstandings in the future.

7.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to the service men and women of the Empire and Commonwealth who gave their lives during the two world wars; to express the Government's appreciation of the splendid work done by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in maintaining their graves and memorials; and to correct some errors and misapprehensions that have abounded in recent months.

The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) made some specific points. On the timing of the inquiry, we would have hoped to finish it as early as possible, but it will not be possible to complete it by 11 November. We felt strongly that Baroness Dean was the most suitable person to conduct the inquiry. Unfortunately, there are time constraints and people are not always available early on to give quite as much of their time as one would have hoped. The inquiry will be completed as expeditiously as possible within those constraints. I can also confirm that there will be no movement on allowances until this matter has been resolved.

I do not have a figure for the savings, but I can easily find it and supply it to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Adjournment debates are not for interventions from Front-Bench spokesmen.

Dr. Moonie

The scale of the sacrifice made by the armed forces of the Empire and Commonwealth during the world wars is overwhelming. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains over 1.179 million war graves at 23,204 burial sites in 146 countries and commemorates a further 761,000 war dead on memorials to the missing. It is both our duty and our privilege to ensure that the memory of all those who gave their lives is honoured in perpetuity. For more than 80 years, that duty has been faithfully carried out by the CWGC. I can give a cast-iron guarantee tonight that that will remain its sole objective and that nothing will be allowed to diminish it, now or in the future.

Most people will have a clear mental picture of a typical war graves cemetery, with row on row of clean white headstones, neatly trimmed grass and carefully tended flowers, shrubs and trees. They are a regular sight on our televisions at this time of year, and will be familiar to anyone who, like me, has travelled in the areas of intense fighting, such as northern France and Flanders. Those of us who have visited a war graves cemetery and seen the work of the CWGC at close hand will have a still clearer appreciation of its quality, and will also have experienced the sympathetic and helpful attitude of the CWGC staff.

Gardening has always been an essential part of the CWGC's work. Even before the commission was formally set up in 1917, the Army graves registration commission was trying to make burial grounds on the western front less bleak by growing grass, flowers, shrubs and trees in them. As the work of the CWGC evolved after the first world war, architects and horticulturists worked closely together on the overall design of cemeteries. The aim behind the design of a war graves cemetery is to give the effect of a garden rather than the usual concept of a cemetery, and to combine the various elements in a way that will help the visitor to achieve a sense of peace in a beautiful and serene setting.

There have recently been reports in the press that the British expatriate gardeners employed by the CWGC are facing pay cuts. It has been repeatedly alleged that that is the result of Ministry of Defence penny-pinching. It has been claimed that the gardeners' livelihoods are threatened, and even that this is a ploy to get rid of British gardeners and replace them with cheaper local staff, even though, for as long as anyone can remember, the gardens have been tended by a mixture of local and British staff.

The fear has been spread that this will result in the disappearance of friendly faces at CWGC cemeteries overseas, and that standards of maintenance will fall. These reports have led to a flow of letters from members of the public, who are understandably concerned and disgusted by what has been presented as a betrayal of our war dead. However, their concern is based on false information. Both the CWGC and the Ministry of Defence have made efforts to put the record straight, including interviews and letters to the press, but reporting on this issue remains grossly distorted.

I shall deal first with the most important element of this issue, which has unfortunately caused a degree of alarm due to erroneous reporting—the question whether the high standards of maintenance and the observance of care and attention, and the respect that we are used to affording our war dead, are jeopardised by any form of allowance changes, or changes in resource allocations, or any other form of budget changes.

The answer to that question is no. This Government will not do anything that could be construed as failing to ensure that our war dead are not properly commemorated, honoured and respected. Equally, the commission has given an absolute assurance that the high standards at cemeteries and memorials around the world will be maintained. I hope that this reiteration of our position will reassure relatives and all of us who are eager to ensure that we meet fully our moral responsibilities towards those service men and women who gave their lives for the sake of others.

It may be helpful if I outline the official position of the Ministry of Defence in its relations with the CWGC. The commission is a Commonwealth organisation established by royal charter. Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is its chairman, and the hon. Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) are on its board, it is not a branch or agency of the Ministry of Defence, and the British Government do not control its organisation or internal affairs.

Mr. Clappison

Before the Minister speaks about the structure of the CWGC, is he able to give the reassurance that I seek about the British connection with regard to those who look after the cemeteries? Will the number of British gardeners involved in the care of the cemeteries be maintained? I think that that question also concerns the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).

Dr. Moonie

I shall come to that point a little later.

Mr. Mackinlay

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Moonie

Very well.

Mr. Mackinlay

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I have question about misleading information on the CWGC's website. I fully accept that he and the Ministry of Defence have acted wholly honourably in this matter. He said that misleading information had been published in the national press in this country, yet the CWGC's website states: All this is tax free and represents a very generous package in recognition of the excellent work they carry out. However, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) has pointed out that the package is not tax free, and that a payment in lieu of tax is involved. The CWGC—not my hon. Friend the Minister, nor the Ministry—has therefore aggravated the situation and deliberately misled people.

Dr. Moonie

Had my hon. Friend been a little more patient, he would have found that I was coming on to that very point. Just in case I forget, let me say in passing that the figures that were quoted for total income are net of the contribution made in lieu of income tax. So the figure that the hon. Member for Hertsmere gave me as gardeners' total remuneration is not subjected to any further deduction. 1 can give him that absolute guarantee.

The proposed changes to the remuneration of the gardeners have been reported, among other descriptions, as the work of MOD pen-pushers trying to please their masters by shaving a few bob off the War Graves Commission budget. That is totally untrue. The six member Governments who are represented on the commission contribute to costs in proportion to the number of graves of their war dead. The United Kingdom bears nearly 78 per cent. of the cost, which currently amounts to some £24 million. This money is paid by the Ministry of Defence as a grant in aid. There are no plans to change this arrangement, nor to reduce the level of our funding.

This is not a pay cut, of course, and I fully accept that the hon. Member for Hertsmere made no attempt to describe it as such. In other words, although the gardeners' pay is not being affected, the total remuneration package is. I would not try to pretend otherwise. I am not simply splitting hairs. A pay cut, to most people in my constituency, has a very specific meaning—it implies a cut in salary, not in allowances.

The proposed changes are to local allowances and affect all the CWGC's United Kingdom-based staff serving overseas, not just the gardeners. The allowances are intended to enable these staff to maintain a standard of living broadly equivalent to that which they would have in the United Kingdom. The CWGC's local allowances were based on the United Kingdom civil service cost of living allowance—COLA—with modifications to suit staff's individual circumstances.

In 1998, the need arose to change the arrangements because there were no longer civil service-wide rates of COLA on which the allowances could be based. In common with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the British Council, the CWGC decided to use a human resource consultancy to provide cost of living data on which new arrangements could be based. The consultants created a shopping basket system, weighted according to purchasing patterns drawn from the United Kingdom family expenditure survey. From cost of living surveys carried out twice a year, the consultants produce an index of the percentage difference in the cost of living between the United Kingdom and the host country. The index is applied to spendable income to produce the cost of living uplift required for everyday expenses.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)


Dr. Moonie

In addition to the COLA element, local allowances under the new system will include a child addition, a telephone addition, a utilities element and an expatriate allowance. It is wrong to suggest that the United Kingdom-based gardeners overseas will be unable to maintain a decent standard of living under the proposed arrangements. The CWGC employs 67 United Kingdom-based gardeners out of a total gardening staff of nearly 900. The nine most junior earn between £18,000 and £20,000 a year. Another 28 earn between £20,000 and £25,000, and the remaining 30 earn between £25,000 and £29,000.

In addition, an accommodation allowance of up to £6,000 is paid, and those wishing to educate their children in the United Kingdom, as is common for expatriate staff, receive a boarding school allowance of up to £16,000 for each child. In every case, basic pay and allowances are tax-free. As I have said, the total figure is produced net because account is taken of the deduction that has already been made.

Mr. Cryer

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Moonie

No, I am sorry, I do not have time.

By comparison, a gardener working in the west midlands earns about £13,000 a year before tax, and about £9,600 after tax deductions. Even after the proposed reductions, expatriate gardeners undoubtedly have considerably more take-home income than gardeners in the United Kingdom.

As local allowances are designed to maintain a United Kingdom standard of living, they will vary with changes in exchange rates and in local costs of living. Some changes will be upwards and some downwards. The examples that have been quoted in the press are at the end of the downward spectrum.

The impact of the new system varies from an annual increase of £4,500—admittedly for very few staff—to a decrease of £7,500, depending on location and individual circumstances. A great part of that reduction is due to the strength of sterling and would also have occurred under the old system.

I do not think that anyone present is suggesting that allowances for currency fluctuations should not be made periodically. That has always been the accepted practice. To be fair, the deductions are largely being caused by the currency fluctuations. To ease the transition, the CWGC proposes to phase the reductions over a period so that no one's income will be reduced by more than £1,500 in any one year. Admittedly, that is a substantial sum.

There is no truth in the suggestion that the commission is trying to drive out the British gardeners and replace them with cheaper substitutes. As I said, even under the new arrangements the net income of an expatriate gardener will compare favourably with what he might receive for similar work at home.

The CWGC has refuted any suggestion that future standards will be jeopardised by a revision of the allowance system. Maintenance of the graves and memorials to the highest standards and a sympathetic and helpful approach to visitors are at the very heart of theworking ethos of CWGC staff, whatever their nationality.

The expatriate British gardeners undoubtedly deserve the greatest credit for the standard of their work, but the suggestion that only they have the skills and dedication to maintain that standard is an insult to the many indigenous gardeners we employ through the commission. At many cemeteries, in particular in Italy, there are no British gardeners. One is not suggesting that they are not maintained to the same standards.

Mr. Clappison

indicated dissent.

Dr. Moonie

I am not suggesting for a moment that the hon. Gentleman suggested that. I am referring to many of the inaccurate reports that have appeared in the past few weeks, which have served only to upset people unnecessarily. One of my colleagues was telephoned by a woman who was in tears because of the effect that the changes would have on her husband's grave, which is in Italy in a cemetery where there are no British gardeners anyway. That is the sort of disturbance that inaccurate reporting produces. It is not helpful to people who may well have a good cause. That is why we are pleased to be able to say that the commission has agreed to an independent inquiry into the procedures, to find out whether they are fair and justified and what should be done, under the chairmanship of Baroness Dean.

Mr. Clappison

Is the Minister now in a position to give me the assurance that I was seeking about maintaining the British connection in the number of British gardeners looking after the cemeteries?

Dr. Moonie

Clearly, the gardeners do not work for me, so I cannot give a guarantee. However, the commission has told us that it has no plans to reduce the number of British gardeners working abroad. [Interruption.] The shadow defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), may sneer, but one has to take the word of people when they are asked whether they intend to do something. I am satisfied that their intentions in this case are honourable, whatever the effects of their acts might be.

We have announced that the commission has decided to hold an independent review of the pay and allowances of the gardeners and other UK-based staff overseas. There will be full consultation with the staff and their representatives. Any changes will be delayed until the review has been completed. I am glad that a woman of such experience as Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde is to conduct the inquiry for us.

The commission and its staff do a superb job in maintaining the war grave cemeteries and so perpetuating the memory of the fallen. Both this Government and the commission will ensure that that remains the case.

We welcome the review, which will help to ensure that the public have confidence that the highest standards will be maintained in faithfully meeting our moral responsibilities, and that all those involved are fairly rewarded. It would be in the best interests of the review to allow it to be conducted as expeditiously as possible and, preferably, without any further external pressure and misrepresentation.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere on securing this debate and I hope that I have managed to provide him with the limited reassurances that I have been able to give.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Seven o'clock.